On the buses

It had been the shortest journey in history.  I was glad I hadn't yet paid my fare, but there was little else to smile about.  I was in Muang Khong, the principal village on Dhone Khong, an island in the Mekong river at the very south of Laos, on just the right side of the Cambodian border.  More importantly, though, I was on a bus and it was sinking.

I had boarded the colourful but dilapidated vehicle by the riverside for a journey to Pakse, a hundred miles or so north of Muang Khong but not on the island.  When the bus arrived at the ferry point for the first stage of its journey, I was as pleased as I was surprised to find it half empty.  This was highly unusual for this part of the world and I looked forward to an unexpectedly comfortable trip.  I should add, however, that in Laos, comfort is a relative concept: this bus used to be a truck and had been converted for passengers by the addition of wooden planks for seats, as well as for a roof and walls.  My bag stored on the roof alongside the usual vegetables and chickens in baskets, we descended the slope to the Mekong's dry season waters.

The ageing ferry was constructed of wooden boards laid across three boats: a Vietnam War-era US pontoon on either side of a small motorised vessel.  A slatted ramp on each side allowed access from the unpaved track.  We stopped at the shore and the driver began to edge the bus tentatively on to the boarding ramp.  My next memory is of what appeared to be the ramp moving away from the bus, when it should have been moving under it.

And so it was: the ramp had collapsed and the bus was not boarding the ferry but pushing it away.  Things then turned from bad to worse.  For reasons best known to the driver (although to be fair to him he may by this stage have abandoned the vehicle), the bus ploughed into the river.  The evacuated cabin was submerged in an instant and the rest of the bus was fast falling victim to the river.  The Mekong poured in through the open, and thankfully unbarred, windows as fast as the passengers could throw themselves out of them.  There was no hesitation: they seemed to know exactly what to do.

A Japanese couple who had sat at the front of bus reacted, like me, more slowly than the islanders and we found ourselves the last left on board a now stationary bus, up to our waists in murky water and with time to ponder our next step.  The Mekong is not the sort of river in which the average traveller would immerse himself out of choice, but what choice did we have?  The Japanese and the locals swam the short distance to the shore; my height allowed me to walk, the waters up to my shoulders and my valuables above my head.  The unfortunate Japanese had chosen to store their bags and camera equipment under their seat.  We later reboarded as the whole village looked on, they in remarkable good humour to fish their luggage out of the water and I hiding my embarrassment to retrieve my bone-dry back-pack from the roof, the only part of the bus that had stayed above the waters.

Although it was tempting to stay and dry out in the morning sun, I had to press on.  An enterprising and French-speaking boatman cranked his engine into life at the fifth attempt, taking advantage of the situation to supplement his usual daily income.  The speed of reaction on the part of the locals had suggested that this sort of accident is not a rare occurrence, so I asked the boatman if this happened often.  "Not often", he told me in all seriousness: this was apparently only the sixth time it had happened!

On the other side of the river, I walked to the main road and located a tarpaulin-roofed tea-shop that doubled as the local bus stop.  One or two cups later, a heavily overladen bus rounded the corner.  The passengers on the roof lurched forward as the vehicle drew to a halt in front of us.  To the untrained eye the bus appeared to be full, but when Lao buses look full to you or me, the conductor can still get another twenty people on board.  This was quickly proved and I found my contorted body perched on a rice sack at the back.  The journey took an excruciating four hours and coated me in dust churned up from the unpaved, rutted roads.  At the same time, leaking containers dripped assorted liquids, most of which were dark and smelt of fish, through the roof onto the mêlée of passengers below.

Just when I thought that the situation could not get any worse, a violent shower overtook us.  Whilst the dampening of the dusty roads improved the air quality at the rear of the bus, the sudden downpour also meant that all those who had been travelling on the roof were forced to dismount and take refuge inside.  The new levels of discomfort that ensued were only mollified by relief at surviving my morning's dunking.  I passed the journey reminding myself that I was travelling for pleasure.

The rain had stopped when the bus arrived in Pakse's symbolic sunshine.  The foreigners on board disembarked filthy from head to foot and reeking of fish, a state that hardly guaranteed us rooms at any of the town's guest-houses.   The hoteliers, however, proved to be sympathetic.  An American who had travelled on the second bus proclaimed it to have been the worst bus journey of his life.  I had to tell him that it wasn't even the worst I'd taken that day.

© Nicholas White 1997

This article was published (in a severely butchered form) in "Travellers' Tales from Heaven and Hell", a book published by Travellerseye.  Please don’t buy it!

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