2211206 route in grey, today's route in blue:
Phongsaly to Hat Sa by bus, & slow boat down the Nam Ou river to Muang Khua...
At 7000kip the daily bus to Hat Sa would be the cheapest (& shortest) of all bus rides the cat took. Once again, the usual seat-first-ticket-later strategy applied. Next to the ticket office, a little shop sold small Akha shoulder bags & bottles of liquor coloured a beautiful apple green. Didn't get to ask about the colour, but a clue might lie here - in the Tai Lue laomeow consultants' village, water is purified for drinking by boiling it with some sort of 'sticks' that gives it a greenish tinge.
Across the open space near Yu Houa Guesthouse from where the Hat Sa bus leaves, a flight of steep stairs leads up to the back of the market. Pieces of sweet potato fried in batter were going at 500kip each. Like a mother who insists that her kids eat food while it is still hot, instead of giving the cat pieces that had been sitting in the cold, Mrs Sweet Potato Seller made the cat wait while she fried two new pieces & threw in a piece of fried batter for free with a big fat smile =)
Standing out from & a full head above the mostly middle aged male crowd of fellow bus passengers was a tall striking young Lao lady in jeans. In Phongsaly most women wore pants instead of the sarong-like sinh, & the cat blended in almost perfectly with its trackpants-like bottoms...until the requisite ID check blew its cover - everyone stared in surprise at the bright red 'little red dot' passport that the cat produced when asked for its Lao ID card.
& then we were off, leaving behind a bunch of people who had turned up too late to fit onto the bus, & with the cat's feet resting on a box of no-idea-what & the window next to it kept open so that the boys hanging from the door could pass their arms through to cling on to the bus. It was a Saturday, & they were heading back from school in town to their village.
Phongsaly is stunning in the early morning during the cold season - like many high altitude places in Chiangrai province, the surrounding valleys overflow with clouds that form a vast sea of white interrupted only by dark 'islands' of mountain peaks. Unfortunately the cat hadn't thought of making one last trip up to the Viphaphone rooftop nor of getting a window seat on the right side of the bus, hence no photos. Watching the sun rise over the sea of clouds from the top of Phou Fa should be spectacular, like along the Ban Yafu-Ban Jator trail & at Phu Chi Fa in Chiangrai.
The bus descended along a winding dirt road, entering into the sea of clouds. Visibility was down to single digit metres, & condensation on the windows didn't help, but all the water ensured the cat's first ever dust-free journey on an unpaved Lao road in the dry season =P Halfway the boys jumped off the bus & disappeared into the whiteness, & some villagers emerged from the clouds as if by magic to unload stuff from the bus, before vanishing altogether. Surreal.
Descended through even more of the whiteness until another village appeared. Here another stop was made, & almost everyone got off for a toilet break along the side of road, & then got on again. The bus made a short final steep descent & in a couple of seconds came to a halt where the road ended at the river - the toilet stop had been at the uphill end of Ban Hat Sa proper!