That Time We Took the Bus in Laos

Why did the chicken cross the road? No joke – he doesn’t make it to the other side.

So we’re on this bus in Laos, which, on paper didn’t look bad: six hours from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng on an air-conditioned “VIP” double-decker with an on-board toilet and television.

Totally doable, I told my girlfriend and five-year-old son.

And it is. People do it all the time.

But here’s the thing: on board, it didn’t look great.

Nothing wrong with the bus, really – reasonably clean, somewhat comfortable – though if you’re tall (I’m tall) and like legroom (tall people like legroom), you probably won’t end up in a good place, no matter the destination.

So we’re on this bus. And I’m not in a good place.

I’m in seat 11, directly behind the woman (seat 15) who’s been puking steadily since we left the bus station. And the perennial threat – with nearly every turn on this perilously narrow mountain pass – is a sudden shortage of plastic bags.

Then the guy in seat 14 starts to gag. I dive into my backpack that’s tucked under the seat in front of my son (seat 12) and grab the pink plastic bag that houses my standard emergency travel kit: two large bottles of water and a cylinder of sour-cream-and-onion Pringles. I separate bag from contents and lunge across the aisle, spiking it into his lap. Breakfast is re-served.

That’s when his girlfriend (seat 13) starts to gag.

The entire bus reeks of vomit, though the conductor is doing his best to shuttle each plastic parcel of puke to an undisclosed location on the lower level. I suspect that he’s storing them in the room that used to have a toilet, since our bus doesn’t actually have one. I mean, there’s a space where the toilet used to be. Just no toilet. Or sink. Or anything else that would make a room instantly identifiable as a toilet. It’s just an empty, closet-sized recess near the stairs.

Perfect for storing a smorgasbord of internationally produced vomit.

The air-conditioning isn’t working, either. At least not properly. I know this because it’s uncomfortably hot. And water – a byproduct of A/C – is leaking on me from the air-vent above. In fact, it’s leaking on everybody sitting on the right side of the bus.

Where’s a plastic bag when you need one?

There’s a television. But it’s cracked, wrapped in duct-tape and mounted on the right side of the bus. It’s off. Presumably forever.

So we’re on this bus. And I’m nauseous, soaking wet on one side of my body and wondering what would kill us faster, a head-on collision with a truck (many near misses) or a violent tumble down the side of the mountain (many close calls).

Did I mention the highway? It’s got more bends than a – CHICKEN! He never had a chance.

So we took this bus in Laos. Now, eight hours and 185 kilometres later, we’re standing in a dusty parking lot, politely waiting for the conductor to unload our bags from the storage compartment. But the orange-robed monk from seat 1 is having none of it – he spots his rolling suitcase under my girlfriend’s backpack, pushes his way through the crowd, grabs her pack and tosses it into the dirt. Then he gently plops his suitcase onto its wheels, extends the handle and strolls off into the sunset.

It was an enlightening experience. We’d made it to the other side.


An edited version of this essay appeared in the Globe and Mail.

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