Saturday, 26 November 2011

Pakse to Ba Na Hin.... A journey from hell, Laos - 1 May 2011

It's four in the morning and Tom, Nicky and I are sitting on a stone table outside a closed shop, tired and irritated by the swarm of mosquitos flying around us waiting for their chance to sink their malaria and dengue fever ridden suckers into our skin to feed on our blood. I was forced to change into my long trousers and a shirt as they began bite. It wasn't supposed to have turned out like this. We should have been comfortable in bed now following a couple of ice cold beers not wondering around the small lifeless town of Ba Na Hin in an effort to find somewhere to sleep for the night.

I thought back to the previous morning in Pakse. We hadn't bought our tickets as the elderly guesthouse owner told us that a bus leaves every hour and not to worry. Our next destination is the Seven Kilometre Konglor cave in Tham Kong Lo however, there is not a direct bus there. The night before last, the owner had sprawled a map out and with his index figure indicated our required route. He informed us that we will need to get on a bus bound for Vientianne and ask to get off at Ba Na Hin where we could catch a connecting bus to Tham Kon Lo. Sounds easy!

We arrived at the bus station just as a bus for Vientianne was about to leave. Our tuk-tuk driver leapt off his seat, grabbed our bags and ushered us towards the ticket counter where he helped us buy bus tickets. Before we knew it, our bags were being hoisted onto the roof of the bus and secured down underneath some tarpaulin with some rope and we were pushed aboard the bus. How's that for Laos efficiency I thought to myself.

Time to wait...
The bus was predictably full and the aisle was nearly full with passengers. My first thought was a memory of that extremely uncomfortable journey between Siem Reap and Banlung the previous week. As soon as they saw us inside the bus, the Lao passengers looked at us and smiled whilst excitedly remarking on the foreigners to the person sitting next to them. Unlike the bus journey in Cambodia, I felt hugely welcomed and smiled back whilst looking for a place to sit in the aisle. As we prepared to perch on some boxes, three people stood up and ordered us to sit down in their seats. I felt truly humbled by their hospitality. The day was going extremely smoothly and as the bus crawled out of the bus station I said to myself "I love Laos".

That's not a good sign....
The lush green hills and the Mekong river that act as a natural border between Laos and Thailand rolled past the window. The sun was beating down rather heavily as the small windows let just enough air in to cool the bus down. We had been travelling for an hour or without hitch until suddenly… BANG, CLATTER-CLATTER-CLATTER… The bus slowed to a stop on the side of the road. People looked around questioning their friends as to what had happened and slowly people stood up and got off the bus.

Out from the back of the bus was a streak of oil stretching back in a straight line for a couple hundred metres. The driver and his assistant crawled underneath the back of the bus. The dangling driveshaft had ripped itself free from a universal joint which lays in pieces on the ground. Quite a serious mechanical failure. Never the less, the driver was under there tinkering away in an effort to fix it. I don't know why he didn't just give up and join his passengers who were all sitting on the verge as it was pretty obvious that it was unrepairable.

The sun was particularly hot as we sat there on the verge whilst the driver and his right hand man tinkered beneath the bus. We had made friends with a Japanese business man who was on a short break from his dealings in Vietnam. After an hour, our throats became too dry and in desperate need of an ice cool refreshing drink so we walked up the road towards a shack that looked as though it was selling drinks. It was indeed a drink selling shack with a wonderful family running it. The family sat around a table eating their lunch. I felt as though we were intruding, however, as soon as we walked in their eyes widened and big smiles spread across their faces. They couldn't speak English and didn’t need to as they jumped up to greet us, shake our hands and began to laugh and joke with us. It's highly likely that they don't see many foreigners cross their path in such a remote location. Unfortunately the drinks weren't exactly ice cold but what more could you expect from a roadside shack in the middle of nowhere. We said our goodbyes to the family and thanked them for the drinks and made our way back swiftly to the bus where the driver and his assistant had finally pulled themselves from underneath the bus.

Transferring goods
Two hours had nearly passed by when another bus arrived and pulled up in front of ours. The bus driver climbed out and had some hushed words with ours whilst inspecting the damaged engine. Suddenly, the men climbed upon the roof and began taking bags down and transferring them onto the other bus. Suddenly the other bus sprung into life and we thought it was driving off with our bags on the roof but instead of moving forward it reversed back and pulled up very closely besides our stranded bus where there was one motorcycle left on the roof. Four men hopped aboard the roofs of the busses and began moving the bike carefully across the gap onto the roof of the new bus. A sight which was interesting indeed.

A squeeze, but look at all those smiles!
We looked inside the working bus and were greeted by an overloaded bus full of passengers smiles. To this day, I have absolutely no idea how we did it but we managed to squeeze two bus loads of people on board one bus. If this happened in Cambodia or Vietnam, I would have been angry but because the Laos people are so friendly and genuine, I really didn't care and enjoyed the bilingual banter between our fellow passengers. As we stood in the middle of the isle whilst things were being sorted out, a lady pinched our bums and laughed. We were again presented with Laos' excellent hospitality when two men gave their seats up for us, although it was a tight squeeze, two seats for three people! The bus sprung into life and we were off again. I do look back and wonder what happened to the stranded bus and its driver and assistant. Are they still there? Did they miraculously fix the bus somehow?

We travelled for what must have been an hour until we pulled into the compound of a small warehouse where we were all asked to get off. What happened next was beyond belief, they proceeded to load the bus with eighty big sacks of rice. Two sacks to each footwell and hell knows how many in the aisle. I couldn't believe how much one bus could hold. After waiting for nearly another hour in the scorching sun unable to sit down as there were far too many ants and flies around, we were finally allowed to crawl back on the bus and over the sacks of rice to find our seats again. Even though we had been on the road for nearly 5 hours, we hadn't made much progress whatsoever.

Getting bored now....
The hours passed by and it was now late afternoon and we had just pulled into the bus station in Savanakhet, only half way to Ba Na Hin. Here we stopped for a further hour, where most people on the bus got off. Gave us some time to have an ice cream and stock up on some more drink an defeat the urge to abandon ship and get the next bus into Thailand which was leaving in just a few minutes. Despite the temptation, we climbed back on the bus, over the sacks of rice towards the back of the bus and prepared for the second half of the journey.

Shortly after departing the bus station the bus turned into a small side street and the driver asked us to get off, which we diligently did and proceeded to stand on the gravel track whilst the bus drove inside a compound with heavy gates and high walls. To us in certainly looked like a drug deal going down as more bags were hoisted on top of the bus. After 30 minutes, we were off again and the sun had dipped below the horizon spreading darkness and lights began flickering on the cars and buses.

The bus journey didn't seem to be ending, hours passed by and we stopped several times, once at this big bus station for another hour whilst we waited for somebody or something. I went to a food stall and began laughing with the girl as I began to haggle with her for some grapes. Despite the journey's length, I still love Laos and its people. We were beginning to consider our options at this bus stop as it was now heading into early morning and we still had a couple of hours to go until we reached Ba Na Hin and knowing that it was a very small town sitting on a junction of two main roads and finding somewhere to sleep would be difficult at the vest of times let alone in the middle of the night. Should we continue on our way or cut our loses and sleep in the questionable motel in this station and get another bus in the morning? Needless to say our procrastination was without results and we were again on our way again.

After a few more hours on the road, some strange conversations with the Laos lady in front of me and keeping an eye out for spiders that periodically crawled quickly over our feet, the bus stopped and the driver's assistant approached us and told us to get off. It was just after 4am and we had finally made it to Ba Na Hin. As soon as we stepped off the bus our bags were there in front of us and the bus drove off into the distance onwards to it's final destination of Vientianne.

Ba Na Hin was at this moment in time the epitome of a ghost town at this time of night, no life apart from the odd motorcycle passing by. Nicky ran off to scout the area and to see if he could find a guesthouse. He did but the man, who we took as security, told us no room. We found the only other guesthouse in the town back on the main road but no one was around to get a room. We sat there for a while in the dark with mosquitos feasting off us and tried again. Success. We finally rouse a lady who was able to give us one room for the remainder of the night. One double room for the rest of the night. Nicky said he didn't mind sleeping on the floor in my sleeping bag whilst Tom and I shared the bed. This changed when we saw insects crawling over the floors which ultimately forced all three of us in one double bed. Thank god there was a shower and wonderful air conditioning unit to refresh us and keep us cool...

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