I fly Hanoi to Vientiene, making the transition from Viet Nam to Lao, lake city to river city, work to travels, familiar to unknown.
I arrive, take a stroll. This Mekong hugging capital has been transformed into prime beach-side real estate with the progression of the dry season. The sand stretches far. Walking out, it’s fine alluvial texture sliding effortlessly between my toes. The water flows lazily, even the river seems to have conformed to the pace of this city. But the flood mark of debris high on the banks is a left shadow of what it can become.
I cross the sand, let my toes touch the water, then sit and look left. The yellow afternoon light creating silhouettes of the fluid crowd playing football. The copy “FBI” shirt worn by one of the loads the only indication of conformity and structure. I look right. Three boats are drawn into shore and rest, perfectly fitting together, their shape the same as the eyes of the men they carry. One breaks away, and as the river catches it, the man releases a net, his left hand deploying it while his right works the steering by use of a small paddle. This done, he heads back to shore.
I sit between, recreation on my left and work on my right, an observer to both, each equally distant.
I move to go, I lift my hands and they appear gilded, the sand is flecked with fool’s gold. It sticks to my sweaty palms. As the sun catches the metallic, I’m struck by a wave of happiness moment, to be moving again, to travel, to see, to experience, to live!! What will tomorrow bring??….
…Vientiane Bus Station.Which, at 6:00am, is a hive of activity. Buy a ticket, find the bus, time for a bowl of noodle soup. They’re still loading the roof with cargo; bags of veges, a motorbike, a bundle of spare tyres. And then it’s our turn. I manage to get one of the last seats, sharing with a girl and a couple of sacks of rice. I look about and wonder how other tourists travel? I’m the only one on the bus and I only saw one other at the station. Is backpacking dieing??? (then remind self that my next two trips are internal flights, stop being so patronising). The conductor manoeuvres himself around the passengers lining the aisles on their plastic chairs, checking tickets and handing out vomit bags. Then we begin to move.
Everybody seems to settle further into their seats, attention turned to the Thai’pop karaoke that’s just been flicked on, and passing around the various munchies that they’ve packed; sticky rice (although in Lao it’s called ‘dicky lice’), unidentifiable root vegetables, sweet cakes and soy bean drinks.
The first hill we ascend we make it half way, “oh s**t , it’s going to be a looong day”. But no, the driver alights, incense in hand and is praying to a small shrine. Dues paid, we’re on our way. No sooner than we begin to move again the family opposite are reaching for the vomit bags, a process that doesn’t let up for the next 10hrs. The frequent call to the front of the bus for more bags rapidly complied with and more are sent back. Once used, they’re tied and tossed out the window. Note to self, never, ever touch a plastic bag on a Lao roadside. The small toddler with them is the only one not affected. Unconcerned he sits there and munches on a deep-fried chicken foot, not much meat but can keep a kid quiet for hours.
Time passes. We stop for a road side pee break. A kid pushes past me, his jacket catching my eye, the words “happy travels” blaring out, a message that I think goes un-noticed by the family next to me.
The in-house entertainment has changed, a Thai movie focused around the Bangkok kickboxing underground has taken the screen. It has everything; drugs, sex, tuk tuk chases and Buddha bashing, and not to forget the sexy hero riding up on his Honda Dream (scooter) to whisk the damsel away. I couldn’t understand much except the occasional “f**k you” from the Farang (foreigner) extras, but it didn’t matter, it kept my attention.
Time passes. I doze, and then wake, the kickboxing having given way to the cheers of pending arrival.
So we arrive in Phonsavan, exactly 10 hours, it seems that even the mid-hill shrine stop had been included in the estimated travel time.
Copyright © 2004 Jesse Walker