Night bus nightmare

Trip Start Jan 02, 2013
1
18
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Trip End Apr 25, 2013


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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Thursday, February 14, 2013

Luang Prabang is the former royal capital of Laos and has UNESCO world heritage status. From Vientiane it is a 12h bus ride so we decided to take a night bus to get there. Sadly there was no room on the sleeper bus (a dormitory on wheels, bunk beds and all!) So we took the VIP bus with reclining seats. I think it will be impossible to forget this journey, ever.
  shuttle bus collected us from the hotel at 6pm and we drove around in circles for over an hour picking up travelers from Vietnam and China who are either not ready or AWOL. Arriving at the bus station, there was not enough time to go to the bathroom so I decided to brave the coach loo downstairs only to discover that some idiot has parked a motorcycle against the door, thoughtful when we have a 12h journey ahead. Using a careful combination of English and sign language I communicated this little problem to the bus driver who indicated that he understood and would definitely wait for the two minutes it would take me to use the station facilities. As you can probably guess, I ran there and ran back to discover an empty parking bay where the bus had stood, clouds of dust in the distance. With an empty bladder and absurd fury, I sped after the bus as Jonny was forcing the driver to stop and climbed on, a few choice expletives mumbled in the direction of the driver.
Safely on board, we looked forward to having our own seats with leg room and settled in thinking that sleep would come when the initial chatter and excitement had died down. How wrong we were. An entire night of entertainment had been planned! Firstly the aisle was filled with tiny little pink plastic stools complete with dangerously sharp edges then the seats were filled up with locals. Someone had deposited a Granny in the seat adjacent to Jon, I'd watched a family carefully guide her to her seat at the station then quietly withdraw from the bus, running off down the street with a look of delirious freedom on their faces before she noticed. She started by shouting at everyone around her and poking them in the ribs with a practiced finger. She then commandeered a mobile phone and proceeded to shout into it, presumably at the relatives who abandoned her. After draining the battery on the stolen mobile, she turned her attentions to poking the man next to her and rooting around in her plastic bags.
Meanwhile, the bus driver plugged his USB stick into the radio and was playing his 8 Lao pop songs on continuous repeat and people were trying out all the ringtones on their mobiles. By the time I put my ear plugs in to try to sleep, the bus had stopped to let people on and off about twenty times, each stop requiring varying degrees of upheaval of the aisle seat passengers. I wondered if it would take 12 days rather than 12 hours then Granny kicked off again, opening up a bamboo basket full of rice, rolling it up into balls, eating some and launching the rest at other passengers.
We stopped in the early hours and registered a traumatised looking American behind us. The Lao girl next to him had vomited in his lap, the man in the aisle next to Jon had puked, as had the three people crammed onto two seats in front of us. He'd thought about waking us from our doze but realised that wouldn't be able to escape the Bermuda triangle of vom or the river which was by now flowing under our feet so thankfully left us blissfully unaware. The driver took it upon himself to crank up the volume on the radio at 1am and pretended not to understand the requests to turn it down whilst Granny started to hack up the contents of her lungs into a plastic bag at 2am. I just wanted to cry by this point and Jon was trying to keep on top of the nausea from twisting hillside roads and the smell. We arrived in Luang Prabang at 7am in a state of sleep deprived shock.

After recovering from the nightbus fiasco, we explored Luang Prabang, climbing the mount to a small shrine to watch sunset and hiring a scooter to visit the waterfalls. We spent late afternoon hiding from the fierce sunshine in a little known about eco park 5km from the city centre. We were approached by a photographer and English park manager who were putting together a new brochure for which pictures of a contented travelling couple were required, would we model for them? After negotiating payment in Beerlao we were photographed then spent the evening chatting and drinking with the pair. We learnt a lot about Lao custom including the complex concept of 'losing face'. No Lao ever wants to be shown up or humiliated, they also do not wish to be responsible for anyone else  'losing face' and looking stupid. Therefore, they will never tell you if you are wrong, if you they don't like your haircut or if you are making an unwise decision. This makes asking for directions a complete nightmare as the Lao won't correct you if you're wrong. They can also be quite difficult to negotiate or haggle with at times as they fear losing face. This is awkward when a tuk tuk driver tries to charge a criminal fee, you both know it but he won't back down as he might lose face so either successfully rips off the tourists or loses his passengers. I don't fully understand it but it explains some of the behaviour we're starting to see.

Each morning at dawn Tak Bat takes place. It is an alms procession where the monks demonstrate their vows of poverty and humility whilst the Lao gain Buddhist merit by gifting traditional sticky rice. The local women line the streets around the monastery and without looking up, silently place small balls of rice in the monk's collection pots. Foreigners are allowed to watch the procession but must be respectful, keeping their distance, maintaining silence and not using camera flash. We got up at the crack of dawn but saw little of the beauty of this tradition thanks to the hoards to Chinese New Year tourists flagrantly disrespecting the rules, crowding the monk's and interrupting the quiet flow of events trying to pose for photos with the monks. Apparently the monk's have asked the government if they can stop this ritual and I can imagine that they must feel like exhibits it a zoo, little religious meaning now attached to their procession.

L'artisan cafe provides the best poached eggs I've ever had but more importantly, they serve the one thing I've been craving for over a month. They serve proper tea with real milk. Everywhere else its been creamer powder or canned milk. Heaven.

sorry, not many pictures yet as can't get my hands on a PC to upload then.
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