Distance: 300km in a minibus
It shouldn’t have really been called a mini-bus. It wasn’t a bus, just a van that they’d managed to fit some extra seats in. There were three rows of three seats each. And all the luggage, including the bikes, went on top. We were lucky that our mini-bus to Ponsovan wasn’t full, so Sam and I had a spare seat in our row.
Throughout the journey the driver would stop in various towns to pick up Laotian passengers and take them to their destination along our route. This was one way for the mountain people to get between towns (most don’t even have motorbikes) and the driver made a little more money in his pocket.
As we drove up and down steep and winding mountain roads I couldn’t help but think that we’d be riding these mountains in a few days. The views at the top of each pass were incredible, and the villages built along the ridges were beautiful, if scary, and we could even see the clouds below us.
On one narrow winding road, after it had been raining, we came across a group of people looking down a sheer drop. There were skid marks on the road that veered from one side to the other and over the cliff. Our driver pulled over and we clambered out to see that a car had just gone down the ravine. We looked over the edge and could see the car down below us. Some local boys brought a Laotian woman up (we don't know how they got her up) who was groaning in pain.
A crowd had gathered and those of us in the mini-bus were wondering if there were more passengers to be pulled out. It didn’t seem like it though, as the injured woman was put in the front of our van (which luckily had no other passengers at that point) and all of a sudden we were the ambulance. We raced through more mountain villages, horn honking the whole time, and the woman groaning as she leant against a young man – we didn’t know who he was or what he was doing. But he was taking good care of her. Luckily the Phou Khon ‘hospital’ wasn’t far away. Some men came out to help carry the woman in and the young man who traveled with her gave our driver some money. We couldn’t believe it – even in this case he was trying to make some extra money…
An English girl in the bus was demanding over and over to know if the woman would be ok. There is no way we’ll ever know. The car dropped a long way down. And the ‘hospital’ was a small rudimentary building on the top of a mountain. We doubted they would have equipment to do the necessary internal exams. After that incident the mood in the van was somber.
The road became even steeper and windier. Sam grew increasingly nauseous. The driving became even more restless. Just at the crucial moment I handed Sam a plastic bag. A moment later and the van would have been covered in vomit. A few more turns and the bag was full. We still had 75km to Ponsovan. Luckily we seemed to be coming out of the mountains and the road improved- slightly.
In Ponsovan we were interested to find that no hotels or guesthouses had air-con. And as the evening came we realized why, it was naturally a lot cooler than other parts of Laos. We looked around town, but it wasn’t very nice. It seems the only reason people come here is to visit the Jars. We decided to ride the 12km to the jars in the morning, and then start the ride to Luang Probang.
We met a Dutchman who was now an English teacher in Luang Probang – he was just finishing a month-long cycle tour of Vietnam and was on his way home. He expected to take two days to get there. They would be long, grueling days, but he seemed sure he could do it. He told us that the first day, 140km to Phou Khon, would be the hardest, but then 130km to Luang Probang would be ok. We thought that sounded promising. A day and a half to get to Phou Khon (which we had seen – we knew the road would be hard!), then a long day to Luang Probang.
We ate Indian food again (such good value compared to the ‘Western’ offerings) and watched a movie on TV in our great value hotel room (70000 kip – less than $10). We were feeling good about the days ahead.
Sam and Shanna Evans are from Melbourne, Australia