The never ending bus journey - All aboard the Asia express
01.04.2015 - 14.04.2015 35 °C
32 hours, over 400km on what I'll dub the worlds longest unmade road and 4 buses later we rolled into Luang Pra Bang in Laos (somehow, as I'm not sure how the tyres stayed on the bus based on the potholes we were hitting and the resulting height I was jumping out of my bed/seat/plastic stool in the bus gangway). Forget doing a marathon, surviving a journey like this was a real test of body, mind and how much padding you have downstairs!
In the days before making this journey and leaving Vietnam I said goodbye to James who headed back to Europe, and spent an extra few days in Hanoi. During this time we visited the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, the former leader the country is infatuated with. Despite the old chaps dying wish to have a simple cremation, the Vietnamese went and built a huge shrine to contain his preserved body....he even gets a 2 month holiday every year to visit his friends in the motherland (Russia) - a chance to top up on his embalming lotion and get his beard preened. It was a bit of a strange affair as we filed past his body with a mix of fanatical Vietnamese people and westerners all promising to go away and read about the man himself in order to know who they were actually looking at, and not just an old man who had a marvellous beard. The last sights seen, Al and I headed to the My Dinh bus station for what certain travel books/sites described as a short and enjoyable hop to the border....
I consider myself lucky not to get travel sickness especially when taking into account the state of many Asian roads. I do though have the unfortunate knack of positioning myself close to those who aren't so fortunate. And so it was, having already completed the first sleepless leg from Hanoi and on the bus crossing the Laos border behind a sweet old lady, that mount Etna erupted, with me being in the firing line...the now not so sweet old lady in everyones bad books, in particularly mine...at least the locals on the bus could have a good laugh at the irrate westerner...nothing that a change of shirt, change of seat and a group photo with mount Etna and her slightly less green other half couldn't solve! Fortunately 2 hours later we changed onto an air conditioned 'sleeper' bus and spent the next 6 hours clinging to the side of hills and clinging to the rails of the bed on board.
Laos really is the land of the long and winding road. If you get travel sick do yourself a favour and fly over this place, or sit next to me on the bus.... What a contrast this place is to the manic streets of Vietnam, you could sense the world was turning slightly slower here the moment you crossed the border. Picture rural scenes, laid back locals and half cut tuck tuck drivers on our arrival.... drunken bullet dodged we checked into a hotel next to the bus station at 1am and headed into Luang Pra Bang old town the next day.
Luang Pra Bang was like a small peice of France in Asia. Bakeries, French cuisine and a small army of French tourists...the real french foreign legion maybe. The place was also crawling with monks and packed with temples, and played host to a daily morning ritual where the monks walk down the street collecting offerings of food....I'm sure it used to be different, but all I saw was a bunch of miserable monks being given chocolate bars by photo hungry tourists. Next time I'll bring a box of celebrations to cheer them up, I'll even take the bounties out for them!
The town was also close to one of Laos must see sites, the Si Phan waterfalls. This place was paradise and an ideal location for my now official photographer Al to get the April photo for my calendar - Al for some reason refused to have a swim, hàe is from North Yorkshire though so I'll let him off.....he was probably learning kestrel handling or whippet maintenance while we learnt how to swim and talk properly (not proper) down in civilised Derbyshire. The next day it was time for Al to return home to London and following a last bowl of noodle soup and a morning cycle to see the town and Mekong river up close he was on his way and I booked my ticket south to Vang Vieng.
Vang Vieng, the Blackpool of Laos....who would have thought it! Instead of the big dipper you had floating down the river in a giant inner tube, every other shop was selling fry ups or other western food, and in the bars in between you could watch re-runs of friends or family guy on repeat, whilst drinking your own body weight in beer lao! Heaven for all those home sick travellers wanting a slice of what they left behind. A bizarre experience for everyone else, especially the locals, who must shoulder some responsibility for creating this strange peice of timewarped western culture in an otherwise stunning location. Keeping with the express theme I only spent one night here, before hitting the capital Vientiane for a few hours.
There's not much to say about the capital other than its there and it also had some clothes shops allowing me to buy a new pair of shorts to add to my dwindling wardrobe....hats off to all those travellers lugging round 20 outfits and hair straighteners, I'll stick to the scruffy curly look and avoid the Quasimodo back in the long run thanks! I did also get a lao massage with the intention of unwinding before the journey ahead....little did I know, rather than a relaxing rub, this constituted being hit like a boxers punch bag by an extra straight out of budget kung fu film. Battered and bruised I borded the night bus to the south, and following a further connection and a ferry I arrived in what finally felt like the real Laos, a place known as the 4000 islands. The guesthouse I stayed in had a box seat view of the Mekong fisherman hard at work, and there was only a handful of tourists spread across the island.
The next day the quest to express through this region continued and involved several more boats and buses, a corrupt border crossing between Laos and Cambodia (surprisingly the chap at the border didn't react too well when I asked him how much of the extra $15 he was charging was going in his pocket) and a close 'romantic' encounter with a sozzled local bloke, who gave me a beer (at midday), wished me a happy new year, put his arm around me and having gazed lovingly at my hairy chin, whispered in my ear 'you are beautiful'. Just like the next bloke I'm always happy with a compliment, but in this particular case I thought better of the advances and hid near the toilets until the next bus turned up!
How many Cambodians can you fit in a minivan? No this isn't another tasteless UKIP joke, but instead a real event...at the last count 32 on the inside and 10 clinging to the roof...the van in question being designed to carry 15, all the way to the capital. At each stop it was like a scene at a circus, the one where a really small car turns up and somehow more and more clowns are able to get in! The journey was worth it though to reach Phnom Penh...this place was an incredible city, full of landmarks, great eateries and the legacy of a dark history of brutal regimes and war.
If Laos was the long and windy road then Cambodia was the long and broken one....what they need are some blokes to turn up on their doorstep offering to tarmac their roads rather than their drives. It would get it done a lot faster! Another bone rattling journey and I'd made it to Siem Riep, gateway to the 8th wonder of the world, no not the Crooked spire of Chesterfield, but Angkor, an ancient landscape of temples and ruins. Time not being on my side I managed to squeeze my visit here into a day and a bit....hectic but incredible!
This left me with one final bus journey to Bangkok, my original destination in Asia and just in time for another new year celebration (apparently its the year 2058 here meaning I've tasted the future....and its a spicy!). The new year here involves a huge water fight lasting over 3 days...I always enjoy being welcomed to a city by water pistol toting youths!
11 days, 88 hours on the bus, 3 countries and a lot of passport space used...Express route done. Would I recommend doing it this way to anyone...unless you enjoy extreme travel endurance, absolutely not....bring on Burma!
Repeat after me. 'I will never complain about leg room in economy again'