Serpent Across the Mekong: Flight of the Lao Airlines QV601 Xian MA60 Seat 9D

Vientiane to Luang Namtha

Why Luang Namtha, you may ask? Good question. Indeed. the original plan was to go to Luang Prabang, Laos’s old capital, UNESCO World Heritage and the country’s top tourist draw, but the logistics of continuing onwards towards Chiang Rai without two days of put-putting up the Mekong in a canoe seemed formidable, and the wind was finally taken out of my sails by a glowing review on Wikitravel recommending the “best cafe in Luang Prabang, if not all Laos” for, and I quote, “Granola and salad wraps”. Let me repeat: Granola and salad wraps. In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Now I know why the Hmong insurgents still fight the good fight in the remote jungles of northern Laos, and why my only chance was to escape in the same direction.

The online schedule said “MA60”, my e-ticket said “ATR72”. Which would it be? A Lao Airlines ATR-72 took off as I arrived, so I presumed the second turboprop waiting for us was another of the same, but nay: today, I would taking my first ride on the AVIC I Xi’an Modern Ark 60, a reasonably modern Chinese variant of the venerable Antonov An-26 cargo plane. It’s also easily the most obscure aircraft I’ve flown: outside China, Lao Airlines with its 4 planes is the MA-60’s largest customer, and second place goes to “Transporte Aereo Militar” in Bolivia!

Boarding couldn’t have been much simpler, as all pax trooped out the gate onto the tarmac, up the built-in stairs, and aboard the cramped two-by-two seater. Today’s flight was almost entirely full, all falang aside from myself apparently NGO types from a Lao-German forestry program, and the guy next to me their frazzled Lao handler. The garish decor was lifted directly from cheap Chinese buses, and in fact I would swear it’s exactly the same as that used by Sorya buses in Cambodia, causing flashbacks of endless Khmer karaoke. The seat pitch tight enough to keep my knees firmly jammed into the seat in front of me, and while my seat was notionally a window, I didn’t have much of a view since I was next to a propeller pod and its landing gear.

The MA60 noisily spun up its propellers, taxied down the runway and took off smoothly — oddly, this thing seems quieter in air than on ground. The wheels retracted with a clunk, improving my view a bit, and soon we were heading into the hazy clouds, the Vientiane-Luang Prabang road a thin strip amidst the rice fields.

Once in the air, the MA60 quieted down and the flight was uneventful. In-flight service consisted of a semi-dried banana “cookie” and one of those sealed plastic cups of water where the plastic is so rigid that it dents your straw when you try to poke holes into it. The vistas outside got hazier and hazier as we flew north — soon enough, there was naught by gray in sight. Just when I was starting to get worried about whether the pilot could find his way to the airport, the outlines of hills materialized and we U-turned in for a sharp landing.

Luang Namtha’s airport reopened only in 2008 after a total rebuild and the end result, while hardly opulent, is easily up to the job of handling 4 flights a week. It’s a squat little one-story building, with one door for arrivals and one for departures. With no bags to wait for, I stomped right through and hopped aboard a waiting crusty old tuk-tuk, where I was joined by a few backpackers and a Laotian guy in a suit, toting an HP laptop bag.


Serpent Across the Mekong: Morning of the Special Pork Sandwich with Salad and Everything



Take half a freshly baked baguette, kept warm on a bed of coals. Slice it open and smear a generous dollop of pate on the lower half. Add slices of Chinese-style char siew pork, a little ham, a fitsful of julienne-cut Vietnamese carrot, cucumber and radish pickles, a shot of soy sauce, a squirt of chili, a sprig of spring onion and a spray of coriander. Wrap the now-bursting sandwich up with a twist of paper and hand over in exchange for 8000 kip. Devour in culinary ecstasy.

Morning chores thus completed, with the mercury climbing towards 35 C by 9 AM in the morning, I lolled around my air-con hotel room for the rest of the morning before heading off to the airport. VTE has two terminals: a new, reasonably stylish international terminal with the swooping roof lines of a temple, and a domestic terminal with all the charm and panache of a Stalin-era Soviet orphanage. Much to my own amazement, I’d managed to book my flight online at Lao Airlines’ website, and this caused not a little amazement at the terminal as well: the check-in lady had a list of all e-ticketed passengers, consisting in entirety of me, and I was asked to sign this manifest, validate my credit card and get my passport copied before my boarding card was handed over.

(sorry about the crappy cellphone pics)

The landside holding hall is remarkably beaten up, a dusted-over long-closed restaurant on the 2nd floor and a few fans beating humid air in the general direction of passengers sweating rows of yellow plastic bucket seats. Not all were going to Luang Namtha: one announcement stated that passengers for another flight to Xiang Khoung were now asked to proceed to check-in! But our boarding started about half an hour before our flight, with a Commie-era passport and ID card inspection complete with a sign advising passengers to SHOW ALL WEAPONS. After this formality we were allowed to The Gate, where The Coffee-and-Beershop and The Giftshop awaited. Eventually the same lady who’d checked me in sashayed in to slot in blue plastic boards reading “QV601” “LUANG NAMTHA” over a wall lamp and switched in on: it was time to fly the champa-scented skies.