|The day began ordinarily enough. We got up early and packed our bags; Nong Khiaw had been a pleasure but it was time to move on. We left our bags while we went to eat breakfast and discuss where we were going next. We met a French girl who told us that the scenery was much better and the town much less touristed where we were (in Nong Khiaw) than in the towns West, which is where we had previously intended to go. So, on a whim, we decided to travel East. We chose a town on the map as a destination for this evening and went to the guesthouse to pick up our bags. Luggage in tow, we walked to the songthaew "depot" (two benches arranged in an "L" shape) and inquired about a bus to Vieng Thong, our next destination. The "ticket master" told us that we would need to catch the noon songthaew to Vieng Kham and, from there, we would be able to catch a bus to Vieng Thong, no problem. Great, so we settled down to wait.
When you travel around as we do, always on the go, you have to find time for general feminine upkeep wherever you can. Thus, a few minutes on the bench found me looking for something to do and it seemed like as good a time as any to paint my fingernails. I wasn't long into it before I realized that I should have chosen my location with a little more care, it takes a fair amount of concentration to do the job well (but there was no peace to be had here). The "ticket master", seated in his booth, alternated between snorting, spitting, hocking, dog-kicking, shouting and general belligerent behavior thrust upon anyone nearby. He was a pompous little man and I do believe that underneath his rather disgusting exterior he was even more awful than he appeared. I tried to block him out but just as I began to pluck my eyebrows, a new distraction arose. Two men directly in front of us were attempting to repair a songthaew horn and throughout their efforts it got stuck (apparently) many, many times; sometimes it blared for a full 30 seconds before they got it un-stuck again. This went on right up until our songthaew arrived so we were somewhat relieved to leave the chaos behind as we drove away. We were seated up front with the driver because the back of the truck was full, so we were comfortable during the hour-long ride.
We knew we were near our stop because we were the only passengers (but two) remaining. We rounded a bend in the road and as we drove up to a place in the road with a couple of benches on one side and a small vendor stall on the other, we saw a couple of falangs running towards the truck, shouting. The girl looked positively wild with excitement and she was shouting (with a British accent) to a local man, "Is this the bus? Is this the right bus?" The man, red hair flaming, was a bit more sedate and he began to engage the driver (whom by now had exited our vehicle) in conversation with a sophisticated European accent. He questioned our driver anxiously as to the final destination of the truck, the price and distance; he gave the impression that the answers were a matter of life and death. Meanwhile, the girl was frantically stuffing clothes, shoes and various odds and ends into a pack until suddenly she heard the driver say a price of $500,000 kip and she burst forth with, "absolutely not, that is too much, it's simply too much money, do you understand?!" Matt and I hadn't a clue what was going on, we were still sitting happily in the truck waiting for our driver to take us to the bus stop in Vieng Kham. We didn't want to interfere but we really couldn't understand all the fuss.....why didn't these falangs just hop on and go to the bus station with us? From there they could travel to any destination they wanted to but, for some reason, they seemed determined to have our driver take them directly to Vieng Thong (which is where we were headed anyway). By this time, our driver, seated next to the local man, was shaking his head "no" in response to the girl's repeated pleas that he negotiate/lower the price. I felt really sorry for her and I was just about to implore her to forget about paying the stubborn driver to take her directly but instead just go to the bus station with us; we had to be close to it, I thought. Just then, the redhead looked at me and said, "did you see a blond Finnish man with no shirt walking down the road?" This question struck me as more than a little strange but I said slowly, biting back a smile, "no, I didn't and I'm sure I couldn't have missed him." He nodded earnestly and said, "no, I don't think you could miss him either," as if he thought it perfectly normal that a Finnish man should be walking alone down a dirt road, shirtless, in one of the most remote sections of Laos.
Matt and I were beginning to get a bit restless because we still had a long way to go. Meanwhile, our driver was in the midst of serious discussions with the local man and the two falangs were still desperately trying to negotiate a fare but they seemed to be deadlocked- the driver would not budge. At this point, the girl walked over to the truck (where we were seated, ready to go) and asked us where we were going. I told her that we were on our way to the bus station in Vieng Kham where we were going to catch a bus to Vieng Thong- would she and her friends like to join us? She looked at me for a moment and then she looked at Matt- I knew that whatever she was going to tell us would not be good. Then she said, feelingly, "This IS the bus stop in Vieng Kham. We have been waiting here for over 24 hours for the bus. There hasn't been one." Suddenly, everything became crystal clear. These people had been told the same thing we had- that a bus would take us to Vieng Thong from Vieng Kham, no problem. They had been stranded here for over a day- and now we were stranded too. So, now we were all in the same situation and we had a decision to make- pay the driver the price he wanted (a rip-off) or wait here (in essence, nowhere) for a bus that may or may not come. Matt decided to calmly try to negotiate with the driver for a better price while the redhead walked over to discuss the situation with me. He told me, eyebrows furrowed in concentration, that he had been "in negotiations with a red pick-up truck" and that the owner may take us for a reasonable price in the morning- he told me this as if he were telling me that he was negotiating a very delicate hostage situation. I knew then that we were going to be alright; whatever happened we would all get through it together just fine. Matt was unsuccessful with the driver anyway, which just helped us to make a final decision- we were certainly not going to give him any more money.
Decision made, we hopped out, grabbed our bags and became acquainted with our new friends.
The redhead introduced himself as Daniel, from Holland, and he was traveling with Sophie from Britain and Joni from Finland (who, by now, had turned up from his village jaunt). The local man, Phoumi, had been very kind to them and allowed them to stay in his home during their all night bus vigil. They had actually waited for the bus in shifts on Phoumi's porch until finally Phoumi told them "no bus, no bus" at four a.m. and, exhausted, they went to bed. It was going to be a long night for all of us whether the bus arrived or not; it was scheduled to arrive sometime between 11pm and 1am (great) and it was an all-nighter. Our friends began to acquaint us with the lay of the land, telling us about the villagers, the refreshing river below and the food (or lack thereof). Matt and I really wanted to have a look around but first, we had work to do. We desperately needed to clean our laundry and, with plenty of time on our hands, this seemed like a good time. Armed with a large bowl (compliments of Phoumi) and a bar of soap, we walked over to the village wash area (a broken concrete slab and two bamboo poles for drying) and got to work. Matt washed and I rinsed until we got everything done, then we hung them on the poles in the hopes that they would dry by nightfall. With that task complete, we walked down to the river where we found Daniel and Sophie relaxing; Joni was in the village.
We spent the rest of the day wandering around the village, chatting and snacking on bamboo and sticky rice made by our gracious host. In the evening, the four of us walked down the dirt road to the local village restaurant while Joni caught up on his sleep. It was a pleasant evening and we walked back to Phoumi's in pitch darkness under the stars. I went to gather the clothes and, unfortunately, they were still very wet. This was not good, not good at all, but there really wasn't much I could do about it. We sat around in the candlelight (there is no electricity in Vieng Kham) and "the wait" was on. Around 11pm, Matt stretched out on a bench, I on the other, and we tried to get some sleep. The others were on mats resting and Phoumi was "on watch" in his room. We heard the bus long before it arrived but even if we hadn't, Phoumi was shouting "bus, bus!" in an effort to get us all moving. We gathered our things quickly and lumbered out to the bus with all our stuff while Phoumi stood by the bus door making sure we all got on safely, like a mother hen counting her chicks.
Sophie captured the atmosphere perfectly when she described climbing aboard the bus as "climbing into a bus of pure despair". One thing apparent in regards to the Lao people is that they do not travel often and, when they do travel, it is out of sheer necessity. You could actually feel the tension, presumably the locals are particularly uneasy with night travel. I took the first available seat, right in front, while the rest of the group stumbled their way over various and sundry packages, boxes and bags haphazardly strewn in the aisle. I don't know what the locals travel around with on these buses and songthaews but, whatever it is, there is a lot of it. I settled into my cramped seat with a bag full of wet clothes in my lap wondering what I was going to do with it. I decided to turn it every ten minutes or so, inside the bag, in an effort to help it dry and this proved to be one of the most useless and ridiculous ways I have ever spent a night (but I had nothing else to do anyway).
With my front row seat, I got to see all the action of this midnight mountain drive and it was, predictably, quite scary. The driver was, thankfully, somewhat cautious and he seemed to be familiar with the route but the roads were atrocious. When the driver wasn't navigating around large, deep potholes he was honking at the cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and goats lying in and around the potholes. We stopped all along the way, throughout the night, picking up locals from the villages we drove through, all of them carrying bags filled to bursting (as if the bus had a black hole to haul luggage). The local passengers were so kind though- if I had to crawl out of the bus over their bags to exit for a bathroom break, they would assist me out every step of the way, picking up whatever I left behind (flip-flops for instance). They were so eager to help and they smiled in spite of their bus travel plight. Sophie told us later that the local girl seated next to her actually vomited out of the window throughout the night. She knew Sophie was cold so every time she leaned over to open the window (and subsequently puke out of it) she covered Sophie with her jacket to keep her warm.