Getting to Paksan was by far the best bus journey I’ve had so far. After a couple of weeks of being in big cities and hanging around lots of other travellers, I felt a strong urge to get away from them all as far as possible. Which made my choice of transport a no-brainer when I wanted to head to south: local buses all the way.
There are numerous “VIP” buses and minivans that offer to deliver you in relative comfort from Vientiane to the tourist hotspots of Tha Kaek, Savannakhet and Pakse, and they’re all good value. But they are almost entirely patronised by westerners, many of whom don’t have the time to visit the spaces in between. I was looking for a different experience this time, and the VIP buses also leave very early in the morning which did not appeal at all. So I rose when I felt like it, did some Christmas Day contacting and then got a tuk-tuk to the southern bus station. There was a local bus leaving to Paksan in half an hour – perfect. And it was dirt cheap: the 9km tuk-tuk to the bus station cost 50,000 kip (A$7), whereas the 100km+ journey to Paksan cost only half that 🙂
The bus left exactly on time, which was a bit of a shock. But we only made it two hundred metres before it slowed down to let more than a dozen hawkers on board. They agressively went up and down the aisle trying to flog drinks, chewing gum, books, barbequed chicken, sticky rice and more, and it was another twenty minutes before we set of in earnest. Stopping frequently to pick up more passengers on the way, the conductor got increasingly creative with the seating arrangements as the bus filled. When every seat was taken, he produced from nowhere a large plastic stool so the next guy could sit in the aisle in comfort. When more got on, they were directed to the lumpy sacks filling the back half of the aisle. Later arrivals simply leaned against the nearest post. I was the only westerner on board, and I was joined on my seat by a young man who was returning to his home village just south of Paksan. He’d been competing in the South East Asian Games which have just finished in Vientiane, and he’d won his division of boxing. He was very proud of the fact and discreetly showed me the gold medal hidden in his beltbag.
Once out of town the ride was a dream, and completely different from travelling in the north. The road is flat, straight, paved and almost bump-free, which mean we could overtake safely and travel at the rare speed of 50 kmh or more! Several times we slowed to pick up or set down, or to invite more food sellers on who hawked their wares as the bus slowly rattled a few kilometres down the road. They got off well away from their start point, presumably to wait for the next bus heading the opposite direction so they could try again. The bus was ancient, of course, but it was still kitted out with a television and dvd player in the console above the driver’s head. That’s one thing I’ve noticed here: no matter how old the bus, how crappy the seats or how rough the suspension, Laotians certainly know how to wire together a sound system. Even on the juddering ride to Phongsali there was an old amplifier strapped beside the driver, and quality speakers lashed to posts throughout the bus. They sounded fantastic, burrowing the Lao and Thai pop that was blaring away endlessly deep into your head. It’s not as awful as it might seem.
Arriving in Paksan earlier than I expected, I wandered from the bus stop to where a decent guesthouse and restaurant were supposed to be and took stock of the place. My guidebook is dismissive (“we’d like to say there is nothing much to see in Paksan, but that would be overstating it”), but for my needs at the moment the fact it’s right is not the point. For a change I was looking for somewhere that tourists barely notice, let alone stop in, and this fits the bill perfectly. It’s actually the first place that’s made me think of an Australian country town. Situated on a flat plain and broadly distributed around a river crossing, the main road – the highway – has shops and other services spread distantly along its length, and the side roads are wide and quiet. There are suburban houses (or the local equivalent of, anyway), even picket fences in places, and further from the main road are pastures, crops and sparse bush. And it’s hot. If I start seeing cattlemen in Akubras walking down the street, I’ll lay off the Beerlao for a while.
Walking down the road a few kilometres to the river. Kids hurtle past, rushing away from school on scooters. By the rushed shore of the wide, languid Mekong two women tend fishing nets in the afternoon sun. Thailand nestles prosperous on the far shore. Past a large field where youngsters play volleyball watched by their parents, Christmas carols blasting loudly from the sound system. In English. I remember from the guidebook that this part of Laos has a high proportion of Christians, improbably. It feels like any other country suburbia. I see no westerners apart from an older woman with cropped blonde hair riding past. We wave at each other heartily – perhaps she’s the French woman who’s also staying at my guesthouse tonight? We carry on our ways. Later at the nearby restaurant, reading, sipping a cool beer in the dark evening. Later still some outstandingly fresh fish, battered and deep fried. Cut vertically to make the bones easy to avoid, it’s delicious. Now I know why a constant stream of people drop by to pick up takeaway, the oil’s sizzle heralding the despatch of yet another meal. A brief chat with an older man who installs solar panels up and down the country. He wonders why am I not celebrating Christmas today? Back at the guesthouse I sit on the balcony writing this post. Pop music wafts loudly from a neighbouring house, muted by the shrill of crickets. From the gloom a figure approaches: It is the french woman, the same one I saw this afternoon. We sit for several hours chatting about our travels and I get and give lots of useful advice. When we part at 11.30pm the music from the nearby house has been replaced by an indistinct low male voice. It is a wedding, I’m told. Back in my room I finish my book: William Boyd’s well-written but somewhat unsatisfying Brazzaville Beach. Tired, sleep comes quickly, a calm, fulfilling rest. Tomorrow will be even more remote.