Well, I am all done with my latest trek and I have to say, these last four weeks are sticking to the corners of my mind like a tired, old, has-been band clinging desperately to their last functioning members. I just can’t shake these thoughts. It’s been exhausting trying to get back to Surat Thani by my company’s deadline but I am finally here and, with an elongated sigh of relief, I am resting. I feel physically drained but mentally motivated. I almost want to head right back out and do it again – if only for the wonders that travel like this exercises and incites.
As I said, I was trying hard to get through Laos to get back to Thailand by a certain time. Well Laos had its challenges to be sure. In fact, they started before I even got into the country. Traveling by bus has not been terribly bad until I got here. In fact, I think of my bus travel more as an important part of the trip rather than a hinderence. But in Laos it’s a different story.
Leaving Sapa to get back down to Ha Noi was no task at all. When I arrived at the station I knew that I had purchased a ticket to leave on the 8:30 p.m. sleeper to the city. But because Vietnam is Vietnam and, in that, a very disorganized country altogether – tourism travel included – my ticket was mixed up and when I went to board the train I saw that my time was designated for the later train. The place where you pick up your ticket is really just a restaurant. You wait for a guy with a white folder to show up and you give him your pay receipt and he reaches into his little file and pulls out what comes close to being your ticket arrangement. I simply didn’t look hard enough at it after he gave it to me. But no matter; there was a lady that needed to go on a later train with her husband and at the last minute I swapped out tickets and ran after the moving train waving my ticket and shouting. I felt a little like an Owen brother on the Darjeeling Limited.
In Ha Noi my options for travel into Laos were either an 18 hour seated bus or a 24 hour sleeper. I chose the sleeper and the next evening I was off. The hotel staff was nice enough. But nevertheless they were all out to get that almighty dong (or dollar, as the translation goes). It’s really scandalous, the raping of tourists that goes on there. But that’s another journal altogether.
My ticket arrangement had me being picked up by bus, which seemed pretty straight forward when I booked it. But after I’d been sitting for more than an hour after the time that the bus was supposed to arrive, it finally showed up. And this wasn’t the worst of the evenings dilemmas.
Once on the bus, I shot straight for the front seat as I knew that I would neither fit in the back seats nor did I want to be one of the poor, unfortunate souls to be pickled in with the abounding luggage that would surely be toppling over them as we stopped at more and more hotels on the way to the bus stop.
By the time we got to where we were going the wheels were rubbing against the undercarriage of the van and there were people literally lying overtop others in the back seats. It was not a comfortable ride. Nor was the fact that the “bus station” was really just an open spot below a highway overpass. Most of us paused when the driver stopped and told us to get out. I immediately asked him if he was actually the official driver or just a shiftless conman that happened to own a van and had a record of picking and dropping off unwitting tourists at the backs of abandoned buildings all over town.
But, as we found out just 45 short minutes later, the tour busses rolled in and we clamored aboard for the long trip ahead.
They call them sleepers. But by a truer definition, these sardine-can, shockless, foam storage units should really be called reapers – as that’s what you dream of in the 15 minutes of sleep that sheer exhaustion forces upon you after the 17th hour aboard one.
One redeeming quality of being awake in the wee hours of the morning is the view of the sunset. I did get an okay shot of that. And how many times do you get to snap a shot of the sun climbing over the countryside of Laos?
But speaking of edgy; they are, as one traveling acquaintance put it, very short sighted. The fact that the entire country is (at least in the more touristy areas) out to get your wallet and has no interest in leaving you with any semblance of a good impression of your time in their country, makes for a very difficult time in trying to write something positive about my experiences there.
The first problem is that there is absolutely no room for anything resembling a “personal bubble.” This means that people are always touching you. In fact, they are always rubbing against you, tugging on you, even almost running over you. That alone was enough to keep me in my guesthouse the entire time – coming from Alaska where you have no choice but to spread out and claim a very large personal space for yourself. But when you factor in the idea that the people will literally chase you down the road to get you to buy whatever they’re selling; well it’s a little nerve-racking. It’s more prevalent in the larger cities but still a part of the interaction throughout the country. I even talked to a local at a shop who was teaching at a university in Ha Noi who was haggling with a man over a loaf of bread. I told him that you have to start really low in order to get the price you want and if they go too high, just walk away and wait for them to chase you, shouting out a better price. He surprised me by saying that he comes to this market every day and even though the locals know him by name, he still has to go into this huge spell of haggling before they will agree to a good price. His skin, he insisted, was the only reason for this, because even though he spoke fluent Vietnamese, taught many of their children in school, lived there almost five years, paid local taxes, knew local prices and supported local events, it was always the same. He was just white and that was all there was to it.
After that, I didn’t feel so bad. But on to Laos: Now Laos had some interesting troubles of its own. Not that the people, food or accommodations were bad. In fact they were all quite a lovely part of the experience. The people were simple, happy and helpful. The food was tasty, well-cooked and plentiful. And the rooms were clean, dry and came with mostly soft beds. It was just the travel – or lack of travel – that really upset me.
Just to get to Vientiane I had to really exercise patience. About ten hours in to the bumpy, edgy ride, I felt the bus come to a screeching halt and the driver spun out the door in a frenzy of noise and flailing limbs. It would have been entertaining had I been able to see it through the exhaustion-induced tears that puddled in my eyes. Trying to blink them away and gain perspective, I sat up to see what was going on. It wasn’t long before I knew exactly what happened. The bus ahead of us had suddenly died in the climb up into the mountains. It would have killed all of us if it hadn’t been for the high quality speed the driver inhaled before clamoring the bus throughout the roadways of eastern Laos.
I don’t know what you’ve heard about the conditions of the passageways that snake their way through developing nations. But believe them. Whatever the tall tale, however thin the yarn spun; believe it all. Forget barriers that might keep you from sliding off the mountainside off into the dark cliffsides along the roadway. Forget pavement. Forget a crew of government-paid workers who service the roads with any regularity. You could consider yourself lucky if underfoot there was gravel – under which was solid ground rather than the more common, long-since sloping handiwork of local chisel owners from thirty years ago.
Just before rolling over to try and get some sleep, my Auzzie bunk mate said that the last time he was in Laos, his tour bus driver ran a taxi off the road and over the side of the mountain and didn’t even stop. I wondered why he even came back, knowing that he was part of a tour that likely witnessed vehicular manslaughter. But he chuckled and turned away from me before I could fashion the question.
Once in Vientiane, after the arduous 20-hour ride through what I must have been my introduction to a series of the most unknown close calls in my life, I found a hotel, found a restaurant and found some sleep. The next day I would be off to Luangprabang. I wanted to take the river boat up the Mekong and over to the Thai border. But things would change the next day and I would have no way of guessing the kind of trouble that would change them.
But more about that in my next journal.