Eventually it was the really sad time we had to leave Don Khon. All the better I suppose...because we stayed longer than we expected, Bridger and I, having no local currency to start with, were literally down to our last $10 in kip, Bridger had 100% cleaned out his USD float and I had just a bit left. My USD float is usually never touched when I travel unless absolutely needed but this time it was necessary and my usually comfortable wiggle room was feeling a bit stretched. Oh well, we're going to the mainland so we can use the ATM there before getting on the bus to our next stop. Wrong-still out of service! Ok, our first bus is stopping in Pakse where we get off and transfer to a bigger bus so I figure we can get some food (ate breakfast at like 8 am) and money there before heading the rest of the way to Tha Khek, our final stop.
Well...we thought the Cambodia-Laos day was nuts, this was like nothing I've ever seen before... Again with the minibus...NEVER take a minibus!!! Feeling a little nervous because, being a minibus, we knew there were no toilets on board. But we were luckily the first two people on the minibus (actually this was more of a medium bus but same concept-for tourists) so we could pick the optimal seat to be able to escape quickly should an emergency SE Asian gut situation arise out of nowhere...very comforting! We put our big bags in the storage compartment under the bus like usual. And then they closed it. It was full. Should have been our first sign of what was to come! Tourists kept getting on the bus with their big packs just set in the aisle btwn the seats. But the bus company just kept piling more and more tourists on with more and more bags until the entire aisle floor is covered and people have to monkey crawl over armrests to get to their seat. But it doesn't end there. Seats start being folded down and appearing from nowhere as they continue to pile people on the bus, the bags now in the middle 2-3 layers deep. You know, there was this one girl who got on the bus and instead of monkeying along armrests like everyone else she just tramped over bags in the aisle and another girl said nicely enough "ah, be careful" and this stupid assface snapped back "then don't put it there!"--as if anyone quite obviously had any choices here! Anyways, this wasn't the end...they still keep putting tourists on until even the bus driving is laughing and shaking his head bc he doesn't know where their bodies or their bags are going to fit. But they do...a few just stand in the stairwell by the door and one poor guy (luckily he was young and presumably at the beginning of his backpacking career and thus would likely chalk it up to a great adventure!), his seat was laying on top of the bags in the aisle with his head dangling down behind him because unluckily his body was on top of a 3 bag layer but his head was only over a 2 bag layer! So much for my clear escape route in case of above...now not only would I have to climb on armrests over bags avoiding the roof, I would have to climb over bag laying boy and then push through stairwell humans...not quite the swift escape I envisioned! I gave taking a picture a go but unfortunately didn't even come close to conveying what the experience truly looked like. At this point everyone on the bus is just laughing and shaking their head along with the bus driver and wondering when is full enough to actually leave...eventually we do, on route to Pakse for our bus transfer.
We arrive to Pakse at like 2 pm and the big bus is parked waiting for us...when does that EVER happen in Asia?!? And we were literally the last people on the bus and the bus was waiting for us so barely had time to have a scary bus station pee break let alone lunch or ATM. Guess our money is stretching us the whole way to Tha Khek. I figured, like all buses in SE Asia, the bus would stop at some sketchy roadside restaurant for 45 min or so for dinner so we could eat. Wrong again! This bus stopped EVERYWHERE, like every 5-10 minutes to pick up someone, get gas, drop off some boxes, whatever, but did NOT stop at a little restaurant and we were getting so hungry! I thought at least it would stop at some little hole in the wall market store where we could get a pack or oreos, plantain chips or something edible to tie us over. Wrong again! It only stopped at this little roadside stand where a frenzy of local people got on the bus selling sticks of mystery meat and bags of boiled rice and there were NO other options. We were so hungry by this point...like 6 pm and hadn't eaten anything since 8! Bridger almost got a meat stick (once in Battambang Bridger and I got a meat stick and it smelled so good but there was actually no meat, just blub and gristle that even he couldn't eat it AND we saw rats on a stick so a little skeptical of sticked meat!) but asked if it was chicken to which the lady replied "5000!!!". So he asked a few more times to which she replied "5000!!!" every time so we declined but snapped up a plain white boring bag of rice. It truly tasted like dirt. Bridger got his down but I couldn't because I kept thinking if it tastes like dirt, it's probably made with local water that might make me sick and I don't wantto be sick on a toiletless bus. So its like 8 pm and I hadn't eaten since fried rice at 8:30 am and looks like I wasn't going to until maybe we arrived at Tha Khek at something like 10 pm and even then maybe all the restaurants were closed so maybe I wasn't gonna eat for the rest of the day. And even if I could eat in Tha Khek we'd have to be careful about money so we didn't spend our very last penny. So I ate my half of an emergency cliff bar that we were able to pick up in Phnom Penh...thank goodness for it!!
Ahhh, we're stopping so much, I'm starving and I Have to pee (roadside hut doesn't have a bathroom...I don't know what bus ppl expect us to do) and now we're arriving in pitch black (we try to avoid arriving places after dark if possible) and I have no money. But theeen, I kid you not, a little like 8 year old kid gets on the bus sitting one row behind me to the left with what looked to be a shotgun, for real. I thought for sure it had to be a toy so I showed Bridger and he confirmed that in fact it was a real freaking gun. So like I'll ever relax now! I spent the rest of the bus ride hawk-eyeing him to see what direction the gun was pointed and repeatedly and silently willing him to "get off the bus, get off the bus, get off the bus!!!".
Eventually we get in Tha Khek at like 10:30 at night and luckily can grab a tuk tuk which we shared with a random German guy with a lisp who also got off the bus. Thinking we might arrive after dark we quickly booked a room at a Lonely Planet recommended hotel before we left without doing our own research first (I don't know if it's just me but so far this trip my opinions have been very very different than Lonely Planet's opinions!). Turns out the reviews are terrible and even had reports of people sneaking into dorm and private rooms in the middle of the night and stealing stuff. We get there and looks ok from the outside but we find out that the window shutters cant be locked, there was a back door into the empty laundry courtyard that only closed with a small latch you could easily bash in and a bathroom window--combined with reports of night robbery, we slept with our really valuable stuff in our bed with us and locked the rest together to a chair right beside our bed. The restaurant was closed, so as expected, I had my fried rice at 8:30 am, half a cliff bar at 9:30 pm (B had a few bags of rice too) and went to bed.
We decided to go to Tha Khek because we were going to do a 3 day motorcycle trek called "the loop". Bridger was dying to do this trip but it took a bit of convincing for me to agree because ultimately motorcycles (I say motorbike, really we're talking about scooters) are really scary and you don't go far in Asia before meeting someone who has wiped out or has otherwise crappy motorcycle experiences and injuries! Either way, it sounded like an awesome adventure, it comes with rave reviews from others who have done it and Bridger found a very well recommended reputable motorbike rental company with good quality bikes. After the tourist trail Thailand fiasco, we decided that in each country we go to, we are going to make an effort to do at least one thing a little "off the beaten track"...this would be our thing in Laos.
So the next morning we took a tuk tuk into the centre of town to stay one night before leaving on our trip the next day. The tuk tuk driver quoted us 30 000 kip all in into town (the guy the night before charged 30 000 ea person). When it was time to pay, Bridger mindlessly passed the guy 60 000 kip...double the asking price and we walked away before figuring out what happened. Haha he never said anything...probably went home for the day after that! We checked into a hotel and went shopping for sunglasses for the trip. Sunglasses can be tough to find in Asia because for the most part, locals don't wear them. I finally found a pair that would do and the price tag said 15 000 kip which was like $2...a steal. The lovely saleslady chatted with us a little bit asking where we are from and if we speak French (lots of older Laotians speak French because of the prior French colonization). I agreed to buy and paid with a 50 000 bill and she gave me only 10 000 change back. When I asked about it she held up 4 fingers to say they cost 40 000 to which I countered that the price tag said 15 000! When questioned, she immediately caved, apologized and gave me the right change. Haha she clearly just tried to take me giving me inflated "foreigner price" on a clearly price labeled item, but I couldn't help but notice the charm in the fact that obviously she is not used to scamming tourists because it didn't take much push back for her to recant and sort things out. In other, more seasoned tourist scamming places, people would resist and insist much longer before breaking if they ever did!
The next day we packed one small daypack full of everything the two of us might need for 3 days on the road and went to the motorbike store to pick up our bike. As we were doing so, Bridger had a major toilet episode come on but figured no problem, the motorbike place caters to tourists, it will obviously have a toilet you could use before you set out. When he asked the German guy who ran the place, German guy said he can't use the toilet as "it is not possible" because it was being fixed-haunting words when you have to go! So Bridger had to run to a restaurant across the street who luckily didn't stop him from using their toilet...another close call on the road! We picked up our winnie the pooh scooter motorbike and helmets, dropped Bridger's passport, filled out all the paperwork and with the warning from the German guy to "be careful because other vehicles don't care about you, animals will run out in front of you and there are potholes big enough to swallow your entire front wheel", we were off, Bridger driving and me on the back carrying the backpack. As it turns out, to do the loop in 3 days, the last day you have to drive hours along the main road which is busy, dangerous and had nothing to see so as recommended, we opted to do the loop in 4 days and just turn around and backtrack. So two days there and two days back. And with our map, we were off...