1. 6 June, Day 41, from Tay Trang to Udomxai, was the most exciting day of our trip so far. Originally hoping to make the 400+ km journey to Luang Prabang before dark, we decided to break journey and stay the night at Udomxai, with about 200 km still to go to Luang Prabang. The road on the Laos side, after clearing immigration and customs was the most challenging, the toughest we had in our whole journey. There were anxious moments, but we enjoyed it. It was fun.
2. We left Dien Bian Phu (DBP) at about 9 am on 6 June, Day 41, for the border crossing to Laos. The 36 km to the border was generally all right, metalled, but narrowed to a lane and a half, and very hilly with many twists and turns as we went up the mountain. There were few vehicles on the road, in either direction. This border crossing was obviously not well used. Near the border were vast stretches of padi field, with farmers busy tilling the soil with water buffaloes.
3. As petrol was cheaper in Vietnam (US$0.70 for Octane 95 in Vietnam vs US$0.94 Octane 92 in Laos), we topped up our tank at DBP before heading for the border. In Vietnam, Octane 92 petrol is widely available in stations run by various companies. Octane 95 petrol is only available in some Petrolimex stations. In this instance, on the way to the border, the Petrolimex stations did not carry Octane 95 petrol.
4. At about 1000m above sea level, the Tay Trang border crossing must be one of the highest in the world. The Vietnamese immigration/customs building looked very new; very quiet when we got there. Other than officials, there were only 3 of us. Officials were unsmiling but businesslike. Thuan met with the customs officials to clear my car for exit out of Vietnam, while Sunny and I cleared immigration. We were done in about 15 mins (about 10.15). The day before, Thuan had to report to the police station at DBP to get the sign off for our exit. That morning, Thuan also received a call from the customs at Moc Bai (where we crossed into Vietnam from Cambodia) asking if we were leaving Vietnam. So they do check!!. Here we bid farewell to Thuan. He had been a great companion in Vietnam for the last 22 days.
5. After we crossed this arch, we left Vietnam soil. The road became unsealed laterite track. According to Lonely Planet, the Laos immigration/customs was some 3 km away. When we reached the 3 km mark we did see a small building but decided that it was unlikely to be the Laos immigration/customs facility especially when we saw someone appearing in his underwear as if he had just woken up. We decided to keep travelling but became concerned when there was no building in sight. We were relieved when we saw a white building perched on the hill top at about the 5 km mark. The Laos govt must had just opened this brand new immigration/customs building.
6. When we arrived, there was a group of 7-8 people sorting out their paper work to leave Laos to enter Vietnam. On the entry side, we were the only 2 people. One of the backpackers approached us to see if we want to change some of our US$ to kips. Though the immigration and customs staff spoke little English, they were friendly and professional with their work. Recording the details into a hard cover book and after collecting a fee of 45 000 kips (10 000 each for 2 individuals and 25 000 for the car), our passports were stamped and done. For the car, I showed the support letter from the Laos Embassy in Singapore and pushed the Carnet to them. I decided that I ought to try to use the Carnet this time, as it was not used in all the earlier entries. After discussing among themselves, with no fuss, they duly stamped the Carnet, kept the counterfoil, collected 25 000 kips as processing fee, and passed back the Carnet and documents back to me. All in 30 mins on the Laos side and we were done by 11 am.
7. The road to Luang Prabang could be divided into 3 parts, Tay Trang to Muang Khua (abt 100 km), Muang Khua to Udomxai (abt 100 km), and Udomxai to Luang Prabang (abt 200 km), the initial sections very raw and most challenging. From Tay Trang to Udomxai, it was unsealed laterite track, a lane and a half, for most of the way to Udomxai, going through mud pools from time to time. Here is an example in video of one of the mud pools we went through.
Every few hundred meters the track narrowed as part of the track had collapsed in earlier landslides and despite the rain repair work was on-going. We understand that Oct last year saw the heaviest downpour in Laos for the past 20 years.
8. The stretch of road from Tay Trang to Muang Khua was most challenging as we had to ford 5 streams before crossing the Nam Ou River by ferry. I did 3 crossings and Sunny did 2. We were obviously the most anxious with first one even though it was a small one. We felt easier doing the subsquent fordings. To be safe, we would try to wait for other vehicles to cross before us so that we could gauge the depth and how the crossing was executed. Here is a video of Sunny executing one of the crossings. The other picture showed him wading across the stream after the Pajero had crossed. Can see Sunny working real hard!
Heres a picture of a bunch of kids at one of the crossing points. Obviously they were having ball of the time getting wet.
9. Compared to the initial stretch the road from Udomxai to Luang Prabang was easier, as it was generally sealed but due to overdue maintenance suffered from many potholes.
10. Overall, for a long time to come a 4x4 vehicle would be needed for travel between Tay Trang and Udomxai. While work to repair sections affected by landslides should be completed soon, constructing the bridges and sealing the road surface for the 200 km or so of road would take some years.
11. We reached Muang Khua at close to 2 pm, nearly 3 hrs from the time we set off from Tay Trang, covering 100 kms in 3 hrs. After crossing Nam Ou River by ferry, we had a late lunch at a restaurant overlooking the muddy river. The 3 cyclists we met at one of the fording points managed to catch up with us at the restaurant. They told us that they had cycled from Bangkok through to Cambodia, from South to North Vietnam, and like us, had travelled from Hanoi to DBP and to Tay Trang border crossing. They carried their stuff on the bikes and were soaking wet. They would continue their journey to Luang Prabang and end their journey back in Bangkok. After comparing notes, they remarked that the hilly stretch to DBP was toughest. I cant agree more as driving the car was already tough enough. The 3 were all Irish. One of them took a 6 mths leave from work to undertake this journey. I had great admiration for these tough guys.
12. The drive was not all hard work. It was not just dirt and mud. We enjoyed the beautiful mountain scenery, the many interesting sights along the way and took time to take the pictures. The area was just as hilly, rising to 1400 m in some stretches and consistently above 600 m in height but it was less intensely cultivated and more thinly populated as compared to NW Vietnam.
13. From Tay Trang to Udomxai, the animals seemed to think that the road belonged to them. They took a nap, had a family gathering, or simply took a stroll along the road. We had to be very careful not to injure any animal.
Also, we had to be careful about people walking along the side of the roads. In the picture to the right, you see a girl carrying a bag with her forehead. This was a fairly common sight. Less common is this picture below; the chap was having his hair cut by the woman. In all the pictures, you see the colourful dresses worn by the minority groups, similar to those in NW Vietnam.
14. By the time we reached Udomxai, it was after 5 pm. We decided to check into DanSavanh Oudomxay Hotel for the night for about US$20 before continuing our journey to Luang Prabang the following day. Met a Malaysian (called William) who worked at the hotel. He said Udomxai was the gateway to Yunnan and they had many Chinese visitors passing the area to Vientiane and Luang Prabang. For this reason, many hotels and restaurants carried Chinese words. With his recommendation, we had a dinner at a restaurant near the airport, the most trendy eating places at Udomxai at the moment. Sunny and I were the oldest. We were among many youngsters, boys and girls, who were there for beers and small bites. Interestingly, didnt see any smoker. Hotel did not have wifi. It didnt matter as we both slept like logs after we got back to our room. It was an exhausting day.
15. Next day, 7 June, we woke up the usual time, had breakfast at 8 am, walked around the market opposite the hotel, changed some money to kips, checked our emails with the reception desk's cables, and we were off to Luang Prabang at about 9.30 am. Along the way, we stopped at a roadside stall to do some shopping. Here Sunny was making the payment, while the mother's daughter was crying behind.
16. We got to Luang Prabang at about 2.30 pm, and after some scouting, checked into Ramayana Boutique Hotel and Spa for US$50 a night. The Laos govt ensures that theres no monkey business in the hotel. Included in the hotel regulations are:
(1) Do not....bring both women and men which is not your own husband or wife into the room for making love.
(2) Do not allow domestic or international tourists bring prostitute and others into your accommodation to make sex movies in our room, it is restriction.
After careful consideration, Sunny and I decided that we could live with these regulations. We really had no option but to comply because the regulation goes on to state "if you do not follow this accommodation regulation, you will be fight based on Lao PDR law". Not sure if they mean "bitten up".
At any rate, we planned to stay in Luang Prabang for 2-3 nights, before heading for North Thailand.
17. After 2 days of mud and water, the Pajero had become unrecognisable. We couldnt even see the number plate.