Friday, December 18, 2009

Chapter 4: Purgatory.

We passed through Vietnamese immigration and found our self walking down a steep road flanked by mountains with a lovely creek at the bottom containing enough river stones to pave the garden footpaths of half a suburb. The Laos border was an easy going affair, we filled out a form, gave them the visa fee plus a $1 corruption fee for the stamp, and a passport photo and were waived on. Somewhere here I lost our two remaining photos and wondered if the next group crossing the border would have someone who looked exactly like us who could make use of them. Who knows, to Asians, us white folk all probably look the same anyway.

The cold morning air was still cold and morning air on the other side of the border and for breakfast at the border we warmed up with some Pho Bo (Beef Noodle Soup) and Deep Fried Banana, washed down with a hot coffee. Then we clambered back over the rice sacks and back packs and settled back into our seats for the second half of our bus ride from hell…

In Laos things started to improve dramatically. Sure we were still treated like second class citizens by the bus people, who yelled abusively at one of the girls from the UK when she asked if the blaring pop music could be turned down. And we were still crammed into the back of the bus as tight as a travel sleeping bag. Outside the bus however, the towns had turned into villages complete with woven roofs and thatched walls held together with bamboo. The roads were still windy, but despite the poverty the road quality had actually improved, a lot. The mountains towered above with massive rock faces that reminded us of the escarpments of Kakadu. But most importantly, as we stopped for a break in a roadside village the kids would wave at us and say “hello”, their parents would smile, and no one, not one person at all approached us trying to sell us something we didn’t want.

We finally arrived in Vientiane, capital of Laos, 22 hours after leaving Hanoi, capital of Vietnam. Tired and hungry we banded together and shared a Jumbo Tuk-Tuk into town from the bus station, which we haggled down to half the local price for all eight of us. The four Pommie girls wanted to go straight through to Vang Vieng and I happened by accident to find a minivan to take them there straight away. So we said goodbye to four of the girls we had shared the past day suffering with, and shortly after that we parted with the two French girls as we each headed to different hotels picked again from the book.

At precisely this moment Vientiane turned upside down on us. Reading the guidebook on the bus we learnt that Vientiane was playing host to the South East Asian Games. What we didn’t know was that it started the next day. For two hours we walked from Hotel to Hostel to Guest House, finding that not only had all of the prices gone through the roof, but everywhere was fully booked. Eventually we were far too tired to keep lugging our backpacks through the streets searching for a nice and cheap place. We paid $25 for a hotel room that wouldn’t have been worth $5 anywhere else in Asia.

To be fair on Vientiane we didn’t really give the place enough time to endear itself to us. Sure the people were lovely, fun loving and friendly, almost polar opposite to the rude and mercenary Vietnamese. That night Laos hosted the first soccer match of the SEA Games, unfortunately it was sold out, but the celebrations after they won carried long into the night. We ate dinner, walked through the markets and watched as Jumbo Tuk-Tuks arrived carrying people who were destined to walk the streets for hours looking for somewhere to sleep. About five hours after we arrived in the town we saw three guys we had spoken to when we first arrived, still searching for a place to stay.

So without allowing Vientiane to open it’s arms up to us, we booked a bus for the next morning to take us to Vang Vieng. We vowed to return to Laos and retired to our overpriced hotel for a reasonably early night. Prue originally planned to head to the Plain of Jars which we would have probably done after a one night stop-over in Vang Vieng. Unfortunately as we were (and still are) running very late from spending too long in Vietnam, Prue conceded that three days there and back wasn’t feasible in our tight schedule. So again we vowed to return to Laos.

We had heard of Vang Vieng being a place full of backpackers getting drunk and swimming on inner tubes. A few people had raved about the place and a few people had told us it wasn’t their scene, as it was between Vietiane and Luang Prabang we decided to break up the long trip with a well needed night out and headed there hesitantly the next morning on the bus. Another bloody bus.

When you book the VIP bus in Laos, we quickly learnt that you don’t necessarily get the VIP bus. We were picked up late and while we waited we chatted to a Russian couple (who were actually Finnish for some reason we called them Russian) that lived in Bangkok and had to holiday every sixty days so they could stay in Bangkok. Eventually we arrived at the bus in the last group, to find that the first people who arrived at the bus first had been waiting on the bus for the past hour. Learning this, we weren’t too upset that we waited an hour on the comfortable couches in front of our hotel.

As usual I waited beside the bus while I made sure our bags got on and I stepped onto the bus to find there were no seats. Prue was in the second row next to an Australian lady who’s husband and daughter sat in the front row. I had no row, nor seat. One of the bus guys pointed to “VIP bus” across the parking lot. A massive modern luxury coach with animated murals covering the sides and told me “one seat”. I pointed to the floor and smiled, not wanting to leave Prue alone on our 1980’s Shit-box bus. Our bus was the same price as the VIP bus we thought we were getting, and so did most of the people on our bus, who all stared longingly at the comfortable coach across the parking lot that had air-con. As our bus rolled out of the lot, I was ushered into the fold down seat next to the driver and was treated to a panoramic view for the next six hours.

Watching the oncoming traffic from the front seat, it was lucky our driver wasn’t Vietnamese, Cambodian or Thai. Laos travels at a much slower pace than the other three neighbours. Sure we spent some time narrowly missing oncoming trucks and buses on the wrong side of the road while winding around mountain passes. But the frequency in which it happened had become almost negligible, well except for the winding mountains which had increased in not only frequency, but also increased in grandness and splendour. Within two days in Laos we had already been treated to some of the most amazing scenery so far in our trip, and I had the best seat in the house.

As we rolled into Vang Vieng, we realised the real reason why people come here, sure the parties are a draw card, but the scenery just got even better. Stepping of the bus, I think I died that day...

Getting Out.

We arrived at the office for our bus trip to Vientiane, Laos at the punctual time of 4:45pm. The lady we bought our tickets from was upstairs cooking dinner in a cute apron and motioned for us to drop our bags and wait to be picked up by the “Bus”. Unfortunately the sleeping bus from Hanoi to Laos only leaves every Tuesday and Saturday. Our visa was due to expire on Tuesday so without enough time for comfort we had to take the Sunday night bus, which was advertised as a ‘seated bus’, would take about 22-25 hours and had no toilet onboard. With no other option but an expensive flight or overstaying our visa which allegedly means we can never return to Vietnam, “fuck it” we thought, and booked the bus.

While waiting for the Bus to pick us up I was approached by a girl out the front trying to sell fruit and offering me to have a photo taken holding her baskets balanced across her back like giant scales. Not wanting to part with anymore cash, for neither fruit nor the scam laced photo opportunity (of which we had been warned) I kindly declined and entered into the usual street side conversation. “Where you from?” “How old are you?” “Is that your girlfriend? Oh Wife! Do you have baby?” While talking to the girl, her older sister joined us and they were most amused to find I was the same age as her older sister.

The older sister made a comment in Vietnamese and the three of them (as we were now joined by her younger sister as well) started laughing. With a confused look I inquired to the girl what was funny. She told me her older sister said I was handsome, I thanked her, then she said asked if I wanted “boom boom” and pushed her sister saying “cheap cheap”. The two younger girls started belly laughing while the older sister went bright red and hid her head in embarrassment. We spoke and laughed with the sisters for a while longer while we waited for the “bus” to pick us up.

Eventually a very pushy man came to the store on a scooter and the lady in the cute apron ushered us to follow him around the corner where a “taxi” was waiting to take us to the bus. We strapped on our bags and followed behind him as he hurried us around the corner then stopped a little way past the corner and pointed us to his scooter and another scooter alongside. With massive backpacks strapped to our backs and again on our chests, we looked at him and said “No Way! Taxi, not scooter, Taxi!”. Again he motioned us toward the scooters with a hostile command. “Fuck that!” we told him and headed back around the corner to the office of the lady in the cute apron.

She tried to convince us the traffic was bad and a scooter would be quicker, but also conceded the pushy man had duped her and wanted to put us on a scooter to save himself a dollar or two. We told the lady that there was no way we were getting on a scooter and we had been waiting at the office since 4:45pm, it was now 5:15pm and would have had plenty of time to get to the bus had we left at the original specified time. She motioned us again to wait, and went in to call a taxi for us.

The girls were still out the front and we joked and laughed with them some more, especially as the lady in the cute apron’s husband came out to say “taxi coming”. After asking him an unanswered question the girls on he street belly laughed some more and the one who spoke English explained that he didn’t speak English, he had only been taught to say “Taxi coming” by his wife in the cute apron. The street girl was the only one of the sisters who spoke English and she spoke it very well. When I asked her how long she had been learning she replied that she had been teaching herself for two years just by talking to tourists.

We were pushed into the taxi by another grumpy man, this time the taxi driver who honked his horn and sped his way through the hectic Hanoi traffic occasionally muttering harshly into his mobile phone and continuing his ranting long after he had hung up the phone. Meanwhile in the back seat Prue and I crossed our fingers as our stomachs churned from nervousness at the infinite problems ahead if we missed our bus out of Vietnam. Eventually we turned into the bus station, were pulled hastily from the taxi and with a single finger flick pointed in the direction of our bus.

We found our bus, an outdated looking orange bus with Laos plates and flashing neon lights throbbing to the beat of techno pumping from inside. Stepping onto the bus we were angrily ushered by the pushy scooter driver from the office, who mumbled something about us ‘costing him lots of money’ while I mumbled something about him ‘getting the fuck outta my face before I snap‘. As we were pushed over the top of rice sacks in the aisles our bags were thrown into a pile at the back of the bus. Thankfully we had one reprise as we looked to our seats at the back and sighed relief (quite verbally) when we saw half a dozen western girls cramped onto the bus with us. At least we wouldn’t suffer alone.

The two girls in front of us let slip that they were pretending to sleep so that they wouldn’t be forced to move to another seat, and we felt sorry for the French girls next to us who were under the impression the trip would only take 14 hours. As we settled into the cramped bus with a sigh of relief mixed with two parts dread and a feeling that we were unwelcome, the bus pulled away at break neck speed to begin our 22 hour journey south to the Cau Treo border crossing with Laos then on to Vientiane.

After settling in and opening a book to read, the bus driver decided the lights would go off and our overhead lights were also left off. Meanwhile the air-con was on full throttle (as it usually is) and the cold added to the discomfort. Discomfort which was increased further as twice on the way out of town we stopped to pick up more Vietnamese passengers, who each had more luggage (or sacks/boxes of food) and eventually our bags piled up alongside our legs in the aisle, and as every chair was occupied the aisle filled with people too.

We stopped for dinner at a dodgy road side cafe้, where Prue decided to stick to boiled rice for safety and the toilet could only be reached by running under a small waterfall from a burst pipe above the door. The food was shit but we needed something for the unknown length of travel ahead, and I met a guy from another bus also heading to Laos and we compared comfort. His bus looked nicer, but had people on stools down the aisle.

Had we been psychic we could have pulled a trump card on him. Not only did more people get on our bus at the rest stop (which meant at least three people were sleeping in the aisle), not only did someone steal my blanket… But 30 minutes down the road, no more than five minutes after we were joking with the fellow western girls about the hellish start to our trip, the lingering smell of urine was slowly replaced by the smell of burning rubber.

Gradually the smell became stronger and the bus slowed to a stop, Prue and I sitting directly over the back wheel looked down and declared “Oh shit the bus is on fire!” Black smoke billowed from the wheel arch and one of the bus operators walked over and poured water onto it, satisfied we set off again…Well, we drove for at least five more minutes until they admitted the problem was serious and pulled over again.

As a straw mat was unrolled under the bus and the bus guys started pulling out tools and a torch. I seized the opportunity to have a cigarette and a pee. I grabbed the camera and stood at the back of the bus while I watched the bus guys bang away at something, then scratch their heads, then other bus we met at the rest stop pulled over and gave our bus guys a jack. After jacking up the tyre and a bit more random banging the driver jumped back on the bus and started spinning the back wheel at full revs. The tyre stopped instantly when he hit the brakes and again they seemed satisfied so I got back on the bus and we sped off into the night.

The benefit of night time meant we couldn’t see the road. But we could feel it. In the darkness it felt like we were hammering along like a roller coaster as we were thrown from one side to the other with every corner on a road that was only corners. Prue slept fairly soundly as did a few of the western girls. I Probably got an hours sleep and when I did wake up from a sleep (usually waking while flying sideways) I had a crook neck from the contortionist like position I was asleep in and couldn’t move my legs because they were stuck under the feet of one of the French girls.

It was freezing on the bus as they left the air con on full all night so I pilfered a bit of Prue’s blanket, threw my hoodie over my eyes and sat back in the chair and escaped to the Dark Side of the Moon on the iPod. Just after 4am the bus stopped at a road block and we got off to go to the toilet (the toilet stops are all just on the side of the road, girls at the back of the bus), walking back to the bus I noticed that the driver and the other bus guys had rolled out straw mats next to the bus, and were climbing into sleeping bags.

Without any explanation all the power was turned off on the bus, and we stood there wondering “what the hell is going on?”. We were being treated like shit by the bus guys, none of them spoke to us or explained anything and when they did tell us something it was always with hostility. Eventually we were able to get enough single word responses to figure out that we were at the Vietnam border, which did not open until 7am. It was freezing cold outside and not much better on the bus. But as the bus was no longer flying suicidally around corners, I managed get about two hours sleep.
At about 6:30am the boom gate to the border opened and we walked in to the border control to find that we still had to wait until 7am to proceed. As the bus people never spoke to us and conveniently ignored us whenever we asked questions we spent a fair amount of time standing around not knowing what we were supposed to do.

When the departure counter finally did open the angriest of the bus guys told us to give him our passports and asked for US$1. The girls were all a bit sceptical as we were so tired of being scammed for money, but after a bit of an argument we pretty much conceited that we would have to pay the dollar for the stamp. I changed the last of my Dong into Kip and as our stamped passports were handed back to us, we turned our back on Vietnam and walked through the door to “No Mans Land” down the road to Laos, where the second leg of our bus trip and the fourth chapter in our travels would begin…