We knew we had to get off the train at Nong Kai but we weren’t exactly sure when the stop was, except that it was the next morning. We were awake when the train stopped and all hell broke loose. Dozens of aggressive tuk-tuk drivers boarded the train and started “helping” the passengers to pack and get off. Mass confusion, running around, shouting, and general mayhem. “Our” driver helped us carry our bags off the train. We weren’t nervous this time as we had both been to South East Asia many times and knew the routine. We knew that we would take this tuk-tuk (after all, we had to take something to the border), and we knew that, at worst, we would have to pay way more for the trip than the locals would – par for the course.
He took us to the Friendship Bridge, which crosses the Mekong River. There we emigrated Thailand and got on the bus (another fee) to cross the bridge to Laos. I suppose we could have walked it. On the other side we immigrated into Laos. Then we took another tuk-tuk into Vientiane. At this point we had no idea how we were going to cross Laos. We knew our Laos – Vietnam border crossing point was Lao Bao (back then you had to specify exact entry and exit dates and border crossings on the Vietnam visa), but didn’t know how to get there.
We walked into a travel agency. I had a vague notion of taking a boat down the Mekong River to Savannakhet, then taking a bus or train across to Vietnam. Well according to the travel agent lady, there were “no boats”. Period. We really didn’t have time to analyse the situation, so we booked whatever transport we could. We found out that we could take a bus south to Savannakhet and from there another bus east to Lao Bao. We had missed the bus that terminated in Savannakhet that day, but we could take another one that was going beyond Savannakhet and get off early. We changed some currency and bought our tickets for these two buses. We walked over to the bus station, a dirt area with buses in it. No buildings but a fruit stand. On the way over we noticed that there was no pavement (asphalt) at all in this city. In fact, we were later to discover that there was no pavement in the entire country, nor are there trains. (I have since read on-line that at least the road from Vientiane to Savannakhet has been paved.) There seemed to be nothing but 1970s Toyota Coronas in this town (a similar situation to the Chevys in Hat Yai). There were lots of long skinny French loaves of bread for sale, so we stocked up on some along with some bottles of water. I think the bread worked out to less than one American penny per loaf.
The Bus Trip
By asking around (“Savannakhet? Savannakhet?”) we found out which bus was ours. It was sort of like a taller school bus, but blue and with harder seats. We were told it would leave at around 1:30 pm and that the trip would be about four or six hours (admittedly the travel agent had looked especially vague when she told us this). We got on the bus and only a few seats were taken. We waited for an hour or so and a few more seats filled up. We were going to wait outside until we figured out that the other people must be waiting in their seats for a reason, perhaps to hold them? So we waited in ours. The bus driver had filled the entire floor surface with a layer of boxes and lumber, under the seats and in the aisle way, raising the level of the floor about ten inches. There were no internal luggage racks and we were reluctant to leave our bags unattended on the roof. So we sat with our knees to our ribs and our bags on our knees almost up to our faces, on the rock-hard seats. Then the bus really began to fill and it became clear that it wasn’t going to leave until there was no more room for a single crammed body. The seats designed for two had three and four people each. Ours only had three. In the aisle way, people sat on each others’ knees down the entire length. At the back of the bus (we were in the seat in the last row, just in front of the rear door) was standing room only. These people stood (crammed much like in a subway during rush hour in Manhattan, London, or Tokyo) for the whole trip. Some people sat on the roof with the ticket guy and the luggage. In hindsight, this was probably the best option, although I have since seen on TV that this is illegal.
The photo to the right was stolen from the Internet; our bus didn't have luggage racks like this one.
We were absolutely jam packed into this bus. Bags in our faces, crammed in sideways, people looming over immediately behind us. Then the bus moved off at about 5:00 pm, only three and a half hours behind “schedule”. When we left the outskirts of town ten minutes later, the red dust from the dirt road started to pour in the windows, which were permanently stuck open. The bus pounded through every pothole on the road, jostling all the tightly packed people into each other.
The ticket guy had to see everyone’s tickets. He crawled above us all by squatting on the tops of the seat backs, moving from one seat to the other. To get to the other side of the bus he would crawl out the window, go over the roof, and crawl in the window on the other side – all while the bus was moving! He did this frequently throughout the whole journey.
The bus stopped many times at regular stops. At each stop there were local vendors selling food. They would come to the side of the bus and offer food through the windows. A few times we saw cooked rats on a stick (it’s true!). People got off to pee (or otherwise) in the woods. Kevin and I always got off one at a time.
There was one Australian couple on the bus, the only other foreigners we saw the whole time we were in Laos. They were cycling all over Laos for a few months and had decided to load their bikes on the bus for this leg of the journey. The guy spent a lot of his time on the roof. Some other passengers were also friendly and a few offered to share their food around. We refused a lot of it after seeing the rats, but I had some nice fruit I had never seen before (and I forget what it was).
The bus also stopped at least half a dozen times due to breakdowns and flat tires. We were told the journey would take four to six hours and it had already been six. We knew we weren’t taking this bus to the end of the line, and there weren’t exactly signs at the side of the road, so every time the bus stopped we had to ask anyone around, preferably the ticket guy: “Savannakhet? Savannakhet?” We always got blank incredulous silent stares in return.
We were also freezing to death. It was January and we were considerably further north than Malaysia or Bangkok. We were still wearing shorts and T shirts as we had expected a six hour day trip on the bus. The cold air was blowing in the stuck-open windows along with all the red dust.
At one point the driver, the ticket guy, and several others had the floor boards out of the front of the bus, and the transmission opened up, tools everywhere, working on it by flashlight. It was now eight hours into the trip and we were in absolute pain from the cramped seating and exhausted. It was during the transmission job that Kevin remarked how quickly one’s priorities changed. Up until then we wanted to get to Savannakhet, to Savannakhet, to Savannakhet. Once the bus stopped and the engine was in pieces, all we wanted was for the bus to move again, no matter how slow and in any direction.
The bus got going again. It was now 2:00 am and we had assumed that we had missed our connecting bus from Savannakhet to Lao Bao, and had no idea when the next one would be. Since Vientiane, it appeared that we were in very remote countryside. Finally at 5:00 am the bus stopped (“Savannakhet? Savannakhet?”) and someone responded to our question, making it sound like maybe we should get off the bus, so we did. The four-to-six hour journey had taken twelve hours!
There we were, in the pitch dark, in the middle of the Lao countryside, at an intersection between two dirt roads. We felt as if we had giant neon signs above us saying, “Kill us and take all of our money. No one will ever catch you.” Of course, this didn’t happen. Eventually a lone tuk-tuk came up and parked. We walked over and found out (“Lao Bao? Lao Bao?”) that there was a bus to Lao Bao at this exact intersection in one hour.
So we had the choice of hanging around there or letting this guy take us to a hotel. Frankly, we both had to take a crap, so that was the major factor in choosing the hotel option. He took us to a nice little hotel where we got the “deluxe” room for $6. It was run down and basic, but it had a shower and a western style flushing toilet, and two beds. It was heaven. We had another choice of using our fifty remaining minutes by taking showers and changing, or sleeping. We were exhausted and we both chose to sleep. We also figured that any clothes we were to change into would also get grungy right away, so there was no real point in trying to get clean. The next morning (fifty minutes later) we got up and decided to stay in our shorts, as the next leg should be during the warmer day. We woke the hotel guy up and he got us a tuk-tuk to get us back to the intersection out of town. The previous driver had told hotel guy where we had to return, and he in turn passed this on to the new driver. The tuk-tuk took us to the intersection, and there our new bus was waiting.
Our tickets were valid. This bus didn’t have its floor covered with goods and there was a rack inside where we could stow our bags, so at least our legs were more comfortable. It was still jam-packed, the windows were still stuck open, and this was a slightly tougher bus, bumpier. This leg of the journey took ten hours. By this time we were coughing our lungs up. (We later found out that we had both developed bronchitis.) We also knew we were going to the end of the line so there was no anxiety about missing our stop. After driving all day, the bus just stopped, apparently in the middle of nowhere, and everyone got off, so we did too.