Through Oudomxay and into China
Trip Start Mar 31, 2012
16Trip End Aug 01, 2012
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Where I stayed
The road was actually in pretty good shape for the first half of the trip. As we made our way north, the driver would stop for locals that were standing on the road to see if they were heading to Oudomxay. I was surprised that he'd stop for people standing on the side of the road for traffic heading the wrong direction as well
After the stop in Pak Mueng, the road condition were noticeably more deteriorated and the going got slower. Fortunately the bus driver didn’t try and overdo it on the bumpy and windy road, and we ended up getting to Oudomxay a little later than scheduled. Around 2:30 PM we were dropped off at the bus station of Oudomxay, which was surrounded by several guesthouses. After inquiring at one of the nicer looking hotels that had rooms for 100,000 kip, we instead decided to stay at a place overtop of an Internet café for 80,000 kip. Although the room was not as nice, this establishment had somebody that spoke some English and would let use their Internet (via an Ethernet cable – no Wi-Fi.) The establishment was named the Phoxay Guest House and the room came with AC, hot showers, a TV (with HBO and Fox Movies in English), as well as daily cleanings where a bottle of fresh water and some toilet paper were left behind by the maids.
As we walked down the main streets of Oudomxay, it was apparent that not many English-speaking tourists came here
Another restaurant that we ended up eating at a lot was called the Muang Nuea Restaurant. Here we had our morning coffee (7,000 kip) and sometimes a very thick mango pancake (15,000 kip) for breakfast. This restaurant also made a decent Pad Thai for 15,000 kip that we ate frequently (including orders to go, great for taking the bus) and a "chicken nugget" dish that came with fries for 35,000 kip. This restaurant seemed to draw the few other foreigners that rolled in to town. We didn’t see very many, but occasionally we’d see some usually perched around a mechanic working on their motorcycles.
We had planned on shopping here, trying to distribute a little tourism income to a province where less than 1 in 10 households are reported to have access to electricity, but this place was simply not geared for English speaking tourists like us. I did manage to find a new optical mouse from a computer shop (35,000 kip) because I had accidentally left my previous one behind in Luang Prabang. For the most part I just took my camera and walked around the town looking for things of interest. People were very friendly and when a family saw that I was drinking a Beer Lao, they invited me to sit down with them and presumably sample some of the Lao Lao that they were drinking. With my complete lack of understanding with the Lao language though, I politely declined.
I next found a group of a dozen boys playing down by the river and decided to give away the last present that I had brought from Canada with me: a beach ball with a smiley face decorating it. As I made my way from the bridge to the river below, the boys took little notice of me. However once I brought out the beach ball and started inflating it, all eyes were upon me wondering what I was doing. Soon after I blew it up, I paddled it towards them and one of the braver boys went and retrieved it. I tried to use a “thumbs up” gesture to indicate that they could keep it, and they gave me a “thumbs up” back
On one of my other walks, I ventured up to a Buddhist temple on the top of a hill. As I was taking pictures here, a dark Mercedes pulled up and two males and a female got out. The two finely dressed males went into the temple but the young female came straight to me. I was worried that perhaps I was not permitted to be here, but my concern was short-lived as she greeted me in excellent English. We talked for a few minutes and she was curious why I was in Oudomxay and what I thought about the area. When it was time for me to go, I asked if her if she’d pose for a picture. She was the most beautiful woman that I had seen in Laos and she put down her bags and posed for me. I am curious who exactly I was talking to because there were not many finely dressed people driving around in Mercedes in the Oudomxay area. I didn’t want to ask though, so I guess I will never know.
We did find a tourist office in the downtown area of Oudomxay (close to the river, next the best hotel in town) and found out that there was a cooking class that was offered by a local woman there. The half-day class had a cost of 190,000 kip, although it got substantially cheaper (per person) when more people were involved. The following day, Lisa met an older local woman at the tourist office who would be her teacher that day. The class started with a visit to the market, where Lisa was guided through the local practices of acquiring food
After acquiring the necessary ingredients for the dishes that they would be preparing that day, Pork Laap and Spicy Beef Salad, they made their way to a restaurant where the cooking class would take place. The restaurant wasn’t exactly sanitary by Western standards, there was no soap, the cutting board was used without getting cleaned and it was quite dark and damp. Lisa noticed how the instructor was going to use the same knife that she had just used to cut the raw pork, to chop raw vegetables for the salad. Lisa cleaned the knife as well as she could without the use of soap, as we would be eating these meals later. After seeing how food was prepared in Laos, she was a little surprised that we hadn’t had more problems with our tummy during the trip.
Lisa found out that her instructor was a retired teacher that knew a little bit of English and even better French. Since Lisa can also speak in French, they were able to talk throughout the day and Lisa learned a few interesting things. First of all she said that the bumpy roads that we were complaining about were “good today.” Apparently they got surfaced in 1995 and were awful before that. She also mentioned that in the mid 1980s that even the main road of Oudomxay was unpaved and surrounded by jungle. She said that she was scared to walk down the road at night due to the threat of tigers. This was a little ironic because she had moved to Oudomxay from the south of Laos because she enjoyed the nature of Oudomxay.
By noon Lisa came back and I got to eat the meals that she had prepared
After three nights in Oudomxay, it was Sunday May 27th, 2012, which was the 30th and last day of our Laos Visa. We had prearranged for a flight out of China exactly 30 days from then, so we had to make the journey to China exactly on this date to avoid Visa problems with either China or Laos. We were originally going to spend the last night as close to the border as possible, but decided to risk it since it was easier to catch the bus from Oudomxay into China. We also knew that the penalty for overstaying a Laos Visa was simply US$10 a day per person, so that didn’t seem like too bad of a penalty if we ran into unforeseen problems
There were two choices for busses running from Oudomxay into China: one to Mengla for 55,000 kip, or Jinghong for 120,000 kip. After a little research, it looked as though Jinghong was a bigger place, so we figured it’d be an easier place to find food and shelter. Being as we had to leave Laos this day to avoid overstaying our Visa, we wanted to buy the bus tickets a day or two before, but this wasn’t possible because the tickets only went on sale an hour in advance. Since the bus departed at 8:00 AM, we were at the bus station for around 6:45. We soon figured out which bus that we would be going on and had our large bags loaded on to the roof. We also put our camera bags on a seat inside the bus to reserve our seats and finally at 7:00 AM Lisa made it through the mad rush to the ticket counter and secured our ride.
The mini-bus left promptly at 8AM and we were the only foreigners on board. As with the previous ride, the driver would stop for any locals on the street to see if they were heading the way we were going. We stopped and picked up people and dropped them off in very rural locations the whole time we were in Laos. We had read that the roads in this area were in rough shape, but obviously this was outdated information as the roads were remarkably smooth and appeared to brand new. There are no tunnels and only infrequent bridges, so the road had to wind around the mountainous terrain in anything but a straight line. There are also no safety barriers on the edge of the roads, so we were glad that our driver only went at a safe speed.
Around 10:30 AM we reached the international border and entered China. Everybody got off the bus at the edge of Laos, so we followed them to a counter where immigration checked over people’s documents before stamping their passports and allowing them to continue. I saw quite a few Laos or Chinese nationals paying money at the counter, but the officials did not ask Lisa or me for anything. From here we continued our walk past the border and to a Chinese immigration office. We walked past a kiosk where a Chinese woman smiled at me and followed everybody else to the immigration counter. However just before we got to the front of this line, the woman that smiled at me earlier came with another man that spoke English and asked us to come back to the kiosk we passed earlier.
Here they inspected and then scanned the Visa that we had acquired while still in Canada, and then printed us out a customized arrival and departure card that had the information they had just scanned from us already filled out. We filled out the rest of these forms and then went back to the line we had just been pulled from. The line was quite short and within a minute we were talking to immigration agents again. Lisa went up first and they gave her a thorough visual inspection to ensure her face matched the one on her passport. Next they started asking questions, like “Where were you born?”, “Where did you get your VISA?”, “Are you married?” and “Are you from Eastern Europe?”. Since Lisa has adopted my last name since marriage, she does have an Eastern European name now and after explaining that to the official, the questioning was over. It was all quite friendly and I suspect the agent was simply curious more than anything as not so many Westerners pass through this office.
After the barrage of questions they had for Lisa, they had very few for me and after I put my camera bag through a metal detector we left the immigration office. I was greeted at the exit by a couple of young women that wanted to sell me some Chinese currency. Since I knew the leftover Laos currency that I had would be little more than a souvenir outside of Laos, I exchanged the 50,000 kip that I had left for a measly 20 Chinese Yuan. I knew this was only about half of the normal exchange rate, but since the amounts were so small and that there was a bus waiting for me, I didn’t try to negotiate a better rate.
Once we were in China, the roads widen, safety barriers were abundant and vast number of bridges and tunnels made the going much faster. After turning our clocks an hour ahead to account for the single time-zone of China (GMT+8), we continued to drive through the hills to the urban center of Mengla. After reading about how small and difficult this place would be for travelers, we were surprised at how clean and modern this place looked. We also got to walk around the streets for a while, because our bus stopped at the bus station for an hour to eat. We spent our time looking for ATMs and although we found a couple, they didn’t work with our Mastercard, VISA, or ING Bank cards. At 2PM we again boarded the bus and headed off for our destination of Jinghong. We stopped at one other bus station along the way, which filled the bus to capacity. Around 5PM we finally made it and were dropped off at a bus station in the city of Jinghong.