Travel and Travail in Laos

Or should I have titled this post Travel is Travail in Laos? I’m doing a video shoot for an NGO and one of the field staff and I were headed north from Vientiane to Phonsavan—the first leg of a six leg trip. And the worst leg: ten hours of getting battered around in what was in its previous life an airport shuttle, now converted into an off-road, long-haul, urm… marvel of transportation efficiency. That is until it isn’t. Until it is driven into a ditch and you start to roll over…

Travel and Travail in Laos

I wasn’t overly worried, as it wasn’t as if we were going to roll very far (there is a 30 foot cliff over a rock-strewn river bed on the other side of the road—that could have gotten ugly real fast). So, me and my work partner just stayed put, but then everyone decided to get out of the bus at the same time—through the exit on the right side of the bus—causing it to teeter even further. At that point the window I was sitting next to was about two feet from the ground. At worst, if the bus rolled further, the windows would have popped in, and I decided we better get out and not have to deal with a bunch of shattered glass.

I’ve seen enough stuck vehicles to know what we needed and headed back the way we had came to inspect what suspiciously looked like a heavy gauge cable attached to the back of a large Caterpillar road grader.

What’s funny about the picture above is the four 20-something Vietnamese workers we picked up about half way through our journey, who, whilst trying to push the bus out of the ditch (no way was that going to work)—then, as I lifted my camera to my eye—started cheering and waving. Apparently this isn’t an uncommon event for them and they wanted to look good for the record.

Travel and Travail in Laos

Just as I had thought: Road grader. Steel cable. Bus out of ditch in about seventeen seconds. Not near as much fun as pushing and cheering, but who am I to judge?

Now, a few days later, and not but a few miles away on the same luxurious ten hour drive, this time headed south:

Travel and Travail in Laos

The tanker in the ditch was full. Of what, I don’t know. The crowd said it was petrol, but I didn’t smell any type of fuel oil. What I did see was something boiling as the tanker on the right was pumping out the ditch-bound one to the left. Hydrogen peroxide? Good for cuts, but quite dangerous in large quantities. Pesticide? Some industrial chemical, that’s for sure.

As a cloud from the tanker wafted over, I got a metallic taste in my mouth—and that sent me scurrying. How does that old saying go? Better dying through chemistry! I wasn’t about to get a second sample.

Travel and Travail in Laos

Of course the guy doing the pumping said it was going to take four hours to pump out the wrecked tanker, and if you notice, we were on what would barely qualify as a single-lane road. The Lao people are prosaic to a fault, but this was too much and everyone started yelling and complaining to move the pumper and let the lengthening line of vehicles in either direction clear before moving the pumper back in place and finishing the job… The pumper operator decided that dealing with a pissy crowd was above his pay grade and moved his rig out of the way.

There were two more roll overs on the same leg: one where a truck with a load of bricks went over and another one on its side where the cargo had already been removed. Meh. No pictures of them. Maybe if there had been a rowdy crew of Vietnamese construction workers cheering and waving. For that, I definitely would have stopped and snapped a few photos…

Travel and Travail in Laos.

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