A short ride from the Chinese border checks lay a small single-room building for Laos border control. Small groups of people pushed their way around a handful of windows where staff processed their passports. I had no visa so had to fill out a form, provide a photo and pay the fee. Throughout my life of visiting countries, right back to a school trip to France aged eleven, I've always had a knack of running down the local currency so I have almost nothing left by the time I leave. On this occasion, I still had a good amount of Chinese yuan left. Luckily, they were willing to let me use it to pay for the visa and I had pretty much the exact amount with me, so no unnecessarily large amount of money will be wasted and sit in a pot of foreign currency on a shelf at home when I return.
I think I was the only westerner on the bus going through this process, so I took longer than the other passengers who were all waiting for me when I had finished and we went on our way. The bus was a rickety old thing, not much bigger than a mini-bus. Now we passed into Laos, this became more apparent. Initially the road was part of the 'highway' used for freight vehicles between China and Thailand, and therefore China had paid to make this a good-quality road. It wasn't long though before these paths had split and we were on tight, twisty mountain roads which were frequently broken up with loose track or potholes. It took a further three hours that left me feeling more than a little green.
Arriving in Oudomxay at lunchtime, I walked from the bus stop to a guest house and checked in for the night. I had no idea where I was going to go in the country but figured I could work that out while I had dinner that night. I knew there was no point staying here but it was too late to get another bus today and my stomach didn't feel up to it anyway. So, I headed out to explore what there was of the town.
Although it rightly has a reputation of being dull and characterless, it was still my first sight of the country so it was all terribly interesting to me. I think they would call it a city, but its population is only 80,000, which is just twice Goodison Park's capacity. Generally speaking in Laos, if I say 'city' I mean town, if I say 'town' I mean village and if I say 'village' I mean a small hamlet. Tall buildings beyond two storeys or any kind of terraced housing are also extremely rare. Roads within a town are a mixture of asphalt or rough dirt tracks, the latter being dusty and rocky at this time of Summer.
I found a small wat (monastry) where the monks were happy to see me and wave. Four of them were perched up on a high drum they were beating with sticks, an act they were willing to perform for my camera also. Most of the monks at most of the wats I saw in the country were young men or boys. It was not uncommon to find them clowning around, playing games, using mobiles phones or even smoking cigarettes. I think it is common for at least one son from every family to become a monk for a few years at least, although I think it is also common to step out of the order to return to normal life afterwards.
Walking on further down the street, I found a group of boys throwing sticks and other items they could find up in a tree. I figured that they were trying to retrieve something by knocking it down. Looking up, I spied a useful-looking piece of wood up in the branches. Deciding that I would play the friendly, helpful foreigner, I jumped up into the tree and was able to knock this piece of wood down which I handed to the boys. They stared at me dumbfounded and certainly not overwhelmed with gratitude. Possibly they were just a bit shy at being confronted with a western man, possibly I had just failed to spot a football stuck in the next branch over.
I passed a school where a few hundred children were out enjoying an afternoon break. This lot were much more appreciative of my presence, smiling and waving at me as I walked past.
By now I was hungry but first needed to get some of the currency from the bank. There was only one ATM in town, but I understand that to be one more than they had a couple of years ago so I must be grateful. The cash absolutely stinks here. At first I thought there were old dirty notes in my wallet but after a while you come to realise that it is the new notes, fresh and crisp from the cashpoint, that smell the most. I don't know what they make them with but they make them all this way and it isn't pleasant.
In the evening, as I was eating my dinner in an empty outdoor restaurant, a local man came over to join me. Except, he wasn't actually local but a Japanese tourist who had just got into town. We spent an hour or two chatting about south-east Asia in general. With my usual sense of tact, it wasn't long before I was asking him for his views on Japanese war atrocities. Everywhere I go I see evidence and history relating to the actions of Japan over the past hundred years, be it in Korea, China or elsewhere. There's no denying that it is gruesome stuff. The view from outside Japan is that the Japanese teach a version of history that airbrushes this out (ignore the irony of this accusation for a moment, if you will...), so I wanted to know what the view from inside Japan was. He told me that he was very embarrassed about it and frequently apologised to foreigners but didn't know what else he could do. He also felt that the Chinese government will often tell Japan not to worry about it because it is all in the past but, when talking to their own people, ratchet up the antagonism and blame.
After he had gone, I looked at my guidebook to try to get an idea where in Laos I actually wanted to go. I decided to go north to Luang Nam Tha first and then head south afterwards. I didn't know when the buses would go but, hearing that there were three a day and that they took between three and five hours, figured that I could walk down to the bus station for midday and find something. Upon arrival I bought my ticket no problem but when I asked them what time it would depart, they told me to just get on the bus and wait and see. There were only a couple of other people on board at this point so I had to sit on there for two hours, during which time someone accidentally smashed a window near the front, before we set off.
The route took us three hours back upon the tortuous route I had taken the previous day from China, before turning onto the main 'highway' that went to Thailand. This was a welcome relief from the stomach-churning twists and turns and took only another forty-five minutes until we reached the out-of-town bus station of Luang Nam Tha.