20 June 2009

Laos and Other Four Letter Words: The Hell Bus.

The back of our bus....

“Sean.” I said very calmly and matter-of fact “You are going to have to get me some Valium.”


Si Phan Don translates to Four Thousand Islands in Lao, and is a grouping of river islands located at the very Southern point of the country where the Mekong widens into a huge channel. Several of the islands are large enough to support both a population of several thousand locals and a thriving backpacker industry. Fruit shakes are blended, “Happy” pizzas are sprinkled with herb, reggae is blasted all evening and even tubing, a Vang Vieng phenomena, is possible. All in all – not our kind of place. (Laos seems to repel educated, socially aware backpackers and attracts the hard partying yobs that only want to jump off of waterfalls and eschew all local culture. Perhaps this is because it is the least developed South East Asian country, and it feels like there is less you “must see.” Either way, this sweet place gets blasted with a lot of vomit spewed out from 22 year olds fresh off of their undergrads.)

We now faced an interesting dilemma. Our next destination was Vietnam, and even though it would be way more convenient Sean and I could not work our way South (Saigon) to North (Hanoi) as we were meeting friends in Hue (centre of Vietnam) in 3 weeks time. In a mess of poor planning, that meant that though we were now only a stone's throw from Cambodia we had to head thousands of kilometres back to the North. The only option, it seemed, was to undertake an epic two and a half day bus journey all the way to Hanoi. Now we just had to decide which route to take.

We had spent the last 2 weeks with a few friends from home, Dave and Landon, and Johann (a stray Dutchman) and they would also accompany us to Hanoi. Sean and Johann met with a nice local travel agent, and after weighing out 5 or 6 different options they settled on a VIP bus from Pakse (a town 2 hours away) to Hue. From Hue we would then take another night bus, which we would arrange when we got there. It would be 2 nights of hell, we all agreed, but better than dicking around for 4 or 5 days trying to get there on shorter duration buses. Our hopes for a “King of Bus” (a huge, double decker deluxe coach that we had passed on numerous times due to its high cost) were dashed, but the travel agent had showed us photos of the Lao VIP bus we were booking – it looked pretty good, and despite having no AC he assured us that there were fans that would be blowing all night, even when the bus stopped. Besides, he himself was heading into Pakse the next day and would be accompanying us to his office, where we would be dropped off and could leave our bags for the 4 hours between our arrival and the Hue bus's departure. It wasn't perfect, but it was the most time-effective route and we were confident that we had made the right decision.

The next morning we started the massive journey that would take us on a boat, in a minivan and on a 15 hour bus ride. Everything started smoothly – after an hour in a severely tippy canoe we got into our minivan, and though it was packed to the rafters (Lao think nothing of cramming double the amount of passengers into a vehicle than there are seats for – sometimes more) the AC helped to take the humidity out of the relentless 40 degree heat. We edged closer to Pakse, and suddenly the van stopped and the agent hopped out. “OK, you have good journey. You go to our office now. No problems.” The driver sped off and we shrugged, assured that we were on our way.

The minivan sped through Pakse, zooming past all of the restaurants that we had hoped to spend our four hours in, and continued down the highway. Sean consulted his map. “The office must be near the bus station.” He reasoned. In Laos the government runs all of the buses, and so even the VIP and King of Bus leave from the same station as the rickety local buses, so it made sense that we were heading 8 km out of the city toward the depot. What did not make sense is that we now seemed to be turning into the public bus station. The driver, who did not speak much English, gestured. “Here. Office.”

It certainly was just the bus station. We tumbled out of the vehicle and looked around, chuckling. “Nice office, eh?” I said to Sean, handing over my voucher to the clerk behind the counter. He grunted, and passed me a bus ticket in return. A regular bus ticket. Regular Local Bus Ticket. For a 15 Hour Night Bus.

I have no problems with local buses. We normally take them everywhere – they are cheaper and a great way to meet locals and allow for a more authentic experience than swanky AC buses. But a night bus is bad enough even with full beds on the fanciest bus – but with shoddy seats and constant stopping? Unbearable.

“Ummm, excuse me?” I said to the clerk politely. “We have a VIP bus? Not local bus?”

“No. Local. Local Bus.” He gestured to the price list on the wall. I quickly did the math.

“But we paid for the VIP....” Realization clouded my narrowing eyes. My head snapped around like a pissed off Linda Blair, and seeing our minivan begin to pull away and I shouted at Sean, Dave and Johann. “Stopppp the Driverrrrrr!!!!”

Sean stepped beside the van and yanked open the passenger door. “This is a local ticket! The agent said VIP?” The driver went from 'some English' to 'no English' very quickly. Sean pulled out his mobile and demanded the travel agent's number. I dialed and as he answered I explained the situation. The man responded, “No Miss, I told your boyfriend this is local bus. Not VIP.” My face went red instantly and the pre-menstrual hormones coursing through my veins threatened to explode.

“You. Are. LYING!” I shouted at him, as Sean pried the phone from my fingers and began to speak with him.

“Yes, um.....hmmm. No, you didn't....um....WHAT? No...that's not true....you DID say it was a VIP bus...Okay, ummm....we would like the VIP bus.....YOU DID SAY IT WAS. You are LYING!!!!” After Johann took his turn with the same results I snatched the phone back.

“I am calling the tourist police, you liar. You are a dirty liar. Dishonest man! SHAME! Tourist POLICEEEEE!” And then he hung up, leaving my hands shaking and heart racing in that way that happens in a fight or flight moment. I knew very well that in situations like these there is nothing that can be done but warn other travelers – there is no ombudsman, no manager or authority you can call when you are in deepest Laos (or India, Nepal, Cambodia – you get my point.) It's not their problem. It's your problem.

After a brief caucus, we came to the conclusion that yes, we had been had, but now we needed on that VIP bus. I again marched to the counter, the surly man ignoring me until I throat-cleared and politely Excuse Me'd numerous times. “Hi! We want to pay more and take the VIP bus, please.”

He shuddered and grunted and vibrated in a way that made me realize that not only was Canadian diplomacy low on his list of priorities, after my outburst on the phone (which must have looked terribly uncouth and selfish to him, having no back story and only a rudimentary grasp of the language I was shouting in) he actually kind of hated me.

“No. No VIP bus. You have local bus.”

“Yes, I understand that I have local bus. I would like to pay more and take VIP bus.”

“No. You have local bus.”

I was now that strange traveling conundrum that every backpacker faces. Does this person understand what I want, and are they telling me the correct answer, or do they think that I am asking for something different and are now merely telling me what I already have? Which is it?!! You will find, in this situation, that no matter how much clarification you try to engage in you keep getting the same answer that you felt you needed clarification on in the first place. At some point you have to give up. Sean tried as well, and finally managed to glean the information that we dreaded – Yes, there was indeed a VIP bus but it was not until tomorrow, and No – the overpriced ticket price that we had already paid could not be used towards a new ticket. It was either squander more money on accommodation for one night in Pakse and a new ticket, or suck it up and get on the local bus – and in the spirit of the backpacker's credo we all agreed that money was more important.

“Excuse me?” I asked the gruff man who was again ignoring us, “which bus will we be taking?” As we waited for him to painstakingly fill out a form to acknowledge me I scanned the bus lot. The buses looked...OK, actually. They seemed quite new and even a bit shiny and clean. My mood lifted.

“Ugh. Ahhhgh, mumble...those ones. There.” He grunted and pointed to the one corner of the lot that my eyes had somehow managed to miss – a seedy, decrepit part of the station in which 2 buses sat, and while both were rusting hulks one was much better than the other. It, however, was boldly emblazoned with a sign that read “Da Nang” - a city 200 km from Hue. I was relieved – this must be our bus – it must stop in Hue on its way further down the coast to Da Nang.

“Da Nang bus?” I asked the Mumble Man as I pointed to the bus in question.

“Snurffle. Ha! No. Mmmmrumble. HUE bus.” And he in turn pointed to the bus I was most afraid of.


The 5 of us trudged over to the bus. And what a bus it was.

It was one of the oldest vehicles I have ever seen, with peeling paint and bubbly corroded pockets so large I could place my hand inside. From the outside the windows appeared smeary and tinted, each only opening a maximum of 1 foot. As my eyes dared to creep upwards, I noticed the rice sacks. Tied to the top of the already precarious vehicle were at least one hundred 50 lb rice sacks, rigged haphazardly with a spiderweb of rope. A procession of coverall suited men worked busily, cramming every nook and cranny of the luggage hold with a bizarre array of goods – including more rice sacks. Lao buses make most of their profit from cargo transportation – a practice that is not actually legal but completely standard nonetheless. Conductors and drivers hire workers to load and unload, and make a relatively high profit from the fee that they charge people. It is not uncommon to have to share your space with a motorbike, a sloppy drum of fish sauce and a lone bleating goat tethered to the top of the bus.

Crammed in the back with someone's motorcycle on a different bus.

I dizzily climbed the stairs into the belly of the beast, a rank musty smell filling my nostrils and an incredulous expression on my spoiled Westerner's face. It was....putrid. The vinyl seats were stiff and crusty with age, the railings and handles were all flaking with rust. The windows, which had appeared tinted from the outside, were actually darkened with a coat of greasy spatter, and the aisle was littered with debris. There were goods loaded into the space where the entire last 5 rows had been torn out to leave space for an epic amount of rice bags and boxes. I backtracked and stormed off of the bus.

Poor little goat.

Mumble man was now joined by Cackling Lady. I am not sure to what degree she understood my mix of English, French and pidgin Lao, but she punctuated each pause in her answers with a cackle as if I was asking the stupidest questions on the planet.

“Please can we take the Da Nang bus? It goes through Hue?” I pleaded.

“Hrmm, No. Not Go.....” he said, right as she said, “Yes, yes – why not, hawhhee haaa ha.” She nodded vehemently and led us to the nicer bus. Mumble Man followed. The boys began to try to clarify – to ensure that we wouldn't wake up in Da Nang – or even further South.

“So we take this bus to Hue?” Johann asked, pointing to the better option. Cackling Lady laughed and said “Sure!” while everyone, Lao and Western alike, stood around looking awkward and confused. We paused for a moment to regroup - Landon looked near tears, Dave seemed in shock and Sean's face was worried.

“Fuuuuck!” I moaned, “this is terrible. I wouldn't care if I had paid for a local bus – if I was prepared for this. I hate feeling cheated! And does this laughing lady get what we mean? Should we take this Da Nang bus?” The question remained unanswered, because at that moment the Mumble Man announced– by grunting and gesturing and shooing us - that we would be taking the janky bus to Hue.

“Hey!” Sean said, “she said that we....” he looked around to find the Cackling Lady – who was now nowhere to be seen. We knew then that this was really going to happen, and we might as well get used to it.

“Sean.” I said very calm and matter-of fact “You are going to have to get me some Valium.”


Sitting in Pakse, we ordered surprisingly good New York style pizzas, cheesy pastas and big icy fruit slushes – topped off by the requisite Beer Lao for the boys. Sean had emerged successful in his search for the required tablets – and Landon asked me “So, how much Valium do you take for something like this?” I shrugged.

“I have no idea” I answered honestly – the only prescription sedative I had ever taken was Atavan, an anti-anxiety drug that I use when I have to get a needle (Yes, the tattooed girl is afraid of syringes. Leeme alone about it.) “It's what people take on TV. I think 1 or 2?” She shuddered.

“I don't know – I worry about being really out of it and groggy.”

“Me too – but I am willing to deal with it – I am a soup of estrogen and progesterone rage right now and I will not sleep – or even be able to prevent myself from verbally abusing people – unless something synthetically forces me to relax.”


Back to the station at 5pm, we clambered onto the bus, which was now in a much more dire state, filled with even more cargo. We sat down in our seats and Dave's promptly collapsed, the arm and back cushion completely detaching. At the same moment, we noticed that the entire floor under each seat was covered with metal pails filled with clay. These clay pots would be un-moulded and used as mini-barbecues (the only stove top most people use in SE Asia) but right now they were forcing our knees up around our chests. Unceremoniously I lifted 2 from beneath my feet and stacked them in the aisle, returning for Sean's. Dave, Landon and Johann followed – this was crazy. It is one thing to get a crummy bus with no AC, no fans (and certainly none that would be running all night like the Scam Agent had promised) and broken seats that don't recline, but to be asked – nay, expected to sit all night like an asshole with your ankles in your ears while all of Lao's clay pot supply occupies the spot you paid for...well. You can imagine. A worker, still busy loading boxes, bales and sacks into the back, picked the pots back up and began moving them right back under my feet.

Dave and his broken seat.

“NO.” I said loudly in a flat voice. He looked at me for a long moment and saw I was not faltering. I offered no more pleading, no explanation – just held his gaze with my feet planted on the ground. He hesitated, and began to move the pots to another section. A small victory as people streamed by, loading up firewood, bundles of sticks and plastic bag after plastic bag. It was like they had a hoarding problem. I kept expecting to see bundles of newspapers and shoe boxes filled with receipts and coupons – we were practically a stack of old Chatelaine back issues from this being my Grandmother's house. The smell of rotting vinyl and upholstery, of sweat, dirt and dust became cloying – so thick in the air we could taste it.

Clay pots under the seats. See how they're all wedged in there?

Soon 2 British guys got on, showed the conductor their ticket and were escorted to the back and told, “No have seat. You sit here.”

“But we paid for seats....um. Can we have seats?” The blank stare they received was answer enough. Remember – it's your problem, not their problem. The 2 blokes spent the entire night balanced on rice sacks (see the top of this page), which sounds like it may have been more comfortable – until you consider that all of the stuff that had been loaded on the bus, had to come off. All night long.

The hoary old bus wheezed to a start just as the sun was setting, and I took that as my cue to take 2 Valium. Turing left out of the station, the whole thing teetered and swayed and slowed down to a crawl.

“We're going to break down or crash at some point.” Sean said calmly. I nodded. Lao country music was now being played at top volume, but even over the din and through my earplugs I could hear cellophane crinkling. It would stop for a moment, start quietly and then break out into a full - 'where is the cat - he has a Safeway bag and is shredding it somewhere in the house' - level of noise. Sean, sitting on the aisle, without the benefit of the small amount of breeze that fluttered in through the window when we got up to our maximum speed of 25km, gagged beside me.

“Oh Fuck.” He said. By this point I was disoriented and just wanted to sleep.

“What?” I asked. I heard Landon gasp behind me.

“She....oh god, gross...she, this lady across the aisle from me has this big cooler and inside, wrapped in plastic are all of these snakes. Ackk. Can't you smell it?”

I could hear Landon, in a small voice. “She has rotting snakes.” My blindfold remained firmly in place.

Every 5 to 10 minutes we stopped to either pick up more goods or drop them off, and ladies selling cockroaches, crickets and chicken on sticks swarmed the bus, banging the windows with their skewered fare and each time jolting me out of the beginnings of sleep. At one stop, for an entire15 minutes, crates of water guns (for the upcoming Water Festival – Songkran) were loaded up, only to be dropped off one hour later. Huge boxes of Red Bull came aboard, along with wriggling bags of geckos and more wood. The music was blaring until at some point around 11pm, in an uncharacteristic act of confrontation, Sean approached the driver, asked politely to turn down the music and when he was ignored, turned it down himself (the sound system was an ancient home stereo rigged up in the luggage rack.) An hour later, as the music crept up in volume once again, Dave went up and did the same. Rude? Culturally Insensitive? Yes and yeah. But we were so tired and sad and frustrated that it was sickeningly satisfying.

Landon gives up.

Landon tapped my shoulder. “Can I have a Valium too please?” I handed her one and took another myself.


All throughout the middle of the night the bus stopped and started, Rotting Snake Lady crinkled and uncrinkled and ran off the bus hourly to sell (or bury?) her wares, lights blazed on and off and chattering and music intermittently flared up until at 3am we reached the Vietnamese border. Which did not open until 7am. Needless to say, no fans cooled us and though I was asleep I remember dreams of intense heat as we waited in a stagnant tin can for morning.

Sean gently brushed me awake at 6:45, when it was time to go through and get stamped into Vietnam. I was surprised to see that I had acquired a new stamp while I was sleeping. “I took your passport and stamped you out of Laos.” Sean said. I blinked at him.

“So, you took my passport and they stamped it – even though they didn't see me? I could have been killed and left in Laos? How do they know?” I asked, groggy and yes – calm.

“Well....” he paused think, “I'm pretty sure that as long as their paperwork says you left, you aren't their problem anymore.”

“Hmm. It's my problem. I see a theme here.”

As we chatted, the driver stood, saw Sean, Landon and I still on the bus and shouted “YOU YOU YOU YOU YOU YOU YOU!!!” gesturing wildly to the Laos border checkpoint that we had already been through. We smiled and nodded and pointed to our passports.

“Yep Thanks! We got it!” This did little to quell the litany of “You's” spewing from his mouth.

We gazed at him in disbelief as we walked by.

Once we were through the Vietnamese border it was 7:30 am, and we thought that we would be in Hue by 8am as promised, or maybe 8:30. Wrong. Each time we approached a government checkpoint (in Communist countries this is often) chaos ensued. Just before the first one, the bus pulled over and all of the Red Bull (and there was a lot) was re-arranged and hidden in a compartment. At the next, we stopped for a moment to let a man off - he went running into the forest, and 5 minutes up the road as he came running back out of the forest and re-boarded the bus. Soon after that we stopped for forty five minutes while the crew unloaded all of the clay pots and rice sacks. Once we finally got going again it was really no better - the sleek, modern AC buses of Vietnam whizzed by us as we chugged along at the good 30 Km we had been doing all night and it was noon before our smelly, dirty and now near empty bus pulled into Hue.

It pulled over abruptly and stopped on a busy street. “YOU YOU YOU YOU YOU YOU YOU YOU!” The driver shouted at the 5 of us, and at the 2 bruised Brits in the back. He gestured that we should get off here - in the middle of nowhere with no orientation and no idea where we were.

“No Thanks man, just the bus station.” The Brits called out. The bus didn't move. Other people at the front also gestured wildly that we should get off.

“This might be the tourist area – I have no idea?” I said. I had been to Hue before, but I did not recognize this area at all.

“I'd rather go to the bus station or a landmark.” Johann said, and we all agreed. “Bus station please?” We said to the driver.

And he said......”YOU YOU YOU YOU YOU!” and began instructing his workers to unload our packs onto the sidewalk, alongside of all of the Red Bull. Now we were all angry.

“Wait!” I shouted. “Hey!” He refused to look at me. I inhaled, shuddering with anger that the situation had helped build and that the Valium had not tamped., and pointed my finger. “Hey! YOU YOU YOU YOU YOU YOU!” He stopped on a dime, glowering at me. I watched as his fists balled and a little wittle bitsy thundercloud formed over his head. “You can't just leave us in the middle of nowhere where you just happen to be making a delivery!” But, of course, he could. It was.....all together now! Our problem.

We stood on the sidewalk and Sean raised his middle finger at the driver - one bird well deserved. We walked for a short time and completely by fluke managed to hit a small backpacker area with a few cafes, guesthouses and travel agencies. We sat down at a cafe, it's walls covered in traveler's graffiti, to enjoy our first Vietnamese meal of pho, gazing at one another like shell shocked survivors of a nasty battle. Which, in a way, we were.

Laos had been the easiest country to travel in – full of genuinely sweet people, beautiful scenery and fun activities. And then we met all of the country's assholes in one day – like fate suddenly decided that we had recently had it too easy and our quota of 'bad shit that happens to travelers' hadn't been met, so Here's This Bus!

After eating and sorting out our next night bus to Hanoi (which was, by comparison, a fucking Sheraton on wheels with individual pod beds and hardwood floors) I grabbed a Sharpie from the waitress, scanned the walls for an empty spot and grabbed a chair to stand on. High in the back of The Atlas Cafe in Hue, on the back wall above the door to the washroom, it now says:

“4 Canucks and a Dutchman survived the Hell Bus – Si Phan Don to Hue 2009.”


Sam said...

Sometimes I think I'm glad to be home, but most of the time I think I'd rather trade my sitting on the couch with coffee and a laptop for rotting snakes lady.

So, how exactly do you get your hands on Valium in Laos? Just walk into a pharmacy and ask for it?

Also, give our love to Sean, too. Miss you guys. I still might head down to Australia this summer (if I can save enough money), but it'll be before you're there.

Violet Dear said...

Just walk into the pharmacy. You can also get Oxycontin, Ephedrine, Percodan - anything! Nothing requires a prescription, it seems.

Sproglet said...

The first time I saw this I just glanced through it, but I've come back to it as I'm planning my likeky routes from place to place.

I have to admit I almost pissed myself laughing through most of it, I'm sure I wouldn't in the same situation myself!!

You screeching down the phone at the agent and the rotting snake lady really got me the most.

Monies are making me think I should do the bus between Luang Prabang and Hanoi, but this story.....argh.

Gawd, I'm still grinning

Violet Dear said...

@Sproglet - it was truly hellish. TAKE A PLANE! :)

Sproglet said...

I'm gonna take your advice!!

Travelling alone I'm not sure I'd survive it!

So glad I've got something like this to refer to :D


B xx