Bus Stories from Laos

Jan 13, 2015 - Julie

Besides the 2-day slow boat journey from the Thai border, we took only buses to traverse throughout Laos. The only other option was to fly, but flights are expensive and often only once per day. Infrastructure in Laos was probably the worst we’ve encountered so far, but it was an integral part of the Laos experience. Every ride was an event, and we definitely added several notable bus stories from Laos to our anthology of travel stories.

Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng

This bus ride set the standard for all bus rides in Laos. There was little to no paved roads – only dirt roads through endless mountains. It was twisting and turning to the extreme. Thankfully I was warned of this beforehand and took a Dramamine, or else I would have undoubtedly hurled at some point during the full day trip. The 185km journey took no less than 8 hours, so we were averaging around 20km/h. And here we thought the 2-day slow boat was slow…

Despite all of that, we were grateful to have proper seats on the bus. A few passengers weren’t so lucky. The rule in Laos is that no means of transportation is ever full, regardless of the number of seats. Those without a seat were given plastic stools to sit on between the corridors. 8 hours through the twists and turns of mountain roads without back support? Sounds awful. They took turns sitting and standing in the stairway area of the bus… but of course, during the bathroom stop, a motorbike was placed aboard and took away any standing room. Everybody was glad when this bus ride ended.

Vang Vieng to Vientiane

As compared to Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, this trip further south to the Laotian capital was much better. The roads were only mountainous and winding for the first part, after which they straightened and we could actually go more than 20km/h. So this trip only took 5 hours or so. That was the shortest travel time we had anywhere in Laos.

At this point, we were used to bus stations located far outside the city center. The bus stations always start off in the city, but eventually move outwards so that tuk-tuk drivers can overcharge foreigners. We always try our best to avoid this by walking outside of the immediate station to catch another tuk-tuk or songthaew already on the main road, but this doesn’t always work. It always helps to have a group of people who don’t just accept whatever the drivers demand, but as a whole negotiate a lower price for everyone. The power lies in numbers!

Vientiane to Konglor Caves

The first 5 hours heading south from Vientiane were fine as we were driving on some of the best roads in Laos. Highway 13 runs all along the Laos border with Thailand – I’m convinced it was the best road in the entire country. Once we turned off highway 13 was when it all went downhill. For the next 3 hours, the roads were dusty, mountainous, and filled with potholes. It was clear that we were slowly driving away from civilization. Yet the landscape became increasingly more beautiful. There was no better chance to catch glimpses of the Laos countryside.

We were lucky that our bus took us directly into Konglor Village, within walking distance of Konglor Cave, because staying on one bus for the entire trip duration saved us a lot of hassle. We were not so lucky on the way out.

Konglor Caves to 4000 Islands

Our initial goal was just to get out of Konglor Village and back onto Highway 13, where we could once again catch southbound buses from Vientiane. Songthaews departing hourly were our only options. Two songthaews and three hours later, we were at the intersection with Highway 13. We had taken numerous songthaews ever since Sukhothai in Thailand when we were first introduced to this form of unofficial public transportation, but never continuously for an extended period of time. I don’t particularly recommend it – it was bumpy and loud, the seats were hard, and it’s weird to sit sideways. But that was the only option out so we were grateful for its affordable existence.

At Highway 13, we looked for the southbound bus that would take us to the next biggest town, Thakhek. We had started that day early at 6:30am to go to Konglor Caves and left directly after. By this point it was already around 3pm. I figured we would get to Thakhek by 6pm, call it a day, and continue the southbound journey the next day. All of that went out the window once we boarded the bus. Apparently the bus was heading all the way down to 4000 Islands, our ultimate destination, so in a spur of the moment decision, we went for it. We figured that we might as well get it over with all at once because even if we stopped in Thakhek that night, we would probably spend the entire next day traveling anyway.

I had the good fortune of sitting beside a very nice Laotian man on the bus who lives in Malaysia. He spoke English very well and we struck up a conversation. Not only did he negotiate a better deal on bus fare for us, he introduced us to local foods, and helped with small things that made a big difference – such as translating how long the bus stop breaks were. Many tourists were afraid of getting off the bus during bus stops in fear of the bus leaving without them. An hour later, the bus leaves and the tourists regret doing nothing but sitting in their seat the entire time. While it’s not a totally unfounded fear, we don’t ever let it stop us from going to the bathroom or grabbing a bite to eat because the locals don’t let it stop them!

6pm – Thakhek. We went for a bathroom break at the bus stop. 9pm – Savanakhet. We grabbed a bite to eat and some snacks to go at the bus stop. 12am – Pakse. We said bye to our Laotian friend and tried to get some shuteye. 1am – still Pakse. We parked on a random street for an hour or so seemingly for no reason. At some point, piles of piles of boxes were unloaded from the bus onto the side of the street. It seemed like a very shady delivery.

3am – Don Khong. The bus stopped in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night after crossing a bridge. A random guy who spoke English got on the bus, LonelyPlanet guide for Laos in hand to seem legitimate. He proceeded to tell us that we had to get off the bus there to catch a ferry to Don Det because the bus will only take us further. We demanded to be taken to Ban Nakasang (the usual pier to the islands), but of course no one on the bus could help us. How can they prevent their fellow countryman from scamming foreigners? Clearly that would be unthinkable.

We had no choice but to get off the bus and wait around for the overpriced 8am ferry arranged by this random guy. I was furious. Absolutely livid. But there was literally nothing around us but darkness. One side was the river and the lit up bridge. The other side had nothing. I couldn’t see for more than a few meters. It was pretty scary to think about what could be out there – we were literally in the middle of nowhere. So we cuddled on the nearby bamboo hut, trying to stay warm while wearing our thickest clothes (rain jackets – not very warm at all) and desperately waited for the sun to rise.

Our only consolation was that we saw a 4000 Islands sunrise. It was alright. The arranged ferry didn’t arrive until 9:30am (but by now we know to add 1-2 hours to every quoted time or time duration). The “pier” was just an area on the side of the river with a sandy hill instead of the usual plant-filled or garbage-filled riverside. The four of us (two other travelers were with us from the bus) maxed out the long and skinny boat. We all sat hip to hip, hugging our legs, on the wooden boards while all the backpacks were piled in the front.

The boat ride from Don Khong to Don Det took another hour and a half. By this point we had been on the road for 20 hours or so and had not properly slept for around 28 hours. We felt defeated in every manner and just wanted the trip to end, but the drama did not end there. At some point I noticed some water in the boat by our feet and told Carlos to lift the bag he had there. Soon after, the boat began to flood. We could only watch and hope our bags were not getting soaked. There was enough water at one point that the driver stopped the boat on the side of the river to fix the situation. Apparently the front of the boat was too heavy – we all shifted back and rearranged the backpacks. After that, there was really no other way to deal with everything that has happened than with a heavy dose of humour. We all made jokes about swimming or tubing to Cambodia that made us all wholeheartedly laugh together.

When we finally set foot on Don Det, we couldn’t believe it. At least we got all the bad traveling over with in one go. I don’t remember any showers as good as the one that day felt – to not only wash off all the dirt, but also wash away the still raw and negative memories. You can’t say we didn’t try our best to see every part of Laos. I’m sure one day, many years from now, we will look back on this journey and laugh.

4000 Islands to Pakse

The trip from 4000 Islands back up to Pakse had two sections – a ferry and a bus ride. The ferry was short and sweet, from the island of Don Det to Ban Nakasang on the mainland. Our boat stayed completely dry this time. When we got to Ban Nakasang, there was much waiting and confusion over which minivan we were supposed to board and when it would leave. As usual, we were strategic and aggressive about which seats we wanted for maximal leg room and minimal sun exposure. But our plans were foiled.

Like I previously mentioned – the unofficial “rule” for any means of transportation in Laos is that there is a “never full policy.” It doesn’t matter how many seats are in the vehicle, it doesn’t matter how much luggage everyone has, if there’s someone needing a ride, there is room for them somehow. The minivan from 4000 Islands to Pakse was the ultimate epitome of this rule. Instead leaving space for luggage in the back of the van, someone put in extra seats. Sure, more people had places to sit, but where will all the backpacks go? Apparently wherever there was room. Someone’s backpack was literally hanging on the back of the driver’s seat, in front of my legs. The corridors of the already crammed van was piled high with luggage. Passengers sitting in the back rows were literally physically trapped by all the bags.

Well, at least the van is full, we thought. Wrong! Half an hour into the trip, we stopped to pick up two more people. When the doors opened, everyone already in the van looked at them perplexed while they looked back at us baffled. There was only one open seat, but two new people… well, they couldn’t stay behind so we had to figure something out. One girl ended up sitting on top the piled luggage in the corridor. No joke. She could only laugh so not to cry. Good thing the total trip was short.

While the buses in Laos were not great, they did make for some unique and noteworthy travel stories. At the end of the entire trip, I’m sure it’s these not-sure-whether-to-laugh-or-cry moments that I will remember the most, more than when things go smoothly. It would not have been an authentic Laos experience if it happened any other way.