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The Rice Bus, A Knock on the Door and Some Pee Stops

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Go where the locals go. A good rule to live by when exploring a new country. Asking a proficient English speaking hotel manager in Luang Prabang where she’d recommend going in Lao, the response was Savannakhet (in southern Lao; Savanh for short). She said that Savanh is today what Luang Prabang was 20 years ago.We were sold, but would the getting there would require another bad luck bus trip? Fingers were crossed.

Sorry…Bus Full, reads the lip pushing sign as the bus blows passed you. Transit goers shan’t be disheartened. There’s a bus seat for all in Lao since the full concept doesn’t apply there…well to buses anyway. After one bus breakdown after another, from the VIP buses to the mid- range kind, we’d vouch for the regular bus, and by “regular” I mean a milk-run-public-transit bus, and it would make all of the stops.
Getting into the bus we’d hand over our bags to a guy who’d take them to the back where Bag Mountain had already started forming. We’d then walk across bags of rice to our seats where there
 were two more bags of rice on the floor where our feet should go. With our knees up to our chins we’d watch as the already packed bus would continue to get fuller. And with no AC on the bus, the constant stopping was torture. Now the aisle of rice bags doubled as seats for passengers, but that wouldn’t stop the bus from picking up more people. Tiny Lao bodies were climbing over top of others making room for all.
With the weight of the stacks of food and other goods on the rooftop plus all of the people and luggage, the bus was scrapping along the gravel road. The engine would over heat and we’d have to make yet another stop. Back on the road again it wouldn’t be long before we’d stop yet again. This time there was a bunch of kerfuffle with the driver, some passengers and a cop. I smiled to myself thinking, finally someone’s putting a stop to this over loading of public transit, but it had nothing to do with the size of our load. We had hit a truck.

By the time we’d roll in to Savannakhet it was pitch black. The bus had stopped outside of the main town that we needed to get to, but the lady whose groceries made up the second deck of the bus said that our ticket included a tuk tuk ride. So we’d load up with a tuk tuk and then we’d wait…  The driver would get friendly and speak some English, but then when we’d ask when we could go he’d pretend like he didn’t speak any English…then start up the truck…then go back to doing nothing…Tired and with patience dwindling, we’d ask to leave in a more heated manor. It was then that the driver offered to go now if we’d each pay 20,000 kip ($2.50 US). Of course we’d been told that this was a free ride, so we refused, but Rene (our Swiss friend who was the only other foreigner to brave the public bus) was quick to get on board. Morgan and I decide we’d walk. The driver then turned on his flashlight and held it up in my face to say 20,000 kip again. Well now walking was happening for sure after that move…This is a typical occurrence. The bus won’t want to reroute 30 minutes off its course for a few people so it will stop outside the city center somewhere usually abandoned and let you get there yourself. After midnight there’s a 10,000 kip ($1.25 US) surcharge in Lao for transportation, but no one tells you this…not even Lonely Planet.

Rene, Mr. and Mrs. set out on our walking mission to prove a point. Not knowing exactly where we needed to go or how far it was, we’d head in the direction that the city center had been pointed in. Walking along a creepily quiet and dark roadway we’d quickly realize that we were about three hours of walking away from the city center. Road markers read 32 km. Mrs. was about ready to call it a night right there on the side of the road when Rene noticed a tuk tuk parked in the driveway of someone’s home. He’d all to easily decide to knock on the door to see if the residents would drive us into town, of course with money on offer. Knocking a few times and with no response but a little dog yapping, Rene turned back. Almost making it off the property we’d notice the front door open and a man’s head pop out, then another head, and another. Sure enough, the whole family of nine had gotten up to answer the door… at one in the morning. After offering 100,000 kip ($12.50 US) along with some pantomiming for driving and pointing into town to deliver our message of urgency, the family still surprisingly turned us down. Back to the side of the road.
The time of night meant fewer taxis on the road not to mention the desertification of the situation. A full van soon pulled up and when the driver looked at the three of us and began to shake his head, but his wife was already out of the van trying to pack our big packs into the trunk. We’d cram ourselves in like a smooth game of Tetrus, but we’d make it into the city of Savannakhet, finally… hoping that was all worth it.
Savannakhet is a province of Lao .The name Savannakhet derives from Savanh Nakhone, which means “city of paradise“, the province’s original name. An odd choice given its lack of beauty and excitement.
Savanh has 12 different ethnic groups; the city is a mix of Lao, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese communities. Savanh is also a major trading route in the southern part of Laos. Lao, Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese-made goods pass through Savanh daily. And that’s all it seems to be…a trade route. Of course, once we’d get to Savanh and the only people around were a pack of stray dogs, it would make more sense to us that the place the hotel manager may have meant to recommend was Pakse. A place with French flare, neat architecture and much more going on for visitors; there were just more travellers IN Pakse, period. We’d see no other foreigners in Savanh the next day. Rene, our Swiss friend who’d also ridden the Rice Bus, had spotted one solo girl, but that was it. Savanh was dull and desolate; even the architecture was boxy and plain. We’d be buy a ticket out of Savanh that day.
Seeing the bus to Paske, and Rene, we were relieved to be leaving Savanh, and the emphasis on happy couldn’t have been greater since we’d sit in the station for a half hour with the engine running and fumes seeping into the bus. We were off, and there was even enough room to even get comfy in the 70’s style leather sofa seats…then bus would even make it Pakse without breaking down, overloading or crashing. It would make multiple potty stops though.
PS – Besides having breaking down in common, all Lao buses make frequent stops for bathroom breaks. In broad daylight or pitch black of night, the bus pulls over and the driver and locals scamper off the bus making for the closest bush. There’s no time to waste worrying about having T-P before the bus’s horn sounds to signal you’d better shake or blot and head back. At one stop, Mrs. squatted down for relief when a loud bell scarred it away. She’d find herself in the middle of a cow paddy.

The Limey

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