The Road to Vientiane
The Mekong River at Luang Prabang, Laos
Sunset along the Mekong River near Luang Prabang.  Before the road to Vientiane was paved, this was the major transportation route.
There are several ways to get down to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, from Luang Prabang.  There's the traditional route down the Mekong River on the slow boat, but that's a four day trip, less popular since they paved the road.  There's the local bus (14 hours for $3 U.S.), the express bus (ten to 12 hours for $5), and the express mini-bus (eight hours, $20 U.S., they pick you up at your guesthouse and you can stop wherever you want).

This last option sounded like it fit our comfort zone.  I could make some photographs along the way and we'd get into Vientiane before it got dark.  We bought the tickets.

October 18 -- The mini-van picked us up promptly at 8 am, and we were off.  There were three other passengers, two young Swiss guys and Mark, a teacher from Ulster.  The driver (who, as it turned out, spoke no English at all) had also brought along his wife and three year old son.  We headed out through morning traffic (hundreds of bicycles and a few tuk-tuks) passed a few villages and soon started climbing into the mountains.  While the road was nicely paved now, the guidebooks neglected to mention the steep grades, switchbacks and hairpin turns. So there we were about two hours south of Luang Prabang, chugging along smoothly at about 35 km. per hour.  The mist-shrouded mountains and fields were just beautiful in the morning light and the van was humming along smoothly and quietly, so it was real easy to hear the floop and the thwip as our fan-belt shredded, and the hissing a few moments later as our engine overheated and the radiator boiled over.
Our broken-down minivan on the way to Vientiane It was already pretty hot out.  As our driver got at the engine to see what the trouble was, we discovered our additional cargo packed under the seats in front: cigarettes, cartons of them.  As the driver took the shredded fan-belt, his wife gave him a handful of Lao kip which she had pulled out of another plastic bag under the front seat.  This one was bulging with bundles of Lao currency (We should note here that at 6500 Lao kip to the Canadian dollar, it doesn't take much to fill your wallet, your pocket and your daypack).

Our driver headed off down the hill and was soon out of sight.  There was a small village we had passed by about half a kilometer back, but I donít think they had telephones, and the nearest replacement fan-belt was no doubt back in Luang Prabang.

We got out and stretched, admired the view, Carol got out her umbrella to shield us from the sun.  This was the main highway north from Vientiane, but traffic seemed to be moderate this morning, about one truck every ten or fifteen minutes.  We had only a bit of water and food ("Your driver will stop for lunch," they had told us) and we figured it could be a long wait.  These things happen, it was best not to look at our watches.

When we opened up the back of the van to let some air through, we discovered even more cigarettes -- cartons and cartons of Vietnamese cigarettes -- stuffed in the back and under all the seats.  There must have been over a hundred cartons in all, if that's what they really were.

We couldn't ask, of course, because the driver's wife spoke no English either.  After about a half hour, another mini-van came along and stopped.  This one was from the same travel company, and the driver spoke a bit of French, so he explained to us that if our driver didn't return shortly, the big bus from Luang Prabang would be along early in the afternoon, and it would take us to Vientiane.  They had room for one passenger, so they took our friend from Ulster.

Nobody  else stopped, they've probably seen this before, especially the vehicle overheating on the big hill part.  Some clouds drifted by, giving us temporary relief from the sun.  The woman offered us some cookies.  Her son was a little shy, but Carol found a bamboo stick for him to play with.  A few locals wandered by, carrying bundles of firewood to the village back down the road.  We smiled and waved.  The two Swiss guys decided to sleep.  We had a quiet, peaceful morning.

Finally about three hours later, the big bus from Luang Prabang roared by and pulled over.  They would take us to Vientiane.  The woman from the minivan offered to pay our fare, but Carol figured we should get a full refund on what we had paid, and then we would pay our own fare on the big bus. Twenty American dollars works out to about 200,000 Laotian kip.  Fortunately, Carol is a skilled negotiator and the woman still had that big bag of cash.  She got refunds for all of us.

We hauled our stuff aboard.  Carol got a seat up front with a young local woman, I found a seat in the back with a woman from Holland whom weíd seen at a café a few days earlier.  There were a few other travelers on the bus that we'd seen around town as well.  The two Swiss guys piled in somewhere.

Finally we were off again, roaring and bouncing up the hills past some spectacular countryside, visiting away and swapping travel tales.

Our bus driver was a desperate-looking character.  Even with his t-shirt and dirty brown jacket, he looked like he could have stepped right out of a spaghetti Western.  He was great!  He coaxed that bus with such intensity, laying on the horn at each bend, shooing cattle and water buffalo, bicycles and oncoming traffic out of the way.  There was a big mirror above him so he could see us in the back, but mostly I think, we all watched him.

It was a dusty, bouncy ride, but it was nice to be on our way again, and fun to have new people to visit with.  We probably made it a good three hours down the road before we blew a tire.

Fortunately it was a rear tire, and the bus was double-tired, so we coasted along a couple of kilometers to the next village, where there was a tire repair shop (I think every house in Laos has a tire repair shop out back).  They jacked up the bus, and we all got off for a break.

There were a few roadside eateries in the village so most people grabbed some food.  Carol got a plate of fried rice and vegetables, with grilled mystery meat.  It might have been wild boar or water buffalo.  It wasnít chicken or fish, but it was good, and it had already been a long day.  We finished it off with a bag of freshly cut up watermelon.

Our driver and his assistants took their supper break too, sitting at a back table, eating and smoking.  I went over and asked, "What time, Vientiane?"  The driver held up ten fingers.  "Kawp jai, lai lai," I smiled, thanking him in Lao.  He smiled back.

After about an hour, our tire repaired, we were back on the road.  In the evening light the rice paddies and bamboo huts, the rich green forests, the sheer limestone cliffs hundreds of meters high, all had a rich glow to them.  I wanted to stop the bus and get out with my cameras.  There were many great photographs there, just waiting to be made.  It was a visual feast.

But we were already running late, and I knew I could have spent several days out there just shooting.  Some scenes we can capture on film, and some we just have to remember.

Soon it got dark.  We made a quick stop in Vang Vieng, where four women from Holland and Israel got off.  They had urged several of the rest of us to join them for a few days of caving and rafting.  "Come on, itíll be fun," they said.  "Go to Vientiane later!"

After the stop, some of the remaining passengers shifted around and I found myself in the back of the bus with four local men and a guy from Korea, who spoke both Lao and English.  One of the local guys produced a cup which he had cut from the bottom of a water bottle, and passed it to me.  "Lao whiskey," he grinned.  I was too polite to turn down this gesture of international co-operation.

It was home brew, sweet and zingy, and he was sharing it freely with all the guys in the back.  He poured it out of a big five litre plastic jug that looked like it originally contained cooking or motor oil.  He had a cloth tied around the handle of the jug so he could sling it over his shoulder.  It was well worn and I think had been used to store whiskey for quite some time.

"Where you from?" he asked.  "Canada," I replied.  "Ah, Canada," he nodded and grinned.  I only had the one drink, but we all had fun as they told stories and jokes in Lao, laughing and smiling away.

After a while, the villages started getting bigger and more numerous, some even had street lights.  Then at about two minutes past ten we rolled into the bus station at the edge of Vientiane.  Carol had made a reservation at a guesthouse called Villa Manoly.  We were set, no need to trudge around in the dark looking for a comfortable (and empty) bed.

The two Swiss guys asked if they could share our tuk-tuk into town, and climbed with us into the back.  The streets were pretty quiet, and it was hard to tell when we drove through the centre of the city.  As well, we hadnít counted on the tuk-tuk driver getting lost.  He turned down a dark, pot-holed alley and pulled up at what was unfortunately the wrong guesthouse.  We all pulled out our Lonely Planet guides and tried to show him on the map.  We knew we were close.  He didnít read maps, but he did have a cell phone so he called Villa Manoly for directions, as we slowly backed the several hundred meters out of the alley.

It was only a block away, on the opposite side of a large Buddhist temple.  The two Swiss guys continued on in the tuk-tuk, looking for a place in the five to ten dollar range.  Carol and I lugged our stuff into the villa, and were given a comfortable room with a hot shower, which we tried out immediately.  Our eight hour journey had taken fifteen.

We never did find out about the Vietnamese cigarettes, of course.  Back home, our delays would have been more than aggravating.  In the Third World there are no guarantees.  When you're on the road, time is no longer regarded as a commodity, it becomes elastic.

I asked Carol how she felt about the day.  "It was okay," she said, "Part of the adventure!  I donít think we were ever really at risk, and we always had food and water with us."  Carol had really liked the bus driver too.

We slept well that night.

Waiting patiently on the road to Vientiane
Local passers-by on the Vientiane road.  They were carrying firewood to their village, a little way back down the hill.
Still on the road to Vientiane:  This is where we got the big bus fixed.  I think this was the village of Xang, Laos.  I don't know if you could call it a one-horse town, but it was at least a three-cow town.
Back from the tire repair shop:  Flat tires seemed to be a pretty regular occurance in Laos.
Everybody wanted to make sure the repaired tire went back on tightly and securely.
Along the riverbank in Vientiane
Basket seller on the road in Vientiane:  Traffic was pretty slow-paced in the Laotian capital.
A guardian giant at the entrance to one of the Buddhist temples in Vientiane.
Traffic in downtown Vientiane
Even in Vientiane, traffic can get jammed up.
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