Justine Tyerman encounters good humour, warmth, cheerfulness . . . and some unusual food items on a road trip in Laos.

There are 2000 corners on the road from Phonsavan in Xieng Khouang to Luang Prabang, guide Vieng warned us as we set out on the 306km drive to the spiritual capital of Laos, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. But I was so absorbed in the countryside, the seven-hour journey on the windy road didn't bother me — I didn't sleep a wink

I loved gazing at the rice paddies climbing in giant steps up green, green hillsides — such a quintessential Lao image. The terracing, created by hand over many centuries, is a remarkable feat. Bullocks are used to pull ploughs but the back-breaking work of planting, tending and harvesting is still done by hand.

We passed clusters of houses built barely half a metre from the road so the owners could catch the passing trade for their fruit and vegetable sales. The back ends of the dwellings were on stilts teetering high above sheer drops. I wondered how they kept track of their children. It was school holidays while we were there and many youngsters were manning — or rather 'girling' — the stalls along with the other women of the family.

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As we climbed higher, the drizzle turned to heavy rain and the drains at the sides of the road overflowed with red run-off from the hillsides.

As we climbed higher, the drizzle turned to heavy rain and the drains at the sides of the road overflowed with red run-off from the hillsides. Photo / Justine Tyerman
As we climbed higher, the drizzle turned to heavy rain and the drains at the sides of the road overflowed with red run-off from the hillsides. Photo / Justine Tyerman

We stopped for lunch at Xayphavong Restaurant at Phou Khoun, a village on the busy crossroads of route 13 and 7 between Vientiane and Luang Prabang.

The hard-working husband and wife team served us tasty noodles, rice and vegetables with a choice of chicken or beef. Others tried fried crickets with lemongrass, a great source of protein. The local beer, Beerlao, was only 23000 kip or $NZ4. I grew to love that beer.

Over the road, an open market was selling a wide range of fruit and vegetables including mushrooms, ochre, taro, galangal, cucumbers, peaches and the sweetest fried bananas in batter I've ever tasted. They only cost a few cents.

At a stall further down the road, I came nose-to-fur with a rat and a bat, on sale as food items. They were hanging at eye height and with my peak cap on, I didn't see them until they hit me in the face. With the mist rolling in, the scene was quite surreal.

One enterprising village had set up a row of immaculately-clean roadside toilets with a spectacular view over the valley. Smiley young girls were collecting 2000 kip or three to four cents per use.

There was a noticeable absence of litter around the villages – the properties were clean and tidy, the hard red earth surrounding the houses swept clean with brushwood brooms.

Phou Khoun, a village on the busy crossroads of route 13 and 7 between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Photo / Justine Tyerman
Phou Khoun, a village on the busy crossroads of route 13 and 7 between Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Photo / Justine Tyerman

The Lao people we met en route were friendly and welcoming. I've never encountered such universal good humour, warmth and cheerfulness. Without exception, we were greeted everywhere with smiles and genuine affection. In response, I found myself beaming all day long — it was very therapeutic.

* Justine Tyerman travelled with Innovative Travel, a Christchurch-based boutique tour operator with 27 years' experience offering travellers the opportunity to explore historically and culturally unique destinations worldwide that provide a challenge but with the security of a peace-of-mind 24/7 wrap-around service and highly-qualified local guides. So important in a seriously-foreign country where the language, culture, customs, food are unfamiliar . . . not to mention kip, the Lao currency.
* Travel Companions' Club, ideal for solo travellers.
* Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies from Auckland to Singapore daily, from Wellington four times weekly, and from Christchurch daily. SilkAir flies from Singapore to Vientiane and Luang Prabang three times weekly.
* Accommodation: Parasol Blanc, Luang Prabang.
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