Category Archives: Laos

On the Night Bus

We have become so used to them, to sleeping in the little bunks while trying to ignore the rocking and the honking and the bright lights being turned on at the oddest times. They are just part of the experience. The night buses, that is. We all have the stories that we can pull out about the worst one that we ever took.

Hanoi, from by the lake.
Hanoi, from by the lake.

Like the one this past week where we were the only white people on the twenty-five hour bus ride from Vientiane to Hanoi. And we were shuffled into the back seats of the small Vietnamese sleeper bus. The back seats are the ones that are all connected together, so instead of getting your own bunk you are in a little crawl space with three other people, and three above you. Of course, with there being six of us this worked out perfectly, and we spent the evening watching movies and drinking the alcohol that we had brought from Vientiane and getting yelled at by the Asians on the bus in front of us.

Or the time that Stephen and I got stuck in the Gorakhpur train station for twenty two hours overnight, and then took the lowest class of the Indian train fifteen hours across the country from Gorakhpur to Delhi. For us that is our sleeper train horror story.

But it nearly gets beat by the one where we couldn’t get tickets for actual seats on the bus from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang and instead bought tickets to get to sit in the aisle. And we spent the night moving from the rickety chairs in the aisle to bouncing around on the floor and sleeping on giant bags of rice that were there to finally finding seats.

The Temple of Literature, in Hanoi
The Temple of Literature, in Hanoi

Before getting on the bus we go out and we find sandwiches or Oreos or crackers. Or chocolate. Green tea for me, because I like something sweet to drink sometimes. Babybell cheeses to munch on over the course of the ride: Kateryna gets a roll with hers so that she can really make a good sandwich, and she tries to buy a can of tuna, too, but I tell her that it is going to make the bus smell and it is probably not the best idea.

I carry melatonin in my bottle of Advil, and take a couple when I get on the bus. It doesn’t always work, but it makes me feel like I am making an effort to really get some good sleep. I give them out to the others, too, sometimes, and we see whom it works on and whom it doesn’t. Ian, our newest travel companion, brings some Valium, and when it isn’t working takes another.

When the drugs do work I get the best sleep I have gotten in a few nights, the dim lighting and gentle rocking forcing me to sleep early and not to stay up later than I need to. When it doesn’t work we are groggy in the morning when we get into the new city in the early morning light and wave down a tuktuk or a cab to take us into the center of town to where a hostel is, and where we hope that they will let us take a nap for a little bit until it is a normal time of day and we can get up again and eat some new foods and explore the new city that the bus transported us to overnight.

The cathedral around the corner from our hostel in Hanoi
The cathedral around the corner from our hostel in Hanoi

On this bus we weren’t lucky enough to get the back seats so we are all spread around the bus, curled up in our own spaces. Jordan and I are in seats towards the front, Kateryna and Stephen are in two of the seats at the back, Ian is in another seat in the back next to a couple. Paul and Lorie, our Romanian buddies, have moved ahead of us because they need to get back to Bangkok soon for their flight home and have too much to see in the meantime. So they have left and Ian has joined and our travel group has shrunk to five.

The bus drivers never speak English, so communication is limited to a little waving and a lot of yelling. Yelling to tell us to sit in this seat, but not in that one. Yelling to tell us to wake up, or to go eat food, or to get off for the rest stop now or to get back on the bus before they leave us behind.

The edge of the old quarter, Hanoi
The edge of the old quarter, Hanoi

On the way over the border between Laos and Vietnam we are woken up at 6:30 in the morning to a short Vietnamese man yelling at us frantically. Because that is the only way that we can communicate. It takes a minute or two of groggily trying to decipher the words coming out of his mouth, trying to understand if it is broken English or fast Vietnamese, to realize that he is shouting at us that we are at the border of Laos and Vietnam and we need to get out so that we can go through border patrol.

Border patrol consists of, first, standing around in the freezing cold morning mountain air because the border doesn’t actually open until seven in the morning. Then we push through the crowd of westerners to get our passports to the window and the only person who is doling out exit visas. It takes a while for all six of us to successfully get our exit stamps, and once we finally do we can cross the border and we are in Vietnam.

Except that there is nothing there.

We try and go to our bus that we see parked by the side of the road, but we get yelled at again when we start walking towards it, so, confused, we start walking down the road. It takes maybe fifteen minutes before we finally see the Vietnamese border patrol, the next crowd of people that we will have to push through to get our passports stamped and get on our way.

And by the time we have finished with everything it is nearly 9:30 in the morning and we are yelled at to get back on the bus because everyone else is already on there and because we have taken much longer than any of the Laotians that are on the bus to get through the border, but we cant really be blamed for that because we really did try and push through to the fronts of the crowds but it just gets too hard sometimes.

So that bus ride will go down as one of the more amusing ones, and not one of the horror story ones. And we can brag, too, because we survived a twenty-five hour bus ride, shoved in the back and yelled at, across two countries, and we made it out alive. And sane.

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Sweating Through Laos

The sweat drips down this city. We have been in Vientiane for a day and the sweat does not stop. It rolls down my forehead and into my eyes as I bike leisurely along the road that sides the river. It beads up on my neck and arms and face as we step off and into the nicely air conditioned Vietnam Consulate. It drips onto the forms as I try to fill them out without getting the thin paper wet with grime.

I am gross.

I was on the bus for the past ten hours, overnight, and before that had another, sweaty, four hour layover and yet another four hour bus ride from the islands in the south of Laos. I am gross. I can feel the parts of my skin that are rough from the rivulets of dirt that are engrained there; I can feel the dried sweat tug at my cheeks. My hair, down because I lost my last hairband in the bungalow in Don Det, feels stiff and wiry to the touch. I am so gross.

A dusty sunset over the mountains between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, Laos
A dusty sunset over the mountains between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, Laos

It is hard not to get gross while traveling. It is hard to stay completely clean. Even after the best of showers I get out and, soon enough, I am sweaty again. Or I am wearing clothes that I forget the last time they were washed. Or I ran out of shampoo so this time around my hair is going to get conditioned and conditioned only.  And the next time too. And the next time, until I finally remember to pick up some more shampoo from one of the many mini marts that we pass every day while wandering around the cities here. The staple level of hygiene is making sure that my teeth are brushed and rinsing off my face. A good shower tends to be hard to come by, so when the hostel has really good ones you can be sure I am using it plenty.

And even when I feel clean my surroundings don’t always. I step out into the grimy street in my clean outfit and hair and my feet are immediately covered in dust and dirt. The corners of the hostel might be filthy, but it is the cleanest place in town. The mosquitos swarm in areas by the windows and in the corners, but there is nothing to do because it is just a plague of the country, and if I didn’t want to see mosquitos feeding on anything they can reach then I shouldn’t have come to this country.

Or any of these countries.

Dust is everywhere here.
Dust is everywhere here.

It is amazing how low my standards for bathrooms have gotten. It is amazing how low my standards for a nice, clean room have become. From Nepal, where all I could hope for was a real toilet and not a hole in the ground, and that would be considered somewhere nice. If they provide you with toilet paper, and not just a hose, that is nice. If they have a hose but not just a bucket of water, that is fancy, too. If the floor isn’t covered in water or dirt or water and dirt swirling around into mud and caking itself into the cracks in the flooring and in the corners between the walls then that is a win. A major win. Places that don’t have laminate are so nice. Places with wood floors are nicer. Somewhere where the floor is shiny is a special treat. I only saw that in Thailand.

You learn to expect much less over here. You learn to appreciate what there is. I learn that a little sweat isn’t so bad, and I feel just that much more grateful when I get off of my bike and walk into the little café and they have air conditioning. Of course the café was too expensive, trying to charge me nearly three dollars for a cup of coffee, so we left. But that little moment in the air conditioning with the clean wooden floors and the shiny countertops was nice. Just a little moment of clean.

The Mekong through Luang Prabang
The Mekong through Luang Prabang

And then I am off on my bike again, my old rusty no-gear bike, flying along the busy Vientiane streets in search of somewhere to eat. Somewhere that has coffee for myself and for Kateryna, and possibly a beer for Jordan. Somewhere that won’t overcharge us, somewhere that hopefully is a bit cool. And we fly past tuktuks and motorbikes. And we avoid the trucks and the cars as they signal into our lanes. We watch our backs while we navigate the roundabout and make it through the windy streets. The windy, yet paved, named streets.

As of now our group has solidified into six of us. Myself and Stephen, Kateryna, the Australian that we met in Chiang Mai. Lori and Paul, the Romanians that we met in the bus station, and Jordan, a Canadian who we met bowling in Luang Prabang. He was separating from some old travel buddies and decided to come travel with us for the next month or so. Six people is good. Hard sometimes, when we need to find beds for all of us at once, but always interesting and always fun.

And so as the sun starts to go down over the city and the cool breeze starts to help the country cool off from the heat of the day we go to return our bikes, and walk back to the hostel. We find Stephen, we make plans for dinner. And we start to meet new people, also hot from traveling, also imbedded with the grime and the sweat and the bug bites that come with this country.

Flying through countries

We fly down roads lined in trees and bushes and fences. We fly down roads paved and unpaved and in the middle of being paved again. We ride on buses and trains and tuktuks, little things chugging along the street and we watch the people pass us on their bikes and their cars. We ride through the countries, one after the other, India then Thailand then Laos. We watch as the scenery changes, as the food changes as the huts change from one place to the next.

The people look different. The roads feel different. We watch as they become more and more put together. We watch as the potholes disappear. We watch as the little shacks on the side of the road gain walls and windows and cars in their driveways. We watch as they space apart further and further so that each one gains its own piece of land and its own quiet space.

We watch as the countries change. As the countries change from jungles to flatlands to farms. From mountains to hills to rivers. We watch as they each gain their own little signature. As they all tell their own story.

We watch from buses, large and small. We watch from trains. We watch in the daytime and in the night, changing places, cities, countries all the time. We sit with our noses pressed against glass windows, necks craned towards the back. We drink it in. We want to drink it all in. We want these places in between to change us as much as the places we finally settle. As much as the cities and towns in which we stay. This is our way of seeing the world. We drive it, we watch it all the time.

On the bus, driving across borders.
On the bus, driving across borders.

We watch as the houses gain stilts to stand on, as the builders use concrete instead of mud. We watch as the farms flow from flowers to wheat to rice paddies spread over mountains then fields then nestle themselves back into the little flat beds between the hills that rise quietly here, so quietly.

Not loudly. Not like the jagged snow covered things that command a country. Not like the winding roads that command you go slow, that demand you watch out. Not like the little dirt roads passing for a highway, the one laned things that meekly cut a path from here to the next.

We notice when these things change. When there stops being a person everywhere we look. We notice that there are fewer people, people working, people sitting. We watch as the piles of trash shrink and go away, as the yards become swept and dignified, as the concrete builds itself up and fails to be crumbling away. We see the buildings retain their newness, we see the buildings stand up straight. We see the buildings stay buildings and not merely pieces of tarp sewn together. We see them stand proudly. We see them thrive.

Nepal, India, Thailand, now onto Laos. A new country, a new one to see. There are such brilliant contrasts in these places, such wonderful things to see. There are the constant changes in the land, in the trees and rivers and mountains. There are the new buildings, replacing the old and decrepit ones of the countries before. There are the roads, the flat smooth roads that connect one city to the next, that connect an entire country and make it whole. And there is the feeling in each country. The distinct feeling that accompanies each and every one. The air and the people and the breeze. They carry such different things. Here it is quiet. Quiet and gentle and sweet. Balmy and easy going. What will the next country bring? How will it change, how will it stand out?

Nepal is the mountains, India is the people. The people everywhere you turn. Thailand is the sweet sweet smell of the balmy breeze and the jungle rising quietly from the plains. Little things that define them in my mind. Little things that make them each unique and what they are.

Across the border, across the Mekong, and into Laos!
Across the border, across the Mekong, and into Laos!

*          *          *

We arrive in Laos by way of a Friendship Bridge and eight separate vehicles. We take the tuktuk from our hostel in Chiang Mai to the bus station and then we wait. At nine am we take the bus from Chiang Rai, and twenty minutes after we have gotten off of that we are on another bus, this time from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong. Where the bridge is, where the department of immigration is. It is a quick drive to the water’s edge, immigration on the Thai side and then we take yet another bus across the bridge to Laos. So easy! And once we are there there are forms to be filled out, money to be paid (in American dollars, of course, what they always want for the visas), and then a group van to the bus station in Laos, at Hua Xai.

The bus leaves once a day from Hua Xai to Luang Prabang. Sometimes at 5pm, sometimes at 6pm, but once a day. And if you don’t make it onto the bus? Then you have to stay in the little town for another day.

We almost didn’t make it onto the bus.

It was me and Stephen and our new Australian friend, Kateryna. We met Kateryna in Chiang Mai and she needed to go to Laos, so here we were with another travel buddy!

Stephen and Kateryna, all set in our chairs on the bus!
Stephen and Kateryna, all set in our chairs on the bus!

We made it to the ticket counter just as two Romanians, Paul and Lorie, finished buying their tickets. We are out of luck, she says, there is nowhere to sit, she says. We beg her: we say, we will sit on the roof! We say, we will sit below, with the bags! She says no, no, there are no seats. We say, we will sit in the aisle! We are completely fine with sitting on the floor! It will be the same price, though, she says, and we say, fine. All we want is to be on that bus. All we want is to, finally, get to Luang Prabang.

And with that we are handed our tickets to the bus. To the aisle of the bus. When we get on she hands us three broken plastic chairs and wishes us “good luck”. We are going to need it.

The bus from Hua Xai to Luang Prabang is 14.5 hours long. It flies over night through the country and gets into the city in the morning, so it is imperative that we get some sleep. Not happening in the little chairs. Every time the bus moves too far to one side or the other the chair feels like it is going to either fall over onto Kateryna or break entirely. Every time I start to doze off with my head on the seat next to me the bus jerks and I nearly fall over. So at the next stop I transfer to the floor. Not so much better, because now every time the bus jerks, instead of being thrown around in my chair I am thrown around in the aisle of the bus, my limbs playing a sort of pin-ball with the sides of the aisles and peoples limbs which are sprawled out in the middle in the middle of their sleep. It is cold. It is sore. It is tiring to be thrown around constantly. It is not comfortable, and we have only been on the bus for six hours at this point.

Paul crashes our bus selfie.
Paul crashes our bus selfie.

Eventually enough people get off of the bus that we can get seats! This feels like heaven, and we finally manage to scrounge a few shreds of sleep from what is left of the ride.

We land in Luang Prabang in the morning, with the dew still weighing heavy on the city and sleep on our eyes. All we want are beds in a hostel that wont break the bank.

So, we head out. The three of us, Paul and Lorie, too, and another boy, Ali. We make our way into town, we do our research, we walk back and forth between two different hostels in different parts of town at least three times before finding somewhere that has six beds for us. And, finally, we can fall asleep. Heads on soft pillows now instead of on duffel bags and bags of rice, we fall asleep.

Homemade whiskey and wine, bought from the Luang Prabang night market
Homemade whiskey and wine, bought from the Luang Prabang night market