Travelling in Southeast Asia is often more about the journey than the destination and although it’s one of those cliches which is often used glibly, we think it largely rings true in Laos. Except when travelling to Phongsali.
There are two different ways that most people use to get to Phongsali. The easiest is by hopping on one of the daily slow boats from Muang Khua to Hat Sa. The hardest is by road. For the average visitor, there is only one road in and one road out. It’s a gruelling 236 kilometre journey that many people undertake from Udomxai or 427 kilometres from Luang Prabang.
Between Udomxai and Pak Nam Noi the road is smooth and paved and the journey is an absolute pleasure whether by motorbike or bus. It’s on this leg that you’ll be lulled into a false sense of security. It’s so easy and so pleasant that you truly believe that the road between Pak Nam Noi and Phongsali couldn’t be that bad. But don’t be fooled. It really is that bad.
Immediately after turning off in Pak Nam Noi, the road is dirt. But not just any dirt road. It’s a dirt road more like an English beach with pebbles, rocks and boulders interspersed with patches of dirt. Why is this bad?
If you’re on a motorbike, riding on a road like this means your entire body becomes tense as you strongarm the bike over rocks, through sandy patches and away from the inevitable ravine which edges along the impossibly windy road through the mountains. Worse still, because the road is extremely dusty, you quickly become covered from head to toe in a fine silt that piles up in the creases of your clothes, shoes and luggage. Even worse again, when the inevitable rain arrives the silt turns to mud both on your clothing and on the road.
When we talk about mud on the road, we’re talking about sections that resemble a pig sty and that cannot be driven around — you’ve got to ride through it, but it’s inevitable you will need to put your feet down to make sure the bike doesn’t slip out from underneath you. Muddy feet.
If you’re travelling by bus, the buses are not coaches. They are beat-up old Hyundais that have been plying this route for years and they are unreliable and the shock absorbers are shot. So you’ll be certain to have a bone-crunching ride, but there’s also a chance you’ll break down in the middle of nowhere and an even better chance that you’ll get stuck in the mud and have to disembark while the driver figures out what to do — usually just rev the engine and have a bunch of people push.
Don’t forget that crappy old buses in Laos aren’t air-conditioned and it will be a constant balancing act between having the window open and a face full of dust or the window closed and a stifling bus full of people vomiting.
So how long does this fantastic journey take? Well it depends on a lot of things. When we undertook this journey by motorbike, it took 11 hours from Muang La, 28 kilometres north of Udomxai, to Phongsali. This included one small break for an omelette and an hour or two wait at a section of roadworks. We travelled at between 20 and 30 kilometres per hour for almost the whole way. There were a few paved sections, but these were a tiny portion of the journey.
By bus, times are largely dependent on whether you get stuck or not, but in the wet season you should bank on getting bogged at least once. From Udomxai the journey allegedly takes 10 hours and this sounds about right. The buses take the winding, rocky road at some speed and kick up enormous amounts of dust as they pound across what looks like the surface of the moon.
In 2010 the Lao government decided to start paving the road to Phongsali and we can confirm that work is underway; but if they continue at current pace it won’t be complete until about 2030, such is the slow rate of progress. There are strange paved sections in the middle of nowhere that stretch for two kilometres and then abruptly end. Some small towns along the road have their main road paved. The road from south of Boun Neua is paved as is the road from Boun Neua to Phongsali, but this really is of little consolation as the rest of the road is so bad that it will take all day to traverse.
So what of the scenery? If you’re lucky enough to escape the dust and pull over on the side of the road, there are some truly magnificent sections of scenery along the way with a mix of virgin forest, regrown forest and slash and burn agriculture. The valleys and peaks seem to stretch endlessly in some sections making for great photo opportunities.
So the road to Phongsali really is a killer. And that leads to the question of whether it is worth the effort. It’s a tough question to answer, but one we’ll attempt to do so… in a later post. Stay tuned.
By Adam Poskitt
Last updated on 30th January, 2015.