Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Long Hard Road to Luang Prabang Part 1

With 13 hours behind me, I was optimistic as Hell Bus went westward. My Vietnamese seatmate uncannily occupied MY seat while her friend took the one beside mine. I was standing at the isle perplexed. How convenient! “Excuse me, but THAT is my seat” I declared. She mumbled gibberish and began pointing me to an unoccupied seat in front (beside Mr. Jamaica). “NO! NO! NO! THAT IS MY SEAT!” I said with clarity and conviction. I had been miserable - and I’ve hallucinated on that chair all the way from Hanoi - and I deserve to further hallucinate THERE until the end of this freaky ride! Her seatmate went back to her old chair. Ms. Hairy Vietnamese would NOT leave MY seat. She offered her old seat – the one with a fully reclined chair in front! NO WAY! This gargoyle is testing my patience! This is the 21st century where women no longer flock to the streets to demand equality. They already got equality! I don’t feel chivalrous. I have no compulsion to offer her my chair. I paid $30 for it. It was my prerogative to keep it. She left and I took mine. Some people could be so moronic.

Talking about morons: One of the brit girls started yelling about a lost 3,500 baht ($110). This is the story so far. While processing her Lao visa at the border, she left her wallet inside the bus – ON her seat. She allegedly saw one of the drivers go inside the bus while the rest of us were busy with the immigration formalities. Now, she was yelling, “I will call the police! That man has my money! Give it back!” After making a spectacle of herself, everything – as expected – fell on deaf ears. While I sympathize with her loss of riches, I can only offer my condolences for her stupidity. I would gladly call myself an IDIOT if I left my money inside a third-world bus and still expect to see it upon my return. Some misfortunes are well deserved!
At 9 AM, the bus parked beside an old building. What now? It was the Customs Building. The drivers opened the storage room at the side of the bus and disembarked some huge cargos for inspection. The cargos on top of the bus were left alone. I scampered out to visit the john, though I didn’t exactly need to go, but hey… There’s no toilet on-board and I am going to void as often as opportunity beckons.
At 9:30AM, the bus left the Customs Office. This was where I started to notice the limestone peaks. These are mountains of limestones which have eroded, through time, into intricately curved boulders - which they call “karst”. We are traipsing along the Kaew-Neua Pass. Nothing short of breathtaking. Along mountainous roads are waterfalls flowing beside the road. Giant ferns curl from stony ground. Greens everywhere. Another huge waterfall is seen from afar, across winding roads and foresty landscapes. Now I understand why there is no direct route from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. The topography of Laos doesn’t allow it because of the rugged terrain of peaks and mountains. Roads after all are constructed along the contours of mountains and hills. Otherwise, they would have to dig through these boulders, di ba?

At 1:15 PM, we were still on the road. It’s such a mystery to me why these people can’t even think of stopping by for even half an hour to feed us! Oh no! That is beyond their comprehension and common sense. I began regretting why I didn’t order 2 pho’s instead of one at the border when I had the chance to. A noodle soup obviously doesn’t suffice. I took note of the names of places we passed. Nothing much to do. Silsilay. Pakxan. Namlo (“Nam” in lao means “river). Nam Ching. I was estimating the hours based on hunches. They’ll probably stop in Vientiane and allow us to recharge, eat, stretch our feet. Luang Parabang is a loooooong way from Vientiane. Yeah, that must be it. I was hopeful and optimistic.
At 4 PM, we reached the Southern Bus Station of Vientiane, the capital! AFTER 21 LOOOOONG HOURS! From Vientiane, it will take another 10-12 hours to get to Luang Prabang up north. BUT there’s more surprise my Hell Bus has in store for me and my busmates!

Wait!!! I paid for Hanoi-to-Luang Prabang, not Vientiane! I talked to one of the drivers. I spoke with the lady beside him. But remember, we were not issued any ticket! Nada! No proof that I paid $30. Both idiots feigned ignorance. (Although to be honest about it, I was the purple-faced idiot with a huge rotten egg on my head! LOL) Of course, they can’t understand me. My spirit was sagging. Looks like I’ve been had. Hanoi to Vientiane only costs $14. Hanoi to Luang Prabang is $30, which I directly paid through my Hanoi hotel. I HAVE BEEN SCAMMED! What disappoints me was not the amount of money involved but the feeling of being had! I felt so helpless! What is $30 really. I stood in front of Hell Bus with my 8kg baggage and started to consider my options. There were several touts offering their tuktuks (50,000 kip – $6.25 which seemed a little steep) to take me to the North Bus Station which services Luang Prabang commuters.

Should I stay here in Vientiane overnight? I’m already here so I might as well see the city. It’s part of my itinerary anyway. BUT my mind wasn’t really set into seeing Vientiane. Not yet anyway. You have to go with your instinct. I walked from the station to the nearby road. Fortunately for me, there were other backpackers who wanted to go to the North Station, so I joined them as we hitched at the back of a tuktuk along with other Lao locals. I said hello to everyone. I was beaming and everyone smiled back. Though we couldn't understand each other, I knew they were asking me where I’m from. For a while there, I was Mr. Congeniality. I paid 10,000 kip ($1.25) for the ride. (Earlier, I was offered 50,000 for a private ride.)
North Station is far from South Station, but it was a leisurely ride through the streets of Vientiane. I saw Patuxai (pa-tu-chai) – the grand “Arc de Triomphe” of the capital. I was inspired. Hehe. Ang babaw ko. By the time I reached the station (to check the sched of Luang Prabang-bound buses), my stomach was starting to play his epoch cantata.
A VIP Bus will be leaving for Luang Prabang (LP) at 8PM – and is expected to reach LP at 6AM. A 4PM bus just left the station, but I didn’t want to get there in the wee hours when it’s dark and everyone’s asleep. I decided to take the 8PM bus for several reasons: 1> taking the night bus will save me half a day of travel time; it will also save me some hotel money; I didn't feel like taking on Vientiane for some reason. My mind was so set on LP. Let’s get this over with. I purchased a ticket worth $15 (120,000 kip).

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