The official travel numbers were to leave Vientiane at 10am and get to Vang Vieng at 2pm. Given that the distance between the two places was 175km, that seemed a little generous in saying we would be there by 2pm. Travel in these countries rarely reaches an average of 50kph and usually hovers at around 40 kilometres travelled per hour of actual pedal to the medal.
We had booked travel on the VIP line through our hotel of stay in Vientiane. The brochures show nice shiny buses and happy travellers (slogan: "Smooth as silk".) Who am I to doubt the veracity of their propaganda. Regardless, we were picked up at our hotel by a minivan and then taken to the bus station to board the bus. There was the traditional sweep through the neighbourhood to pick up other travellers. By the time we got to the bus station others had already laid claim to the choice seats.
This was a new type of bus to us. It had berths, two travellers to a berth, and stacked two high.
The berths were like two benches facing each other and the seats tight to each other. I guess it is so that strangers can lie beside each others with feet to head configuration.
Some of the first passengers on the bus had the idea that it was one person to a berth. The conductor had to go down the aisle with his baton and exclaim, two to a berth, two to a berth, two to a berth.
A young English girl hopped out of an upper berth and crawled into the adjacent upper berth with her friend. None of the bottom berths were being vacated so Marion and I climbed into that upper berth. Not the best place to be.
Besides an accentuated sway, the upper berths do not allow one to sit up. Not unless one has a neck that is 90 degrees perpendicular to the body, can one sit up. Slouch, lay flat with knees folded, foetus position are all variations of riding in a berth of this style. And thus we were transported to Vang Vieng.
We didn't leave until 10:30. By then all the berths had two occupants. This included the young gent who feigned sleep and hearing problems until the end. The conductor tapped him a few times with the baton to bring him back to the reality of riding in a bus with a stranger's feet beside his head.
The bus made two stops. The first was a scheduled stop for a stretch and a potty break. Even though these buses come with latrines, noone uses them. Thus a stop at a road side service station with toilet facilies is the de rigeur. Our second stop was not scheduled. We had a blown tire.
I didn't notice the bus swaying abnormally. When I saw the driver mimic his heroic skills to another person later, I deduced we had dodged a flip. The passenger rear tire of the dual pair, blew a hole and lost its air and tread. Not that there was much tread to lose. The inside tire could not hold up the added weight and lost its air also.
Another bus that had been travelling behind us stopped and donated its spare tire and some tools. I assume that the second bus was part of the VIP line otherwise it was a very generous offer. But they did not offer to help change the tire. And this took time. The bus had to be jacked up in increments so that the hydraulic jack could get close enough to the wheels in question.
The driver and associate worked for about 90 minutes and finally got it finished. The horn was honked and we all crawled back to our dreams. And then we were off. We got off in Vang Vieng just after 4pm.
Vang Vieng has been sold as an alternative to Ha Long Bay with its karst formations.
This is unfair to Ha Long Bay. Vang Vieng may have some spectacular scenery but it is not in the same category as Ha Long Bay. The other thing that Vang Vieng is sold as, is as a party town. And it is that. The young come from far and wide to this town to tube and kayak on the river in inebriated states. If they remember the trip on the river they come back, if they didn't remember they come back because they had so much fun the first time. I guess.
The local authorities built it and they have come. Now they have to figure out a way for them to leave. The alcohol is so much part of the river runs that the participants have their passport numbers stencilled on their body in case they wash up dead drunk on the beach or just plain dead.
Girls on our bus from Vientiane were jabbering amongst themselves about the mortality rate on the river. Apparently it is about one person every two weeks. The girls thought this was acceptable because hey people die in traffic accidents all the time. Oh to be young and stupid instead of old and stupid like I am.
We heard other reports from a family staying in our hotel about walking to the morning market and having to step around young people who were sleeping off their night adventure on the sidewalk. Ah to be young and carefree.
We did a walkabout of the town. The bars were shoulder to shoulder and all of them had their tvs tuned in to Family Guy or reruns of Friends. The menus were similar and geared to young white travellers. We got stared at as we walked by because of my grey hair.
We wandered out onto a bamboo bridge to get some photos of the karst formations. Then the motorbikes started to cross.
We skeedadled off the bridge and make it back to our hotel. Then it started to rain. There were scattered showers for a while and then it digressed into a steady rain.
Not my kind of town.