Luang Prabang, then, the Worst Ride Ever

Gone was the sensation of being on-foot while taking in the serenity of a riverside stroll, without minding the mild sweat building on my back and forehead. The glistening surrounding waters and preserved colonial-inspired architecture of many of the town’s guesthouses looked far too pretty to feel perturbed.

Instead, Shuli and I were back on the road, on what would amount to be the longest bus ride we’ve ever taken together.

Mostly, the languid pace which seemed to characterize much about Lao people and their culture had been the sort of charming quirk we’d find rather appealing, as we journeyed through quaint little towns like Muang Khua and Nong Khiaw, across Laos.

But the trip to Vientiane had reached a level of lackadaisicalness that was almost beyond bearable.

We bore through it because we had little choice. We were stuck in a bus filled with other sweaty tourists, foolishly expecting that it live up to the “VIP” class it had boasted when we bought our tickets.

What we got instead was a decades-old liner without any air-conditioning, run by a trio of guys who appeared determined to take up the entire, 9 hours the trip had promised, and perhaps longer – whatever suited their fancy.

I can understand traveling at a relaxed pace to get somewhere, but that should have no bearing on actual timeliness. Rather than promptly leaving at 8:30am, we actually left the bus station an hour later, already pushing our ETA in Vientiane back significantly.

This was particularly frustrating because Thongbay Guesthouse had been so comfortable for us and so accommodating it was a little disappointing to have to check out so early, only to depart so late.

We were off to a bad start, and we were at the mercy of guys who took tardiness to a whole other level when dozens of passengers were waiting, without explanation.

That should’ve been the sign to me that this particular leg of our road-tripping was going to be painful. I held out on the belief that the ride from Sapa to Dien Bieng Phu had to have been the worst. Shuli was convinced we had another thing coming.

Several factors contributed to making this part of the trip terrible:

1. No air-conditioning – I’d have preferred an all-or-nothing sort of scenario where it was either full-blast, frigid A/C or it was completely broken and we cracked open every single window we could on the bus and lived off of fresh air. Instead, the blower spewed out what seemed to be a very, very light stream of air that did nothing for no one other than tease them of how good, actual functioning “air-con” can be for, everyone.

2. 11 hours – 11 hours!!! We were told it would take 9, which would have been devastating enough. Further, as if we hadn’t already departed late, for much of the trip the driver insisted on driving at a speed reminiscent of that of a child in a sack race (Shuli told me I could’ve beaten him, on my bike, which, if you know my poor track record with biking, is saying a lot). And this doesn’t include the extra time it took to travel on a tuk-tuk from the bus station to the city center where we would be staying. Why not just round it up to 12, then?

3. The usual windy, bumpy roads – At this point, this was all too familiar, which, for that very reason, made them a bearable pill to swallow. That said, there were no shortage of stomach-churning turns to brace for, so getting sleep was next to impossible. Podcast bingeing as distraction was critical.

4. Music – I don’t really mind Lao music. Not even unbelievably loud Lao music. What I did take exception to, which, to no one’s fault really, was how so many of the melodies sounded so exceptionally…cheerful. They just didn’t fit the collective mood swelling in the upper deck of utter despair. Not a good match.

5. Unapologetic – Which really, was the worst. The guys running the operation simply offered no explanations for any of the delays, did next to nothing to make the trip more comfortable for us outside of opening the bus’ sun roof window, and didn’t bother telling us how long the journey would take until, I had had enough and tugged at one of their shirts, pointed at the time on my iPad, and did the best I could with vague gesticulations to ask when we’d arrive.

He took some time to consider his response, and finally, smugly, said, “8 o’clock.”

It would’ve a little better if he had been right. But he wasn’t.

The kicker came here:

It was already dark. My eyes were trying to shut to sleep but my body had gone beyond the point of sleepiness and settled instead on the terrible combination of hyper-alertness and weariness. A young girl dragged herself to the front of the bus carrying an inflatable neck pillow, plopped herself on the open two seats available, kicked up her feet, and reclined her chair. She had had enough. For her, it was just over.

It was as if she had finally confronted the possibility that this bus ride would simply never end, so she might as well make herself comfortable.

Something about witnessing her resign herself to our collective fate was both incredibly defeating, and strangely comedic.

I started laughing to myself, quietly. It had gotten to that point, where the misfortune of losing an entire day on the road had simply become another humorous footnote on an, otherwise, arduous series of travels, by water or by road, between Vietnam and Laos.

The real unfortunate thing was losing that sense of appreciation for what we had just had. It had become a quickly distant memory – taking our sweet time, walking through the night market without getting hassled by vendors to buy their ethnic handicrafts (which we bought anyway, since most everyone was so respectful about the whole exchange). It wasn’t that long ago that we had lay down on our balcony to feel the calm breeze emanating from the river, brushing our faces as we watched the sun go down just as quietly as the rest of the town had moved.

The bus ride, for its length and lack of comfort and lack of accommodation and hospitality, caused me to stop feeling good feelings. For stretches, it was as if I had been purposely ignoring the beautiful, lush, scenery that still surrounded us – jagged mountains that pierced the clouds and rolling, green hills that followed us closely as we ambled along.

At some point, I had a better idea about what one of our fellow travelers from the Netherlands had said, referring to an experience he learned from passengers taking a speedboat from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.

I’m paraphrasing, but the essence of it was, “At the end of a trip like that, your body just feels…broken.”

Indeed, after this one, this 11 hour bus ride, it was. At some point, the appreciation of the natural beauty before us had subsided, replaced only with a faint, but lingering despair – the kind that comes over any weary traveler, I would imagine.

Perhaps, I was missing Luang Prabang and all its’ quiet comfort. But likely, I was starting to miss home, even more. Finally, it was catching up to me. The desire for the familiar – for my two gentle cats resting by feet, for the soft couch I could kick up my legs on while watching a long film, for the street food around the corner – became increasingly palpable.

I’m just a few days away from a plane ride home, and I’m caught between missing what I had just left, while longing for what’s ahead – Penang.

Hopefully, when the weariness subsides, when a strong cup of Lao coffee enters my body, and when my energy picks up from covering ground on my own two feet again, maybe I’ll remember to appreciate what’s still fully before me – Vientiane.

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Recovering from the Road: Vietnam to Laos

Again, a late post. Currently in Luang Prabang, heading to Vientiane tomorrow. Photos soon.

I’m writing this in a hotel room in Muang Khua, a town not too far from the border of Vietnam and Laos. The Sannali hotel is the only hotel in town. Other lodging available are modest guest houses suited for backpackers. We’ve been backpacking as well, but this place, at this point of our trip felt most suitable for us.

Tomorrow we venture down the Nam Ou River. The water is the color of mud, and the current flows at a pace moving as languidly as the people seem to be in this quaint town.

There doesn’t appear to be a night life to speak of, and the local market when we visited it lacked the kind of frenetic energy I’ve grown accustomed to from the other markets I’ve visited in Southeast Asia.

I’ve read and heard that everything in Laos moves at a much slower pace. Such was the drive to here from Dien Bien Phu. Such is the steady, quiet flow of the river.

Perhaps there couldn’t have been a more appropriate easing in to Laos and the slow pace of life than arriving first at this tiny town by the river. There also couldn’t be better conditions for writing, when there isn’t much else to do but embrace the stillness.

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The last few days after Hanoi have been a strange combination of experiences I’ll likely never do again. Not that I’d hate to do them over, but realistically, they may very well be the sort of things I’m happy to have done, at least, once in my lifetime.

In sum, they went a little like this:

Shuli and I shared an overnight sleeper train car with a French couple from Hanoi to Sapa, a mountainous region in Northern Vietnam heavily populated by the Hmong people and other ethnic groups, famous for giving guided trekking tours through the indigenous peoples’ villages, valleys, fields, and rice paddies.

The trek, was at times, absolutely breathtaking. I found myself stopping, less so to catch my breath, but rather, to let it slip away, and make room for the awe to seep in more fully. I was surprised by my own feelings of envy, assuming that the families living off of their own harvest have it so much better than we do, being situated so remotely, in the midst of such lush greenery.

We opted for a Homestay with a Red Dao family deep in the mountains which we couldn’t have possibly have reached without our guide, Sang, a young, Black Hmong man who works for Sapa O’Chau, the locally-run trekking company that arranged our accommodations. They also run a school, through which Sang and many other Hmong have learned English. We hiked a total of 8 hours.

(Chances are, I’ll write more about the Dao – pronounced ‘zhao’ – family later. They were incredibly warm and welcoming, treating us even to a ‘medicinal bath’ of fresh herbs, and an inordinate amount of Vietnamese cooking for dinner, highlighted by a copious amount of homemade rice wine, followed by the worst headache I’ve had in a while.)

From Sapa, we arranged for a bus to take us to Dien Bien Phu. The bus failed to fetch us, so Sapa O’Chau had to hire two motorbikes to take us to the bus while it waited for us several kilometers ahead.

When we arrived, we found that the bus was actually a mini van, filled mostly with locals, except for a bright-eyed couple from The Netherlands – Ruth and Thomas – who stood head and shoulders over everyone else and occasionally posed for pictures for curious locals. Two of the young women in the van were incredibly scantily-clad, wearing overly tight dresses and high heels – which wasn’t a good sign. Other passengers were a mother and her young son who was transporting several bags of fruits, and an old woman belonging to a tribe I couldn’t identify, who said nothing to anyone.

Our motley crew of travelers experienced a flat tire not long into a trip, followed by the unfortunate episode of getting stuck in a muddy path and needing another bus to pull it forward. I volunteered my help to try and push our van, stupidly enough to get my running shoes absolutely immersed in their own puddle of mud. It was silly on my part, but we all had a good laugh about it once we got moving.

After we were halted a few more times along the way due to construction work on the roads, we finally arrived in Dien Bien Phu, to a throng of aggressive men jockeying for business at the bus station. I was just relieved the ride was over, but I feared a little for the two girls that got off at the station with us. They disappeared quickly. We were on the road for a grueling, absurdly bumpy, 8 hours. It was by far the worst bus ride I’ve ever taken. Our new friends from The Netherlands were in such good spirits, however, that we figured it best to stick with them.

This morning we crossed over from Vietnam to Laos, leaving at 5:30 am on a bus headed for Muang Khua. We hit the border in the middle of the morning, got our passports checked, fell in and out of sleep the rest of the way, only to wake and find ourselves deposited into the middle of town by 10:30. Another five hours on the road, finally over.

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I’m finding that on this particular trip, I’m doing much of the “writing work” in my mind more than anywhere else. I’m taking mental notes of vivid scenes I want to jot down to unpack in depth later, or I’m snapping a quick shot or two on my phone for the situations that feel fleeting.

The actual writing I’m doing, when things have finally slowed to a deafening halt, is done primarily for the purpose of not forgetting. I’m writing for my own memory’s sake, really. Much of this trip has exhausted most of my mental capacity, if not for all the varied details I’m absorbing day to day, then surely due to all the seemingly endless hours spent on roads that are mostly, unforgiving.

And then we still have the boat ride tomorrow, down Nam Ou River.

Then another stop at another Lao town – Nong Khiaw – another small town which boasts a little more activity of the “eco”-variety. After which, Luang Prabang, a surefire haven for tourists visiting Laos…for better or worse.

But there I also expect to sleep soundly at a quiet, comfortable abode, riverside. For that alone, and for more strong Lao coffee, I have much yet to look forward to.