The Limits of Control

Checking the information on the nearest border crossings to Laos gives the impression of having a choice between bad and worse. We’re not ready to backtrack hundreds of kilometers just to settle for bad. And anyhow, remote borders are a source of some very fond memories. Setting off towards a new country always makes me think of life and vitality, that the border-zone will be a booming business. Yet these regions are usually completely empty: austere mountains, prairies and vast spaces. It’s… divine.

In my head, I’m drafting a list of impressions from backwater border crossings:
– Beautiful Greek mountains and scorching heat. We get there in the afternoon but the buses to Sarande had already left. No taxis either. There is a lonely driver though. “Perfect” conditions for negotiating. Driver doesn’t speak a word of English and Albanian is an enigma to us. Marcin steps up and conducts a most courageous bargaining. Out goes a calculator and a map. Luckily numbers are still numbers. The distances are calculated, gasoline prices taken into account and profit margins accepted. After half an hour of calculator warfare we’re driven over picturesque serpentine road. In the end, we agree that haggling was half the success, the other half was that the driver just wanted to go back home.
– From Turkey there was supposed to be a bus. There wasn’t. At the border… only mountains and truck drivers. No taxis. The truckers tell us that there is one but it’s just left for the town. Have to wait. It came back.
– Nothing around and miles on miles of real off-road. Couldn’t find a hotel. Deep Romanian backwater. After getting the car searched we make it over no problem. But it’s night already and on the Moldovan side it’s completely empty, no street lamps either. This time we’re in our car and with friends, so it’s easier and safer, but still our heart’s were thumping.

The Asian escapade is punctuated by trouble-free borders. Now, we unanimously agree on the second worst crossing in the region, maybe because we miss the adrenaline and we’re subconsciously thrilled with the idea of adding another entry to list. Either way, we want to visit Central Laos and that’s the way to go. After two shitty days and another one in coma, I’m healthy but very weak. I dream of the Laotian heat. I want to bask myself in the sun… We have to go.

Lonely Planet warns: you’ll get ripped off on this route. But we already know this. We’re back in our favorite Vinh. The night before, Marcin goes scouting to get a sense of the situation. It’s not that bad, the ticket to Lak Sao should cost 2 or 3 hundred thousand dong. Very expensive, since it’s only 130 km, but not astronomical. In the morning we get up before sunrise to catch the 5 o’clock bus. At the station it turns out that a new piranha wants 500 thousand. There is discussion again but we’ve learned how to deal with these absurdities delicately and with a smile. Any other reaction causes the exploiter to loose face and it’s all over. We settle for 300 thousand. We’re offered a choice, but don’t care if it’s a sitting or a sleeping bus, as long as it will get us over the border. The local rattler we’re led to is maybe worth 100k. There is some space in the back, on the baggage platform. We sit there and we’re off. The faces of the people around look particularly forlorn, I wonder where they’re from.

20140219-IMGP1721-on the bus to lak sao

Along the way, there is an obligatory stop for breakfast – everybody flocks to an eatery and starts slurping pho. My stomach’s not ready for this, so I just walk around to stretch my legs and eat a bit of the white rice I have with me. That’s when the bus drives away. Great. Our backpack with the computer and the camera got left on board. We’ve been warned so many times about getting robbed in Vietnam that now I’m having a major face-palm. The other passengers’ cartons of beer and bags of vegetables drove away as well, but they don’t seem to be worried. I know, however, that foreigners are a different category and if something will be missing we can as well as leave our written complaints under the Ho Chi Minh’s statue. The bus does not come back for a surprisingly long time. Even the local people start to get a little shifty. We’re worried now about not only losing something but maybe getting something extra. Finally it arrives, with more cargo on the roof. The backpack’s untouched, nothing’s missing, nothing new. I sigh with relief. We go on.

We’re carrying a serious payload and the bus is drudgingly making its way over the steep mountains. It’s getting colder and the landscape’s more beautiful. Some twenty kilometers from the border, at a sharp curve, the driver mismanages the gears and we hear a grinding noise. The bus abruptly comes to a halt and smoke rises from the gearbox. It croaked, I think to myself, and in that moment regret not eating earlier. As it usually happens is such circumstances everybody gets out. Either to play the experts or have serious telephone conversations. It’s wet, cold and dreary. I eat the last bit of a cold apple and get the shivers. Another bus, coming from the border, doesn’t make the curve and a mirror’s broken.

20140219-IMGP1723-broken bus on the way to lao border

There are no other tourists, nobody speaks English. After an hour, it looks like no substitute bus is coming because people start unloading their stuff and catching alternate transportation. An amazing variety of goods is hauled out, including boxes on boxes of tetra-packed drinks, sacks of vegetables and innumerable cabbage heads. Some of the passengers are put on a bus that’s as full as ours was, while we’re directed to an elegant stationwagon. I’m suspicious that it will not take us all the way to Lak Sao, so I’d like to get on the bus, but nobody’s asking my opinion. We get inside leaving nasty red mud marks on the beige carpeting. I’m thoroughly cold but the other passengers open windows to have a smoke. This alternates with the driver putting the air-con on. The surrounding landscape of mist-shrouded mountains is amazing but my mind’s occupied with the cold and the hunger. At the border my suspicions turn out true as we’re unloaded with the backpacks and left to fend for ourselves. So much for our luxury-price tickets. There are no other white faces but the locals are present in their hundreds. Strange types, they’re amazed by our sight, pointing at us, commenting and laughing out loud. Hungry and pissed off I want to give them the finger. There’s just too many of them so I can only make ugly faces. Meanwhile, Marcin is trying to make his way to the passport control to get the exit stamp. The Vietnamese are mercilessly pushy and encroach the window from every which side trying to pass the guards their bags with dozens of passports each. It looks hopeless but with some a little bit of oomph our passports make it inside. The official has a hearty laugh when he see us. Maybe it’s because he hasn’t seen foreigner for a long time.

After that we walk the last kilometer to the Laotian side, passing more hordes of enthusiastic locals. The other side is much nicer. Almost pleasant but still cold as hell. The official here is making rounds to process our visa, yet nothing seems to come out of his walking. By that time we’re skipping around and making little dance move to keep warm. Our breath condenses into vapor in the cold air. After another half an hour the visa’s ready. Next up is the final battle – getting the transport to Lak Sao. There’s plenty of buses outside, but they’re full, just waiting for their passengers and none will take us. We walk a bit down the road but there’s nothing there. My fury reaches it’s apex. Marcin orders me to sit down at an eatery and goes off to change some money. This time I devour the pho without as much as batting an eyelid. Other people around me are doing the same, only standing up, because the benches are too cold for them to sit on. As I calm down, Marcin manages to find a minibus and at a moment’s notice we’re on the way to Lak Sao. We made it to the great beyond, where two empty streets cross and the red dust dances in the air. The next day, after 13 hours of sleep and two hot soups, we feel almost human again.

20140219-IMGP1802-empty lak sao

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