Karaoke and grilled squirrel
12km Bus station to Downtown Vientiane
We hummed and hawed over whether or not to take the bus to Vientiane. As soon as we made our decision we changed it and then, a few minutes later, reversed it again. The bicycle has always been our preferred way to get around but, with time ticking down on our Lao visa, five days of long, hot riding seemed excessive to cover a relatively bland stretch of countryside. On the other hand, ten hours in a bumpy bus is no pleasure either and on the few occasions we have hopped on the bus there are always the little twinges of ‘what ifs’ – what if we’d met someone interesting out there in the middle of nowhere?
We’ll never know because in the end we plumped for the 7am bus from Savannakhet. The bus was a local affair, aging with lumpy seats and one television at the front pumping out karaoke tunes all the way to the capital. Now we were rolling with six wheels instead of two but the experience was still full of discovery. Over the course of 500km we learned that every single karaoke video features a young, handsome man with a guitar, singing his heart out for a beautiful girl. We also had another installment of our lessons in real Lao food. Ladies jumped on the bus at each stop to sell everything from three eggs on a stick with developed embryos inside (these were popular in Cambodia as well) to grilled squirrel and green mango with a salty chilli dip. The green mango was tasty. We didn’t try the squirrel. We’ve never been tempted by the eggs. One man across the way bought a dozen.
When we weren’t learning all the top karaoke tunes off by heart (kindly replayed several times so we could memorise the words), our attention was firmly fixed on the rear window. Through the glass we could just see the top of Andrew’s bicycle. Both bikes were strapped to the back of the bus with several lashings of rope and as we watched them being hoisted up and fixed into place we just hoped the bus driver and his helper had done this before. Visions of bicycles going flying onto the road at 100km an hour flashed in front of our eyes. Every time we turned around during the ride and saw Andrew’s handlebar still in place we breathed a sigh of relief.
During one particularly long stop, we were browsing the refreshment stands. Not much point as they all sell the same thing but it was good to stretch the legs. Then we saw the bus start to move. Friedel jumped, thinking it was leaving, and immediately made a dash for the door. Ten seconds later it was clear the bus was only changing parking places but all the local vendors got a good laugh out of the silly falang. This time the laughter was well deserved and we had to chuckle too.
In the middle of all of this, we found a few quiet moments to reflect on the two previous days, which had left us feeling a bit down on Lao in general. A good night’s sleep in Savannakhet certainly helped to put things right, as did the four Australians we met that evening. We were actually heading for a Lao run place for dinner when a hole-in-the-wall bar caught our eye. Soon the owner Bruce and his group of friends – all involved in the mining industry around Southeast Asia – had pulled us into their conversation. They asked us about our travels and we were soon relating our frustrations.
“Let me make up for your bad experiences,” said Bruce as he headed for the fridge. Before we could protest a cold beer was in front of us, on the house. An hour or so of friendly chatter quickly passed and we left feeling reinspired to tackle Lao with a more positive attitude.
Maybe you find it odd that such small encounters can swing our mood so easily. We don’t know how it is for others but we really thrive on feeling like we’ve made a connection with people and when we feel alienated it weighs on us. A small gesture in the opposite direction makes all the difference. We didn’t think to get Bruce’s email or address but we will remember him as one of those good souls in the world.
Nearly ten hours after we began our bus journey, we arrived in Vientiane to the cries of tuk tuk drivers eager to load us and our bikes into their vehicles for the 10km ride into the city centre. We were ready for some exercise after so many hours stuck in the bus so we pedalled our own way in and quickly settled into a guesthouse. We’ll spend a day exploring here before heading further north.