Three a.m., my head was resting on a window that vibrated to the dips and grooves of an unknown Thai highway. The crick in my neck was horrible and the air conditioner refused to let up even with the vent closed. ‘Three-hundred and fifty baht’ I chuckled to myself, ‘all to save a hundred baht…didn’t I learn my lesson from past experiences?’ The bus shot on through the night passing other traffic like they were standing still, driver mashing the horn to warn less energetic driver that he was coming through. Sure I could have taken a train and had a bed for 550 baht, sure I could have taken a luxury bus for 450 baht, but for some inane reason I had decided to try and save a bit of money and take the normal bus. A look at my bank account that morning had made me flinch and begin to run some calculations which culminated in this bonehead maneuver. ‘Things could be worse’ I chuckled to myself closing my eyes and wishing for sleep.
The day was hot, really hot, and unlike the rest of the time I’d been in Vientiane there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I couldn’t help but shake my head and wonder why the gods had it out for me. ‘This weather would have been great, oh, let’s say, yesterday…’ I said to no one in particular.
My morning had been like every other morning that week, wake up, write, walk around a bit, then lunch, but today I was heading back to Bangkok. Alice (my bag) sat in one corner of the guesthouse common room waiting to be picked up. The clock on my iPod Touch said 2pm, plenty of time to get to the bus station on the other said of the river in Thailand. The question that rose to the top of my mind was, ‘how do I get there?’
From my guesthouse to the border station next to the friendship bridge was something like 15km, a walk that I might have done had it been spring in Hokkaido, but it was high summer in Laos. The problem, I realized opening my wallet, was that I really didn’t have much money.
Twenty-two thousand five-hundred kip (a little less then $4US) was a that was left (not including the $1US, a couple thousand baht, and assorted Chinese currency). My goal was to use the remaining kip and only the remaining kip, no baht, to get to the border. A challenge indeed.
The tuk-tuk driver at the corner next to my guesthouse laughed at my predicament pointing to a printed sheet in the back of their ragged vehicles that stated the ‘set price’ was 90,000 kip. I laughed back at them and proceeded to bargain. A ‘set price’ in Laos, you had to be kidding. I had to give them respect though for using one of the most powerful forms of persuasion in sales, the printed word, but I wasn’t going to be taken down that easily. Five minutes later we both shrugged our shoulders and gave up, neither of us was going to budge.
Luckily the side of the road I used to get to the main bus station in Laos was in the shade which saved me from the blazing sun that created a blinding contrast between the light brown of the dirt road and the pitch black of the shade. It was a ten minute walk and no skin off my back. I knew that if no tuk-tuk would have me for my price that I could just take a bus to the border for about 5000kip. It would take time but with the bus I was aiming for leaving at 5:30pm I was in no hurry at all.
About a hundred meters from the station on a side road another tuk-tuk driver made his case. ‘Where you going? Need a ride?’ I smiled a sharks grin at him, ‘why yes I am.’ This is where I am going and this is how much I can pay I stated. His eyes lit up at the possibility of a fare and he began to haggle, the only thing was that I wasn’t haggling. I had my own ‘set price’ that I wouldn’t vary from. They might accept baht but like I said before my challenge was to use only the kip in my wallet.
A few minutes later it was clear he wasn’t going to take the bait. The driver kept on insisting on adding baht to the total in unreasonable amounts, basically doubling the actual price. Finally he sighed in frustration and yelled over to his buddies on the other side of the street in Lao, ‘anybody willing to take this idiot foreigner to the border for 22,500?’
Chuckles from the other street as the lazing driver conversed. Then another pulled up, heard my offer and waved me over. ‘Get in,’ he said with a toothy smile. I grinned back, ‘sure thing.’
I knew for my money that it wasn’t going to be a straight shot but the tour that I got of the city and some of the people I met made it more than paid for the shortcoming in my cash and gave me a fantastic experience.
The ladies that climbed in the back with me seemed to all know each other and crowed back and forth to each other loudly occasionally shouting a joke at the driver. The mood was gay and despite the language barrier we got along well. As we cruised along one of the older ladies handed me something small and wrapped in a banana leaf. My eyebrows arched as I gingerly took the gift.
Bit by bit I unwrapped what turned out to be a bit of mochi (rice pounded into a taffy-like form) filled with sweet coconut, a perfect treat that added some flavor to the already colorful ride.
By the time we got to the border I was soaked in sweat despite the cool breeze that had filtered through the tuk-tuk. I smelled bad and felt grimy but I knew with Bangkok still almost 900km away that my day was far from over.
I about fell over when I saw the ticket stand for the shuttle over to the Thai side, 4000kip. Opening my wallet I figured I’d try a different tack. Throughout Vientiane in all the stores and bars I’d been to there had been a notice posted to the wall with exchange rates for the dollar and baht so with a nervous smile on my face I walked over and put my last $1 bill on the counter.
The lady looked up at me, looked back down at her table, ripped off a ticket and handed me my change in baht. Pay a kip price in dollars and get baht back, how more international could you get? ‘Not a bad exchange rate either’ I said to myself fingering the change and heading to the bus.
My eyes opened as the lights turned on for yet another pit stop. ‘What is it, every two hours we stop?’ I grumbled. ‘How is anyone supposed to get any sleep…?’ I looked over at the people sitting on small plastic stools in the middle of the aisle. ‘At least my seat has a back’ I thought turning the situation on its head yet again.
Getting to the bus station was my next challenge, though not really challenging. Groups of taxi and tuk-tuk drivers stood at the exit to the border station on the Thai side of the Friendship Bridge each vying for my business but I knew how I was going to get there.
‘One hundred baht’ the sun-darkened Thai said to me with a mousy grin. ‘Too high, I give 40 baht,’ I replied with an equally serious haggling smile. ’Sixty baht, good price,’ he countered. ‘Forty baht, normal price,’ I engaged again. He looked me over, ‘okay, 40 baht.’
I hefted Alice on to the roof of the steel framed tuk-tuk and crowded myself into the back of the already full vehicle. Let me tell you, lifting 30kg of backpack above your head and sliding it gently on grated surface with only a small ledge to stand on is no fun, but it is possible.
Our tuk-tuk took me on another wonderful tour of another interesting city dropping off people in ones and twos at shopping malls, parking lots, and other places before finally arriving at the bus station. ‘At least this one has paved roads rather then dirt’ I thought to myself looking around as I handed over the money. The grime coating my skin could almost be scraped off at this point and I was still almost a thousand kilometers away from my destination.
A man ran up to me, ‘Where you going?’ I looked him over, a bus tout. ‘I’m going to Bangkok.’ ‘Bangkok, come this way, really good bus…’ he said grabbing my arm and leading me towards one of the rickety desks set up in front of grungy looking buses.
‘This bus going to Bangkok…’ he said eagerly. ‘Okay, is this the bus for 350 baht?’ I decided to check. ‘Yes, yes, come inside and look at seats,’ grabbing my arm again and leading me inside.
‘This seat have much leg room, you can sleep well, stretch easy,’ he insisted pointing to the row of seats in the back of the bus. They indeed had lots of leg room and looked comfortable enough to get a little bit of sleep in. I pointed to the one on the right side, ‘I’ll take that one.’ I tossed my sweater down on the seat and headed out to pay ‘the man.’
Three-hundred and fifty baht later I had a thin slip of blue paper in my hand and was eager to find some food for the journey. It took about ten minutes to gather some supplies, Pad Thai and water, and I went back to the bus to reclaim my seat. One thing though, someone was sitting in my seat.
Long story short, the bus tout had sold my seat twice and I ended up in a seat with a lot less leg room next to a softly snoring young lady. Fifteen minutes of head shaking, pointing, and explanations (him in Thai and me in English) had been an exercise in futility and I recognized that keeping at it would serve no purpose. Fate had seen it to put me in this seat and I was going to have to live with it. With one last look at the leg room of the rear seats and a big sigh I settled myself in.
Fate, it seemed, was looking out for me.
Our first pit stop 2 hours later and the leg room of the rear seats disappeared and became even less than what I had. By ones, twos, threes, and tens they crowded on to the bus filling the remaining seats and aisle. By the time we pulled out there was not an inch left to add humanity to.
The second pit stop saw another influx of people (as well as a small outflow). Old ladies carrying bags of fruit and steaming sticks of meat crawled up and down the aisle selling snacks to hungry riders for somewhat decent prices.
The third was the same situation but by the fourth things had dwindled and bit by bit along the highway the masses dribbled away leaving room for those of us going all the way.
It was 5a.m. when we finally pulled into Mo Chit bus station and disgorged the last of the half dead passengers. Mo Chit station itself was alive with buses roaring in and out, people milling, and vendors selling what they could to the passing zombies. The harsh bright lights and deafening sounds spun me around and it was only thanks to a helpful bus driver and good timing that I was able to catch the #49 to Hua Lamphong where my sanctuary awaited.
Time passed, slowly, the frigid air conditioner chilling me to the bone keeping me from falling into a deep slumber. I watched street after street go by as the pre-dawn blues and purples changed to a warmer oranges and pinks. My shoulders were stiff, my neck hurt, and I felt like I had a layer of skin over my skin. Things never seemed in focus and the desire for a shower and bed were the only clear thoughts in my head.
Exiting the bus, checking in to the @Hua Lamphong guesthouse, taking a shower, are all things I don’t remember. The last clear impression I had was the soft embrace of my beds covers and firm pillow under my head. It took me 2 tuk-tuks, 3 buses, a bunch of walking, and 18 hours of time to make it 900km from Vientiane to Bangkok. What a trip…maybe next time I’ll fly.