Having travelled around S.E. Asia for most part of the last 19 years I was recently reminded of the most illogical travel i have ever encountered. I refer to Laos. That wonderfully friendly land locked country which i have visited many times. Always a joy to visit with like most others my favourite place being wonderful Luang Prabang followed closely now by Pakse in the south.
I first went to Laos on an organized tour in 1995 when independent travel was not allowed. Hardly a westerner in sight apart from our own group in our own private van with driver. The roads were more like the surface of the moon and much of the time was spent driving off the road as it was much smoother. Over the next 19 years the roads have vastly improved as tourists are now as common as locals in many places. Alas the logic, or at least logic as westerners know it has not improved at all. A few years back when trucks with two rows of seats in the back, (Songtaew, literally TWO ROWS), were the usual bus it was a case of mud in the rainy season and dust the rest of the year. Often when the seats were full the rest would stand on the tail gate as dust billowed out the back.
On one particular day many years ago I was travelling with my late best mate who was around 85 at the time. Sitting at the guest house restaurant in Nong Khiaw over a lazy breakfast we were suddenly called across the road to the bus stop as they knew we wanted to go to Luang Prabang. Hurry up they yelled. Leaving soon! So we leave our coffee and rush aboard. Sitting on a long bench with a few others at 8.45 a.m. I finally ask what time do we leave. 9.00 he replied. Thirty minutes later i again ask him and again he says 9.00. So I show him the time and he laughs and says 10.00. so we all sit and wait. Time continues until at 10.15 I again ask ,when? 10.00 he again says followed by me showing him the watch before he again laughs and says 10.30. Now 10.45 and the same thing over again to 11.00. When 11.00 clicks over he tells everyone to get off and buy their tickets at the nearby window. 11.10 and finally we depart. OK, not quite yet. We drive for ten minutes to a river side pier where a few back packers had just arrived by boat. So they jump on board and off we go. AGAIN, not just yet. We then drive back to the window so they can buy their tickets. Finally 11.30 and this time we go. Alas 20 minutes later they stop and a huge ice box full of ice is tied to the tail gate containing the biggest fresh water fish i had ever seen. So off we head to Luang Prabang. The five hour trip had seen us sitting on a wooden bench for seven and a half hours in total.
All these years later this sort of thing continues unabated in Laos and i still cannot figure out why. In all visits to Laos it is almost unheard of for the bus/truck/songtaew to leave at the time you are told or even happens to be on the timetable at the bus station.
Fast forward to the next vividly memorable bus trip. Now late 2013 and I am in Udomxai bus station at 8.00 a.m. for the 8.30 bus to Luang Prabang. The timetable on the board beside the ticket window says 8.30 a.m. and the ticket sellers confirms it. Five hours away we are told. I have a coffee with another traveller and an English ex pat who now lives in L.P. Shortly after the best double decker bus ever seen in Laos turns up and we are told that’s the one. I am all smiles. At 8.20 we say, Best get aboard. We three get aboard but are the only ones on it. 8.45 and the locals start to turn up. By nine it is nearly full and off we go. The ex pat tells us they always tell tourists an earlier time so they dont miss it. He also says it may take up to 8 hours during rainy season. At best the road is a narrow but cement road and at worst a muddy dirt one but at least not too many pot holes. as we pass within a metre or so of houses and young kids playing beside the roads in villages of wood and bamboo and not much else. Then the first of our three long delays as the road is covered in mud and rocks from an avalanche. Steep cliff on our left and a 200 metre drop on the right. No where to go untill the road is cleared. Finally I walk up past the line of vehicles to take a look. One man with a shovel is working away on a massive pile of mud and rocks to clear it. Two others came to help him roll a huge rock out of the way. Two hours later we move off. Next avalanche only an hour away only took half an hour to wait. The houses of the villages were built only metres from this huge bus passing by with children in rags even closer. The rain continued as the roads became muddy but still passable tracks. Then our last avalanche and as i thought to myself how many people and equipment would be used back home I look up and see a small grader clearing the way. Ten and a half hous after we left we arrive in L.P. And people ask why i drink so much Beerlao when I’m there. Because it’s as good a beer as there is.
Many less memorable but equally as slow journeys were had in between. Now August 2014 and time to head to South Laos again via Isan or N.E. Thailand. I catch the international bus in Mukdahan across the river into Laos at Savanakhet. After Immigration the bus was suppose to take us to the bus station. I was to slow wasn’t I as it didn’t wait for everyone and the few left were at the mercy of the Tuk Tuk boys. So as to far to walk i get done. No other choice. After two enjoyable days in Savan it’s time to get the bus to Pakse which I have done before but a while back now. Only 230 kilometres so how long can it take. Your in Laos so don’t even bother asking. I am the only non local on board. INCREDIBLE! It leaves at the time I was told. The roads in Savan itself were the worst I’d seen in a long time but once out of town they improved to be very good. Thirty minutes later all going well i think. BUT! We then stop beside a small truck with sacks of rice on it. Thirty minutes later all the rice is now under the bus. Twenty minutes later we stop again for more cargo but as they are loading it onto the roof i can’t see exactly what was going up there. It was only later at a toilet stop I saw numerous boxes and bags plus two upright motor bikes. Not very soon after we seem to stop every ten minutes to pick up passengers, at one time two stops only fifty metres apart. At two stops in small villages we were beseiged by ladies selling chicken on a stick. Large pieces of roast chicken wedged between two pieces of bamboo. Possibly a dozen girls holding at least six sticks in each hand and half boarding the bus to get sales and the other half waving the delicious sticks through the always open bus windows. Twice there were more sellers than passengers. After what I estimate was at least thirty stops on what i call a waving hand bus, ie a bus that stops for every waving hand, we arrive in Pakse six and a half hours later. And not once did a local question anything that was going on. Probably I was the only one who had any sympathy also for all those chicken sellers who never made a sale. And people back home complain if the train is a minute late. Really makes you think doesn’t it. After Pakse I decided to see two new places I’d always wanted to visit in South Laos. Salavan & Attapeu. The latter descibe by someone as the wild east of Laos. For the next four days I never saw another westerner which is always good in itself. Firstly an old big bus from Pakse to Tat Lo in Salavan province on an uneventful big bus. Then it was in the back of a Songtaew to Salavan town with eleven locals with bags of vegies, chickens in a cage and the usual hard seat but only one and a half hours so no big deal. At Salavan bus station the next day a mini van was waiting to take me to Sekong. Again nothing abnormal as it left on time and on good roads arrived without incident. I had planned to stay in Sekong but as the driver said he was continueing to Attapeu i decided to continue and did so without any problems at all along the way. By the way all of these new places had nothing of interest for me apart from a beautiful waterfall in Tat Lo. So after a night in Attapeu I decide to head back to Pakse. What an unforgettable day it was for the 185 kilometre trip. The bus station is out of town and to far to walk to so the night before i ask about bus times and where i can get a taxi at 6.30 a.m. In the nearby market i am told with a bus leaving at 7.00 a.m. At 6.00 a.m. I get to the market with no a taxi in sight. Finally a guy on a motor bike with his cute young four year old girl tells me in broken english wait here and after he buys some food he will take me. Ten minutes later the three of us with my big backpack on my back and small one in his basket we head off at around 6.40 a.m. Ten metres later another tropical downpour begins. After five minutes of this he turns off the main road to his nearby home. Outside is a small truck. I’ll take you in that he tells me. Ten minutes later, still pouring he says he can’t find the key. So i sit outside his house on a verandah with his wife, two kids and grandma with another man beside me squatting down and cutting the husks off coconuts to sell. The familly eventually all squat around a tiny table and start eating which I am invited to do also. The two kids are by the way terrified of me as if i am a monster. When i first arrived and tried to shake hands they both bolted with shrieks into the house often coming out at a safe distance to have a look and finally laugh. Forty five minutes and still no keys but with rain not so heavy we get on the bike and he takes me to the bus station. As we stop i hug him as he saved the day. I offered him money but he totally refused until i gave him 20,00 kip ( less than $3.00) and insisted he buy his kids an icecream each. He accepted this. A nicer human being I have never met. So with many buses to Pakse I only had to wait ten minutes for the next one. A comfortable enough big one. 185 kilometres on decent roads wont take long will it I think.The road out of attapeu was smooth enough by laos standards with a few small pot hholes. So WHY WHY WHY did he drive at not more than walking pace for the first forty five minutes.. not one other person got on. So as nobody else said a word i did the impossible and said nothing either. After this time he sped up to regular speed of about 50 or 60 K’s an hour by now raining again. This is Ok for a while before the mountain fog starts to drift in. Soon visability was almost down to a metre as all you could see was the road directly in front of the bus. Did this cause us to slow down? We drove in this heaviest fog i had ever seen for over an hour and at least we were moving.
A SIDE STORY ALONG THE WAY: Many years ago I read a book called Just Passing By, by a traveller who told of one day having to squat with a bad tummy besdide a packed bus in a third world country and do his biz in full view. I always thought that one day it would happen to me. well now i am proud to say it finally happened. A number of times the bus had stopped and passengers went off to do their biz with many often in clear view. One women in particular got off three times and while totally covered by a huge sari like dress to the ground she clearly squatted beside the bus. Men are usually lucky in this regard unless of course you can’t stand up. So I wanted to go but was not desperate at the first three stops so held on. But my time was coming. At the fourth stop I was really desperate, even worried that as soon as i stood up it may happen. So with always handy paper in hand i go as fast as possible to a muddy but smoooth patch of dirt and almost burst out laughing as I could see the people on the bus see me. Sqatting is never my preffered choice so I was all smiles as i got back on the bus clean as a whistle and long burning desire achieved. You can’t say you have ever travelled until you have done this.
OK, back aboard, fog gone and good roads we arrive in Pakse. 185 kilometres in six hours. More beerlao was to follow for the next four days. Mission acomplished to see the new places and now I know i never need go there again but I will continue to return to Savanakhet and Pakse that I enjoy as much as anywhere. Pakse in particular sums up laid back Laos to perfection and has Wat Phu champasak as a real tourist attraction also.
Sadly after all this latest travel i realised i must be getting rich and old. Ok maybe not the first but definately the latter. After Pakse I headed back to Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand with the intention of getting a ten hour bus or train back to Bangkok. After three days in Pakse I email my travel agent and two hours later i have a flight in a few days from Ubon to Bangkok. Total one hour for 1,800 baht rather than 500 baht or so for a ten hour or longer road or rail trip. This is the first time ever I have changed to comfort instead of cash and I suspect more to come with so many budget airlines now in the region. Sad but true. May have to cut down on the beerlao to save some cash. NOT BLOODY LIKELY, so i must be rich.
You too can see Laos the easier way with either cash before comfort or vice verca.