The absence of people and generally quiet start to the day lulled us into the misapprehension that by day 4 of the New Year celebrations, the old gods had been ushered out and the new starting to settle into their responsibilities. This lasted until after lunch when the previous days festivities kicked back into full swing. While we were getting quicker at winding up the windows, it helped little. The soft top was never designed to keep a bucket of water coming up the window, through the seal and spraying across the windscreen, occupants and anything else that was in the way, including the GPS.
The young kids with their super soakers looked like they were in training to wield and AK47. May be that is why the Americans were so unsuccessful over here. The kids had been trained from such a young age.
The scenery changed as we headed north and entered the mountains which look similar to those photos you will have seen of China. The villages became noticeably poorer, more and more were wearing traditional dress and the never ending rice paddies morphed into slash and burn up the steep limestone hillsides. The crops changed as well: mandarins, corn and a myriad of vegetables, melons and pumpkin. This was reflected in the stuff for sale in the roadside stalls.
The drive was more challenging than in previous days. The road narrow and very windy through the hills and maybe more cars as a result of people heading home after the holiday weekend. Our speed was generally not more than 50kph. There are also big speed differentials between all the traffic. The motorbikes and trucks slow, and cars and SUVs much faster and always on the lookout for an opportunity to pass, safely or otherwise. We are also becoming concerned with the quality of the driving. Its deteriorating the further we go north and have had our first encounters with Chinese drivers. Early in the day a SUV lost control behind us and took out a motorcycle. The bike was a pretty sad state while the rider seemed to be OK.
Later in the day we had to cross a 2000m mountain pass. The shortcut was not on our maps as it had been completed by the Chinese in recent times. At 12% for over 10 kilometers up and then another 10k down it is the steepest road gradient I have ever experienced. (By comparison the maximum road gradient usually found on a highway is 6% - you may find it steeper in short pitches, but not for this distance). Off we set at a rate of knots and were soon down to 2nd gear (a number of the guys were down to 1st on occasions). About ¾ of the way up, we had to pull over as some of the cars were recording +100c temps on their gauges (the coolant boils at a higher temp than water because of the chemistry and the pressure). Ours got to about 92c. A 30 minute wait and we were ready to set off again, but with the fear of what would happen on the way down. The brakes on 1970 MGBs were never known for their robustness. Although they were a vast improvement on the previous model which only had drum brakes on the front. The strategy was a lot of engine braking – The engine and the gearbox sounded as they were going to haemorrhage at times, but we all made it down safely – more than others. A Prado pulled in to where we were resting on the way up. It was coming down and (1/4 of the way at this stage) and smoke was pouring out of its brakes. We suggested to the driver, not to pour more water on the discs to cool them and to lock the gearbox in low, and use the brakes sparingly. Off he trailed with the brake lights glowing brightly. On our way down, a HiLux lost control just in front of us on a sharp bend and ploughed into the embankment. Better than the opposite as there were no guard rails and a very significant drop.
We arrived in Luang Prabang in the same fashion as we had the previous few evenings – sopping wet from the water throwing. But stunned at the beauty of the place. Our hotel, surprisingly called the Hill View was on the edge of town and commanded a panoramic view of town and the mountains on every side. Then the usual ritual: swim (when available), team briefing at 1800 and then off to find dinner.
Luang Prabang was throbbing much the same as Vientiane. So much for the 36 temple and sacred sites – at New Year it followed the rest of Laos and partied.