Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Across Laos to Dien Bien Phu

Across Laos to Dien Bien Phu

'Sai Fah, the boy SUV' joins a caravan on a 3,000-kilometre odyssey from Bangkok to the Vietnamese highlands and a meeting with the Black Thai

Published on November 17, 2007

Across Laos to Dien Bien Phu

Thai Ethnic women in Dien Bien province in the harvesting season

We were setting out from northern Nan province to outback Vietnam via the open rivers, steep, muddy hills and remote tribal villages of Laos. The vehicle at our disposal demanded a leap of faith.

The SUV promised as comfortable a ride as possible considering the terrain ahead, but it wasn't the powerful four-wheel-drive we'd have preferred.

The first test came as soon as we'd passed the Nam Nguen checkpoint and entered Laos. None of us realised that the very next right turn - at Hongsa heading for Chiyaburi - would represent a change in life's course as well as the road's.

The map insisted that there were only 90 kilometres between the towns, so we planned to have lunch in Chiyaburi ahead of the next 117km jaunt to Luang Prabang. We would have plenty of time to appreciate the mountain scenery, we told ourselves.

The passengers and driver got to know each other better as we bumped along the leathery road. The hills of Laos are lush and majestic, the fresh air cleanses the lungs by the minute, and we chatted amiably about what we'd do if we could spend the rest of our lives in such pleasing surroundings.

"I might get up, have a shower and brush my teeth, and then I'd have to think about what to do next," I began. "And maybe I'd have to do the same thing every day."

We had a good city-slicker laugh and kept gazing at the endless mountain ranges.

Our entertaining driver, Phichit Sukphaita, was also head of a television crew documenting the trip. Ten years ago the Tourism Authority of Thailand dispatched him on a 29-day overland trek from Bangkok to Beijing, so he knew what he was doing.

Phichit guided the car through all kinds of rigours - trackless tracks, slippery slopes, a pitching and yawing landscape. When he asked if it was all right to turn off the air-conditioning so the engine would have more power, no one was going to complain.

"This is my wife's car," he revealed. "We love it as if it were our own son, and we even named it - Sai Fah. If she knew what I was putting Sai Fah through right now she'd kill me!"

There were 10 vehicles in our caravan, all paired off in a buddy-system-on-wheels in the event of any trouble.

Trouble arrived at midday. Sai Fah had lost his footing. Our buddy car stopped behind us and out piled Krisana Kaewthamrong, one of the organisers from the tourism agency, to point out which way Phichit should turn. The system worked.

Any calculations we made at the outset were left behind in the murky ruts of the road. Time and space seemed all out of proportion. That 90 kilometres took almost five hours to traverse, and we were seriously hungry by the time we rolled into Chiyaburi at 3.30.

Lunch by the river may have been late but it was really refreshing. There was no time to dally afterward, though, with an even longer stretch ahead of us, including a barge ride across the Mekong River for all of us and our cars.

The road was better on this leg - no more mud swaths or tricky hills - a sure sign that we were on the approach to Luang Prabang, the country's old capital.

The red glow of the sunset set the red dust of the roads in motion, and soon it permeated the inside of the SUV, sticking to the seats and windows. Aunty Noi was getting a little upset in the back.

"It's so dusty in here I haven't breathed for half an hour!" she complained, but it was good-natured griping and we all had a chuckle. In fact, she seemed to be enjoying the trip more than anyone, always chatting and laughing with the locals wherever we stopped, remembering everyone's name and taking their photos.

We reached our hotel in Luang Prabang just after 9. The city is more bustling than it was a couple of years back and the citizens know how to handle visitors better, though the tourists are as laid-back as ever.

We covered the 220 kilometres to Udomchai in just half a day, but it was a full day's drive to the Vietnamese border at Tai Jang, and then, once in Dien Bien province, a 210km jaunt on to our next destination.

The winding byways among Vietnam's northern highlands were slow and gentle, and we had the pleasure of a police escort guiding us.

The long journey ended as we reached the town of Dien Bien Phu, famous for the tremendous battle that raged around it in 1954, when Vietnamese troops defeated the mighty French colonial forces.

The victory - by which independence was won, albeit with the country chopped in two by the peace treaty - is celebrated at several sites, including Hill A1, the Dien Bien Phu Museum and the war cemetery. There are many stories to ponder at each place.

The road ahead led us, finally, to a meeting with the Thai Dam - the Black Thai, sometimes called the Dai - an ethnic group living in a village on the edge of Dien Bien Phu.

We were greeted with elaborate hospitality, amid much singing, drinking and dancing. It surely seemed that Thais everywhere share the same fun-loving characteristics, whether they come from big old Bangkok or a tiny village in the Vietnamese foothills.

In seven days we had covered 2,940 kilometres, and arrived home completely enamoured of Sai Fah, the boy SUV. Our driver swore, though, that he'd never again take his beloved son on a rugged trip like that.

Sai Fah, meanwhile, had done some growing up.

Vipasai Niyamabha

Special to The Nation

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