Sunday, January 30, 2011

Taking the Risk

"A trip from hell!", "Worst thing I've done in my life!", "Never again!", and "Don't be a hero!" are direct quotes I had come across when researching a torturous bus ride from Hanoi, Vietnam to Luang , Laos. They talk about the 24 hour trip taking 36 where the bus stops at the border at 3 am, leaves you there until the border opens sometime between five to eight hours later (if it opens at all), haggle with authorities and non-authorities about getting an entrance visa, then trying to find a ride for the remaining 300 kilometers to something resembling civilization. This sounded like something we really wanted to avoid. So, why did we do it.

Well, most of these posts are a couple years old and the lady at our guesthouse in Hanoi made it sound much safer. We did have flights booked back to Bangkok, but we really didn't want to spend more time there and we were not sure if we could get out easily hitting peak travel for the Asian holidays. We also figured the more traveled route south through the border to the Laos capital, Vientiane, would not be as bad. Those were the reasons... and now how it rapidly backfired.

While waiting with a large group of westerners (a comforting feeling) for our international sleeper bus we ducked into a travel agent to see what the possibilities were to book a second bus from Vientiane to Luang Phrabang. Although it is said that Vientiane is a nice place as far as capitals go, there is not much to do and we were not interested in spending the holiday week there. We were told we were fortunate and that there were three seats left on a connecting bus so we took it. We were proud to be lucky holder of these rare onward tickets while the others wished they would not be stuck in the capital. As the bus came to fetch all of us for the first leg, Asiana and I were cleverly separated from the herd by the speedy Vietnamese grabbing our packs and running us to the "direct bus". The next thing we knew we were far from the others that were taking off and climbing onto an already moving bus with our packs thrown into the outside compartments. This bus was full of locals and it was not a sleeper. The little guy that dragged us on with him and I got into a quick argument. In the meantime we were already moving away getting lost in traffic and he would not let us out. He knew no English and just waved me off over and over. Precious minutes passed as we tried to decide if we could jump ship lost in the dark and not sure if we could get our bags or get stuck on this bus that might take us to hell. There was little chance we would find the bus we were supposed to be on even if it had not left, so hell it would be.

Asiana was upset and stressed and I was about as maddened as I ever get. It was all I could do not to grab this guy by the throat and hurl both of us out the window. One of the most important things in this culture is to "save face", meaning not to raise your voice and show any anger. I really wanted to break our cultural barriers and show them how pissed off I was, Instead... what would the Buddha do? what would the Buddha do?

I was far from being Zen though. Part of it was that we paid for first class sleeper and got sitting class. And, I didn't want this blog to read like all the others - Journey Through Hell. Trying to calm me down Asiana suggested that maybe this was the worst part (being ripped off) and asked what the worse case scenario could be. My answer included stuff like, we don't know what border we are heading toward -we should arrive there in the middle of the night - it will be Sunday- the Sunday before the holiday week - nobody speaks English...

It seemed that we got ourselves into the exact position we hoped to avoid. I tried to communicate with our little busmeister that we were on the wrong bus. We had a few stare downs each time ending with him waving me off and turning away. I had a choice of being full of hate and probably lessening any chance of getting to our destination or I could accept fate and see where the bus would take us.

Our version of accepting the circumstance was to take a a sleeping pill to alleviate the discomfort. (my ass was already hurting with the anticipation of sitting there thirty hours). I must note that Ambien helps me sleep and can make me a bit groggy, but it does not knock me out of consciousness and leave me completely helpless. I was not taking any chances of really going under, only to wake up naked without possessions on the side of the street.

We dozed off and on and off for the next five hours while the bus made it's way on a tiny mud road through small villages occasionally dropping off locals in the middle of nowhere. Each time I made sure our packs were not dropped off as well. By two in the morning the last Vietnamese had disembarked and we looked back to see three other westerners huddled in the rear of the vehicle whom we had not noticed before. It was some relief that we were not the only ones taking our chances, although the the young Canadian couple and lone Frenchman seemed more insecure with the situation than us. We did have the whole bus to ourselves excluding the driver, the copilot, and the evil busmeister. We were able to actually get pretty comfortable. During one of the pee breaks my arch rival started tickling me and joking around. I don't know what about, but he started growing on me.

We awoke at dawn finding ourselves parked at a closed gate at the border. The fog was thick and heavy, the ground was all mud, and it was mighty cold. We, including the crew, shivered under pile of blankets for a few hours until we were allowed to go through customs which took at least an hour and a half even though we were nearly the only ones there. (I think customs officials are universally the slowest moving people in the world and Laos is known to be exceptionally slow)

There was never a bigger collective sigh of relief than when we hopped back on the bus for our next ten hour leg. We were on our way, even though we were barreling down a winding road in ten meter visibility through the mud smelling the aroma of burning breaks.

To be continued...

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