“STOP, stop my friend is not on the bus” screamed one of the French backpackers rushing towards the driver. Martin was standing near the top of the stairs stretching his legs. “It’s OK” he calmed her “I saw her go into the bathroom a while ago”.
Travelling from Luang Prubang to Vientiane on the VIP bus, it had been a long day. We’d left at 8.00am that morning and made several stops, mostly unplanned. By the time we arrived in Vientiane at 7.00pm we’d only covered 390 kilometres. But what kilometres. We’d wound up into the hills and then down, then up again, over and over, with the brakes constantly squealing.
At the bus depot in Luang Prubang we’d bought some snacks for the journey and found seats. Other eager tourists had arrived before us. We enviously eyed the seats occupied by a young couple upstairs in the front with a large window. As the bus filled they sat smug in their good fortune but when the journey began and the sun beat in I was glad for my more modest view. A few seats away two young Lao girls bounced excitedly despite their mother’s efforts to calm them.
Bumping along the potholed road from the depot the driver’s assistant distributed a bottle of water and snack to each passenger. The snack was a horrifyingly coloured green synthetic cake, all fluff and sugar. Green seemed a popular colour for food. Later on I saw one of our fellow passengers nibbling on green sandwiches.
We crawled up into the hills passing school children in white shirts with red scarves leaving from their bamboo shacks or almost windowless concrete houses. The road was dusty, there was rubbish everywhere and I wondered how the uniforms could be so white. The crop burn off which had created a smudged cloud over Luang Prubang during the time we had been there continued in the hills.
Farmers were bent double, working in the fields. Amazed we watched an old lady with a huge bundle on her back effortlessly walk up a steep path. Notices advertising the local beer, Beerlao, with its slogan as the beer of the whole hearted people, were everywhere and as the day grew hotter the beer became more and more appealing.
We were grateful for the bus’ air conditioning but part-way through the trip it broke down. Frantic activity by the locals followed, opening and closing the window in the roof and poking at vents. Our co-driver then ran through the bus with two pieces of black hose which he twisted and poked into various places. All this proved futile and we had no air-conditioning for the rest of the journey.
A meal was included in the price of our ticket and we stopped high in the hills at a roadside restaurant for lunch. Feeling guilty we opted for chippies and biscuits rather than the local meal once we saw the kitchen. One of us had already had a problem stomach.
Vang Vieng was a popular stop, where lots of the backpackers got off and others on. Continuing on there was a shout from a local and the bus stopped yet again. Once stopped it wouldn’t start. While the driver tinkered with the engine everyone got off into the marginally cooler air until it was fixed. Ten minutes later another shout, this time from one member of a group of French girl backpackers. The bus had stopped for a local to get on and she thought one of her group had jumped off. Once confident her friend was safe in the bathroom we were off again.
Luang Prubang is a UNESCO heritage site and a major tourist attraction. While there we’d seen little to indicate that Laos is a Communist state. As we neared Vientiane a huge gold statute of two soldiers and a woman carrying crops stood out in the twilight outside the Lao People’s Army History Museum. Further along we passed the Centre for Skills Excellence and then a truckload of men in blue overalls with green Mao style hats. We were beginning to feel that we had left one country and entered another.
Darkness had fallen, and we’d all had enough when we arrived at Vientiane and stumbled off the bus for the last time, eleven hours and 390 kilometres of fascinating glimpses of Laos behind us, stops included.
Clare Gleeson entered our Great Travel Writer competition for January.
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