The Truth about Laos

Cut the Chase

The real adventure began at 5:00 a.m. in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It was starting to get quieter save for the boisterous laughter of a couple of other backpackers who boozed the night away at the sidewalk to save money on a night’s accommodation. The chill of the dawn creeping through my bones was enough to keep me alert, as I awaited Pinky’s signal to get up and go.
Five ten, she was still shaking her head. Five thirty, nothing. Five forty-five, still no sign of the bus that was supposed to pick us up from the hotel. Five fifty, I got jittery and requested the lady at the reception to call the bus company for us, who nonchalantly shrugged my request off because we didn’t book the bus from the hotel. And for the second time since I came to Siem Reap, I wanted to rip someone’s face off. She might have read what’s going through my mind or maybe I had voiced my morbid thoughts (I just can’t remember) because when I glowered at her, she right away fidgeted with the phone and with a faltering voice said, “The tuktuk will be here in five minutes.”

True to her word, the tuktuk came in exactly five minutes, the driver insisting he came on time but we were not there. It made sense because at the time he was supposed to pick us up, we were putting on invisibility cloaks, so that might have been the reason he didn’t see us. Funny these tuktuk drivers, aren’t they? And to complete the comedy, he took us on a free fifteen-minute tour of Siem Reap, chasing for the bus that was supposed to have left thirty minutes ago.

The People You Meet in Purgatory

After a few dizzying minutes, we were deposited in a bus—suspiciously parked in a deserted clearing—full of sleepy and smelly backpackers and a whole clan of mosquitoes. I took my rightful place at the back and sat next to a British guy who seemed to have developed a hatred for mozzies as he barely nodded to acknowledge me and turned to resume his massacre of the poor creatures, giggling like a girl when he would squash one and wiping the blood on the curtain and seat cover. That was, of course, before he started snoring away and conveniently used my shoulder as a pillow.
Pinky, the luckier one, sat next to an unusually generous and obviously drugged American guy who kept on offering packs and packs of Valium to the people on the bus, for free. At one point the bus had to stop at the side of a market so he could pee in front of a whole community of scandalized locals.

On the seat opposite Pinky’s sat a serious-looking Australian guy who had seen better days in the military. He was engrossed in a book about the Vietnam war, only looking up when he needed to light a stick of pot, which he also kept offering to the passengers, for free.  
In front of Mr. Pot sat a French couple who spoke very little English and smiled their way into the trip as their form of communication. Mr. French Guy, however, did a great job of pushing Mr. Valium’s mate’s head off the lap of a poor Khmer guy who had to endure most of the trip cradling the head of Mr. Valium 2.
Occupying the front seats were three Spanish youngsters, two guys and a girl, who slept the whole trip away. And two Swedish girls clad in all black and wore gaudy eye make-up, who kept to themselves and never stopped munching on something.
On the wheel was a sane-looking honking-happy driver who insisted we speak to him in English because he’s Malaysian, and who, despite desperate requests from the passengers, refused to turn the air-conditioning on until one could see steam coming out of our bodies.
If you’ve never been to a purgatory of some sort, get into a bus like we had. You never know if it takes you to heaven or to hell until you reach your pit stop.
A taste of purgatory. Don’t let looks deceive you.
Is It Heaven Yet?

Three hours into the trip, the English-speaking Malaysian driver ordered us to vacate our seats and get off the bus as he was busy hauling out our backpacks and dropping them on the dirt road.
“Going to Laos, get on the van. Cambodia only, catch the bus.”
We didn’t have time to protest (as we were promised a big and beautiful VIP bus when we booked the trip) because we were busy cramming ourselves, all 14 backpackers, into a mini-van, stepping on the backpacks and someone’s foot. When we were all in, stuffed like sardines, three Cambodians (two males and a female) who didn’t speak a single word of English, joined us on the excruciating journey to God knows where.
The second leg of the journey began in stunned silence until the vehicle started to reek of marijuana and people suddenly turned into a giggling and chattering bunch. At that point, we still didn’t know where we were or where they were taking us. But with the cloud of pot smoke hovering over us, it didn’t matter. We were starting to enjoy the ride.
Mr. Valium had to pee again, so the van screeched to a halt in a secluded place near the river which blew fresh air that brought us back into our senses. And we started complaining again.
Second pee stop.

The view from the pee stop.
As the effects of pot wore off, people started to scream for food, which took the driver about an hour to decipher. And just at the moment we decided to turn into cannibals, he finally took the cue and stopped at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Who knows what they served there? I could have eaten snake stew, but didn’t care. It was better than chewing my tongue off.
The view was so appetizing I couldn’t stop stuffing food into my mouth.

Shall We Cross Over?

At the end of the long stretch of dusty road was the Cambodia-Laos border. Or so we thought. Our “VIP” bus, as they call it, took us to Strung Treng town, where we waited for almost an hour for something to happen. There were lots of phone calls made, some arguments between the tour operators. Then we were pushed into the minivan again, and off we went—to the border that looked like a residential compound. Apparently, it was not yet the border; the driver took us to his house for a reason that’s still a mystery to us until now. For a second I thought they were going to slaughter us and make us into Laos sausages to be smuggled into the border. Then we wouldn’t need passports and cross the border with ease.
Anyway, we finally got to the border. Did all the immigration procedures. Paid USD2 on the Cambodian side and another USD2 on the Laos side—the first time we ever paid fees on the border.

Just as we thought the nightmare was over and we’re finally in heaven, we were in for another surprise in the form of another “VIP” bus:
We paid USD36 for this. Do you think we’ve been scammed?

As much as it hurts to admit it, we obviously fell victims to a scam. And all we could do was laugh at our misfortune. To top it off, the “tour guide” had the guts to present us two options since it was getting dark (we were still going to Pakse, about 3 hours from the border): to spend the night in a town near the border or pay extra for a private bus to take us to Pakse. I told him we’d stay if they pay for our hotel, which gained nods of approval from the other passengers. But then they didn’t say a thing when the driver finally insisted we pay USD5 more for a special trip (as spending the night in that eerie town was out of the question). So we allowed ourselves to get ripped off. I stopped struggling. 

I choose my battles, especially if I’m the only one fighting it.

To be continued . . .

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The Truth about Laos Part 2

2 Comment

  1. a friend of rachel…I enjoyed reading your story….hope to read the continuation!

  2. Our bus going back to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap was also called "VIP" we paid $12 for the VIP tickets for a 5 hour trip (supposedly) with free meals and water on board. No such thing on board but fellow smelly "backpackers" lol. and a trip that lasted 8 hrs. But not as thrilling as your ride to Laos.

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