Sleeper Bus to Luang Prabang

When we left off, I was in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and had just spent a few hours at the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) Visitor Centre. I wrote the blog entry about COPE a few days after the visit while sitting in a cafe in Luang Prabang. At the time I thought it was best to gloss over the 18-hour period between leaving Vientiane and arriving in Luang Prabang since my cellphone died about an hour into the trip and I only had one photo to accompany a story. And who would believe ANY of my tales without photographic evidence?

Well, after mulling this over for a few days, I have concluded that someday I’ll be propped up in a chair in the hallway at Parkview Home with plenty of time to pass between my mid-morning nap, afternoon bingo, and a pre-bedtime Ovaltine and Arrowroot biscuit, and I might want to relive some of my adventures from 2015/16. So while it isn’t the most interesting story, and some readers might say “ewwww” at parts, I’m going to document it for my own sake. Here goes:

Thursday, March 3, 2016

18:45 – I’m sitting on a bench in front of my hotel, eating take-out stir-fry from Tyson Kitchen and waiting to be picked up by a pre-arranged shuttle van that will take me to the bus depot. I have a ticket for the 8:00 o’clock sleeper to Luang Prabang but the shuttle is now 15 minutes behind schedule and there’s a chance that I’ll miss the bus.

18:45 – Standing on the sidewalk about a half block to the north is a well built dude in board shorts and a Hollister muscle shirt. I say “dude” as I’m sure that’s a term he uses in every second sentence. He’s tanned and ripped and impossible to miss even when he’s not waving frantically in my direction, as he is right now.  

18:50 – At first I pretended not to see Hollister Boy but he’s still looking my way and occasionally waving. I check over my shoulder and there isn’t anyone else on the street so I wave back in an awkward way that could be interpreted as either a wave or or a scratch of my eyebrow should his phantom friend magically appear behind me.

19:15 – I pretend to look at my phone as Hollister Boy casually tosses his backpack over one muscled shoulder and two duffel bags over the other shoulder. He’s walking this way at this very minute. I pretend to be more interested in my phone. I know he’s getting closer because I can smell the coconut oil.

19:30. “Hi, I’m Karoline.”  

19:32 – Oops. Hollister Boy is a woman from Poland. She says that she was in line behind me when I bought the bus ticket yesterday so she knows we’re on the same bus to Luang Prabang. 

19:40 – The shuttle is now an hour and 10 minutes late but Karoline assures me this is par for the course. She’s working on an archeological dig at the Plain of Jars in northern Laos and makes a “supply run” into Vientiane once a month.

19:50 – While rummaging through one of her two duffel bags, Karoline mentions that her name in Slavic means “tiny and feminine.” She may have been a fragile child but when I catch a glimpse of what’s in the duffel bags I understand what happened. Each bag contains several big jars of Creatine and a dozen or more boxes of Protein Bars.

20:10 – A six-seat “stretch” tuk tuk shows up – one hour and 40 minutes late. There are already nine people crammed inside so it’s going to be cozy. I squeeze in between two guys on the bench seat and Karoline sits on the floor, between my legs. She leans back against me. Hard. I’m scared.

20:20 – Although our bus was scheduled to depart 20 minutes ago, Karoline says that we have a ticket and it will be waiting for us. I’m convinced that we’ll be spending one more night in Vientiane and start making a list of excuses why I simply cannot share a hotel room with her. This is not good.

Most of the people on the tuk tuk are taking a 10 o’clock bus to Vang Vieng so they’re not too concerned about timing. I decided to skip Vang Vieng after hearing some first-hand accounts by the “kids” in my Phnom Penh hostel. I Google’d it and found this comment by Brett Dakin, author of Another Quiet American – Stories of Life in Laos: “Each time a young Australian woman strolls down the street in a bikini, a bearded American smokes a joint on a guesthouse terrace, or a group of Koreans tumbles drunkenly out of a restaurant, it saps a little more of the essence of a town like Vang Vieng.” 
Everyone says that it’s non-stop party in Vang Vieng, and while I like a party as well as the next guy, I draw the line at 24-7 parties, day after day after day.

Skipping Vang Vieng will also give me a few more days in Luang Prabang. According to Wikipedia, “Luang Prabang has a rich artistic and culinary history… Typical local dishes include: O-lam (the favorite dish of Luang Prabang locals), Luang Prabang sausage, mokpa (steamed fish), Mekong River moss which is served fried with cheo bong (chilli sauce).” 
 This sounded a bit more interesting than dodging streams of projectile vomit and stepping over passed-out Korean students who had one too many 40 ounce buckets of rum and Kool Aid.

Besides, just getting to Luang Prabang is half the adventure. Again, I defer to Wikipedia: “Luang Prabang is linked by Route 13 with Vang Vieng, Vientiane, and Cambodia, and by Route 1 with Muang Xay. Both roads are poorly maintained, remote, unlit, relatively narrow with sharp curves, and are unmarked and dangerous for the unfamiliar, particularly in the wet season. Buses travel the route in 14–16 hours (barring breakdown or catastrophic accident).”

That settles that. A night bus it is!

20:40 – We pull into the bus terminal no less than two hours and 10 minutes late but miraculously there’s a big purple bus in Bay #2. Karoline was right. She elbows me and nods towards the bus.  There’s going to be severe bruising; the question is whether she may have cracked one or two ribs. This is not good.

This is the only photo I managed to take before my battery died:

 
21:00 – Karoline’s ticket says “Seat A15” and I’m in “Seat A7” so unless they have some very weird numbering system, we won’t be sitting together. I’m relieved until I hear her ask two girls if they by any chance have Seat A6 or A8. This is not good.  

21:10 – I rode on one sleeper bus in South America and I saw many on the highways in China.  Most of them looked something like this:

  

21:15 – The bus we’ll be taking is different. Very different. Rather than semi-reclining seats arranged in pairs on either side of a centre aisle, this bus has rather generously sized cots. And they’re not even stacked two high which is a bonus since you don’t want to roll out of a top berth when the bus takes a sharp corner, especially if you already have several broken ribs and a ruptured spleen. This is good.

21:18 – I locate Seat A7 (which is really a berth) but there’s one little problem. There’s already someone in A7 with the covers pulled up over his or her face. While I stand there double-checking my ticket, the body comes to life. A Japanese boy of about 20 insists that he has been assigned berth A7 and he has a ticket to prove it. I look at his ticket and indeed it does say A7 and today’s date.  He’s also headed to Luang Prabang.  Hmm.  The bus fills up quickly and almost on cue, about 40 of us simultaneously realize that two people have been assigned to each berth. This is interesting. Not good. Not bad. Just interesting.

As I said, I didn’t get any photos of the actual bus as I was waiting until the light of day and my phone died during the night, but here’s a photo of a very similar bus in Laos courtesy of bloggers Steph and Scott:
   http://stephandscott.us/journal/the-dos-and-donts-of-a-lao-sleeper-bus/

21:30 – Toshio has completed one year at university and much to his parents dismay he has decided to travel for six months. We’ve covered much of the same ground – Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and now Laos. I don’t know if we have anything else in common but he’s not the least bit freaked out that we’ll be sharing a very narrow berth for the next 12-14 hours.   Or maybe 16-18.  Who knows in Laos?

22:00 – We pull out of the terminal and the lights are dimmed. All is quiet on the Northbound Express until Toshio turns to me and whispers, “You have wife or husband?” Honesty is the best policy so I tell him a bit about myself. He doesn’t say as much, but I’m pretty sure we’re on the same team. I guess I shouldn’t be too concerned if he’s not, but this feels extremely “pervie.” There’s not much that can be done as the bus is completely full and I’m sure as Hell not bunking with Karoline and her elbows.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

07:30 – We’ve apparently been stopped on the side of the road for two hours. I hear Karoline assuring people that this is actually a good thing. “If we stop for only a few minutes, they patched something with duct tape or wire and it’s maybe not too safe. If we stop for two hours, they replaced something part and all is good.” So, apparently all is good. Wake me when we get to LP.

11:45 – We arrive in LP almost four hours behind schedule. I claim my checked backpack and run to catch a tuk tuk that is headed for downtown with one empty seat. I didn’t have time to say goodbye to Toshio but it’s probably better that way.

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