9:00pm Friday, September 26, 2008 – 3:00pm Saturday September 27, 2008
It’s only a one-hour flight from Bangkok to Vientiane. No sooner has the half-filled Thai Airways Boeing 737 taken off from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and a quick snacked served by the flight crew than the captain comes over the intercom and announces that we’ll be landing at Vientiane’s Wattay International Airport shortly.
Without a doubt Wattay International Airport is one of the easier airports to get in and out of as far as immigration formalities (you can get a visa on arrival—for Americans it’s only 35.00) and baggage claim go. It takes me no more than 30 minutes to apply for my visa (I had already filled out the form on the plane), breeze through immigration and collect my baggage.
After exchanging some dollars for some Laotian Kip, I have to find a phone to call On. There’s a pay phone near one of the exits, but it only takes credit cards. I ask this man at a snack bar if I could borrow his mobile phone to make a local call and he says yes. This sort of thing must happen a lot because he understood exactly what I needed to do and only charged me 10,000 Kip for the call. On’s very excited that I’ve arrived in Vientiane. With every phone call we are getting closer and closer to being together.
Now the real adventure begins.
It’s about a 20-minute taxi ride to the Southern Bus Terminal where I will catch the bus to Paksong. The streets are relatively quiet for this time of the evening—around 10:30. You wouldn’t think that you were in the capital city of Laos. Unlike other bustling, noisy, dynamic capital cities in Southeast Asia, Vientiane is quiet and peaceful. There are some people out on scooters and a few open-air cafés but that’s about it. In Vientiane, most of the nightlife is in the old part of the city, near the Mekong River, but even there most places close by midnight.
Although the bus station is closed there are a couple of people hanging out in the waiting area watching TV. Either they are waiting for someone or have no place to go at this hour. There’ll be buses arriving throughout the night but none departing. Nothing is opened.
I’m hoping that there will be a room available in the guesthouse adjacent to the bus station; otherwise I am going to be spending the next six hours sitting outside in the waiting area. (When On and I came back to Vientiane from Paksong in February we tried to get a room here before we caught a bus to Luang Prabang, but we had gotten in too late, around 2:00 in the morning, and there were no rooms available.) Tonight there is. A room costs only 40,000 Kip – around $6.00. It is just a room and bathroom. The owner is kind enough to let me borrow his phone to call On so I can let her know that I’ve gotten to the bus station and that I’ve gotten a room for a few hours. He doesn’t even charge me for using the phone.
With my sleeping arrangements taken care of (and after being up since yesterday morning I am looking forward to at least two-three hours of sleep) the only thing left is to make sure I get on the first bus to Pakxe in the morning. On has already told me that there’s a bus at 5:00. That’s the one I am going to take. I set the alarm clock I brought along for 4:00 (which ended up being 3:00 because I mistakenly got the present time mixed up) and then, if you can excuse the cliché, I was out like a light.
At 4:00 when the alarm beep beep beeps, I bolt up and jump out of bed. No time to shower or even drag a comb across my head. I’ve got a bus to catch. I splash some water on my face—just enough to feel about refreshed as I can for this hour of the morning (remember it’s 3:00 and not 4:00) and gather my belongings. I’ll have to wake up the manager of the guesthouse to drop off my key; no problem, someone else had already woken him up to drop off a key.
The bus station is slightly abuzz with activity as two buses arrive and other passengers arrive in tuk-tuks to catch a bus later. As soon as I walk into the station a man comes up to me and asks me where I am headed. Paksong, I tell him.
Paksong? He takes my suitcase and leads me to a bus at the far end of the terminal and stows the suitcase and the baby stroller for me. Turns out the first bus to Paksong leaves at 4:45. I do not have to buy a ticket—I couldn’t anyway because the ticket office hasn’t even opened yet. I will be able to buy a ticket once I am on the bus.
And yes, I will be on a Korean bus again. Not just a bus that had been manufactured in Korea, but a used Korean bus that had been sold to Laos. I’ve heard that Japan also sells used buses to the Philippines. What’s weird is that a lot of the Korean lettering has not been removed (maybe it can’t be removed) like the lettering on the door chun-dong-mun (main entrance). The bus is leaning to one side; shocks must be shot on that side. You never know what bus you’re going to get. It’s definitely a crapshoot. This is one is okay. At least the seats are comfortable and I can slide open the window.
The bus station continues to come alive as another bus arrives and a few passengers board the bus I am on. There’s a woman selling the tickets and I pay the 120,000 Kip, around 600 Baht or $18.00. She seems friendly enough and even speaks a little English to me. Good. That’s all I needed to know to ask her if I could borrow her phone to call On one more time to let her know I am on the bus and on my way.
“See you soon, Darling,” I tell her.
“See you soon, Darling,” she replies.
And at 4:45 I am on the road again and getting closer and closer to being with my family.
Traveling on a bus in Southeast Asia is not for the weary and the weak at heart. It’s definitely an adventure from daredevil drivers pushing the pedal to metal, long stretches without any rest stops to the constant blaring of the horn to move cattle and other livestock off the road and stopping to pick up and let off passengers everywhere along the way.
And sometimes it can be dangerous with drivers driving too fast or falling asleep. Once back in 1995 when I was on a bus from Bangkok to Chiang Mai the bus driver fell asleep, the bus went off the road and hit a tree. Fortunately no one was hurt but we had to wait two hours for another bus to come and pick us up before we continued on our way.
No sooner had we let the bus station than the bus stops to pick up some passengers as well as allow some vendors to come on selling everything from French Baguettes and deep fried bread to soft drinks, eggs, and strips of barbecued pork. I buy a Pepsi and some deep fried bread—which is actually quite sweet and tastes like doughnuts. There will be a few more stops like this along the way to pick up and discharge passengers as well as let some vendors on (they ride the bus a few kilometers before getting off).
Besides the bus driver and the woman selling tickets there are three guys riding in the front of the bus who help load and unload baggage and other cargo that people want to have transported—like a motor scooter. Two guys on a motor scooter stop the bus and ask if another motor scooter can be transported to some other town. Yes, it can and the three guys at the front of the bus get off and proceed to load the motor scooter on the top of the bus. One of the guys on the scooter writes down the bus number and license plate number—just in case the scooter on top of the bus does not get to where it is supposed to—and we are on our way again.
The bus stops once for a pee break: those who want to go run into the bushes along the side of the road to relieve themselves. The only real rest stop along the way is at Tha Khaek—about five hours south of Vientiane—the halfway point for my journey to Paksong. It’s a fifteen-minute break and a much deserved one. More passengers board including two foreigners who pay no attention to me as well as a woman carrying a basket with a couple cackling chickens. The chickens ride in front.
The next major stop is in Savannakhet two hours away. It’s a major crossroads in Laos for people traveling to the country from Thailand or Vietnam as well as traveling in country to Vientiane in the north and Pakxe in the south.
The bus stops at a small bus station where we end up sitting for almost an hour. I have no idea what is going on but some people are requested to get off the bus and transfer to another bus. This happened before when On and I went to Paksong. We had to get off one bus and get on another. Don’t know what’s going on this time. The woman selling tickets tells me that I don’t have to get off. I buy another Pepsi. We end up waiting there for another bus to arrive and for the passengers from that bus to get on our bus.
On told me not to fall asleep once I got to Savannakhet—to stay awake and make sure I knew when we were getting close to Paksong. No problem there. Even though I’ve only slept a few hours since Thursday I am wide-awake and very, very excited.
Can’t this bus go any faster?
I am looking outside the window. The landscape looks familiar. I know where I am.
Everything is so green and tranquil. Thick white clouds move across the azure sky.
My heart is beating faster.
The bus nears Paksong and one of the guys in the front motions for me to move to the front to let them know where to stop. By the time I do move, we are in Paksong and I tell them where to stop.
“Yoot tee nee!” I tell them. Please stop here.
One of the guys follows me off the bus and helps me unload my suitcase and the baby stroller.
Thank you in Laos.
I wave goodbye and they wave goodbye back.
Okay, now I have to walk about a half mile to On’s home.
I am floating on air about right now. I’ve got an adrenaline rush going and my heart is beating faster.
Some people recognize me along the way. They smile. They know where I am going.
I pass the coffee shop where On often goes for coffee with Bia.
I can see her house now.
Inside there’s a lot of people gathered—it’s customary in Laos that when a child is born for friends to visit and spend time eating and talking.
When I walk inside, the room gets quiet. Everyone stops talking and eating and looks at me. Someone helps me with my bags.