Yesterday. Oh, yesterday. If I had to describe yesterday in a word, it would be infuristupegasticulous. As in infuriating, stupefying flabbergasting, and ridiculous. It was almost like I was watching one of those comedies where a few hapless tourists keep getting into horrible situations, and just when you think things can’t go any more awry… they do. Magnificently so. First: Mom, I’m fine. Now, I have a story to tell…
The day started off well enough. I left my guesthouse in Luang Prabang and caught a tuk tuk to the bus station. I made it there early and had no problem finding my bus and getting my seat. The bus was supposed to leave at 9:00 and arrive in Vientiane 9-10 hours later, but that 9:00 came and went with nary a rumble from the engine. At about 9:15, a Russian couple who had been walking around the station got onto the bus. That’s when the first of many ridiculous things happened.
There was an elderly American couple sitting in front of me. The husband seemed harmless enough, but the wife quickly proved herself to be one of the most unlikable people I’ve ever met. She got up and started berating the Russian couple for making the bus late. “This is YOUR fault. I can’t believe you wasted so much of our time. Blah, blah, blah.” The poor Russian lady kept her cool, said she didn’t think that was the case, and stepped off the bus for a bit. The old American lady looked at me (me!) for justification and I returned her gaze with a well-honed ‘You’re a real piece of work’ expression.
Several minutes later we found out the engine wasn’t working and the bus station employees had been working on fixing it. Man, if only I could’ve captured how awkward that old lady looked when she heard that. She was pretty quiet for a while.
Soon enough we got under way and I figured the excitement was behind us. Ha. We made it about an hour (during which the old lady apologized to the Russian lady) until the bus pulled over and stopped. At first, I assumed it was one of many refreshment/bathroom breaks that buses in this part of the world are overly fond of making. After a while though, I noticed the driver had a piece of the bus out and was binding it with electrical tape. Huh. I thought about offering the use of my duct tape, but he seemed to have matters in hand.
While there, a monk riding on the bus gave me a handful of rice (literally scooped it out and put it in my hands) and some palm sugar candies. I was pretty hungry, so I thanked him and shared the bounty with some other travelers, including the horrible old American lady from before. She seemed ashamed of her earlier behavior and thanked me for being a ‘calming presence’. I politely held my tongue on what I thought of her antics; I just smiled and nodded instead.
Problem apparently fixed, we pressed on; only to pull over again less than an hour later. We got the meals that were included in our ticket price and waited for the driver to give us the OK to go. While we waited, I had a great conversation with a retired Canadian engineer, a Kiwi-turned-Aussie statistician, and a Danish history teacher. We talked about politics, history, and travel… definitely a great way to pass the time!
Soon, we heard the news: the bus was broken. The company was sending a replacement bus for us to finish the journey. Great. Not to be put off by the development, we continued our conversation and enjoyed ourselves as best we could.
Three hours later, the new bus arrived. Annoying, but by no means a day-ruiner. We boarded the bus (no longer a ‘VIP’ bus… just a regular one) and set off yet again. I’m really not sure how far we made it that time. An hour? Two? However long it was, a French guy in the back yelled, “Stop, stop!” Everybody looked back to see smoke billowing from the back of the bus.
The bus driver dutifully pulled over and, with the other employees, set to work on the engine while all the tourists milled around and peed in the bushes. I think we raised the water level of the Mekong a few inches. We laughed and joked about the apparently universally awful state of the Laos bus system and thought this would be the last of our troubles. We really should’ve learned.
Yet again, we got back on the bus and kept going. Along the way, we rounded a tight corner and went past an accident involving two huge tanker trucks. One was tipped on its side in a ditch. If it had rolled the other way it would’ve rolled right down the side of the mountain. Yikes.
By this time it was getting dark. The sun was setting behind the impressive mountains looming on either side and we were well away from towns/cities and the like. Then, the Frenchman’s voice rang out again. “Stop, smoke!”
Apparently the bus driver was tired of fixing the engine. He dismissed the cries of, well, everyone, and said, “No, it’s okay.” There were lots of raised eyebrows and incredulous looks, but we took him at his word. Lesson learned!
Soon there was a rattle, then a clank, then a burst of smoke and the smell of burning plastic. The engine sputtered and died; the driver letting it drift to a stop in the middle of the road, not even bothering to pull all the way over to the side. Our second, pitiful excuse for a vehicle had died. Once again people got out as smoke billowed from the back of the vehicle, grimacing at the awful smell and the sting of smoke. This time there were no illusions. We were miles from the nearest town and knew help would be a long time coming. We just didn’t know how long.
We sat for a while, walking restlessly back and forth along the lonely stretch of mountain road. The bus driver and other employees grew increasingly frustrated with questions of anxious tourists and gave us vague answers of when the replacement bus would reach us. Finally, crazy American lady had had enough.
She started running in front of trucks, cars, and other wheeled things; waving her arms and yelling in English. If someone was unfortunate enough to stop, she would open their door and try and climb in side, jabbering on in English and gesticulating like a tweaker trying to fend off an attack of vampiric butterflies. People stared at her in open-mouthed disbelief, then started frantically taking pictures. That lady is going to be an Internet sensation. I stayed back with the Canadian engineer as we remarked how justified it would be if one of the assaulted drivers punched her in the face as she tried to hijack his vehicle.
This continued on for a while until she managed to flag down a nearly empty bus. Our bus driver talked to the new driver and explained the situation. Situation resolved? Pffft. Turns out this was a ‘different company’ so they would take people, but everyone would have to pay nearly the cost of another ticket. People were understandably upset.
Remember the Russians? Well, they were kind of the opposite of the American couple. The wife seemed nice enough, but the husband gave off the impression of Stone Cold Steve Austin being one second away from ripping your throat out. Turns out, he was very unhappy about paying extra money. He wanted a refund from our driver (understandable) and was chasing the guy, grabbing him by the shoulders and screaming in the guys face (not cool). Things were obviously beginning to escalate. Myself and a few others worked to chill the Russian guy out while some Laos employees stopped the driver from committing suicide by Russian.
Situation somewhat diffused, people bit the bullet and started to board the new bus. I got my bag and started to get on, then stopped. There were six people staying behind to wait for the company bus to come, while the remainder filed into the new bus and paid yet again for a trip they had already paid for. My stubborn streak kicked in and that little voice in my head said, “Don’t give them this.”
Okay, little voice. Okay. I tossed my bag down and sat on the road with the others. We weren’t gonna let these people swindle us. We’d paid for a bus ticket to Vientiane and, by golly, we were gonna get to Vientiane without paying another freaking kip. We waved farewell to our companions as they drove off in the new bus; faces a mix of relief and indignation.
Not even ten minutes later, another bus drove up. This one, our driver assured us, was a company bus and would take us to our destinations for free. We were jubilant. Ten minutes, and we’d saved all that money! How awesome! We confirmed with the staff of the new bus – ‘Free? Ticket same same?’ ‘Yes, same same’ – and threw our bags on board. Once everyone was on board, a staff member came through and said, “Okay, you give me money now.”
No. Freaking. Way.
We argued for a while, the other tourists and I taking turns to try and convince them to, you know, not be lying crooks and take us like they said they would. A Canadian in the group went and got our old driver who, conveniently, forgot he spoke English. The same thing happened with the two other staff members. The only thing they remembered was, “You pay”.
This went on for quite a while with no resolution. Finally, the staff started rummaging through the cargo hold. We’d been watching just in case, so I jumped out of the bus and… interposed myself between them and our luggage. We argued for a while longer. Each time they reached for the bags I would politely but firmly push them away. I stayed calm, but I was furious. The staff members of the two buses were all around me, as well as the six other tourists. I’m so glad the others were there, simply because we kept each other from completely freaking out. I’m pretty certain that I would’ve lost my cool if it hadn’t been for the stabilizing presence of some of my companions (and vice versa).
Finally, we called it quits on that bus. Things weren’t going anywhere and we were starting to feel guilty for holding up the other passengers. We got our bags and bid farewell to the new bus, “See ya, you little criminals…”
Over the course of the next few hours, it grew darker and we managed to hail several more buses. Some didn’t have room, others wanted money again. Regardless the reason, no one would take us for free, so we waited. I got back on the broken bus and woke up the staff members. One of them completely tried to ignore me. I wanted him to call someone so we could figure out a time we would be picked up. He just stared at me with an insolent look on his face. When I asked if he understood me, he just smirked. I felt my chest swell and fists clench and I took a step so I was standing over him; suddenly very sympathetic to the way the Russian had been feeling earlier. The employee saw my eyes and shrank back, suddenly becoming obsessed with his phone. I took a deep breath, pointed at him like I would a disobedient dog, and growled, “Stay.” I went to the back of the bus where another guy was chatting it up with his girlfriend.
How cute. I bothered him enough until he hung up the phone, then finally got him to call someone. They told me a bus would be by around midnight. I got their name (didn’t think to get the number) and went back to the group.
We resolved to chill for a bit and wait. A guitar and some fruit emerged and we spent a wonderful few hours letting the tension drain away as we stared at the clear, starry sky. We were framed by mountains on either side, the breeze was cool and refreshing, the papaya was delicious, and the music put the perfect finishing touches. Despite all that had happened so far, we were all relaxed and laughing within minutes. Then, a few minutes after midnight, the bus arrived.
Made wary by previous attempts, we talked with the new and old bus drivers. We were assured, yet again, that this bus was free. Skeptical, we boarded and expected to be accosted once more. Surprisingly, the bus rolled forward and we were on our way after four hours of being stranded in the mountains. Everything was going to be OK.
This is kind of like Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Every time you think the story has ended, it just keeps going. Sorry about that. See, we had almost made it Vientiane when one of the employees tapped me on the shoulder; jolting me from a restless, half-asleep state.
“You go, Luang Prabang to Vientiane?”
“You must pay now.”
I was tired. I was still smoldering from before. I glared at him and said, “No.” I turned back around. He tapped me again and I turned on him.
“You pay before,” he said, “but you don’t pay me. You need to pay me.”
“I paid in Luang Prabang. 130,000 kip. When I asked you how much, you said, ‘Free’. I asked if tickets are same same, and you said, ‘Same, same.’ Now you say I have to pay you? You are crazy, and you are a liar. Leave me alone.” I turned, put my headphones in, and closed my eyes. He stood there for a moment, then walked away; attempting to shake down my other companions. None of them yielded either.
Not much longer after that we made it to Vientiane. It was past 4:00 a.m.; the day AFTER we set off from Luang Prabang. We got off the bus, got our bags, and haggled for twenty minutes with shady tuk tuk drivers to get a ride into town. My hostel had already given my room to someone else, so I got a room in a different guesthouse and ended up saving a little money in the process. By the time I got to sleep, the sun was out, people were waking up, and the dogs were barking. But it didn’t matter. I was out like a light. Dead to the world.
I had loved my time in Laos prior to this experience, and my day today has been lovely. It was certainly a hellish time, but I came out of it unscathed and with a heckuva story. As a friend of mine said, “It’s better than going over a cliff!” Indeed. Indeed.