3 days in 50 seconds

What to do when Google can’t do a routeplan

When it comes to planning ones travels I belong to a spoiled generation. Wherever I have travelled until now, even in remote areas of Uganda, Borneo or Indonesia, it has been possible to find a way of getting to my destination while sitting thousands of kilometres away in front of my laptop. Information can typically be found via local agencies that pop up on google, forum threads by other adventurers sharing their experiences on thorntree or by picking up a Lonely Planet for the area. However, in this case the most northern city described in Lonely Planet was hundreds of kilometres away of our starting point, googling a variety of villages in the area yielded absolutely nothing and trying to find local bus schedules online for routes in remote Laos – if such even routes even existed – didn’t work out very well.

We did however manage to find a source on a dubious old forum stating that from time to time a small plane flew from Vientiane to Phonsali, this would bring us just 200km south of our planned starting point, but the link for the specific airline was dead. Lonely Planet’s website furthermore stated that “at the time of writing neither of the country’s airlines are running flights here”. Looking further into this connection, we did however manage to find a PDF of a flight schedule for this route run by Laos Skyway. The route didn’t appear on the airline’s website. To make things stranger, it happened that the only way of contacting this agency was via Facebook. To our surprise someone answered our message within a few days via the chat, asking what day we wanted to travel and what our full names were.

Taking a chance

Highly suspicious of whether this company was an airline with real planes, and if this flight did indeed go to the requested destination, we booked two tickets via Facebook and bought our “regular” tickets from Copenhagen to Bangkok and further on to Vientiane – from which this mysterious flight would supposedly leave on the 21st july.

4 months later we stood in Vientiane airport. At this point we were extremely excited to see whether a plane would indeed leave the next morning heading to Phonsali, perhaps even with room for Mr. Andersen and Mr. Alkestrup? After a good night of sleep with the communist flag waving strongly in the wind outside our door, we headed to the Airport in a Tuk-Tuk crossing our fingers that we wouldn’t have to find alternative ways of traveling the next 900 km north. To our pleasant surprise and as it often turns out, everything was indeed under control. Lao Skyway was a real company, although safety measures surely wouldn’t qualify for international flights, they did provide the most important thing: A plane that would take us to Phongsali. As we were driven to the runway a real feel of adventure started pumping. What met us would make Indiana Jones proud. 5 rows of seats crammed behind one another, luggage thrown in the bag behind a flimsy net and a 1-rotor engine in front that sounded like a lawnmower. As I sat down in my seat right behind the pilot he turned around with strange look in his eyes that surely wanted to ask “where are you guys heading?” but limited by my Laos capabilities and his English vocabulary he simply let out a worried smile and looked back on the dashboard.

A plane the size of a sardine box

As the plane took off with a screaming roar we passed endless green forests, twisted rivers and tiny villages for the next two hours. If you like me, haven’t travelled with what would qualify as a sports-plane, it’s an amazing experience. Since these planes fly in just a few hundred meters altitude,  small houses, cars and even humans can be observed while gliding past making the flight just as interesting as driving through a foreign country. After a few hours, the plane landed in Phonsali “airport”, that turned out to be a tiny building on a grass field.

The world’s most LEAN airport

Crew from the nearby city drove to the airport and opened the building as the plane from Vientiane arrived twice weekly, and once we had picked up our luggage they whipped the floor and locked the door again. That’s how you run an airport business the lean way.  One of the employees spoke a bit English, and as we explained in what direction we were heading, he was so kind to drive us into the city and inform us that there was a bus leaving tomorrow morning heading North! If anything, this was yet another proof, that being able to plan almost any travel from home, sometimes limits us more than it frees us. Because we are so used to having a good grasp of how to get from A-B even before we go, I caught myself in being unnecessarily worried of “can it even be done?” after we had selected our starting point. The truth is, that when traveling in even the most remote areas that no travel book or forum has bothered to describe, there are always helpful people around.

And so it happened, two long bus rides and another sleepover at a Chinese guest house later, we arrived at the very  northern section of Nam Ou River.

The journey was about to begin.

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