Wednesday 12 December 2012

Successful psychology for bus trips in Laos

The bus station at Vientiane is crowded, chaotic and thick with hot choking diesel exhaust even at this early hour as I grapple with wads of the incomprehensible yip currency to pay for a small bag of satsumas from a hawkers stall near the ticket office.

I am still trying to mentally calculate whether this modest polythene bag of fresh fruit has cost about 50 pence or £50 as I look for the 0800 Express VIP service to Luang Prabang and remind myself of the first psychological tip for bus travel in Laos. Never take any notice of the name of the bus or the bus company for invariably, the luxury implied in the name is inversely proportional to the luxury experienced on board the vehicle in question.

For Premier Class Luxury VIP express think squalid rusting wreck that leaves two days late and breaks down in  muddy lay-by in the middle of a jungle.

Like most journeys in this region, this one starts early in the morning or early in the evening.  Arrive in the dark or leave in the dark-take your choice. Having squeezed my frame into the last remaining vacant seat for the 10 hour bus journey north, a painfully cheerful Australian man with a white beard and spectacles politely informs me I am sitting in his seat.

I am immediately reminded of a famous management guru book you might be familiar with called "Who moved my cheese?" Without wishing to reduce a rather tedious best-selling self-help guide to a sentence or two, the mantra is that if something changes just go with the flow rather than waste a lot of energy resisting that change which will in all probability achieve nothing at all.

This is particularly relevant to seat allocation on buses in south-east Asia.

Having located an alternative spot, the 0800 VIP express departs promptly at 08.23 sharp which introduces the next psychological tip after the cheesy one. Remove your wristwatch or indeed any other device that might reveal the time and secrete it deep in your baggage. Ideally, just smash it into a thousand tiny pieces because the south-east Asian bus network does not work to the same time zone or convention that you might be familiar with.

Next, you must meditate very deeply indeed and cast aside any tangible consciousness of the destination that might be printed on your ticket. That way you will only feel delight and a mild sense of excitement when, after less than 2km into your ten hour journey, you feel yourself grinding to an unscheduled halt outside a scruffy tyre repair shop or fuel depot on the outskirts of town. The bus remains here for no apparent reason for an indeterminable time while one of the posse of assistant bus drivers smokes a cigarette with the owner of the aforementioned tyre repair shop and shares what appears to be some sort of raucous joke or anecdote that is evidently highly popular at this ungodly time of the morning.

All the time the agony of the armrest digs more deeply into your forearm, the man behind continues to pummel his knees into your lower spine and that cute baby you made funny faces at while waiting at the depot is now screaming at full throttle.

Often there are tell-tale signs of when progress may re-commence. On the 0800 VIP Express to Luang Prabang it is when the engine stalls, which is does infallibly every time the driver attempts to engage first gear. As the engine stalls I can feel my body relax slightly as he restarts the engine and we draw away uncertainly from the kerb.

Laotians and Cambodians must have a much more highly developed sense of self-control than us Europeans. They are sanguine and philosophical about the entire bus travel affair. If there is only a cardboard box to sit on then that will have to do. If the bus is six hours late it cannot be helped. If the clutch scrapes and slips making an excruciating grinding scream as we engage a steep gradient there is little that they can be expected to contribute.

There is no question in their mind of complaining to the driver, demanding a refund or spontaneously starting a fight with the man behind with the restless knees. There is little value in writing to the bus company or taking up the matter with the local MP. Even a sigh of exasperation or a sardonic raised eyebrow is a waste of energy on a hot day in the tropics.

They must have all read that cheese self-help book or more likely, have never felt the need to.
By way of contrast, I have observed that North Americans often seem to make the most impatient and intolerant of travellers. I remember hearing an American complaining volubly on an English train when he was asked for his ticket by a surly inspector for the fourth time on the same relatively short and much delayed train journey.

“Jesus H Christ, what sort of dammed fool train service to do call this anyway?” he demanded.

Fellow passengers all tutted silently and turned their heads away from his rudeness having wanted to ask the same question for decades but always lacked the nerve.

Strangely enough my travel companion for the next 10 hours is a young American man from Washington DC called Chip. Chip is wearing a very suitable khaki outfit and has that well groomed Ivy League look about him with thin brown curly hair, high cheek bones and clear blue eyes.  I notice he has unusually thin and bony knees for an athletic looking chap and he tells me that he has spent six months travelling to get over a broken relationship but will be returning to his steady job in banking next month. He was rather keen on Indonesia and Albania.

I wondered sadly if the love of his life had been unable to reconcile herself or himself to a life with a banker with knobbly knees.

Disproving my theory about Americans, Chip kindly offers me the aisle seat and proves to be taciturn, diffident and most importantly, still. We exchange a few words of pleasantries but as seasoned bus travellers we both respect that in such cramped conditions the maximum amount of mental space must be offered to one's fellow travellers.

This could, I suppose, be another tip. Always be very tentative and gentle in all attempts at conversation with fellow travellers in the hope that this courtesy might be reciprocated. Never put your face in someone else’s and progress to tell them your entire life story in a ten hour uninterrupted monologue. You might well  find that you are left stranded on the side of a remote mountain road during a toilet stop as only your neighbouring passenger will raise the alarm to the driver if he has left without you.

The road to Luang Prabang winds, dips and turns relentlessly through the beautiful mountainous countryside of Laos, a poor nation of about six million souls where 85% of people are subsistence farmers scratching a modest living from the earth and from the abundant Mekong river and its many tributaries that appear and disappear in the valleys as we rattle and bump our way north. Gazing out of the stained windows I casually observe that while rivers meander more on the flat, the road winds more when on the steeper gradients. I am pleased with my private observation but taking my own advice, decide not to share it with Chip.

The old Laotian man across the aisle introduces himself in English and tells me something about the scenery pointing out a fish market and two Chinese cement factories-the only industrial buildings seen over 500km. Mr B lives in Luang Prabang and does some work as a tour guide. Life expectancy for men in Laos is only 58 so it is impossible to guess his age but he has deep lines etched into his dark bony face and his sharp jaw a gives him an air of distinction. Smartly dressed in a pressed blue shirt and wool trousers he could be a university academic or the district chief of police.

With alarm, it suddenly occurs to me that he could also be my minder that the people in Bangkok had warned me about.

I smiled at him warmly trying to convey innocence, honesty and honour in one complex grimace but he only looks back blankly.

Not deterred by my contorted facial expressions, he tells me he also speaks Lao and Czechoslovakian. He studied agriculture for five years at a university just outside Prague in the late 1970’s.  I could only try to imagine what a young man from the mountainous tropical jungles of Laos would have made of a snowy bleak winter in communist Prague.

“Some days it was minus 30 degrees Celsius” he tells me, as though reading my thoughts.