This post was originally meant to be about my time in Halong Bay, Vietnam.
However, it won’t be because as I was being taken by tuk tuk today from the bus station here in the small rural town of Vang Vieng, Laos, to my bungalow hotel, my driver hit a young girl on a motorbike throwing her little body onto the windshield and then to the dirt road with a thud. I am still traumatized by the whole sequence of events, so my hope is that writing about it will be some sort of therapy.
My view as I write this at Bearlin Bungalow in Vang Vieng, Laos.
Arriving in Vang Vieng was routine enough. Well, let me qualify that. The Chinese guy across the aisle from me clearly had a stomach that didn’t fair well with swervey mountainous roads, so the last 90 minutes of our 4 hour trip from the capital of Laos, Vientiane, was his little nightmare. And his first attempt at ejecting whatever snacks he picked up at the last rest stop didn’t end up in his plastic shopping bag as planned. The chunky puddle on the ground that meandered back and forth with the sway of the bus around each curve then became my little nightmare. I couldn’t get off that bus fast enough.
View from the back of my tuk tuk as we crossed one of two suspension bridges.
At the station there was a young, friendly Lao woman who offered a town map and help to all of us new arrivals. I showed her the address of my hotel and her eyes got big. “Maybe tuk tuk,” she told me as she pointed in a vast general direction indicating it wasn’t on the next block like the lady’s in front of me was. I responded, as I always do here, with way too much English. “So you are saying I can’t walk there? Can you at least show me on the map where it is?” Which it wasn’t so she flipped over the map and drew a basic diagram detailing the first two turns I would need to take to get there. She then just pointed. I thanked her and decided to find a restaurant with wifi to plot the rest.
Outside the station, two tuk tuk drivers stopped me. As I was showing them the address I got disrupted by another passenger. I left a bag inside. *Doh* I collected the little straw purse I had bought as a souvenir in Hoi An and revisited the tuk tuk drivers. “50,000 Kip,” one driver said. “How about 40,000?” I bargained back. “Far,” he retorted, “3 kilometers, across bridge. 50.” I shrugged and began walking away dragging my bag behind me. The original plan was to find a restaurant anyway. About 10 meters into my walk I start hearing whistles and hoots. I turned around. “Okay, 40!”
The driver that had been doing the bargaining, directed me to the tuk tuk of the other driver. “He will take you.” With that I jumped into the pick-up bed like back of the tuk tuk, and cautioned my driver of my bag’s weight as he hoisted it into the back with me. Then he jumped into the front cab, shut the door and we were off.
If you have been in tuk tuks around the world, then you already know they are truly different from country to country…even from city to city in the same countries. A tuk tuk in Delhi is different from a tuk tuk in Bankok which is different from a tuk tuk in Antiqua. And my tuk tuk for this ride was much different from even from the ones I took in Vientiane. The ones in Vientiane were basically motorbikes pulling an open air carriage-type apparatus that would seat 4 max. The ones here are almost like mini-trucks. Seven other people could have sat in the back with me in my Vang Vieng tuk tuk. It was a tuk tuk on steroids.
A Vientiane tuk tuk…much different than “tuk tuks” in Vang Vieng.
I love open air tuk tuk rides, and this was no different. The wind was in my hair, the breeze felt nice on my face and I was enjoying taking in all the new sights, sounds and smells that this new beautiful town offered.
I did get annoyed when we were stopped at the suspension bridge and I had to pay a 15,000 Kip toll. But as I crossed the rickety wooden structure watching the young monk behind me struggle to navigate his bike on the uneven boards, I thought it was probably a good thing that money was collected to maintain the structure. BUT let’s hope it is indeed used for that. I hear more stories about this country’s corrupt efforts than I do its pure ones.
Once off the bridge, I put my iPhone away so I could focus on visually taking in this very rural part of Laos. We turned a corner onto a street containing some restaurants, shops, hotels and plenty of pedestrian street activity. The movement caused my roller bag to move from the back of the tuk tuk to the middle squishing an already dead green grasshopper in its path. While steadying my bag and examining if the grasshopper’s carcass had endured more damage due to the rollover, I noticed my body starting to be thrust from the back of the tuk tuk to the front. I then heard a yell, thud and squealing of my driver’s breaks. The inertia of the sudden stop didn’t allow me to brace my body at all, so I toppled onto the bed of the tuk tuk (probably re-squishing that dead grasshopper for a second time). Once at a stand still I was grateful to be okay, but quickly noted that likely someone else was not. I looked into the driver’s cab to see the windshield splintered and deeply con-caved inward. Having grown-up in Montana, it look like we had hit a deer, but examining the commotion around us I realized we had hit a motorbike.
Stunned and not really knowing what to do, I stayed seated in the back of the tuk tuk as I saw a young girl being picked-up off the road. She was probably, maybe 14, and was as white as a ghost. She was, however, conscious…but barely. Thank God! Watching it all I couldn’t understand why whoever was supporting her wouldn’t move her into a chair in the adjacent restaurant or have her sit down on the curb. He just kept walking the barely conscious, ghostly girl.
Using too much English *again*, I looked at one of the bystanders and asked, “Did you call the hospital?” “Doctor?” as I made the universal hand gesture for “phone call.” His response to me appeared fairly dismissive, so at that point I grabbed all my belongings and jumped out to the back.
“Why don’t they sit her down? Isn’t there a hospital? Someone needs to put her in a tuk tuk and take her to the doctor!” I was saying this to anyone who would listen…but looking around it was only Laotians and their English is as good as my Lao. With frustration setting in and likely still in some shock myself, I started to tear-up. In that moment, a French family walked by (I didn’t know they were French at the time…I just saw white people and knew I would likely be able to communicate with them). Bounding towards them, I pleaded with them to help me. A bit bewildered they stopped. A floodgate of tears and words opened as I told them about the horrific accident, the little girl, how horrible she looks, how she wasn’t wearing a helmet, how no one is bringing her to the hospital, how they are all just seemingly standing around her staring…on and on.
“Zhere iz nozthing you can do. You can’t worry about it. It wazn’t your fault,” the mom told me as I sniffled. “Zhere is a hospital in town too.” She asked where I was staying and when I showed her the address she said it was still some ways. I still needed a tuk tuk.
They invited me to follow them to a restaurant down the street where I could get wifi and reorientate myself. As the 5 of us started down the road, we saw the young girl being put in the back of a tuk tuk by 4 other people. “Zee,” said the mom, “zhey will bring her to the hospital. She will be okay.” I did get comfort in that…but you weren’t going to see me get into another tuk tuk that afternoon.
At the restaurant I called my hotel proprietress, Lanh, who promptly came to the restaurant to pick-me up. She had passed the scene of the accident in route to collect me. “You were in that tuk tuk?” she asked with big eyes. And then followed with, “Didn’t you get my email saying I would pick you up from the bus station?” Uh no, and that would have likely made for a much different day for three people; the girl, the driver and me.
In the truck ride back to the hotel, Lanh theorized that it was likely the fault of the little girl. “You don’t need a license. Anyone can ride a motorbike. She could have been a foriegner too.” Foreigners can rent motorbikes here in Laos (unlike in Vietnam where foreigners aren’t allowed to drive anything). She then asked me if I wanted to rent a motorbike. I didn’t even answer her.
Not the best travel day for sure. Our constant vulnerability to instantaneous life changing events not within our power was put under a magnifying glass this afternoon. And while I wasn’t hurt in the least, I couldn’t help but reflect on what if I had been. With all the technology we have at our fingertips I feel so connected all the time to everyone back home…even when I am 1/2 way around the world. I don’t ever feel as if I am alone, because at the next wifi spot all my family and friends are at my fingertips. But imagining myself unconscious surrounded by people who don’t speak my language in a country not noted for excellence in healthcare, did make me pause. In that case, I would be alone and at the mercy of strangers in a foreign land in my most vulnerable state…
Okay, shaking it all off now! Writing to process it all did help too! Which is good, because tomorrow I have to be re-engaged and reenergized to visit a local farming village and do some trekking in these gorgeous mountains. I suppose a little reality/existence check is good from time to time…but let’s get back to the cool and fun stuff.
A smaller version of a Vang Vieng tuk tuk.
They are no joke!