On a chicken wing and a prayer

On the northbound road to Luang Prabang, Laos
Caught in the act | Photo by Lauren Girardin

At some point, I deleted photos from a memory card, thinking I had transferred them to our laptop. Well, I was wrong. All the photos that would have gone along with this story, and most of the ones from the rest of Laos are gone, except for my memory of them. So, the photos below are from an earlier mini-van ride that was bad, but not as bad as this bus ride. If you sat through the Luang Prabang slide show, you’ve seen them already.

We should have known that something would go afoul when the chicken was brought on the bus–

No, wait. I shouldn’t start there, with an awful pun. First, let me explain what Todd and I were doing on this particular bus, before I say anything more about the chicken.

That goddamn chicken.

On the northbound road to Luang Prabang, Laos
Freakish cell phone billboard and truck | Photo by Lauren Girardin

It’s the day after New Years Day and we’re leaving Luang Prabang on an overnight bus which should arrive in Vientiane at 4 a.m. We’re feeling lucky because we nabbed the last two available seats on any southbound bus out of Luang Prabang. The upside is that we’ll arrive in Vientiane before nearly anyone else, helping us snag an hotel room in a highly overpriced and competitive town that we’ve been through before. Soon after, we’ll get on another bus bound for Thakhek.

Having already taken both a fancy-schmancy VIP Bus and a jenky minivan, we’ve learned to distrust Laotian public transport. Both our previous rides had engine trouble and hours of delay, so we expect this ride will arrive a little late as well. But really, who wants to arrive at 4 am anyway?

Even at 6 p.m., it’s already dark. The bus’ interior lights are off so no one can find their assigned seats. A few cell phones and our headlamps help people find their seat numbers, with only minimal stumbling.

Finally, the lights come on, revealing the pimped-out splendor of our bus. The ceiling is decorated with wallpaper speckled with a constellation of glow-in-the-dark star stickers. The seats are upholstered in near-neon blue patterned plastic, which coordinates well with the midnight blue curtains, decorated with suns and moons. The walls of the bus, like a 1970s suburban basement family room, are covered in brick patterned wallpaper.

On the northbound road to Luang Prabang, Laos
Serious about posing for photos| Photo by Lauren Girardin

On this busy post-holiday day, every seat is filled and then some. A village family has bought two tickets, but boards with two adults, three barefoot children – all well beyond the age and size that can realistically sit on a lap for 10 hours – sacks of stuff, and a rooster, swaddled in a cylindrical rattan carrying case that’s strung over the father’s shoulder like a murse. Somehow these five people cram into their two very small bus seats, the chicken dangling in the aisle.

The rooster’s red combed head peeks out one end of the carrying case, it’s well-manicured iridescent black tail feathers out the other. Todd jokes that the man has brought his alarm clock on board.

We shouldn’t have been laughing. We should have known better. Every one of the truly horrific bus ride stories I’ve read mentions at least one chicken, which is why the rooster should have clued us in that we were destined for disaster.

Usually, buses in Laos won’t move until every seat is filled. Our bus is at capacity, so I assume we’re ready to head out. Then the stack of plastic stools comes out, ten of them lining the narrow aisle and more passengers board. As the villagers’ kids lay down in the aisle, every inch of the bus is finally, utterly filled.

With a harsh three-point turn the bus finally pulls out of the Luang Prabang station. In winter in northern Laos, a quick dark follows sunset. In silhouette, I see heads nestle into seats as 6:30 pm is not an unusually early hour for Laotian bedtime. Todd and I eat our bagel sandwiches, buffalo jerky, and crunchy baked fava beans, then we tuck in our earplugs, lower our eye masks, and doze.

On the northbound road to Luang Prabang, Laos
Blessed bus bumper | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Through the insulation of my earplugs, I’m blasted awake by music. Worse, by Laotian pop music.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, there are only three songs in Laos. Each has been infinitely re-recorded, karaoke-style, by anyone with a microphone. The vocals are a peculiar style of what Todd has termed the “Laotian John Denver singer” laid over over an unmixed background led by a Casio keyboard set to ‘reggae,’ and a recorder, the off-key wind instrument that so many Americans learned in elementary school.

Since everyone on the bus was woken up by the music, I expect the volume to go down, or for someone to say something – specifically something in Laotian. But no one says anything. Todd and I are sitting in the very back row of seats and with everyone sitting in the aisle, I can’t get to the front of the bus to gesture at the driver.

The Laotian pop overwhelms even my noisiest queer-punk. The music’s sound waves are probably vibrating through the bus seat, directly into my skull. There’s no stopping it. Todd and I give up, turn on our headlamps, and read. I check the time: 9 pm, a little over two hours into our ride.

Two more hours later, we stop for a roadside pee break – literally in the bushes – and a driver switch. I manage to mime “lower the music!” to the new driver who smiles, nods, and turns it off. Blissful silence.

On the northbound road to Luang Prabang, Laos
Small town kids wave goodbye to the tourists | Photo by Lauren Girardin

The road from Luang Prabang to Vientiane is a rough one, winding through mountainous landscape, dappled with potholes, and crumbled entirely away in parts, washed away by tropical rains. Our driver weaves sharply and often to avoid oncoming vehicles and dogs napping in the middle of the road. Our seats don’t recline, and I’m crammed between Todd and a Laotian man who fidgets like a junkie, legs spread wide. Despite the environment, over the next three hours, Todd and I both sleep. Poorly. But we sleep.

After another bushwhacking pee break, the drivers switch again. The music comes back on, louder than before. Silhouetted heads pop up. Everyone else has been woken up too.

I’ve had it. I know Laotians are supposed to be polite, shy people, but this is absurd. Why isn’t anyone saying anything? It’s 12:30 am. It’s an overnight bus. We should be allowed to sleep!

I may not know the Laotian for “Please turn the music off,” but as soon as the first song ends, during the brief silence between songs, I shout out for quiet in English. Nothing. No reaction. After the next song, I shout again, trying to put the sound of a smile into my voice. Reaction. No more music. Silhouetted heads settle back into sleep position.

Two hours later, through my earplugs, I awake again. This time it’s a dire sound, that of of a clutch being ground within an inch of its life. The bus coasts to a stop at 2:30 in the morning. Even curiosity can’t keep me awake at this hour.

After 20 minutes however, Todd nudges me into consciousness saying, “You don’t want to miss this.”

On the northbound road to Luang Prabang, Laos
Small town crowd gathers around the broken down tourist transport van | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Just at our feet, where the aisle meets the row of seats where we sit, a panel has been removed from the floor, exposing part of the bus engine. Our two drivers – both very young, confused, and ill-prepared – squat over the hole. One driver, who is barefoot, grasps a small flashlight, a fixed-size wrench, and a flat-headed screwdriver, waving them at the machinery like the charms of a witch doctor. As the rooster and the passengers look on, the agonizing noise of stuck gears and the brimstone smell of engine trouble fill the bus cabin.

Without a word, the drivers return to the front of the bus and turn off the interior lights. We sit at the side of the dark road, somewhere and nowhere between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. It’s peacefully quiet and utterly dark. Rather than worry about what’s going to happen next, Todd and I sleep.

At 5:30 we’re woken up by shouted Laotian. Everyone gathers their things and herds off the broken bus onto a local bus with even fewer seats than before. For the next unknown number of hours, my seat will be a one foot high plastic stool. Other people sit on luggage and lumpy sacks of produce.

Before the bus leaves, I venture off road to find a dark place to pee. Away from the bus headlights, I am dazed by a view of more stars than I have ever seen anywhere in this world.

Three hours later, as we hit the suburbs of Vientiane, our local bus resumes its regular duties, stopping every two blocks to pick up passengers, adding another dozen people to the already overcrammed interior. The bus is now moving so slowly that even the rooster could outrun us.

Fifteen hours after we left Luang Prabang and over five hours late, we arrive in Vientiane, physically exhausted and mentally scarred. As we shuffle around looking for a hotel, I vow to Todd, “Call me spoiled. Call me soft. But, unless we have no other choice, that was our last local bus. Our last overnight bus ride. Babe, I’m done.”