A Bus Ride in Laos

Julie BeloussowLife, Travel

The driver’s nails are long and his patience short. He swipes his claws across the steering wheel and we take another hairpin curve, tilting as the wheels grip the dirt with whatever tread is left. The smell of deep fried frogs mingles with exhaust and fresh rain. The elderly woman with the frogs snaps off a leg in one hand, rolls up a small ball of sticky rice in the other and pops them into her mouth one after the other.

A voice on the radio whines along with a plucky, twangy tune far more upbeat than the faces filling the seats. The aisle too is full, nevertheless, we stop at a line of wooden huts dusted in a thick coat of adobe red. Small, wire-haired pigs huff at the heels of a mother and her two children. Someone crawls atop the roof to add their bags to the tarp-and-roped mass, it aches at the seams. The ropes squeal as they’re pulled taut and re-tied.

The new passengers squeeze in the front with the bags of rice and the bus lurches forward.

Our bus pulls upward onto a paved section, snaking along this river of crumbling asphalt into the mountains where the air drops a few degrees.

Laos unfolds below us and the view is stunning. Expansive and nearly untouched thanks to the millions of landmines lying in decades-long wait. Valleys and hills pockmarked by the shadows of towering cumulus clouds. The terrain thick with untrodden jungle, occasionally punctuated by a small clearing of farmland. It’s nearly enough to make us forget we are edging along sheer cliffs with nothing between us and a very long way down.

Potholed pavement has run out now, as if too exhausted to continue. This winding, rugged path through mountain mist proves to be too much for one of the kids, plastic bags come out in a hurry and the vomit flows. The foreigner next to the boy handles it well, allowing him to rest against his shoulder while the mother rubs the boy’s back. A moment later the plastic-wrapped puke is tossed nonchalantly out the window and into the jungle.

We wobble along another curve to find ourselves suddenly in a crowd. People are standing around idly, above them spin the 9 wheels of an overturned 18-wheeler courier truck. The other wheels are wedged into a deep, concrete ditch running parallel with the road. Luckily, where the truck rested against, there had been a face of dirt rather than the threatening drop that loomed just opposite. It had only just switched, had the truck lost control a moment before this particular bend and gone the same way, it’d be right off the side into the fog.

Burnt rubber invades our nostrils as we rumble down from the steep mountains. We would see no less than six more roadside accidents, including one small flatbed truck whose owner had driven it off a hill and into a clump of jungle bush below.

Some ten hours later – after a good, long span of literally catching air from our seats along a muddy road under heavy construction – we reached our destination.