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.
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.
* * *
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!
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.
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.