|Our plan was reasonably simple: catch the 8:00 AM bus to Oudomxay from Luang Prabang which connects with the afternoon bus to Luang Namtha. We would get there in the evening, so we paid a travel agent to call our guesthouse to ensure we had a room. Everything was planned; we even had a tuktuk booked to take us to the bus station.
We awoke at 6:30 to the roosters crowing outside our guesthouse and were packed and ready for our 7:15 tuk tuk pickup. At 7:30, a man on a motorcycle raced in, said something about a broken van ("van broke come now follow") as he drove off down the street. We obediently followed and watched him barter with the tuktuks and load us and a small crowd of other travellers into the brightly painted miniature covered pickup truck. We bounced our way along pothole filled backstreets, idly wondering where we were going (the bus station seemed to be in a different direction according to my map) until our musings were answered when we pulled up to pickup two more travellers. By this time, I was getting nervous: it was already 8:00, the time our bus was scheduled to leave.
We arrived at the bus station to find our still-empty bus still waiting in the bay surrounded by locals idly chatting, spitting, picking their noses, and munching on food from the surrounding food stands. There was lots of time. We traded our voucher for our ticket and discovered that, surprisingly, the note ab out wanting a front seat that the travel agent wrote actually worked: we were assigned the two front seats on the bus. I helped the bus driver load our bags onto the roof and we got into our seats. We've learned the value of claiming seats on a bus as quickly as possible.
By 9:00, a few people had made their way into their seats on the bus. By 10:00, the bus was close to half-full and I had made a new friend: a local man who was travelling north to his hometown for work. He confidently suggested "maybe 10:30" as our departure time. At 10:40 he suggested "I think 11" and nodded knowingly. Sure enough, at 11:15, the bus started its engine and, after driving 15 feet and idling for another 20 minutes, we left. I chuckled at my concern when the tuktuk was late that morning. I had forgotten that time is a different concept here: buses leave when full and not according to any posted schedule. Of course, "full" is a flexible concept too, as there are an almost unlimited number of seats on a bus when plastic lawn chairs are placed down the aisles and the remaining space is used for standing passengers.
We soon discovered that the front of the bus is not necessarily the best place to sit. I was crammed beside a local man with just enough space to put my feet between the bus driver and the engine cover. Laura was pinched beside a local woman (who made a point of showing her the box for her hepatitis medicine) who basically took all the legroom and left Laura with nowhere for her legs. This leads to another lesson we have learned in our travels: claim your personal space however you can, be it with elbows, knees, or pushing. We watched the countryside speed by as we headed north. At one point, a we passed a group of villagers sitting ina circle watching a cockfight between two large roosters. Every few kilmotres another small village appeared with the usual children playing, women bathing and dogs sleeping. Six hours later, having travelled ever slower on winding, switchback-filled roads, we arrived in Oudomxay.
Of course, by this time, our connecting bus to Luang Nam Tha had long since left. We stood in the bus station with two French women -- Katia and Cristal -- trying to find alternate transport (we failed) and a guesthouse (success!). Even better, we had made two new friends.
That night we ate dinner at a local Chinese restaurant (most of the town are migrant Chinese workers) where the server made it clear that she was not excited about is being there. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our meal and getting to know our French friends better who, it turns out, work in production in the movie industry in Paris, France.
Next day, we embarked for Luang Namtha. The journey was uneventful except for a roadblock where the police got everyone to get off and then searched the bus for drugs. As locals started getting back on, they searched their bags too. Being the first foreigner on, I walked past slowly and didn't offer my bag for searching. They let me pass and the rest of the tourists followed. I guess they were only interested in locals.