The Road to Nong Khiaw

IMG_9425  On the morning of my trip from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw, I am running late, and in my haste to order breakfast, I do not think to specify that I want my egg hardboiled instead of soft.

I do not think to question why the server hands me a tiny spoon, or why my breakfast arrives in eggcups, if anything, thinking it a tad bit quaint. By the time I realize the truth it is too late, and the shell is peeled in a way that renders it impossible to eat without making a giant sticky mess.

I curse myself for not thinking things through and wonder if this is a Lao thing – to not fully boil their eggs. I wonder if I was supposed to know this and perhaps I’ve committed some sort of cultural faux pas by not tuning in. At any rate, there is nothing to do now besides trying to eat the damn thing.

Although I know the shell is too far-gone, in a moment that seems brilliantly resourceful at the time, I decide to pour the liquid egg over my baguette.

Unfortunately half of it ends up on my plate where it oozes greedily towards the cracked eggshell that I have piled in a corner. Before I know it, they are combined and it is hard to separate shell from liquefied protein, like two long lost, and I must add, rather codependent lovers.

Every time I try to spoon some of the mess I’ve made into my mouth, at least 2-3 shards of shell cling on stubbornly, even when I try removing them with my fingers. In a moment that, in retrospect was rather overdramatic, I despair at the fact that today it seems I cannot win, even against my own breakfast.

I crack the second egg with my spoon, and learn a very important lesson about myself: past experience notwithstanding, I have absolutely no idea how to eat a soft-boiled egg. I decide there and then that I should have gone with my gut and ordered scrambled for breakfast.

After I have hidden my gooey plate of shame under a fruit plate and coffee cup, I return to my room to gather all my stuff. I have been told, that although pickup time is 8:30, the pickup could arrive any time between 8:30 and 9am. If it hasn’t come by 9:15, I am to call my friend who is already in Nong Khiaw.

The pickup arrives at 8:35 am, and I have to admit I’m impressed by their punctuality. I am momentarily confused when I get outside and see, not a minivan, but something that appears to be a cross between a pick up truck and tuk-tuk.

There is a front cab, and benches along the sides of the back for people to sit, covered by a rough tarp-like fabric. The luggage is piled on top.

An American woman I befriended at breakfast, prior to my egg fiasco, sees my confusion, smiles, and tells me kindly that this isn’t actually the minivan – it is the transport to the bus station. I smile back, a little relieved, hand over my bag and climb on.

There are approximately six people in the back already, and room to comfortably fit about five or six more. We pick up another six people. Then another two. And then again another two. There may have even been two more after those two.

When we are all but sitting on each other’s laps, we pick up one last girl, who sits in the front with the driver. There is no room at the top for more luggage, so the driver instructs the two girls at the very back to rest the backpack on the step at the back and hold onto it for dear life. This is how we travel, with a backpack tail, all the way to the bus station.

When we finally reach the station, we find chaos at the Nong Khiaw departure area. There are about 20-30 Nong Khiaw-bound hopefuls and only 13 spots on the minivan. People are visibly agonized over what will happen.

No, I decide. I am on vacation. I am done stressing about egg yolks and minivans and all the rest of it. There are enough things to stress about in life than one full minivan.

Although I had no idea what they were planning to accommodate us, I figured we would manage. So what if I got to Nong Khiaw by nightfall instead of lunchtime? Would it really be so awful?

Soon they bring out a second minivan, and then a third. At exactly 9:35 am, only five minutes late as per the original departure time, we leave for Nong Khiaw.

At first the bumps are occasional, but over time they increase in frequency. The roads are pockmarked by small depressions, as paving does not seem to be a top priority. But to be honest, it doesn’t bother me. In these early miles, the bumps do little to compete with some of the roads I’ve been on back at home.

There’s the one in front of E-block Market, where their original solution was to stick a plant in so that people would avoid the hole. When that didn’t work, the ever enterprising forces that be, decided that placing a police checkpoint barrier trumped actually fixing the thing. It is not clear whether this is a long-term solution or not, but they seem to be in no great hurry to repair it.

There is the other one at the entrance of Vasant Vihar that they fill up daily, but do not pave over or seal,. Each day they fill it, and each evening, it is hollow again. It’s been 2-3 months already, with no clear indication of when it will be permanently mended. It is odd that a poorly paved road can be so comforting so far away from home, but it does.

The roads get bumpier, and soon we find we are spending more time off than on our seats than on them as the driver hurtles uphill and downhill towards out destination.

I appreciate his urgency, as I am dying of thirst, but afraid to drink anything for fear of having to go to the washroom on a bumpy ride. I later learn that there is a prescribed lingo for letting a driver know you want to go to the washroom. If you are a girl you tell them you want to pick flowers. If you’re a boy you tell them you want to shoot rabbits. This amuses us endlessly.

The driver attends to a few calls en-route, and about 2.5 hours in, stops alongside a random house. He goes inside, and has an animated discussion with a woman inside. We are flummoxed as to why he is in there, and what he is doing, but we assume he is in the doghouse with either his mother or his wife.

In the mean time, much to our relief we figure out how to turn on the air conditioning. It is a warm day, and we are all perspiring and dehydrated. The driver returns a short while later and the bumps are crazier than ever in the last stretch before the Nong Khiaw bus station, and for the first time I am finding it difficult to remain stable, reminiscent of my auto rickshaw ride in Jaipur in January. Thank goodness for my failed breakfast: my belly is far from full as we fly through the air.

We are dropped off at a station that looked more or less abandoned. There is barely any traffic on the street, but the backdrop is breathtaking. A few of us are bound to the same yoga retreat, and are relieved to find it is only five minutes before we arrive at our destination: the Mandala Ou resort.

As I wait to check in at the resort, I realize that no messy breakfast, nor transportation hurdle nor anything else in this world is worth the stress that would dilute the peace and calm I feel right now. It is perfect.

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