With a number of months still to go before I can really get out and travel again (to Ethiopia this time),  there is some comfort to being able to roll like a pig in a sty through so many interesting pictures from previous trips.  Being something of a photomaniac, there are hundreds of pics from past adventures sitting on my computer – each with its own little story that usually causes the onset of a silly-looking smile. This is one of those.

It was Dec 23rd. Bright and early. So early that it should really be criminal to have to face the world. Usually, I am not the sort of sloth prone to waking up at the crack of dawn unless there is a fairly compelling reason to do so. That day saw us waking up in Vientiane, People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. So there was a fairly compelling reason to want to get up and see the world – which, on that morning, started by looking like this:

The view from the backpackers we woke up in. Christmas in T-minus two days.

The view from the backpackers we woke up in. Christmas in T-minus two days.

But it was not to be a morning spent admiring the cityscape. Nay, that had been the preceding day – one spent walking in wonder around Vientiane, spent saying ooh and wow enough times that it was a minor miracle that we did not suffer from doughnut shaped mouths for the remainder of our exploring. This morning was one to be spent in hasty pursuit of the early bus to Luang Prabhang, a city north of Laos and many, many (many) hours by bus from Vientiane. The rapidly dog-earing guidebook was quite explicit on the need to get an early bus, in case we broke down, went slower than expected or otherwise ran into difficulty. There had also apparently been bandits some months before on the road we were to travel, so it was with great anticipation that we sped to the bus depot and booked on the first bus available.

Tickets clipped and bags loaded, it was time to start properly waking up and taking in the surroundings, which happened to be many, varied and utterly foreign. Including, as I now-less-sleepily looked out of my window, the roof of the bus next door.

Yes. There is a scooter tied to the roof of that bus.

Yes. There is a scooter tied to the roof of that bus.

It was at this point, after ticket-booking and gazing out in wonderment, that our less-pressing human needs began to set in. Specifically, the need to find food. There is a certain irony to the fact that, in a part of the world with some of the most delicious and varied dishes to be found anywhere, we managed to secure this for breakfast:

Breakfast. Almost none of the five food groups in attendance.

Breakfast. Almost none of the five food groups in attendance.

A baguette. And chips. Crisps to the Americans (and possibly the rest of the known world), but to South Africans, they are chips. In case you are wondering, what you call fries are also chips to us, albeit slap (soft) chips – in contrast to just plain chips, which is what you see here. Make sense? Excellent. Our lack of nutritional imagination was further drawn into contrast later in the journey, as stall after stall of delicious-looking (and more importantly, vitamin-filled and scurvy-thwarting) fruit passed by the windows of our determined little bus. Set against a perfect sky, the journey was becoming increasingly spent oohing and wowing over the passing scenery.

A view from the bus. Oh for fruit after a diet of chips.

A view from the bus. Oh for fruit after a diet of chips.

The bus had at this point begun ascending into the mountains, focusing our attention firmly on trying to establish how, precisely, we were managing to stick to the road as we would corner hairpin bends at speed on the kind of path which I had previously believed only existed on the sides of mountains in Bolivia. Or made by the transit of mountain goats. Cunningly, the driver would hoot twice before cornering blindly at speed, in a tactic which would have been reminiscent of the communication patterns of dolphins and whales, has we been able to let our minds wander to the topic at the time. A hoot in return implied oncoming traffic and a slower, more cautious cornering. No hoot meant no oncoming traffic and a wide, fast turn. Generally, the system held up well, but for the occasional foreigners in a rental car who, not knowing the hoot protocol, would come within a side-mirror’s width of being stomped by our determined vehicle. These occasions were as traumatic as they were, thankfully, rare.

The bus. It was determined. It was mechanically sound. It was parked for lunch.

The bus. It was determined. It was mechanically sound. It was parked for lunch.

The driver of the bus was a rather quiet individual, with most of the actual work of ticket checking at stops, handing out of sick bags and other voyage-related administration being taken on by the conductor. Any belief that the guidebook might have been sensationalising reports of bandits on the road were put to silence the moment the conductor turned around and revealed his automatic rifle.

The conductor of the bus. And his very real gun. There. On his back.

The conductor of the bus. And his very real gun. There. On his back.

And so we rode on. Today was only two days or so since we had landed in Bangkok and hightailed it at speed via rail and tuk tuk to get to Vientiane in time to make it to Luang Prabhang for Christmas. It was time spent rushing to make connections, cross borders and finding accommodation. Sitting in that bus and watching a world go by the window which was increasingly looking less and less like anything I could ever possibly have imagined, was the tipping point where I felt like I had slipped out of the baggage of home and into a life whose most important purpose, indeed the only one I could possibly pursue at that point, was to just be. To watch the world go by outside and be lost in wonderment. To wonder about the houses blurring past between hoots and corners. To wonder about the people who lived in those houses and how they see the world. To wonder about the bags of charcoal stacked outside each village for purchase  by passing cars (see the pic above). And a million other things. I’ve very rarely looked at the world and understood so little since. It is an intense feeling of freedom.

And then the hooting and cornering stopped. We had made it to the halfway stop, where growling stomachs could find fruit (and additional baguettes and chips). And exiting the bus, the world looked something like this:

Halfway to Luang Prabhang. Beautiful in a way no postcard could ever be.

Halfway to Luang Prabhang. Beautiful in a way no postcard could ever be.

I wrote this memory because this last picture is one of the ones I have come to prize most. I had never seen a world like that before. Nor have I since. Tomorrow was unplanned. Last week was an alien. The feeling of moving freely to discover in wonder all there was to see, in all of its addictiveness, was finally taking hold. This moment nailed it to me forever.

Categories: Asia, Laos, Travel
  • This is beautiful. Nice sneaky shot of the weapon on the helper’s back. Was he also in charge of shouting out destinations as you picked up more passengers? I love the mountains in the last shot. And I love thinking about not understanding what’s going on. Some day I’m going to have to get out of the Americas and really see the world. Thanks for reminding me.

    (also, if they’re crispy and fried and come in a bag, Americans do call them chips, and now I realize I know nearly nothing about you. Bad blog reader, must find out more!)

  • Actually, I often used to find when I travelled that I’d end up consuming the most appalling junk food, simply because it was convenient or I could recognise what it was. Luckily the situation has improved somewhat as my linguistic abilities have blinged up. But yeah… when the going gets tough, nothing beats a bag of dried squid, some lemon tea and a rice ball for the desperately munchy.

    lulz, such fond memories… :-)

  • Katherine

    I think the bike on the top of the bus is just good sense :-) I wish I could transport my scooter like that!

  • Pingback: Christmas Eve 2007. People’s Democratic Republic of Laos | Richard Stupart()

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