I never knew how a simple bus ride could be an illuminating cultural experience until we boarded the bus from Vang Vieng to Vientiane, Laos. We’d avoided the tourist offices touting “cheap” minibus rides to Vientiane and headed straight for the local bus station, where the six-hour bus ride cost us about $2.
We’d arrived at the station about 15 minutes before take off, which was really good for Ben and me. Typically we’re careening through the parking lot five minutes after the bus/train/boat/plane is schedule to depart. So once we’d purchased our tickets we found a wooden bench under the shady thatched-roof shed that was the bus station and sat down, thinking that surely no one, not even the bus driver, would arrive this early. So we were surprised when the man behind the counter grunted at us and pointed towards a bus.
“Bus,” he said.
“Oh, to Vientiane?” we asked.
His reply was to simply pick up our bags, walk over to the bus, throw them into the storage compartment, and motion for us to board.
We climbed the stairs to find a bus jam-packed with locals. I know, a bus in Laos full of Lao people?? How weird! But it is weird, really. Because in S.E. Asia, there are two economies: one for the “real” people and one for tourists. Most restaurants have two menus, one with wildly inflated prices. All street vendors and store owners quote prices at least three times that which they’d quote a local. AT LEAST. And when it comes to transportation, very few tourists trek out to the local bus or train station, instead opting for more comfortable rides offered by tourist agencies. If you do happen to make it out to the local station, they offer “VIP” or “Deluxe” tickets, meaning your ride will have air-con and make fewer stops, but really meaning it’s the bus for tourists. But Ben and I didn’t pay that extra VIP dollar. And we were genuinely surprised to be confronted with a busload of Lao people, instead of a busload of tourists, like usual.
The bus folks stared at us momentarily before resuming their previous activity, namely, grabbing fistfuls of sticky rice out of a plastic bag being passed around and shoving it into their mouths.
A family towards the front of the bus was molding the communal sticky rice into little bowls with their fingers, digging their hands into another plastic bag full of some sort of meat bits and green leaves, and placing a dollop of the mixture into their makeshift bowls before downing the whole thing in one bite. The undesirable bits of meat they’d flick into the aisle. Ben and I gave each other this-is-going-to-be-interesting glances before squeezing down the middle.
Did I mention the bus was packed? There were exactly two seats left. I smiled at a young woman as I sat down in the vacant seat beside her; she warily smiled back and hugged her parcels a bit tighter. I tried to figure out a way to fit my lanky legs into the small space between our seat and the one in front of us. It didn’t take me long to realize that it was simply not physically possible. The woman watched bemusedly, laughing when I gave up and just stuck one leg out into the aisle. I looked back to see that Ben, a few rows behind me, was experiencing similar difficulties.
Just because there were technically no seats left doesn’t mean that we would be the last people to get to Vientiane that afternoon. No! That is not the Lao way! Before we even left the station, a dozen more people had crammed onto the bus, sitting on boxes in the aisles and squeezing three to a seat. Apparently buses in Laos do not get “full” nor do they stop selling tickets when they run out of seats.
Our journey got off to a rough start as apparently no one had thought to fill up the gas tank before loading the bus with people. We rolled into a nearby station, but the power wasn’t working in the city that day (this happened in every city we visited in Laos), so the gas pumps wouldn’t pump. Eventually some guy burst out of the woods carrying a plastic container full of what I assumed was petrol. Whatever it was, it enabled us to officially get on the road.
The four rotating fans attached to the bus’ ceiling, manufactured circa 1975, did little to help the sticky heat. My legs stuck uncomfortably to the light-green leather of the seats. What I really don’t understand is how all S.E. Asians wear long pants and coats all the time – they see this as their “cold” season! At one point I looked back at Ben to find him drenched – his hair wet, his shirt sweat-stained – and cursing under his breath, before I noticed that the Lao man beside him was wearing a wool hat and seemed perfectly comfortable.
As we ventured out into the beautiful Lao countryside, we kept stopping at small, dusty villages along the road and picking up MORE people. At first I thought that they were just hopping a ride to the next village, but it didn’t take me long to realize that, nope, they were in for the long haul. People hung out of the bus doors (flapping open the entire trip as no one bothered to close them), sat on top of one another, squeezed onto the aisle and the stairs of the bus, sitting on bags or the floor. We were so packed in, I couldn’t have moved if I wanted to: my legs were straddling my backpack, wedged in on one side by a woman, on the other by a giant plastic bag of who-knows-what on which two men sat.
At one point in our journey we stopped on the side of a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. A man at the front of the bus made an announcement and people started to unload. We were completely confused: what was going on? We can’t be there yet. We’re in the middle of the jungle! Then I saw a woman hike up her skirt, squat on the ground and PEE IN FRONT OF EVERYONE. I looked around to see that everyone else was peeing too! Just on the side of the road like that, all around the bus, no qualms about it. While I was initially appalled, and can’t say that I joined in the fun – really, what’s the harm? Everyone has to admit they’ve pulled over and peed during horrible family road trips. Might as well pee in front of a busload of strangers! Am I right?
We arrived at the crowded Vientiane bus station and piled off the bus. It was like watching a clown car unload. We were stiff, sore and sweaty, but after avoiding the typical tuk-tuk and hotel hawkers, our first order of business was hunting for an acceptable guesthouse. Our first stop was the cheapest option in the city at about $5/night. In most places in Laos, $5 will buy you a decent room, but in Vientiane, it was a total stinking hole. We suffered through one night there, but became convinced that the swarms of mosquitoes hovering above the beds were infested with malaria. We decided to switch guesthouses the next day. We’ve never before switched rooms while in a city, and based on the hovels we’ve previously subjected ourselves to, you can imagine how bad this one must’ve been. We found another one just down the street for about $9/night. It was only after we’d moved in that we discovered the human turd floating on the floor of the shared bathroom. We ended up staying anyway – a testament to the conditions we’ve learned to tolerate on this trip, and how cheap and lazy we really are.
If you’re ever traveling through Laos, you’ll sooner or later find yourself in Vientiane. This isn’t because it’s a particularly attractive destination in itself, but, as the national capital, it serves as the necessary stopover en route to most locations.
Vientiane is the quietest capital city I’ve ever encountered. The traffic is slow and sparse; the atmosphere is relaxed. We didn’t do too much during our two days in Vientiane. There isn’t really much TO do. Sure, there are a few wats and museums, but none really piqued our interest enough to visit. We did have several errands to run to prep for our trip into Vietnam.
We cheated a little bit. One of our first errands was to the Lao Airlines office, where we booked a flight to Hanoi, Vietnam, instead of taking the budget-conscious bus ride, even though the flight was six times the price. But listen! We had reasons. First of all, it would have been a 24-hour ride through topsy-turvy Lao mountains instead of a mere one-hour puddle jump. Even still, that wouldn’t have been enough to convince us to shell out.
Our first day in the city, I’d asked the guesthouse receptionist about tickets for the bus ride to Hanoi, despite reading bad things about the ride during my research. A guest who was checking out overheard me.
“Man, are you talking about the bus ride to Hanoi?” he asked.
“Yeah, have you done it?”
“Yes. Don’t do it! Trust me. I’ve been traveling for five years. It was the worst bus ride of my life. Fly if you can. FLY!”
At first I was skeptical. I mean, he was one of those weird travelers with the dreadlocks and the fisherman pants and the musty smell. Then I realized that if even THAT guy is telling me I should fly, I should probably fly. Based on our own experience with Lao buses, we allowed ourselves a little splurge to avoid what would’ve been the second, and far more uncomfortable, 24-hour bus ride of our trip.
Even the nights in Vientiane are quiet. Laos has a curfew of 11:30, so most of the bars shut down around then. Happy hours around here often start before 4:00. There’s always talk amongst those in the know of slightly out-of-the-way discos that stay open late, but we had neither the energy nor desire to seek them out.
We wandered the riverside restaurants and market, picking up Beerlaos on the way. At one stop, I saw a guy selling young green coconuts for people to buy and drink the milk. I walked up to the stand and motioned that I’d like one. He picked it up, tossed it to his friend who proceeded to violently whack at the top with a machete. Once the guy had punctured a hole in the coconut, he stuck a pink bendy straw in it and handed the whole thing to me. I was quite pleased.
Turns out that actual coconut milk is pretty gross and tastes like sour water. Neither Ben nor I enjoyed it much.
“Great, so now what are we going to do with this giant coconut?” I said, holding it away from me distastefully.
“Uh, we’re gonna smash it,” Ben replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“There’s no way you’re going to be able to crack that thing open.”
“What do you mean?? I could crack it open if I want to, I’ll tell you that much,” Ben said, now viewing it as a challenge.
“Ben, that other guy had to take a machete to it to make one tiny hole!”
My protestations didn’t stop him from hoisting the coconut above his head and throwing it against the cement with a manly roar. After two attempts, he realized that he’d only succeeded in spraying himself with coconut milk. Also, people were staring.
Upon our return to the guesthouse, we realized we were out of water. An unfortunate reality of traveling in S.E. Asia is that you can’t drink the tap water. Honestly, it’s a gigantic pain in the ass because you can’t even brush your teeth with it. So that night, Ben had to run out to find a mini-market that happened to stay open past curfew to buy a bottle.
Wandering around at night as a single guy, Ben learned that those same drivers that harass us with calls of “tuk-tuk? tuk-tuk?” during the daytime moonlight as dealers and pimps. When Ben declined their offers of “hashish? opium?” they quickly changed gears and whispered, “lady?”
He refused the creepy tuk-tuk drivers/dealers/pimps only to be approached by actual women (or nearly-women) on the backs of motorbikes. “You want friend?” they’d say. Ben was solicited no less than four times in the span of two blocks. He didn’t come home empty handed, though, as he was successful in his quest for bottled water.
The next day we flew to Hanoi, Vietnam, in the smallest plane I’ve ever been in. After our relaxing time in Laos, Vietnam was a huge shock…