Downs & ups in Laos – the dreaded minibus…

Laos is a funny old place, and if we’re honest we don’t really know what to think of it quite yet. The last 24 hours or so have only confused us even more…

It began with our bus journey from Phonsavan (more on this place in another post soon) to the famous/infamous town of Vang Vieng. We’d ordered tickets for the ‘big bus’ due to our growing hate for minibuses and their psychotic drivers (why overtake on a straight when you can do it on a blind bend on the edge of a cliff?). When we got to bus station we were shown to the ‘big bus’ which of course turned out to be a clapped out old minivan with about three tonnes of luggage on its roof. Heaving a heavy sigh, we boarded, sitting on the back row (which basically means your head is about half an inch from the rear window).

Hurrah no.1: we had three seats to ourselves!

Hurrah no.2: we were the only falang (we’re falangs, not farangs now we’re in Laos), so no having the same old ‘how long are you away’, ‘where have you been?’ conversations.

We settled down to the journey, which was pretty tricky as in the first hour the driver seemed to stop every five minutes for no apparent reason and also because the road was appalling. Being sat directly over the rear axle meant that pretty soon our buttocks were entirely numb. These minivans are notorious for being cramped and I (being a fair bit taller than your average Lao) was finding the legroom to be a bit tricky, but at least I didn’t have the snoring, space-grabbing twonk in front of me that Lisa did…

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It looks a hell of a lot roomier than it was…

Another stop later and the smug smile was wiped from my face as the van pulled over again, this time to actually pick up another passenger – a rather eccentric elderly Lao man. He took the final seat at the back, meaning I was sardined in between him and a squashed Lisa. Now the old Lao chap seemed a pleasant character, but (and I know I’m going to sound like a shitty, priviledged Western tourist saying this) he did have a perculiar odour to say the least. Of course his first move was to close the window beside him, probably nudging the temperature in the back of the van just past the billion degrees mark.

It seems to be unavoidable on these journeys that, as soon as you board the bus, you begin to need a pee. The now-fragrant hours crawled by, with our spines slowly being forced out of the top of our skulls by the unrelenting bumpiness of the road, and we passed toilet stop after toilet stop. But our driver was not for stopping any more (apart from when he decided to pull over at a random market and wander off to buy some pork, thankfuly not the head). Eventually, having passed god knows how many more roadside toilet stops, he decided to pull over in the middle of nowhere for our loo break – cue everyone pissing down the side of the road, me included, as Lisa waded into the spiky undergrowth (she has the scars to prove it) for a tad more privacy.

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It looks a hell of a lot roomier than it was…

As the hours went by, the views became more and more spectacular as we began to see the karst mountain formations and not even the cacophony of gobbing up by the locals on the bus could spoil it (I kind of understand how Karl Pilkington felt on his bus ride in China now – maybe I’m becoming an idiot abroad…)

By now my fragrant friend (the old fella, not Lisa) had decided that he’d like to sit as close as possible to me and I’m half sure he’d have sat on my knee given half the chance. I’m not sure how much he’d seen of Laos in his long life as he seemed as entranced by the scenery as we were – which made it all the more annoying that he lobbed every piece of litter he had straight out of the window (but that did at least let some fresh air in). Littering is a huge issue in Laos – there are countless places and views that will blow your mind, but nearly all the ones we’ve seen have litter strewn all around the place. I guess a lot of it’s cultural – there doesn’t seem to be any particular urge in the country to protect the natural beauty.

A mere seven hours after leaving Phonsavan we arrived in Vang Vieng, and no-one was more relieved than the live chicken who’d spent the whole journey hidden in a small basket under the coat of the man sat in front of me. First impressions of the town weren’t good – it basically looks like a sh*thole, packed full of seedy bars and tourists who are either pissed or are on their gap yah (like us I guess).

The saving grace of Vang Vieng is the surrounding scenery, though it does seem like it could be seriously under threat by the rapid expansion of the town – every available piece of land is being built upon and there’s a monolithic concrete hotel being thrown up in the centre of town right on the banks of the river. It does make you wonder what the locals who’ve lived here for decades must think…

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Just a short walk from the anarchic town centre…

Having checked into our room (and me having had a good shower!), we headed to find a bit of peace. I think this is my favourite thing about Vang Vieng so far: yes, the town itself is commercial, tacky and hungover, but you only need to walk a few minutes in any direction and you’ll be looking across fields at some staggering scenery – let’s hope the town doesn’t eat it all up too quickly…

*NB – yes I’m aware I sound like a grumpy old fart when I talk about drunken tourists. This is because I am a grumpy old fart. I’m hypocrytical too – I’d have loved it when I was their age!

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