March 26, 2015
By now Richelle and I have taken quite a few busses around Asia(1); they’re cheap and frequent, but that’s mostly it for their ‘pros’. If you’re a traveler on a budget, they are a necessary evil.
In the past month (Feb/March 2015) we’ve logged about 45 hours on various types and classes of bus (2). Most of those trips are better described as endurance tests, usually requiring a couple of days afterwards to work out various body kinks, sore backs, colds, and to catch up on lost sleep. But the last one was the one folks, the one that transformed us into Super Women.
This bus was a VIP Sleeper Bus from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, Laos, advertised as an 8 hour night trip (10pm – 6am). We booked it through an agent and paid more for it due to its VIP classification. The ticket agent assured us that we would get a double sleeper near the front (3)of the bus. We were looking forward to sleeping our way to the destination (our expectations weren’t too high ~ we’re veterans now and not that naïve) and arrive ready for a day of exploration in a new and exciting city.
You’ve probably guessed by now that the bus was… not to our liking, but, you can’t possibly imagine the actual horror of it! This is how our transformation began…
As we’re arriving at the pickup destination the ticket agent instructs us: ‘just leave your luggage, RUN, go line up for the bus’, he would take care of the luggage for us. Ha! He chose that minute to tell us because, unknown to us, another tuk-tuk load of tourists are also racing to catch the same bus and the seating is limited (people have been known to have to sit in the aisle for an entire trip!). Everyone knows what this means and… the Amazing Race is on! Every desperate ‘falang’ for themselves! Richelle unloads or rather throws out the luggage from the tuk-tuk and we make the mad dash for the bus, daring anyone to butt in front of us: we’re stoked, ready and willing to take on anyone who threatens to take our spot in the queue.
As I requested, they did save us a double berth and thankfully, it wasn’t in the lower 5 berth, in fact there was no lower 5, that was filled to the rafters with baggage. Though, our berth was right in front of it. To get into it you had to be very creative ~ they had tied a dirty bus tire to the main berth entry, leaving a 2’x1’ opening to squirm into it. So my first transformation was into a contortionists. Did I mention that I injured my shoulder the week before and had it immobilized for most of that time ~ I was not happy. The bus aisle is less than half a regular aisle because they have double berths on both sides of the bus, also, they must have filled the storage space below because there was no room for most of our baggage in the hold. Their solution was to line the aisle with it. They even piled it up in from of our entry hole. So now our backpacks have a dual purpose, they’ve become foot cleaners and stepping-stones for everyone, (Holy Cow Batman!)
I truly know now, how Winnie the Pooh felt when he got stuck in the Rabbits hole. After some pushing, shoving and lots of grunting we finally got in and took stock at what we got ourselves into. It was not pretty but incredibly we found it hilarious ~ at first! If only our friends and family could see us now! The seat covering was vinyl, perfect for hot, sweaty skin to produce more sweat for sliding around in on an incredible bumpy and winding road. Now add to that the gravelly dirt from previous tenants and you get a good mixture for 9 hours of skin exfoliation. Our shoulders were pressed together, our feet are stuck in a plastic compartment made for size 6 shoe (we’re size 9), and impeding our head space is some of that excess baggage. The window is 4 inches high so that when you look up, to look out, you get glimpses of tree tops and sky ~ at least it’s something, right! Within 10 seconds of pulling away, the driver turns off the neon disco lights, which is a relief at first, but then, it’s pitch black and things start feeling a little more dire, not so funny anymore. Just like SuperWoman, my mind switches into over-drive with the ‘what if’ game. OMG! How am I going to squeeze out of the 4 inch window in case of emergency, etc… To top things off, I now have to pee!
Luckily, the bus driver stopped within 2 hours. Richelle and I squirm our way out of our hole to get to the nasty W/C. On our way back down the aisle to start the squirming struggle into our lair, the man behind Richelle doesn’t feel we’re going fast enough. What he does next to remedy the situation is astounding… he actually forcibly nudges her down the aisle with his groin. Yes, you read that right; now try to picture the whole scene without laughing. To top it off, the driver pulls away and turns off the lights ~ we are again left in the pitch black ~ oh what fun!
4 hours into mountainous terrain (approx. 2:30am), the bus breaks down and worst of all the miserly A/C has now given up the ghost altogether! The heat and humidity rise unbearably within minutes. Again we wriggle ourselves out of our hole to get some outside air. Luckily, they got the bus back on the road in about 1-2 hours, and we’re off again. Miraculously, Richelle and I managed to finally fall asleep (or did we become unconscious?) only to be awoken with one of the bus attendants lying across Richelle, trying to get at the window above me. She wakes up with a start and a man on top of her, and I wake up to the same man’s face staring into mine about ½ away. It’s all very perfunctory though…he throws open the window and we have cold mountain wind blowing in our faces. Earlier, Richelle thought she smelt exhaust seeping in so I wondered if this was their safety measure to keep us alive, and so now ~ we’re wide awake and freezing.
Well we made it to tell the tale. There were a few other gruesome concerns that thankfully didn’t materialize. Suffice it to say that we had ‘Mexican’ for lunch, and I had to conquer scary memories of some pretty tight spelunking spots I got myself into years ago (both situations had very real similarities for me). We did conquer our many fears, and we even took a step in getting over the ‘polite Canadian’ label (we yelled heartily, several times, at the driver to turn the!#%#$ lights back on till we got into our lair!). And there it is, the moment in time where we magically transformed into Superwomen. We are now in Luang Prabang, we did some exploring today and find this place to be so beautiful and unique ~ well worth the trip, even the trip from hell. But, now that we are superwoman, you can bet that we’re going to use our new Super Powers to FLY back to Bangkok!
(1). A brief background on bus categories: Public busses are very cheap but they are usually overcrowded, very hot, very slow, and very uncomfortable for a long haul; Tourist busses come in many guises but are usually newer, have A/C, have more comfortable seats or sleepers (relatively speaking), but are much more expensive; minivans are usually comfortable, have A/C, and get you where you’re going to fast.
(2). Bus trips in Vietnam: one 11 hour and one 5 hour sleeper bus, a 2 hour public bus; and a 9 hour minivan trip; in Thailand we went on a 5 hour minivan excursion; in Laos, a 4 hour minivan, and we just got off of a 9 hour VIP Sleeper bus.
(3). On our last sleeper bus experience we were crammed like the proverbial sardine in the lower berth for 5 people at the very back of the bus ~ let me assure you that trip was another horror story, it was very uncomfortable but, lesson learned ~ we will never take that berth again ~ ever.