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south east asia itinerary - april/may 2013

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April
.25 Night at Guangzhou airport, fly to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
.28 Bus Saigon (HCMC) to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
.30 Bus Phnom Penh to Siem Reap
May
.03 Bus/ferry (4AM) Siem Reap to Don Det, Laos
.05 Ferry/bus Don Det to Pakse, then night bus Pakse to Vientaine
.07 Bus Vientaine (via Vang Vieng) to Luang Prabang
.11 Bus Luang Prabang to Oudomxay
.12 Bus Oudomxay (via Muang La) to Muang Khua
.13 Bus Muang Khua to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam
.14 Bus Dien Bien Phu (via Lai Chau) to Sa Pa
.15 Trek to Hmong villages (Hau Thao)
.16 Bus Sa Pa to Lai Chau, then night train Lai Chau to Hanoi
.18 Bus/ferry Hanoi to Cat Ba City
.19 Bus/ferry Cat Ba City to Hanoi
.22 Fly Hanoi to Guangzhou, China

why sapa wasn't a highlight on my trip

Rice paddies in Sapa
Getting to Sapa by bus from Laos was a total gongshow. The section crossing the border and coming into Dien Bien Phu was a loong day spent cramped in nonexistant spaces on hot, sweaty busses with groups of 5 or 6 Vietnamese men (albeit thin) in two seaters, and sacks of rice piled on my lap. In retrospect, I don't know how I didn't freak out in a bout of claustrophobia. I regained some of my mental health after a night in Dien Bien Phu in a single room, and ploughed on toward Sapa the next day. The internet had warned me about the brutal road ahead, yet I resolutely decided that I would do it anyway.

crossing from laos to vietnam & dien bien phu

     When I first got on the bus in Muang Khua, I thought it might even be a semi-comfortable ride - I don't know what I was thinking. By about a half hour into the trip, the bus was filled at almost double its capacity and I was lodged between a bagful of textbooks, it seems, and a teenage Vietnamese boy who offered up his second earbud when the bus driver's radio got to be a little too much (which was 90% of the time). The window seat in the picture? Three of us were cramped in there. No, no leg room. Despite the prominent "no smoking" sign at the front of the bus, everyone smoked because the driver did too. And would you expect any less in South East Asia? I felt like I was sitting in a hot box. The Vietnamese schoolboy's friends kept trying to start conversations with me even though, quite obviously, they couldn't speak any English and I couldn't speak Vietnamese. So, of course, it makes total sense to ask for my number. Maybe although we can't communicate in person we'll miraculously be able to over the phone. 
     The bus was painfully hot, smoky, and generally uncomfortable (take the limit of negative comfort as it tends to infinity - brownie points if you got that one), but everyone seemed to enjoy looking after the only falang on the bus and I felt safe. At the rest stop, some ladies pointed me to where I could buy a little bag of rice to eat with my leftover kip, and at the Laos border, the Vietnamese boys helped me get across without any problems (when we were to present our passports, they wanted to take mine along with theirs - at first I felt skeptical, but one of them shot me such a Jokes aside, we're trying to help you and it only serves you to present your passport with ours glance that my intuition let me oblige). Even at the Vietnamese border, I was scared shitless when the officer singled me out and called me into his office, after my passport had taken the longest to process - but it was just to make sure I knew where I was going, to give me tips on staying safe, and to wish me happy travels. I was warmed by his concern, but I also worried about my bus leaving without me! 

catching the bus in muang khua

     The following morning in Oudomxay, I got up early to make sure I didn't miss any busses going to Muang Khua. Arriving in the early afternoon, after a 4 hour bus, I found myself in a guesthouse*(details below) run by a funny little homely man that demanded to be called "Father" and spoke in a broken, caveman-like English. As I sat on the common "balcony" of the place, overlooking the river, I spied the outline of the Greek man that I'd been continuously running into in Laos crossing the bamboo bridge. He had left Luang Prabang a day before me, and took the more weathered route through Nong Khiaw, reporting that it was fantastic. I definitely regretted not having done that instead of going through Oudomxay.
I had bartered the price of a room down to 35000 kip, and Father put me in one on the side of the house, not facing the river. But hey, it was "ensuite." What I didn't realize, though, was that the neighbours (much like the rest of the town's residents, and South-East Asians in general) were avid karaoke-singers, so much so that my bed rattled from their singing. Thankfully there was a power outage that evening, marking the beginning of the rainy season with a night-long monsoon. Unable to sleep regardless, I found the remaining guests in a common room, eating and talking, with Father continuously coming around to offer laolao whiskey and deep-fried cockroaches (that one of the other guests had seen him catching earlier that day). 
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Catching the bus to Vietnam: There was little to no available information online or anywhere about the bus that passes Muang Khua and makes its way to Dien Bien Phu, so I figured I'd be luckier and find out once I actually got to Muang Khua - no dice. Some locals told me it passed by Muang Khua at 7AM, others assured me that it was between 11AM and noon, and a handful were adamant about the bus only coming 3 times a week (and, of course, nobody knew when it would pass next). 

oudomxay

     Arriving in Oudomxay (on a hell of a shaky road from Luang Prabang - luckily the man sitting next to me on the bus worked at a hotel in Luang Prabang and helped me buy pills for carsickness at the bus station, just in case), I found that I'd just missed the last bus to Mong La and was forced to spend the night there. Exhausted and dispirited, I found myself stuck in a city that, according to my Lonely Planet book, was the ugliest place in Laos. With no idea of where to spend the night, I trudged out from the bus station and walked aimlessly around the deserted-looking town. After visiting a few hostels that proved to be way over my budget, I broke down and decided to find an internet cafe in order to figure out how to get out of the place asap. I quickly found that virtually no one in Oudomxay spoke Lao, let alone English, and let's be honest - my mandarin is shit. And, of course, the computers at the only internet cafe I came across where programmed in this language. Frustrated, I even stopped some tuktuk drivers to ask the price to getting to Muang La that evening, but it simply wasn't realistic. This was probably one of the lowest points in my trip. I felt like I was wasting time but, in retrospect, it was quality time spent learning to cope with the inevitable surprises that travel brings.

northbound in laos

Leaving Don Det by "ferry boat"
     After a relaxing 2 nights in Si Phan Don (1000 Islands), I headed northbound to Vientaine with a 5 hour stopover in Pakse, where I waited for my 12 hour night bus to the capital. Pakse was a lovely little town but after a half-day of travel by ferry boat, minivan, and bus, I was exhausted when I got there. I grabbed some 7,000kp soup at the local market and walked around town, hanging out with some monks at Wat Luang and passing time before my sleeper bus. Twelve (brutal) hours later, I arrived in Vientiane with a bad case of diarrhea.  

[NOTE ON THE SLEEPER BUS: I absolutely don't recommend getting a sleeper to Vientiane if you're planning on getting any rest - the roads are SUPER ruggedy, especially when you're literally trying your hardest not to poop your pants. Also, the bus is fairly tight. I'm 5"2 and I fit in perfectly, but if you're any taller you are probably not going to fit. The roof is too low to sit up, so you've got to stay lying down the entire 12 hours, and if you're travelling solo there's a 99% chance you'll have a stranger sleeping up against you at night]
     I was warned not to go to Sabaidee Guesthouse due to bed bugs, so I easily found the Funky Monkey Hostel instead, where I payed 4.50USD for a 18-bed mixed dorm and spent the day napping and crapping. For 40000kp in a 18-mixed dorm, the hostel provided wifi (albeit a little glitchy), free breakfast (choice of baguette with either omelette or with butter and jam, plus a drink), and loud music & pool until about 3AM in the common area. The staff spoke very little English, and it's impossible to sleep at night (due to the noise), especially if you're in the dorm room directly above the entrance. 
     I didn't get to see much of Vientiane at all, but managed to get Carbon (charcoal) and Berberin at a local pharmacy. The drugs didn't help, but thankfully a fellow traveler was able to pass me some Immodium the next day on our way to Luang Prabang.
Wat Luang in Pakse