April 15, 2007

201206 Luang Namtha to Udomxai

By now the cat had gotten the hang of taking buses in Lao. Arrive at bus station up to an hour before scheduled departure time, especially for routes with only a single departure per day. Next, physically chope (reserve) a seat by placing something of substantial size (locked daypack, bag of oranges, baby or toddler, etc) on it. Pass large items (backpack, box, gunny sack, tyre, bicycle inner tube, chair, washing machine, mattress, PVC pipe, etc) to driver to load onto roof. Only after that do you proceed to the bus station ticket counter. A ticket only assures one of a space on the bus, but does not guarantee a seat. But your belongings inside & on top of the bus means that the driver will not leave without you ;)

Over the next few bus rides, the cat would observe two differences between Lao & PRCs. Lao uphold & respect the 'chope-ing' system, & smoke only when they get off the bus - if they smoke at all. The latter try their best to ignore the system, & smoke inside the bus even with windows closed - & many are chain smokers >_<

Many of the latter also seem pretty intimidated by Lao officialdom, fearing for their entry permits perhaps? But they are probably the less well off PRCs, who work as skilled labourers & travel by bus. Their more affluent counterparts who own businesses & plantations drive cars with PRC license plates, & maybe have less to fear, given the power & influence of money & 关系 guanxi (friends in high places of the non-celestial sort)? The only cars the cat ever saw in North Lao, which was at the frequency of zero on most days, all had license plates with the character '云' (yun2, for Yunnan province).

What both Lao & PRCs have in common is a neverending supply of spittle & the way they treat the entire Lao PDR as a big fat giant dustbin. Even kids & teenagers would have to clear their throat every so often & launch a gob of spit out of the bus window or onto the ground (both Lao & PRCs) or even onto the floor of the bus (PRCs only). This was pretty distressing for some Western & Japanese tourists. The cat has seen a lot of this in Singapore (even at its workplace) & on SBS buses, so heck as long as nothing lands on the cat's feet or fur. But good luck to Lao PDR if SARS ever hits...

Apart from sputum, vomit, & plastic bags (some tied up & containing vomit), the other main thing flying out of Lao bus windows is orange peel (& seeds). If a Lao bus full of passengers stopped anywhere for a long enough period of time, two parallel orange-coloured lines would probably form flanking the sides of the bus. It is impossible to throw anything through the front & rear windscreens, hence lines instead of a complete ring encircling the vehicle. If organic stuff didn't decay, the streets of Lao would be literally paved with gold - in Cantonese 柑 (tangerine) is the homonym of 金 (gold) =P

The cat thought that the Huay Xai-Luang Namtha bus was packed...but this bus broke the record. Normal Lao buses have sacks & plastic chairs filling the aisle, with passengers filling them one bum per chair/sack. On this ride it was 2 bums per chair, with some standing pressed against the door for the 4.5 hour journey. One guy at the back alighted at his destination by climbing out of a side window.

Pressed in between a mother & her toddler & a young Tai Dam lady, the cat still managed to catch glimpses of the Hmong villages we zoomed through. The Hmong New Year had started, & in 4 of them, young people were dressed in their finest traditional clothes & playing the Hmong version of Chinese 拋绣球 (pao1 xiu4 qiu2 lit. throw embroidered ball) courtship ritual. Guys & girls stand in parallel lines facing each other & keep throwing a little ball to one another. In some cases the cat spotted bright green tennis balls being used =P A guy can indicate his interest in a particular girl by throwing the ball to her whenever he gets it, & if he's lucky she will choose to throw it back to him...if not, she will keep throwing it to someone else instead & hope that he gets the hint ;) The Chinese version is far less interactive, with the lady tossing one ball to her choice of mate (or whoever manages to snatch it) in a crowd of men.

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