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9 October 2011 / leggypeggy

One bus and 40 cases of whiskey

Terry watching the fight on his computer, which is sitting in the aisle on a stack of whiskey boxes.

Ever since we struggled up yet another Tibetan mountain pass, Will has been having trouble with the truck’s clutch. It’s not happy in 1st gear or something called crawler. It’s held together so far, but he’s been keen to get big orange beast to the Scania repair shop in Bangkok. So rather than drive us to the border between Laos and Vietnam, he decided to drop us in Savannakhet so we could take a bus the last 250 kilometres to the Lao Bao International Border Post.

We’ll be travelling without the truck for three weeks. Not because it’s being repaired, but because it can’t enter Vietnam easily and won’t be going to Cambodia either. So we’re carrying whatever we think we’ll need for the next 21 days and taking public transport—in it’s various forms—when we travel from place to place.

Now I’m not psychic (is anyone?) but I’d had a funny feeling about this particular border crossing for the last few days. Nothing specific, except that I sensed that things were going to go wrong. I even told Poor John that we’d be entering Vietnam a day late, and I wrote the same to our daughters. I didn’t think it would be another run-in with Svetlana (remember her?), but I thought it would be something.

So after a damp bush camp (and probably our last time to cook before reaching Australia, we set out for bus station at Savannakhet. Will dropped us there 11:30—giving us plenty of time to grab lunch before the next (and last) bus of the day to Danasvanh (on the Lao side of the border) left at noon. There was a spiffy-looking ‘international’ bus ready to set out for the Thai border—one with airline-type seats, curtains, air conditioning and the like—so there was a slight reason to think we might score decent transport.

Whiskey in the aisle—helped to make sure we didn't fall out of our seats.

But as no other international bus was in sight, I was pretty sure our chariot would be one of the many ancient, dilapidated, blue-and-white local buses parked around the station. Close to noon, my suspicion was confirmed and our bags were handed over to be loaded into the back of the bus. Passengers (including a good number of locals) were instructed to board from the front and, as usual, Poor John and I hung back until almost the last. Big mistake. By the time we boarded there was only one empty bench at the back. We crawled down the aisle—stacked two-high with box after box of whiskey—only to find that our ’empty’ bench seat already had three cases of booze in the foot space. Obviously, the driver made his profit by ferrying great loads of grog (Aussie slang for alcohol) to the border.

So in we clambered and with our feet on the whiskey and our chins on our knees, we set out on a ‘five-hour’ jaunt to the border.

We weren’t the only uncomfortable ones. Most of the seats were missing most of their stuffing. Almost everyone was performing some sort of gymnastics just to stay on the bus. Terry sat in the aisle on boxes of whiskey (watching a pre-recorded fight on his computer), Lu was toward the front sitting on the engine and three locals were perched on our baggage and other freight at the back.

Because the bus was on its normal daily run, after we rolled out of the station we continued to stop and pick-up passengers and their belongings (yes there were two crates of chickens tied to the roof). From where we sat, it was hard to see the comings and goings, but I think the bus had 32 seats and close to 40 passengers. And, of course, about the same number of cases of whiskey.

After tootling along for three hours and before the half-way point, we stopped for a pee and snack break. Roadworks had slowed our progress, as had the continual stopping for passengers to get off or, more likely, get on.

Of course, time really shouldn’t have mattered EXCEPT that unlike most international borders—which are usually open 24 hours a day—the Lao Bao crossing closes at 7pm (or maybe 7:30). We had to beat the clock or we wouldn’t reach the border in time. The closer we got to the end of the line, more and more passengers wanted to get themselves and their gear off. The final disaster struck about 20 kilometres short of the border when the engine cut out. The driver hauled out his toolbox and went to work. Soon enough, we were underway again, but it was becoming ever more obvious that we were unlikely to make the deadline.

A basket of chickens gets unloaded from the roof of the bus.

Finally the bus came to its last halt—almost a kilometre short of the border. ‘Sorry folks, but this is where the bus stop is.’

So we hauled off our stuff and made a dash for passport control. Thankfully, the Lao side stamped us out quickly—except for me and John.

The short part of that story is that the border officials were confused that our visas had been issued in Canberra while everyone else’s had been issued in Laos. They dithered over what to do while we explained that Canberra was the capital of Australia. In the end, they called a superior for advice, but obviously they had trouble getting their story straight. In desperation, the guards passed the phone to Poor John who was suddenly explaining to the female superior that—NO, we weren’t trying to re-enter Laos on a single-entry visa, and that we were simply trying to leave!

With that, the superior told Poor John everything was fine and to pass the phone back to the border guard. It seemed as if she gave him (the guard) a bit of a talking-to for disturbing her with his garbled nonsense.

So we were promptly stamped out and headed for the Vietnamese side of the border, where we found most of our travelling companions sitting forlornly on the curb. The border was closed! We’d be entering Vietnam a day late! And I hadn’t thought to steal a single bottle of whiskey from the bus!

It was going to be a long night. Stay tuned for the next instalment.


Leave a Comment
  1. Louise M Oliver / Oct 10 2011 7:19 am

    Oh Peggy! That sounds as if it might be getting too adventurous even for seasoned adventurer seekers like you, Poor John and the others on the truck. I await with baited breath to read how you spent the night given that you’d missed the border. Was there anywhere to make camp? Any facilities? And how did you get fed for the evening? But, on the plus side, I understand that Vietnam has some incredibly beautiful scenery and no doubt, some interesting architecture and markets. So I’m sure that all will be well. Reading daily with ever-more interest. Take care.

    Best wishes


    • leggypeggy / Sep 22 2014 9:27 pm

      Oh gosh Louise, your message got missed for a couple of years. It was a great trip and, as you know, we are none the worse for wear.


  2. hiMe / Sep 22 2014 6:42 pm

    What a trip!



  1. Yes, there’s a motorcycle under all that stuff | Where to next?

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