Please, no more buses
13.05.2012 - 17.05.2012
When you start researching a trip around South East Asia you come accross many a tale of horrendous bus journeys. Much like if you check a hotel on Trip Advisor you alway get at least one bad one from someone who is just being really picky, I presumed the buses would be similar ... not great but as long as you are prepared for the odd hick-up and slight bit of uncomfotableness you'll be fine. The relative luxury of my first 2 journeys on Thailands govermnet opperated buses only affirmed my assumptions.
However, after my last two journeys I'm starting to see what people mean. Things started taking a turn for the worse on the journey from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong to cross the boarder into Laos. Travelling with Mark on route to the Gibbon Experience we needed to be at the boarder by 6pm when it closes for the night, otherwise we couldn't do the gibbon the next day. Arrived at Chiang Mai Arcade bus station 15 minutes prior to the bus departure expecting to just pick up a ticket as I'd done on previous occasions, only to be greated with an almighty queue for the Green Bus company, they use an Argos style system where to get a number and wait for it to be called before you go forward and purchase your ticket, our number was 261 and the current position was 201. Thinking we might just be able to pay on the bus we went to the departure point but were told we needed a ticket to board. Back at the queue with less than 5 minute until departure the number had move onto 602, clearly no chance of getting to 261 in the next hour never midn the next few minutes. As it moved to 603 Mark jumped in exclaiming to the opperator that he was 603 but had loat his number, miraculously it worked. However when asking for 2 tickets we were told the bus was already full, 'no' we had to be on that bus or we wouldn't get to the boarder in time. Another check of the system and actually there were 2 seats remaining, not together but who cared? Next obstacle, getting on the bus. As everyone else pilled on we showed our tickets to the inspector only to be told this wasn't our bus. Slightly confused we stood back as the last passengers boarded, luckily a different ticket inspector looked at our ticket and directed us onto the bus. Phew, we were actually on the bus.
The standard width bus had 5 seats accross meaning they were all too narrow to actually fit a real person on, and the person sat next to me was huge meaning I spent the next 7 hours sat with one bum cheak on a seat and one bum cheak hovering over the aisle, and the moulded edge of the seat running straight down my spine. Another little twist in the journey was when we stopped half way for a break, we were told we had 20 minutes so went to get some food, strolling back 15 minutes later, Anna, one the Kiwi girls sat near us started yelling for us to run as the bus was already going, if she hadn't insisted they wait the bus would have gone without us. All in all it seamed like a small miracle when we actually arrived at Chiang Khong at 4pm (only an hour and a half late) and got across the boarder into Laos.
The next journey was the one that really broke the camels back. After the Gibbon Experience I decided to continue on to Luang Prabang (LP) with Mark and the 4 Kiwi girls (from now on my expanding group of New Zealand friends will just be referred to as the Kiwis). Decided on an overnight VIP bus which leaves at 17:00 and would have us in LP early next morning, this seaming like a much better idea than another night in Huay Xai followed by 2 days on a slow boat. Dropped back in Huay Xai at 14:00 we planned to book the bus, shower and eat, however soon came across a problem, all but one of the 'travel agents' in Huay Xai told us the 17:00 VIP bus was cancelled. All of us were sceptical after similar tales in Thailand so we took a tuk tuk to the bus station, only to be told the same, however a 15:00 bus was just about to leave, not VIP so no air con but as it was our only option we paid the 120000kip fee (£9) and boarded. Conveniently all the locals bunched together at the front leaving us a double seat each at the back. So off we set on a supposedly 10 hour journey. None of us had showered in days and we must have stunk in our dirty jungle clothes but with the windows open and all sat together for company it didn't seem too bad.
At about midnight the fun began. First the nice smooth highway ended and was replaced by the notorious pot holed Lao roads; seriously some of the pot holes are so big you literally leave your seat as you bump though them, and one memorable pot hole was so big the bus had to reverse out as it couldn't get out the other side. At about 03:00 as we dosed in an out of painfully uncomfortable sleep the bus stopped and wouldn't start up ... half an hours rest and a few whacks to the battery with a hammer and we were off again. But only for a
short distance. The next breakdown was much more serious, something to do with the clutch, the conductor’s efforts with various spanners were no use, it was terminal. I awoke again at about 05:30 to be told the driver had disappeared, no one knew where we where, no one else on the bus spoke English and no one could get internet or phone reception - basically we were stuck. We waited for another couple of hours as locals along the road awakened and a stream of school kids found the sight of us outside a broken down bus very interesting (clearly they don't get many visitors in this part of Laos - presumably because there is nothing there of interest).
Eventually some help arrived - one minivan to transport about 40 people, baggage and the rice an other food products which lined the aisle of the bus. We were told to get into the van which was already packed fuller than a tin of sardines, so we refused. A pickup arrived and eventually we were off towards LP. A hundred meters down the road though, we stopped, our driver had a huge argument with another driver who wanted us to go with him despite his van already being packed. Again we refused but now our pickup driver wouldn't go any further, instead we turned around and went back past the crippled bus and on to a small village. Here we waited again, our driver refusing to take us, every other driver refusing the money we offered, again we were stuck. Eventually another minivan turned up to take us the final 2 and a half hours to Luang Prabang where we arrived at 11:30, over 20 hours after we set off on a 10 hour bus ride.
The thing is, in Laos this isn’t even uncommon, everyone you speak to has similar stories. My original plan to get from LP to Hanoi had been the bus (it takes 24 hours and is the most notorious route) so I splashed out and have just enjoyed a very comfortable, quick and straight forward flight.