We spent a forgettable night in Pak Beng, which is a small town (one street about 0.5 km long) on the Mekong River between the border crossing with Thailand at Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. It’s only clain to fame on the tourist circuit is that it is where the downriver/upriver boats stop for the night. We stayed in an adequate hotel (DP Guesthouse) and had a nice Indian dinner at the restaurant across the road.
In the morning we took local bus (40,000 lak/person) to Udomxai. The bus had 20 seats, but had a maximum of about 29, plus assorted cargo (no livestock) at one point. Most of the time we had 20-25 people. The trip took 4 hours. In general the road was in poor shape, lots of potholes and chewed up sections, hills, and sharp curves. The bus springs and shocks were toast so we felt every bump/twist/turn in the roade. Did I mention that the tires were nearly bald as well? My only hope was that the brakes were in reasonably good shape since we were traveling on mountain roads.
We stopped for a bathroom/smoke break along the side of the road (literally) after about 3.5 hours. Based on subsequent bus rides we made this sort of “comfort stop” is standard operating procedure. While the facilities are primitive it beats spending hours on a bouncing bus with a full bladder. We made it to Udomxai with no major issues except for two people who got carsick, one a young girl who also appeared to have asthma. I think that she and her dad were headed to Udomxai to the doctor or hospital. The other was a lady who appeared to be quite old with really bad cataracts.
In Udomxai we stayed at Lithavixay Guesthouse (about $12/night, including a breakfast that is best forgotten). We had hoped to do some trekking and visit some ethnic villages in the area. However, we found out that there is only one tour operator in town and hardly any tourists, and the sights are too far out of town to make it worth visiting on our own. There are nearby villages that you can bike to, but the police stop unescorted visitors, so that was not an option either. There are no good, or even marginal, places to eat in town. Basicall Udomxai is not set up very well for tourism, so we only spent a couple of days there before moving on.
We did see a few sights in town, including a nice supa on top of a hill (Phu That Stupa), a Buddhist monastery (Banjeng Temple), and a home where local women weave fabrics for sale.
We met a high-school age English student at the Phu That Stupa, and met a Dutch guy helping to teach his English class. We volunteered to help teach English for two nights at the Syvilai English Center, where the students were mostly from secondary school.
We found our way to the town weavers and had a nice time with them. When we showed up the ladies, who spoke no English, were having lunch. They invited us to eat with them, and afterward we watched them weave some beautiful designs. Denise bought a nice cotton skirt and scarf, which came in handy for the cold mountain weather.
We left for Luang Namtha early in the morning on January 9. We took a local bus (40,000 lak per person). This was a typical SE Asia local bus, with the additional amenity of Laotian pop music playing throughout the trip. Fortunately, or maybe not, the engine noise was plenty loud enough to drown out the music. The trip took about three hours over mountain roads.