Getting to the destinations I want to photograph usually means gruelling bus rides, forfeiting the comfort of flying to meet new people and dip into the knowledge base of world travel. Negotiating the road towards Luang Prabang in northern Laos through increasingly rugged mountain scenery would probably have been less of an adventure had it not been for the foresight given as free advice.
I’d heard a rumour that an ambush by Hmong bandits along the meandering Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang road was not uncommon until as recent as a decade ago. I was on this route enjoying my window seat view of the valley below and the rising karst mountain landscape and was not expecting an attack from my side of the bus anyway. They’d be more likely to slip down the steep forested cliff on the bus’ offside.
I wasn’t too concerned until, at the next stop, a local man sat alongside me, gaunt, unwashed and noticably perspiring, and placed an odd-looking object wrapped in cloth in the overhead compartment. The barrel end of a rifle poked out… I nonchalantly kept my gaze out across the valley wondering if this man was a ‘sleeper’ for the imminent ambush.
These rumours also didn’t mention the very real possibility of a bus breakdown, puncture, overcrowding, and driving off the barrier-free road down a vast ravine. Our progress was halted at the apex of a bend by an inconvenient but passable landslide across both lanes, requiring the bus approaching us in the opposite direction to pull hard to its left and leave some paint on the steep limestone wall. This, I surmised would be the ambush point.
Our brave driver, tentatively manoeuvred the rickety bus forward to within half-a-metre from the road’s edge. I didn’t know whether looking out of the window or sharing the pain with my suspicious passenger pal was the wisest option. I didn’t remember if the tyres had tread worthy of note either.
We arrived safely in Luang Prabang, able to dispel to fellow travellers, some of the more unsettling rumors. My armed companion slipped off into the bustle of the city.
Luang Prabang is a haven of worship built on a peninsula. Having set myself up for a rough ride (most of it imagined) this was reward indeed for the eight hours of cramped bus travel. On one side, the impressive Mekong River, a wide, swirling cauldron of deadly caramel-coloured water. On the other, its side kick, the Nam Khan languishing close to overflowing, although in a not quite so threatening manner.
A evening stroll down the high street after the bus ride is utterly restful. World Heritage listed (I) buildings in old brick and wood, beautifully carved and polished, reflect a deep maroon colour as the fading light prompts a transformation. The high street closes to traffic, quietening the town even further. Multi-coloured marquees are erected, lit by the sparkle of lightbulbs at every stall and make colourful grottos for bargain hunters.
Giving the streets back to walkers has to be one Luang Prabang’s most endearing traits.
(I) UNESCO World Heritage Convention
© Warren Field 2011