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Need for speed on a bus in Laos

I’d just got chatting to an Irish girl on the doorstep of a guesthouse in which I’d been staying in Luang Prabang when a pick-up truck spluttered to a halt in front of us.

‘You go to Vientiane?’ asked the driver as he gingerly slid out of his seat, unsteadily planting his sandal-sheathed feet on the kerb.

I nodded affirmation in a beat, gagging to get going, in spite of wanting to know more about the Irish girl’s travels around the world. But there was no time. There wasn’t even time to exchange contact details as the man instructed me to hop in the back of his truck.

‘I am late so we hurry now,’ he coughed whilst igniting a Camel. To clarify: it was a cigarette, not a hump-backed desert-dweller.

‘They could kill you,’ I advised, concerned about the severity of his coughing fit.

‘Yes, and my driving could kill you,’ he responded, ‘so keep quiet and let’s go!’
I waved to the girl as I pandered to his orders and we left her choking in a cloud of dust. Before exchanging modes of transport at the main bus station on the outskirts of Luang Prabang, we had to pick up three more backpackers from a different guesthouse on the far side of Mount Phousi. We were there within what seemed like a matter of seconds.
The three backpackers we picked up were all guys. One was British and travelling alone. The other two were together, and both from the USA, though one of the men had been born in Croatia and resident in America for just ten of his forty years. Obsessed with mountain-biking, he’d done his fair share of cycling whilst in the highlands of Laos. While he nattered on to his American buddy, I struck up a conversation with the English guy. Shame he wasn’t much of a morning person. He’d only rolled out of a bed a few minutes before being picked up, and it took him a while to come around to the fact that we were collectively speeding for the bus station with a view to skipping Luang Prabang for Vientiane.

Despite the early hour, Luang Prabang bus station was alive and kicking. Enclosed by a staggering number of market stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, it provided travellers with all they could ever want or need in terms of edible and liquid nourishment. Foolishly, I neglected to stockpile anything for the long ride south, naively hoping that the ham-stuffed baguette I’d downed for breakfast would keep me going for the eleven-hour trip.

At the centre of the station lay a covered area beneath which a cluster of seats were arranged, so I sat and wrote whilst my new travelling companions bargained for shrivelled bunches of bananas and irregularly shaped coconuts. To be fair, they didn’t have much choice in the state of the produce. It might have looked unappetising, but at least it was bound to be healthy.

An air-conditioned ‘V.I.P.’ coach rolled up a short while later, its destination card in the front window confirming that it was Vientiane-bound in multiple languages. Having swapped our tourist agency-issued receipts for valid bus tickets, we ambled onto the bus and found our designated seats. I had been awarded seat number three. It was located right at the front of the coach, on the opposite side of the gangway to the driver. My pals, meanwhile, shuffled towards the back of the bus, leaving me surrounded by three jolly, young-at-heart Lao women. I had effectively split them up since two of them were sat on my left and one was seated to my right. I felt awful for interrupting their ‘party’, so I offered to take the window seat in case they all wanted to carry on chatting. It was obvious they were all close friends from the laugh-inducing banter they were sharing. To my surprise, the lady waved my offer away. She wasn’t bothered where she sat; she could still converse with her friends, just at a higher volume than usual. To show that she was content with the situation, she offered me some fruit. Not wanting to offend her, I smiled and thanked her for such kindness.

The unique design of the coach meant that the safety barrier in front of us was only minimally effective; should any incident of harsh braking arise, I would be flung straight out of my seat and through the front window. The coach was a ‘golden oldie’ in every respect, constructed at a time when seat-belts probably weren’t even a glimmer in the mind’s eye of their inventor. Nervously, I glanced behind me, scanning the rest of the coach for a spare seat. I spotted one near the back, so I sprung out of my seat before the driver engaged first gear. I didn’t get far though; the driver’s companion slumped beside the door shouted after me, insisting that I return to my seat.

‘It is not safe to sit here,’ I argued.

But neither the driver nor his friend were prepared to listen.

‘You stay in your seat,’ the driver boomed. ‘No swapping because other people get on bus further down road.’

His line of reasoning forced me to back down. After all, I would feel awful if I ‘stole’ somebody else’s seat and they ultimately ate glass because they had to sit in the seat which I was supposed to be in. Bad Karma would consume the very essence of my being.

As I settled back into my front seat position, the still-smiling lady beside me patted my leg. Her motive was unclear. I hoped that she wanted to reassure me that everything would be alright. Failing that possibility, it seemed like she’d taken a shine to me. Pondering in silence, it wasn’t long before she attempted to off-load another armful of fruit. As before, I smiled and accepted her offer of generosity, asking if she spoke English. It became immediately apparent that she didn’t. There and then, I realised that it was going to be a long journey. Talking always hastens the passing of time. On the upside, our front row vantage point meant we had the best view on the entire coach to savour. It was even better than the driver’s view since we were elevated above him.

We eventually crawled out of Luang Prabang at just gone nine in the morning, later than scheduled, but earlier than expected. It didn’t take long for the bus to become insufferably hot, provoking a Lao man to bumble up to the front and ask if the driver could activate the air conditioning. The driver nonchalantly responded by stabbing a button on the dash which automatically opened the door. That was as much air conditioning as we were going to get.

It was with much relief that everybody filed off the vintage vehicle on the stomach-patting side of midday for a rest-stop and a free lunch of noodle soup in a plush roadside restaurant with far-reaching views to die for. We’d just given Phu Khun the slip, and Kasi was a little further south.

As friendly as the Lao men and women were, it was no easy task to chat with them during lunch. The fast and efficient consumption of their soup was deemed a priority. Small talk failed to feature on their menu, forcing me to kick back with the other three westerners along for the ride. As the two guys from America loudly chatted to each other, I found out more about the British traveller, learning that he was called Anthony Mulvaney. He hailed from Coventry, and he’d been living the high life in Australia for the past two years. His working visa had just expired, so he was now on his way home to England via Asia, making the most of an ideal opportunity to travel through Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before reacquainting himself with all that the UK job market didn’t have to offer in light of the crippling economic crisis which was rumoured to be sweeping the length and breadth of the land.

We hit the fiercely twisting road again thirty minutes later, proceeding to bump through a string of villages at a leisurely thirty kilometres an hour. Our cruising speed was a far cry from the speed at which the minibus driver had steamed through the same villages when I’d been travelling in the opposite direction earlier in the week. Back then, I felt as though we were participating in the Paris-Dakar Rally as our impatient driver refused to slow down, showing a despicable disregard for the safety of the nonplussed locals.

Approaching the nondescript town of Kasi, the coach driver had the gumption to honk the horn as kids scrapped on the edge of the cracked asphalt and homeless chickens crossed the road for the sake of it. On Kasi’s southside, I couldn’t help but clock a trio of teen-aged girls coolly applying make-up in the tiny mirrors of their beat-up motorbikes.

Returning my attention to our driver, I noticed that he’d taken to chewing a half-cut cocktail stick. His companion, meanwhile, fumbled through a stack of CDs. Intriguingly, the bus came equipped with a professional karaoke amplifier. It was subsequently put to good use when a CD featuring a selection of Lao pop songs was slipped on. Two twee songs later and the amplifier was switched off just as the passengers were beginning to sing along. To be honest, ‘popular’ Lao music is no worse than British ‘Pop’ music, a torrent of catchy melodies keeping affairs lively.

As expected, there was a mass exodus of passengers at Vang Vieng, the perfect place in Laos to indulge in countless outdoor pursuits. Of the people who clambered aboard at Vang Vieng, only two were backpackers: an impossibly lanky Argentinean man, and his Israeli girlfriend.

The terrain south of Vang Vieng levelled out almost immediately, ensuring that a smooth ride was enjoyed by all as we gradually neared Vientiane. By this point I had crept to the back of the coach to chat to Anthony; the service was now half-full, so vacant seats were in abundance. It was too late in the day for the weary driver to protest.

Anthony had hoped to arrive in the Lao capital before dark, but night began to fall long before we reached the arbitrary city limits. He was worried that he might not be able to find any suitable accommodation, so he became increasingly agitated as the night drew on and silenced dusk with intimidating efficiency.

We didn’t reach Vientiane until after eight o’clock, almost twelve hours after leaving Luang Prabang. Inconveniently deposited at Vientiane’s northern bus terminal, Anthony and I struck a deal with the other two backpackers, sharing a taxi into town. Low on cash, I aimed for ‘The Sabady Guesthouse’ where I had stayed before. Anthony was also in the mood for saving cash, but he’d been put off by what I’d had to say about the ‘poor cleanliness and no privacy’ clause which seemed to be part and parcel of the so-called ‘rest and relaxation’ experience at ‘The Sabady.’ As a result, he sought more homely accommodation elsewhere.

Once settled in our respective digs, we met up for a few beers at a joint on Thanon Pangkham, desperate to wind down after the exhausting ride south. Anthony planned on staying in Vientiane for a few days before flying into Cambodia. As for me, I was due to pick up another coach the following evening. As much as I wanted to burrow beneath Cambodia’s tragic past and to discover to what extent the country had ‘recovered’ since The Khmer Rouge had been ousted, I was going to have to wait. A mind-altering trip into the heart and soul of Vietnam needed to come first.

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