January 8, 2019
Chiang Mai, Thailand
(This is the second post in my series about my Laos trip which happened back in May of 2017)
After my nice experience with Pan and the generous offer of a ride back to the bus station, I was feeling pretty good about my trip so far. But then, it kind of turned sour. I had booked a sleeping bus, as it was to take ten hours from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. I don’t recall the amount that I spent for the sleeping berth, but it wasn’t a big expense.
On the bus, I discovered the reason for the modest price. After checking my large backpack, I boarded the bus holding a small bag of personal items. We entered the bus in the middle, and then squeezed our way either to the front or the back of the bus, depending on our berth number. Mine was to the front, and on the left. There was possibly 18″ of space between the bunks on either side of the vehicle, so it was a tight walk with my bag held in front of me.
When I arrived at my numbered bed, this one up top, I discovered that it was already occupied by another man. I quickly checked my ticket against the berth number, and to my horror, I saw that there were TWO numbers assigned to the mattress. Since the other people were waiting behind me to get to their own beds, I shrugged it off and climbed up the small ladder, trying not to bump my head on the ceiling above. I greeted my new “friend” with a smile and said “sabaiddee” (standard Lao greeting). He politely returned the smile and the greeting, then promptly turned his head and body to the window.
I Wish I Was a Little Bit Smaller (I Wish I Was a Baller..)
I then laid myself down on my side of the narrow mattress with my bag between my ankles. Now, I’m not exactly short, but neither am I considered tall by western standards. I stand five feet, ten inches, or 178 centimeters. But I found my feet were flat up against the divider between our bed and the one in front, while the top of my head was firmly pressed against the wall behind me. Lying flat on my back was my only realistic option, however, because attempting to lie on my side with my knees bent would have forced me to spoon with the dude on my left. Turning the other way would push my face into the metal safety rail and my ass into the aforementioned stranger. This was going to be a long, long, ride.
The first part of the drive seemed okay, if not completely comfortable. I did my best to try to sleep, as there were no reading lights, and I didn’t have data to play with my phone. Within an arm’s reach across the aisle, were two French women travelers who were talking to each other. I could make out some of the words, so it was a bit of a distraction from my rigid (non)sleeping position. But after the first hour, we found ourselves being thrown from side to side as the bus began its ascent into the mountains on the twisty roads. More than once, I found myself gripping the metal rail to keep from rolling over it and falling to the floor. I was also bracing trying not to slide to the left into my sleeping partner.
I tried to imagine worse conditions, and the only thing I could come up with was the pictures of the layout of the slave ships bringing unwilling human cargo from Africa to North America 400 years ago. I comforted myself with the following facts: 1) I chose to be here, 2) it was only going to be ten hours, 3) there were no rats, and 4) death by impact of the bus blowing through a guardrail and plunging to the chasms below seemed preferable to death by drowning or sharks if the boat suddenly found itself with a hole in the side.
Break, Brakes, and Breakdowns
About 5 hours into the ride, we stopped in some small, roadside village for a toilet break and some food. Even at 1:00am, the wood and tin shacks were open and lit up to cater to the weary travelers. But what was available was a large selection of dried fish, squid, and other formerly happy sea creatures, now spread out on tables under the light. The smell was overpowering. Fortunately, this was not the only option. The ticket price included a meal at sit-down picnic tables. Here, the choice was green curry over noodles: chicken or pork. It was actually pretty tasty, but I felt bad for one of the French ladies, as she was vegetarian. I think she bought a bag of potato chips for her meal.
We stayed at the rest stop for perhaps 30 minutes, in which time I was able to use the toilet, fill my belly, and stretch my legs. There was a cute little dog wandering around the tables begging for scraps. The two girls and I played with him a bit until it was time to get back on the rolling sardine can.
I’d like to say that the rest of the journey was uneventful, but fate had other ideas. Less than an hour outside of the rest stop, the bus suddenly pulled to the side of the road and halted. The driver and other attendants climbed out to examine some problem in the dark. Other passengers, men and women both, exited to take the opportunity to stretch their legs or relieve themselves along the roadside. Southeast Asian culture seems a bit different than Western culture when it comes to bodily functions in public. Being a bit more conservative, I walked in the inky darkness up the road a piece and around the curve before taking care of my own business.
This turned out to be only the first of perhaps five stops along the mountain road in the dark because of mechanical difficulties. There was a strange grinding noise coming from the rear whenever we slowed down for yet another curve, and the staff continued to investigate the cause, each time deciding to continue. (I don’t believe there was much of an alternative.) The ten-hour trip turned into thirteen before we finally limped into the bus station at Luang Prabang. I hadn’t slept at all the entire trip, though my bunkmate seemed fresh as a daisy when we disembarked from the bus. So, I learned a couple of lessons: 1) think carefully before deciding to book another sleeping bus, and 2) if I do, make sure to buy the whole damn berth.
The adventure will continue in another post.