An overland journey home

Kiwi journalists Mauricio Olmedo-Perez and Charlotte Whale are taking the scenic route home from London.

Laos: Breakdowns and bowling alleys

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Tourists tubing down the river in Vang Viang, Laos. Photo / Charlotte Whale
Tourists tubing down the river in Vang Viang, Laos. Photo / Charlotte Whale

I am quite possibly the world's worst haggler. This became clear during my time in Laos.

If the asking price is ridiculously high then of course I'll have something to say about it. But I find it impossible to argue over a dollar or two with a bare footed six-year-old who lives in a bamboo hut.

I'm also a sucker when it comes to elderly people. Mauricio shakes his head at me and reasons if I haggle harder I'll have money left over to buy something off someone else. Sharing the wealth, he calls it.

What gets him most riled up is when I undermine his own negotiations by siding with the vendor, muttering out of the corner of my mouth, "honey, come on, it's only three dollars".

Luckily there's hardly anyone hassling you to buy things in Laos compared with other South East Asian countries.

After spending a few days in the north of the country, we moved south. It was a three part journey down to Luang Prabang.

First was a minibus from Muang Sing to Luang Namtha. It always amazes me how many people and packages can fit in/on top of minibuses in Asia. Just when you think the vehicle is full and you're about to set off, a family of five crams in.

We were late so had to sit on metal stools in the tiny aisle, in amongst the sacks of rice and potatoes. It was a two hour journey so wasn't too bad. We made good time and were able to get actual seats on the next minibus to Oudomxay.

Others who weren't so lucky sat all around us in the most uncomfortable contortions. I felt particularly sorry for two tall French boys who came on last and and had to perch on the stairs as they clung to their guitar cases.

After that three-hour trip we felt we deserved a little bit of luxury so bought tickets for a VIP bus to Luang Prabang. Feeling very smug, we left the station in a half-full bus and settled in for what was to be a five hour trip.

About half way, just after we had been discussing what we felt like for dinner, the bus pulled over. No cause for alarm we thought, until everyone started getting off the bus, and taking out all their luggage from the undercarriage.

Apparently the bus driver's mother had died so he had to head back and we all had to wait for a replacement bus to arrive. So there we were, waiting in the dark, on a blind corner somewhere in middle of northern Laos.

The replacement arrived 90 minutes later. It was as if someone, somewhere was looking down on us and laughing. What turned up looked like a 70s jukebox on wheels. It was a clanky, squeaky machine with multicoloured lights and blaring music. The seats were red vinyl and there were lace doilies hanging from the windows. It was also three quarters full so us imposters had to find whatever space we could - it was back to the metal aisle stool for me. As we took off I was convinced we would conk out. On any slight incline the bus spluttered along at a snail's pace. I could have crawled faster.

Mauricio was sitting next to a young monk who we dubbed the 'manky monk'. He was sniffling and coughing all over the place, eating a foul fishy dinner, wiping his hands on the curtains and sitting cross legged taking up more space than he should have. The bus clearly had no suspension so as I was concentrating on keeping my stool from sliding, Mauricio's chair came off its hinges.

I looked behind me and he was on a sharp angle about to topple onto the person sitting across the aisle. He just looked at me, wide eyed, and mouthed: "Awesome." That was it, I got the giggles and could not stop. It was so terrible it was hilarious.

We arrived at midnight, four hours later than we should have. Lady Luck was laughing at us again because Luang Prabang has a curfew and the whole town shuts down at 11pm.

We hadn't booked a place to stay so we wandered down deserted streets knocking on guesthouse doors. Some didn't open, others did but were full. Half an hour later we took the last room in a lovely place with a sympathetic, albeit sleepy, owner. Ordeal over.

Daylight broke and we were starving, having not eaten the night before. Luang Prabang's streets were teeming with foreigners. The most we had seen in a place since we left Europe.

I made a beeline for a cafe. After drinking pig's blood and eating raw pork with villagers in the north (an amazing experience I will never forget) together with my nightmare travel day, I make no apologies in admitting I was desperate for an iced coffee and eggs bene. I adore eating local fare and am open to trying new foods but there are times when I need a dose of something familiar.

Luang Prabang is a clean and tidy tourist town. Its beautifully maintained temples, dotted all over the place, have given it UNESCO World Heritage Site status. There are great day trips to waterfalls and caves on offer, but unfortunately we couldn't do any - we were waiting for a Kiwi friend to turn up. He finally arrived at 10pm and we thought there was only an hour for a catch up drink before the curfew was imposed.

I'd randomly bumped into an old uni friend of mine and her boyfriend so the five of us were up for some fun. Luck was on our side that night, we got wind there was a bowling alley on the outskirts of town that opened until 3am. Yes you read right, a bowling alley. And sure enough, a tuk tuk drove us down a dirt driveway, a little out of town, where we found a modern eight-lane establishment filled with raucous young people, most of them backpackers. Very odd and out of place, but we weren't complaining and ended up having loads of fun. It turns out I'm quite the bowler... who would've thought?

Our next destination was Vang Viang. We decided to chance it and bought VIP bus tickets again. The road was steep and windy but I was quietly confident we would get there in daylight and find accommodation easily. I was wrong.

It was Mauricio who first smelt the aroma of burnt rubber and fuel. About half an hour later we came to a stop. The engine was smoking and the bus had started leaking petrol. So there we were again, waiting on the road, somewhere in the middle of Laos. Thankfully, that somewhere happened to have a cluster of wooden shops nearby. One of whose proprietors, would you believe, was a mechanic of sorts. So after an hour the owner and bus driver had managed to fix the problem with a bicycle inner tube and we were on our way.

The second half of the drive was spectacular. Jagged lime stone cliffs sprung up everywhere from lush jungle, it was some of the most stunning scenery I've ever seen. Vang Viang was no different and we found a hostel by the river with a great view.

The main attraction of the place is not so serene. If they aren't nursing hangovers watching Family Guy re-runs in the town's restaurants, you'll find young backpackers a few kilometres out of town jumping on rubber tubes in an attempt to float down the river.

Most don't get very far because they're yanked in by people working for rowdy bars at the water's edge. We went along for the ride, and I'll admit my memory is a tad murky, though I'm pretty sure we were at least five years older than everyone else there.

With youth and debauchery comes risk. There have been a number of drownings and local corrupt police have learnt that young, drunk westerners are vulnerable prey. Our Kiwi friends had witnessed people being offered marijuana and opium by bar staff, only to be pounced on by waiting plain clothed police if they bought some. Then passports would be confiscated until a bribe was paid. Not surprisingly some of Vang Viang's night spots had a slightly seedy feel about them.

We found a really nice restaurant where the owner took to us immediately. He was the husband of a local big-wig's daughter and as such enjoyed a status of immunity to any police authority. He proceeded to offer us 'Happy Shakes', even 'Happy Pizza' telling us it was the safest place in town to indulge in such things.

Two days was enough of Vang Viang for us, we had to move on south to the capital Vientiane to say goodbye to our buddy, and then head into Thailand and straight down to Bangkok.

I left the Thai capital with a bad impression five years ago and I'm happy to say this visit changed my mind. It was sweltering when I was there last and as it was my first Asian country, I was a bit shocked by the hawkers and the pollution.

This time we stayed away from the backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road and the main tourist sites, and just wandered.

It seemed cleaner and friendlier and a lot more efficient than I remembered. As the city had just suffered some devastating floods, there were still sand bags in front of stalls and shop fronts - clearly people were erring on the side of caution.

It was still rather hot but we didn't mind because our next stop is sun, sand and sea: Thailand's southern beaches.

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