The ride from LPB to Vang Vieng is as notable a small journey as I have ever been on. The so called VIP bus I’m on holds 50 or 60 people, only five of whom are tourists, the rest of the passengers being Laotians and their babies, some of whom sleep on the floor and some of whom sleep in the cargo area. The second hint of what we’re in for is when the bus assistant passes out plastic vomit bags. It is not long before they are in use. The bus’ brakes squeal. The driveshaft whines. For the first hour or so all of the interior lights of the bus are on and loud contemporary Laotian music – which sounds a lot like American country music being sung by a woman with a strong soprano whine – is blasting out over a dozen loudspeakers while passengers on the bus are simultaneously trying to quiet their crying babies and talk on their cell phones over the music. We make about eleven local stops that first hour and hardly travel as far as Sam and I biked two days earlier. In the front of the bus a very large digital clock is displayed with glowing green numerals. I try to keep my eyes closed and to do meditative breathing to see if the time will move from 6:56 to 7:00. When I open my eyes after what to me appears to have been more than ample time it is 6:57. It remains 6:57 for at least the next 10 minutes, or so it seems, before the time changes to 6:58. It’s going to be a long ride.
The main road from LPB to the capital is barely two lanes wide, and the bus must slow down, brakes squealing, whenever a large vehicle passes it in the opposite direction. Most of the trip is up and down significant and closely placed mountains so that the road must curve and zigzag at least a half dozen times each minute, my head rocking from left and right on the rough fabric material that covers the seats until my forehead and temples are rubbed raw and my neck is sore. There are no empty seats and I can’t figure our where to put my legs. There are no bridges or tunnels to shorten the ride. The boy across from me uses his vomit bag in a well-practiced manner two or three times. I try not to look, but I can’t turn off my nose. The bus stops after another hour at the side of the road for a bathroom and cigarette break, men standing and women squatting next to the bus relieving themselves in the open night air. The bus is moving again in less than five minutes. It makes three or four of these side of the road piss stops over the next six hours. It also stops at an actual restaurant about three-quarters of the way to Vang Vieng where the proprietress and her staff are ready for the onslaught, bowls set out with veggies already in them, a huge pot boiling, beef sliced and ready to be thrown into the broth, noodles ready for dunking, hot bowls of fresh noodle soup being served for less than two dollars each at Laotian roadside restaurant speed. I permit myself a bowl of soup, having hardly eaten all day and it being almost midnight. Dozens and dozens of bowls of steaming soup are served and consumed in less than ten minutes and everyone is back on the bus, sneezing, coughing, throwing up, and sleeping on the floor. The minutes of the big digital clock refuse to turn. Sometime around 2:00 A.M. four of the foreigners are dropped off in a field at the side of the road and the bus continues on to Vientiane. On the other side of the field lights are on and like moths we walk towards them. What we find is a main street filled with dozens of drunk and rowdy European and American men and women in their twenties and some guesthouses, where I get a single room with a double bed, a bathroom, and no top sheet for eight dollars. The Internet isn’t working but the room is clean, and mostly quiet at 3:00 A.M and for better or worse I am in Vang Vieng, only god knows why, reasonably comfortable, and ready for sleep.
I wake up ridiculously happy. The sky is gray. The electricity is out in the whole town. The streets are already noisy. The sound of motorcycle traffic is relentless. I hear the tap tap hammering that seems to be everywhere in Laos and feel as though I have landed at an international gathering of college students on eternal spring break. Still, I’m happy. Birds are chirping. I’ve slept in a comfortable room alone for the first time in weeks. I’ve dreamt about a bus navigating very steep cliffs over a very beautiful but precipitous rocky ocean coast where millennia of wave action have carved sculptural human figures into the stone. I dream about Sam shooting a basketball from far beyond the three-point stripe with great ease of motion, and although it at first appears that each shot will fall far short on its trajectory, in fact the shots are swishing through the net. I tell someone in a joking manner, “I taught him everything he knows.”
I finally manage to get out of my room and into town by 2P after spending the morning reading, writing, and doing yoga. The natural setting is fabulous, I mean fabulous, I mean stunning beyond spectacular, with verdant green jagged mountains, swiftly flowing rivers, numerous bamboo bridges over the rivers, and the sweetest bungalows on stilts lining them. On the streets, however, bars, restaurants, and travel agents are lined up side by side, block after dusty block and quite a few of the bars are filled with what to me seem to be young white kids, some of them very scantily clad, indoors and drinking at 2P. Still, I rent a bicycle for a dollar for the day and manage to get in a good explore on both sides of the river. I eat a bowl of noodle soup at a restaurant where I am the only customer and thereby can “oversee” the throwing in of all ingredients into the big pot and the length of time they boil. I also gladly book my bus ticket out of town for tomorrow.