|No pain no gain is the cliche, and it best describes the two day trip to get to Phongsali in the north of Laos. The reward is relatively unspoilt scenery, villages and people - some of the least affected trekking in Laos. But to get there is a 12 hour plus bus journey from Udomxai to Phongsali.... The bus is advertised as an 8 a.m. departure, but I'm beginning to learn now....8 a.m. I'm sitting on the bus, it is pretty well empty, but I can see by the people milling around and the bags on the seats that this tranquility will not last for long. Worse, tuk tuks and trucks are arriving loaded with produce and industrial goods, all of which are slowly being stored on top of the bus and, as on previous trips, in the aisle. 9:30 a.m. and the aisles are full with what look like rolls of rubber (see photos). The bus company is enterprising, so even though all the seats are taken, extra people can sit on the upturned tubes - see photos attached. The first two hours on the road to Phongsali are quite beautiful. The road winds its way up into the hills, following a river valley. The road is tarmacked and smooth, so we speed along with the windows open. A short time later the road becomes red dirt and rubble, in places washed away by soil erosion and land slides. You now have the classic dilemma - open the windows to get some air - and get covered in red dust; or close the windows and suffocate. What transpires in reality is a kind of game where you quickly close the windows when you see clouds of dust from another vehicle or when the bus is cornering; then you open the windows when it seems like the dust is reduced. The dust is that bad that it quickly cakes the seat backs such that you can write your name in the residue - see attached photo. Time starts to fade in and out. Lunch is a stop in the middle of nowhere (photo), and the locals and driver jump out and open up their plastic bags of sticky rice and meats and get tucked in to a hearty meal. Glad I have that bag of potato chips..... Back on the road, and it has now reached the painful stage as we drive through the sunset and things become literally pitch black - no towns around here, no electricity, great clarity when looking at the stars, but scary as hell when speeding around bends on the bus. I've thought a few times that some of this travelling is not something you want to be doing after you retire - its quite demanding. Glad that I'm finally getting around to it now. This journey is taking us a long way north, and you can see that the area is less spoilt that that around Luang Nam Tha - the girls in the villages are wearing traditional dress, not the cheap Chinese Tee shirts we saw previously. You can also see women walking around bare breasted, the first time I have seen this in Laos. As we closed in on Phongsali we had serious amounts of unloading of all of the produce, such that we finally reached the bus station after 12 and a half hours on the road. You can fly from London to Thailand in this time. But you won't get to see such fantastic scenery, have such fun and varied experience with the people on the bus, and see the various villages and cultures. They are right when they say that when you fly the holiday begins when you arrive at your destination, but when you take the bus, train or boat, the holiday begins when you start your journey. A brutal day, but if what I've heard about the scenery and trekking is to be believed, well worth it.....