Travelers through SE Asia all have their own long-distance bus horror stories. Some of them involve pothole-ridden windy roads and vomiting passengers. Others involve real danger, like an engine catching on fire or the driver falling asleep and running the bus off the road. Many people warned us about Thai and Cambodian drivers, though we never felt they were that bad. After way too many white-knuckle drives through India, everyone’s driving seems an improvement.
And then we reached Laos. They are a little more reckless than the rest, and we read a few accounts of overturned night buses. We had decided back in Cambodia that we would avoid overnight buses at all costs, and we’re trying our best to continue that in Laos. To do that, we made more stops along the way instead of just hightailing it from the south (where we entered from Cambodia) to Vientiane, Laos’ capital.
One such trip was a 10-hour bus ride from Savannakhet to Vientiane, which we were told could actually take anywhere from 8-14 hours. Many routes offer VIP tourist buses, which are supposed to be faster, more comfortable and have working air conditioning. But this route only offered a VIP overnight option, so we jumped on the public bus at 8am with the locals. We were the only foreigners onboard throughout the whole ride.
This was our second public bus ride in Laos. They never get better. Even after 13 months of riding on buses that would never pass U.S. safety checks, we still can’t find a way to feel comfortable, physically or mentally.
Laos’ public buses are so over capacity that you feel like you are riding in a crowded elevator. You know the aisle that goes up the middle? If it’s not filled with bags of sugar, rice, you name it, there are people sitting on small plastic stools. Every inch of space is used. Forget about how much hotter it is when there’s no AC and sweaty people sitting shoulder to shoulder. What if, oh I don’t know, the engine caught on fire and everyone had to make a quick exit? Safety check failed.
Maybe you’re not used to engines catching on fire, but it could easily happen here. The public buses on these routes are old. Think about how many decades it may take for the following to happen: the AC doesn’t work, the overhead lights don’t work, the chairs are missing chunks of cushion, the armrest is broken in half or missing, the reclining function doesn’t work because the seatback is off its hinges. It’s a nice atmosphere.
There is also no toilet onboard. This is not a big deal because drivers usually pull over frequently enough for a break (and we also pretty much stop drinking before and during the ride). The funny thing about the Laos public buses, which we haven’t experienced since our African safari, is that they stop for a bush toilet (read: side of the road) instead of at a restaurant or “rest stop” area. Men typically do their business in the immediate area, while women run across the street, behind bushes or unwrap their sarong and hold it around themselves while squatting. I am quite ok with this, as middle-of-nowhere squat toilet stalls tend to have a layer of muddy water on the floor and plenty of stinky trash to keep all the residential bugs satisfied.
With no sinks in sight, we always have a good amount of antibacterial with us. Sometimes, the bus stops in small towns with enough time for local food vendors to swarm the outside of the bus hawking eggs, sticky rice, fish, chicken, fruit and drinks. Transactions happen through the window like a fast food joint’s drive-thru. Sometimes these vendors even board the bus and shove quail eggs in our face as though that would make us want to purchase them. Who knows how long they’ve been sitting in the sun?!
After seeing the things I have seen on this trip, I really take back all the times I thought people at home were dirty litterbugs. The floor on public buses may start out with some dirt and plastic wrappers, but by the end of the trip it is filled with fruit shells (rambutans, mangosteens), egg shells, chicken bones and empty water bottles. There is no garbage can at the front of the bus. If people really feel the need to get rid of their trash, they chuck it out the window. Times like these make me thankful to be from a country that understands the environmental consequences of littering and punishes those who do it. In Laos, India, Myanmar and all the other countries we visited where littering is acceptable, I still cannot bring myself to throw a wrapper on the ground. I prefer to stuff my pockets with trash until I can find an actual rubbish bin. It is a good habit that I am proud of.
Now that you are starting to get a sense of what a public bus ride is like, let’s add one more piece of sensory information: hearing. As we also encountered in Myanmar and Cambodia, the people of Laos love to watch and loudly listen to karaoke music videos. Buses may not have working AC or fully upholstered seats, but they do have a large TV up front and powerful speakers throughout the bus. This means that for hours on end your iPod gets to contend with electric keyboard-backed love songs, and sometimes over-dramatic movies.
As this mash-up of greatness was happening during our recent 10-hour bus ride to Laos’ capital city, a deep explosive noise shook the bus and made me wonder if we just hit a UXO and were about to get catapulted into the air. The sound came from the back right, and we were seated in the back left. Smoke started to encase the rear of the bus and seep in through the open windows. Mike and I exchanged worried looks, as we’ve done way too often on this trip. Then we started to hear a flapping sound and knew for sure that we ran over something very sharp that blew the back tire.
The driver kept driving for about a mile until we reached a village. It took a long time for people to climb over plastic chairs and bags of sugar toward the door to exit the bus. We sat outside for only about 30 minutes while the driver, bus attendants and local mechanics fixed our unpleasant situation. Their skill and quickness proved they had obviously done this many times before.
Despite some questionable driving decisions (overtaking on turns, playing chicken with oncoming traffic), Mike and I were amazed at how well the driver made up for lost time. Somehow we arrived in Vientiane, unharmed, in 10 hours (when it has been known to take up to 14 hours!). Experiences like this always make for an entertaining travel story, but they can be quite harrowing in the moment!