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Thai Panic – Bussing Through Isaan And Beyond

  • Written by Lewis
  • May 10th, 2005
  • 26 min read


Thai Panic– Busing Through Isaan & Beyond


This is about my bus trip of a few days ago, Bangkok – Nongkhai, across the river from Vientiane, my intermediate destination. Reading about a bus trip to Nongkhai does sound boring, no doubt about it. But maybe we can end up with a decent read.

As an expat in the general region, I go to Bangkok for cheap flights overseas. Getting to Bangkok from Hanoi, where I live, can be as low as $17 in bus fares Hanoi-Vientiane-Bangkok plus a $30 Lao visa. In the latter regard, Laos has in motion the institution of a policy like Thailand’s where citizens of many countries, including mine, and probably yours, won’t need visas. The trip takes about 31 hours. Quite nice and enjoyable scenery in Laos; Vietnam’s would be too, but their side of the jaunt is at night time for the Hanoi-Vientiane trip. My local-girl wife becomes almost flabbergasted at my going surface Hanoi-Bangkok (I don’t put her through it) to save $125 or so, but I enjoy the scenery and like not wasting money. In a former submission I documented I’m cheap in some ways; I shouldn’t have disparaged myself like that; I just don’t like wasting money.

Using the above methodology, then one could easily travel by surface Bangkok to the China border at Lang Son Vietnam for $1.71 more (a total of $18.71 for transportation costs Bangkok-China). That $1.71 is the train fare Hanoi – Lang Son on the China border; it’s an incredibly low 27,000 Vietnamese dong and with there being 15,780 dong/dollar, that’s only $1.71. Well, I thought it was unbelievably low, but when I was on that Lang Son – Hanoi train, a friendly Nung ethnic minority young man got on during a stop among some spectacularly beautiful mountains (I have to get back there on my beast – my Minsk), befriended me, reviewed my ticket, and noted I had a foreigner’s ticket, and the locals received a discount of 75%, paying only 7,000 dong, less than a half dollar. Vietnam’s trains and planes were forced by the government to charge foreigners no more than locals, but apparently the Vietnamese just can’t tolerate a foreigner’s not getting screwed price-wise. But even I would find it hard complaining about the $1.71 fare Hanoi to the border town of Lang Son. (As my wife said, “You aren’t going to get all worked up over that (dual pricing), are you?”) But I’m digressing.

This story, you could say, actually got started when I, in flawed judgment, told the travel agent on Sukhumvit Soi 10 to make my tickets Bangkok-LA-Bangkok. (This agent was a substitute one; the one I was looking for (P&P), well the whole block had disappeared on his side of the Soi (many of you know the story behind it) – no wonder finding this travel entity was taking me all of the late morning and early afternoon.) At that time, I’d had 11 hours sleep over the past 4 nights in my taking a longer ground route than usual Hanoi-Bangkok. I’d always wanted to visit Vietnam’s old DMZ area and more recently wanted to traverse Isaan (Northeast Thailand) from Mukdahan, a town across the Mekong from Savannakhet Laos. And the scenery around Vietnam’s old DMZ was flat-out magnificent with its sheer, green, towering mountains as a backdrop to interesting Montagnards and their houses on stilts. Vietnam’s scenery seriously kicks ass. No doubt that I’ll be back to that DMZ area on the beast. I saw a perfect little cove along the highway in that area; it contained exquisite vegetation, a waterfall, a pool, and a stilted Montagnard house next to it, and I wanted it for myself. Anyway, once at my US destination, I was asking myself what was going through my mind – I needed Bangkok for the cheap fare, but didn’t need to return there, and should have made the itinerary Bangkok-LA-Hanoi, not Bangkok-LA-Bangkok. Maybe it was the mere 11 hours sleep during my Hanoi-Hue-DMZ-Savannakhet-Bangkok 4-day jaunt.

So a few days ago, I flew back into Bangkok at 1 am and made a decision I’d regret very much, deciding I would save some money and could handle the Bangkok-Vientiane-Hanoi bus trip, even though I was loaded down heavily with suitcases of lots of gifts and shopping and had just spent 19 hours sitting immobile in a plane and a connecting airport (Taipei). A short taxi trip had me at the surprisingly deserted bus station, the Northeast Bus Station I think it’s called. Although it was 2 am, a counter was open and there’d be 3 hours to kill until my bus left at 5:40 am for Nongkhai, just short of Vientiane Laos. The Thais were, as usual, splendid in helping me lug my baggage to where my bus would be pulling in. I don’t remember the wait being that bad despite my having no mobility because of loads of luggage. I did have a good read in “One Foot in Laos,” by an older Irish lady, Dervla Murphy, who has more, in effect, balls than 99% of the males.

Going on a little tangent, Ms Murphy reminds me obliquely of an American friend, a big former football (US football) player, legs like oak trees, who’s scared to death of Laos and Cambodia. Finally, I get him out of the lobby of his Hanoi Old Quarter mini-hotel (have to admit that Hanh, the receptionist there, was absolutely precious, and he was thinking of shedding his Filipina wife for her) and no sooner have we hit nearby Ha Tay Province on motorbikes, and he’s complaining, “My butt’s killing me.” Christ, what a wimp. Americans (including him) are or were in the mode of perpetuating a myth that the French are gutless. But I’ve had French young men see me on my Minsk, become fascinated with the beast, and after a 45 minute lesson from me on driving them, will head (too early) deep into the recesses of the rugged north of Vietnam – alone. Then later they are telling me they did indeed have trouble with their Minsk quitting on them. But they’ll note it sure is nice having 5 Viet mechanics working for an hour and receiving a less than $2 bill. “It would cost 80 Euros an hour in France.”

I should note that all my bus trips Hanoi-Vientiane-Bangkok have been fairly comfortable, as comfortable as one could expect to be in riding 31 hours in a bus, including sleeping in a seat. I’ve already noted the cost is little more than free, and the 31 hours (including an hour for crossing over the border Vientiane – Nongkhai Thailand) is reasonable. A Laotian-owned bus does the Hanoi-Vientiane trip 3 times a week; on these, I’m the only foreigner. When it’s a Vietnamese-administered bus, it’s about 1/3rd Laotian, 1/3rd Vietnamese, and 1/3rd foreign tourists picked up in Hanoi’s mini-hotel and backpacker-fraught Old Quarter.

The buses have empty seats, and the ambiance is good, reminding me of some sweet Laotians I met and who would make sure I was fed and well-taken care of in Laos. One even had me take his meal, for I was slow to order, and then he reordered for himself. Once I was noting to myself that the foreigners were sitting in the back and then I’m reading in Lonely Planet Thailand or Laos that the buses crash with some frequency, and the smart should sit in the back away from the sides. (So at 2 am, after barely arriving over the border from Laos in time to catch the 8:30 pm departing Nongkhai to Bangkok bus, I’m awakened by quite a thud. My Thai bus with me at the left front (but up high) had, at the left front, run into a bus ahead of it, resulting in 2 hours of negotiations between the drivers.)

Because of (I) having had the experience of arriving at the Nongkhai bus station at 8:20 pm, after just arriving in Vientiane from Hanoi, and then having no baht to buy a ticket for a bus pulling out in 10 minutes – at 8:30 pm for Bangkok; and (ii) always arriving in Laos with no kip, I’ve changed my policy on maintaining a supply of a country’s currency. In the past, I’d make sure I’d spent all a country’s currency by departure. But I’ve learned it’s a pain to arrive in a country and not be able to buy or perform a transaction. There’s no baht or kip available in Hanoi, so now, just before leaving a country, I’ll stop at one of its banks and buy a supply of money for my future trip. For example, a few days ago just before flying out of Vientiane for Hanoi, I stopped in a Vientiane bank and bought $25 worth of Lao kip and $25 worth of Thai baht and added them to the kip and baht I already had. Next time I arrive in these countries, things will be convenient.

The Thai buses Nongkhai to Bangkok have all been super (I know that sounds inconsistent considering the little fender bender) – modern, spacious, have toilets, not crowded, fast (making the trip in about 8 ½ hours), cheap, cool, and the ticket includes a meal at a stop about halfway.

About a year ago, I did have a horrible, absolutely horrible, bus trip Vientiane-Hanoi (going in the opposite direction from the trip described above). Surprisingly maybe, I’d much rather be in a bus (assuming it’s a tourist bus) full of Laotians and Vietnamese than with a bunch of British. The Laotians and Vietnamese on the Hanoi-Vientiane jaunt will have to take a leak, and will, with no hesitation, ask the bus driver to stop. Hence, we have a lot of breaks to make the trip comfortable. On my trip Vientiane-Hanoi, I was packed in with a bunch of young, clean-cut British backpackers. Even the aisle was crammed with backpacks and the British. The British are, and I’m not being sarcastic, without a doubt, the most civilized people in the world.

I first heard this regarding the British from a Professor Richter, a German, of my alma mater, Thunderbird, the American (now Garvin) Graduate School of International Management. Richter noted, in similar words, that the tremendously sophisticated, intelligent, and logical international law was a function of the British ages ago. I have no reason to disagree with him – The British are the most civilized. (Thunderbird, the American Graduate School of International Management recently was renamed Thunderbird, the Garvin Graduate School of International Management because of one of its relatively recent students, Samuel Garvin, fired for being a disruptive influence and who then implemented his Thunderbird entrepreneurship course idea, earned $1,000,000,000+ and gave the school $60,000,000.)

So what’s the point with all that above about the British? The point was that it was now 3:15 am when the bus driver finally made a stop, meaning that with our having boarded in Vientiane between 6:30 and 8:00 pm (depending on one’s hotel pickup time), we’d been riding the bus from hell for over seven hours without a break. Despite the inconvenience, I suppose the British would've sat there civilized without peep or a piss for the whole 22 hours of the trip. I’d needed a break badly, so I finally see my opening. The bus has finally stopped. Of course the over-civilized British don’t move. And I have a problem, because they are wedged in the aisle, many asleep. So I start walking over them. Towards the front of the bus – I had been sitting in the back – I lose my balance climbing over this tall British young guy in the aisle and fall on his girlfriend in the seat next to him. “You’re hurting her,” he complains to me in that British accent (frankly it sounds rather fruity to American men, but I’m open-minded myself), and it looked like he was thinking in terms of a beyond mere altercation (verbal fight). “I’ve been on this thing for over 7 hours, and it’s time for a break,” I respond. His equally big tall British apparent buddy says, “We’ve all been on here for over 7 hours.” They barely held back any physical involvement, I’m out of the bus with everyone rankled at me, feeling like a black sheep. Finally they start slowly removing themselves from the bus, and later figured out I knew what I was doing. We’d hit a sizable, crusty Vietnamese restaurant (in Laos) 30 km short of the border with Vietnam at 3:15 am and the border didn’t open until something like 6:30 am. That’s where the bus driver decided to hunker down. With my being persona non grata in the eyes of the British, I just chatted in Vietnamese with the Vietnamese running the restaurant. They complained that the Laotian police relentlessly hit them for kickbacks.

About the bus driver, I had no use for this guy who gave us no breaks for such a tremendously long time – about a third of a 24-hour day, and once in Vietnam would never take a break at his chosen places; rather I’d walk down the street and patronize another place. The British had by that time listened to me and many were doing the same. My saying he was reaping a 15% kickback got their attention. I’d even hear them advising others that patronizing his chosen place mean a 15% kickback; satisfying. It (the 15%) is the Vietnamese way.

At the Vietnam-Laos border, there was as big a variance possible between two cultures – one British and the other Pleistocene Man in the form of Vietnamese. At the first exit or entry point, you had all these Vietnamese pushing and shoving and breaking in line. I found out the British backpacker gal who had been sitting next to me on the bus had some spunk. (And was glad I’d kept my hands to myself during that long night trip packed in like sardines. I had brain-drizzled that a nice little massage from me would have been mutually beneficial during the miserable trip.) When the Vietnamese jammed their passports in front of hers, she’d fling them back at them and wouldn’t back down when the Vietnamese did their shoving. Then at the next point, there were only foreigners and you had all these British in a perfectly orderly queue. The difference between them and the Vietnamese was as profound as possible.

And with everyone out of the bus and my noting these magnificent 6’ (183cm), trim, blonde British young women, I thought we should bring them over to the US to improve its gene pool. A couple of them, after a quick eyeballing of a Vietnamese toilet, concluded they’d prefer to just do without a toilet visit – it could wait. I advised them they’d better use them, for that’s the way it is. But they’d have no part of it; whether it was because of the toilets being stoop types or incredibly filthy, I don’t know, but quite possibly it because of both.

Back to Bangkok a few days ago: The bus pulls in around 5 am for its scheduled 5:40 departure for Nongkhai, and later I would know that the young kid conductor’s sloshing big containers of water on the air conditioning unit, a sizable thing, would prove to be a significant indicator of the quality of the trip. As I emailed my wife (who’d remained in Hanoi) from Vientiane a day later (why reinvent the wheel? – although I feel like I’m undressing myself in public):

“I made a big mistake yesterday, and as riding on a miserable Thai bus with failed air conditioning asked myself what I was doing – why didn't I just fly out of Bangkok for Hanoi? Why was I torturing myself to save a few bucks when I'd just been spending 100s and 100s of dollars for anything we needed. And after the Thai bus from hell yesterday after the long flight LA-Taipei-Bangkok, I'm now making up for it by flying out of Vientiane Laos (where I've been since very late afternoon yesterday). I'm for thriftiness, but now just don't have the energy or backbone for the bus Vientiane-Hanoi. (And my last trip from here in that direction was another (actually worse) bus trip from hell – with all those over-civilized British who would have never taken a break had not I forced the issue after 7+ hours without one, even rankling them and almost getting in a little beyond altercation with a couple of big young men etc).

“After arriving in Vientiane, my body could only half function (I mean that literally – not sure I've ever been so bad off that I even thought more busing and no sleep might even kill me (Vientiane-Hanoi) after: 17 hours of sitting down in a plane LA-Taipei-Bangkok, arriving at the Bangkok bus station at 2am and waiting for the first bus to depart to Nongkhai Thailand (across the border from Vientiane Laos) at 5:40am, and then this Bangkok – Nongkhai trip with the failed air conditioning. During 2 (3?) nights I'd had almost no sleep, and we're talking almost 2 days of sitting down in planes and buses. I can't face it now, not after the Thai bus from hell.

“The several Thai buses I'd ridden before across Northeastern Thailand to and from Bangkok were delights – quick, modern, had toilets, and good air conditioning – but the one I had yesterday was one of those buses from hell. Before starting out, I noticed them sloshing water on the huge air conditioning unit and they kept having (in their minds – more on that later) to do that during the whole trip, in a futile try to protect or make the air conditioning work. I was thinking they were dumb shits, for although the sloshing on of the water would bring down the temperature temporarily, my good knowledge of such things of car mechanics tells me it was wasted effort, for the temperature would be right back up to where it was in minutes – and would be that way 99% of the trip. Finally, 80% of the way to our destination of Nongkhai, they stopped in a bus repair station and had mechanics looking at it. That seemed to be all they did – look (and smile – they are Thais – better to smile than solve a fucking problem – and during the whole trip I was wishing I could speak Thai for I'd tell them to get a wrench and fix the damn thing – instead of torturing a bus load of people – sometimes the aisle was 60% filled with people too).

So right away after departure I'm questioning my judgment – why I was saving $140 or so going Bangkok-Hanoi by surface but putting myself through such a hell – and at a time where we have some very bad, or a good probability of very bad, issues (your father; your possible miscarriage and in your opinion possible loss of job resultingly) in Hanoi. I was even wondering whether I might get heat stroke (often fatal – saw Glen succumb to it – he was starting to die before my eyes – in Tecate Mexico after traversing the desert east of San Diego), for I was on no water, because for the first time in Thailand I was on a bus with no restroom (and never a lunch break and few even short breaks). So finally at a short stop I sloshed down a good-sized bottle of water and ate small sacks of oranges and apples I bought at the same stop. I was surprised some young Thai kids could tolerate the flawed (almost non-existent) air conditioning. An infant behind me just cried a little. Later on a white guy got on with his Isaan (Northeast Thai) girlfriend and he (her too) was really fighting the heat – screwing around with the air conditioning vent above and flapping his hat around for a fan and … I'm sitting there thinking, buddy it's futile – if you only knew I'd been tolerating for hours and hours what you're tolerating for relatively just a little while.

I even considered cutting my losses, getting off the damn thing, and heading back to Bangkok for a flight out or getting off at a big town (Korat – Gateway to Isaan (and I noted home of clearly the highest percentage of pickup trucks in the world but I'm digressing)) and switching buses or to the train. But I feared I might end up on the same kind of bus. Talking about the train, wished I'd have gone that route, but my very ample experience told me Thai buses are such a delight; hence, who needs a train. Consequently, I stuck it out on the bus from hell.

“And my morale was worse than it should have been, for I’d asked, early in the trip, this conductor young man when we'd arrive in Nongkhai and he pointed on my watch (I don't speak Thai and they don't speak English) at 6 pm. God, 12+ hours on that damn thing – how could I stand it? – Temperature high and the scorching sun coming through the window the whole morning what with my being on the east side. The other buses I'd taken did the trip in 8 or 9 hours – and a nice eating break halfway with the ticket including it. Well, for the first time ever I got to see Isaan (Northeast Thailand) during the day – for some reason in all my trips across it, my timing was such that it was night. Trouble is the scenery was devoid of any beauty – hardscrabble flat land – no wonder those folks have a reputation for poverty and their women bailing to become known as the bargirls of Bangkok. Earlier, an hour north of Bangkok and short of the Northeast region, I did see some fairly notable and scenic-looking mountains – there were a few of them.

“But a happy ending. Around 3 pm (remember I had a 5:47 am departure), I started seeing signs that said Nongkhai but thought that could mean 200 km off. Then what an amazing and great surprise – at 3:30 pm (remember the conductor had pointed to my watch indicating 6 pm to arrive, or I thought that's what he was indicating), they said "Nongkhai" and this was confirmed by everyone getting off, meaning the last point of the journey. What a relief – all of a sudden I was feeling a lot better. And at 9 1/2 hours, the trip had taken not significantly longer than the usual trips I'd taken for that route. I really thought the trip would be for more than 12 hours like the guy had indicated for they were stopping at every little village and at points along side the road.

“After a good night's rest across the border in Vientiane (in bed at 8:30 pm last night after I’d tried to go out in town to search out a durian, but my body was too much out of it); I noticed when I tried to shave and the usual behind-the-sink stuff in the bathroom, I kept dropping things, making me think man I'm really out of it. I'm now feeling fine after a night’s rest. Nice little ambiance in Vientiane – lots of nice classy shops, it's not noisy like Hanoi…I've fallen in love with their fruit shakes, knocking off 4 mango and mixed fruit ones last night before finding I had no alternative but going back to the guest house and sleeping. A little earlier today, I had 2 more mango ones and requested them to take the 1 of 3 durians I hadn't eaten (bought at their central market this morning) and make shakes out of them. Funny – after the shop's blending up my 2 durian shakes, a young couple (spoke English with a very foreign accent – European or something) next to me ordered a fruit shake, and you know how durian has that very strong and famous crappy smell, well they were complaining that the vestige of my durian in the blender had flavored theirs and it was obvious they weren't durian fans like many of us.

“Pretty easy decision between the bus and flying out shortly – I fly out of Vientiane 5:40 pm this afternoon and arrive in Hanoi at 6:40 pm. Yes, even I have my limit and I just can't face anymore of the surface trip. I didn’t doze off once during the Bangkok – Nongkhai trip although I'd had very little sleep prior.

“This is no way to spend my limited visit in Vientiane – sitting behind a computer – so it's time to get out for my final 2 hours here….” (End of email)

I did have some nice eye candy across from me on the Thai bus – one, an attractive Thai young lady with good size and height, pretty and soft facial features, and nice long arms not of the thin type. She was fairly dark, not quite brown – suppose you could say borderline deep gold and brown, skin coloration pleasant to me, but to many Thais and Vietnamese, she’d be written off because of not being light. She was apparently from Nongkhai for she stayed on for the whole trip and departed there. She had about a 7-year old girl with her, making it possible that she’d married at quite a young age, but I’m guessing.

That Thai lovely’s arms reminds me that there are 3 kinds of guys: leg guys, butt guys, and breast guys, with the most psychologically balanced, the experts continue, being the leg guys. There’s a 4th component that I alone (as far as I know) admire in a woman – long arms. My local-girl wife is one of those with arms (and legs) reaching from here to over yonder. When I was first meeting her – from long distance, I told her I liked her arms, noting them from a photo at her website. She was befuddled by what I was saying in that regard and wondered whether I was making fun of her. Hence, she said nothing in return about my comment. Finally, she realized I really did like her arms. Seven years later, I’m still not blase regarding the appearance of this woman, just keep savoring and savoring it. But I’m going on a tangent again.

Back to the bus, in front of the gal I discussed a moment ago, was another attractive, in a different way, apparent Isaan young lady. She was light-skinned, lissome with pretty – about an 8.5 on a 10 scale pretty, long and thin arms, tall, well and rather tastefully dressed, and had attitude – She never came close to cracking a smile during the long time she was on the bus. She got off about 75% of the way to Nongkhai, deep in Isaan. I kept wondering whether she was a bargirl and one with problems.

As we were driving across Isaan, I absolutely knew I’d not have the enjoyment of spotting a bit of wildlife. Vietnam’s the same. When an animal’s almost extinct, the Vietnamese attitude is you better get it now while there’s still some left. I’d been in Vietnam 6 years to the day when I finally saw my first example of wildlife there. (I don’t count a little lizard I saw in Hoa Binh Province.) Eight hours north of Hanoi just short of Ba Be Lake, I almost ran over with my Minsk a very colorful, telling me it was probably poisonous, little snake.

Contrast that to all the wildlife I just spotted in the States where if one doesn’t cooperate in conservation (for example poaching a deer), time in the joint might become part of your resume. On a trip across Western US, I saw two herds of elk. Then downtown Indianapolis I saw wild geese around a river. At my sister’s farm, her husband the day I’d arrived had spotted 10 deer moving across their property. Out back of their house is a flock of wild turkey and beavers building a dam, an issue, for they (the humans) don’t want their fields flooded. We went fishing, catching 32 keepers (large Bluegill) in one morning and spotted about 8 wild geese in and around this little lake.

In Vientiane a day after my Thai bus trip, I’m reading an article in its English-language newspaper and was wondering whether it was some April Fool Day joke. The article was about a schoolgirl catching beetles for her breakfast. She preferred the beetles to anything else for breakfast and when the choice beetles weren’t available, the locals would catch dung beetles that fed on manure. The locals also feasted on stinkbugs. (Regarding the latter two, are you kidding me?) This article wasn’t an April Fool Day joke. Again, I’m open-minded; on a trip across Cambodia, I feasted on barbecued cockroaches or something and then at a further bus stop, barbecued spiders. This blew the minds of the fellow Westerner passengers who wouldn’t try them, but I could respond they were crunchy and something like eating meat-flavored potato chips. Not bad at all. But maybe my point is that if a nation can’t or won’t conserve its wildlife, then all that’s left is insects.

Back to Nongkhai, the tuk tuk drivers will insist on taking you to a given Thai tour company for your visa for Laos. They’ll lie and say you can’t secure the visa at the border. Save your $55 or so in baht, and obtain your visa at the border for $31. You will need a passport-sized photo. Since I was always forgetting these, I came up with a control and solved the problem by attaching, in a tiny plastic bag secured by a rubber band in my passport, a bunch of passport photos. The tuk tuk drivers won’t take no for an answer; even when you say “no,” they’ll take you by this one tour company – all gravitate to the same one. Mr Tuk Tuk finally caught on a little when I tried another jist, saying, “I already have a photo.”

Stickman's thoughts:

The things we do to save money!