Published On: Mon, Oct 15th, 2018

Last letter from Luang Prabang

By Hilbert Haar

On a Wednesday morning, I get up at 5.45 a.m. We’ll be on the road again today and I start thinking that we ought to slow down a bit. Nine countries in the not even one hundred days since we left St. Maarten at the end of June starts to feel like a useless exercise to get into the Guinness Book of Records for visiting as many countries as possible in the time I still have left on this earth. But hey, this is not a bucket list of a dying man – we have plenty of time – or so we think – to do whatever we feel like doing.

So now Myriam and I are getting ready to leave Vientiane for a grueling bus trip to Luang Prabang. I don’t know yet about the grueling part but in the course of the day that lies ahead of us I am bound to find out.

A tsuk-tuk picks us up at the hotel and takes us to the outer limits of Vientiane where the Northern Bus station is located. Our bus is this time not a sleeper – I have bad experiences with the comfort levels of those vehicles freshly imprinted in my mind – but one that only offers recliner seats. At the end of the day, I find them more comfortable, because I have more space for my insanely long legs.

Hurray. Vientiane and Luang Prabang are the only two cities of any significance in Laos. You’d think that there would be a decent road to connect these places, but you’d be dead wrong.

At best, the road is a two-lane affair – a bit like the road that lingers through French Quarter, but narrower and with an endless supply of hair pin bends. Also, at more places than I care to remember,  there is no asphalt where there should have been some blacktop.

The distance between Vientiane and Luang Prabang is 340 kilometers but it takes the bus 12 hours to get there. Go figure: an average speed of 28.3 kilometers per hour. When everything is said and done, the trip even takes 13 hours, bringing that average further down to  around 26.1 km/h.

The bus trip is exhausting but also interesting; it offers a candid insight into the life of ordinary Laotians who live outside the big cities.

We see a small kid having fun in a small stream; Myriam spots a topless woman washing her hair by the side of the road; we peek inside homes where people are lying on the floor watching a small TV and every now and then we come across market stalls where fresh fruit and vegetables are on offer.

What I learn from these impressions is that the Lao people have only what they need; unlike Europeans, they have no power to buy what they want.

And yet, all these people seem to be happy in their own way – though through the windows of a bus that is just passing through it is of course impossible to get a good read on their levels of happiness.

The road towards Luang Prabang leads through a mountainous area; at times, the elevation is close to 1,500 meters, offering spectacular views.

However, what really gets me is the way our bus driver is negotiating these roads. Time and time again the bus encounters slower traffic – mostly trucks – and every time our driver finds a way to overtake them. And every time when he does that – right before a sharp bend in the road – I’m thinking: for chrissake, don’t do that.

Our driver apparently knows these roads like the back of his hand; that much is obvious. But how does he know that he will not run into oncoming traffic? He seems to be picking his spots carefully to the point that I start thinking the guy must be psychic. We never get into a situation where by he has to jump on the brakes to avoid disaster. The way he is picking his spots, he would make a great poker player.

As the day progresses I start longing for my destination. Thirteen hours on a bus –as the duration of this trip turned out to be – is enough to drive anybody bonkers. When we see the first lights of what seems to be a settlement of more than five houses, I start thinking that we have finally arrived. But every time it turns out that Luang Prabang is still further away.

By eight o’clock in the evening the bus finally turns into the bus station at Luang Prabang. We’re in the middle of Laos now, well aware that to get out of there we have another bus trip ahead of us.

But you know what? We don’t care. Traveling is about discovering places they don’t teach you anything about in high school. It is about meeting people you have never before seen in your life. And it is about enriching your views about what this wonderful world we live in is really all about.

This is – for the time being – my last contribution to stmaartennews.com about my travels throughout Asia. I will keep on traveling with Myriam, discovering new places, meeting new people and experiencing different cultures. And I will always think about St. Maarten – the place I have been happy to call home for twelve-plus years.