Middle of nowhere lunch stop:
Made it through Ban Boun Tai, Ban Yo, & Ban Boun Neua, with several brief stops at villages in between for verbal messages to be passed. The road between the latter two was paved - it leads to a locals-only border crossing into China. Almost all passengers alighted at the Ban Boun Neua bus station, where there are onward connections to Ou Tai, Mengla (China), Phongsaly & Yao Fang (somewhere within Phongsaly province - anyone been there before?).
Beyond Ban Boun Neua HWY 19 regressed into a neverending series of unpaved curves hugging the mountain slopes passing even more Akha villages, many marked simply as 'Ban Lak XX' (XX = any single or double digit number). In Udomxai it had come across waterfalls named 'Lak XX' too. Was Lak that a popular name? Puzzled cat would later learn that this 'lak' is the same 'lak' (lit. pole/pillar) in 'lak meuang' (หลักเมือง city pillar), & simply means kilometre marker =P Meanwhile, the setting sun turned the hazy sky into a riot of oranges & purples as the mountains & just about everything else turned black, until Mr Bus Driver turned on the headlights.
There was one single songthaew waiting at the bus station somewhere outside of Phongsaly town as we pulled in well after nightfall. In the freezing darkness the bus was unloaded & the songthaew loaded by torchlight. Mr Songthaew Driver spoke no Chinese, so the cat asked him to let it 'long thii baan phak Viphaphone yuu kai paisanii' (ลงที่บ้านพัก Viphaphone ยู่ใกล้ไปรษณีย์), dropping the 'L' & 'R' in an attempt to turn garbled Thai into garbled Lao. Surprisingly it worked. But the songthaew didn't.
Halfway into town there was a tyre puncture, & Mr Songthaew Driver turned it into a vehicle mechanic training session - by torchlight - for his teenage son. Things didn't go smoothly. Mr Songthaew driver was in a foul mood & dumped a young Lao guy & the cat somewhere on the main street, demanding 5000kip for what should have been a 3500kip (according to locals) ride. The difference was about US$0.16, & young Lao guy was pretty indignant...shows how far a dollar can be stretched in this place?
Young Lao guy was from out of town & equally clueless as to where we were. With its Maglite & some backtracking the cat found Viphaphone Hotel - the songthaew had overshot it. Its heart sank as the shutters were halfway down & the place appeared to be closed, but this turned out to be the local way of keeping out the biting cold. Once inside, the cat was greeted by the first bespectacled Lao it had ever seen, a tall young guy who spoke Thai & had visited Singapore before...!