The Morning after the Lao Lao Rice Whisky


I peered at my phone and, when it came into focus, saw that it was time to get up. Then I found that I was already dressed. I jammed my hat on my head instead of brushing my hair, grabbed my backpack and checked out of the guesthouse.

I slipped my sunglasses on as I went outside – although the morning was overcast – and took a motorbike taxi to the bus stop. I was the only falang (Westerner) on the bus, so I knew exactly who the driver and his friend were talking about when they kept using that word in a sniggering conversation. I hid behind my glasses and looked out the window.

It is only a couple of decades since the mountains surrounding the road to Luang Prabang were riddled with bandits; but only the cows which ran into the road at intervals held us up, and the only other people we saw were the women from the villages of subsistence farms who threshed the corn by hand at the side of the road, and the tiny children who ran out and held up dead animals for sale.


One girl had a hare barely smaller than her and a boy had what looked like a rat. I turned away, though. Nausea had been hovering in the background all morning, as it was.

It is a glorious, breathtaking route through the mountains. The road struggles up and spirals round with a surprise after every corner, be it soaring peaks, a snaking river, a deep, deep valley, or a big, honking 16-wheeled truck.

The bus pulled into Luang Prabang in the late afternoon and I shouldered my backpack and struggled off to look for a guesthouse.

© Richard Senior 2015

A Bus to Puno


The bus station was teeming with Quechua families with suitcases-worth of belongings in rainbow papooses which they squeezed through the doors of the buses. There were a few gringo backpackers, too, with the look of the road about them. Touts shouted destinations, barely pausing to breathe. “Arequipa-Arequipa-Arequipa-Arequipa-Aquipa-Aquipa-Aquip-Aquip….” But no one was buying tickets to Arequipa.

I wanted to go to Puno and knew from the guidebook that it would be a full day’s drive.

Will it be a coach?” I asked.

“…Almost,” the guy said.

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I imagined a scrapper with four bald tyres and seats like park benches and filthy windows taped shut; and it was easy to picture, because most of the buses in Lima had been like that. I expected to arrive in the sort of discomfort you feel when you commute on British trains.

It was not so bad, though. The bus cannot have been more than thirty years old – not much more, at any rate – and although it pumped out black smoke and wallowed over bumps, it looked capable of getting to Puno. The buses in Lima never looked as if they would make the next traffic lights.

The single track road stretched for hours ahead on its serpentine way through an endless landscape of plains reaching out to distant mountains in front of mountains in front of still more mountains, chaperoned by a river and flocks of sheep and herds of llamas which grazed beside and blundered right onto the road, forcing the driver to stop.


Sometimes, in the middle of miles of nothing, there was an adobe hut with a collapsing thatched roof which looked like a relic from decades ago, but nearby there was a Quechua herdsman who could surely have lived nowhere else. There were the ruins of an ancient stone village, with a new adobe village abutting it; there were charming little towns, a long way from the Gringo Trail; and then there was Juliaca.

All the gringos stared out the window as we passed through, much as they might at a car smash. It is the scariest city I have ever seen, despite growing up in West Yorkshire. The roads were just mud and boating lake puddles in the bit that I saw: no surface, no pavements at all. Dangerous-looking young men lounged in doorways, scowling from under hoods. My guidebook warned that daytime muggings were common enough, and at night were too frequent to mention.


But Puno is better, in parts. It has a nice Baroque cathedral, photogenic decay and indigenous markets selling colourful fabrics and sandals made from car tyres. It is worth a day of your time.


I arrived, by chance, the day before the festival of La Virgen de la Candelaria and the party erupted all over town next morning. There were street food vendors on every corner and I bought an anticucho (marinated beef heart skewer) outside my hotel and tried to eat it while I threaded my way through the crowds. Scuse me! Scuse… err… ¡Permesso! There were brass bands and flautists and men with big drums they call wankaras. Aymara dancers trooped down the street whirling batons. I wanted to cross but there was never a gap, so I joined the parade and slipped out further down the road. Wankara, someone said.

A very drunk man leaned against a wall in a lane, with his head lolling a few centimetres from speeding mototaxis. Another happily pissed in the middle of the road and people pretended not to notice.

It was like a Saturday night back home.

© Richard Senior 2015

Landscape image: Shutterstock