To be straightforward, transport in Laos requires a durable bum and loads of patience. I made it in and out of Laos in one piece, with no scratches and only minor bruises, and I consider myself lucky. The bus into Laos from Vietnam was by far the most ‘adventurous,’ if you can call it that. Please keep your hands and feet inside the bus at all times, and enjoy the ride.
Bus: Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam to Muang Khua, Laos
The day before I took this memorable bus ride to Laos, I was stuck on a 9-hour bus ride from northern Vietnam to a border town with a French girl moaning and groaning about how horrible the ride was. I am a laid-back traveler but lose patience with people who essentially get in a tizzy over minor incidents. When she finally said, “I don’t think it could get any worse,” I whipped around and simply said, “Oh yes. Yes it does.” I knew through word of mouth and a little reading that the bus ride we would be taking to Laos the following day would be much worse. I also have little sympathy for people who have not traveled in Africa- take a bus ride there, and then get back to me. The following morning, we boarded the 5:30am bus to Laos. It was to take 8 hours or so and only cost $4.50. Before anyone ever got on the bus, the roof was already completely full of goods. The conductor piled backpacks and luggage on the back row of the bus, along with a giant teddy bear, eliminating a row of seats. We all boarded. Before we pulled out there was already an argument about putting five people in a four-person row. The conductor agreed to let the person sit near the door on a box instead. We pulled out of the bus station and made it… oh about 50 meters. We stopped and picked up two more people. And then three more. And then two more. You see the pattern. At one point, two old ladies had to get on. Clearly they couldn’t squish on the area up front so passengers essentially body-surfed the woman to one of the back rows. There were a total of nine foreigners on the bus. Although miffed at first, everyone soon realized we had to roll with it, and jokes were quickly made. Even the French girl, yes the whiny one, cracked everyone up with a few punch lines.
We were at the border at 8:00am. We got stamped out of Vietnam and then had to wait for a bit in Laos. All the foreigners had to hand over their passports, get their temperature taken, and then wait for about twenty minutes. Two British guys were called up to pay. They got their stamps and were finished. After another five minutes, I hear, “Laura. Laura!” Well actually, it was a Laos variation of my name but I knew by the waving blue passport out of the window that it was me. I approached the window and hear, “I’m sorry…” Oh no. They’re refusing me entry. Why? Could that be it? “I’m sorry, but we have a few questions to ask you.” Phew. “Okay, sure,” I said. “Where are you going after Laos?” “Thailand,” I said. Then he asked, “Do you have life insurance?” I was caught off guard. Having the wild imagination that I do, I quickly had flashing images of mafia men taking me out in Laos… whoa back to reality. But I didn’t know why they would ask or what they wanted to hear. “Yes? Yes I do.” “We need to see your paperwork.” “Paperwork for life insurance?” I asked incredulously. “Yes.” “I don’t have paperwork with me. No one carries life insurance paperwork with them,” I said. Then I panicked. Luckily, he just kind of stared for a few seconds then stamped my passport. What a bizarre conversation and an odd welcome to Laos. Everybody got their passports stamped, without the odd interrogation I might add, and we got back on the crazy, crowded bus. After getting in and out a few times, we had the loading thing down to a science.
I might mention here that there were 32 people on the bus at this point. It was extremely uncomfortable, and I have a pretty high tolerance for discomfort from overlanding Africa. My friend and I had the seats right behind the driver and there is no floor space for your legs here- it’s at the same height as the seat so your knees are scrunched up. I had a man sitting perpendicular to me and leaning back on me, pressing my shoulder in. It was painful to say the least, and my shoulder was sore the next day. I had a woman hugging my leg and another woman occasionally sitting on my foot. We all tried to make the most of it. Once in Laos, the road was nonexistent. It’s a mud track along the mountain that Laos is attempting to build into a road. I had read Wes’ wild ride and was prepared to get stuck in the mud- my bet was at least twice. I also read on a travel forum someone else who had done the same bus ride recently, and they got stuck three times. As we wound around the mountains, through the mud, we hit lots of places with water and a couple of low-water bridges. At one point there was a wet area in the road; the bus’ front left tire went into a pothole full of water that was deeper than expected, and the shrieks abounded from both foreigners and locals. I, along with the local woman hugging my leg, grabbed my friend as we thought the bus was about to tip. The conductor had loaded more luggage on top of the bus, and it was top heavy. After the adrenaline subsided, I casually mentioned, “Well, at least the bus was tipping towards the mountain rather than away from it.” That didn’t go over too well with my friend, and she asked me to keep all future thoughts to myself.
After a couple hours of this muddy, anxiety-ridden madness of a bus ride, we got to a river. Everyone unloaded to walk over a footbridge, while the minibus splashed through it. We stopped for lunch on the other side. A local woman (one of the ones that was body-surfed to the back of the bus) clearly had to go to the bathroom. She just pulled her baggy pant leg to the side a little and let it run down her leg. The smell coming off of her was not pleasant. I chose a brushy area with nice views of the rice fields, and I can assure you that this time I did not ‘do as the locals do’.
Other than the near tipping incident, we were fortunate to not get stuck. We arrived in Muang Khua around 2pm. I saved you another fascinating tid-bit for the end: My driver took a hit every time we stopped. Whether it was to let someone off or pick someone up, he was consistent. I’m not sure how he managed to traverse through the muddy mountainous roads or how he wasn’t high as a kite. When we arrived at the river village, I kindly asked for my sunglasses back from the conductor, (he enjoyed wearing the Chanels for part of the ride), gathered my things, and took the local boat across the river. We inquired about getting to Muang Ngoi Neua and got ever so lucky- a boatman was heading back down the river to the village Nong Khiaw and could drop us off for 1/3 of what the boat normally costs to hire for the trip. And, he wanted to leave right away.
My luck was turning around. Ladies and gentleman, welcome to Laos!