Bus to hell and back!

26Aug08

As published on Travel – NST Online, 26 August 2008. Unabridged version published in The New Straits Times – Travel Times, 26 August 2008.

You’ve never ridden the nightmare bus until you find yourself in a rickety bus to Laos, strapped stiffly to your seat and hemmed in on all sides by goods, passengers and more goods. Despite the ominous warnings from various quarters, MAJIDAH HASHIM feels she can handle the bus from Vietnam to Laos.

After all, she has taken bus rides in Kuala Lumpur and this couldn’t be any worse… or could it?

WE would rather buy a visa and cross over the border to China from Vietnam, and make our way into Laos from the North, rather than to take THAT BUS! – someone wrote on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum. A day earlier, I posted a query over the Internet about this well-rumoured bus ride with a service reputation of being “South East Asia’s 24-Hour Bus Ride from Hell”, as according to our guidebook. One repeated recommendation was to fly – at a painful US$200 — from KLIA. Another was to backtrack to Central Vietnam via Vinh and Hue. Strapped for both cash and time, we bought the bus tickets for US$13 a piece. My travel buddy, Lim Chee Wah, and I had, up to this point, regarded ourselves as being pretty city street savvy. I mean, it simply cannot be worse than some of KL’s city buses. Or can they?

Getting Onboard

Later that evening in Hanoi, balancing our backpacks carelessly behind us, we were transported to the bus waiting point via a deadly motorcycle ride that would easily put any Mat Rempit to shame. Don’t ask me where I was – I was far too occupied regaining consciousness in my lower limbs to pay attention to street signs at this point. Along with about 12 other unfortunate foreign travellers, we were all cramped into an eight-seater van – backpacks and all – and brought to where our bus waited. Now I know how canned tuna feels like. Sweet, sour, salty and everything in between. A skeletal looking bus waited for us. As we came to our senses as to what had just happened, a man in the bus yelled out in Vietnamese and motioned for our bags. He held his hands out of the back window. Righto! One by one, we handed him our backpacks. Later, we discovered that two seats had been removed from the back of the bus to make space for luggage. We found our seats and discovered that under every seat was some item or other — gunnysacks of rice, flour, sugar, onions and cement mix. There were even cans of oil and cardboard boxes. We had steel wires under our seat. Huge reels of them. This effectively meant that no one could stretch their legs under the chair in front of them. More surprises. The chairs did not recline. The air-conditioner did not work. The blaring onboard karaoke had no bass. The interior bus lights – which stayed on through the night – in yellow, blue and green, ran along the entire length of the bus. There were about 15 foreigners on board with Lao nationals, mostly students studying in Hanoi and who were eager to balik kampung for the Lao New Year celebration in three days’ time. The bus was almost full when it started moving at 8pm.

Weighty Issue

“Move” was really a relative word. Every 10 minutes, the bus would stop to pick up another passenger and two or three sacks of goods. When all the seats were occupied, one of the conductors passed around low plastic stools. When even those ran out, passengers simply sat on the aisle floor or on one of the mountainous sacks! I didn’t know it then but our biggest cargo load had yet to be collected. The bus drove on till it came to a darkened street lit by a single lamp post. All the shops were shut and lights switched off. The bus pulled up next to a waiting truck stacked high with huge foam crates. The driver turned off the engine. The bus was so crammed no one could get out. I watched from the window as the bus driver and truck driver mysteriously exchanged envelopes. Seconds later, the four conductors were stuffing the crates in the bus cargo compartment and when that was full, they strapped them to the TOP of the bus! As the heavy crates piled on, one after another, we wondered how the roof could withstand such weight. As it turned out, it could actually take more than that, for one more item remained in the truck — a two-door refrigerator! Ropes were lowered for the kitchen appliance. One humungous heave later, the fridge landed with the heartbreaking thud on the roof.

Passport blues at border

We joined the hundreds of people shoving to get their passports inspected. As there was only one immigration officer, no one really queued up. Instead, there was mass pushing action. The officer said something in Vietnamese and before I knew it, everyone was passing their passports forward. The officer collected them in a tall pile and began to stamp all of them one by one, while everyone waited impatiently. Twenty minutes later, the officer stood up. He’s finished stamping the stack of passports and ready to hand them back to the sea of people whose lives were on hold because of him. He opened one passport to the personal identification page and, to my horror, held this page up to the whole crowd, and yelled the poor person’s given name. The person then needed to push their way through everyone else to reclaim the passport. The officer fared well with the Vietnamese and Lao names but got his tongue twisted when it came to Western and European names. Thank God for Malaysian names. The same ordeal replayed on the Lao side. But instead of holding the passports up for the world to view, the officer held it open through the tiny window at the counter and everyone peered over each other’s shoulders and on bent knees to see whose document that was.

Thawing Geese

Two hours later, we were back on the road again. The overcast weather that had clouded my last few days in Vietnam gave way to a bright blue backdrop. Back in the bus, however, we still had a good seven hours of ride to go, and the hot day meant a healthy load of perspiring. More people were awake and restless. The poor people trapped in the aisle attempted to adjust their sitting positions a lot more, often resulting in everyone in that section of the bus moving in different directions to some degree. The ice in the geese crates had thawed completely, and now geese blood was running down the sides of the vehicle. We stopped for lunch at a shack along the way. Some locals decided to bring food back on board, adding to the already interesting mix of scents in the bus. I returned to our upright Pharaoh sitting position, and dreamt the hours away gazing at blue skies, green hills and the occasional hut on stilts with woven walls.

Something Fishy

Twenty-two hours after we left Hanoi, we arrived in Vientiane, Laos. I have an affection for Laos and am always happy to be there. Never happier, though, than on this particular trip. When the bus pulled up at the station just off the capital city, we poured out of the bus and kissed God’s blessed earth with songs of joy. There was just the delicate case of our backpacks. You see, they were nowhere to be found. After the locals had quickly dispersed and the conductors unloaded the crates of geese, the backpackers checked the entire bus and all of it surroundings but the backpacks were nowhere to be seen. Then, just as mysteriously, they appeared in a neat pile on the other side of the bus, half of them smelling of fish. We were carrying fish? Bonded in our misfortune, the backpackers shared a tuk-tuk into town. Later, while having dinner by the river in town, we met some travellers who told us that their bus the previous day took 30 hours to arrive. I will never look at KL’s city buses the same way again.

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9 Responses to “Bus to hell and back!”

  1. 1 Hennley Sah

    Great read. (^_^)

  2. 2 Dalie Farizan

    I was laughing throughout! Great stuff! Can’t wait to read more!

  3. 3 Mavis Hooi

    I did think that some details were missing 😉

  4. 4 Ranganathan Dorairaj

    hey m goin there in Nov, what do you think? is it worth it tryin the ride from hell?

  5. 5 Ellisha Othman

    yes, i must agree that hearing the fristhand account of ur trip was more dramatic..any articles on ur recent trip?

  6. 6 Majidah Hashim

    thanks all :). the one published is the the editor’s final cut. my original was way more dramatic i.e. longer. oh well, space constraints, i guess.

    also, please note that the article found on the above link is the abridged version of the one published in NST. for more drama, go get the papers!

  7. ”…The blaring onboard karaoke had no bass…” now THAT would really piss me off..!

    Brilliant, Majidah

  8. “strapped stiffly to your seat and hemmed in on all sides by goods,” – this is a real nice line…will the powers that be scoff as I plagiarize? only time can tell…muahahahahah

  9. 9 magic

    Naveen – Then I will know that it was you! 🙂


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