Sunday, July 13, 2008

Misery On Hell Bus - Crossing the CauTreo-NamPhao Border

Ah! Laos! A walk in Namphao.


My quest to cross the border from Hanoi (Vietnam) to Laos kicked off at 7 PM. The British party of 13 could be heard from my back. They occupied the last 3 rows. They were on their last-leg of holidays before starting college. There was an inspired discussion about James Bond movies. I’ve seen all of them as my dad was a fanatic, but I couldn’t remember the plots to many of them anymore, except the few ones that opened in the last 10 years. Sean Connery may be the best Bond ever – but Pierce Brosnan is my personal best! The blond Bond is cool but he'd probably be regarded less in the next decade. I’ve seen Daniel Craig in several spectacular films before he donned 007 – disturbingly charming in “The Mother”, intense in “Enduring Love”, etc. But Craig’s charm befits the builder-next-door, not the suave spy from her majesty’s secret service. 


Two hours into the ride, the gentle blow of the airconditioning stopped. Every so often, the bus would make a show of stopping at the shoulder of the road. Someone would run outside and look for something. Petrol? Tire? Water? Logic? It was sweltering inside, and something was amiss! Not only didn't we have “cool air” from their airconditioning, we didn't have air at all! No air was blowing out of the vents. The Brits were starting to complain but everything fell on deaf ears. Since the windows could not be opened, everyone on our bus was frying or gasping for air! Everyone except the 1st 2 rows of the vehicle, i.e. the driver’s seat and his troglodytes. 

I felt like I was hallucinating. It was a combination of starvation (I didn't have anything since my pick-up at 5 PM), hypoxia and dehydration. I took several sips from my bottle. I didn't want to drink a lot because there was no toilet on board the bus. The road ahead was dark, and the passengers were gradually melting away. The Brits grew unusually silent. Haha! No more 007 trivias, no more sodding off. A girl was warning she felt like throwing up. Her seatmate groaned away his hunger. This was ridiculous. Not only were we devoid of oxygen, we were bathing with our own sweat and we were famished. No meal stopovers, which was odd


There were 4 drivers taking turns. No one cared that their passengers were miserable. I must have been hallucinating. I wasn't sure anymore. I tried to sleep through my desperation. Whenever I awoke, I would try hard to sleep again. To some extent, I was successful! Have I been punished for something I have done in the past? All I wanted to do was get off! What stopped me was my baggage on the “roof”. To get it, they would have to disembark the other cargoes and search through them. I wasn't sure they would do that for me. It dawned on me that I was a virtual “prisoner” in this God-forsaken bus!


At about 11 PM, they stopped in heaven knows where. Are we in Vinh? Some local commuters hopped on, including a well-dressed Vietnamese lady who had 15 crates of huge empty containers, 2 sacks of rice, an LPG gas tank, some plastic stools, a sack of something; a bag of something. They took their sweet time to pull every single cargo up on top of the bus! They had to employ ropes and pulleys to complete the daunting task. The lady's whole restaurant was on top of us! I was amusing myself to keep me sane; to make me from forget how miserable I was feeling?

Around this time, several other Viets have filled up the bus, occupying the seat beside me. The lucky girl was a 20-something who kept brushing her overgrown hair in my direction! Yeah, honey, brush away – and join our misery! The entrepreneur lady – whose restaurant was above us, remember? – sat at the vacant seat in front of me. Beside her was one of the drivers whose seat was reclined full-way down. Don’t you just despise inconsiderate gits like this one? There was hardly space for my seatmate to move her head in front. Furthermore, the driver was shirtless – his elbow spread across the other seat. 


My stomach was grumbling. I can’t remember the last time I was this hungry I was trembling and sweaty. Simply put, this was unbridled suffering. And I would never wish this on anybody. I must have dozed off. I regained consciousness as the bus stopped. I had a vivid dream I could actually remember. It was straight from a war movie involving border crossing and guns being fired. Like in the movies. Heavens! 

For a moment there, I thought it was real. It turns out, we were already at the Cau Treo border. It was 5 AM and I couldn't see anything outside. It was dark. Somehow, it wasn't so hot anymore. The bus was parked and we all sat in silence, silently praying for 6AM to arrive sooner. I WAS AT THE BORDER!!!

Arriving at Cau Treo, Vietnam - the border.

I was feeling so miserable that my fears totally vanished. I did not care anymore! At 6 AM, we got off the bus and waited outside. The air has turned chilly and cold wind blew. I put on my jacket. Brrrrrr! I was shivering. Back in London, they call this gale. Back in Manila, it’s just a cold wind blowing. We were up the mountains. Right in front of us was the Vietnam Border Office. One of the drivers started collecting our passports as well as the white exit card (NEVER PART WITH YOUR EXIT CARDS OR YOU WILL BE FINED!).

The bus from hell. Please take note of its plate number and never ride in one!


We waited again. At 7, we were instructed to queue inside the building. There were unmanned counters. And it was chaotic! At 7:30, all the passengers from my bus were individually called. I approached the counter when I heard my name. I have already prepared $1 for “overtime fee”. Everyone paid the measly dollar for a fee that should otherwise not be collected because the Cau Treo (Vietnam) border officially opens at 6 and it was clearly past 7. There was no overtime involved. But what's a dollar? Let’s leave it to experience. They would do more with it than I would, even in Manila. If it gets them through their miserable lives, so be it, I thought. But you see, I was pissed off and bitter from the hellish overnight ride.

Having my passport stamped, I exited to the opposite door of the building. It was still windy outside, but a page has turned and it was a new life, so to speak. I felt like redemption and I was rejuvenated. 

Wind blowing my hair, my cheeks were cool. I walked westward through a barricade. With better constitution, I realized that this was an amazing place. I began to notice the surrounding hills so verdantly green. I walked about 200 meters on the road and found a smaller building – the Laos Border Building at NAM PHAO. I went to the counter. After a polite hello and a smile, I declared, “From the Philippines”. I handed another dollar and filled up an immigration form. Handed it to the opposite counter. Two minutes later, I was stamped into the country. This was easy!

I went out of the building and on to the paved road outside. The bus from hell was waiting. There was a nearby bridge. A stream was flowing beside the road. Laos was welcoming and its view was spectacular. In a few hours, we will be plying the scenic Kaew-Neua Pass. Things are looking up.

Vietnam's Cau Treo Border Building. This is where we exit then walk about 200 meters along the road to get to the Laos' Namphao Border Building.

I found a small store by the roadside. I went in, paid 8,000 kio ($1) and ordered a pho (noodle soup). From readings, the Lao people are an honest lot and this thought comforted me. At the same store, I exchanged $10 for local money = 80,000 kip. I sat down the table along with the other viets and lao who were enjoying their meal. I wasn't enjoying breakfast to be honest, but I devoured every bit that was there. I also bought a canned Coke (5,000 kip). 

A good number of my busmates were still at the border buildings so I had an adequate time to kill. But the opportunity to breathe fresh air and to stretch my leg felt like gifts. The Brits were still processing their on-site visas. A sense of calm enveloped me. I chatted with a nice Korean guy who was telling me an itinerary that included Luang Prabang. I will apparently be traveling with him on this journey. 

I still have a long way to go. I had been traveling for 13 hours already and barely halfway through my Luang Prabang destination. I have recovered. The worst had passed, or has it? But I winced as I realized that bus from hell still waits for me.

The simple building to the left (red roof with an X) is the Laos Border Office, a no-frills border post that processes visas fast - unlike the Viet's.
The Laos Border Building at Namphao.

Random Expenditures:

· Noodle Soup at a store in Nam Phao border - $1 or 8,000 kip
· Coke in can – $0.60 or 5,000 kip
· Money exchanged - $10 or 80,000 kip (rates are better in the city)
· Cau Treo overtime fee - $1 or 8,000 kip or 17,500 dong or PhP45.50
· Namphao overtime fee - $1 or 8,000 kip or PhP45.50
· Official on-arrival overland visa fees: 0 for Filipinos, $30 for US, France, Germany and most other nationalities,
$45 for Canadians (makes you wonder why they are paying more).


Filipinos, who are visa-free in Laos, are given 30 days per entry. Americans and most other tourists are likewise given 30-day extendable visas although in some border posts other than Wattay International Airport (Vientiane), some travelers are only allotted 15 days. Vietnam gives a limited 21 days to Filipino tourists. It has limited visa-free agreements with other ASEAN nations. I am aware that there are only 4 countries which don't need visas when entering Vietnam: Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines. I am missing one, but it isn't the neighboring Laos or Cambodia. The white departure card that you get upon your Viet entry should be kept and surrendered at the exit. Otherwise, there's a corresponding penalty of $10.


Here are some other travelers' encounters with Hell Bus. A backpacker's retelling of his encounter from Vietnam to Laos. I hope such situations are remedied in the near future. Meanwhile, a Singaporean blogger went the opposite route from Laos to Vientiane with his similarly harrowing encounter. The 3rd link below is an Australian traveler who crossed the Viet-Lao border with his own horror story.

Read on:


escape said...

what an experience! it's sad sometimes but you really dont have a choice when you're in a country like these. but at least you arrived in your destination.

i can imagine the misery you've experienced.

eye in the sky said...

hey dong. being a traveller yourself, im sure you'll agree with me when i say that in every travel we have, there's always something that doesn't quite turn up the way we want it to. palagi kasing may nangyayaring di mo inexpect no matter how careful you are in planning things. ako, i take it with a grain of salt. spices up my travels. puts edge on things. am sure it would have been a very boring border crossing kung di ganun ang nangyari. haha

buti nga yun lang ang nangyari sa akin. i'll share some scams which happened to pinoys in hanoi later. kawawa talaga.dalawa pa sila ha.