Hells bus part 2


We wake at 6:00 am and wander onto the street to see two hundred orange robed Buddhist monks receiving alms, mainly sticky rice. There is a really surreal feeling to the sight, almost like the day has not woken properly and we are seeing its fading dream. Gucci clad tour groups from high end hotels line the street, they are wearing orange shawls and handing rice to the monks in a frenzy of karma trading. We do not want to intrude as they do and just stand watching from a respectful distance. I cannot get a photo of the amazing procession without unwittingly snapping one of these party crashers.

Not yet ready to face the day we crawl back under the fan and into bed to make a few more Z’s

Midday, our second brutal commute through Laos has begun. We are on a Jumbo van to the airport. Jumbo vans are awesome, they are tiny one litre Diahatsu flat bed trucks with bench seats and roofs installed. About twelve people can fit in the back, backpacks go on the roof, the sights and smells are within grasp as they putter you to your destination.

We wait in the tiny one gate airport for two hours watching pink and white toga wearing people talk with British accents to a large family of Sri Lankan tourists. The dark Sri Lankans look quite happy about the near forty degree heat. The flight has its ups and downs, that is to say we go up, then straight down. It only takes forty minutes to fly what would have been a fourteen hour bus epic, it is seventy US dollars well spent. Thankfully we land in Vientiane without mishap, despite more liquid being spotted under the plane and a very second hand looking decor inside.

An un air-conditioned taxi with a stern driver takes us through the country’s capital to the bus depot, we stop counting intricately painted Buddhist temples at seven. The French influence is even more obvious here with baguette stands displaying their wares on every corner.

With our shorts sticking to our bums and backs itching from hot packs we discover that a bus is leaving south on Route 13 in ten minutes. We find a baguette to munch and I buy Jette a can of coke, I spoil myself with another bag of Spicy Crab Lays chips. We take a deep breath and settle in our seats near the back of the bus. Despite having bussed through some of the worlds poorer nations this is easily the worst bus I have ever graced. The last four rows of seats have been removed and replaced with hessian sacks of either rice or fabric. Every available space, even the bit where you normally put your feet, is filled with these dusty sacks, the aisle, the roof, there are even two sacks dangerously close to the driver’s foot pedals.

If you speak with someone who has endured the unimaginable, lets say a five year term in a Balinese prison, they will not give you an orderly description of their experience. More likely you will get a highlight reel of the worst parts, spikes on a graph showing suffering on the ‘X” and time on the ‘Y’. I think this is how I am also best able to paint an accurate picture of our five hours inside this muggy hessian sack. In short it felt like we were reliving all the bad bits from the bible.

The bus waits in the full sun for twenty long minutes before leaving. By now sweat is dripping from the end of my nose rhythmically and Jette has finished her coke. My packet of chips has swelled in the heat fit to burst.

Half an hour into our journey we stop and two scooters levitate past the rear window and are lashed down next to the three goats who have been enjoying a cool breeze on the roof. A bag of rotten, half eaten something has been shoved into the ashtray adding a zesty tang to the muggy air. We drive off through a winding mountain pass which reveals a very unnerving fact about this bus. Not only do the brakes smell like burnt rubber but the top moves completely independently to the bottom. The weight of sacks on top of the bus makes the roof swing about four inches away from each corner. This movement sends shudders down the bus, both in the passengers and in the rusted sheet metal which covers the frame and is fast loosing its battle to keep the outside world out. A credit card sized gap where the window opens up provides our only link to sanity as a cool breeze sometimes wafts away our body odour. Someone sitting in front throws water out of their window, it is sucked into ours and covers our grimy shirts. A child is crying constantly. Heat, hot dust, dust which gets on your teeth and down the back of your throat. Dust which balls into sweaty bobbins when I run my hand up Jette’s forearm. My hairline near the neck is brown with sweaty dust.

The air inside the bus smells like a wet sneaker. The bus stops to allow the driver to fill up the steaming radiator. All the passengers disembark and run into a rubber plantation like Khmer Rouge soldiers. Jette braves the plantation for a wee stop, needing to maintain eye contact with our bags I simply go at the back of the bus. I catch a glimpse inside the engine bay, a mechanic has held this engine together with silver tape and hose clamps, what little confidence I had in our transport evaporates. We finish all of our water, which was too hot to quench a thirst anyway. My chips are finished and I feel nauseous with the diesel smell. Jette’s head is rolling on her shoulders, she bears the haunted look of an African child in a famine. The bus rumbles and squeaks onwards at a steady forty kilometres an hour.

The scenery disappears as the sun sets somewhere in the haze. I am pretty sure I just spotted a grandma on a pushbike pass us before the darkness steals all views. Now our only senses available are smell and sound, these remind us constantly that we are moving somewhat closer to our goal. The dark takes with it our confidence of finding a room for the night, we are planning to get off at the corner of Routes 13 and 8. A small town without a name or any information available. I am glad to have the DEET in case we need to sleep in a sun shelter beside a rice paddy. An indeterminable time bumbling along in the dark, tired with nerves from jumping when the chassis groans or when the driver falls onto the horn, and finally we are off the bus. We are standing at the junction wearing our very dirty packs and trying to spot a hotel, hostel or welcoming looking local. We had planned on pushing through to Ban Khoun Kam nearer Kong Lo caves but the journey of about two hundred kilometres took over five hours and has completely drained our batteries, the energiser bunny is no longer dancing or banging his cymbals.

Thankfully we find a room, at a roadside hotel with a mattress that still has its plastic cover on and a fan that gently mixes the muggy air. We wash our faces and fall into a nearby diner where a man wearing clownish makeup is dressed as a lady. He/she tries to flirt with both of us. We leave. At the only other diner open a young teen apologetically serves us noodle soup and omelet, we eat with abandon while looking over the families shoulders to absently watch a sit-com on television. A gangster is cutting off a man’s ears.

Back to the room, we lie under the fan. Prone and shirtless on the sticky-hot plastic mattress cover we see geckos outside chasing flies. They make weird frogish noises.  I get up and photograph a bug the size of your hand and jump back onto the bed. We have a plan in place to get to the cave tomorrow, sleep spirits us away before we can worry too much about tomorrow.

Our commute is not quite finished however, the morning brings a renewed vigour and enthusiasm to see this cave which we have made such a detour to explore. We catch an early Jumbo to Ban Khoun Kam. I am standing on a back ledge in the breeze as the van weaves its way along a serpentine road. The karst formations are sharp, unlike the smooth (possibly older) ones in Vietnam. Sharp spikes like grey meringue pies stick up out of the lush surrounding jungle. The scenery is surreal, like a mental patient’s painting.

Many scooters and construction vans pass us on the way. A thirteen kilometre tunnel is being dug through a mountain to speed movement through the region. I spend the whole ride on the back ledge holding on with one hand and frantically photographing the scenery with the other.

We get to a guesthouse where the guide book promises we will be met by English speaking Jimmy. Jimmy unfortunately is in Canada on work. His younger sister shows us to a room. A room with a musty, rattling air-conditioner unit fighting to abate the thirty-five degree heat. We meet our first Westerner for days. Claudia is a young German girl, she is traveling on her own as her boyfriend had to return to Germany for work. Some companies in Germany give their workers the option to take up to three months sabbatical on minimum wage, which they can pay back with a pay reduction once they return to full time work, this sounds very much like a win/win scenario.

We are served 2 very fresh baguettes for breakfast which we fill with omelet before jumping on Claudia’s prearranged Jumbo out to the cave. Our pilgrimage to the caves is almost done. It had better be worth the effort!

2 Responses to Hells bus part 2

  • mc says:

    My Rule 1 of travelling: Never ever ever go anywhere by bus.
    Hang off a train, walk two hundred km, trade an old girlfiend for a car, but never get on a bus.

    btw, absolutely loved “what the travel guides wont tell you.”

    • Ben says:

      Very sound advice there! Glad you enjoyed the little eBook, I had fun putting it together, it was just a warm up for my big book which is coming out on the 22nd November :-)

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