And starring a lawyer with very stinky feet
The bus trip between Kunming and Luang Prabang was always going to be a bit of trial (at an advertised 24 hours) but it landed up being right up there in most entertaining journeys so far.
Firstly there was a slight issue with my seat. There are actually no seats per se – its all beds. And I’d been warned that some were double and some were single so had requested a single “woman” bed on the top bunk. Who knows whether the ticket seller was giggling quietly to himself as he made the sale nodding or whether what I had actually asked for was “chicken with rice” but when I got on the bus, I found my place in position number two in a long bed of 5 at the very back of the bus. Four Chinese men grinned back at me. Thankfully one slightly plaintive word to the conductor and the terrified expression on my face led him to take pity on me, negotiating with the other passengers until eventually a woman who knew the men agreed to swop.
The beds are only theoretically double. My new bunkmate looked decidedly happy with the exchange as I was about half the width of my departing benefactor. She took the opportunity to make herself comfortable over a good two thirds of the space using her extremely long hair as a territorial marker.
We set off with Rocky Bilbao (dubbed into Chinese) blaring from two TV screens and the overwhelming stench of rotting vegetables that I later managed to trace to the feet of a law student in the middle of the back bunk. Thanks to the closed windows and infrequency of the air conditioning blasts the bus was soon a little sauna of fetid air with all the windows steamed up.
It is extremely difficult to get comfortable. The beds are an inclined with a built in sort of hump thing as a pillow that allows you to stretch out your legs under the people in front. There is also an enormous duvet with nowhere obvious to put it out of the way. I landed up shoving mine into a metal basket that is suspended over your shins for putting your bags in, taking care to prevent it from falling on the heads of the people in the next bunk. Lying on my back or front resulted in a crick in the neck and lying on my right side meant I had my face in the aforementioned hair. Lying on me left brought my nose within inches from the vegetable feet and I also had to put my hand over my mouth so that in the eventuality of particularly vigorous cornering on the part of the driver, I would break my fingers against the metal bed railing rather than my front teeth (the economic practicalities of travelling are starting to kick in: I figured fingers are cheaper to fix than teeth!).
Every hour and half or thereabouts the we’d pull into some or other dingy courtyard, the lights would come on and everyone would load out to breathe for 20 minutes, pee in the tin shack in the corner or get something to eat from the few small market stalls selling dumplings and noodles. There was an illegal game of gambling going on at the dinner stop which seemed to involve a man hiding a coin in one of three wooden rings with lids and the punters then guessing which one it was in by placing their foot on it and throwing Y100 notes down. A huge amount of money changed hands.
You can tell the border is getting close because the money changers start getting on board at the stops and trying to exchange your yuan for Laos Kip at ridiculous rates. One tiny bird of a woman wore and enormous white croupiers hat and dashed up and down the corridor negotiating as hard as she could. My bunkmate got off at the border town and was never replaced , so that was nice.
Once we crossed the border the roads rapidly deteriorated until we were bouncing, very slowly along a muddy track avoiding the puddles. This is the main road through Northern Laos heading straight from the border to the capital. The scenery is gorgeous though – immediately lush and dripping with damp, proper SE jungle dotted with wooden houses on stilts. No sooner had the roads got better than there was a loud explosion and we could hear the whump, whump of rubber hitting the inside of the mudguard. We all got out to examine the blown tyre. Then we all got back in and carried on going. The tire wasn’t repaired until after lunch when we stopped into a roadside hut where men with hammers, and no apparent automatic tooling changed the tire while a Miner bird remonstrated at them from a cage. I was grateful for this tire repair when not much later we had to break rapidly and swerve around an elephant who was standing, taking the day, in the middle of the road.
After a total of 26 hours Luang Prabang could have been Hades and I would still have been pleased to get off.