After four days in Vang Vieng, it was time to head south. Ideally we would have had one day of recovery before embarking on the long journey to our next destination. After being stuck in Vang Vieng for two days of rain, however, we weren’t interested in idling away another day nursing a hang-over. So, we boarded a “VIP” bus and made the nauseating 6-hour trip south to Tha Keck for my birthday. We arrived just as the sun was setting over the Mekong River.
The next day, we met up with a Dutch girl named Daniella, and chartered a Tuk-Tuk to take us to visit the limestone caves around town.
The drive was beautiful and having a driver allowed us to relax and not worry about finding our way. The caves were just so-so, but we did find one pretty cool cave. It was a sacred cave, dedicated to Buddha, and had banners strung throughout the inside.
The actual cave wasn’t too exciting, and after a couple of minutes we were about to head back to the tuk-tuk when I saw some light at the other side of the cave and figured maybe we could walk through and out the other side. It turned out we couldn’t, but we found something cooler instead. Just past the opening, the cave continued down a dark tunnel filled with a couple feet of water. At the end of the tunnel, sunlight poured in through a natural sky-light and shone down on a small pond.
The water was so still and the reflection was so perfect, that it took me a couple minutes to figure out what I was looking at. On the other side of the pond was an opening into another cave – accessible only by swimming.
I ventured into the water just a couple of feet, intent on swimming out into the opening and maybe even checking out the other cave, but no one was willing to follow me. I was too chicken to go further by myself, so thigh-high was as far as I went. (Turns out, due to the sacred nature of the cave, I shouldn’t have been in the water at all… it’s taboo! Oops!)
After I came out of the cave in my swimsuit, the tuk-tuk driver figured we wanted to swim, so he took us to a quiet spot on the river to take a dip. Again, the water was still, the reflections were gorgeous, and the swim was very refreshing.
Later that night, we had ice-cream to celebrate my 26th birthday, and made plans to board an early-morning bus further south the next day.
The guy at our hostel told us that the bus to Pakse would leave every hour from 7:30 am to 12 am, so we left bright an early at 7:45am to catch the 8:30 bus. Unfortunately, once we arrived at the bus station, we realized that there was no 8:30am bus… we had to wait 2 ½ hours until the next bus left at 10:30.
Ok, not too big of a deal, we hung out around the bus station, ate breakfast, and got on the bus early to pick out our seats Nick and I tried a couple before choosing, making sure the seats could recline properly. The first leg of the trip went off without a hitch – the bus left on time and the driver was driving like a bat out of hell; we made it to Champasak in two hours.
Once we reached the Champasak bus station, however, things started to stall. We waited for over an hour for the rest of the passengers to arrive and for the bus driver to strap motorbikes to the top of the bus.
Not more than 10 minutes after pulling out of the bus station, we stopped again, this time at what looked like a private residence. No one told any of the passengers what was going on, but we all got off the bus and found a place in the shade to park for the next hour. During that time, the bus driver filled the bus up with two truck-loads of motor oil and hydraulic oil.
The first truck-load of boxes was strapped to the top of the bus, next to the motorbikes that were already up there. The second truck-load, however, went INTO the bus – where all the passengers would be sitting.
Certainly, there was some money being exchanged under the table for the transportation of these goods, and I’m sure our bus driver made a pretty penny for that trip. It was clear that, officially, this stuff was not supposed to be transported on our bus. When we finally got back on the bus, the aisle was completely filled up with plastic cylinders of oil which we had to walk over to get to our seats.
We still had our seats, but the people in the back of the bus, who I am sure paid for seats on the bus, were now sitting on the boxes. (Previously they were sitting on plastic stools)
From then on, we made about one stop an hour. It seemed to me like the bus driver was taking the opportunity to run personal errands (or make shady business deals), paying no mind to the 40 passengers that he was dragging all over creation with him – all the while blasting Thai pop music through the bus’s sound system.
At one point, just after Nick and I had found some relief in sleep, the bus driver came back, woke us up and promptly relocated us to the back of the bus (to some recently vacated seats). He then proceeded to put boxes on all of the seats in our row and left the local passengers to fend for themselves - sitting on the plastic jugs in the aisle or on the boxes on top of the seats.
A bus ride that our Lonely Planet said should take 6 hours took us 12 hours to complete – we didn’t arrive at our hostel in Pakse until 10:30 that night! From what we’ve heard though, this is par for the course here in Laos. To quote the Lonely Planet (I found this little tid-bit after our epic adventure) “Flat tyres, breakdowns and unexpected detours are a feature of Laos bus travel” – they weren’t far off the mark on that one, that’s for sure!