It was after 11pm as the bus hurtled through the night. We departed almost thirty minutes behind schedule – not bad as far as Laos buses were concerned. The afternoon swelter had slowly diminished and it was only now, at 10pm, that the open windows offered any relief from the non-functioning air-conditioning unit that laboured on despite the fact that it had clearly given up on life many years ago.
Most of the passengers on the half full bus were beginning to nod into the rhythm of the journey and the few overseas travellers enduring the overnight passage to Vientiane showed much sign of activity. Our fare only took us as far as Thakhek – which was about half way between Pakse where we started our destination and Vientiane where the bus would terminate – but it had already been a five hour ride, and there were four hours to go. I had stocked up on snacks at the last bus port in Champasak, but decided against sampling the signature dish of the region – splayed and barbecued chicken – for fear of a bout of gastro that would surely ruin any enjoyment of the next several days.
I turned into the aisle back to Linh (we had enough room for two seats each), gave her a grin and tuned into the discussion that she was sharing with a French-Canadian couple that we’d met at the transfer station in Pakse. They talked of the places we had visited over the past week and compared experiences, both in Laos and elsewhere, lost in the world – an interesting topic – however the rhythmic hum of the diesel engine soon had me reclined in the seat enjoying the warm breeze from the open window on my face.
This is something magical about an overland bus trip that almost always overcomes the discomfort of the cramped conditions and monotony, so very soon I was lost in the world that flashed past my little window into the outside world. Every few kilometres, I’d see a house flash past and, like a Polaroid, the image would sear itself into my mind where I would picture the occupants going about their lives, oblivious of my intrusion to their world, for just long enough for the next shack to flick into view. Entranced by the rhythm and the reflection, I slipped towards sleep – a difficult feat of a six foot plus guy on any bus in any part of the world. As I slipped into unconsciousness, a sharp hacking sound from the seat in front of me wrenched me out of my reverie and back into the cabin.
Something was clearly wrong with the man in row nine. Like me, he had a seat to himself, but perhaps he should have forgone the splayed chicken as I so wisely chose to. He was clearly experiencing some discomfort, but it seemed to be small enough of an issue for him that he was unperturbed from the business of riding the bus (despite his effect on the rest of us). Perhaps his trip would take him to Vientiane where a specialist could check his chest for infection – I’ll never know – but for the moment, my calm was interrupted by his retching and there was little that could be done by either of us.
I tried to return to my rest and leave him to his discomfort, but the next development took a turn for the disgusting. Not content to cough and splutter, the man found it necessary to hack the resultant phlegm out his window. Fortunately, I had just moved away from my window, but I still saw a solid chunk of green bounce off the side of the bus and disappear into the darkness. It was massive and probably started a life of its own beside the road, but I was left in row 10 unsure if I was disgusted and repulsed, or disgusted yet impressed.
Once again I turned back to Linh and shared with our travelling companions the cost of enjoying a row to myself. Linh offered to give up her spare seat in an effort to relieve my discomfort, but I decided that my lot was the better – considering my throat was not the one filled with slime and cement. This was a decision I would soon regret.
I returned to my seat and settled in to the rhythm of coughing and spluttering for the next hour, gradually returning my focus to the world passing by outside the bus. After a time I relaxed enough to return my head to the window to enjoy the cool air. No sooner had I found a comfortable position did things take another turn.
Coughy McHackington up front began a heave so impressive that it could have measured on the Richter scale. It was loud enough to draw glances from elsewhere in the bus, but unfortunately no quite enough for me to realise the danger of my position. The coughing abruptly stopped – which was nice – and before I could mover, the man leaned out of his window and ejected the contents of his stomach towards the tarmac – which wasn’t. Unfortunately, certain laws of physics meant that between the vomit and the open road, the trajectory of the contents of the man’s stomach coincided with my open window. To add insult to injury, my face was right in the middle of the opening. Now, I can’t remember if my mouth was open at the time, but it was nonetheless one of the more unpleasant experiences of my life (second only perhaps to sitting on a bus for three hours covered in a layer of the (former) contents of someone else’s stomach.
I never received so much as a shrug of recognition from McHackington in return for my polite collection of his dinner and to make matters worse still, I spent the remainder of the transit enduring the ‘sympathetic’ laughter of Linh and our companions inter-spaced with barely successful attempts to keep my own dinner where it belonged.
I have never enjoyed the trickle of a bad shower in a travellers lodge as much as I did that night.