Descending in to Luang Prabang reminded me vividly of flights into and within Nepal. Dramatic hill ranges, covered in verdant foliage, wispy bands of mist, as far as the eye can see. Holding my breath, afraid to look, as the hills are near enough to touch, yet unable to take my eyes away from the compelling scene. These Asian hills are iconic. I first saw these in China, rumpled layers of green folding into each other, steeply reaching skywards.
Such was the scene just before the first days of 2015, as our little plane navigated carefully through the hills down onto Luang Prabang’s runway, the sun nestling on the hilltops, as passengers spilled out of our delayed flight into the new terminal building and to the “visa on arrival” queue.
It had been 13 years since I last visited Luang Prabang, in fact since I first visited Luang Prabang if truth be told, back when I was living and working in Nepal in January 2002.
Funnily enough, I travelled from Myanmar via Bangkok last time too, though my transportation from Bangkok was considerably different, and that I realise is really why it has taken me 13 years to come back.
Back in 2002, I took the overnight train from Bangkok’s Hualamphong train station up to Nong Khai on the Thai Lao border. This was my first experience of overnight Thai trains and they certainly provided a high benchmark to reach. Perfectly safe for a lone woman traveller, with each set of seats transforming as evening fell, into a couchette type of bed. Crisp white sheets were provided by the train crew and each “bed” was separated by a little blue curtain. With my small bag with passport, money and the usual valuables attached to my wrist and secured under my pillow I felt perfectly safe and was able to sleep soundly.
I woke a little before we drew slowly into Nong Khai in the early morning sunshine and followed the band of folks heading over the Friendship Bridge into Laos, getting our visas at the booth on the Thai side of the bridge and catching one of the tuk tuks into Vientiane.
I spent the day exploring Vientiane and that evening met up with folks from the Laos office of the organisation I was working for then, included in a supper they were having near my guest house. I had been planning to travel onwards and was glad to have the chance to ask them critical advice for the next part of my trip. I planned to head the following day to languid Luang Prabang, with its old world charm, a gem situated at the confluence of the Mekong and the Nam Khan River in northern Laos. Surrounded by those dramatic green folding hills and renown for its gilded wats, saffron-clad monks, faded Indochinese villas, and exquisite Gallic cuisine it has almost mythical status. Luang Prabang is a unique place where time seems to stand still.
I am a rather nervous bus traveller and did not relish the thought of ten hours of windiness, hairpin mountain roads and having to hold my breath too often, having left a similar scenario back in Nepal. Similarly, though, I was well used to mountain flights and knew that they too were precarious. So advice from my companions, long time Laos residents, was very welcome.
“Flying is the best way,” I was told. “If you fly into Luang Prabang, they only fly ATRs, so you’ll be fine. They fly Y7s and Y12s into the other small airports, and we are banned from travelling on them.”
I had no idea what an ATR or a Y any number was, but these guys clearly knew their stuff and their advice on the various types of aircraft was important.
“Yes, they don’t maintain the Y7s and Y12s. If they break down or develop a fault, they get repaired, but they are not maintained, so they are not considered safe to fly on” was the expansion.
Sounded wise to me. Armed with that information, I called into a ticketing agent beside the guest house the next morning, and booked a flight for that afternoon.
In my acquired wisdom, I checked with the agent “It’s an ATR?”
“Oh yes, Lao Aviation only fly ATRs into Luang Prabang”, she reassured me.
Happily I booked and paid for my ticket and returned to the guest house to pack my rucksack and prepare for my adventure to Luang Prabang. In a nice, safe, well maintained ATR. Whatever one of them was.
Just after lunchtime, I turned up at the airport, and checked in. All went smoothly and the check-in stewardess prepared my boarding pass.
“Oh, madam”, she looked up, “just one thing. Today this flight will be on the Y7. The ATR has a technical problem”.
My blood ran cold. This was my worst nightmare. I could not feign ignorance. Only the previous evening I had been very clearly told that the Ys were not safe. I knew, and everyone knew that I knew, that I would be flying against Embassy and organisational advice.
Tentatively I ventured, “but I have been advised not to fly in the Y7. I understand they are not maintained?”
“Yes, that’s right” she replied.
The knot in my stomach tightened. I had a choice to make. Fly in the Y7, which was surely destined to crash, and my family would be so cross with me as everyone knew I had been advised not to. Or don’t fly, stay in Vientiane. Or travel by nightmare ten hour hilly bus ride the following day.
“I am sorry,” I replied. “But I have been advised not to fly on the Y7. Please could you cancel my ticket and refund my payment?”
“Please wait ten minutes” she smiled at me.
Relieved instantly that I had made the right decision, I sat down with my disappointed backpack and prepared to wait, and possibly negotiate this refund. I was not in any rush.
So I was surprised when exactly ten minutes later, she was back with a clipboard. Quickest refund in history, I thought to myself.
“Madam” she smiled at me. “Now I can check you in. We have fixed the ATR!”
Suffice to say that I was convinced that flight would be my last and that I was forcing not just myself but a plane load of innocent others, onto an aircraft which only ten minutes before had been too broken to fly. My time was clearly up. We would all be going down together and it would be all my fault. For sure, my family would never speak to me again!
That flight, 13 years ago is one of those I recount as being one of the most frightening of my life. It was not rough, there was no turbulence and nothing at all untoward. It took off and landed without a hitch and whatever had been broken earlier had clearly not caused any further problems. But I was not to know that until we landed safely, and I spent the whole flight tense, gripping the arm rests and hearing every single engine noise and creak, expecting it to herald disaster. I had been convinced my time had come, but it had not. In no time I was on safe ground and ready for my Luang Prabang adventure, trying not to think of the return flight. (Post Script: When I was “fact-checking” some of the details of this post, I discovered that 14 February 2002, only two weeks after my Laos flights, a Lao Aviation Y-12 crashed on the runway while taking off from Sam Neua Airport due to a wind gust; all 15 on board survived, but the aircraft was written off).
This flight 13 years later, into Luang Prabang was in fact much rougher in terms of turbulence. We seemed to encounter a few bumpy weather systems en route and it seemed to me that there were more cranks and clangs, and sideways and random shudderings than are usual on a flight, and certainly too many for my liking. But it too landed without incident into a very different Luang Prabang Airport, now considerably expanded in its status as an international airport.
The visa queue was long, but efficient and in no time I was through with my little travel bag looking for my tuk tuk driver, Mr Tupa to take me up to the getaway retreat in the hills. I could not see my name at all on the signs, but I did spot the logo of my place, with “Celita” underneath. I went up to the holder of the sign and said “Celita? Philippa?” and was met with a smile of agreement. And you are Mr Tupa? I asked. YES! He beamed back at me!
A quick visit to the Ladies prior to the drive into the hills revealed something quite inexplicable. A number of young women with their suitcases open, pulling out different attire, leaning in their underwear against the cubicle doors and falling inside when they opened, giggling and regaining footing before throwing the travel clothes back into their backs, snapping them shut and returning to the arrivals area.
Mr Tupa led me over to his tuk tuk and off we went up into the hills, as the light rapidly faded from the sky, rattling over the dusty, bumpy track. Little lights of Luang Prabang town twinkling far below us, the waxing moon and emerging stars twinkling far above as we headed through the forests away from the 21st century and the last days of 2014. Already I was promising myself that I would not wait another 13 years until I returned to Luang Prabang.