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    Saturday, 15 August 2009

    Pakse to Vientiane - What went wrong?

    Laos Tuk Tuk Driver [Enlarge & More]
    After much deliberation as to where we would go after Pakse, we eventually decided on Vientiane, a ten hour bus ride away. Our other choice was the town of Savannakhet, five hours north of Pakse by local bus. Our choice was made based on the lack of sights in Savannakhet, as opposed to north Laos, where we expected to spend a fair bit of time sightseeing. Oh, and also the bus ride to Savannakhet sounded like it would be a lot of hard work for little payoff, given it was a free-for-all local bus, whereas the bus to Vientiane was V.I.P (air conditioned, goes when the seats are full).

    Having made our choice, we went to book our ticket the day before our intended departure. Unfortunately for us, we discovered that the only buses leaving Pakse for Vientiane were sleeper buses – even though the journey was only ten hours, and you could easily arrive by 5pm if you left at 8am, every single bus in Pakse left for Vientiane at 8pm. Okay – unlucky, but that’s just the way it goes, right? We accepted our fate to spend a night on the sleeper bus, but remembering our Indian experience of taking a bus from Ooty to Chennai, we were sure it would not be too bad.

    After taking it easy the following day, we waited at the Pakse Hotel for our arranged pickup from Pakse Travel (who we booked the ticket through) to arrive at 7:30pm and take us to the Pakse Northern Bus Terminal (everything in Pakse is so thoughtfully named). Ten minutes passed, and the clock edged closer to 8pm, the departure time. So we were last on the list for pickup to go to the bus station – fair enough, someone has to be. However, ten minutes later our pickup still had not arrived, and given the bus station was at least a five minute drive away we decided to act. Mahmoud got the hotel receptionist to phone Pakse Travel, who eventually answered the phone. They were apparently surprised, and sent someone around to get us in a minivan – they arrived at 7:56pm. The driver apologised profusely – at least he was honest, and told us we’d been forgotten rather than the dog ate his passenger list or something. We sped off to the bus station, amidst promises we’d make our bus on time.

    Unfortunately, just as we pulled up to the station, a large shiny new looking V.I.P bus pulled out and drove away.
    “Was that our bus?” we asked.
    “No,” our driver responded. “There are other buses.”
    That was fine, but as we pulled up we noticed the other buses were not quite so shiny and new looking. As we pulled up, our bags were extracted from the minivan and rammed into the already stuffed undercarriage of the bus before we could argue. However, argue we did, and Mahmoud in particular was adamant that we were not getting on the bus. The driver admitted it was not the bus we’d booked, but insisted it was a good bus. Eventually, we relented and got on, not willing to spend another night in Pakse.

    The bus was hot – the air conditioning was a bit hit and miss, sometimes it was working and sometimes it was not. Worse though, was the size of our berth. It was roughly the size of a single bed, with two small pillows on it, and about the right height for a 5’6” tall person. I’m 5’10” and Mahmoud’s 6’3”, so imagine the two of us crammed into a single bed made for two small, slim Lao people. Oh, and we also had to fit our day bags in with us, and the temperature on the bus when we boarded was around 28 degrees Celsius. Wonderful.

    Needless to say, the night’s sleep was not great, but we managed to arrange ourselves into positions which sort of worked. The sometimes-working air conditioner was blowing on my feet which was great, but it soon became apparent that something was wrong, because the hot air from the back of it was blowing onto my head. Eventually, I managed to stuff the vent with a sheet which worked wonders, and hoped the air conditioning unit would not catch on fire.

    Sadly, the bus also had a toilet. I was sad about this, because the toilet was in front of our berth. Therefore, we had every person who couldn’t be bothered to hold their bowels and bladders until the next stop going back and forth, creating nasty smells near us. Nastier still was the air freshener the attendant used to “disguise” the smells emanating from the squat toilet, and pouring bottled water down it to “clean” it, owing to the flush not working (or possibly not existing). This resulted in a foul, flowery, shitty, air conditioned but still hot smell that lingered all night. With sweat running down the back of my neck, I contemplated ramming the air freshener into the squat toilet and disabling both sources of the problem. I’m not joking!

    However, we DID make it to Vientiane in one piece, arriving at some remote bus terminal at 6am. Nothing’s quite as fun as arriving somewhere at 6am having had no sleep. I just love the adventurous aspect of travelling. No, wait, I love the fact that in Laos, you have no choice but to accept overpriced transport fares working on poor timetables and you have to like it!

    We jumped on some shared transport into the city. There were no tuk tuks around, but in hindsight that’s probably a good thing as you’ll see shortly. We arrived at around 7am, and wandered off to find our hotel of choice, where we left our bags until our room became available. We then got some breakfast, and decided to get to the Thai embassy to sort out our Thai visas straight away. We knew it would be difficult to do on almost no sleep, but we were confident our tempers could withstand the strain.

    Well, that was before we spoke to our first tuk tuk driver in Vientiane. We’d spoken to a couple of people beforehand, but no one seemed to know quite where the Thai embassy was – apparently, it had moved in recent months and wasn’t on any of the printed maps. Therefore, we’d have to rely on someone to take us there and back, as we did not know the layout of the city at all. We approached a tuk tuk driver, who presented us with a laminated card of fares. 40,000 kip to the Thai embassy! That’s around $5 – and that was only one way! We knew the embassy was about 2 or 3km away, we just did not know where, so we knew that was extortionate. Eventually, after some haggling, we settled for 50,000 kip return. Still a lot of money, considering we’ve spent $10 on a day’s sightseeing in Cambodia. Despite this, we decided to take the hit once.

    We arrived at the Thai embassy – accosted by touts, trying to sell us the visa application forms (which you receive for free inside the embassy). Ignoring them, we walked up to the front gate – only to find it closed, locked, and bolted. The embassy was shut for the day due to a Thai public holiday. Too angry to look at the driver (who clearly had known all along it was closed), we got back into the tuk tuk and were driven back to our hotel. After we arrived the driver pulled me aside for a private word:
    “You want fun with Lao women tonight big titty?”
    I snarled at him and we stomped into the hotel to get some sleep.

    Our windowless room was decent, if expensive (all of Vientiane is), and we decided to have an hour’s nap to recuperate after all the stress. I had a shower and settled down. Just as I closed my eyes, the power flicked off – off went the air conditioner, off went the lights, up went the volume from outside, and wide open my eyes flicked. Out of the room we stomped, to find the power up and running in the rest of the hotel – a fuse had blown. The man on reception assured us it would be fixed “within an hour or two”. Giving up, we went out for the rest of the morning - cursing Vientiane, tuk tuk drivers, tour companies, touts, horizontally challenged bus berths, squat toilets, the electricity, and Thai public holidays (how dare they!).


    1. Aaah, travel. Don't you just love it...?

      I know we shouldn't laugh, but it's very difficult not to.

      Would we be right in saying that Laos hasn't been the highlight of your trip so far?

    2. Yep, not one of my favs so far.

    3. I think it's because I loved Cambodia.

    4. Something about sleepers & toilets going on in your trip I feel....


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