Riding buses in Lao

One of the primary means of transport for us during our months in Asia has been by bus. We have spent roughly two working weeks on buses. If we were to add up all the other myriad of ways we have got from place to place, I am sure we could clock up a couple more working weeks.

As you can imagine all this travelling on buses has given me ample time to ponder the ins and outs and pros and cons of the Asian bus ride. One thing I have come to decide is that Asian bus riding is a little Forrest Gump: “You never know what you’re gonna get”.

I have on more occasions than I like to recall (as has anyone who has travelled in Asia I’m sure) gripped the seat hard and squirmed around as the driver executes some manoeuvre that would be more appropriate seen in a game of “chicken”, not on a road with large objects moving at great velocity. But it is not all hair raising stuff, thank goodness.

Thailand gets the prize for the most extravagant buses. These blinged out contraptions come complete with coloured flashing lights that give them the appearance of a disco on wheels. Couple this with ear bleedingly loud Thai pop music to finish off the effect. These particular buses are double decker, and they often have a massive table and lounge area downstairs. I guess this is for the purpose of keeping the party rolling! We didn’t ride on one of these buses but did spy them in some of the oddest places during our time in Thailand, such as the sleepy little fishing village of Hat Yao.

Lao has been the country where we have clocked up the most hours riding buses and they certainly have been a mixed bag!

So here’s the low down on the go round in Lao:

  • Indicated departure times are a rough guess at best. The bus will go when it is ready… and sometimes before it was supposed to be ready!
  • Humans will not be your only companions. Expect a chook or two.
  • This is not just a bus service but a postal service/mode of goods transportation.
  • Frequent stopping to drop off said goods will occur. One of my personal favourites was when the bus driver hardly down-shifted and hoiked out the window into a village a rolled up piece of paper, much like a scroll tied up with string. Someone’s letter perhaps? Someone picked it up so, I guess so!
  • Frequent stopping to pick up and drop off people will occur too. Do not be in a hurry. Actually, that is a general rule in Lao: do not be in a hurry.
  • If you are on the VIP buses (don’t get excited, this term is used loosely and has no bearing on the quality of the bus), you may get one stop at a ‘real’ toilet. Use it. Bring your own loo paper and money to pay. No, they are not Western toilets, which can be problematic if you have anything serious to do.
  • It will be more problematic if you don’t use the ‘real’ toilet though, as after that stop it’s more than likely a situation of find a bush on the side of the road and try not to moon the others doing the same. Note that local buses are all about finding a bush or a rock (VIP buses are more frequented by foreigners). Luckily it all seems to work out okay, and the guys go one way and the girls go the other.
  • Aside from ensuring you take a piss stop when the opportunity presents, it is also important to eat if you see the bus driver stop to eat. This signals it is a long stop – and the only one you most likely will get to eat. So do it! Of course, bringing snackage for the journey is always a wise move too.
  • Lao music will most likely be playing from the speakers. Although, this may sound all lovely and scene setting at the start, enough time on buses renders this increasingly annoying. I mean, how many versions of the same sounding song are there? Bringing an iPod is the remedy to that dilemma.
  • Air conditioning is usually achieved by opening your window, but this can be hazardous when the person in front decides to hock a few gollies out their window. Yep, right on my lip it landed. Unthrilled!

The roads we travelled on in Lao were mostly sealed or at least not too bad, with a couple of notable exceptions. Those being the road from Vientiane to Vang Vieng and the road from Phonsavan to Paksan. That is of course ignoring the fact that a lot of Lao is mountainous and they don’t have too many guard rails near sheer cliffs. Granted guard rails may not save you from toppling over the edge, but they certainly provide a little peace of mind.

It is the epic journey that we did from Phonsavan to Paksan that I want to tell the tale of here. It is the perfect story to illustrate the observations I listed above.

We were aware that this trip could possibly take 11 hours but I think we both secretly hoped that it would be somewhat less, after all the journey was less than two hundred kilometres.

We left early to ensure we would get to the bus stop before the scheduled departure time. As we were going down the road our tuk tuk driver noticed a bus going the opposite direction and beeped his horn and gestured frantically. Luckily the bus driver noticed and stopped as it was our bus, departing 15 minutes earlier than expected.

I failed to see what all the rush was, for not more than a kilometre down the road we sat and waited for the better part of an hour. Not sure what for, but it slots in nicely with the other TIA (This is Asia) files.

It was a bus definitely from what I would describe as “yesteryear”. It was your basic seats with no air con and Lao tunes a blarin’ kinda bus. Bring it. I’m ready! It was early days to be feeling so nonchalant about all this, but I was feeling relaxed and was anticipating that the greatest of my concerns for that day would be the hours it would take. Oh well, probably best I was in the dark on this occasion!

Actually, I lie, I was a little concerned about our bus driver. He was young, had a towel wrapped around his head with aviator shades on. The fact that he could manage to exude coolness whilst having said towel wrapped around his head had me a little concerned. Were these the telltale hallmarks of a young hoon? Damien and I have developed a transport policy whilst in Asia. It is simple but usually effective. It’s called ‘wrinkles or boobs’: always go for the old guy or the chick. Chicks are a rare find but in our experience a bullet proof safety option. Young dudes however, are to be avoided wherever possible. However, when travelling on large public buses you are in the hands of Hermes and you just have to hope and pray it will be OK. But we have a secondary policy that ‘big bus beats small van’. Hoons are less able to fling a large bus onto the wrong side around a blind corner on a cliff, than a minivan. I’m not saying they won’t try – he did a few of these dare devil stunts, but they can’t do it fast – and that makes a difference, albeit a small one!

The first few hours were fairly peaceful . We wound our way through the hills and the small villages. Watched little kids running along only metres away from traffic with not a care in the world. Although long bus rides can be very same same they also afford you a voyeuristic view into the lives of the locals, as unlike at home, the division between public and private life seems less. People are literally living out their lives in full view of the road. You can see the locals relaxing on their square shaped decks; or planting new harvests of rice; kids may be playing in the puddles of rainwater on the road; people showering in streams or someone might be having a snooze on the road by their bike as the buses and trucks swerve around them and rattle on by. At one point when we were in a valley there was an unusually large group of people walking roadside and I was fascinated to see that at the head of the group there were people carrying a bamboo structure covered in brightly coloured cloth. I can’t be certain but it seemed to me that it was a funeral procession. It seemed so beautiful to me and a fitting send off to a life well lived. The manner of the people and this procession reminded me of the respectful solemnity you see when a funeral procession makes its way through an Australian country town.

Later on we were driving along some freshly laid road. Not too long after we spotted the reason for this new development. One of the many dams that the Chinese are building in Lao to produce hydro power for China was in the process of being constructed. So that’s why there is all this nice new road, so the trucks and building equipment can have easy access to the dam site. What a damned sight it is too. The impact this is going to have on Lao and the other countries along the Mekong is a very depressing situation to ponder. When we were chatting to Hien, the friend we made in Luang Prabang, he told us that the village he comes from in the north will need to relocate in 2015 because of the damming. We asked him if they would get assistance to relocate their lives and he told us that the government would provide only 50 percent of the removal costs. He also relayed another story of the cynicism locals have to the planned pathway of the Chinese-Lao train line that is to be constructed. It just so happens that the proposed area the line is to go through is also a gold rich area in Lao. Interesting. Depressing. And anger building!

To add more sobering detail to the damming of Lao is a conversation we had with Ivor one night in Paksan. As I mentioned in a previous post, Ivor works for the Victorian fisheries and he has been coming to Lao for a number of years to work collaboratively with Laotians on a fish ladder project. The purpose of this is to assist the movement of fish in response to the devastating effect all these dams will have on the ecology of the waterways in Lao. I asked him whether he felt this would save the aquatic life of the Mekong and he said bluntly, no it wouldn’t. The Mekong cannot be saved unless the Lao Government changes its decision to allow the Chinese to build all the dams. Ivor gave me a small glimmer of hope in that he said that the fish ladder project could have the potential to preserve some of the fish populations in other smaller waterways and wetlands. He went on to tell us that he has had conversations with locals in which they have said there will be civil war, when the effects of the destruction of the Mekong start to impact on the ability of the people who live along the river to provide themselves with food. Lao is a poor country and subsistence living is reality for sections of the population. It seemed so shocking to me when Ivor mentioned civil war as an outcome. However, the more I have ruminated on the plight of the people, flora and fauna of this country because of the decisions made by a government they did not elect to represent them, the more I can actually believe civil war could be possible.

The construction of the new road also blocked our pathway to our destination for at least an hour. So we sat and waited until our bus could continue on its way. Once we finally got rolling again I was gazing out the window when the girl in the seat in front of me spat out the window and my leg and hand got coated. This being the second time I have been the unfortunate recipient of a random sliming, I quickly slammed my window shut to avoid any subsequent “accidents”. And let me just say, I was mighty glad I did as I was even further revolted to see that the girl was not actually spitting out the window, she was having a good old vomit out the window. Clearly, sitting window side has its perils. Maybe Damien has got it right by always angling for the aisle!

After this incident we were moving along nicely for a way when we came to a point at which the bus driver halted next to another bus. I thought initially that this might have been a toilet stop, but upon alighting from the vehicle I was confronted with a rather unsettling and most unwelcome sight. The road came to a river with an only half constructed bridge across it. What the?! And the river looked way too deep for our bus to traverse. Pear shaped in the extreme! At this point Damien said that the owner of our guesthouse in Ponsavan had mentioned that there was a section of the road that only a big bus could get across a river to the other side – definitely no mini vans. Clearly he was the master of the understatement as there was no hope in hell of us getting across anytime soon. This was way too much water for even a big bus!

So we sat on the dirt with the ants in the heat and peered across longingly at the other side. We were so close yet so far! We were also in the middle of nowhere. This was definitely one of those occasions where I wished my command of the Lao language was a tad more extensive that it is. I had lots of questions I wanted to ask but very little way of communicating them.

There was a bus on the other side of the river. Evidently its journey was halted for the foreseeable future too. I wished we could all just swap buses by going across the river via the small boats or on one of the six wheeled mega trucks that were hauling cars across the river, at times in water that washed over the top of the wheels.

We managed to ask our driver when and if we might be able to get the bus across the river. He indicated that perhaps in another two hours the river might go down. Might. Not a particularly reassuring word at this juncture. As I looked at the sky and the grey clouds looming I was not feeling at all buoyed by this news and was contemplating what it might be like to be camped out here for a while. I was also looking at my supply of water and remaining fruit and wishing I had more! I had already eaten an apple, two lychees and two rambutans… looks like I may need to ration out my last rambutan and two mangosteens. It was well past lunch at this point and aside from breakfast the fruit was all I had eaten. I was hoping this wasn’t going to represent my food supply for the rest of the day!

Damien wanted to get across the river via a boat and wait on the other side for the bus. He was not at all keen to attempt a river crossing at any point on the bus. I on the other hand was not too thrilled about leaving the side of the river with our bus but eventually we came to agreement that we’d cross ourselves. Once on the other side I said we should at least see if we can arrange alternative transport, and Damien walked into the village in pursuit of that endeavour. The next available bus would be leaving 11 am the next day. Hot and a little put out by this turn of events, we sat in silence down by the water and waited to see how the bus saga would unfold.

Roughly two hours after our river vigil commenced the rest of the passengers of our bus came across on one of the trucks. Evidently the bus drivers had come to the same conclusion as I had that they needed to swap passengers and return back from whence they came. Halelujah! It was a good result and I was very pleased not to have to stay overnight.

But this being the kind of day it was, there was one last little hurdle. The road that ran through the village by the river was so boggy and potholed from the rain that we could not drive that way. Instead our bus driver took us via a windy, and still boggy, potholed mud track that was definitely more suited to four wheeled driving! We came to yet another part of the river and this time we were going in. Damien was rather unimpressed at this point, being the safety boy that he is. Suddenly he was out of his seat and perched on the arm rest. He said he was positioning himself so that he could leap into action should our bus end up on its side in the river! I wasn’t convinced that this would help much but thought it was rather amusing none the less!

I am pleased to say that after that we had an event free ride to Paksan and arrived almost exactly 11 hours after we had departed. We were obviously tired and headed straight for the hotel. As we sat at the table for dinner by the river, a very eager and friendly Ivor bounded on over and informed us straight away that forget the other five pages on the menu – that don’t have any of that (including, the oddly named “duck cooked as dog”) and that we should eat the beef. He had been eating the beef for the last two weeks and it was good. He then followed it up with, “What the hell are you doing in Paksan? No westerners come here!” Followed by, “I haven’t spoken anything but broken Lao for two weeks so I am starved of some easy conversation!” And, what an interesting and often hilarious conversation we had. A great end to an epic day!

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