(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.
(I’m taking time now to post stories about my experiences from my first year in Thailand. They won’t necessarily be in chronological order, but rather what I’m motivated to write about on any given day. This is my first post concerning my 11-day trip to Laos last year.)
On the first day of May last year, I used Uber to move my meager belongings from the place where I was house-sitting to my new apartment outside of Chiang Mai. I had accepted a position to teach at the local primary school in the town, and found a decent-sized studio apartment in a building not far from where I would be working. Not only was it conveniently located, but because of the way my unit was situated in the three-story concrete building, I did not have to deal with direct sunlight heating up my home.
The furnished apartment came with air conditioning, a refrigerator, and a more western style bathroom, with a separated shower (as in not having to stand next to the toilet and get water all over the floor). The property also included a nice swimming pool, beautiful landscaping, and laundry facilities.
Instead of unpacking my belongings and setting up my new place to my liking, I simply threw everything on the bed and the couch, grabbed my backpack and filled it with some clothes, documents, and a book. After taking a quick shower, I mounted my rented motorcycle and headed back into the city. I had booked an early morning flight to Udon Thani, near the border of Laos, and I planned to stay overnight with a friend who lived much nearer the airport than I now did.
It was raining gently the next morning as we walked out on the tarmac to the waiting propeller-driven airplane. Nok Airlines nicely provided the passengers bright, yellow umbrellas to help keep us dry as we waited to walk up the staircase into the fuselage. The flight itself lasted a little less than an hour, and bright, sunny skies were over Udon Thani. I walked into the terminal, looking for the ground transportation that would shuttle me to the border, about an hour north of UT. I found the kiosk for the minivan shuttle, only to discover that I didn’t have enough cash (or at least Thai money) on me, and the currency exchanges weren’t open yet.
A quick moment of panic later, I found an ATM and used my U.S. debit card to take out a couple thousand Thai baht, transaction fees be damned. Then I walked back and purchased the only remaining seat in the minivan.
Fun with Bureaucracy
At the Laos border, I stood in line to exit Thai Immigration, stood in line to submit my application to Laos immigration, where they gladly accepted U.S. dollars for the fee, then stood in line to retrieve my passport with the Laos entry stamp. While in one of those lines, I happened to meet up with two other American guys. One of them had done this several times. “This” being a visa run. My entire reason for coming to Laos was because my Thai tourist visa was expiring, and I had to leave the country to apply for another at the consulate in Vientiane. Since this guy had experience, the other man and I politely asked if we could tag along with him, splitting a fare to the consulate. He agreed, and we were able to bargain with a van driver to take the three of us there for only 100 baht each.
During the ensuing ride, I discovered that neither of these men were the type with whom I would choose to hang out. Both were slightly racist and completely misogynist in their conversation. I decided not to engage them, rather just stared out the window as we drove into the city.
Upon reaching the consulate, we each grabbed visa application forms and started filling them out while shuffling back and forth through the seating that doubled as dividers for the snaking line of people. On the form, I discovered that the consulate required two passport photos with white backgrounds. I had brought my passport photos from the Chiang Mai immigration office with me, because I was prepared.
However, Chiang Mai immigration office requires BLUE backgrounds, so all of my preparation was pointless. I got to the front of the line, ready to plead my case, but was told that I had to get new photos. Fortunately for me, there was a kiosk to take my picture inside the building adjacent the covered, outdoor visa application area. Of course, I had to pay for the new photos, but it wasn’t really much money. Way less than the more expensive scammers set up outside of the gate. I returned to the line and put my application in just a few minutes before the deadline. I was handed a receipt with the number 600 prominently displayed. This was my queue number for the next afternoon when I would return to pick up my passport with my new visa.
No Particular Place to Go
With no plans, no reservations, no clue for the next 30 hours until I picked up my papers, I began walking away from the consulate, looking for two things: lodging and food. I decided to not purchase a SIM card for my phone while in Laos, instead depending on finding free WiFi to aid in my communication. It was hot, of course, and I really didn’t know anything about Vientiane. I checked out a couple of hotels near the consulate, but they were relatively expensive for the quality of the accommodation. Meaning that although they were pretty cheap, they were also pretty unclean and gross.
Instead, I entered a coffee shop with air-conditioning, free WiFi, and an outlet to charge my phone as I looked online and found several hostels were available near the river. I booked one that had decent reviews, finished drinking my iced coffee and charging my phone, and headed out, using my maps program offline. It was a 45-minute walk in the heat, but I was able to get a glimpse of city life in Laos while I was trudging along with my backpack.
After checking into my hostel, I tossed my bag on my lower-berth bed in the sixteen-bunk dormitory. Took a nice, cool shower, washing the sweat out of my t-shirt and underwear while doing so. (Backpackers must learn how to survive cheaply!) After hanging them outside on the deck to dry, I put on some fresh clothes and walked to find myself something to eat and explore. I found a nice night market set up alongside the river, and discovered to my delight that I was in clear line of sight to the cellular towers on the Thailand side, and thus was able to use the data plan on my phone.
After grabbing some noodles, I found a local bar that was on the third floor of a building facing the river. The large room was open on one side to the outdoors, with large fans moving air around. I was able to eventually grab a seat at a small cocktail table next to the balcony. The market below, with its colorful umbrellas and stalls for food an merchandise made for nice scenery, along with the inky black Mekong river reflecting the lights from Thailand. Perfect for enjoying a cold Beer Lao Dark, which I discovered was pretty damned good.
I noticed quite a few other foreigners were in the bar. Probably most of them were in Vientiane for the same reason as I was. I also saw a lot of locals enjoying themselves. One of them in particular caught my eye. She was a pretty woman sitting alone at the bar nursing a bottle of beer, and after several minutes of debating with myself, I asked the waitress to “serve that girl at the bar another of what she’s been sipping on for the last half-hour.” Instead of asking for another beer, she ordered some type of cocktail instead. And then raised her glass in my direction. I tipped my bottle back at her, and wondered if I had just committed an error. But in a few minutes, she walked over and joined me at my table. We talked for a few more drinks, with me coaching her English a bit. She told me that she was trying to teach herself the language while working full-time in a clothing shop and raising two kids. I was impressed that she spoke as well as she did without formal lessons.
When it was time for the bar to close, she asked me where I was staying. I told her it was close, and that I had walked to the bar pretty easily. But she offered me a ride on the back of her motorcycle, so I accepted. I don’t think she understood what I meant when I said I was staying in a hostel, and she looked a little surprised when I had her stop in front of the guesthouse. As I was leaving the next day for Luang Prabang in the north of Laos, there wasn’t going to be time to see her again, but I had her contact information and told her that I would message her when I returned the next week.
I went inside and sat down in the lobby so I could charge my phone again and use the Wifi there, because the signal was better. While I was there, another woman walked in from her night out, and we ended up having a really nice conversation about teaching in southeast Asia. Lydia was from Uganda, and spoke perfect English. She was on holiday from her job teaching in central Vietnam. After about an hour, we both walked up to the dormitory and went to sleep in our respective beds.
Lowering My Expectations
The next morning, I slept in a bit, as the consulate wasn’t going to begin handing out our passports until after 1pm. I noticed with a bit of horror that the cleaning lady was simply changing the pillowcase and refolding the blanket on the next bed over, which had been vacated earlier. Instead of replacing the sheet, she simply brushed it off and went to the next bunk. I decided to not give the place a good review on Hostelworld.com. (Keep this in mind for when you read my later post: “Hydrophobia”. )After collecting my laundry from outside, I showered and packed my bag. I decided to walk back to the consulate, taking a different route from the day before.
Upon encountering a fairly large shopping “mall”, I went inside to enjoy the cool air-conditioning. One of the ladies at a kiosk offered to sell me a belt, which I actually needed. I haggled with her over the price a bit, turning to walk away until she agreed to the reasonable price (about $15 US) that I was holding out for. She punched a couple of new holes in it, so it would still work for me after I lost weight from sweating my ass off in the heat. I then sat down and enjoyed a lovely coffee before heading back out into the sweltering noontime sun.
It turned out that I didn’t need to show up at 1:30 to collect my passport. Being that I was number 600, I ended up waiting for two hours before I was called to go to the window. I found a seat inside the building where the photo booth was, because there was air-conditioning inside. I was able to pass the time by engaging in conversations with other westerners who also had a high queue number. One of these was an Israeli man who lived in the Chonburi province, south of Bangkok. He offered to split his private cab with me back to his hotel, which was in the direction of the bus station I needed to get to, and he told the driver to give me a good price to take me there. I don’t know if it was a good price or not, but it was helpful that I didn’t have to haggle and try to give directions.
Friends in New Places
After purchasing my ticket for the overnight bus, I found that I still had about four hours to kill. The bus station was way outside of town, and there wasn’t anything of interest in sight. The food stalls didn’t really look appetizing, and they didn’t serve beer, so I decided to walk up the road a bit, thinking perhaps I’d find something. After walking about 3 kilometers (I’m stubborn), I came upon a dusty intersection with a few commercial buildings. I spied a bar/cafe across the street. Inside, I was able to get WiFi connection, plug in my phone, and enjoy a cold beer along with some hot food. A small group of locals came in and sat down at a nearby table.
When it was time for me to head back to the bus station, I decided that I better hit the toilet before leaving. While washing my hands at the sink, one of the local guys from the other table came in. He began to ask me the normal questions to which I’ve become accustomed: “Where are you from?” “Where do you go?” “How long you stay?” I answered politely, and mentioned that I needed to get going because it was a long walk back to the bus.
Just then, a very loud noise interrupted our conversation. It was the sound of heavy raindrops reverberating on the metal roof. Not just a few, but a downpour. Shit. I had not planned for this to happen. Now I was looking at a miserable walk in the rain, which was going to soak not only me, but my belongings as well. I walked around the corner of the outdoor restroom to see a monsoon, with sheets of water being pushed by the wind. The voice in my head was whining and cursing. And then the voice behind me said, “You come sit and drink beer with me and my family. This rain stop soon, then I take you to bus.”
For all of the stories you may hear of scam artists and rip-offs in southeast Asian countries, I guarantee you that there are a dozen more of the kindness that these people show to strangers. Pan, his wife, and his brother-and-sister-in-law moved their chairs around to accommodate me and made me feel welcome. Three of them didn’t speak any English, but that didn’t stop them from offering me food and sharing their beer with me. Pan acted as interpreter while I answered questions about America and myself, and asked my own questions about Laos. It was a humbling experience. Pan asked me if I was on Facebook, and if he could add me as a friend. Yes, and yes. I may never cross paths with Pan again in person, but I’m able to share his joy over a newborn baby and other moments in life. I’ll always be grateful to him for that simple act of humanity by inviting me to wait out the rain with him and then taking me to the bus station on the back of his motorcycle.
The bus adventure and Luang Prabang will wait for another post.