WHAT IT’S LIKE RIDING A BUS IN LAOS

by Carmel on February 10, 2014 · 16 comments

Our first experience riding the bus in Laos wasn’t a bad one. We slept (sort of) through most of it and it was so dark, our bus so empty and relatively new, it wasn’t a bad introduction. we had no idea what was in store for us the next time we chose this method of transportation.

After spending 5 days in Luang Prabang, we decided to head out to Phonsavan to see the mysterious Plain of Jars. Shawn will get to that post later, but first, we thought we’d give you an idea of what it’s like getting to and from Phonsavan. This will also serve as testimony that sometimes this long-term, budget travel thing isn’t always a joy ride.

Remember that bus that we took from the border of Laos to Luang Prabang?

Laos_bus

Hi-class is right

We went to a travel agent to buy our tickets to get to Phonsavan the next day. I know, I know, we could have saved money going directly to the bus station. However, the bus station wasn’t close (there are 3 in this tiny town) and it was still early enough in our trip that we didn’t quite trust just showing up in the morning and getting a ticket. Also, there aren’t a lot of buses leaving for Phonsavan daily, so we made the decision to go through an agent. We had read on Wikitravel that sometimes agents promise things they can’t provide, like a guarantee about which kind of bus you’re going to get. We didn’t want to take a minivan, which was surprisingly cheaper, because of my experience getting car sick on the way back from Pai. Given that the trip to Pai was a 3-hour journey and I got sick, 7-8 hours in a minivan on an equally curvy road sounded miserable. We stuck with the bus. The 5 people working at the travel agency all gave us slightly different answers to our questions about the trip, but they all showed us a similar looking bus to the one above when we asked whatΒ kind of bus we’d be taking to Phonsavan.

The next morning, we arrived a half-hour early for our 8:15 am bus and were directed to this bus.

Bus_oldbus

Now, it may be hard to tell, but this looks nothing like the first picture. Not even close. Upon walking onto the bus, we discovered seats somewhat similar to what you might see on a primary school bus…only with sharp objects poking out from the seats and broken armrests on about three-quarters of them. I looked at Shawn and said, “are you kidding me?” We way overpaid for the tickets and would have our knees smashed up against the back of the seat in front of us for 8 hours.

Let me give you an idea of why this 260 km journey takes 8+ hours.

Exhibit A

Bus_map

Let’s take a closer look at part of this map.

Bus_map2

No, that’s not someone’s drunk etch-a-sketch creation, that’s the road we took. Given how much this road winds, the maximum speed our ancient bus can drive is about 30-40 km.

Exhibit B

Bus_hills

Hills, hills, and more hills. Pretty, but also extremely difficult for a bus built in the 1960s to climb up when it’s over capacity. Which leads me to…

Exhibit C

Luckily for us on the way out to Phonsavan we never utilized the stools placed in the aisle of our bus. The bus ride out to Phonsavan was uncomfortable in most ways imaginable, but we at least were able to sit together and share the misery. I also had someone’s shoulder to cry on when I had to pee so badly that breathing started to hurt (and yes, I even tripped over the 20 stools to go ask the driver to stop, but he ignored me). Eventually all feeling in our legs left us and we powered through.

For our second bus trip, from Phonsavan to Vang Vieng, rather than get conned by another travel agent, we decided to leave early for the bus station to buy tickets for the 7:30 am bus. When we arrived, we were told that we had to take the 8:30 bus. Ok, that meant more standing around, but no big deal. We asked if the bus next to us was the one we’d be taking – the seller said yes. It was old, but a nicer (bathroom equipped) 2-decker bus. What a relief. We watched smugly as an even older, crappier looking bus was being loaded up with a ton of people and luggage. We laughed as they tried to close the door to the storage compartment under the bus, which after many attempts was still sticking halfway open.

Finally, around 8:15, someone came over and asked us where we were going. We responded, “Vang Vieng.” He said, “that’s your bus,” pointing to the old rickety thing that was already stuffed full of people. We stood there confounded. That couldn’t be it. We were told we were taking the nice bus. No, that couldn’t be it.

That was it.

Thanks to AngloItalian Follow Us! for use of their very descriptive photo

They took our bags, stuffed them into that same storage compartment we had just been laughing and then attempted to close it once again, to no avail.

When we got on there were no seats left. I heard a lady saying something about the “farangs” (us) and eventually we were given two seats – unfortunately not together. I was in the front, Shawn was way in the back. Around 8:30, we weren’t leaving, we were stuffing more people onto the bus. The stools came out, and after asking everyone to scoot back 3 times, we were finally on our way. The bus was supposed to hold 45 people. Including the driver and staff, I’d estimate there were about 65+ people on that bus.

Although we were traveling about 10 km/h up the winding hills, within about 15 minutes, at least a dozen locals on the bus started getting sick. Shawn was stuck in the back getting high off of the gas fumes and watching a small child being held up to pee and poop into a bag (which the parents so kindly kept on the bus rather than throwing out the window). I was up front smashed between two people puking every 5 minutes. The girl next to me unfortunately didn’t have a plastic bag to use until after she’d thrown up the first time, so that smell permeated my area for most of the ride.

Once in awhile we’d stop for a bathroom break, which was always a chore, getting 65 people off the bus and over the stools to go pee in the bushes (it sure is nice to be a guy, it seems). And, once in awhile we’d stop and pick up more people.

At 0:43, that’s pretty much the gist of it

After that, the flipped over delivery truck on the road we were coming down, the electrical fire on the bus, and lack of food and water until 2 pm barely even phased us. We were just happy not to be on the bus we saw broken down on the side of the road only 10 minutes outside of Vang Vieng.

What’s your worst bus story? Did it happen in Laos?

To see all of our photos from Laos, check out our Facebook page.

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Ana February 10, 2014 at 7:01 pm

Just reading the story after you had told it to me really made me laugh out loud again. Love the dumb & dumber scene you added to the story. What stories you and Shawn will have to tell your children.

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Carmel February 11, 2014 at 5:45 pm

Yes, assuming we don’t end in straightjackets. I kid, I kid…

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Amy February 11, 2014 at 4:33 am

Yes, our worst bus experience so far was definitely the 13hour journey from Xam Neua to Luang Prabang in Laos. I don’t think it was as awful as your experience with the puking and peeing though. How much did you pay for the bus to Phonsavan? It looks exactly the same as the bus we got, for 320,000 kip for two people. Not actually that cheap considering how hellish it is! We’re back in Laos now and have been trying to avoid long journeys completely; today we made a 3hr journey, at least an hour of which was just waiting for the bus to get moving!
Amy recently posted…The Fussy Eater Guide to TravelMy Profile

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Carmel February 11, 2014 at 5:47 pm

I want to say it was around 130,000 each. I can’t remember, but I know the ticket at the bus station was only 95,000. It’s NOT cheap for how bad the ride is.

3 hours is totally doable. Hope you’re having fun exploring other parts of Laos!

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Kim February 11, 2014 at 10:32 am

It looks so pretty though πŸ™‚

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Carmel February 11, 2014 at 5:47 pm

Yeah, it is. Still doesn’t make up for the puking.

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Bethany ~ twoOregonians February 11, 2014 at 2:45 pm

This brings so many flashbacks. I remember trying my best to sleep through the windy route down from Luang Prabang toward Vientiane and on to Pakse… The local families riding the bus were using the vomit bags so frequently…I’m shocked I didn’t have to, too! And yes, the shiny pictures of better buses and the hope that maybe, just maybe we’d score a clean, spacious ride for once. Oh dear. I’m tempted to pass this post on to Ted for a laugh…but it might stir up a few unwanted memories, too. πŸ˜‰

Glad you guys are having adventures! The sure make for great stories, eh?
Bethany ~ twoOregonians recently posted…High Desert to Hawaii: Our 2014 ItineraryMy Profile

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Carmel February 11, 2014 at 5:49 pm

Yeah, maybe you shouldn’t share…he might wake up in a cold sweat thinking he’s holding a chicken and getting trampled by hundreds of Laotian people.

Adventures, for sure! It’s nice to be able to look back on this and laugh now. I still remember when Shawn and I got off the bus for our “lunch” break. He looked defeated and exhausted. I honestly had a hard time doing anything but staring because apparently some kind of trance was my coping method. πŸ™‚

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Catherine February 12, 2014 at 4:21 am

Sounds like a horrible journey! I guess it’s all part of the experience though and gives you a good story to tell πŸ™‚
Catherine recently posted…24 Things I’ve Learnt In 24 YearsMy Profile

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Carmel February 13, 2014 at 6:48 pm

Good story to tell and hopefully not to relive.

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Maddie February 13, 2014 at 3:06 pm

It’s such a cruel irony that the scenery is so stunning in Laos but you spend the every journey wanting to vomit as you take each hairpin bent at terrifying speed. Your photo inside the bus just sent chills up my spine remembering the hideous times!
Maddie recently posted…Finding new experiences close to home – Take 12 Trips, JanuaryMy Profile

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Carmel February 13, 2014 at 6:47 pm

Ha ha…well said. It’s nice to look back on it and laugh but I was in anything but a laughing mood when we were experiencing it.

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Dale February 17, 2014 at 3:30 am

It’s one of those tales that I never get tired or re-telling to people when they mention their ordeal of having to spend 2 hours on the bus from the centre of the UK to London – what an ordeal! NOT!

Now every bus or train journey we make that’s anything less than the 18 hours we spent travelling in to Laos feels like a god send and I’ll never complain again.

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Carmel February 18, 2014 at 11:10 pm

When we arrived here in Perth, my family asked how the flights were. I said, “well, it was pretty easy, we only had 7 hours of flying and just a short 3 hours layover in Singapore.” They looked at me completely stunned. I guess after 22 hours on a Lao bus or really ANY time on a Lao bus, everything else feels like a piece of cake.

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Jenny February 26, 2014 at 1:17 am

I guess whatever doesn’t kill you always makes for a good story, even if it doesn’t necessarily make you feel stronger!
Jenny recently posted…Koh Hopping. Koh Jum & Koh Lanta, ThailandMy Profile

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Carmel February 26, 2014 at 1:25 am

That is a much more suitable saying for travel than the original.

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