When traveling through foreign countries, there’s always an element of risk. Communication barriers are expected, though bigger concerns like theft, accidents or illness are always in the back of your mind. But somehow, being stranded in the middle of nowhere with no money, no friends and no idea how to get out was never a concern…
After having spent a day and a half in the Four Thousand Islands (Si Phan Don) at the tip of Laos, I was determined to squeeze in a quick visit to Champasak to see the town’s famous temple before racing to Pakse in time to catch a 15-hour bus to Bangkok where my flight to Myanmar awaited me. With Laos’ unreliable infrastructure and time restrictions, many said the trip couldn’t be done, but I was determined.
After discussing the situation with a travel agent, I worked out with the bus company to pick me up directly from my day-long kayaking trip in the Four Thousand Islands to take me to the boat jetty across from Champasak. The plan was to arrive in to the town in the evening, then rise early the next morning to view the temple before taking the two-hour journey to Pakse from where my bus would leave at 3 p.m.
Perhaps as a warning, my arrival in Champasak started off pretty bad. I reached the small village right after sunset and soon discovered how remote of an area I was in. No one spoke English, and though my guidebook had listed a series of guesthouses “near the fountain,” I saw no evidence of this anywhere. In fact, there were a few things my guidebook forgot to mention…
As I walked along the town’s main road in the dark, people just kept pointing further along, and I was beginning to think these guest houses were a myth. With my large pack on my back plus a smaller (and breaking) backpack in front, I would have gladly paid good money for a cab to a hotel, but there was no public transportation around. And as I walked about 10 minutes in, I discovered another problem: food poisoning.
Let me tell you, lost in the middle of nowhere carrying two large bags on either side of you is not the time you want to be running to the toilet.
Luckily, I soon found a hotel that, despite being pricier than what I had hoped for, was the best I could do given the circumstances. Since I only had 50,000 kip ($6.30) left on me, the hotel lady said I could just pay for the room and dinner the next day after I had reached the town’s only ATM in the morning.
When I awoke the next morning I had a very precise itinerary in mind: reach the ATM by 8 a.m., grab a quick breakfast, then spend two to three hours at the temple before heading back to the hotel to check out and grab the 12 p.m. bus to Pakse. If all went according to plan, I’d reach the city by 2 p.m., a solid hour before my bus departure. Ambitious? Yes. Impossible? No.
But as the machine returned my ATM card to me sans cash, I noticed the sign on the wall: “Foreign Cards Not Accepted.”
Ok, no big deal. The bank was due to open any minute and maybe they could work out something with me. As the clock continued to tick, 8:05, 8:10, 8:15, I began to wonder where the bankers were at. I knew things were more laid back in Laos, but geez, this was a bank and it was a Wednesday morning!
Soon I met another traveler, a German guy who was also disappointed (though much calmer) to find his ATM card didn’t work either. As the bank continued to remain closed, he remembered that today was Women’s Day, and therefore no women had to work that day.
Apparently all the people who worked at the bank in Champasak were women, because no one came to work that day.
At this point, my stress level began to rise. Apparently, the nearest ATM was in Pakse, anywhere from a half hour to a two-hour bus ride/boat ride away and also where I had to catch a bus later that afternoon. As I slowly accepted the fact that I did not have the time or the money to see the Champasak temple after all, I began to worry how I was going to get out. All I had on me was 50,000 kip, exactly the amount needed to take the bus to Pakse. The problem was, I still owed my hotel about $10 for my room and dinner, and there was no way I would be able to leave and return and still make my bus to Bangkok.
Luckily, the German guy had an idea. He too had to head to the ATM that day, and since he still planned to spend another couple days in Champasak, he agreed to return to my hotel to pay my bill for me, leaving his passport as a deposit. As it was still mid-morning, we thought we’d have plenty of time to reach Pakse before my bus, so we decided to try to hitch a ride.
As we walked along the road with our packs, the sun beating down mercilessly through the thick, sticky air, no one was stopping. We waited for more than an hour before the German guy had the idea to rent a motorbike and told me to wait at the shop for him to return with the bike. As he began to walk away, he suddenly turned around and told me that, if a bus comes along while he’s gone, I should take it anyway and not worry about paying him back for the hotel.
I waited nearly an hour and, not only did the bus not come, neither did he. As it was nearly reaching 12, the only guaranteed time I knew there was a bus, I decided I could not wait any longer. I had just enough money to leave and somehow I had to make it.
But as I headed back into town, I realized that I was back at the start near the boat jetty in the mysterious land of no English and no guest houses. No one seemed to know (or understand) anything about how or where to get the bus from Pakse, and it appeared my only hope was to reach one of the hotels on the other side of town.
As I looked down the road ahead, I began to panic. After not having eaten anything all day, I was feeling weak, and I was not looking forward to another long, sweltering, heavy walk. But as I looked at the time, I didn’t think I’d make it anyway. My German friend was nowhere to be found, and I honestly did not know what to do.
So, I did the only thing I could do, I sat down and cried.
This was definitely not one of my finer moments, but we all have our bad days, and this one was turning out to be pretty bad.
As I sat there, defeated, a Laos lady came over to me to ask me what was wrong. Though she could only speak a little English, I somehow communicated to her that I was stranded and needed to get to the other side of town to catch a bus to Pakse. The next thing I know, I’m on the back of a motorbike headed to the hotel area.
With only 15 minutes to go, I managed to book my bus just in time, relinquishing the last of the cash I had.
Nearly three hours later I reached my bus with just 10 minutes to go, enough time to reach the ATM (finally!), buy my ticket and run on board, honestly, desperately thankful to finally be leaving Laos.
I learned a very valuable lesson that day: always carry extra cash and never assume anywhere in Asia will have an ATM.
In retrospect, things could have been a lot worse, and I’m eternally grateful to the German guy and the Laos women who helped me on my way. Despite all the bad, it’s good to know that kind people exist everywhere.