Who needs air-con when the Laos bus windows are all open? Out with the 4000 (US 1.00) kip dust mask and ready to roll, up the Mekong, on a brand new road. The new road links Vientiane to the Bangkok-China silk roads a century after the demise of the bullocks that built them. It rides the Mekong River. It completes a holiday circle with two borders, in Laos, and Thai Isan.
Not a driver, a friend
First, though, tea with the Toons. Whatever ITB might say, not every tuk-tuk driver is a villain. My tuk-tuk drivers look after me. Mr. Toon (mobile +856220481) is someone you’d be proud to take home and show your mother. Over the years, he evolved from driver to friend, in bad times, and in good. Whatever he might offer other falang, he offers me real Loa hospitality: a bed in his home, time with his family.
His tuk-tuk travelled by a different way, one skinning the south side of the temple of That Luang to cover the one in a year festival, where Buddhists migrate on mass from the country side to pay their respects to give thanks for the harvest, and pay homage to the long dead King who built a temple to house a part of Buddha’s body he no longer needed.
Mr. Toon had an update. “Old wife no look after me. New wife look after.”
Perhaps “old wife” found out about a “mia noi” (minor wife)? Whatever had happened, “old wife” got the house, Toon the tuk-tuk, and a “new wife” who owned land ripe for subdivision. “Last year, one million baht. I say wait. Next year two million.” Quotes aside, he lost the house, but gained a younger wife!
Under a fan, on the edge of town, orange vegetable strings, prescribed by a North Vietnamese doctor, “for head,” floated in a carboy of brown spirit of firewater. Duck bones mounted, rice diminished. Friend from Savannaket produced a letter – in English. Her boyfriend was in the US. There was only one translation. “The embassy wants you to write a letter telling them a love story.” Phoned, the boyfriend in the US understood. Tomorrow he would ask a lawyer to prepare her letter.
Tomorrow ITB could make shift for himself. Maybe he’d been medi-vaced out. More likely he’d ended up entangled in the charms and arms of the women of the boom boom rooms. (Later ITB confessed. He’d chickened out. “Not a good idea in Laos”, he says. “The government says you must marry to sleep with a Laotian woman. If police catch you, it’s a big fine.” Right. Quoted too high a price more likely!)
“Tomorrow I take you to bus to Pak Lai. Next time you stay here,” said Mr. Toon.
If there was going to be a next time…
New Road to Pak Lai
Just past the Cimetrie Catholique, opposite a Vientiane car yard, the driver stopped. His offsider took to a tyre with a jemmy bar. The driver disappeared deep under the engine, carrying a hammer. Always the watchers gather. The hammering clattered on so long that even the watchers wandered. This did not bode well!
A few miles on, a stop by a market. Fruit boxes lined the aisles, and the roof above. By now the silent stillness of the start was long past. Passengers relaxed and talked. A small boy teased a little sister only too happy to be upset. Past Phu Pan Mining, still in Vientiane, the gruelling 10-hour ride began. The tarmac ended. The concrete trucks and ditches started. A dog like a dingo slept in road sand. Concrete houses gave way to mimosa, bananas, papayas, and fishponds.
From the outskirts of Vientiane, the bus shadowed the Mekong River for many hours. It’s brakes were gears in a gearbox not long for this world, changed by a doubled clutch. Shock absorbers had long collapsed ground apart by a new road worn to rubble of river stones.
Road camps came and went. The windows admitted fresh air loaded with fine dust. Thailand flashed temples across the Mekong. Where the plain narrowed, the bus ran like cotton in the eye of a needle, slipping through a sliver between high mountains and a deep river. Sometimes bridges were yet to be built.
Beyond a concrete works, the road turned from rocks to gravel, and the potholes eased. Blue silk shot silver through trees, between cows, hid behind haystacks in drying fields. Small towns came. Small towns went. A rooster blustered from a roadside. Novice monks got on, novice monks got off. A man with a green shirt and gentle face made them feel at home on the fruit boxes of the aisles.
After four hours, at noon, the river turned west at last. The power line followed. By now, the concrete towns had turned to wood. Smells of cows rode on pink winds. A dog dived for the safety of a ditch. Every passenger’s head was red. Potholes separated the red heads from sleep. Smacking metal silenced all other sounds. In long stretches of river, rapids swirled under rock islets.
Three more hours of watching a river and its twin towns, looking for an old home, Chiang Khan, in Thailand.Just before Chiang Khan came into view, the bus dived aside and into a road stop restaurant in it’s twin town of Xanakhan.
“Kin khao,” said the woman beside me in Lao. “Eat now.”
“Kin fur,” said the woman behind the counter of the roadside restaurant on the outskirts of tZanakhant. “Fur” was beef noodle soup, a Loatian delicacy. It was served in a bowl and would sustain me for the rest of the bumpy journey. While across the rode stood a swanky new Thai funded guesthouse . It beckoned, but Pak Lai pulled harder.
Right turn to Pak Lai
From here, the bus turned hard right, on blue tarmac. The hardest road had been surfaced first. Within an hour it left the low rolling farmlands. For the next two hours, it became an insect, corkscrewing heights, twirling depths, always with the gearbox screaming.
The cultivated lands faded, and the spirit houses vanished. Gloom of dusk descended as the road forced its way through pristine bamboo forest. Anything could be out there…
After three hours, suddenly, the forest fragrance gave way to the smell of mushrooms, banana palms appeared, and the bus was rolling through hills and plain again. The smell of the river, earth wand water, drifted through the smell of smoke. The bus headed straight for it.
A cargo boat, without lights made way for an unlit car ferry. The bus tried to climb on the ferry. Yells of “Yut!,” “Stop!” reversed it. The second time it managed.
Ahead, across the river the lights of Pak Lai twinkled. Somewhere there, my eight- legged room mate waited for a red caked witch, six inches from the tips across his tail.
Back in Vientiane, ITB might have been missing Thailand’s 7-11s, but now he’d discovered the good side of Laos. He writes, “Laos supermarkets offer all kinds of delights!” I knew that with gentle coaxing he would come to see its real side!
But the Laos roads are freeways compared to the outback “roads” I ride through the Aboriginal communities of Central Australia. There, rutted tracks, over graded until they are so deep they double as creeks, leave fingers calloused just from holding on. Deep ditches shadow Laos roads. The ditches take the worst of water to the river before the road reverts to ruins. Twelve hours on a Laos bus is a breeze!
Days have passed since I embarked on this journey, and I am still coughing red dirt. But it doesn’t matter. I have learnt my first Laos lesson. Arriving is an interruption. The journey is the destination. But there’s more to the Naga Saga. I.T.B was slumming it up in Vientiane…