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A Foray into Laos

by Cheryn Flanagan

I found myself wedged into a tiny, sticky space that would be my seat for the next four hours. I was headed by bus to Vang Vieng, a countryside road stop in Lao where most travelers take a break on their way farther north to the city of Luang Prabang. Having to curtail the length of our stay in Lao, Vang Vieng became our final destination. I was celebrating my 30th birthday with a five-week trip in SE Asia and not traveling by a strict itinerary, we spent a few extra days in Thailand. We'd only left ourselves four days to explore the "Land of a Million Elephants". Perhaps due to our brief stay, or more likely because of our means of transport, the most memorable experiences of the trip are from simply getting there.

The world's largest collection of the world's oldest cars can be found in this small country. Auto taxis are mere skeletons of cars, stripped down to the barest essentials, with just enough parts left to sit and go. Most of the drivers appear to be just as old, making for a nail-biting journey from the Friendship Bridge, located on the border of Thailand and Lao, to the bus depot in Vientianne. We inadvertently found ourselves the oldest car, operated by the oldest driver, for the 15-minute ride. With each little bump on the highway's surface, the taxi would shake madly, rattling the wire that stitched the car's frame together in some places, and loosening the duct tape that held it together in others. As our ancient driver danced with the loose steering, narrowly missing the slow rickshaw traffic in front of us, I grit my teeth and looked out the window. It was good to have scenery to distract me from staring in fear at our driver's shaky hands and milky white cataracts.

A smattering of palm trees, billboards, and sparse, flat land. The view was not what I'd imagined. We'd just come from Nong Khai, a sleepy town along the Mekong in Thailand. We became accustomed to lush vegetation, the lazy passage of the river's brown water, narrow, lightly traveled streets, a magical atmosphere. It all seemed to vanish when our visas were stamped at the border crossing.

I was jerked out of my reverie with the thumping, hollow sound of bad breaks. Our driver was pumping frantically at the brake petal to avoid crashing into a much nicer, newer car in the parking lot of the bus station. We missed the car by an inch as we careened into a spot between two other nicer, newer cars (where were these vehicles when we needed one?). Getting out of the car was difficult. The exposed metal doors of the car's interior lacked handles. I had to be let out, like an animal from a cage, by the driver from outside of the vehicle.

We arrived one hour before departure of the day's last bus to Vang Vieng. Walking around, dazed by the bustling activity of the dusty station, I felt an overwhelming sensation of culture shock. I'd been dropped into a chaotic mass of ancient busses, locals traveling with farm animals, aggressive touts hawking water and baguettes, backpackers trudging about in confusion, and dubious looking groups of men and beggars loitering in the sidelines. I circled a heaving crowd that surrounded what appeared to be the ticket counter several times before throwing my hands up in despair.

"You go to Vang Vieng?" hollered a man who was standing languidly next to one of the more modern looking busses in the lot - many of them were converted Russian military trucks or beat up pick-ups. He wore a blue uniform, donned dark sunglasses, and looked equally legitimate and suspicious at the same time. I was grateful to be saved from the chaotic masses that stood before myself and the ticket counter, but felt a little hesitant to hand my backpack over to the eager stranger. He confirmed that his bus was headed north to Vang Vieng, tossed our backpacks into the luggage well, and told us to board and pay the fare later, the equivalence of 30¢.

Over time, the bus filled up. I had been wondering why we were all waiting in the stifling hot bus instead of outside of it. There were small fans mounted to the ceiling that must have been put there to tease and torture us. There was no power to turn them on. The air was thick and still and just breathing it became a chore. My skin was adhered to the vinyl seating and sweat trickled down my brow. But I followed the way of the locals and soon understood why we were all curiously sitting in a crowded, hot bus. It seemed that if a person were willing to pay for the ride, a seat would be made available to him… regardless of the actual number of seats on the bus.

The conductor had a keen eye for spotting a place to fit the unfortunates who arrived after most of the seats had been taken. He put children on the laps of their parents to make space for several more adults and squeezed passengers into the tiniest crevices of space between others. He made instant seating appear by pulling a seat cushion halfway off, making a spot for two accommodate a group of three or four. I tried to look as big as possible in a vain effort to reserve a little extra breathing space for myself. But the wry conductor saw past my antics and placed a nice Japanese couple between me and the neighbor I'd been smashed against for the last half hour.

It became clear that occupancy limits didn't exist in Lao and neither did the concept of personal space. Every time I thought it was absolutely impossible to squeeze any more people on the bus, a new group would arrive and meld into the sweating mass of bodies. Some people reluctantly took their place on the floor in the aisle and others were forced to stand huddled together near the semi-open door. Finally the bus conductor looked satisfied that there was no more room. He glanced over his handiwork with a proud smile, turned to the driver and nodded his head firmly. Apparently it was time to go. With all his skill in cramming passengers into the bus, I was disappointed that he failed to see the opportunities the roof had to offer. We might as well have strapped people to it, as safety standards seemed to be non-existent. Once the bus was loaded to the ultimate-maximum and deadly capacity, we were on our way promptly at 1:00 pm.

The trip to Vang Vieng was a 3 1/2-hour rocket ride through curvy mountain passes. Heads of the passengers bobbed together in unison with each sway of the bus. Being so tightly packed together - leg to leg, shoulder to sweaty shoulder - forced everyone to move together like molded Jell-O on a roller coaster. Most of the time, it felt as if the bus was actually hovering above the surface of the road as we swerved along its undulating path. There were plenty of plastic shopping bags tied to the handrails of the bus for those unlucky passengers with motion sickness, of which there were many - and many of them locals. The bags eventually ended up on the side of the road after they'd been filled and casually tossed from the window.

Halfway through the trip, the driver pulled to the side of the highway near a deserted hillside. I wasn't quite sure what was happening until I noticed women disembark from the bus, hoist their sarongs up and squat in the scrubby brush to relieve themselves. Apparently we had arrived at a rest stop. I was grateful for the break. It awoke the man sitting beside me who fell asleep shortly after we'd pulled out of Vientianne and was using me as a pillow. I was forced to sit in an awkward position and the pressure from the dead weight of his body forced every perceptible muscle in my body to stiffen. Regardless of the discomfort, I didn't dare leave my seat unoccupied at the rest stop for fear of losing it. But my worries were unfounded; passengers boarded the bus and took their respective seats in a surprisingly pleasant and orderly fashion. Even the angry guy who had to sit in the aisle, subject to errant barf bags and knees in his ear, seemed resigned to his place on the floor. After the brief respite, a few blasts of the horn signaled that it was time to finish business and we were swiftly on our way again.

Hmong villages, rice paddy fields, rolling hills, jungle forests, razor-sharp mountain peaks. The view from the window was spectacular. It was hard to believe that such a beautiful country could be so deprived. A diminutive player in the communist wars that besieged SE Asia from the 1950s - 70s, Lao is still recovering from the wreckage. Closed off to the rest of the world until the late 1990s, Lao opened its borders to collect on the tourist dollar in order to salvage its decimated economy. Today, corrupt government officials lavishly spend International Aid on themselves while most of the population lives in poverty; bribery is a necessary and accepted business practice; opium is big business; illegal logging and slash-and-burn agriculture endanger the forests that cover two-thirds of the country.

Despite how that list of facts may sound, Lao is an awesome place to visit. The rugged landscape is great for mountain bikers; sheer walls of rock draw a healthy rock-climbing crowd; river kayaking and tubing provide entertainment for the more relaxed; and explorers can spend entire afternoons in caves that adorn the jagged limestone outcroppings. It is easy to fall in love with the magical land of Lao. Many travelers have told me that now is the time to visit, while the country is still "pristine". They worry about what will become of Lao, when tourists come in the numbers that have a tendency to change the places they go. From my perspective, Lao looked far from becoming Westernized and worn.

The rest of our trip was uneventful, save for one small child with stomach problems. Commotion near the front of the bus brought the vehicle to an abrupt halt in front of a traditional stilt house in a small village. A father whisked his sick son out of the bus so the child could go to the bathroom, naturally, on the side of the road - or more specifically, underneath the house. Apparently the child had a bad case of diarrhea. I found humor in the fact that the boy relieved himself adjacent to a pile of manure from the family's water buffalo. At first I'd thought it rude to go to the bathroom directly underneath somebody's home but upon seeing this, I realized that of all places one could do so, Lao was it. After several more stops such as this, the father eventually stopped putting the boy's pants back on. For a large portion of the journey, this little boy rode bare-bottom (with nervous neighbors on each side).

Our bus adventure came to an end as we pulled into Vang Vieng's bus station, an old airstrip from the war days. Traveling there was not the most comfortable thing, but at least it had character. As our competition, the other backpackers, scurried off the bus in search of accommodation, I stood in the openness of the airstrip and savored the breeze against my skin. And then the race was on to get the best guesthouse. I used to think that the most rugged roads and insufficient vehicles lead to the most unforgettable places, but I've learned that sometimes, the memories are all from getting there.

The author maintains a website at: http://www.flushleft.com/index.html

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