Sunday, February 25, 2007 Laos Lao Peoples Democratic Republic

Voyages on the King of Bus

King of Bus [Enlarge]

No matter whether you've booked a first class compartment on a train or a seat on a luxury bus, travelling by public transport in second and third-world countries is still guaranteed to be an experience. It never seems to be the case of "got on, got off at the other end". But experiences are what it's all about on this kind of trip. At least that's what we keep telling each other.

We caught a tuk-tuk to the bus station and arrived in lots and lots of time for our 08:00 departure. The bus arrived and from the outside it looked fine—clean and modern with the correct number of wheels, an intact windscreen and no visible damage. The paint job and decoration inside and out made it look not unlike a drag queen's boudoir. But from the safety signs inside we deduced that it had originated in South Korea and was supposed to look like this. It was the type of coach where the passengers all sit upstairs above the driver, and proudly advertised the fact that it was no ordinary bus, not even a VIP bus. It was Super VIP; it was quite literally, the 'King of Bus'. At some point all the seats down the right side of the bus had been shifted about a bit and bolted down in different positions. The result was that our seats had a huge amount of extra leg room. Great news for Glenn, less so for the poor buggers sitting behind him who only had half the room they should have had. On most seats, ours included, the recline mechanism was broken. Luckily on most seats it had malfunctioned in the upright position, but the man in the seat at the front had to spend his whole journey almost horizontal. If we collided with anything he would shoot feet-first through the windscreen.

As the bus began its rocky progress out of the bus station we realised that not all the seats were entirely bolted to the floor. And the advertised 'air conditioning' was in fact, a fan.

The road connecting Luang Prabang and Vientiane is one of Laos's principal highways. This means that most of the time there is room for two vehicles to pass one another, so long as they're both careful. The first half of the journey is spent winding through the mountains and there are some sheer drops waiting to claim the reckless overtaker. Where safety barriers exist they are made of woven bamboo and coco leaves—they were not really going to stop the King of Bus. The GPS had told us, as we sat in the bus station, that it was 214 kilometres to Vientiane. Unfortunately it didn't know about the switch-back bends that saw us spend as much time travelling away from our destination and we did towards it, or about the fact that we'd be ascending and descending as much as one vertical kilometre every half hour or so. After an hour we were less than ten kilometres in a straight line from where we had started.

When we finally stopped for lunch (included in the ticket price), we were both feeling pretty travel sick and could only manage to drink a Pepsi and stretch our wobbly legs. We were glad to find that the lunch stop marked the transition from hills to flat plain, and so from that point on we were generally pointing in the right direction most of the time. It was a great relief. Progress still wasn't rapid because of the patented Laos traffic-calming craters that we had to keep stopping for, but at least the road was fairly straight. We were feeling better, making good progress, when suddenly there was a great grinding, crashing noise from overhead. Since leaving Luang Prabang the inadequate fan system had been fighting a losing battle with the heat in the coach, and now it had very publicly given up. At first we thought the King of Bus was disintegrating, but the driver turned off the air and the grinding stopped. The steward yanked the cover off and started poking at the fans with a screwdriver while the driver periodically turned them on to see if the poking had by a miracle fixed it. Of course it hadn't. The stuffy bus got even stuffier.

The beautiful scenery and fascinating villages we passed along the road were a reminder of why we prefer overland travel to flying, despite the discomfort. In every village at least one house had a huge satellite dish. They were all identical, which suggests that maybe they are government issue, one per village. About half of the houses looked like they were connected to the overhead power wires, but most didn't have running water. Each village had a stand pipe or a village pump with a queue of people beside it and on one corner a placard announced that World Vision Singapore had funded clean water for that area. And we were only looking at the developed parts along the main highways and waterways—the equivalent of the M4 corridor in the UK.

We weren't quite sure when we would arrive into Vientiane. The lady in the seat in front of us had been told the journey was seven hours, our agent had said eight and we'd seen a sign outside another agency that advertised it as nine. We hadn't booked any accommodation because we weren't sure whether we wanted to stay the night in Vientiane or to cross the Laos/Thai border to Nong Khai that evening. It really depended on how we felt when we got there—whether Vientiane looked like it was worth looking around. It was almost 17:00 when we got to Vientiane's Khoua Louang bus station—exactly nine hours after we set out. We were very hot and sticky. Thunder was rumbling around the city and we decided we'd prefer to find accommodation while it was still dry and daylight. And we didn't want to quit Laos without even seeing its capital. The first place we tried was a large hotel that had undoubtedly been very smart about ten years ago, but was looking tired now. It was USD 35 a night which for a capital city is not too bad, but we felt we could do better. Around the corner was the Riverside Hotel, complete with a sign saying "new open, special rates". We took a look inside. The room were were shown still had the cellophane on the lamp shades. It was great value at USD 16 per night. We took it and, leaving the bags in the room we went downstairs to check in.

After a very much needed shower and a change of clothes we went out for some dinner. The thunder storm had moved away but the humid air was no fresher. We found a busy, inviting looking restaurant where a mix of asian and western diners were sitting outside. We wanted to give Laos food one final try. We ordered several dishes including pork lab, a traditional Laos dish of minced meat with spices and lots of herbs. Isla liked it, but Glenn was itching to get back to his beloved Thai cuisine.

This is the first time we have turned up in a new town without booked accommodation. It was surprisingly easy! Maybe we will do it again some time. The experience with the fleas taught us that booking a place before you arrive doesn't really guarantee much.

Map of Day 093

Day 093
Luang Prabang to Vientiane

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.