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A note on transportation in Laos: 3 very different bus rides

Posted by on July 31, 2012
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We bus-ed it pretty much everywhere during our 26 days in Laos — the exception being our flight out of the country to Chiang Mai, Thailand — and the best way to paint the picture of how crazy, mind-boggling and ultimately rewarding overland transport through Laos can be, I’ll give you three very different examples.

Hue, Vietnam to Pakse, Laos or To Hell and Back. This is a long story, but bear with me. We had booked an air-con bus through our Hoi An, Vietnam guesthouse, and they assured us it would be a nice bus for the 18-hour haul. When we got to the bus station, we were directed not to one of the coach buses but to a rickety local bus, the kind you wouldn’t even want to take for a jaunt within city limits. As soon as I realized this was our ride, I started chanting, “Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod, oh mygod.”

The bus was packed with all locals except one Australian traveler named Tony, whom we later befriended. And as it turns out, there weren’t enough seats…allegedly. One local man wouldn’t give up the seat next to him, claiming he was saving it. That was complete BS. But for the time being we didn’t argue, and I sat in the front. A few minutes later, a Vietnamese couple came back on board and told me I was in their seats. I explained, “But where will I go? There are no seats!” Of course I wasn’t going to kick them out of their rightful seats, but I thought this confrontation would spur the local man into giving me the vacant seat.

Then people started to push me, telling me to get up and sit in the aisle for all they cared. (I thought that was ridiculous but later learned that it wasn’t that odd of a suggestion.) Others were shouting. It was a complete nightmare. Eaman told the locals not to touch me and told me to stay put, explaining that we were getting hassled just because we were foreigners.

And that’s when the (light) waterworks came. I wasn’t actually scared; I was just frustrated. I just wondered, what the hell are the next 18 hours going to be like?

In the end, time was running out, so Eaman and Tony worked it out so Tony would forcibly sit on the falsely saved seat, giving me a spot next to Eaman.

The next adventure came when we reached border control between Vietnam and Laos. Tony already had his visa, so it was just Eaman and I as the only riders on the bus who had to go through the laborious process. (Vietnamese nationals have an easier time getting entry into Laos.) Vietnam officials held onto Eaman’s passport for a good 20 minutes, an annoying, reason-less tactic we’ve heard they employ to mess with Americans in this post-Vietnam War era. When he finally got his passport back, Eaman joined me in line on the Laos side to get our visas.

But calling it a line is generous. It was more of a giant blob of Vietnamese and Laos people huddled together, each trying to bribe the officials so they can get his visa first. (We had to pay the official $1 extra each just ’cause.) This place was crazy. One woman was even even ejected from the line for trying to smuggle through her child.

But then, all of a sudden, as we waited for our visas — the only ones from our bus still waiting — we saw our teal blue bus go bye-bye. No panic. No shouting. We just thought, “Oh, that’s nice. Very fitting.”

We did try to tell a tour guide waiting for his group’s visas what happened, but he merely pointed in the direction of two motorbikes and said, “Pakse!!” Did he mean take two motorbikes to Pakse, which was still a good 6 or so hours by bus? Whatever. We jumped on the motorbikes, hoping they’d take us somewhere with an answer. As it turns out, our bus had left for lunch and had been waiting for us at a divey restaurant. When we arrived, the driver rushed us onto the bus. No lunch for us, of course. I barely had time for a bathroom stop.

I spent the rest of the ride flicking off ants and squeezing even further into my seat as people began to sit on our backpacks in the aisles (and step all over them with their shoes, gross!). We also stopped about 583 times to drop off goods (i.e. chickens) at various shops and pick up bags of rice and boxes that eliminated any false hope of leg room. I was never sure when we were actually Pakse, that is, until the bus driver shooed us off, left to find a taxi in the dark night on a random road by ourselves. We arrived in one piece, albeit ravenously hungry.

I make it sound horrible, but I look back on it kind of fondly. It’s a good backpacking story and was the supreme test of my patience. And to be fair, I think it was a Vietnamese bus, which accounts for most of the mayhem. People from Laos are a little more, how shall I say it…low-key.

Ban Kong Lo to Vientiane or Scantily Clad Thai Girls Dancing on Cars. Everything about this ride was pretty comfortable: clean bus, empty enough so that Eaman and I had two seats each to ourselves and few to no stops. What’s the catch, you ask? Oh! You mean the X-rated music videos our young trio of bus drivers played?

To give you some background, buses in Laos love to play Thai karaoke music videos, preferably loudly and nonstop. That’s all fine and well — I even found a couple of the songs catchy — but then one bus driver kid inserted a new DVD. On it were videos a Ginuwine-wannabe Thai singer rapping — in a strip club, of course — about wrapping some lady’s legs (that bit was in English) around him and the other was taken presumably at an autoshow in Thailand, where Thai girls in bikinis and bras gyrated on cars to Pitbull and Flo-rida songs. The worst part? I had to sit through a replay of each.

Exhibit A.

Exhibit B.

Vientiane to Luang Prabang or The Most Beautiful Bus Ride Ever. Our “VIP” bus broke down twice and the third time, we waited while a mechanic fixed it. Also, the AC barely worked. And it was a bumpy ride so people were barfing left and right. But none of that mattered because the scenery on this ride, particularly between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, was Lord of the Rings-style spectacular. There were rolling hills, steep limestone cliffs and every color of green this side of the Crayola box. We had heard it was a stunning view, but man, what a wonderful choice for our last Laos bus ride.

Bus breadown x 3.

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9 Responses to A note on transportation in Laos: 3 very different bus rides

  1. Shy

    When I first read this title, I was like Oh you can handle it…NYC China buses!! But this was soooo much worse!!!

    • Archana

      I know. I thought I could handle A LOT of things after NYC. False!!

  2. Bethany ~ twoOregonians

    I love that you took shots of the TV screens. I thought it was bad when we were forced to watch Paul Blart: Mall Cop on the bus in South Africa. Haha…

    Oh, the memories, eh? ;) Well-earned.

    • Archana

      Paul Blart may be on par with Thai girls and stripper poles…Kevin James, take note ;)

  3. Vinicius Gatto

    Hi, precious information about bus ride in Laos. Can you provide me some info about the ride Vientiane – Ban Kong Lo and Ban Kong Lo – Vientiane? I wanna do this VIP bus trip, and was wondering at what time they leave each city, and how about the travel time…
    Is it possibly to make this tour form Vientiane in 2 days?
    Please, answer a copy of this to mail e-mail
    Thanks in advance,

    • Archana

      Hi there, we actually went to Kong Lo from Thakhek so I don’t know the specifics on going from Vientiane. Sorry!

  4. Carmen Ye

    Hi Archana,

    A group of friends and I are planning to make the same bus trip from Hue to Pakse next month. I was wondering if you could tell me how you bought your ticket, the departing location of the bus from Hue, and the arrival location of the bus in Pakse. It’s been very difficult to find this information online, and any further advice you can provide would be greatly appreciated.


    • Archana

      Hi Carmen! We bought our bus ticket from our guesthouse in Hoi An (Sunshine Hotel — nice place!). This ticket involved a 4-hour ride to Hue and then the 18-some-hour bus ride from Hue to Pakse. (We had to spent the night in Hue.) It’s really hard to find concrete info for any overland transport in Asia, so I feel your pain. Things really just work best to book on the spot, or at least when you’re in the country. You could call the hotel where you’re staying, and they should be able to book seats for you, but from my own experience, it’s better to do everything in person. Buses rarely sell out, and the locals don’t really operate on an “in advance” sort of way. That said, our bus from Hue to Pakse was far from luxurious. You might have to rough it! I know it’s frustrating while planning, but you’ll have to just have faith (and patience) to work it out once you get there unless you book through a big tour company. Good luck!

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