One hand tractor, a boat, two sawng thaew and a local bus so packed I had to crouch in the stairwell amid the rice sacks for 87km—I’ve had my Lao transit experience.
Tell other travelers you’re headed to Laos, and you’ll hear two things: “The people are so friendly, so nice!” and “Ugh, I was on this 12-hour chicken bus…”Lao transit is infamous for being some of the ricketiest, breaking-down-ist in the SE Asia, maybe the world. Travelers hang weary heads over bottles of Beer Lao, swap war stories: the number of people standing in the aisle, the amount of livestock on board, the various strange cargo, number of break-downs and length of time to go 370km (12 hours is actually purty good). Instead of garnering scene cred, it seems more like commiserating, deriving solace from a shared trauma.
Given that context, my mission from remote Ban Natane to bustling metropolis Savannakhet was smooth, seamless, enjoyable even. An at a cool 10 hours, it could be said that I lucked the fuck out.
I awoke in Batane to a breakfast of fish soup, sticky rice and Nescafe. One of the men from the Baci ceremony a few nights prior came up the wooden ladder, chatted with Pauline’s supervisor. They nodded, glanced over at me. “Okay,” the supervisor said, “you go with him.”
With my transport clearly mapped out for me, I gathered my bags, said my good-byes. I left Ban Natane in a spray of brown water, thrown up from the wheels of another hand tractor. I’d gotten a little better at riding, crouched down, clutched the railing, teeth chattering with every dip and tree root. It’s a little like the squat toilet—it takes time, practice, to hone your particular method.
A half hour later, we arrived at the “dock”—a dirt slope where wooden boats lay half-submerged in the still river water. A small local group of men gathered, ranging from middle-aged to elderly, all with the lean muscles and chiseled features of people who’ve done hard labor their whole lives.
They commenced to scooping out water from one of the boats with a halved gasoline canister, assembling the engine and oars. Now, if you take the tourist boat, they allow a maximum of three passengers with two boatmen. But this was not the boat of life vests and Tevas (which would have been useful); this was the local boat, whose main purpose wasn’t to transport people but goods.
We piled six people, about a dozen parcels and one motorbike on that baby and cruised into the cave.
Suffice to say, we bottomed out a half dozen times. Hopping out, pushing the boat, scooping water out, the crunching sound of rock—through a particular patch of rocks, the men had to unload the boat entirely, then reload it. They wouldn’t let me help. I stood in the damp cool and watched a sixty-some year-old man carry my backpack.
As they stood ankles in the water and moved boxes, one of the men lit a cigarette. In the light of his headlamp, I thought the dance of the smoke was about the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It was all still magical, majestic to me—the cave, the village, the way of life. But this was these men’s reality. They moved with efficiency, knowing the cave like I know the rhythm of the stoplights and crosswalks and trains. They seemed neither annoyed nor frustrated with the archaic and cumbersome method of transport. They had the expression of commuters. Except they smoked and laughed more.
On the other side of the cave, I bowed and said my thank-yous. I rode two largely uneventful sawng thaew—one back to Ban Na Hin, another to the Highway 13 crossroads. The sky thundered and the plastic bags of produce whipped and whistled in the wind.
It began to rain as I climbed off, hoisted my bag over my shoulder and dashed for an awning. I’d been told that buses to Savannakhet pass through the junction “all the time”—though what that meant in rural Lao speak, I wasn’t sure. I stood in a place that seemed like it wanted to be a bus stop, amid the fruit and sticky rice vendors, crouched down against the rain.
An old Korean bus rattled by, slowed to a stop. The tout leaned out the doorway, waved his arm at me as I jogged through the puddles. “Savannakhet?” I asked. “Yes, yes,” he nodded and ushered me in before I could think twice.
I took one step into the stairwell and stopped.That’s because I couldn’t move any further. The crowd of people, luggage, cardboard boxes and rice sacks was so thick I had to wedge myself into the corner the bus door vacated when it closed, the leaky seal splashing a refreshing mist of Lao rain on my face.
Two grim-faced Westerners stood out in the crowd: a boy sitting on a blue plastic cooler, a girl standing behind him, trying to clutch anything she could. When a lumbering cow in the road made the driver screech and swerve, the girl lurched forward, toppling into several people and inspiring a chorus of “ooh”s.
“Twelve hours of this shit,” the boy told me later at a side-of-the-road piss stop (which I actually prefer to the squalid squat toilets you have to pay to us). “They told us when we got on in Vientiane that there’d be seats open at the next stop.”
They had twelve more hours to go, and were thoroughly spent on the authentic local experience.
We shared a what-the-hell-are-you-gonna-do laugh and crammed back on, men pulled zippers and stubbing out cigarettes. When the door closed, I wedged myself back into my corner, where I had just enough room to shift my weight from time to time. And sometimes, that’s all you can ask for.