The bus had two conductors, both barefoot. At a stop, they would help the passengers off, get their luggage and send them on their way. They would then re-arrange the passengers on the bus by giving seats to those sitting in plastic chairs in the aisles and moving the aisle sitters further back to fill up any empty space. They would do this by moving from when end of the bus to the other by walking on the backs of the seats with their bare feet. They had to do this since the aisles were full of passengers. They could move from when end of the bus to the other this way faster than I could walk down the aisle. For the 10 hour trip, neither stopped smiling. Their speed and efficiency made the frequent stops entertaining. In fact, they moved so fast through the bus, I could not get a picture of them in the act.
As the day wore on, the bus became very hot. The Lao people in the aisle gave no thought to leaning on strangers and falling asleep. It was near impossible to stay awake in the heat. For the Laos in the aisle, it made no difference if they were leaning on other Laos or foreigners, they would just fall asleep leaning against whatever was available. In one case, it was the shoulder of my brother, Kenny. I thought the Lao man and Kenny were very cute couple, but I don't think my brother was amused.
Our last trip in Laos was from Vientiane toLuong Prabang. Another all day trip through the beautiful mountains and jungles of North Central Laos. We were excited about the trip since it was on a VIP bus, a double decker with air con and movies. Luxury travel for the spoiled foreigners at last.
Like any bus in this part of the world there were a few issues with the VIP type. The AC would work only when the bus went downhill. Since we were climbing into the mountains, there were not a lot of downhill stretches. Unlike, the non-VIP buses without AC, the windows could not be opened. So while a non-VIP bus would swelter. In the VIP bus, you would smother. We learned not to complain about the intermittent air conditioning when it stopped completely. In fact, we were lucky that the bus made the trip. It broke down 4 times on the way. Fortunately, the multi-skilled conductors were also mechanics and were able to keep the bus moving to our destination. The breakdowns were actually welcomed by most of us. It gave us an opportunity to get o-f of the bus to breathe. While it was well in the 90's outside the bus. It was not as hot as in the bus.
One couple told us of their trip from Hanoi to Vientiane, which is a grueling 24 hour ride under the best of circumstances. Their journey was far from the best. Their bus broke down repeatedly not far out of Hanoi. After 12 hours of travel, they were told that they were only 3 hours outside of Hanoi. Eventually, the bus was unable to continue. The young couple had to travel with 7 other passengers in the back of a pickup truck to the border where they could catch a local bus.. It took them 47 hours to get to Vientiane.
The worst bus trip I have taken in this part of the world was what was on what we, unlovingly, call the "death bus". The trip was from Bangkok to Siem Riep , Cambodia. It was our plan to visit Angkor Wat , which is the largest religious complex in the world and truly one of the world's wonders. The trip from Bangkok to Poipet on the border was by mini-bus, efficient and uneventful. Crossing the border at Poipet was a zoo, but many crossings are similar. Once into Cambodia, we were herded on to old school buses that were meant for young Asian children. This meant that there was no leg room for the average sized foreigner and there was no room for luggage which was packed in the front of the bus by the doors. It was packed so high and deep that you had to enter and exit the bus via the windows. The bus, of course, was fully packed with people in the aisles and in every small, hard, seat.
The road from Poipet to Siem Riep was dirt and still may be since it was on the same route the next year. It was full of a pot holes that could have been bomb craters remaining from the war which ended in 1989. They were so big that a vehicle could not go down in many of them with much hope of re-emerging from the other side. So, any car, bus or truck had to drive around the holes which meant that no one was ever driving in a straight line. That our fully loaded bus was able to avoid a broken axle was a minor miracle.
The cost of the death bus was incredibly low $3-10, depending on where you purchased your ticket. The drivers make money by stopping at their brothers, cousins, and friends restaurants and shops along the road. Presumably, they get a cut of any sales. At each stop, people would come out with plastic chairs to assist all of us climbing out of the windows and, climbing back into the bus when we would leave on the road of craters once again.
Another way that the bus companies make money on these extremely cheap trips is that when you arrive at your destination, which is in the middle of the night, they stop at the family guesthouse. Since , you do not know where you are and it is quite late most often you will stay. So far, I have been fortunate and these guest houses have been acceptable, but none will be awarded a Michelin star anytime soon.
All of this seemed very amusing and exotic for the first 4 or 5 hours. Particularly, when it was still light and you could see the countryside and the people along the road. It was so exotic that you didn't notice the heat or care so much about the red dust billowing in the windows and covering everything in the bus.
Passengers started to get cranky after dark. It was hot, there was nothing to see and with the dust, mosquitos were now coming through the windows. At regular intervals, some one would shout to close the windows because they couldn't stand the dust and bugs. Then after a while someone else would shout to open the windows because they could not stand the heat any longer.
To compound our torture, in the front of the bus was a large clock which actually worked. It was the only lit thing we could see besides the lights of our bus and other vehicles which were barely visible in the fog like dust. In the Cambodian countryside there was no electricity. Early in the evening you might see a kerosene lamp or a cooking fire, but later there was nothing but the clock. It would seem like I had not looked at it for at least an hour when I would break down, sneak a peek only to see that 5 minutes had passed since I had last looked. This made time stand still which is not your preference when you are being tortured. The trip, from the border to Siem Riep, which was a distance of 150 miles, took 9 hours.
The return trip, during the day, was relatively uneventful, but for the heat and accident. Our bus overheated. The radiator cap was by the driver in the interior of the bus. He opened the radiator cap to check the water level. Of course, when he did this, steam and boiling water sprayed out. The driver burned a good bit of skin on one of his arms. The passengers were saved by the pile of luggage at the front of the bus. If not for the luggage, many of us would have been burned. The bus companies response to the accident was to send out another bus for the passengers. The injured driver who seemed to be in shock and had boiled flesh hanging from one arm was left behind with the broken down bus.
Lest you think that this type of travel is nothing but dire, the advantages are seeing the beautiful countryside, traditional towns and villages that you pass through allowing you to be a voyeur of the day to day activities of the people who live in these places. And ,of course, the wonderful people that you meet along the way, as mentioned previously. We have met and made friends with people from all walks of life from all over the world. For me, I hope to always trade some convenience and comfort for the experience that goes with this kind of travel. If I want convenience and comfort, I will stay home.