A good (or should I say interesting) way to learn about a country’s people is by taking the various forms of transportation the locals use. For longer trips in Laos, that form is the bus. Here are six essential things you should consider taking to make bus travel in Laos
In The Bus
First let me give you an glimpse of what a bus trip in Laos entails from inside of the bus. It’d be easier to show you a photo, but my carry camera had met an untimely demise right before I left on a six segment jaunt that included trips between Xamti, Xam Neua, Nam Xoi (border with Vietnam), and Phonsavan (the images showing me in full regalia are in the back of a Tuk-Tuk; this post applies to that type of travel also). So, imagine this: A bus that is years past its prime. Like twenty. It probably had a suspension system at one time. It rattles, vibrates, and smokes… and that’s just when it is idling at a stop. The windows are all down, as it is going to get hot. The vents on the roof that would allow most of the heat out of the top of the bus are closed, all the cargo on the roof—boxes, bags, livestock in bamboo cages—precludes opening them. There is cargo down the center aisle, usually nails or huge bags of rice. You just walk on them to get to your seat. Then there are a stack of plastic stools. Those are for the people that will be sitting all the way down the center aisle… there isn’t a space left empty. There seems to be an inordinately large number of audio speakers haphazardly screwed to whatever surface was available.
One of the issues I run into on buses in Asia (and all airplanes), is that I’m all legs. I hit my knees on the seat in front of me in just about every type of vehicle. However, I discovered that the back row in the buses typically has a center seat that faces right down the isle. I grab that seat so I can stretch out my legs as needed—if you have long legs or cramp easily, get to the bus station early to claim it. The downside of the back row of the bus is that you get all the smells, dust, feathers, etc., that blow through. Also, for people that get car sick, the back of the bus is probably the worst place to be. More on that later.
In The Bus, On The Road
Once you start down the road, the fun starts. For much of the trip, you will be on serpentine roads that hairpin turn up and down the sides of mountains. Depending on the time and location, you may have to stop and negotiate with large construction vehicles coming in the other direction; the road is barely wide enough in most place for both vehicles. Going through villages is always touch and go as there are often children, cows, chickens, and the occasional pig playing in/standing in/crossing the road. These buses would have a tough time stopping quickly while empty and there is no chance of a rapid stop in their typical configuration, which is massively overloaded. So, get use to a swerving, jerky, rough ride, with occasional attempts at missing animate objects in the road. Otherwise the drivers are going all out. Which, on a straight road, wouldn’t be much of a big deal. On narrow twisting roads with lots of easily impacted objects entering and exiting the roadway and the mountainside falling away from you at some astounding depths, it can be, well, it can be a tad unnerving. I guess that sitting in the back of the bus has another benefit: you don’t really see much of what is coming on the road ahead…
With the nausea-inducing motion of the bus comes one of the least pleasant parts of the trip: vomit. Yeah. Adults, children, you name it. The roads just lend themselves to creating motion sickness in humans. Someone always barfs. Then someone else who was just holding it together gets a whiff and lets loose. Did I mention that the back end of the bus has its disadvantages? Scent travels on the wind.
Just about when you grasp what the next six/eight/ten hours are going to be like, the driver decides that some music is just the thing needed. So, in goes the Thai/Lao pop music CD and the volume knob is spun to 11. I like hearing new music; I hate listening to others’ music when I’m a captive audience. Of course within the din is the sound of loose ground wires creating static, the sound of speakers pushed too far too many times, and the worrying thought that this racket is the only thing keeping the driver awake/focused.
As you hurtle through the curves (or creep if you are headed uphill) you hit parts of the road that are partially paved. That’s when you first notice the dust. Lao soil is red. The dust is also red and is some of the finest granulated material I’ve seen on the planet. And you are getting coated with it. And at first, you don’t really notice. Its so fine, that it just seems like some cloudiness in the air. And it is hot. So the windows are all open, but you are still sweating, and that creates a fine gritty feeling on your face and in your hair. And in your nose. And ears. And mouth.
Six Essentials When Traveling By Bus In Laos
Ok. For those of you that can’t wait, here are the things you should not be without, in order of importance:
- Motion Sickness Medication
- Menthol Inhaler
- iPod And/Or Ear Plugs
- Dust Mask
- Hat with Large Flexible Brim
(Sorry for the crap images, I was shooting in a hotel with a misbehaving point and shoot.)
1. Motion Sickness Medication:
The first and most essential item to have is motion sickness medication. Being nauseated on a long distance trip is the absolute worst. A bus swaying, swerving, and constantly doing switchbacks is really rough on the old gut. I don’t usually get car sick; I am forever grateful to Jo-Ann S., a Canadian I met in Phonsavan who suggested that I take one of her packs of Gravol (Dramamine* in the States) with me “just in case.” It may be better to bring it into Laos with you, but you can always pick up a pack in one of the many pharmacies in the bigger cities. I’d bring it in.
Don’t forget to pack this medication. Why am I repeating this? Is it just that I have an above-normal aversion to nausea? Yes, that is true. However… Even if you have never been car sick before, riding a bus in Laos will test you. What is the worst that can happen? If you don’t get sick, give it to someone who is starting to turn green. Hell, buy enough for the whole bus and you may avoid the wonderful scent of vomit. If not, #2 will become very important.
2. Menthol Inhaler:
Let’s just assume you are doing fine. However, someone didn’t take their motion sickness medication and has hurled all over the floor. Possibly the person sitting right next to you. No problem. It will wash off your shoes. And pants. Then you realize you don’t get carsick until you smell the scent of vomit. Here is the next essential item: The menthol inhaler.
Buy the kind where the bottom unscrews. Unscrew the bottom and you can access the liquid menthol. Get it on the tip of your finger and put a healthy dose around your nostrils (careful about getting it on any mucus membrane, it may sting). It may suck to smell menthol for several hours, but it is better than what you would smell otherwise… Bonus: liquid menthol will reduce the itching from mosquito bites.
3. iPod And/Or Ear Plugs:
I no longer listen to deafening music of my choice. I really dislike listening to deafening music that is someone else’s choice. On a Laos bus, it is always the latter (unless you love Lao/Thai pop music). So, a couple of options: if you are going to be mostly awake when you are traveling, an iPod full of music and podcasts is a wonderful thing. I listened to a bunch of podcasts from a slightly-geeky lifestyle-change guy I just discovered, Dean Dwyer of Make Shift Happen and the always great Lenswork Podcast On Photography and the Creative Process.
If you plan to try to sleep through the bus ride, the other option is great: earplugs. Either buy a couple packs of the disposable version (if you are careful and keep them clean, you can reuse them, often many times) or get a quality set from a sporting goods store. The type I travel with are the Uncorded Howard Leight MAX-1 Foam Ear Plugs*. I think I may get the corded type as to reduce risk of losing one (I kept them in a small zip lock bag which also helps keep them clean). I have a great pair of Shure Live Sound Monitor Earbuds* (purchased for audio/video editing on the road) which block most of the sound, but for sleeping a pair of the disposable ear plugs are far better. I take along both options as they take virtually no space.
4. Dust Mask:
As I mentioned above, the dust in Lao is very fine and infiltrates just about anything. Getting it into your nose and mouth is unpleasant; breathing it for a long period of time is most likely not the best for your lungs. The dust mask I bought in a market was not too thin, was made of a tough material, was washable, and fit snugly on my face when the loops were stretched over my ears. The downside? If it is hot, you will sweat. But, I found sweating a little more preferable to sweating and having my nose, mouth, and lungs full of dust.
5. Hat with Large Flexible Brim:
A good hat shades your eyes/head/ears/neck from the sun. It also keeps the dust and other flying bits out of your hair. But the real bonus of a flexible hat with a wide brim is that you can pull it down over your face if you want to kill off some of the light to sleep. Get a hat like the Patagonia Beach Bucket, it folds up small, dries rapidly, has a neck cord to keep it from flying out a window, and is reasonably cool to wear.
Sunglasses are always good. As most places, Lao can be quite bright. However, I really like them on the bus because they blocked out more light for when I wanted to sleep (in conjunction with the hat) and if they are tight fitting to your face, will keep some of the fine dust out of your eyes.
Traveling by bus in Laos can be a very rewarding way to see how the average Laotian travels. You stop at small markets for food/bathroom breaks, you meet other travelers, and since it is fairly slow, you get a good look at much of the countryside. It is also very inexpensive and the buses run regularly.
However, it can be quite miserable if you are not prepared. And don’t think it’s just foreigners that get motion sickness on the buses: on several of my trips, it was either Lao or Hmong people that threw up. That with the heat, dust, and the din of the music can make for a long and unpleasant ride.
Just go prepared. With a little forethought and preparation, you will find traveling by bus in Laos a good way of seeing this fascinating country.
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