Long before embarking on this trip, I had read many a story on the interwebs about the horrors of bus rides in Laos. One article was titled “The Bus Ride from Hell…”
For starters, I had been booking everything online. Buses, trains, ferries, and of course flights.
For some reason, I could not find anyway to book any transportation in Laos. I could hardly find any information on them, other than the bus rides were long and horrible.
So….just how horrible was it going to be? Was I going to have people sitting on my lap? Would I be hog-tied naked to the roof??
The wild horrors our mind can create…
Simple Bus Transportation
I suppose I don’t know too much about the world overall just yet, but I do know this is not how it works in the USA.
Certainly not the small town America I came from. You can’t just tell any motel that you want the bus to pick you up and take you to Omaha in the morning.
This is exactly how it works in southeast Asia. The evening I checked into my hostel in the middle of Vientiane, there were signs on the small counter for busses to Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng.
Ask Everyone for Their Story
One of the best things in life is meeting people and asking them for their input or story on….anything. That’s why we are here after all, to be human beings.
A Belgian girl that was traveling with a Briton, a French, and a German told me that I needed to stop in Vang Vieng. I had read about Vang Vieng before, but not very much in depth. I knew there was supposedly tubing there, but I have done plenty of tubing at home so I wasn’t too worried about that.
Still, I was told it would make the trip from Vientiane to Luang Prabang much easier. Vang Vieng is the halfway point so it would reduce the nearly 10 hour bus ride into separate four and a half hour trips.
…Vang Vieng! Vang Vieng!
So, I asked for a ticket to Vang Vieng at the hostel in Vientiane. As I handed over 90,000kip, the guy behind the counter picked up his corded phone, yelled a few incomprehensible Lao words into the receiver and hung it up.
That was it. No long paperwork to fill out or sign, no need to present ID, no medical disclamer or agreements to sign off on.
The following morning around 8:45, I had finshed the free breakfast and came back downstairs to wait for the bus. Around ten minutes later a man came walking in yelling “Vang Vieng! Vang Vieng!”
We followed him about 20 feet down the street and stuffed all of our belongings and ourselves into the back of the Tuk-Tuk. The driver took off and after a few blocks we stopped about 30 feet behind a bus.
The driver disappeared for several minutes and no one knew what as going on, as usual. We all silently decided in unison to get up and head to the bus. “Vang Vieng!” They loaded all of our big bags on to the underside of the bus.
Aboard the VIP Bus
There were around 18 rows of seats, with two on each side of the aisle. I headed towards the back and grabbed a left window seat.
There was plenty of room. My small bag fit easily underneath the seat in front of me, and I still had more than ample room to put my feet and legs.
Yes, they are called “VIP Busses.” I do not know why. They like to throw terms around here.
Around 15 minutes went by, and it was a couple minutes passed the scheduled time to leave. The bus had gradually been filling up, but there were still plenty of seats left. This included the seat next to me.
Of course, just as the bus was starting to creep away, we stopped hard and one more person boarded. This person was above average in size, and obviously decided to sit right next to me. Funny how that always works.
So, I lost some of my luxurious space and was now down to a standard sized seat. However, there was still plenty of room for me.
Just after 9:00am, we were officially on the road. For the next five hours, the driver would lightly tap the horn no less often than every two minutes.
Most of the time, it was just a couple of light taps. Other times, it was many taps and some longer beeps. Every so often, there was an entire orchestration of horn honks in morse code lasting up to ten seconds.
Often it seemed that the driver was just saying “hi” to anyone and everyone we passed in the very small villages. Many times he was just letting motorbikes know that he was passing them.
On several occasions, it was to remove cows from the roadway. Yes, the cows are free range everywhere in Laos.
Not So Bad!
We did some gentle to not-so-gentle swerving around the many potholes along the highway. There were several times I bounced out of my seat from the numerous large bumps. One time, I looked out the window after a particularly long honk, and there I saw several goats running along side the bus.
Probably the most notable (and extremely minor) annoyance of the entire trip was that my seat partner was vigorously scratching his beard during the entire journey.I’m definitely guilty of doing this at times, and I know most of my friends are as well.
However, this was no ordinary beard stroking. I was legitimately concerned that my neighbor was going to tear his face open and bleed all over me on the bus.
There was no loud karaoke. There was no singing, no yelling, and nobody sitting on top of me. The air conditioning wasn’t a paralyzing arctic blast as many had warned, in fact it was about 75 Fahrenheit on the bus.
There weren’t even any locals barfing throughout the bus ride as many people had warned me of just two days prior to the trip.
We made two stops of about 15 minutes during the trip, which I think was personally more than enough for what was just under a five hour ride.
Part Two – Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang
The second bus journey in Laos was actually not a bus at all. Nearly every vehicle that went from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang was a “mini van.” At least this is what I saw from all of the bus listing signs throughout the town of Vang Vieng.
So, I would be taking a mini-van on this leg of the journey. I had stayed across the toll bridge the night before, and was told to just meet the van at the bridge since they were not able to cross it. The toll bridge was made out of wood and ropes.
The pick-up time scribbled on my ticket said 11:30am. As always, I arrived about 20 minutes before that because you never know when they will really show up.
The time was now 11:50am. I was standing at the top of the steep gravel hill leading from the bridge to the edge of the one main road in the town.
After many van-like vehicles went by I was beginning to wonder. Well, it is entirely possible they forgot me, or just did not come to the bridge I figured.
Only a couple minutes later, a white van pulled up and said something. I had no idea what he said so I just said “Luang Prabang” a couple of times. He motioned at me and then climbed out of the driver seat.
There were 4 roller suitcases in the back of the van, and for some reason the addition of my small backpack caused the driver to rearrange the luggage about five different times.
I was the sixth person in a van that appeared to have ten seats. After a couple more stops, we ended up with a total of 12 passengers.
There were five rows of two person bench seats in the van, along with two seperate ‘bucket’ seats on the right side.
I was lucky enough to grab the rear individual seat. This one did not require me to get out of the van for everyone else, unlike the seat next to the door.
The gentlemen next to me immediately introduced himself as being from Canada and hungover. Shortly after that he was actually from Holland, it was his girlfriend who was from Canada.
I did not have quite as much leg room on the bus, but I did have my own seat separate from contact with anyone else, which was even better.
Google Maps states the drive from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang is about four hours. In the end, it took us about six and a half hours to make it through the trip.
We made three stops in total during the trip. The first was only an hour into the drive and lasted about ten minutes.
Just before the big mountain passes we stopped again for ‘lunch’, although I did not eat anything. In retrospect I probably should have as we were at this stop for nearly 40 minutes.
During the stop, I talked to someone from Tel Aviv, Israel who agreed that the bus trips always make too many rest stops, and we’d much rather just get to the next destination.
Stuck on the Road
Around 45 minutes after our lunch stop, we again made another stop. This one was not to take a break, instead all of the traffic came to a stop in the middle of the road.
We were going up a steep hill, one of many on this part of the journey through the mountains. The parade of various and buses and tourist vans were constantly passing each other and cutting each other off, trying to get a couple extra inches ahead.
When we came to a complete and inevitable stop, our driver turned the van off and got out. A gentlemen in the front of the van burst out.. “Excuse me! Hello! What is going on here!? Why are we stopped!?”
He was probably in his late 20s and was talking on his phone during a lot of the trip, and I found his outburst to be quite hysterical. Had he never seen a traffic jam before? Does he know that sometimes rocks come off of mountains and get in the road?
On three different occasions, the driver of our van jumped back in and started our vehicle. We moved anywhere from five to 20 feet before we stopped again.
All in all, we waited a total of about twenty minutes before we were actually moving again. I thought this was really nothing considering we were going over the top of a mountain Lao, where roads are far less than ideal.
Between passing through the traffic jam and the entire downward slope of the journey, there were wonderful views of the surrounding mountains in nearly all directions. This was between hour 4 and 5 of the trip.
I was lucky to have the views all to myself, since nearly everyone else on board was staring at their phone for the entire trip.
We made one final rest stop after we had passed through all of the winding mountain roads. There were some pretty great views from down here as well.
Arriving in Luang Prabang
As it appeared we were arriving in the city, the driver turned onto another gravel road which took us around town from the north side towards the west end.
When we were now on the main road into town again, we suddenly pulled off the road just outside of the city limits. A tuk-tuk pulled into the small dirt lot just behind us.
“Okay..we have to switch now!”
It would seem that large vehicles, even this mini-van, were not permitted into the city itself. So, they managed to stuff all twelve of us AND our luggage onto this open air tuk-tuk.
We rode that last three miles into the city on the tuk-tuk, and on the way passed the guesthouse I had booked. I kept hoping we would stop, but we kept going a little farther and farther.
Suddenly, we stopped just to the west of the center of town, and we all grabbed out luggage and found ourselves in the middle of the road in town.
I put my backpack on and walked just over 15 minutes back west to my guesthouse. The bus rides, in the end, were not even as close to as bad as everyone had hyped them up to be.