Let me just start by saying that both David and I have had our fair share of uncomfortable travel experiences over the years: I have ridden a camel through a desert in Morocco, David has taken death-defying tuk tuk rides through Cambodia, I have endured food poisoning on an overnight flight across the US…Yet, our experience traveling by bus through the middle of Laos was definitely a trip for the record books.
It all started when my new job required that I go Laos and get a Non-Immigrant B visa at the Thai consulate in Vientiane. Since we had a long weekend in July, we decided to make a vacation out of an otherwise tedious bureaucratic errand. We spent a day in Luang Prabang, and then, decided to make the trip down south to Vientiane — a trip that Google Maps claims is supposed to take 4.5 hours, though most other sources say it should be closer to 10 or 11.
We had three options: charter a songthaew, book a seat on a “VIP bus,” or book a seat in a more expensive 10-12 seat minivan. I get carsick very easily, and I was worried that the exhaust from the songthaew or the zippy turns of a speeding minivan would make me nauseous, so we decided on the VIP bus option through Viengchaleune Road Transport Co., which promised air conditioning, reserved seating, lunch, and a direct trip into Vientiane proper.
The Journey Begins
On the day of our trip, we arrived at the bus station about a half-hour early. We always make sure to arrive early for flights, meetings, shows, whatever because, the way we see it, it’s better to sit around at your destination, than sit around at home and risk being late. So we waited near our bus in the terminal for our departure time, which was scheduled to be 8 AM. We could have waited inside the bus itself, but after setting our bags on our assigned seats, we decided it was way too humid in there and we took our chances outside in the Lao heat.
Well, 8 came and went. 8:10…8:20…8:30…nothing. There was no indication that the bus needed maintenance or that we were holding out for a late passenger. The bus driver was just…sitting there…waiting around for no apparent reason.
Around this time I went and asked a bus station attendant what might be going on. He said that the bus might be leaving in about 15 minutes.
So we waited some more. Can’t expect everything to run perfectly on time, we tried to rationalize.
Finally, nearly an hour after our bus had been originally scheduled to leave, the driver started the engine and shouted something which we interpreted as “all aboard.” We took our seats in the middle of the bus, and reached up to adjust our air conditioning vents.
Nothing. Not a wisp of air.
I was certain that, since we we had paid for a ticket that included air conditioning, surely the AC would start working once the bus got moving.
As we pulled out of the bus terminal, an employee walked down the aisles handing out a welcome snack to the passengers. As he walked by, I motioned to the AC, non-verbally asking if it would be starting soon.
He laughed. “No, no…” and continued making his way down the aisle.
No air conditioning?
No air conditioning.
Sudden internal panic.
How can I get off this bus? Would they let me out now if I asked? Even a songthaew would at least have a breeze, right?
But we were trapped.
I quickly popped an anti-nausea pill in preparation for the sweaty journey.
And a sweaty journey it was.
Dripping, Sweaty Mess
The funny part is I had actually worn pants that day, expecting a chilly ride with AC blasting full-power — something I had read might happen while traveling in southeast Asia. About 45 minutes into the journey I just couldn’t take it anymore.
Pride totally abandoned, I pulled out my scarf (which I had —hilariously — brought on board case the ride got too cold), draped it over my knees, and stripped down to my underwear right there in my seat. I had David grab me a pair of shorts out of my backpack and I pulled them on, grateful for the tiniest relief from the heat.
Two hours in, things got primal.
We frantically searched for any tool within arms reach that might cool us down. In my bag, I took out the visa application form that I had printed a few days prior to the trip, and fashioned the papers into two folded fans, elementary-school style.
Even with the paper fans, we were literally dripping sweat. We debated the pros and cons of drinking water to stay hydrated while we sweat profusely vs. not drinking water to avoid needing to pee while trapped in this metal jail-cell careening down the highway.
At one point, a passenger — who I can only assume was nearing the end of his rope — stood up and pushed open the square ceiling vent a few rows above us.
Sweet tiny relief.
There was nothing else we could do but close our eyes, imagine ourselves shivering in Antarctica, and settle in for the ride.
But It Wasn’t All Bad
In between half-crazed visions of myself cursing the employee who sold us these AC-less tickets and imagining myself sipping ice cold lemonades, the Lao scenery — I must admit — was pretty spectacular.
We have snowboarded in the Swiss Alps and lived in the foothills of Utah’s beautiful mountain ranges, yet these hills in Laos were like nothing I had ever seen before. Jagged summits, lush green slopes — it all just felt so beautifully Asian, like something you’d see showcased in National Geographic. I felt priveleged to be seeing it with my own eyes, rather than in the pages of a magazine.
Sprawled throughout the mountains were small villages and individual homes, with Lao citizens going about their daily activities…women washing laundry, children bathing naked in buckets, puppies chasing after their owners, men crowded in the shade eating lunch. From behind my glass window, life appeared to be so slow, so different than my own.
These glimpses into the everyday lives of people are one of my favorite things about travel.
I love seeing the mundane, the monotonous parts of life abroad…the grocery shopping, the time killing, etc. It makes me stop, just for a moment, and appreciate how tiny my own life really is.
Without me there to observe it, people’s lives around the world go on. Whole existences happen without my knowledge.
Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded.
Are We There Yet?
Every couple of hours, we would be jarred from our sightseeing and heat-induced dazes as the bus driver would pull over and let us disembark for a few minutes, allowing us a small respite from the now unbearably thick, humid air inside the bus. The best stops were the ones with ice cream. Anything frozen felt heaven-sent. Those convenience stores probably made a killing from the dozens of ice cream bars that we and our fellow bus passengers bought that day.
After one of these stops, we got back on the bus and took off again, when we noticed the back door of the bus had not been closed. It remained open for the rest of the journey.
Good for a refreshing breeze? Absolutely. Up to safety standards? Not in the slightest.
But at this point, we’d take what we could get. The other passengers seemed to agree.
One little girl sitting in the row behind us actually threw up into a bag about half way through the trip. Poor thing. I assume that the anti-nausea pill I took is the only thing that kept me from getting sick as well. I am not sure I could have handled being a sweaty mess and nauseous. Clearly, we were not alone in our misery.
A full twelve hours after we pulled out of the bus station in Luang Prabang, our bus slowed down, turned into what appeared to be a dark, abandoned parking lot, and stopped. The passengers around us started packing up, so we followed suit, grabbing our bags and stepping outside. There waiting for us was a songthaew driver who, oh so generously, offered to take us and about a dozen other people into Vientiane for an additional fee. Lovely. With no other options, we piled into the back of the truck, bags on our laps, and drove the last 20 minutes into town.
Finally, we were dropped off on the side of the road, and left to navigate this new city in search of our hotel, luckily only a ten mintue walk away.
I honestly can’t remember if we collapsed in exhaustion that night or if we had the energy to actually shower off the dirt and sweat, but no matter what we did, I know that we were just so grateful to have made it at all. We survived our first and — hey, I’m gonna say it — probably last VIP bus ride in Asia.