I found out about the Gibbon Experience while traveling in Thailand. The Gibbon Experience — an eco-tourist conservation project in Laos, where visitors live in canopy-level treehouses and fly above the rainforest on ziplines — was enough to make my friend Dani and I quickly rearrange all our (admittedly shaky) travel plans and veer up to Bokeo Province.
The “veering” wasn’t as easy as all that. Once on an overnight train from Bangkok to Vientiane, we were confident that an overland trip thorough Laos wouldn’t be that bad; hey, it’d probably be fun! A relatively painless border crossing at the Friendship Bridge and we were in the Lao capital, Vientiane.
We didn’t get to see much of the capital, so I’ll never know if it had any Western-style attributes that many other Southeast Asian cities possess: malls with high-end shops, chain restaurants, Starbucks. What we saw was a sleepy little city, with temples and wats as in Thailand, no buildings taller than three stories, and little English spoken. I needed a battery charger, and so we asked where to get one. We were directed to the “big mall” which turned out to be a vast concrete building with dozens of market stalls, selling cell phones and washing machines alongside souvenirs and clothes. Upstairs were individual shops, all very local and very Lao. Its food court, thankfully, had pictures of the dishes, so all we had to do was point. Dani had a Lao phrasebook but it never seemed to contain any of the things we wanted to ask. We mostly used sign language.
There was no train to Bokeo Province. The bus station housed double-decker buses that looked quite nice on the outside, but fairly cramped inside. Our bus had a toilet, but the bathroom would be filled with luggage the entire trip, so we couldn’t use it. Dani and I were seated in the way back, against the rear of the bus, on chairs that couldn’t recline anyway. The back row had five bucket seats; we saw that four people had crowded into the three seats next to us.
The trip was about 22 hours. Right before we left the bus driver distributed plastic bags to all the passengers, to the horror of me and Dani, who thought they were vomit bags and that he expected everyone on board to throw up at some point. We found later that this was more of a bag for people’s spit, but it didn’t matter: some of the passengers just spat on the floor anyway.
The driver stopped every few hours to allow a bathroom break at restrooms that were usually outhouses, with a toilet bowl sunk into the ground. A couple of times in the night, the bus stopped for extended periods of time and turned off all its electricity, waking us up within moments when the airflow turned off and the oppressive Southeast Asian heat took over. At random intervals during the night, we were awakened by the blare of very loud Lao pop music. None of the other passengers said a word, and as our Lao language book did not contain the sentence “Please stop annoying us with that noise,” we didn’t either.
We rolled past beautiful rolling landscapes, red clay cliffs, increasingly large mountains, lots and lots of huts with satellite dishes outside, and some really nice, French Colonial-looking houses every once in a while. The roads started to get steeper, the mud started to get deeper and the bus really started to shake, bounce, and pitch. A couple of times it got stuck in the mud, or had to stop behind another vehicle who had. When this happened, we all had to file off the bus and wait for the driver, his helper and a bunch of assorted passengers and passers-by as they got the bus through.
We made it to Louang Prabang, ate an incredibly delicious noodle bowl at the bus stop café, and then got in a mini bus for what should have been a 4-hour trip to Louang Namtha. I squeezed into a seat next to another passenger and Dani curled up on the engine cap between the driver and front-seat passenger, who must have been his wife. We made great time, rolling by scenic Lao mountainsides and villages, when the van suddenly came to a halt. All the traffic around us was stopped.
A large truck had stopped in the middle of the road ahead, completely mired in bumper-high mud, blocking traffic in both directions. We had to wait for hours until a crane and a bulldozer had to clear the area and yank out the truck (which promptly became stuck again about a quarter of a mile later). The crane then plowed into the red clay and rocks of the mountainside, digging up dry rocky dirt to fill up the mud pits and make the road navigable again, at least until the next downpour. Because it was rainy season, this repair job probably lasted about four hours.
Late at night we got to Louang Namtha near the Chinese/Burmese borders. We found a guesthouse and collapsed.
Related entry: The Gibbon Experience
Originally published in 2008 on ExplorerPod.com