A walk around Balzan

There hereby follows an account of the sights and sounds  and smells around the village of Balzan, being the basic, minimum, thrice daily dog walk. Our apartment is in part of the post war urban sp…

Source: A walk around Balzan

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We bought our last ticket on line, a few weeks ago, when EastCoast were still in public ownership and doing, really, quite well. From what I can make out, Virgin and Stagecoach have taken over, promising all sorts of new colour schemes, loyalty points and dividends for shareholders.

£10 each for a 150 mile journey is quite reasonable, pity it isn’t that when bought on the day of travel ;-)Contrast to the 500 mile journey in Thailand, with refreshments, for £12.

The machine at Finsbury Park recognised my credit card, matched it with the reference number on the email confirmation and churned out the tickets. 15 mins later and £2.50 off our oyster cards and we were back at Kings Cross.
There are engineering works going on between Grantham & Newark, hence the change at Peterborough.

Perfect, English spring sunshine, bright and cheerful, reflecting our mood. Strange not to be seeing jungle, rice paddies, water buffalo and shanty towns from the window. All straight forward departing and arriving on time to change at Peterboro for the EastMidlands Trains service to Lincoln.

When we stopped, apparently for no reason, just outside Sleaford, there was an announcement to explain why, which is a welcome feature, costs nothing and shows respect towards the passengers. We were slightly ahead of time and had to wait for a train in the opposite direction to leave the station. I must remember to fill in a feedback form, as it is all too easy to criticise failings and forget to give praise when it is deserved.

The massive Lincolnshire sky was at it’s best, hardly a cloud in the sky, or a leaf on the trees, the sun started to sink as we approached Lincoln.
Bit frustrating to have an hour wait, but the Grimsby train was parked up adjacent, on platform 2, so there wasn’t even a walk over a bridge or up an escalator for this final connection.
Our experience is that this service can often be ridiculously over crowded in the single carriage, so we welcomed the chance to be first on board  and settle in at a table seat.

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It turns out that it is a 2 carriage train! EastMidlandsTrains have a new contract with their passengers, it appears,

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since we left 8 weeks ago! It’s been a long time coming, I wonder if their franchise is up for renewal soon 😉
Well done anyway. Ps Thanks for the new shelter, now get the toilets fixed.

It’s been a brilliant trip, I’d do it again anytime, given the opportunity, but it’s good to be back home in the Shire.

Met at Market Rasen by “Super Son in Law” and 3 gorgeous grand children.
Home for local lamb casserole and a gaze at the brightest stars I’ve seen for 2 months, and a rising moon.
Enjoyed a couple of pints of Bateman’s XXX and a deep hot bath, first in 2 months also.
I’ve not seen any rain for 2 months either, looking forward to that, as well as fish ‘n’ chips, when it comes 🙂

Thanks for following my progress and random rantings, I will add some pictures over next few weeks and update details on other pages.
Good night, sweet dreams, “let the train take the strain”
😉

Bangkok to Delhi to London

First leg of the flight went amazingly quickly. Slept. Breakfast. Slept.
Air India looked after us well and we landed at Delhi 3 hours later to change planes.
Still exhausted and hungover, a little bit, queuing for over an hour to be security checked and patted down before being allowed back into the shopping heaven of that bit of the process, we still had a couple of hours to kill.
Dan caught up with social media and job applications whilst I failed to string some words together on the blog.

By half 2, local time, we were installed towards the rear of a Boeing 777-300. This was an older plane than the last one and this time I was awake for the safety announcements and the delayed lift off. The captain explained, confidently enough, but now I can’t remember why, we were 15 mins late taking off. He predicted turbulence on the way, due to the jet stream but with a following wind should arrive 40 mins early in London.
Slept until lunch/dinner time. I opted for fresh orange as an apertif, Daniel went for vodka in his.
That set me up for another nap after some more satisfying blogging.
All of a sudden it was time for more food and tea.
I was excited at the prospect of flying over Kazakhstan and Aral Sea but there was thick cloud obscuring the view for most of the flight, not an issue we had on the trains.
My on screen information tells me the outside temperature is -62C at 36000 feet and 527mph.
It hasn’t been such an awful passenger experience, the second leg has been 8 hours, half of which I’ve been asleep for and not even bothered with the in flight entertainment, except for the route map and stuff.

I’d still rather travel by train.p Hopefully I’ve demonstrated that long potentially complicated journeys are possible. With joined up thinking and a level playing field there’s no reason international train travel should be any more difficult than flying.
In terms of CO2 production per passenger mile the Train wins hands down. Aircraft are about at the limit of their potential efficiency, any tiny improvements there and low energy hand driers in the new terminal buildings will never be enough. If pricing reflected that rather than hidden airline subsidies then we might reduce air travel and have a minute chance of slowing down catastrophic climate change. (References to follow)
HSBC branded air bridge and Expand Heathrow expansion propaganda appears to be everywhere. Connections, eh?

Wasted an hour waiting at the wrong luggage carousel, doh, then caught the Heathrow express tube all the way to Finsbury park to meet our lovely friend Ammie. The journey is almost done, less than 24 hours and we will be home, sweet, home 🙂

Full moon in Bangkok…

We made the mistake of wasting hours on research, to make the best of our night out, when all we had to do was allow the universe to unfold. The reason we didn’t take a night train, before catching our plane, was that there is a reputation for them to be late, so the compromise was to arrive the evening before giving a good ten hours margin of error for us to have a night out, then straight to the airport. Finding out about the mass transit system and airport rail link was worth doing, but agonising over which skyscraper roof terraces to see the full moon hanging over the city lights was ultimately worthless, as we got lost and went with the flow…

First off was to check our bags in to the left luggage at the main station. Easily found in the opposite corner to the information booth in the massive hall.  The daily rate is upto 80B per bag, which seems fair enough, but the small print is that overnight (close between 10pm-4am) counts as an extra day.

Having relieved our selves of our burden we headed out into the heaving, hot metropolis. First off China town, then an aborted attempt to find Kau San road and golden temple, that Dan had discovered on his previous trip. As we had plenty of time, we decided to go there when everything else had closed down. The Sky Train (including airport link) closes midnight til 6am.

The BTS as it is officially known is an awesome engineering feat to solve the previous traffic gridlock. Literally built on huge towers, often along the length of roads, it gives some sense of a dystopian future world where the rich & beautiful smoothly swish along in their secure, clean, climate controlled pods whilst the beggars, huddled masses, wheelers and dealers clog up the filthy footpaths below.
After sweating it out walking, we took a tuktuk, for the slightly cool breeze to dry my soaked tee shirt, to the start of the Sky Train to try it out.
Prices are according to how far you travel and though cheap by western standards( maximum about £1) are expensive compared to the busses.

The stop known as Nana had a good feeling about it so off we hopped and down a side street off Sukhamvit. Full on, massage parlours, bars, disco, etc we plumped for the George Best themed “Pickled Liver” bar. As it was quiz night, full of ex pats drinking Guinness and Magners cider.
We had one there to get our bearings and in the mood. I do like real british beer and pubs and I don’t think they travel well. The Train mini mart outside bar watching football with Tom last Sunday was a far more satisfying experience for me and quarter of the price.
Anyway, we trailed off to find pastures new and came across “Cheap Charlies”. This was a eclectically decorated outside corner bar heaving with drinkers. Strictly last orders at half 11 though. Going with the flow we found a place called Hillary’s which had a local band pumping out classic rock covers to a predominantly Thai crowd.
That was more like it and, after a trip to the ATM, we danced til closing time 🙂

One of our many new friends said she knew of another place for some after hours drinking, if we were interested in having a quiet chat. Dressed less scantily than a lot of the younger women, we felt safe to go along, ending up, back where we started, at the Pickled Liver. 
The street was now relatively deserted and quiet with just a few small groups sitting in semi darkness.
Soon joined by another to make up a jolly foursome until Ho decided to call it a night. She is in hotel management and had a midday start to look forward to.
Working backwards from our flight departure, our new friend decided that if she came with us to the station in a taxi, we could fit in some more dancing. Close by, down a warren of passageways, off alleys, off lanes we came to an intimate and informal venue that had no intention of closing before daybreak. Proper hard core dance tunes kept us buzzing til, er, whenever.

Not sure how or why we remembered to make a move, but we did, stumbling past the last few pavement traders packing up for the day shift to start, I spread the joy to a disabled man, giving him far more than I initially intended when our eyes met. On the main road, finding a taxi easily enough to the station for less than 100B. We could probably have managed from there, but she insisted on keeping her word on escorting us all the way. It was then that I realised how generous to the beggar I had been and had to get out yet more cash to retrieve our left luggage. Of course, they had no change, so then had to find a shop to buy something  blah, blah, blah, clock ticking. Back into another taxi to the airport overhead rail link, she even came in with us to help through the ticketing process and we just made it on board before the doors slid shut. At no point did I doubt that we wouldn’t make it. The city was coming back to it’s daylight life and we had an hour and a half to keep going before we could sleep.
Checking in on line helped shave off some precious minutes as we were processed smoothly without queuing through the huge new terminal building.
Settled on the plane, a 787 Dreamliner btw, by half 8.
No idea what take off was like, as next thing I knew was being woken for breakfast.
Brilliant way to finish off our Thailand adventure, made so much more special by trusting in the kindness of, one time, strangers once more….

Lampang to Bangkok

After a month without being on a train, I was beside my self with anxious anticipation, arriving at the station an hour early, with Dan, Gas and Jane.
Plenty of time for a hearty last breakfast and take a closer look at the charming railway station known officially as Nachon Lampang. It reminded me a lot of the equally bright and charming Market Rasen, where we set off, with it’s number of trains, tidiness,  artworks and planting schemes. The major difference is the number of people on duty at any time. Market Rasen is dependent on volunteers to keep it spruced up and has no permanent staff. Lampang is it’s own job creation scheme with possibly up to 30 selling tickets, waving flags, blowing whistles and scrubbing the platform. Everyone was happy in their work, very helpful, and cleary doing an excellent job making this probably the most pleasant station on the entire trip.
The topiary edged garden areas are immaculate and I wondered if the whole platform is washed and scrubbed everyday, it certainly looks like it.
Seating area made from upcycled railway sleepers are practical and look good. There are a couple of trees that have grown through the original canopy, which makes a quirky feature of the roofline.
Various old pieces of equipment are restored and displayed along with the ubiquitous cockerels and horse drawn carriages, seen all over town.

This “special diesel” train from Chiang Mai to Bankok arrived and departed, near enough on time, contrary to popular expectations.
Consisting of 3 carriages built by Daewoo of Korea in late 90s it looked more comfortable than it actually was. Seats arranged in rows, rather than around tables, offered generous leg room and reclined well, but the padding under the faux leather seemed to be in the wrong place for our European physiques. Air conditioning  in addition to reciprocating fans, kept the ambient temperature comfortable and attractive curtains to keep out the sun’s glare.

I expected more passengers to be on board, our previous experience being that seats sold out well before departure. It appeared seats had been allocated from the back as seats filled up as we went along.
Each carriage has a small kitchen area and hostess, who provided snacks and drink at regular intervals, and announced the name of the approaching stations.
It wasn’t easy to go from one carriage to another, so we didn’t, preferring to wriggle in our seats to obtain a satisfying sleep position.
Slumbering was disturbed by regular use of the train horn, presumably to warn of it’s approach and scare animals off the track. To the best of my knowledge, we didn’t hit anything. Also, at first, there were occaisional rumblings, vibrations and odd noises which I put down to track requiring upgrades, as we later saw hundreds of old wooden sleepers stacked up.

The first part of the journey took us through rocky hills and forest, quite slowly due to some tight curves along side a winding river, past distant temples  and scattered villages. Glad to be back on a train, despite the less than perfect seats, the view is often superior to that from a bus as roadways inevitably spawn development of some kind  along side, though having said that a large lignite coal mine and power station is served from this line.
After our airplane style lunch it was time for a sleep to prepare ourselves for this evening’s adventuring but only managed a succession of naps. As we were heading pretty much directly south, we had the usual stunning sunset from one side and the less frequent full moonrise on the other at the same time. An omen of good things to come, we wished. I’ve enjoyed keeping track of the moon’s phases, helped by cloudless skies, as we have travelled.

The later part of the trip is on better, straight track and we made good progress, between stops, on this vast flat farming landscape before reaching the outer suburbs of Bangkok. A floodlit, to daylight level, golf course contrasted with the comparatively poor lighting on a construction site near by. Being able to hit a little white ball around at night takes priority of workers’ efficiency and safety, it seems.

We were itching to get on and party, so the last hour dragged, stopping regularly at many stations in the suburbs and crawling past shanty towns built right up close to the track.
Leaving the air conditioning of the train, the hot, sultry night air hit us, like opening an oven door, reminding us we had a whole night ahead in one the world’s most renowned flesh pots…..

Chiang Rai to Lampang

Breakfast around the family kitchen table could have been cereals and toast or any other dietary preference, we went along with standard Thai of omelette, rice, stir fried vegetables etc.
Walked to the old bus station to get a feel for the place, full of ideas and positivity after a great nights sleep to check out bus times

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20 baht local bus to the White Temple to the south of town.
This is not a temple in the conventional sense, more of an art installation created by a famous Thai artist who has blended western and traditional techniques into a modern interpretation of Buddhist symbolism. It will be more than a lifetime’s work, eventually ranking along side such places as the Taj Mahal as must see places.
Photos to follow….

Free to enter (shoes off, cover up) it is already a substantial attraction with tourist coaches and mini busses turning up continuously but didn’t feel crowded. There is an on site art gallery and very tasteful reasonably priced gift shop that I was even tempted to make purchases.

Back to the bus stop on the main road, but a songthaw thing turned up and took us, for 20 baht, to new bus station instead.

Our run of good luck, connection with the universe and all that is perfect continued as a helpful bus employee sold us tickets for the bus leaving for lampang in 2 minutes for 108B.
This was a vintage Mercedes with huge sliding windows and electric fans in the roof that moved the hot air just enough. Seats in rows of 5 could have accommodated far more than the few of us on board.

Twice we had police checks, pulled over and officers checking selected individuals but they weren’t after foreigners and no one was hauled off.

Phayao for half way comfort break and 20 baht fresh pineapple pieces.
Meditation/snooze was easily possible to the gentle rocking and creaking as we trundled along. Filled up with school kids at some point and another police check point before arriving at our destination 5 hours later.

Refreshed and full of life, we decided to walk back to Tom’s on familiar streets, it felt like coming home and stopped off at our favourite ice cream and iced coffee stalls to keep us refreshed.
Tom, Gas and Sommat got home minutes after us. Today must rank as one of the least planned, easiest, smoothest, best value and timed journeys ever 🙂

Oudomoxai to Chiang Rai.

We had checked out the conveniently located old bus station fares and timetables the previous day. (90,000k to the border 6, 7 or 8 hours, depending…)Jane’s early rising was our trump card, to be first in the queue for the best seats, for a change.

By 7:15am other people were arriving, to set up stalls and buy tickets but the counter wasn’t yet open.
Dan and I left Jane in pole position whilst we went to the market for take away breakfast and snacks. Not that we had to, as there were a dozen or so little stalls/cafes selling similar stuff but I wanted to show Dan and get something different.
Same market that Jane and I found previous day, along same street as the voluntary school, even busier,
but minus the fresh poppadom stall. Sticking with what I know, we sampled and bought spicy vegetable matter from the same lady and far too much rice and other stuff from the ladies next door.
When we returned to the station, Jane was installed in the prime seats, directly behind the driver. Being first had paid off but, unusually, there were still spare seats in this smart and relatively new vehicle with half an hour before departure.

I’m guessing this was a recently downgraded VIP mini bus, due to air con not working, but in all other respects it was excellent and driven very well. Set off at 9 prompt and picked up a few more passengers, before getting out of town, to make us officially full.
At the side of the road, more people, including a  family of 4, waved us down. From the look of their meagre possessions, they were probably moving house. The driver helped arrange their stuff, including hand tools, a cockerel on a string, couple baskets of live fowl and bags.
They were squeezed in tight blocking the door, so when we stopped for another couple I thought they would be disappointed. The driver had the answer, there was still room at the front, sat on the engine compartment, of course, so they climbed in through his door and made themselves comfortable.

In the posh seats at the front we could just discern the distinctive sound and smell of chicken , so when we stopped at the side of the road, for the family to start their new life, there was a palpable sigh of relief from some passengers.
I could go off on a make believe story about their circumstances, but will never know for sure, other than we were miles from nearest roadside village. I hope living more remotely will suit them, particularly the two children, as I cringed every time we sped through a village, horn blaring, dust flying, piglets, dogs, goats and children, scurrying to safety. More disturbing than the speeding bus was the convoys of Chinese cars, dozens at a time, hazard lights flashing, disturbing these rustic scenes.
Road 13 north to LuangNamtha and the Chinese border was a lot less dusty and potholed, but just as bendy, as it is to the south.
We stopped for lunch at NamTha bus station, where I’d been a few weeks before, missing out the main part of town. Now on a familiar road, I wasn’t as shaken by the experience, this time, from my comfortable seat and relieved that crash barriers were present at the most severe drops.
The bus station at Houayxai was typical Laos design and perfectly adequate, though not that convenient for the bridge or town. We arrived at 3:10, renegotiated the tuktuk fare down to 20000k each, leaving enough of this very strange currency to treat ourselves to a classic Magnum each at the border post. Would have preferred local produce, such as Lao coffee beans, but there wasn’t the choice, aaaargggh!
Turns out there is a direct bus to and from ChiangRai to Houayxai that we could have got from bus station. It turned up at 5pm and dropped us in the city centre a couple of hours later for 225B.
There were less than a dozen passengers, one of whom was from Finland, of Egyptian heritage, who we teamed up with to find accomodation.
Another stroke of luck/genius, on Jane’s part finding the “Chez Moi homestay”

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20 mins walk from city centre and old bus station, this was one of the better places we have stayed. Family run, artists and designers, they have a well stocked shop of locally made crafts and clothes. Extremely tastefully decorated, clean and comfortable rooms. No en suite, but no matter, and includes choice of breakfasts included in the price of £5 each.
We were sorry not to stay longer and have book marked this for any future visits.

The only local eateries  are pork based or do the cook yr own buffet thing, which is fine if that’s what you want, but we didn’t.
Spreading further afield, we were tempted in to a typical Thai place by some cheery ladies only to be confronted with a western menu. We were hungry and nearly ready for bed so gave it a try. Hmmm, well it was food, but not to the standard and value we are used to, neither one thing nor another but adequate to give us a good night’s sleep.

Goodbye Laos :-(

If I could lead a double life, then the other me would be teaching those kids English, in my spare time, studying sustainable development, whilst shaking up the Fair Trade initiatives and challenging the corporate Chinese onslaught, in my dreams.

The enthusiasm, impeccable manners and curious nature of those young people, and their volunteer teachers, is humbling and reminds me that all is not lost in the world.
I’m still assimilating my feelings and thoughts on these extremely complex and interconnected issues, so forgive me if I become confused and incoherent, I need to download whist it is still fresh, real and relevant.

I can even more understand the American couple I met, who sold up and moved over here 20 years ago. They won’t be the only ones who fell in love with this beautiful country and gave up their comfortable Californian lifestyles to get to know the people better. They are far better qualified than I, merely passing through, to pontificate on the past present and future prospects.
However a fresh, first impressions, perspective may be of some value.
When pressed by Laos people on my impressions, my mantra was “not to lose their special, unique, qualities in a headlong rush towards rapid development”. In that, I mean to embrace appropriate technologies, such as mobile phones, to their great advantage. (Amazing coverage, and relatively cheap, must help the many small farmers, fishers and traders). I saw the new electric power lines going up and the hydro power schemes, but where are the solar panels?
Conversely, not everything in the West, or China, is gold plated and wonderful. The tourists you see with disposable income and time are the lucky ones. The system that allows that to happen depends on exploiting poorer countries, and the planet. Happiness cannot be bought in a shopping mall, or on line. There is enough to go round, happiness, and stuff, but it isn’t distributed evenly, the greedy will grab more of the “stuff” to everyones ultimate detriment.

Laos is one of the most bombed countries in the world, certainly per head of population, even though it was officially neutral in the Indochina war of the 60s and 70s. Where we visited this time less so, but closer to the Cambodian and Vietnam borders people are still losing limbs from unexploded ordnance on a regular basis.
My fear is that people who have had such difficult lives, yet remain so optimistic, open and seemingly happy will get ripped off again by imperialist colonisers nearer to home.

Oudomoxay, or whatever it’s called

The initial impression of a very dusty, wild west, ribbon development town under construction is understandable from the main road. However, it is well worth the risk of stopping to delve deeper in to the back streets, paths and alleys.

This is a great antidote to the tourist traps of the last few days. The inconvenience of not having coffee and pastries available is a price worth paying. We settled for the disgusting and unethical 3in1 sachets, made up with hot water from guest house lobby, after our fruitless 90 minute early morning search.

What we did find was a morning market selling all manner of fresh food items, many of it still alive and splashing, which we didn’t fancy. Also rejected buffalo feet, as they were uncooked, but sampled various spicy dishes of mixed vegetable matter before choosing a couple to go with our assorted rice dishes.
Taking a different way back to the hotel, we wandered off the street, down an alley, past wooden houses, over bamboo bridge and found ourselves in a most delightful wild garden, followed by bamboo fenced fields of crops and meandering stream. Nice thing about ribbon development is that you are never far from fields, though to be fair, Oudowhatsit is more like several villages joined together at a natural crossroads in the mountains.
After wading through another stream and clambering up the bank, past the primary school, we were back on the road. Still no coffee shops, so bought disgusting 3 in 1 to make at the guest house, where we found a free supply there already.

The official tourist board map on website and leaflets is as inaccurate as g@@g!e. They give an indication of where things might be, will be,  or once were and don’t appear to scale. It was good enough to guide us to the museum on a hill, which gave a good view of the town. The tourist rate is 5000kip, as opposed to 2000. Like much of Laos it is still being finished off, but there were interesting displays of some of the 23 distinct ethnic groups that live in the province. Bizarrely, the mannequins wearing the traditional dress looked European. Artifacts include cross bows and other hunting tools, woven baskets, hand ploughs etc.
Upstairs features modern history such as the Olympic team uniform, various trophies and newspaper clippings. Rusting bomb cases, firearms and uniforms are the only reference to the Indochina wars. A Heath Robinson opium making machine improvised from a bicycle wheel has a label in English, as does the first ever movie projector used to show a film in the town. Finally, there are some dusty video tapes, players and tape recorders from the 70’s without any explanation of their significance. As museums go, it isn’t in the same league as the V&A and won’t win any prizes for it’s exhibits or interpretation, but it was a pleasurable way to spend half an hour.

Having bottled out on the opportunity to visit hill tribes in their villages we next searched out the office where the genuine articles were available at fair trade prices.
By the time we found it, it was closed for lunch. Good excuse to sit in a shady cafe and eat noodle soup.

On our return, the shop still wasn’t open, the office woman thought it might be in another half an hour, we thought it was a shame that the hill tribe people were missing out on our custom.
I smell tokenism and corruption. European NGOs have, in collaboration with Laos government, invested heavily in Fair Trade initiatives, training, marketing, nice leaflets etc. to enable the tribes to earn a sustainable living using their traditional skills, whilst not producing opium.

I suspect with funding dried up, land and consumers  required for the Chinese expansion there are new priorities. I fear it won’t be a happy ending…….
Unless……the young people we met this evening get a  voice….

We went up to the stuppa on the hill to watch sunset. Absolutely beautiful and perfect, as you might imagine it would be. Got talking to a couple of local lads, who invited us back to their “centre”. After the very briefest consideration, and subsequent rejection, that we might be kidnapped for human sacrifice (there were some pretty gory depictions of depravity contrasting with the Buddha state on a wall near by) we trotted along after them. We were a fine catch as most of their victims, with whom they try to practice their English, are not native speakers, but French, German or whatever.
They led us down a narrow alley behind a shop to a simple wood and bamboo classroom, where they had extra lessons with volunteer teachers. Not clear if this was the same scheme that the nice man from the previous day is involved with.
Anyway, Dan has told the story on Facebook, so, as told it so well, here are his words and picture

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Luang Prabang to Oudomaxay

Up for our early morning walk. Absolutely beautiful, old French colonial style buildings and no one about.
Found coffee and WiFi and watched in dismay as streets filled up with tourists and touts. Yes, it is as bad as last night. We resolve to move on, but where? Back at hotel our research reveals a possible border crossing in an out of the way place with difficult road conditions. Sounds ideal to me, but not clear as to whether a special permit is required, or how to get one. On balance, we decide on the easy, well, less difficult option and opt for a bus back north.

Walk to northern bus station, across a skillfully constructed bamboo bridge that has to be rebuilt every year, as it gets washed away in rainy season. Through real streets, feel much more at home here, on a dirt track, with chickens and dogs running about, than surrounded by advertising exhorting me to hire this and visit that. Perhaps we could stay after all? No, a group decision has been made, so we press on.

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We passed the bus station last night on the way in. This is a million miles away from the ridiculously huge 4x4s and  VVIP minibusses clogging the roads, and pavements, a mere half an hours walk away.
Buy our tickets easily, an hour to depart, time for a loaves and fishes breakfast, to go with the “no room at the inn” theme from last night. We do come up with some nonsense, and have a good old laugh.

It is apparent that we have just missed out on the proper seats. It’s a similar sized Toyota that I travelled in before, but instead of fold out seats in the aisle, there are children sized plastic stools to accommodate the extra passengers, who aren’t already sitting 2 to a seat.
Everyone is very chilled and understanding, clearly well practiced at bus cramming. The cardboard box with live cockerel is placed under back seat, where Dan becomes the extra passenger. This solves the problem of how to get the last person on, who sits on the step by the door.
Roof luggage, which is bulging, given one last check and ready to roll.
Progress is steady on reasonable roads, for a while.
Unlike my last overcrowded Laos bus trip, the road wasn’t that smooth which, in a way, was a relief because it wasn’t as fast. The steep climbs, tight bends and vertigo inducing drops were the same, with the added benefit of dust.
At first, it looked like the roadside buildings and plants were covered in frost. Not possible at 30odd Celsius, so it must be dust from the chalk hardcore underneath the wafer thin layer of tarmac that hadn’t worn away yet.
There were some pretty serious potholes, which tested the already stressed suspension components, and the roof lining as those lucky enough to have a seat made cranial contact. Could be seen as a pennance for the previous 2 days party antics, or simply insight into how most Lao people have to travel.
At the half way point the driver stops for lunch and the delicate task of patiently unloading takes place. Jane and Dan opt to swap places for the second installment.
It’s at this point that I realise I’ve just eaten uncooked pork, that has been festering at body temperature for last few hours. All of a sudden, the driver handing out sick bags when we set off is not an over reaction and I discretely check I still have one.

There were numerous very fancy cars overtaking us, often Chinese registered, and we overtook numerous lumbering lorries. Only saw one accident (convoy of Chinese running in to each other, snigger). Stopped to assist a broken down private hire minivan at a tiny village strung along the roadside, covered in dust. I felt more sorry for the poor woman trying to have a wash at the village water pump, as a bus load of people turn up next to her, than the half dozen stranded tourists. The driver was very relaxed. Saw the tourists next day, so they obviously survived their adventures.

Jane and Dan are unscathed by their experience, but glad, as I am, to reach the huge new bus station which is our terminus.
This is built on a grand Chinese scale, as large as the one at Jinghong. I find it hard to imagine when a bus
station this big is really going to be needed. It’s a white elephant, or the end of the world as we know it.

The road workers lived in camps, covered in dust, at side of road and were actually making the kerb stones/gulley from rocks and cement. Nearly hundred miles! I’m continually amazed and boiling my head with numbers and calculations, trying to grasp the enormity of, little bits, of it all.

Head spinning, but glad to be walking again, we trudge into this sprawling town in search of a bed.

Approached by 2 young Chinese women, in a bit of a state, as 2 of their group’s cars have broken down in the mountains and did we know about a bus to China. Their lucky day, they had an expert. Told them what I knew, which I hope was some help.

Next, a local man, speaking perfect English, asks us where we are going and do we need a lift. Explain that we are quite enjoying the walk, after our bone rattling trip, and looking for a bed. He senses our suspicion and reassures he isn’t a taxi driver, just happens to be going our way and can give us a lift if we want one.
As it turns out, it would have been a trek too far, to reach town centre before dark, long enough for him to explain his excellent English by telling us he was a teacher. He teaches biology at a government school, but also set up a volunteer library to help under privileged children. He himself had been plucked from obscurity and his education sponsored so he was happy to pass on that good fortune. He commented that, in the current economic climate of get what you can, that such philanthropy was considered unusual.
We meet them every day! Wonderful human beings that give me hope mitigate the anger I feel, generated by the unjustices all around.

We pick the hotel opposite the other bus station and check in.
Quick scout around reveals an establishment with appealing decor, interesting tunes and a beer fridge. Not really a restaurant but the Vietnamese lady who lives there is happy to cook something up and chat over a beer or two. This place feels like home, so we decide to hang around tomorrow rather than heading off again 😀