The final passengers to board the minivan for the 12 hour journey to Vientiane are a family of four. Carrying nothing but the filthy, inadequate clothes they are wearing, mother, father and two infants take up positions just to Kaili’s right. The van is overfull, as is the practice here.
Quickly, a days old milk smell fills the bus; it is clear the mother has been feeding her daughter but not washing.
The journey south down Highway 13 is a breakneck, mountainous slalom that leaves 8/20 passengers on board vomiting into thin pink carrier bags distributed by an unmoved conductor. Along with a couple of French lads, we watch on in despair as the sealed bags are, once filled, tossed out of the window onto the road.
Oh God, the smell on board.
The father, after decorating the panel above a rear wheel arch with spew, curls up into the foetal position on the bus floor with his daughter and rides out the rest of the journey to Vientiane there.
Focussed on survival, he ignores some incredible scenery, lush countryside and karst needles interspersed with countryside villages.
We pull in an hour north of popular backpacker hangout Vang Vieng for the driver and his mates to eat. Still nauseous or doubting the cleanliness of the food, most passengers just wait.
“Oh that’s right, take your time to scoff your food and have a coffee, we’re in no rush!”
A Frenchman complaining?!
One of the lads is pissed about being stuck in an unhygienic restaurant an hour from his destination after 8 hours on the bus, and gamely persists with his whinging even after learning our destination is another 4 hours further south.
The driver actually makes it in 3. Our fellow Europeans let out a relieved cheer when we reach Vang Vieng and happily pile off the van. Then, tyres screech and the engine groans as it is strained to the limit on the poorly-lit but mercifully straight roads as darkness falls.
We arrive, jilted and frazzled, nostrils clogged with a heady cocktail of curdled breast milk and vomit.
We’ve got another handful of these trips to come!