I knew when the tuktuk pulled up in front of my hotel in Luang Prabang that the journey to Phonsavan was going to be a shitshow (sorry for the colorful language, Mom, but it's the only word that's apropos). The tuktuk was packed to the gills, with two guys sitting next to the Lao man riding the motorbike, and one guy hanging off the back, and so much weight on the roof from all the luggage that the driver had to tell the guy on the back to switch sides at certain points to keep us from tipping over.
We made it to the minivan terminal and began the process of loading up the van. It became clear pretty quickly that they'd over booked it, and with no luggage rack on the roof, they had to use space in the back for all the luggage. Most of the passengers were European/Western but there was one young Lao couple in the front row, and the boy squeezed himself on the van floor with his back to the driver's seat to make room for a German girl in the row of three at the front. The German couple sitting next to me spoke in hushed, angry tones in which I determined they were displeased, especially the woman, who was Extremely Displeased. There's probably some German word for Thewomanwhoexperiencestheextremedispleasure, but I don't speak German.
I should stop right here and say that with the exception of the bus ride from Bagan to Kalaw in which I genuinely thought I was going to die, and some of the discomforts I've encountered in other bus rides throughout the region, for the most, I love the act of getting from point A to B. Maybe it's because I grew up going on a lot of road trips -- some of my earliest memories are being in the backseat of the car flying along empty country roads watching electrical wires move up and down, dancing from pole to pole -- but I love the sense of momentum, of going somewhere, and not just anywhere somewhere, somewhere new. I love watching the countryside drift by and getting a glimpse into everyday life and watching the landscape slowly change, or not change, as was the case of much of the drive to Phonsavan, as it was just endless steep mountains protruding into the sky. So even when the car is filled with a bunch of disgruntled Germans or Brits or Swedes or whatever, as long as I'm not too squished I can usually settle in and enjoy one of my favorite pasttimes -- letting my thoughts wander as I absorb the passing scenery.
I had wisely jumped in the van the second the door was open, grabbing a solo seat next to the window and had put in my headphones in the hopes of staying out of any discussions about the seats. The rest of the unseated Europeans stood around murmuring in German and stoically offering up dispassionate statements in monotone English that how the bus appeared to be oversold and that there weren't enough seats. None of their protests got very far, as everyone was loaded into the van and off we were to Phonsavan, replete with a giant, heavy, hard-backed suitcase in the aisle between me and Extreme Displeasure.
I turned on my music and zoned out as we made our way winding through the dramatic landscape of Laos unfold: range after range after range of mountains steeply dropping down to unseen valleys, all covered in thick jungle foliage. We'd made it about twenty minutes on this road when the Lao guy sitting on the floor decided he'd had enough of the twisting and turning and joined his girlfriend on the seat, making it now 4 in a row.
Meanwhile, Extreme Displeasure was murmuring protests of extreme displeasure at her boyfriend until I realized that she wasn't just extremely displeased -- she was about to be Extremely Sick, too.
The van driver pulled over and she jumped out to vomit on the side of the road. The blonde German girl getting squished in the seat of 4 took the opportunity to announce that she thought we should all change seats every thirty minutes. Um, where was the protest when the Lao guy decided to rejoin the seat, lady? You're on your own now!! Speak up for forever hold your peace! Some of us were fast and quick and grabbed the best seat and we're not about to relinquish them now just because you're too passive to make a scene! Deal with it!!!! This monologue raged in my head, but I determined that saying it out loud would out me as an enormous jerk and I'd lose my seat for sure if that happened. Instead, I kept my headphones in and tried to keep a vacant expression on my face in the hopes that everyone would think I was just some random European girl who'd escaped learning English, like maybe I was from a remote village in Slovenia and had found myself in Laos by sheer and utter accident.
Thankfully, the blonde German decided she'd wheel the enormous suitcase forward and use it as a seat for the rest of the trip, while Extreme Displeasure switched seats and moved to the very front, sparing us (and her boyfriend) any more of her Extreme Displeasure and, more importantly, any of her Extreme Sickness.
We drove along for hours, just endless winding, twisting mountain roads. The most dramatic moment of the day was rounding a corner and seeing an entire bus upside down on its roof from a recent accident. The entire bus let out a huge collective gasp as we saw it perched on the edge of the cliff, just hanging down into endless foliage. As we made our way down the mountain, we all got to look up at the bus just hanging there like a turtle helplessly lying on its shell. Fun!
About an hour before we got to Phonsavan, the road began to even out and while it was still pretty curvy, it was nothing like the mountain roads we were on for the first five hours of the trip (and to be fair, the mountain roads in Myanmar were actually way worse). From there, I was met at the bus station by a guy from my guesthouse (a welcome surprise!) and driven to my guesthouse just down the road.
Phonsavan's big claim-to-fame is the nearby Plain of Jars, which are numerous sites consisting of giant, limestone jars strewn all over the place, dating from 500 B.C. to 500 A.D. No one really knows why they are there, exactly. They're though to be part of prehistoric Asian tribal funery customs, in part because fragments of bone and jewelry have been found inside the jars and in part because some tribes in the region have practiced similar forms of cremation historically. There are other similar sites in India and Indonesia, and it's believed that the region was considered important for the Salt Trade at the time. What's interesting about the Plain of Jars is that not much is known about it; but unfortunately because not much is known about it, it's hard to get super excited looking at yet another group of jars. Yeah, OK, so there are some jars, so what?
Phonsavan's other big claim-to-fame is that the region was heavily bombed during the U.S.'s "Secret War"; from 1964 - 1975, the U.S. dropped 2.2 million tons of ordances on Laos, making it the most bombed country in the history of the world. This was done in part to flush Viet Cong out from the jungles and to suppress the Lao Communists working to overturn the Royal Government, but also there were ammunition drops related to the Vietnam War, too. Some 30% of the ordances didn't detonate upon impact, so Laos is absolutely riddled with unexploded ordances today, with a high concentration in the area surrounding Phonsavan. Not only is the town of Phonsavan decorated using old parts of bombs, there are images of local Hmong villages where houses traditionally built on wooden stilts are now propped up on old bombs. And there's villages where they're making things, like bottle openers or bracelets or spoons, from the scrap metal left behind.
This also means there is a lot of NGO work going on in the region, as it's estimated that at the current rate of seeking out the unexploded ordances, the country will not be clear for 100 years, which is an absolutely astonishing fact to consider. It means that there has been an ongoing loss of life and limbs for the past forty years -- and while losing a limb or eyesight or any part of the human body would be a tragedy anywhere, the impact it has on individuals surviving in subsistence farming communities is truly devastating.
In fact, as we were headed up a hill surrounded by rice paddies to check out our first Jars site, I was startled by an utterly massive explosion in the close distance. Our guide was unfazed and explained that the NGOs are out every day, working to seek out bombs and detonate them safely. BOOM! Another explosion went off. I looked across the valley and saw large plumes of smoke rising into the air. Forty-five minutes later, there was another loud boom and about an hour later, another. And these aren't just little firecracker explosions -- these are make-your-heart-stop-as-your-entire-chest-cavity-freezes and you realize, this is what war sounds like.
After a long day checking out various sites and being startled by the metallic, soulless death blasts, we headed back to the guesthouse and I relaxed for an hour before heading out for dinner and then back to the guesthouse to repack and get ready for my minivan the next day to Vang Vieng.
Given the chaos of the ride from Luang Prabang with all the silent protesting Germans and overpacked van, I began mentally preparing for the worst: What will it be now, universe? What fresh hell can you dream up next? A lunatic driver? Puking passengers? A goat? A puking goat? A puking lunatic driver goat? I spent breakfast picking at my eggs and sipping my coffee slowly, dreading what the next few hours might hold, then waited in the lobby next to Extreme Displeasure's boyfriend and mentally prepared myself for another day on the road with them. (Extreme Displeasure popped into the lobby every minute or so to bark things at her boyfriend who at this point had adopted a look of Extreme Resignation.)
Amazingly, though, Extreme Displeasure and her boyfriend got into a van headed to Vientiane. My van pulled up and I was shocked when I opened the door -- just two Lao guys, both asleep! There was an ENTIRE ROW in the back from which I could select the seat I wanted. I figured my luck couldn't hold and we would be filling up the van with disgruntled Dutch and Danish people soon enough. Surely a sulky Swiss or Swede would be joining us? But no. It was a miracle. A real, bonafide travel miracle! The driver sped out of town and there we were, back on the winding roads that'd we'd come in on, pulling over an hour later to let on a young Lao woman and then back on the road we were.
This was truly astonishing -- and it is the first time I can think of in my entire trip where I was in a half-empty minivan with only four locals on board. The only downside was that we had to listen to loud Lao pop music for the entire journey, which means we listened to what sounded like the same song on repeat for five hours, but whatever, a small price to pay for legroom, a driver without a death wish, and no disgrunted Germans expressing their Extreme Displeasure or getting Extreme Motion Sickness. (I would love to know the German word for 'motion sickness,' I'm sure it's fifty letters long and makes you get motion sickness just trying to pronounce it.)
The only other snafu was that it was now Monday and there was a work crew dealing with the overturned bus on the side of the road (which had happened, I'd learned, the night before my trip to Phonsavan). All the trucks and vans ground to a halt and we spent about an hour and a half waiting to move. Everyone obviously got out of their buses and cars and vans to go up to take pictures of the bus, which at this point the work crew had managed to tip on its side. Because the road we were on was steep, all the drivers got out and put big heavy rocks behind their back tires, which meant when we were finally able to drive along the road every vehicle had to swerve out of all the rocks now in the road.
All the work crew had managed to do in the time we waited was get their giant crane off the road so the cars could pass, and when we finally drove by it seemed like all the people from the nearby villages had come out to watch the excitement. I personally thought maybe they should leave the bus on the side of the road to remind drivers to not drive like crazy people, but that's just me (I guess having overturned buses on the side of your country's roads is kind of bad PR).
But then, after a few hours of driving along the winding mountain roads, the landscape shifted. Suddenly, giant limestone karsts began to pop out of the rolling hills, and it began to look reminiscent of the area surrounding Phong Nha in Vietnam. I'd heard from many travellers that Laos was really beautiful, and how right they all were. And from the bus stop it was just a quick songthaew ride down the street to my hotel, which (thankfully) was another blissful haven of cleanliness and comfort.
As I have been relaxing in Vang Vieng for the past day or so, feeling very grateful for the easy bus ride and nice hotel room, it's occurred to me that I don't have many bus rides left to go. I have just tomorrow's bus to Vientiane and from there, a quick bus ride to the border to catch a sleeper train to Bangkok the following night. I plan to travel in Sri Lanka as much as possible by train. Strangely, sadly, amazingly, happily -- my four month odyssey is coming to an end. With just under three weeks to go, I don't even have too many more dodgy hotels and dingy hostels to endure. And despite how excited I am to come home and live a normal life for a bit and flush toilet paper down the toilet and drink tap water and hug the people I love and eat burritos and breathe in the fog, thinking about leaving behind the uncomfortable, uncertain, unpredictable Life of Adventure gives me just a little twinge of Extreme Displeasure.
Or, as the Germans might say, sehr unzufrieden.