When you’re on an adventure, nothing is more exhilarating than saying “yes.” There is also nothing more daunting than the prospect of getting deported.
These were the two motivating factors behind my decision to take a bus to Laos with my friend, Lauren, when faced with the impending expiration of our 30 day-Thailand tourist visas. It would be easy, we figured, to pop over to Laos, see Luang Prabang, and then bus back to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Generally, when things seem easy, they aren’t. The night bus to Laos was no exception.
Sixteen hours, I rationalized, wasn’t that bad. It was a welcome opportunity to relax, read, sleep, and maybe even catch up on the latest season of Serial.
We bought our tickets for around 700 Thai baht (17 U.S. dollars) from a tourism stand and planned to depart the next morning.
At 9 am sharp (give or take 20 minutes) I piled into a poorly air-conditioned mini van with Lauren and seven strangers that would transport to the border. From there, it was a 12 hour ride through the winding mountainous roads of Laos. This didn’t phase me until I realized the ride to the border had far surpassed the initial four hour estimate. In fact, after about seven hours, it had nearly doubled. The occasional bathroom break in the middle of nowhere gave us no indication of where we were. Queries to the driver about an estimated time of arrival were met with a polite Thai smile — a wordless “We’ll get there when we get there.”
I dozed in a patch of late-afternoon sun that had crept through the tinted windows of the mini-van until I was awakened by an abrupt stop. The border.
We disembarked. I felt like a lamb with shaky legs. We entered a little station and then were shepherded onto yet another bus, which took us to border control. The process dragged. Fortunately, Lauren and I ran into some interesting characters — a freckled and frizzy Southerner newly obsessed with travel, and a leggy, dazed, careless Dutch girl who kept losing her cash, and who later asked me what year it was when filling out her visa paperwork.
I was acutely aware that we were in no-man’s land. There was nothing around us except for the misty outlines of mountains that were increasingly illuminated by the setting sun. This realization made my stomach drop. Remembering “the night bus to Laos leaves at sunset” sent our little group into a panic, though the visa officers were unconcerned.
Fortunately, a pickup truck rounded the corner and the driver gestured for us to get in. After verifying that he was supposed to take us from no man’s land to the bus stop, we acquiesced. He clicked on the car radio and out poured what I can only describe as Laotian Bob Marley. It was beautifully bizarre, all of us attempting to hum along to unknown, yet distantly familiar, tunes as a stranger raced along dusty roads against the sunset.
We arrived just in time, though the driver seemed dismayed to see us.
Thinking our late arrival indicated a ‘no-show,’ he had given our seats away to a family, who he quickly banished to spare spaces on the bus. ‘Seats’ turned out to be an overstatement. The bus was outfitted with stacked berths, like those bunkbeds you loved to hate at summer camp. We had to remove our shoes upon entering and the center aisle was covered in a textured, waxy carpet that made my bare toes curl. Arms and legs hung into the walkway, and I had to step over jittery children. This was, in no way, what I had expected. The general atmosphere in our little Western consortium was panicked. The freckled Southerner generously offered Valium to each of us.
The berth Lauren and I were to share was in the back of the bus, near storage. It was dim and the only light came from the driver-controlled lamps that glowed feebly, but seemed too tired to do their job. The window was a three inch wide, long skinny rectangle through which I could see only the tiniest sliver of sky. The bus smelled of feet and barbeque sauce and pad thai.
We lurched forward. Our 12-hour ride had begun and already I was desperate to claw my way out of the dark bottom berth.
Claustrophobia aside, sleeping was nearly impossible. The men in the bunk above us played sitar music for 11 of the 12 hours. The women in front of us chatted non-stop in their lilting Australian accents. Children cried and coughed. Still, the bus lurched forward, making one hairpin turn after another.
Each minute lagged. I felt alternatively hot and cold. I was plagued by phantom itches. I wanted off. 12 hours on this bus seemed absolutely unimaginable. I could tell Lauren felt the same. She was still as a corpse, headphones blasting, eyes clenched tight. I ground my teeth and tried to find the same inner fortitude. But behind my eyelids, a light shone on my face. I opened my eyes impatiently, sure that some obnoxious traveler was looking for his or her luggage with a flashlight. But no…
It was the light from the full moon outside my ‘window.’ I was shocked. I’d never seen the moon take such a commanding role in the sky or reflect such intense light. The night skies I’ve seen have always taken second stage to the glow of skyscrapers, or at least suburbia. But this was different. The landscape was barren, save for power-lines that dipped and soared in rows of five against the impossibly starry sky. I’ve never seen so many stars in my life. I felt that that whoever decided on the name ‘Milky Way’ was entirely validated. They were as numerous as the glittery coins on the bottom of a dark fountain, and they looked like clusters of pins in a piece of black velvet.
I kept my eyes trained on the sky, watching the moon follow our treacherous path and the stars glitter. I watched until the dark was diluted to a watery morning grey — no stars, no sun and no clouds. A no man’s land in its own right.
Gravel crunched under the wheels of the bus. We slowed and then stopped. It was 6 am, and our trip was finished. Sleepy eyed passengers tumbled out into the dust of Luang Prabang, Laos, some complaining of a poor night’s sleep or of the early morning chill. I felt like dancing.
I had reveled in the glory of the night sky and it taught me the value of the long way around.
Lesson learned, I flew back to Thailand three days later. The journey took one hour.