…Or in Steph’s case, until you’re sat on a wheelchair frame in a footwell.
Normal logic says that when you look around a bus and see one person in each seat, the bus is full. When you have one person in each seat and everyone has a backpack and a day bag that the bus is really full. Laos logic says that the bus isn’t full until every seat has got a person in and an extra person has been shoved in each aisle space sitting on a plastic chair or stool, and even then there might be room for another local if they’re only doing a ‘short’ one hour hop. We heard stories of one driver hitting and *nearly* killing a pig that he then tried to add to the minibus. If you’re lucky, your luggage goes on the roof; if you’re not so lucky, it gets shoved in every crevice you were hoping your limbs might be able to occupy. Add to that mix an unfolding wheelchair and you’re in trouble.
We’ve covered quite a few different styles of bus through Asia now, although no truly local ones as the feasibility of accessibility on these is just non-existent. Whilst they’re probably the worst experiences whilst travelling, they’re also in some ways the best… they’re certainly the stories I’ll tell to strangers in the pub. Yes I went to Angkor Wat, but let me tell you about the time I bungee corded my legs to the seat in front for a better laugh.
The mountain midibus:
The buses in Laos are mostly mini or midi buses meaning little leg room or storage space and hurtling round a mountain edge at a faster speed than possibly comfortable. For six poor sods the seat is a fold out camp chair in the aisle for several hours. Our first experience of these buses was over the mountains from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng. My wheelchair got tossed on top of the roof, an unfriendly redneck refused to accommodate my request to let me stay in his front seat, so after a near-argument between him and a sharp-toned pissed off Steph, I was forced to climb back through the bus. The ride was so unstable, I struggled to keep my jelly body in its seat for the duration. Eventually when it could no longer take the lack of support, I swapped with Steph who had the pleasure of sitting in the legroomless window seat on the wheel arch. At this point my body had a bit of support but every bend in the road resulted in my legs flopping onto Steph or smashing into the window. So I did what any rational person would do, I used my bungee cords to attach my dangling legs to the seat in front.
The sleeper bus:
Our next real bus experience was a sleeper from Vang Vieng to Vientiane. Here you load on at about 8pm and get a pretty comfortable although slightly coffinesque single bed for the night. Oh, the single bed is for two people though – regardless of if you know them. At this point, I still hadn’t learnt my lesson to ALWAYS PUT YOUR SHOES BACK ON WHEN YOU GO TO THE TOILET, but other than the probable foot herpes, the ride was pretty comfortable and a game of magnetic chess Steph bought with the money she was supposed to spend in the pharmacy passed a few hours.
The worst bus of our lives:
Then comes our most recent, worst and yet most hilarious bus experience. After taking a spectacularly comfortable coach from Don Det to the Cambodia border, we were then loaded on to a minibus from somewhere in the early 90’s. After a brief telling off from an officious border bus agent, we unloaded all our bags off the bus to allow the driver to load them how he wanted. When we booked, we specified that we needed to be on a minibus with a roofrack but unfortunately these kind of messages never get through. In reality, I think they sell as many tickets as they feel like, then pick which bus they’re going to take, using a ratio of roughly 0.7 of seat to each person. So of course there’s no luggage rack on our minibus designed to take 16 backpackers from Laos to Cambodia. There’s no boot either. My moral dilemma begins. On almost every minibus I’ve been on, I’ve been told I have to pay for an extra seat for my wheelchair if it can’t go on the roof. This causes me an issue – on the one hand, if I’m taking that seat up, I’m directly costing the driver one seat worth of income as there is absolutely never. Ever. A. Spare. Seat. On the other hand, whilst I can afford to pay a few pounds here or there for the extra seat, this journey was the most expensive (and the worst) we’ve taken and factoring in an extra $35 on every bus I take, probably would have prevented me from seeing at least one of these countries. Please… buy a luggage rack because we’re cramped in here like grade Z battery hens!
For the first hour of the trip, Steph sat on my wheelchair frame that had been crammed in the footwell behind the two front seats. I’m fairly sure this was the funniest thing the driver had seen in his entire life as he dressed her in his hat and glasses, yelled ‘driver’ and absolutely howled with laughter. After a potholey 30km in one hour, the driver then decided an hour and a half lunch break was necessary. To Steph’s relief, the passenger swap-over to other buses to other destinations meant she had a real seat, (albeit still obstructed by my wheelchair) for the next 3-4 hours. A quick toilet stop before the last 2 hour leg, we dragged ourselves to the petrol station loo with more morphine in my system than I’m sure is entirely safe. Meanwhile, some Laos logic was applied and the driver insisted on another passenger being shoved onto the bus. I don’t like to be confrontational (despite what my family might think) but there was absolutely no way I was letting Steph (or anyone else) sit in my wheelchair for another three hours. For starters, it wasn’t safe. Secondly, the frame is not designed to be propped up and sat on in a footwell (especially over seriously bumpy ground) and finally, and most importantly, Steph described the experience as ‘kidney crushing’. When it was apparent that an argument was about to go down, I shoved Steph in the bus, climbed in myself, petulantly dug my feet in and completed my first ever sit in. The driver turned off his engine, tried to remove me and my chair from the bus and started yelling at me. I was more embarrassed that I was putting the entire rest of the bus out, they were having to wait because I’m a wheelchair user, but what was I supposed to do? It wasn’t even about money at this point, he was insistant he needed to take this extra passenger on this obviously very full bus. I honestly believe if I had paid him for the extra seat he would have still shoved this guy in somewhere. It was a pretty stressful experience as the driver was fairly irate, as were some of the passengers (not at me) but luckily I was as high as a kite! Eventually the local guy who had nabbed the front seat I was originally sitting comfortably in slid on to the gearstick and shared his seat with the new guy. I’ve never been so pleased to get off a bus in my life though and think that must have been the most uncomfotable 13 hours of my life! It wasn’t a particularly warm welcome to Cambodia, or a good example of how they treat disabled people, which is a shame because since that point everyone else we’ve met has bent over backwards to be helpful. It was however, fairly hilarious.