We knew that it was going to take longer than one full day. We knew no one ever said anything good or reassuring about this particular bus ride. We also knew that the one hour flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi was more than we wanted to pay. And we knew if we took the easy way out, we’d never tell a single story about that flight.
In the Laotian public transportation system, the participants are comprised of two separate yet equally important groups: the bus drivers and their lackeys who can do whatever they want, and the passengers who are completely at their mercy. These are their stories.
We tried to leave on Christmas night, but when we arrived at the station, they said we were the only ones who bought tickets, and they weren’t going to do a run with an empty bus. Fair enough. We came back the next day.
Hell Bus Day 1
18:00 – The appointed hour. Tickets are checked. Shoes are removed and placed in a plastic bag. We attempted to claim the seats numbered 3 and 4, as those were the ones written on our tickets, but one of the several bus guys in charge insists on herding us to the back. Seats 3 and 4 are piled with stale-but-not-exactly-dirty smelling blankets, so we claim 7 and 8 and pretend we don’t understand what the guy wants. He gives up. A small victory for us.
18:10 – The guy across from us is from Boston. He completed this same journey, in reverse, from Hanoi just three days prior. Boston confirms that yes, it is as bad as everyone says. He picked up some Valium from a pharmacy in preparation.
18:15 – The engine fires up. Blankets are distributed. Just one for each pair of seats, which recline almost fully flat. Glad we’re not sitting next to any strangers.
18:43 – The driver has been going slowly and I’m sure we still haven’t left the outskirts of Luang Prabang. We stop for some sort of checkpoint. Military? Bureaucratic? There is much discussion. One of the bus guys hands over some cash. Were all those bags of rice in the hold next to our bags a really… special type of rice?
19:04 – We’ve stopped again and have been sitting here for ten minutes for no apparent reason. A man with a large pink bandage wrapped around his head boards. He brought his own comforter, a yellow one with pink flowers, and sits down in the front seat. Bus Boss, a thin, balding Vietnamese man wearing a black lounge shirt, begins shouting at him. Pinky shouts back, adjusts his bandage and claims the seat next to him too. Boss throws up his hands and drops it. Lights out and we continue.
19:41 – Driver stops to pee on the side of the road, not bothering to move out of the view of the windows. A few others join him.
21:18 – Twenty-five minute stop at some small village in the middle of nowhere. Pierre, a French guy suffering in the very back row, buys 12 bootleg movies for the equivalent of $2.50. Small talk with Boston, New York and Michigan while a roving dog sniffs around and a little boy pops wheelies on his bike. We put our shoes back into our plastic backs and re-board.
21:38 – High up in the mountains now. Giant misty valleys far… far below, just barely hinted at in the weak moonlight. We stop and they turn all the lights on. Boss pulls some papers from one of the overhead storage areas. It appeared to be identical to one of the route signs posted above the driver’s head. Some discussion, then lights out and we start moving slowly again.
21:51 – We stop for the second time in five minutes. One of the bus guys grabs a tool and a flashlight. Every time we stop, they flip on all the interior lights. Boston decides now is the time to seek pharmaceutical assistance. We do the same, and I withdraw into my personal cocoon. Eye shade, scarf over my mouth and neck, hoodie hood up.
22:03 – Still stopped. One of the bus guys starts playing warbling love ballads on their phone. I add earplugs and the cocoon is complete.
Hell Bus Day 2
02:37 – Artificial sleep has worn off. We’re stopped. Where? Why? We’ve stopped wondering. Boston must have left, because he’s climbing back into his seat now. I hear a shout. Boston removes his shoes, pulls up his blanket and pretends to sleep. Boss boards, shouting angrily, and brushes dirt from the bus aisle. Boston doesn’t flinch. I notice that a local woman is now sitting next to Pinky, observing everything with amusement.
02:54 – Bus has been stopped for five minutes. Pinky is angry again and yelling at Boss. His bandage is shifted, exposing a large white gauze pad over his left eye and big scabby wounds on his cheekbone and forehead. More glaring and yelling. We think that Boss wants him to change seats. Pinky wins this round.
03:04 – We’re still not moving. People must have boarded while we slept because we now notice that they are laying end-to-end in the storage area underneath the seats and in the aisle. An awkward dichotomy. Rich Westerners in the “first class” seats, with Laotians stacked below us like cord wood. New York got off to smoke or pee or something and had to walk on top of the seats to return to her spot. Everyone is coughing and sneezing. Boston declares that this is “definitely worse” than his previous trip.
03:17 – Pinky is finally convinced to move and two men take the front seat. Two young backpackers from Yorkshire board and pale at the sight that greets them. They bought two seats and have been waiting for the bus since 1 a.m. They tell us we’re in Phonsavan. Which means we’ve been on the road for nine hours and have gone 160 miles. Which means our average speed is… we probably shouldn’t dwell it. The Yorkshires carve out a seat on the padded floor next to us in the aisle.
06:03 – We must have fallen asleep. We wake up and talk with Boston and Yorkshire. It’s getting light and you can see the soggy jungle and huts and chickens and buffalo. Everything outside looks gray and drippy and muddy.
06:36 – Boss hangs out the door while the bus is still moving and waves to someone. We pass a cattleyard with trucks loaded full of doomed bovines.
06:50 – Line of trucks ahead. We’ve reached the border. The driver pulls head of the line and drives down the wrong side of the road. The bus lurches heavily and there is a loud bang. There’s a commotion in the back of the bus, but it’s hard to tell what’s happening.
07:07 – We’ve arrived at the passport control building and the engine is off. Now we wait. It looks like there is a building marked WC a little ways down the hill which looks promising. Someone is standing on the roof of the bus. We go check it out. The back window is shattered, which is probably the source of the noise we heard earlier. Not to worry; they’re fixing it with packing tape.
09:24 – We’ve all made it through border control and the bus is idling on the Vietnamese side. The border opened about an 90 minutes ago. We stood in line to get our Laos exit stamp next to locals smoking under the No Smoking signs. Walked down a muddy road to the Vietnam side. A uniformed man collected our passports. We waited. And waited and waited. The station was large and dusty, with a big mold stain that spread high across one corner. Boss told Boston (who knows a little Vietnamese and had become the de-facto, reluctant representative of the all of the “first class” passengers) that we all needed to pull our bags off the bus and go through customs. Passports were redistributed. We prepared to have our bags searched, “customs” (a guy at a desk) only made the first person in line unpack and waved the rest of us through once he glanced at our passport photos and our faces. We loaded our bags back into the hold of the bus and are ready for the Vietnam leg of the journey.
09:33 – Bus is still idling. Snickers bars and anti-malaria pills for breakfast.
09:40 – Here we go.
10:27 – Gasoline stop.
12:05 – Michigan has to pee. The youngest bus guy says, “10 minutes.”
12:25 – Bus guy says, “5 minutes.”
12:31 – Bus guy says, “3 minutes.”
12:36 – Michigan forces her way to the door and insists with no small amount of desperation in her voice. Finally, the driver pulls over and she heads for a corn field.
12:56 – Stop at a filthy noodle joint. (Not a term we use lightly… we have seen some things since we arrived in Bangkok seven weeks ago.) The dining room is typical and totally fine, but walking through the dank kitchen to get to the fly-filled bathrooms tells another story. There are no other restaurants or stores in sight. Our last food stop was nearly 16 hours ago. They let us pay in Laotian kip and we have just enough to split a hot bowl of phở. Hopefully hot enough to kill whatever horrors it picked up during its preparation.
13:32 – We reboard. Boss is in a great mood. He grabs Tony’s beard and announces to the rest of the bus, “Osama bin Laden!” Tony smiles and attempts to grab Boss’s hairless chin, but is quickly batted away. Apparently there is a double standard when it comes to personal space.
13:57 – For the first time on the journey, the flatscreen tv mounted to the ceiling is flipped on. It’s a Vietnamese music video. Joy.
14:01 – Boss changes the channel to a movie. The Gods Must Be Crazy II. …Indeed.
15:35 – The movie is finished. The land is flat and we’re going past endless rice paddies. The harvest is long over and it looks like the farmers and their buffalos are cultivating muck.
15:38 – A few people get off. A baby starts crying. A new movie begins. Something to do with a golden retriever.
15:42 – Make that multiple golden retrievers.
15:54 – Four people leave the bus. The golden retrievers accidentally got themselves shipped to Alaska. Hijinks sure to follow.
16:16 – Stopped. Not sure why.
16:38 – Saw a road marker for Hanoi. Forgot what it said. 200 something.
20:40 – Stopped on a dark street in a residential area. Loud banging. A group of men are unloading wood. Of course they’re unloading wood. Totally unsurprising. We all pile out. Boston has determined that we are still 60 miles from Hanoi. I turn the corner and wander halfway down the darkened street. The nice thing about no streetlights is you can pee just about anywhere. I return to the bus just as Boss is urging people to put out their cigarettes and hurry up.
“Oh, I’m sorry, are we on a schedule?” I tap my watch and smile. Big laughs all around.
A basket of roosters and two cases of Black Lion (a Johnny Walker knock-off) sit on the ground next to the door. I point at the boxes, then at all of the passengers, and then make a drinking motion. “For us?!” I exclaim happily. I have grown bold in my delirium.
“NO.” Boss looks agitated. The poultry and booze disappear into the darkness as we pull off our shoes and climb aboard.
20:55 – We pull into a large garage/noodle shop/convenience store. I walk out to the street and note that this is the only option in sight. There are also no ATMs. We don’t have any Vietnamese dong and we’re all out of kip. Boston suggests mutiny or hijack but none of us know how to drive a bus. He buys us a bowl of phở. An Australian passenger sees some local guys smoking tobacco from a large bamboo bong. He takes a huge hit, turns red and falls over, smacking his head on a chest freezer on his way down. It seems like he is convulsing but after everyone clears away, it turns out that he is only laughing. All the bus guys start doing shots of bau da. They’ve been rotating shifts behind the wheel. Not sure who is up to bat.
21:47 – We finally get on the bus again. Tony must not be moving fast enough because Boss slaps him on the ass. Tony turns and glares at him. Glassy-eyed Boss tries to kiss his cheek. Blame the bau da. We’re allegedly one hour from Hanoi.
22:00 – Bus has hit its top speed for this trip so far. Maybe 45 miles per hour. We hit a massive, bone-jarring dip in the road, and the driver pulls over. We think the bus must have sustained some damage, but he is just letting a few of the other bus guys off. We continue down the road and the driver proceeds to straddle the center line as much as possible. It’s drizzling outside. Michigan says that one of the bus guys crawled underneath the seat across from her to solicit favors from a woman stashed there. Super.
23:02 – We pull into the bus station in Hanoi, a full 29 hours after leaving Luang Prabang. We have all suffered indignities, discomfort and dispair. But haven’t starved, puked or peed ourselves. All our belongings are intact. We’ve made new friends. We are victorious.
Grilled sticky rice… on a stick. Fish sauce with chilis for dipping.
Crispy yellow noodles.
Fried noodles with pork.
Chicken Larb – extra spicy meat salad with herbs and chilis.
Luang Prabang sausages.
We’ve been talking about how to write about this ever since last month. Because it was probably the most memorable and humbling experience we have had this year, we decided we’d just write a short summary and let the pictures speak for themselves. We’d love to tell you all about it when we see you again, but at least for now, words simply fall short.
We met Jena, another fellow traveler, back in Pai. We knew she was heading over to Laos soon and thought we might meet up with her at some point. One morning while we were eating breakfast in Luang Prabang, Jena just happened to walk by. She stopped to talk for a bit and told us about a monk that she befriended when she was traveling through Laos last year. We were soon invited to join both of them to visit his families in their Khmu villages for the next four days. We said yes.
Another monk joined us, and after a three hour bus ride and a three hour hike on a dirt road through the mountains, we found ourselves at the monk’s mother’s village. The following morning was another two hour hike and half an hour boat ride to his father’s village. At both villages, we were overwhelmed by welcome and generosity.
We were fed mounds of sticky rice and many versions of untranslatable vegetable mixtures that the monk simply called “jungle salad.” Between our arrival and the new year celebrations, the local animal population dropped slightly. A few young chickens were boiled, an entire goat was roasted (with no part wasted), and a cow’s brains made it into our soup. Our bad luck was erased and our good luck was ensured with multiple baci ceremonies. With great insistence from our hosts, our bellies were warmed with Lao Lao (home made rice whiskey) from the time we woke up until our evening bath in the Ou river.
One day, the monk’s father took us in his boat to see some caves that had served as shelters during the U.S. bombings. One still had bones in it.
When we arrived back at the village after exploring the caves, there was a shiny boat tied to the bank that we hadn’t seen before. As we drifted up next to it, the monk’s father pointed and said, “Made in USA.”
During and after the Vietnam War, between 1964 and 1973, there were 580,000 US bombing missions that dropped two million tons of ordinance on Laos- equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. Up to a third of the bombs did not explode. Over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO (unexploded ordinance) in Laos since the bombing ceased.
And they still want you in their homes. And they still want to feed you. And they still want to tie dozens of strings around your wrists as a symbol of how much they want only good things to happen to you in the coming year.
One Saturday morning in Luang Prabang with Kevin, we saw some older men having coffee at a corner shop. We sat down and ordered cups for ourselves. One of the men spoke a little English, and Kevin speaks a little Thai. (Since there is a lot of Thai TV in Laos, people recognize some of the words.) Between the two languages, Kevin was able to understand that the man was telling us about a “festival” that started today. He motioned to the road we needed to take, and after we finished our coffees, we headed in that direction.
The motorbikes that that passed us had drivers and passengers wearing colorful costumes, so we knew we were on the right track. Soon, the bikes started pulling off down a dirt road, and we followed the flow of traffic into a big open field. We found the Hmong New Year party.
The Hmong are a minority ethnic group spread throughout Southeast Asia. They face significant political and social discrimination in Laos and over the last several decades many have fled to Thailand, the United States and other countries.
After each harvest season, after performing their own household ceremonies and traditions, Hmong people get together to celebrate the new year, reconnect with families and friends from other villages, and select marriage partners. Almost all of the women and girls wear makeup and dress up in their best costumes. Some of the men and boys dress up as well, but that part of the tradition seems to have faded. That is only a simplified outsiders’ explanation of Tsa Hauv Toj, which is the name of this festival that lasts for days and the one that we were lucky enough to find.
One of the main activities of this particular Tsa Hauv Toj is a ball-tossing game called pov pod. We weren’t clear on the rules, other than you must catch and toss the ball with your right hand only. This is a way for young people to socialize and for parents to evaluate potential matches. We talked to one person who said that it was not a very serious game and anyone could play, even if you weren’t in the market for a husband or wife.
We also met and enjoyed talking with Peter, a Hmong man who is living in Minneapolis. He had an impressive video equipment setup.
One section of the festival grounds was dedicated to a long row of booths set up with a variety of large vinyl backdrops. Anyone could use them to take photos and there was also a person who was selling digital prints from his portable printer.
We were the only foreigners there that day, and drew a lot of stares. We also got a lot of photo requests, which we were happy to pose for. It was only fair.
Luang Prabang is on a peninsula at the convergence of the Khan and Mekong rivers and is full of heavily decorated temples and orange-robed monks and golden Buddhas. The days were sunny and warm and the evenings were cool and quiet (most of Laos has a midnight curfew which enforced to varying degrees).
One afternoon at our guesthouse, three ladies who owned shops in the neighborhood showed up with shot glasses, dice and bowls. The shot glasses weren’t for drinking; they were for rolling the dice to play Ludo, which we later learned is a Vietnamese game similar to Parcheesi. We observed for a few games and tried to figure out the rules. They played fast and groaned and smiled at each others’ luck and misfortune.
Alicia asked to join and did her best to not slow down the game. She was no match for the pros and in the end the ladies took her for about 30,000 kip ($3.75). You don’t need a common language to laugh and enjoy an afternoon together. (Watch a clip from the Ludo game here.)
We also got to hang out more with Kevin and our boat buddies from our Mekong trip. We were spread all over town in various guesthouses, but got together for dinner a few evenings and negotiated with two tuk-tuk drivers to take us to a local waterfall for one afternoon.
Wait, we haven’t even shown you the prettiest part yet.
Christmas was approaching, and we noticed a few decorations around Luang Prabang, but it just felt odd amidst palm trees and golden temples and jungle waterfalls. Our guesthouse put up a tree next to the household altar a few days before Christmas, and on the 24th and 25th day, a few people wore Santa hats around town. We went to our favorite “noodle lady shop” for Christmas breakfast and had a nice quiet day together.
Christmas was actually our second-to-last day in Laos, but we had a few more adventures before then…
On the very last day that our Thai visa was valid, we got our exit stamps and ferried across the Mekong River to the border town of Huay Xay, Laos. We loaded up on essential boat supplies: water, Pringles, chicken sandwiches wrapped in banana leaves, mandarin oranges, oddly flavored sunflower seeds, butt cushions. We needed some local currency, too, and became millionaires when we found what might have been the only ATM in town and withdrew 1 miiiillion kip (about $125).
We found the pier and bought our tickets for Luang Prabang. There are three public transportation options to get to Luang Prabang from the Thai/Laos border. The cheapest option is a 12 hour bus ride. The fastest and most expensive (and potentially lethal) option is putting on a helmet and crouching in a wooden speedboat for six hours. The other, much more appealing option is a two day boat journey down the Mekong River.
Two days on a boat is perfect for reading. One of my favorite quotes from Thor Heyerdahl’s Fatu-Hiva, related Thor’s feelings as he and his wife were caught in a rainstorm while hiking through the jungle on a South Pacific island. “[We were] uncertain of whether we were suffering or whether we were having a grand time.” That is a perfect way to explain some of our days this year, but the boat trip was definitely much more of the latter.
After the first day, we unloaded at Pakbeng. Here we are having dinner with a bunch of our boat buddies. Our group was from Sydney, Brisbane, Toronto, Alabama, California, Amsterdam, and Thailand (via New Zealand). You may recognize the fellow with the moustache. It’s our friend Kevin from Chiang Mai! He decided to join us for the trip and we were glad to see him again so soon.
There is not much to Pakbeng other than restaurants and guest houses ready to receive people halfway through their boat trips, so we were more than ready to go when 9 a.m. rolled around.
While we were waiting for our boat to be loaded, we saw some elephants working on the far bank.
We also saw a Pakbeng resident giving his goat a bath. How sweet!
Day two on the boat was much like the first. More jungle, more villages, more giant sandbars and goats and water buffalo. Someone brought out a guitar and two Australian sisters, Jemma and Ruby, serenaded us.
Late in the afternoon, Luang Prabang’s pier came into view and we were ready to look for dinner and a place to sleep. We later met other travelers who had been placed on boats with bad seats, loud engines and twice the amount of passengers. We were fortunate to have a perfect two days on the river and to have made many new friends along the way.