It Was The Best Of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times
And I quote:
“The rain stopped long enough for me to get a highly uncomfortable minibus to take me the 6 hours to Chiang Khong”
These very words were typed by my nimble yet manly fingers just ten days ago. ‘Highly uncomfortable’? How little did I actually know back then? how naieve could I possibly have been? A couple of days after those fateful words, I had two major events which would change my opinion: My Worst Day Since Starting My Trip and My Worst Ever Journey.
After a few days in Luang Prabang, where I had, amongst other things, stood up a buddhist monk for a date and scraped the skin off every fingertip whilst arsing about in the plunge pools of some limestone waterfalls, I felt it was time to move on.
Kuang Si Waterfalls, Luang Prabang
I went into a travel agent, and booked myself on a V.I.P bus to Vang Viang for the following morning, then went and bought myself a burger to celebrate.
After an early night I got up at seven thirty and got a tuk tuk to the bus station. The driver dropped me off next to a nice modern looking coach, with spacious seating and even a TV at the front.
After the discomfort of the previous 2 journeys I had taken on the minibus to Chiang Khong and the slowboat to Luang Prabang, I was relishing the idea of kicking back in my air-conditioned reclining seat and watching some appallingly subtitled hollywood trash on the screen above the drivers head.
About 5 minutes before departure they loaded everybody’s bags on and I asked a guy waiting there if I could get on.
‘One minute’ he said and gave me a broad grin.
I’d seen that grin somewhere before, and without me knowing why, it put me on edge. Then I worked it out. It was the same smile Asian men seem to have been giving me just before saying such things as ‘Sorry, no room!’ or ‘No sir, I have no change!’ or on one occasion ‘Very dangerous meester, many people die!’. It meant I was about to hear something I wasn’t going to like.
‘Is there a problem?’ I asked, trying out a raised eyebrow and a jutting bottom jaw. (I have not yet learned the appropriate facial response to the bad-news-grin).
‘No problem sir’ he said shaking his head and still wearing the same fixed smile as a couple of Lao guys started unloading our bags off the bus again.
‘No problem.’ he said again grinning ‘Not enough people for V.I.P. bus!’
‘What? I paid for my ticket! There are 12 of us, surely that’s enough?’
‘No sir’ he said, and thumbed over his shoulder to a minibus, with mudskirts and bumpers hanging off, which was covered in a thick layer of dirt. In this dirt someone had scrawled what I can only assume was the local equivalent of ‘Clean Me’ or ‘Also Available In White’ in Lao script. Our bags were already being lifted onto the roofrack.
We started trying to argue our case to go on the V.I.P. bus, but Smiley just continued shaking his head and grinning at us, as he repeated that there were not enough people for the V.I.P, and then just slipped in at the end that we would have to pay an extra thousand kip for the pleasure of going on the minibus.
After a heated exchange of words, where a bunch of Irish guys did most of the arguing for me, we all relented and paid up, just so we could get on the road. I climbed in and literally had to fold myself into the seat, with my knees up under my chin and my back arched forwards, as it was the only way of fitting in the seat.
After about five or ten minutes it soon became apparent that we’d been kidding ourselves by saying that we wanted to get on ‘the road’, and that getting on ‘the potholed track’ would have been a more accurate summation.
The heat in the minibus was stifling. I glanced up and a surge of relief swept through me when I saw the aircon vent. I twisted it fully open and waited for the blast of cold air to hit me. ‘That’s funny’ I thought, ‘it should have kicked in by now’. I called up to the driver to check it was on. ‘Yes! Is on!’ he called back over the Thai Pop blaring from his stereo, swerving round a couple of stray cattle and beeping his horn furiously.
I held my hand up to the vent. Nothing. I twisted it fully the other way just to check I hadn’t turned it off by mistake. Still nothing. I tried to lean back, failed, so instead sighed, pushed the window open and settled for a face full of hot, dusty air instead.
With every large bump my head was hitting the ceiling of the van and my shins were bumping into a bit of metal through the PVC upholstery on the seat in front. With every swerve from Lao Schumacher my head was hitting the top of the window frame.
I shuffled about in the seat in a vain attempt to get comfortable, put my headphones on, and prayed that the six hours would pass quickly.
It was not to be. After about another half an hour I started to feel nauseous. I cast my mind back to the burger I’d bought the night before to celebrate booking my journey, and remembered being slightly concerned by how juicy it was. ‘No Joe.’ I told myself hopefully ‘You don’t have food poisoning. You’re just feeling a bit travel sick, that’s all. It’ll pass.’
I don’t get travel sick. It didn’t pass. After another half hour the driver pulled up on the side of the road and scampered off to the bushes to relieve himself. We all got out to stretch our legs and I kept telling myself that the nausea would pass. I got back into the minibus when the driver came back, and then had to get straight back out again, run over to the back of the van and spew into the bushes.
I climbed back into the bus. Everyone murmured sympathetically but failed to conceal the expressions of distaste. I took a big swig of water to rinse out the taste, and the driver flicked the Thai Pop back on and jolted his way back onto the road.
Through the haze of illness I noticed that the scenery through the mountains was breathtaking, and if the journey had been more comfortable it would have been a very picturesque way to spend 6 hours. However, all I wanted to do was sleep, but it was a physical impossibility in a van with bad suspension, no leg room and no air con bouncing along on the most, potholed, winding and downright treacherous roads I’ve ever been on. To top it off, by the stirrings in my stomach, it didn’t feel like the burger was content with forcing it’s way up out of me, if you get where I’m going with this…
‘Great’ I thought ‘At least it can’t get any worse’. I was getting pretty grumpy by then you see.
Once again I was wrong. We rounded a corner and came to a stop. I opened my eyes and craned my neck out of the window.
What could possibly be wrong now? More cows on the road? A flock of chickens to beep out of the way? Peasant children playing in the dust? Wrong on all counts. Just up ahead was a bus, laying on it’s side, seemingly completely blocking our path.
At Least I Wasn’t On This One
It looked like the bus had been there some time, because there was a crane next to it trying to move it out of the way. A queue of vans, buses and trucks on either side sat patientily waiting to see how they were going to get past. Not our Schumacher, he zoomed up on the wrong side of the road, beeping impatiently at the crowd of spectators who’d gathered. He then ordered us all out of the minibus and tried to inch his way onto the verge and round the overturned coach. With a sheer drop of about 50 metres to his left hand side, I was more than happy to walk.
As we walked through the crowd, I was surprised to notice a kid of about thirteen absent mindedly cradling a sub-machine gun and watching the story unfold.
The Lao Minitary
After walking past the bus, and another 30 yards up the hill to catch up with young Schumacher we all climbed back on and got back to the journey. Thankfully the worst of the potholes were over, and the roads became less winding as we climbed down through the mountains. The next place we stopped at even had a squat toilet for me to run to, which was wholly unpleasant, but at least had the benefit of a lockable door. Unfortunately it wasn’t soundproofed though, so I did my best to avoid eye contact with anyone on my way out.
Eventually we arrived in Vang Viang, and I checked into the closest possible guesthouse and slept for the next four or five hours.
The next day I felt a whole lot better. I went out for a walk in the morning and bumped into a couple of guys I knew from the slowboat. They were going tubing and asked me if I wanted to come. I’d heard about tubing from a couple of people who’ve gone before, and jumped at the offer of some company to do it with. That lunchtime we paid our $3.50 each to hire a tractor tyre inner tube and got a tuk tuk the 4km down the river to the starting point.
Tubing basically involves sitting in a tractor tyre, and floating down the river. At regular intervals there are rickety wooden platforms where you can buy a bottle of Beerlao for the equivalent of about 50p and you get a free ropeswing, zipline or plain old jump into the river.
As you float past they shout out ‘Beerlao!Beerlao!Beerlao! Jumping!Jumping!Jumping!’ and throw a long bamboo pole out to you. If you fancy it you grab hold of the pole and they drag you into the shore, where you can just sit and have a drink, chat with the other people, soak up some sunshine or jump back in the river.
Be warned though, I don’t think they have regular health and safety checks on the swings and jumps. While I was there I saw one guy swing from a 30 foot platform, release the trapeze just as he was starting the upswing and catapult about 20 metres through the air straight towards a guy on a tube. Thankfully the guy on the tube had the presence of mind to duck at the last minute, otherwise there would have been an almighty crunch. Another guy let go at the highest possible point of his upswing, and plummeted about 30 feet headfirst onto an empty Beerlao bottle which was floating down the river.
Chris, one of the guys I was with, lost his grip just as he left the platform, and just fell the full thirty feet onto his back to a sympathetic group ‘OOOOOOOOOH! from all the spectators on the bank.
Fortunately, the worst injury anybody got was a nastily sprained pride (in Chris’s case at least) and I’d probably say it was amongst the most enjoyable days I’ve had since travelling. Just what the doctor ordered after the previous nightmare of a day.
Vang Viang is a really chilled out town. Once you look past the main drag which is literally just a whole row of Pizzerias which show the s(h)itcom Friends, and go a bit further afield, you can find some really nice laid back bars, like The Smile Bar and The Island Bar, which are down by the riverside.
Relaxing by the River
Any time of day seemed to be a good time to visit these bars. Whether you want a nice meal, to have a cold drink, read a book, go for a swim in the river, sit in the sun, or just take in the view, it was the place to be. The bars all have open sided bamboo huts and platforms right down by the riverside where you can spend the day and watch the sunset at the end of it.
Some people I had met spent most of the time they were in Vang Viang sitting in the Friends bars on the dusty main road watching episode after episode after episode while mopeds and flies buzzed round them.
Personally, I think we made the better choice.