Well we finally made it into Laos after our mammoth bus journey! And we are exhausted.
After a ten-hour (and excessively bumpy...it appears the road is still being built) overnight sleeper-bus, arriving in Dien Bien Phu at four in the morning, we reluctantly hopped straight onto yet another bus to take us over the boarder and on to Muang Khua.
It's a picturesque route but we'd been warned not to make the trip in hops as you risk getting stranded part way. There is literally nothing -- no facilities or waiting vehicles -- at either boarder posts. And the boarders themselves are separated by at least 3km of no-man's-land. That being said, it did seem to be a populated region...which begs the question...who are these people who live half way between Vietnam and Laos? ...And is there room for the independent state of Smee?
Our first taste of Laos
Whilst there is a certain amount of small town charm -- friendly faces; school children wandering home, books and wooden stools in hand; pretty houses of concrete or brick, topped with a wooden second story; and the odd bun fight breaking out over the sale of those oh-so-sought-after sought bananas -- other than a creaky suspension bridge over the river, there is very little for tourists in Muang Khua. Most travelers use it as a way to break up the ridiculously long boarder crossing.
There is just enough here for an in-and-out stop. There are far more guesthouses than Lonely Planet implies, but fewer that you would actually want to stay in. The cleanest we found was next to the tourist information center; an imposing building, even if a collection of handwritten notes posted on the locked doors took the place of an actual help desk.
You can also disregard Lonely Planet's guidance on money (well most of it*): there are plenty of ATMs and banks here now. Even if the banks are yet to take more than a casual approach to security: one very bored and young looking security guard seemed to be the only precaution taken for the piles of cash laying around or stacked in unlocked wooden cabinets.
There is less in the way of food however. The one restaurant, vaguely equipped for westerners and serving a decent selection of edible food, is down towards the small harbor. But be warned, get there early if you want the banana pancakes** for breakfast...otherwise you will have one disappointed Smee on your hands, swearing revenge against the three Swedes that laid claim to the last ones.
Anyway, enough rambling for today. Next stop, down the river to Nong Khiaw. And good news..no more buses for a while!! Yay! Its even looking hopeful that we will get out of here tomorrow: we discovered that the boat won't leave without ten people, and we have counted seven westerners so far. Fingers crossed.
*Best advice form LP: "if you are arriving from Dien Bien Phu, please relax. This is Laos, and unlike in neighboring Vietnam, hard bargaining is neither required nor appropriate."
**Pancakes: more often than not, literally a cake cooked in a pan.