It’s Not a Proper Bus Ride without a Chicken or Two

Categories Adventures in Transportation, Laos, Where Have I Been?

While wedged between a 7-year old vomiting into a plastic bag and a bamboo cage full of irate chickens, it occurred to me that I should devote more time to the glory of public transportation in Asia. I do have a whole tag devoted to Adventures in Transportation, but in the last months I have focused on other aspects of my travels – photography, lessons learned and some good food. But I’m a big believer in taking as much public transportation as possible, as these journeys are the most effective snapshots of a local culture, a Polaroid puzzle piece to help fill in the blanks. Granted, an in-depth exploration of the local market or an impromptu invite to a wedding or a funeral are other excellent ways to immerse in a new place. But there is something about a local boat or bus – with all its discomfort, livestock and laughs – that affords a unique snippet of a different life, no matter where I am. From the moment I got to Chiang Mai and piled onto the back of Kyle and Bessie’s motorbike, 3 of us plus my pack, I had a big smile on my face. And in the weeks that followed – stuffed into songthaews with piles of schoolchildren, a dizzying array of snacks and a monk or two, or hanging off the end of a pickup truck for a quick ride to Hang Dong or riding my own awesome pink motorbike – I’ve reminded myself how integral the ‘getting there’ part of travel is to the overall travel experience.

Water buffalo on a ferry from El Nido to Coron in the Philippines
Just another ferry ride in the Philippines….

During my recent trip to Laos, all of the ingredients for a memorable ride were present: the crotchety driver who I slowly won over with clementines and silly jokes, the piles of luggage atop the songthaew that trundled across Northern Laos (packed to the gills), the irate chickens next to me and – half way through – a dozen giggling children wedging themselves into an already-overflowing truck, dirt-covered and smiling.

Trusty songthaew from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw
My trusty songthaew from Luang Prabang to Nong Khiaw

The ride started normally: it left over an hour late, and all of the passengers had already shared some food with one another by the time the songthaew pulled away from Luang Prabang’s Northern terminal in a cloud of dust. I had a bag of clementines on offer, the woman next to me was intent on feeding me as much sticky rice as possible and the man across from her kept trying to ply me with fried chicken.

Luang Prabang's Northern bus station
Luang Prabang’s northern bus station.

Only thirty minutes in, we had already picked up enough people and cargo that kids were sitting on their parents’ laps and burlap sacks filled with unidentifiable meat were unceremoniously shoved under the benches near my feet. Cardboard boxes filled with nails lined the middle of the songthaew, creating a makeshift ‘centre aisle’ for the lightest of the passengers (nails in your butt: probably not the best way to travel through Laos).


Plenty of room!

One hour in, and there were people hanging off the back of the struck, sweaters flapping in the wind. Mobile phones kept going off, but no one could answer – either they were too wedged in their seats, or they were holding on for dear life.  Of course, half the songthaew was fast asleep at this point; the Asian ability to sleep wherever, whenever remains mind-blowing.

Two hours in, we stopped for a ragged band of children and their exhausted mother, the kids caked in dirt and barefoot, curiosity bubbling under the surface of their tiny faces. As they started to pile into the songthaew, the driver yelled at them to get out, only to change his mind several meters down the road. In they went, piles of kids upon kids, chickens upon chickens, smiles all around.


Ok, now it’s getting crowded.

All ages and sizes in my songthaew to Nong Khiaw
All ages and sizes in my songthaew.

The kid nearest to the front (who couldn’t see the road) began to throw up loudly, and – a testament to the gaping cultural chasm between North America and Asia – with each round of vomit, everyone in the songthaew cheered, applauded and laughed at his predicament. It was entirely good-natured, but still surprising to me; I can’t imagine the gentle mocking going over smoothly at home. This barf-and-clap routine went on for quite some time, and the chorus of other children vomiting added to the fun. Including, as I mentioned from the outset, the kid perched at the edge of my lap.


One of the few kids who wasn’t throwing up on the ride.

All smiles on the way to Nong Khiaw
This baby ended up on my hip about 2 seconds after I took the photo.

Two and a half hours in, a couple banged on the roof to get the driver to stop. Since I was sitting near the back, I stepped out first and while I was stretching my legs, they literally threw their baby at me. Standing outside, a small Laotian boy on my hip and a clementine in my hand I took a look around me. In the chaos of the trip, I forgot to focus on what was outside the songthaew – and it was glorious. Careening past towering karst cliffs, past the emerald green river snaking between them, across bridges with incomparable vistas, we (me and the 37 other people – yes, I counted) were catapulted into an alternate universe, away from the dust and dirt of Luang Prabang, away from the tourists and the touts. No matter how long I travel, mountains and rivers take my breath away.

Beautiful view on the way to Nong Khiaw
Beautiful view on the way to Nong Khiaw.

The winding road from Luang Prabang

At around the three hour mark, the kids struggled to stand up and started banging on the roof. Our songthaew braked sharply and out went the kids, giggling and smiling and holding their respective bags of vomit. After their collective dismount, we began to pull away. The mother gazed casually into the distance, bored, as she waited for her kids to stop throwing up at the side of the road. Stiff, straight back, tired but proud look in her eyes and a baby on her hip. And that is how I will remember them, a small snapshot of a life that I will never know and a special perspective that only local transportation can bring.

Arriving in Nong Khiaw was rewarding: a tiny town nestled between limestone cliffs and seemingly frozen in time. But the ride to get there? Even more memorable.

Laos' Nong Khiaw in the afternoon sun.
Nong Khiaw in the afternoon sun.

It’s just not a proper bus ride without a chicken or two.

Chicken-tastic!

-Jodi

35 comments to It’s Not a Proper Bus Ride without a Chicken or Two

  1. Great post – definitely exemplary of the SE ground transportation experience! So where did the kid up throw up into (I’m hoping it wasn’t on someone’s lap)? Thank you for not discussing the smells during the ride! :-\

    • Hi Diana! His mum handed him a plastic bag, and every time he started to get sick again, everyone on the songthaew would thrust a plastic bag at him like clockwork. Seamless, practically smell-free and pretty hilarious.

  2. Loved this. We are definitely on the same page regarding public transport. Great photos and beautifully written as well.
    - Phil

    • Hi Phil – that’s how I felt when I read your great post on the ferry ride in Mali. Thanks for the compliment and for reading. And congrats on the Camel Drawing eBook, Redux Edition. ;)

  3. I’m with you about taking public transportation being an integral part of travel. And, I don’t think any of our bus trips in Laos were without plenty of plastic bags and kids puking :) You are so right that the attitude about puking kids is so different from the west, in a good way.

    • It was refreshing to see, especially the reaction of the parents (who laughed right along with everyone else). And of course, it meant that the kids themselves didn’t make a big deal out of the situation, instead seeing it as an unfortunate (but funny) aspect of their trip. Safe trip to Bangladesh!

  4. Wow, I don’t know if I could handle that kind of bus, but well I’d give it a try for THAT view!!! <3 the chickens ;-)

    • I don’t know Andi … it always amazes me how our tolerance for things that objectively seem insane nonetheless grows when we’re living through them. I’m sure you’d have done just fine! Plus, lots of coffee :) Lovely engagement party photos – congrats again!

  5. What a journey, Jodi! No better way to get to know the locals than to be on a bus with them (although I’m sure you could do without the throwing up). It’s interesting that you mentioned the good natured teasing that went on. I think it’s sweet – though definitely different than what someone in the US would do. Loved the photos too! :)

    • Thanks Stella. The teasing was sweet and, as I mentioned in response to Audrey, also put the situation in perspective for the kids. Nonplussed, despite the vomiting, they were having a good time. Glad you enjoyed!

  6. I love public transport in Asia, too. Though 12 hours in transit is about my personal max. Ever been on a real live cargo boat?

    That’s, erm, special.

    • Actually the first photo from this post was taken on a cargo ferry in the Philippines. 41 water buffalo, one of who was really sick (it stunk on the boat as a result), huge tanks of fish and lobster, more roosters than I could count and I woke up on my cot in the middle of the night with a chicken sitting on my stomach. Good times, good times. That was an overnight trip too – definitely not for the faint of heart!

  7. Wow. Only you could make a bus trip with absolutely hellish elements to it sound so lovely . If I were on a bus with a bunch of puking kids, I doubt I would write so kindly about it. You have such a great attitude, Jodi. Did you know ahead of time about the food sharing, and that’s why you brought the clementines? Or was it lucky coincidence?

    • Thanks for the compliments Gray! The sharing is common throughout most of the world – South America and Asia especially! I’ve been picking up bags of fruit or candies or dried rice cakes whenever I take a bus, and inevitably it breaks the ice in an effective way, allowing me to interact with the rest of the passengers from the get go. But it’s not just me, as I noted in the post – always fun to see what the locals bring on board with them, from steamed fish and rice in the Philippines to fried chicken and sticky rice in Laos or Thailand. Burma was a lot of samosas. Made those crazy-terrible bus rides a bit more tolerable ;)

  8. Great way to hit the road. I totally agree with you went you say public transportation provides some of the most interesting travel stories which makes me think about that time I took public transportation from the Ambergris Caye (Belize) to the Guatemala border. Maybe I do not want to remember that.

  9. What a journey! It always seems to make the destination so much more worth it.

  10. aww there is nothing worse than kids getting sick on a ride, but love the photos!

  11. When a blog post begins with “While wedged between a 7-year old vomiting into a plastic bag and a bamboo cage full of irate chickens” I have no choice but to read the whole thing ;)

    Your story is a reminder that much about traveling is far from luxurious. We often look back at these moments of our travels, as the ones that opened our eyes to the local state of affairs and culture. It’s why we travel :)

    • Hey fellow Montrealer! You’re right, is part of why we travel and also remains a vivid set of memories that we can return to at any time. It’s also a great reminder that going outside your comfort zone isn’t as scary as it sounds. Thanks for the comment!

  12. I’m Laos bound soon, so I was smiling all the way through this story. Gorgeous writing, as always.

    • Thank you Barbara. We ended up on a tiny bus for the return trip, which was nowhere near as contemplative. But it was still clementine and sticky-rice filled. :) Safe travels to Laos and hope we cross paths in Chiang Mai.

  13. I always try to take local transportation when travelling – in order to be able experience the culture first hand just as you did in this post. Insightful Jodi!

  14. Fantastic post! I completely agree that getting on the local transport is a great way to really connect with the locals and get a feel for a place. I am off to Africa for the first time next month and I can’t wait to get a few more public transport stories of my own!

    • Thanks Tom. Take a look at Phil’s blog (Phil in the Blank) for some great transportation stories in Africa. He’s heading back there in April as well, so perhaps you two can meet up!

  15. Your writing is so descriptive, I felt like I was crammed in that songthaew with all those people and puking kids. That was fun to read.

    My memorable local transport story was on an old bus with all the windows open and door completely wide open going through Bangkok during Songkran. The bus made a quick stop and someone threw a bucket of water inside the bus and I was completely drenced. I wouldn’t have mind but I was on my way to my aunt’s apartment to pick up my luggage to head to the airport. I had a good chuckle. The cheapest city bus ride will not keep you dry during Songkran!

  16. Wow, looks like quite the experience!

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