We left our guesthouse a little after 8am in the back of a pick-up truck. A sawngthaew is what it’s called—three benches are fitted lengthwise in the bed of the truck and a metal frame supports a sturdy roof-top which provides both shade and a sturdy place for extra cargo. The metal frame extends past the bumper and is attached to a platform extending out a couple of feet. After two kilometers we arrived at the ferry dock. The ferry had just filled up and our sawngthaew would have to wait for the next one to cross the river. Ours was the first vehicle onto the new ferry, but that meant we had to wait until it was full. Champasak has very little traffic; we waited over an hour for the ferry to leave. In the meantime, Matt made nervous glances at the baby sitting next to him who had just finished his bottle. During our time in Laos we’d already seen a few babies spitting up, and Matt’s nervousness was understandable considering his proximity to the kid. Presently the baby in the seat next to Matt peed. This is of note because most babies in Laos do not wear diapers. If you drive through any village you are bound to see huts with a clothesline strung with 5-10 pairs of tiny pants. This is what the babies wear, if anything. So the kid peed, which meant the seat was wet. Matt moved to the middle row, and I made plans to do so as well if I was asked to move over. Grandma got out a towel and dried the little guy off before handing him out of the sawngthaew to grandpa, presumably so the kid could finish air drying. Eventually the baby was back in the truck, bouncing himself on the seat as he peered out over the side of the truck, as most kids do from their crib. We heard a sound. Matt and the grandma exchanged embarrassed smiles (Matt says hers was more of a guilty smile). I looked down at the kid’s leg, then down behind the bench I was seated on and saw a tiny tan turd in the middle of a goopy pile of poo. Yup, he’d done the dirty deed and had soiled not only his little baby bloomers, but also his grandma’s skirt, the seat, his leg, and the truck. Perhaps the explosion could have been more contained if only those leg holes had been a little tighter. After getting over the initial shock of what happened (I suppose it must not have too shocking for the grandma, I mean, if you’re taking around a baby with no diapers that is bound to happen more than once), the grandmother got out an even larger towel than the first time (yup, she must have been expecting this) to wipe the kid down. This time the bloomers came off and the kid was sent back out with his grandpa in case of aftershocks, if you know what I mean.
Eventually, we made it across the river and 10 minutes further to a junction where we got off to catch transportation in the opposite direction. Supposedly, buses came by every 40 minutes heading to our destination. And when I say buses, I mean really large sawngthaew; the truck cab the size of a delivery truck. After about half and hour, the first one came along. It was packed. All three rows of seats were filled, the cab was full, and several people where standing on the platform extending from the truck bed. But we could ride on top. So after handing our bags up, we both climbed up to the roof. A minute later I was tapped on the arm and motioned to come down. There was a seat for me on the tailgate, sandwiched between the full truck bed and a wall of people standing on the back.
As we pulled away from the junction and started to head south, I looked behind me and tried to count the number of people sitting inside the truck. I counted 42. The second time I got 43. Later I counted 45—I kept discovering a new person each time the passengers shifted around. With the additional people on top (6 or 7) and in the cab (3), I figured there were probably between about 55 people being transported by the sawngthaew. Perhaps 20 or 30 minutes into the ride, the vehicle stopped and four girls got out. It alleviated some of the crowding on the platform. I stood up to see how Matt was doing up top and mentioned that my butt was a little sore from sitting on the three-inch wide tailgate. He answered, “Try sitting on a bunch of coconuts.” I sat back down and the sawngthaew started moving again. It is worth noting that the roads in the south are much better than those in the north. They are equally well-paved and non-trafficy, however the road in the south is much more level and almost perfectly straight. So besides the uncomfortable seating arrangement, the drive was ok.
During other sawngthaew rides we have taken, it has been hard to get a good look at the scenery because the truck shell blocks the view. This time, with Matt on the top and me on the tailgate, both of us were facing backwards and so we could easily see our surroundings. It reminded me of riding in the back of my friend’s mom’s station wagon, only with a lot more people. We came to a small town and the sawngthaew began to slow to a stop, perhaps to drop off more passengers, I thought. Suddenly, from the dust in the empty road behind us, there materialized about 20 women waving sticks of barbequed meat in their hands and running towards the vehicle from all directions. A food stop. Chicken, pork, corn, even grilled bananas were available. Cigarettes, gum, sodas, and rice cakes. I bought some chicken skewers and a couple of bags of sticky rice, which I passed up to Matt who was still sitting on top of the shell. As I started munching on my own lump of sticky rice, one of men working for the sawngthaew kept pointing to the food Vanna White style each time someone came up to me to sell their snacks. The overall consensus seemed to be, how could she just eat plain rice? His daughter even offered me one of her chicken sticks, but I declined.
The ride continued. As we pulled away from the food stop, I saw sticks, corncobs, and plastic bags go flying out behind us as other passengers threw out their trash upon finishing their meal. It was still really crowded in the vehicle, and I was tiring of sitting on the tailgate. We passed through a happy looking village and I thought, “this is a nice village, doesn’t anyone want to get off here??” The sawngthaew slowed, “Oh good,” I thought, “Someone is getting off here.” On the contrary, a family of six got on, and we continued on our way. Another 20 minutes or so passed. We stopped again. Someone handed a kid out the window for a bathroom break, and a few ladies got out of the front. As the crew unloaded the debarking passengers’ belongings from the roof, I stood up to take a picture of Matt. Before I could take a shot, I felt a tug at my arm. The matriarch of the sawngthaew (mother of two kids, wife of one of the crew, and the woman who collected the fare from passengers) motioned for me to follow her. Not sure what was going on, I followed. Ahh. The seats in the front cab had opened up and I was being offered one. NICE. After paying the higher of a two-tiered pricing system for transportation the last month, I was reminded that sometimes being a foreigner does have its benefits in transportation. I enjoyed the rest of the ride from the comfort of the front seat, somewhere I hadn’t sat in months. Five hours after we started, we finally made it to our destination, less than 100km from where we started.