Purgatory on Wheels in Two Acts

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.

Strangely nice bus station furniture

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.

It begins

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.

Loading up

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.

Comrades in suffering

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.

Broken window

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.

Vietnamese side of the border

09:40 – Here we go.

Boss looks confused

10:27 – Gasoline stop.

Foggy morn

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.

Lunch stop

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.

Music video time

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.

Muddy roads

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.

Last noodle stop

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.