Monthly Archives: January 2013

Buses, sawng thaews, and tuk tuks

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A guide to public transport in Laos

In Laos, the land of tranquil scenes along the Mekong River, ancient Buddhist and Hindu ruins, fragrant frangipani, and friendly children waving and calling out “Sabaidee!” (“Hello” in local lingo), transport and travel can be an eye-opening and adventurous cultural experience in itself. It can come in several different forms of both land and water vessels including buses;  sawng theaws, pick-up trucks with seats fitted along the length of the truck beds that travel to nearby regional locations (and usually managed by a family); tuk tuks or jumbos with seats fitted around a motorcycle frame and for local destinations in a city; motorcycles; bicycles; and your own two legs.

 With two and a half weeks to explore Laos, my partner Nick and I started off from Laos’s capitol city, Vientiane and then headed south. We decided to break the trip up into several increments, limiting bus travel to no more than four hours a day. Even then, some trips ended up being six to eight hours. We learned that this is a normal occurrence in Laos as travel happens on “Lao time”. The three best things to bring along on such a journey are bottled water, toilet paper and patience.
Buses can come in both the VIP form and the “public” bus form. I suppose the VIP buses in Laos evolved for the mostly foreign tourists who may not desire to be squeezed into tight, hot, un-air-conditioned spaces for hours on end. If I’m not mistaken, we were primarily on the non-VIP form which definitely added some color to our travels. Settling into our seats, sometimes next to each other and sometimes apart depending on seat availability, the bus’s TV screen then flashed and blared out the trip’s on-board entertainment of Lao and Thai music videos and variety shows as well as 1920’s Charlie Chaplin films (who seems to be all the rage in Laos, even 90 years later!). Our fellow travel companions on the bus journeys are some other foreign travelers but mostly Laotians- young families traveling with their little ones; single men traveling from one work site to another; mothers or grandmothers traveling with a child; as well as the occasional Buddhist monk. I was bemused by the attire of most of the local travelers- long jeans or woven sarongs covering the legs and even thick faux leather jackets. This is clothing I would find entirely hot and uncomfortable for a cramped bus with no air-conditioning. Nevertheless, such attire may likely be dictated by conservative and traditional Buddhist culture.
Upon departure, a bus typically coasts slowly out of a town, honking its horn to draw attention from additional prospective passengers from the side of the road. More and more passengers file on, occupying all remaining seats. The bus attendant, usually a boy of about 12 or 13, directs newly arrived passengers to sit on make-shift seats of plastic stools in the aisle. Certain etiquette seems to rule seating arrangements among Laotian travelers. During one of our bus journeys, a monk hopped on board an already full bus. What then ensued was something like a game of musical chairs- seat reshuffling and rearrangements until the monk had a seat and a displaced young man found himself downgraded to a plastic seat in the aisle. Similar arrangements were made for a grandmother and a young girl who boarded at the side of the road from a rural village.

 
Passengers filling up the aisle on plastic stools.
During the course of a bus journey, a bus may make several pit stops for food and calls of nature.  Sometimes the buses stop at small roadside restaurants with basic toilets in the back. I was impressed with the total cleanliness of the toilets which are basic porcelain squat toilets enclosed in tin shacks and supplied with a bucket full of water with a pail which one then uses to rinse out the toilet following its use. Other rest stops are sometimes just fields along the side of the road. We women folk have to walk back out of view and behind some trees or brush. The long, woven sarong skirt that many a Laotian woman wears typically goes to her ankles and is a practical and useful cover for roadside calls of nature if she can’t find shelter behind a tree or bush. Pit stops are short and brief and anyone hoping to finish a cigarette will find a horn blasting in his ears to beckon him back on or be left behind.
 
Roadside pit stop
Some dusty road stops will find female vendors rushing out of the woodwork to swarm onto and next to the bus to sell snacks and drinks to the peckish and thirsty travelers. Depending on the region, they might sell bottled water, sliced mango, barbequed and skewered chicken, cooked eggs on a stick, or dried fish. They all seem to be chanting the same thing as they clamor to get the attention of prospective customers. They too sometimes get shooed off the bus as the irritable driver begins to push off and the vendors are left in the dust chasing after the embarking bus.
 
Roadside vendors
Many Laotians rely on the use of buses and sawng thaews for transporting not only themselves but also for transporting goods and necessities for their homes and businesses. All buses and sawng thaews are rigged with large racks on top for transporting suitcases, large sacks of rice and animal feed, washing machines, bicycles and even motor cycles.  At one stop along the side of the road, two of the bus attendants seemed to effortlessly heave a motorcycle to the top of the bus for further transport.
 
A shadow of a motorcycle being lifted onto the rooftop of the bus.
 
How can you tell?
It’s an unwritten code that some transport vehicles, especially sawng thaews,  may leave when they’re sufficiently packed and are only there to help you and your goods get from point A to point B. Comfort is not a priority but this doesn’t seem to be an issue for many locals. On one of our short sawng thaew journeys, we crammed into the back with twenty rice sacks covering the floor and the other passengers complacently squeezing their way around the traveling goods. Before the start of the journey, I exclaimed to Nick, “Cool, this will be a fun adventure!”  Twenty minutes later sitting in the idle vessel, in the hot, dusty parking lot of the market station (and waiting for what?), I was already whinging. Meanwhile, squeezing and packing into tight, cramped and stuffy vehicles seemed to be an art form for the local travelers sharing the ride. Looking up at the back of the t-shirt of the boy sitting on the rice sack in front of me, I had to chuckle to myself as I read the strange albeit fitting English expression that was thrown together on his t-shirt. It read,  “Y’all ain’t from round here..is Yall?”
 
Trying to get comfortable in my travel surroundings.
 
Crammed into a sawng thaew.
Our travel in Laos also included some river crossings across the Nam Ngum (a tributary of the Mekong) and the infamous Mekong itself. One of the crossings across the Mekong found us on a cramped minibus. We watched with a little dismay as our bus eased onto what seemed like an already overloaded and overburdened, worn plywood ferry boat. Sitting in the back of the bus behind other passengers occupying foldout chairs, we eyed the width of the back window we were sitting next to and made escape plans in our head if the boat should either sink or our minibus should roll off the back into the depths of the Mekong. As visions came into my head of my mother reading two days later a small excerpt on the side of page 11 in her local morning paper, “Small Ferry Craft in Laos Sinks”, I quickly realized that I was of course exaggerating the precariousness of the five minute ferry crossing in my head. We safely made it across and were in good hands all along. Such occurrences are helping me be not only more patient but are also helping me learn not to press the panic button so early, as I often do.
 
Crossing the Mekong.
What was more significant during these various trips in Laos? The trips themselves or the destinations the different vessels brought us to?  I would say they were on par. Traveling by bus, sawng thaew, and a wobbly ferry may not be for everyone but I think my trip to Laos and the glimpse I got into the world down there would not have been complete without these experiences.
For further reading:
During our trip we ran into a young woman from Canada who is traveling through Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam by bicycle! I was really inspired and impressed with her unique journey and how her transportation mode is taking her way off the beaten track. Read and see for yourself about her journey!