When I first arrived in Vientiane, all I could think about was how much I needed to take a shower. I smelled like puke, and not my own puke.
The adventure started when I left the 4000 Islands at the southernmost tip of Laos. I spent most of my time there overlooking the Mekong river from a hammock hung sturdily from the porch of my private bungalow. (It wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds, but at $5 a night, why not?)
On the morning of my departure, the hordes of tourists with backpacks, and one French woman with a jumbo suitcase, crowded on the beach to get on put-put boats to the mainland. I’d bought a ticket that covered the coast of my boat fare, a minibus ride to the nearest city (Pakse, ~3 hours away), and an overnight sleeper bus to Vientiane. Mr. Toy, my travel agent, assured me that everything would be fine and left me with a receipt that said “Vientiane, 185,000 kip” (US$23) and that’s it. No times, no contact info. Maybe it was his bling-tastic earring, or maybe his charismatic smile, but for some reason I didn’t question Mr. Toy’s promise. I’ve traveled in Southeast Asia long enough to know that this is just how things work.
Boat ride, uneventful. Port A to Port B in a matter of minutes. Minibus ride, could’ve been worse. Although I was pretty scared for the last 30 minutes or so when the driver’s eyelids kept drooping down, and he blinked furiously to keep his tired eyes from rolling back. He (smartly) stopped on the side of the road to pour water on his head, and that seemed to temporarily revive him.
At 3:00, I was happy to arrive at the overnight bus station and put down my big rucksack in the ticket office. I found out that the overnight bus didn’t leave until 8:30 pm. Then I tried to fathom how I was going to spend the next five hours in Pakse, Laos, the third biggest city in the country, but that isn’t saying much. It was the size of a small Chinese village.
I wandered around the wet market nearby, and continuously bumped into the same other tourists who seemed equally lost trying to kill five hours at a wet market. Carrying my laptop and a small backpack, I was sweating like crazy. Then the sun tucked behind a cloud and I stumbled upon heaven in the form of a Laotian ice cream shop. It seemed to be the hangout place of choice for Laotian high school girls, who came in pairs on scooters, ate ice cream with multicolored sprinkles, giggled/gossiped and then zoomed off. I saw a shaved ice machine, pointed at it, and pointed at a red bottle of flavoring. For US$0.50 I got a bubblegum (??) snow cone topped with condensed milk and fluorescent yellow jellies. Just what I needed!
After my refreshing treat, I wandered back to an expensive hotel café near the bus station to load up my iPhone with podcasts for the long ride. For the next four hours, I ate dinner and drank expensive lime juice while surfing the web with excellent wifi. I was sitting on an uncomfortable, pleather-padded chair and my shorts were starting to feel uncomfortably wet, while the exposed part of my legs stuck to the seat. I’ve never really been a huge fan of air conditioning (haha) but boy, I really could’ve used a gust of ice cold air.
At 8:20 I boarded the overnight bus and got the air conditioning that I was looking for, and then some. Freezing air blasted through vents in all directions. To get to the upper level of the bus, I ducked and climbed up four stairs made for someone three feet tall, and squeezed down the aisle to find bunk 24. The question was, who would be in bunk 23? I’d read online that overnight busses in Laos are peculiar in that they are made for two people. Yup, one bed, two people side by side, without any division. You each get your own pillow and blanket, but you also only get precisely one body width’s wiggle room. Great cuddle opportunity if you’re with the right person. It’s also a great opportunity to make a new friend, very fast. Would my new friend smell? Did I smell? What if it was a flirty Laotian man? The horror scenarios flashed in my head.
I was so relieved to see a bubbly Scottish girl sitting in bunk 23. After I took the window space and put on my socks, jacket and scarf, we began talking and didn’t stop for the next few hours, long after many people nodded off to sleep. Turns out she was also an English teacher in China, so we had plenty of common ground. She was very talkative, which was good, because I hadn’t had long conversation with anyone in a few days (yay traveling solo!) but at around 10:30 I decided to listen to a podcast and see if I could sleep. I was able to sleep on an off in two different positions, and it wasn’t as uncomfortable as you’d expect. The never ending blasting AC was probably the worst part, but the sweaty-sticky residue left on my legs was a close second. I persevered, with the help of some podcasts and Bon Iver’s gentle lullabies.
Cue sunrise. We’re getting close to Vientiane and I hear a cough beside me. Then another. I look over, and sure enough, “I’m so sorry. I’ve just been sick all over my jacket. It just came out of nowhere. All this swaying from side to side. I’m so sorry.” I really felt bad for my new friend, and her face was still painfully pale as she looked down at the chunky yellow mess on her pillow (thankfully on the side near the aisle, away from me). Motion sickness seems to run in my genes, so I was surprised that I hadn’t felt queasy at all. Yet. I know that the odds that I will throw up increase exponentially if someone next to me pukes. My first thought is, “Kimberly, you feel fine. Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up.” My second thought is to offer her a wet wipe and some tissues to clean up. Then she goes to the bathroom to continue being sick. I’m left trying to look out the window and not concentrate on the smell. I watched the barefoot monks in orange robes do their morning rounds of accepting offerings from townspeople.
The bus rolled to a stop at a dusty, nondescript location around 7 am. Bus stations in Southeast Asia always seem to be in the middle of nowhere, so to get into the city proper, you are at the mercy of conniving tuk tuk drivers who can take you to your desired destination, (usually for a rip off price). Luckily, as we drowsily piled off the bus at 7 am, a songthaew truck offered a fair price to take me to my hostel, where I knew there would be a bed waiting for me. Thank goodness I had the foresight to book a hostel in Vientianne ahead of time. I really needed that shower.