Thursday, June 24, 2010

Vientiane II

As I mentioned in my last blog, the bus ride to Vientiane was pretty interesting. Or horrifying. Maybe that's a better word for it. It started out okay. We were the only Westerners on the bus, which was nice. I always like traveling in the style of the locals. No one seemed to pay us much mind either. We were just some people on the bus, like everyone else. It was a cool morning as well, making the ride rather comfortable. In fact, it was cold enough that we had to keep the windows closed for the first half of the ride, otherwise we'd all have frozen. So we had been going along for a bit, winding back and forth through the slightly treacherous mountain roads, when I realized that there was an awful lot of hacking and coughing going on around me. The woman behind me would bust a lung every 10 minutes or so, and a few rows in front of me a woman had such a bad coughing fit that I think she actually threw up a bit. Other people throughout the bus would occasionally snort, or go through some gnarly coughing. The worst offender though, was seated across the aisle from us, next to the window. No less than 5 minutes passed between each bout of wet, throat-clearing. If we were lucky, she would pop open her window and let loose her goober onto the road. If we were unlucky, she would open her little clear baggie and drop a wet loogie into that. She had apparently been at it for a while because her baggie had about a half pint worth of phlegm in it. Dark yellow and thoroughly disgusting. When I first saw her special little bag and realized what it was I had to fight down my urge to vomit. My stomach literally heaved. And then, thanks to the wacky way the human mind works, it became difficult to not to look over at her and her phlegm collection, just out of disgusted curiosity. Each time my eyes caught sight of it I would quickly shift my attention to the scenery outside my window and sing annoying childrens' songs to myself to banish the image. All I could think about for a few hours was her and her phlegm. God it was gross. On top of this, the man sitting next to her seemed to be having problems with the winding roads, leading him to throw up in his clear baggie. These baggies were provided to everyone on the bus, courtesy of the bus attendants - a clear indication that many people do not survive this ride through the mountains unscathed. No one else seemed to be phased by all these bodily functions surrounding them, though. This led me to realize that mine and Chuck's disgust were quite obviously culturally influenced, and that some cultural differences are apparently very, very hard to overcome. Another interesting sight - and not so disgusting - was when the bus pulled over in a random road-side stop for everyone to take a pee break. There were no bathrooms - just green jungle. Everyone wandered off into the brush and did their deed amongst the leaves, men and women alike, with no toilet paper or water for rinsing. I have to admit that I was a bit relieved (no pun intended) that I didn't have to use the bathroom just then. We also made a quick stop so that the driver could check out some squirrel furs that were being sold by some kids on the side of the road. I can only imagine what he would use the skins for, although he didn't end up buying them. The ride was incredible in terms of scenery. Those mountains really are one of the most beautiful places I've seen. We had some really nice views of these jutting, pointy, tree covered peaks thrusting up into the sky that I found particularly impressive. Eventually we wound our way out of the heights and back onto the flat lands that led into the city of Vientiane. The bus station we were dropped off at was quite a ways out of the city, but luckily there were some songthaews hanging around. They wouldn't leave until they had a full truck, so we had to wait around for the next bus to arrive before heading off. On the bright side, we had some ice cream while we waited. Actually, it was more like rice cream, tasting like ground rice mixed with some milk and flavoring. It was pretty good. And it only cost us 5000 kip ($0.60 US), although it should have cost only 4000. Our ice cream scooper must have thought he did such a good job scooping that he deserved to keep the extra 1000 as a tip. How generous of him... Our songthaew had filled up in the meantime, and there was barely enough room for me, Chuck, and the older Laos couple who was coming along, to sit. There would have been plenty of room if the backpacker-hippie cool-kids had scooted closer together, but for some reason they seemed loathe to actually take up any of each others precious personal space. The Laos couple, on the other hand, squished together like factory packed sardines in order to clear a space just big enough for Chuck to squeeze in. The songthaew made its way into town and we hopped off close to our hotel, only paying part of the agreed fare because they wouldn't take us to our street like we had agreed. They didn't argue about this which was nice. We went back to the same hotel we had stayed at during our first visit to Vientiane and were happy to find that they had a room available. We didn't do anything exciting that evening - just relaxed and had a simple dinner.

In fact, we didn't do anything interesting for the next 3 days. We kept talking about how we should go down to the famous 4000 islands in the south of the country, and looked at where we could stop along the way to break up the trip. We talked about stopping in this small town in central Laos and visiting a mysterious cave river that spills out into a beautiful valley. We kept talking about how long it would take, how many days we had, and how we would get back to Chiang Mai in north-western Thailand from the 4000 islands. In the end it turned out we were all talk and no action. To our credit, it would have been completely out of our way to go all the way to southern Laos only to have to go back north again. Not to mention that it would have been an incredibly long trip from there to Chiang Mai. Since our Chiang Mai hotel was booked for the 8th we decided that visiting southern Laos wasn't really practical and that it would be better to visit a few cities in Thailand as we made our way to Chiang Mai. With that finally settled, we made plans to leave Vientiane on the 31st and head to Nong Khai, Thailand. The only mildly interesting thing we managed to do between the 27th and 31st was find a gourmet road-side burger stand with one of the best burgers I've ever had. Otherwise our time was spent being super lazy.

On the 31st we checked out hung around the hotel until it was time to go to the bus station. Since Nong Khai was only two hours away, we could afford to wait until early afternoon. Our tuktuk driver to the bus station was a hard sell and we had to walk away before he agreed to our price. Once at the station we got ourselves a bite to eat: a baguette and an orange. We had to haggle for the orange and it still ended up costing more than the baguette... Oranges are rather expensive in SE Asian for some reason. I would think the area would be perfect for oranges, but no one seems to be growing them. Maybe it's a soil issue? We sat around in the heat, along with the other traveling locals, waiting until it was time for the bus to leave. Women, middle-aged and older, would wander by with random assortments of good for sale, and younger women who looked to be in school uniforms of some sort made their way to their respective buses with a sense of purpose. Men and women sat on the benches all around us, each waiting until it was time for them to leave. Eventually our bus came along and we handed over our luggage and climbed aboard, ready to cross back into Thailand.

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