My last morning in Phonsavan, Laos I awoke to a very heavy fog sitting over the city, and at a brisk 10 C, I was excited when the temperamental water heater in my shower decided to work properly. Hot water and free breakfast; life is good! I was just about to receive my greasy eggs when my ride arrived twenty minutes early. The blue tuk-tuk pulled up in front of the hotel and insisted I must hurry because I was late.
The chilly tuk-tuk ride to the bus station was shared with two Kiwis and seemed to be about three times the distance I remembered traveling when I arrived in town a few days earlier. I zipped up the cheap winter jacket I had bought in Hanoi, which embarrassed me by continuously leaking feathers from it. Every time I moved, or breathed, a little burst of downy white feathers escaped. The molting jacket went perfectly with my flip-flops that have stained the bottoms of my feet blue.
A real bus, not a minivan, was to take me to Vientiane. I thought this would mean my ride would be slightly more comfortable and less squished, and have scheduled toilet and food breaks, but it would be slower because full-sized buses can’t whip around the winding mountain roads quite as quickly. I remembered the tour agent Mr. Yang assuring me that this bus took the shortcut to Vientiane, and it would arrive in only seven hours. I had previously been told that it was always a 10-hour drive.
The ticket man at the bus station gave me my real ticket, and I immediately noticed the cost was 110,000 kip, not the 160,000 kip Mr. Yang charged me. I was assigned seat #1, and I received a bag with a bottle of water, a chocolate bar, and a bar of cake filled with red stuff. Yummy breakfast! A Lao man came onto the bus muttering something about falangs (foreigners). He was looking for the two Kiwis I had arrived with because apparently they had taken the wrong tuk-tuk and were on the wrong bus at the wrong station. I asked him if I was on the right bus, and he said, “No, yes, stay.” I hoped I ended up somewhere fun! A new tuk-tuk arrived to swap lost falangs, and it was the two Swiss girls with whom I had shared the minivan to Phonsavan. I said hello, and they stared at me blankly and walked to their seats.
The road to Vientiane started out smooth and flat surrounded by very small mountains, pastures with cows, and people going about their daily lives. Then we hit our first zigzag curved incline, and I knew the flat land was behind us. Midway up the mountain we stopped to let off two drunk older men in army uniforms. One stumbled and fell into the ditch. They exchanged some words and laughs with the bus driver and his helper. They reminded me of the laughing, gibberish-talking aliens from Men in Black.
Soon after, we passed a pickup truck flipped over onto its roof and five men on motorbikes surrounding it, all talking on their cell phones.
We continued winding our way up and down the mountains at a very fast pace. The younger Lao man across the aisle started to vomit in his plastic bag. The woman who sat next to me, the driver, and helper had a brief conversation using the word falang many times. Then they all laughed. As a result of their exchange, the driver’s helper put on some loud music to cover up the sounds of retching. A bit like a courtesy cough when you fart, I guessed.
We passed another accident. This time two pickups filled with people and animals had collided. There were bits of the broken vehicles all over the road. An old man sat in the ditch on the truck seat with his head in his hands.
I suddenly remembered I had some motion sickness tablets in my bag that I had purchased after an exceptionally rough boat ride in southern Thailand. After that trip, I vowed to keep some gravol type tablets in my bag; not for me but for other people. “Sabaidee, hello?” I asked. I showed the sick man and his seat mate the tablets and rubbed my tummy. Yes, they both nodded. The man who shared his seat thanked me in English.
We stopped in the middle of nowhere for several people to get off, pee in the bushes, and throw out their bags of vomit. In retrospect, I find this very strange because 2 minutes later we stopped for 30 minutes in a little town, Ban Thasy, at a real rest stop with toilets, a restaurant, and a little store. I was not hungry after listening to all the sick people on the bus, so I only bought a small bag of potato chips which promised to be American flavored cheese and paprika. I don’t remember the last time I tasted anything “American”, but these chips were not it.
After the rest stop, we turned off the main road onto an even worse road straight up the mountain. This must be the shortcut, I thought. The road was so bad for several kilometers that the driver stayed well below 10 km/h. We passed the biggest pothole I had ever seen in my life. It was so large I don’t think it could be called a pothole; it was more like a crater with a strip of pavement on the rim. Parts of the road were so bad that someone had made a side path on the shoulder so we could go around the road.
We made another stop, and a woman got on to sell her snacks. She had corn on the cob, and the driver excitedly bought some. I’d never seen, or had I imagined in my wildest dreams, that I would ever see a bus driver drive one handed while eating corn on the cob. The lady in the seat next to me had a large bag of snacks with her and kept pulling out different things and insisting I take some. I tried to refuse politely, but she was very persistent. It was hard to refuse snacks from a smiley old lady who looked like someone’s beloved grandmother. For some reason, I had the urge to hug her, but I resisted.
At Paksan, we came to a fork in the road and a major stop for people and goods to be loaded off and on the bus. Two minutes after we pulled away from Paksan, the driver’s helper pulled out his list and he, and the driver exchanged angry words. An emergency U-turn was made, and we were back at the bus stop. What had we forgotten? To let five falangs of the bus! Silly, lost falangs. I said goodbye to the Swiss girls as they got off, and again, they stared at me blankly.
We arrived in Vientiane at about 5:15 pm, almost nine hours after we had left Phonsavan. Mr. Yang is a fibber. The tuk-tuk drivers crowded around as I waited for my bag to be unloaded. The tuk-tuk driver who did most of the talking kept insisting it was 30,000 kip. I laughed, when I was here the week before it was only 20,000 kip. “No, not possible,” he said, like it was the most ridiculous thing he had ever heard. After a lengthy discussion, he agreed to give me a deal and charge me 20,000 kip. I got into the back of a tuk-tuk with two Lao men and their large sacks of grains and vegetables. As soon as I heard the driver use the word falang, and the other passengers laughed, I should have been more concerned. I’ve seen that look before, usually right before someone has ripped me off.
As soon as we exited the parking lot and turned the opposite direction from town, I knew the fun was about to begin. Thank goodness the GPS on my tablet works without WiFi. I tracked my progress on my map app and saw we did a nice large loop around the city to drop off the other passengers. At least, I was getting a free scenic tour of Vientiane and the surrounding communities. Some people would have paid good money for this kind of tour. As I watched women going about their daily lives, sweeping, cooking, laughing with their children, I thought the tour could be called “The Real Housewives of Laos” and include a stop at a home for a cooking lesson. And I was getting all of this for the bargain price of 20,000 kip!
The setting sun turned blood red in the sky, and we turned back towards the town in the right direction for my stop. An hour after we had left the bus depot, we pulled up two blocks from where I needed to be let off. The driver refused to go any further because two monks had flagged him down, and they wouldn’t share the back of the tuk-tuk with a woman. When I paid my driver, I gave him a 50,000 kip note, and he gave me back 10,000 and said “Thank you!” I smiled as sweetly as I could and braced myself for the pending conversation. “No, we agreed 20,000 kip for the ride.” He insisted we had agreed on 40,000. He said, “No, not possible. I drive so far for you.” I explained I had been to Vientiane before, and I knew that it should have taken about 10 minutes to go where I wanted. “No, not possible.” This conversation went on for a few more minutes and due to fatigue, hunger, and boredom, I relented and agreed to pay 30,000 kip. What a deal!
Long bus rides, being ripped off by tuk-tuk drivers, friendly old women, lost and confused tourists, a couple of laughs, and some amazing pictures; just an average day of travel in southeast Asia, and I wouldn’t change a thing!
P.S. I did finally get some real food. I hit up the night market in Vientiane and had a bunch of meat skewers and spicy rice on a stick.