Friday, January 25, 2008

Laos in Translation

We've had a busy few days: biking, kayaking, hiking, blah blah blah. We went out to the countryside and hiked up to a pretty waterfall, biked to the mouth of a cave, and kayaked through the cave, which was 7 km long (that's a lot of darkness.) One night we stayed in a local minority village and slept on bamboo mats on the floor. Surreal moments include being in the outhouse while a family of piglets snorted and huffed outside the door, and brushing my teeth while a pair of goats licked my toes and started intently at the toothbrush in my mouth. At one point BG fed a bunch of bananas to some elephants, and we biked along some tooth-jarringly rough roads while admiring the scenery.

All of this off-road adventure pales in comparison to the on-road adventures, though -- namely, public buses, Laos-style. Bus rides in south-east Asia are legendary for their discomfort and density of ridership, but I was certainly not expecting the mayhem! Our first ride from Luang Prabang to Vang Viang was positively roomy; the bus was half empty! It's just that all of the people on the bus kept throwing up. Then, the bus from Vang Viang to Vientiane, the capital, was packed full of people -- all tourists, though -- and was a sweaty six hour ride through bouncing, twisting roads. However, these were easy rides. We finally ventured onto a public bus from Vientiane to the village of Ban Na Hin, where we started our off-the-road adventure. This bus was 3/4 full of people; the back quarter of the bus was full of boxes and other cargo piled willy-nilly. There were four bicycles and three inflatable kayaks on the roof of our bus, and we saw a motorcycle being hoisted onto the roof of the bus next to us. Once the remaining seats were filled with passengers, we departed, only to stop five minutes away,where a swarm of vendors came onto the bus, pushing past each other to sell us baguettes, drinks, barbequed meats, and various other snacks; meanwhile, even more cargo was pushed onto the bus through one of the rear windows. When the bus was packed to the hilt with bags of garlic and turnips, they started pushing it under our seats.

On the way from Ban Na Hin to Tha Kaek, we had to wait for another public bus on the main highway. We finally got on the bus, but were absolutely shocked by what was inside. Obviously, it was running at 99% full already; we finally managed to find two seats way at the back. However, the aisle was completely full of boxes that we had to scuttle over to reach our seats. Even more difficult was stepping over the luggage that was piled on the boxes already. Once I arrived at my seat I found that I couldn't put my feet on the floor, as there was a box there too. All of the seats were like that. Nobody could put their feet on the floor.

We were even more surprised (though I don't know why, as we had been warned) when the bus stopped and allowed on ten more passengers when there were no more seats to be had; unfazed, these passengers sat cross-legged on top of the boxes in the aisles for the remainder of the three-hour ride. The top of the bus was piled high with boxes and the cargo hold below was clearly full, as our baggage had to come into the bus and onto the boxes as well. The interior lights on the bus were neon green and purple, and Lao karaoke videos played endlessly up front. It was a hot-and-steamy stew of music, people, and god-only-knows-what-else.

At least there were no live chickens (that we're aware of.)

Tomorrow we get to do it all again, as we're gearing up for another six-hour marathon to the southern city of Pakse (Pak-SAY). Laos is truly an amazing country. It has had a tumultuous history, with its proximity to Vietnam during the war making it the most bombed country in the world, and then with the rise of the Communist party in the 70s; only recently opened to tourism since then, Laos has modernized in leaps and bounds. It shows in a lot of ways, with gaps and holes in its facade of shiny new cars and colonial guesthouses; hunger and poverty are still very much a problem for many people living here. Still, we have found travelling in Laos to be a pleasure more for the people than anything else, as we are greeted with smiles and friendly greetings everywhere we walk.

We are so lucky.

1 comment:

Jen said...

I am so glad you two are enjoying Laos...that has been our favorite country so far. I'm a little jealous of all your activites, as here in India, I have just seen my SIXTH fort. Now, if we could CLIMB the fort, that would be cooler. :) Keep enjoying Laos! Jen