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Published: February 4th 2010
A darn good banana pancake, if I do say so myself.
What do a motorcycle, a dog, and cabbage have in common? Hopefully not much, right?
They were all on the 10 hour long non-air-conditioned bus ride we took from Savannakhet, Laos, to the capital, Vientiane.
First, lets get out of Savannakhet. After waking up on our own without an alarm (it felt so good to sleep in a bit), we checked out, left our bags with the guest house, and ventured out to explore the city.
Since it's not a tourist destination, we didn't find much, but it was still fun to find a little restaurant to grab a bite of breakfast. We both enjoyed AMAZING homemade banana pancakes.
We walked around to the waterfront, but turned quickly around as it was a bunch of tuk-tuk drivers waiting for people like us.
One of the attractions is the St Theresa's Catholic Church, so we walked past and took some pictures. The heat was picking up, so we decided to go back to the amazing Cafe Anakot to have some refreshments and a snack of mixed nuts. There, we decided it might be best to go to the bus station to get a bus to
A pretty church we walked past.
Vientiane, the capital. Vientiane is a huge city, with lots to see, so we knew we wanted to just get there.
We originally thought we would take a 9:15pm bus out of Savannakhet that would be express, getting us there at 3am or so. Thinking about that option, we weren't confident that a hotel could accommodate us that early in the morning, so we decided to get our bags, wave down a tuk-tuk, and go straight to the bus station and get a non-express local bus.
We thought the busses left frequently throughout the day, so we were a bit nervous when we saw a sign saying the last bus before the 9:15pm bus left at 11am. It was 1:30pm when we got to the bus station. Thinking we'd have to wait there 7 hours, we still inquired at the ticket office, and they told us there was a 2pm bus. Great! We'll take it.
Correction. Not so great, but we're taking it anyway.
The next 10+ hours of our lives, we encounter the most interesting travel experience we'll probably ever have in our lives.
Getting to the bus, we confirm to the driver and
Our seat of cabbage.
on-board help that Vientiane is indeed our destination. There is no luggage compartment, so they just threw our two big bags in the front of the bus, overflowing the front aisle, and completely blocking the front entrance/exit.
We get on the bus, and quickly notice it is almost full, and of course we are the only foreigners on board. Instead of the usual stares of "oh-look-a-foreigner!", the stares this time said, "oh-look-i-bet-this-foreigner-has-no-idea-what-they're-in-for!". We spotted a completely empty row of 5 seats perched up in the back of the bus. There really wasn't any other options, so we went for them. We quickly noticed that the flooring of the aisle on the bus was covered, and yes I mean covered in…..yams. Some yams were in bags, but many had spilled out, completely coating the floor, giving it an ever so enjoyable Thanksgiving hue.
Not wanting to mash the yams, we stepped on the armrests of the chairs, climbing to the back. As we got closer and closer, we noticed the yams disappeared, and now there was cabbage. hundreds of heads of bagged cabbage. At the coveted back row of empty seats, the floor was stacked with this cabbage, not giving any foot or leg room. We didn't really have any other options, so we climbed on said bags of cabbage, put half our bodies on the bus's chair, and the other half on this very staple food we love so much to eat in China. Now that we know how it might get to China, we might second guess before ordering. Probably not, but still. So with or legs completely spread out on cabbage, we nervously laughed, and the bus engine roared.
By this time, we added another to our cabbage patch, making 5 empty seats turn into two (reserved for our awkwardly bent knees). Looking down the aisle, we noticed a motorcycle standing upright, strapped down, blocking much of the front pathway of the bus. Some passengers even used the seat to prop up against or for a secondary seat option. Looking slightly to the left in the seat in front of us, there was a dog. It fit on the lap of it's owner, but immediately I knew a 10 hour bus ride with a dog and no air conditioning did not bode well for, well, anyone.
It was hellish hot on that bus, and being in the back with the engine, did not help. We were thankful for our two bottles of water (not included with fare). With no air conditioning, the bus offered 5 randomly placed rusty ceiling fans. In the back, we only felt the air from one of them, and only when it circled our direction, once every 15 seconds. Well, enough said about the fans, as they were immediately turned off 3 minutes into our trip. To save energy, we now needed to rely on our windows for air. While adjusting ourselves on the cabbage, we quickly found out we had no windows that opened in the back. Heres to the next 10 hours!
Since our bus was not an express bus, it would randomly make stops along the way. 5 minutes into our stop, we seemed to cram 5 more random people waiting on the streets. We figure these passengers pay under the table, and the driver and helpers get a little extra cash. We think the job of the bus helpers is to spot random people on the streets that are waving for the bus, and yell for the driver to pull over. The extra people sat on the floor, or on bags of yes, you named it….cabbage. 30 minutes into the trip, we made a 30 minute stop. Here, many of the passengers onboard opened up their windows more, so they could buy food from sellers walking around. Food of choice: animal carcass on a stick. As the many charred who-knows-what animals made it's way through the windows, I couldn't help but notice the look on Staci (a vegetarians) face. Priceless.
At 4:00pm the dog peed itself, making it's owner appear to have done the same.
At 5:00pm, we made our official 1st stop (remember the bus stopped whenever it could to pick more people up). Here, we parted with some passengers, and gained even more. Our two empty chairs for our knees were now taken. The Lao man next to me was extremely friendly, but definitely did not look comfortable sitting cross legged on his cabbage chair. We tried to make conversation, but he was on my left side where I am almost completely deaf, so there was a lot of smiling and nodding and gesturing. Some people did not like to have their windows opened, so there would be times of complete heat, and others of cool face washing breezes.
At 6:00pm the dog started licking my shoe. My shoe needed some cleaning, so it was nice to get that done for free. Considering the plethora of food around us, we could have also had a few free meals too, but someone forgot to pack a freaking wok on this bus. Go figure.
The next few hours passed fairly uneventfully, except for the Laotian Karaoke music that was blasting from a TV hanging from the front of the bus. I don't know how I could have forgotten to mention that lovely addition- I guess all the other craziness was too overwhelming. We made multiple other stops to let passengers on and off, and at one stop a few large bags that had been taking up a lot of aisle space also got off, allowing more yams to be stepped on. We both tried to sleep as we gained more room in the back with the drop-offs (we ended up with just us and 1 other person in the very back row for about the last hour).
Around 10:30, we made an abrupt stop on the side of the road and it appeared that the driver/helpers were trying to do some kind of maintenance. Just what we needed. Oh, did I mention before that the driver was having to get on/off the bus by climbing through his front window? Yep, remember the front door was completely blocked with all the luggage AND a metal cage of probably 10 live chickens. It was therefore impossible for the front door to be shut at all during our trip and nobody could easily get in/out that exit.
Thinking we'd get to Vientiane at 11, we were in for another surprise: we still had about 40 more minutes to go. Yippee!
Arriving at the bus station, we were both just crossing our fingers that some tuk tuk drivers would be waiting for us this late. Sure enough, there they were, waiting like vultures, salivating at the only foreigners aboard the bus. We told a guy the name of a guesthouse we'd been recommended by a fellow traveler AND Lonely Planet and off we went in a 'jumbo' tuk tuk along with 12 other passengers from our bus. It was about midnight when we pulled up in front of the darkened guesthouse and were quickly turned away. They were full.
The next half hour became a fun game of tired and grumpy Staci and Martin walk around a seemingly closed up city, except for the prostitutes, in search for a place to stay. After going in what must have been a dozen hotels/guesthouses we finally happened upon a place that had one double room for $35USD a night. Definitely more than what we would have opted to pay, especially given the fact that it was already so late. As I said before, we were already grumpy (you can imagine which one of us was a little bit more grumpified) and decided to suck it up and go for it.
The room was nice, but all I saw was the bed, and headed straight for it, not checking for any loose cabbage.
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