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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Day 5, 500 words, 31 days

My mountaintop retreat came to an end today. We made our way down from Cameron Highlands this morning, feeling refreshed from clean air, breathtaking scenery, and copious amounts of tea. If I had it my way, I’d still be sipping on a cup of tea by the balcony, keeping on a few layers to keep warm as the cool fog settled in.

But every season of respite must still give way to work that beckons. We all have a job to do – my wife and our friends are all teachers, and their job right now is, well, to rest as much as possible, before the school year continues after the holiday break. They probably could have used a longer retreat than I did.

We all, also have pets – and for this reason, it was time to go home.

My job remains, to write regularly – something that had proved to be a challenge on a weekend retreat that seemed only to bring about in me a sloth-like approach to my work. Along with my pace, I wanted the time to move as slowly as possible.

After all, isn’t it commonplace for writers to retreat and just clear their minds and create space in their head for the generation of new ideas? As our time away had drawn to a close, I couldn’t help but wonder how I could have still spent it differently. I would’ve wanted to read a little more and write a little more, and somehow, sleep a little more too. I wanted more than 36 hours away from Penang.

But here I am, back in Penang, typing away in the relative comfort of my own living room, wondering where the time had gone and how much more there is still to do.

There aren’t any more majestic rolling hills inviting my mind to wander. I’ve just got to make do with what I’ve got…

And yet, I have the sudden fall of rain, a welcome gift from a scorching day on the island.

I have the suspense of unpredictable traffic. I have the clanging sounds of kitchen utensils scraping against sizzling woks on the road side hawker stalls.

I have the soft, longing meows from Madu, my cat as she sits silently by my feet late into the evening. Even her brother, Miles’, incessant pining for Shuli has it’s own endearing, albeit, distracting, charm.

These are what I have most days, and they are deserving of my gratefulness, for they are good.

Yes, life is slowly rounding back to form – soon I’ll be taking my wife to school still bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, I’ll be monitoring how much meat Miles eats per meal while making sure Madu eats at all, and I’ll be logging into each and every social media platform I manage, hoping to discover the next best way on how to get more “likes” and “follows”.

If I had it in my way, I’ll still be far away from all of this, taking deep, unpolluted breaths and taking in excessive amounts of caffeine because I like having it in the form of hot beverages, and that goes real nice with the cold.

But maybe the way I had in mind isn’t what’s best for me. Maybe it’s best that I’m here now, searching hard for the unfamiliar in the midst of all that I’ve already come to know. There’s more to be had – more to give and more to grow, and it begins right here where I sit, on this poorly constructed dining room chair, in the quiet of my own home.

And here, in my home, I also have caffeine.