Thursday, December 21, 2006

Great Bus Journeys of the World

There is lots of interest iin documenting - whether it be by book or TV progamme - the great train journeys of the world but only people like Alaxei Sayle have written on the great bus journeys (and his book of that title has little to do with buses). But it there was ever to be a list of the great bus journeys, the trip from Luang Prabang would have to be on it. Many travellers opt for the night bus down, so see nothing of what the trip has to offer. I hate night buses - unless they're passing through a truly boring stretch of countryside - so opted to take the trip by public bus, in two stages so that I would have daylight most of the way. The only downside of the bus is that as it bumps along, my camera protests and gives up any attempt to render the landscape - I thought it would be extremely rewarding to do this trip by motorbike, so that I could stop whenever I felt the urge. Hehe - travelling SE Asia by scooter (the Korean Kolao comes well recommended and can be picked up for $650) could be an interesting project, although I shudder to think what would become of me if I was to enter one of the many urban maelstroms this region has to offer. Minced Barry perhaps.

So, after a leisurely breakfast at the cafe of the guesthouse I wished I had stayed at, I had a late morning departure from the bus station - an easy walk from the centre of town. I think Luang Prabang is already at something like 700 metres above sea level: pretty much immediately, and for a couple of hours thereafter, the road ascends. Mind you, the bus was not going very fast, so we didn't get THAT high - I understand the highest peak in the region is a little over 2000 metres. But once it has ascended, the road pretty much runs along the top of these hills. Every so often, there is a little village clinging precariously to the edge of the road. A botanist would have a great time identifying the various tree and flower varieties that grow along the route. The clarity of the immediate surroundings gave way to the smoke obscured images of the more distant mountains (slash and burn, regrettably, is the main method of clearing land here). The thing that really impressed me was that no matter how high we got, nor how steep the slope, every so often you'd see a spot where some brave soul had decided to cultivate the land, and build a rudimentary shelter. Oh, plus that at all points, people seemed able to maintain cellphone coverage.

At some point, the mountains are replaced with huge cliffs of karst - these loom above the road, sometimes on both sides, with quite a forbidding effect - I am not sure how far south this range extends, as it got dark by the time we hit Kasi. There is a final flourish of karst at Vang Vieng and then the landscape completes its transition into alluvial plain, with the road crossing over numerous small rivers. I had the misfortune of staying at VV - it is a town which is almost exclusively devoted to serving the needs of foreign travellers who come to tube the river by day and party large at night, in between episodes of Friends and The Simpsons. It had very little to offer me: after a quiet beer and curry, I fled to the retreat of my guesthouse and caught the first bus to Vientiane.

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