How We Survived Laos’ Transport!
The countryside hurtled by to the soundtrack of excruciatingly loud music and a blaring bus horn. Landmarks, and local villages, merely a blur as we shot past without slowing; barely missing small children, dogs, pigs and chickens… we didn’t miss the cow. I knew we were about to hit something when the driver hit the brakes so hard I was thrown forward in my seat.
In fact, I was actually laying on the back seat with my head in Dwayne’s lap refusing to sit up and open my eyes! I was terrified! And rightly so. Transport in Laos can be an adventure and, for us, that adventure started a few days before the incident with the cow, and continued on for a couple of weeks there after. But I get ahead of myself… rewind to a glorious day in July of this year when we arrived in Luang Prabang after a wonderful slow-boat journey down the Mekong River from Chiang Khong on the Thai border.
As is almost always our way of doing things, we didn’t plan ahead. We just go with the flow – decide and do! Therefore, after a couple of days in Luang Prabang and very happy with our visit to the Kuang Si Waterfall, we decided to move on. With this intention, we entered a tourist office to book a bus to Vang Vieng. Dwayne told me to book VIP and left me there to organise this leg of the journey. I asked for two tickets on the VIP bus to Vang Vieng and paid ₭140,000 each.
When we arrived at the bus depot the next morning we were to discover that there was no VIP bus. In fact, the bus we had been booked on was just a 25 seat bus with standard seating. What had I paid for? Tickets at the bus depot, to Vang Vieng, cost ₭85000. Likewise, we met other people who had purchased their tickets, with tuk tuk transfer, for ₭110,000… and I had paid ₭140000. That was the last time we were going to bother paying for a non-existing VIP bus!
The drive to Vang Vieng was one of the better trips we had. That is to say it wasn’t scary. However, the driver was rather uncommunicative and each time we stopped we were unsure whether the stop was a toilet break (and if so where was it?) or had we stopped so we could purchase something to eat? Or, as happened more often than not, was the driver just stopping to chat to someone. Do we get off the bus or do we stay on? The morning was made all the more interesting by the vomiting, motion-sick tourists, who had no way of communicating their discomfort to the driver.
When we stopped in the afternoon, there was a lot of confused looks as we all wondered what we had stopped for this time. We finally worked out this was the lunch stop. A bowl of noodle soup was included in the price of the ticket – but seriously, no one is going to tell you this! You just have to work it all out yourself.
Later that day we arrived safely in Vang Vieng. In due time, after cave exploration and river tubing, it was time to move on. Where to go next? And how to get there? As we had hired a scooter in Vang Vieng we took advantage of it and set out to find the bus depot. Consequently we were able to purchase bus tickets to Phonsavan at an un-inflated price.
The “bus” trip to Phonsavan was definitely the worse leg of our journey through Laos. The “bus” happened to be a mini-van and the bus driver a person with frighteningly little regard for life! Dwayne and I think we’re pretty brave, but this death defying drive through the mountains tested the limits of our courage!
This roller-coaster ride was accompanied by pounding music, and punctuated by the driver’s constant exclamations on his cell phone. I had to keep my eyes closed for the entire 6 hour drive! To say he drove erratically, one handed, only just missing on coming traffic, small children, dogs, chickens, pigs and buffalos, would be an understatement. He didn’t miss the cow! Fortunately for the cow, the van had slowed considerably before impact and the cow was able to stagger off the road. I can’t say it was fun… I can say it was an experience! The price for this hair-raising adventure was ₭100,000 each (approximately AUD $16.00).
We hired a scooter in Phonsavan so we could make our our way to each of the Plain of Jars sites. The first bike they gave us was in very poor mechanical condition – no lights, indicators, or horn and there was a terrible knock in the motor, therefore, we took it straight back and asked for another one. They replaced the bike with one that was in better working condition. However, these bikes were of such poor quality we were unsure just how far we would get on them. Strangely enough this scooter was the most expensive we had hired! Anyhow, the bike got us out to the Plain of Jars and these jars are truly worth a visit! Pretty amazing.
Next on the agenda was to get to Konglor Cave. This was easier said than done. If we had been in Vientiane we would have been able to book onto a bus going directly there. As it was, we had to just start heading in the general direction. So our next stop was Paksan. The following morning at 08:00 our packs were secured to the top of a 25 seat local bus and we were off on another adventure!
Well if we thought our ears had been battered by loud music before this drive, we were soon to discover that we hadn’t heard anything yet! The music was Asian pop – very loud! Very very loud – I don’t really know how to describe it to you… oh yes I do! Have you ever been at a concert? Let’s say AC/DC, and you are right up the front, standing directly next to the speakers and they are bashing out ‘Highway to Hell’… that is what it was like! Ok, so now add a very bumpy road (I think he took a short cut through a field), and erratic driving… ok? Still with me? Not too bad, just a bit uncomfortable. Right, so lets add a little fear… While looping his way through the mountainous range, the the driver pulls off the road, jacks up the bus and proceeds to cool the brakes down with water… do you get back in the bus and hope the brakes will work when needed?
Ok, so he was cooling down the brakes… that means they will work right? Therefore we get back on the bus. It would be remiss of me to not mention the little ball of fear that festered in the back of our minds for the rest of the noisy, bumpy carnival-like drive… I mean did he cool down the brakes enough? Why did he need to do that? That’s not normal, right?
Finally we arrived safely in Paksan and we were let out by the side of the road. We wanted to continue towards Konglor Cave the next day, so we wandered around and found a local bus station where we tried to ask about a bus to Konglor Cave. No English was spoken so this wasn’t easy. We did however, learn that a bus was leaving at 07:30 the next morning (at least that’s what we thought) but no-one would take our money and let us buy a ticket. Very tired by this stage we got into a tuk tuk and went to our accommodation. We organised with the tuk tuk driver to pick us up the next day at 07:00 and, hoping that he understood, we staggered into our room and collapsed on the bed!
In the morning the tuk tuk driver was waiting for us, yay! This had to be a good sign. When we arrived at the bus station we asked about the bus to Konglor Cave and received a mixed response, from mystifying bewilderment, to extreme non-comprehension. Opps! This wasn’t looking good. I got out the iPad and pulled up the map and found the name of the town closest to Konglor Cave.
The village of Ban Nahin is about 40km from the cave therefore we asked for a bus to Nahin. We were greeted with smiles and nods (YEEES! finally they knew where we wanted to go!) Many a finger – they all wanted to help – pointed at a truck/bus/thing, which we later discovered is called a songthaew. Again no one would take any money so we assumed we would be paying the driver. We took our packs over to the songthaew and sat, waiting, on the tailgate.
While this journey was not too bad, it did take about 5 hours and three different vehicles. After a couple of hours our “bus” driver stopped at an intersection and we got into another songthaew to finish the trip to Ban Nahin. At Ban Nahin we hired a scooter and rode the last 40kms to Konglor Cave.
Konglor Cave was amazing and well worth the trip to visit. Following a couple of days of cave exploration and swimming in crystal clear spring water, it was time to continue south. Next on our agenda was the Bolaven Plateau. For this we needed to get to Pakse and hire a couple of scooters.
Riding the scooter back to Nahin, we only just made it in time for a songthaew that was heading to Thakhet. At Thakhet we were dropped at a bus station where we were able to purchase tickets on a bus to Pakse. Likewise, we had only just made it in time for this bus. Consequently, when we climbed aboard, we found that most of the seats were taken. There were one or two seats available scattered around the bus so it looked as though we would spend the next few hours sitting apart… That wasn’t going to kill us, but the smoking driver and the cramped, hot and sweaty conditions might! Some very nice people moved around a little and eventually Dwayne and I had a seat together.
Our first stop was for fuel. Thereafter, we had quite a few stops during which time local people selling food, and drink, would clammer onboard or shove food at you through the window. Skewered chicken and eggs were common at most stops. Dwayne bought a couple of eggs only to discover they were the embryo eggs. If you haven’t heard of this delicacy a simple description is – a cooked egg, which when you peel you find a partially developed embryo (a few feathers and all) and then you eat it! Or, as in Dwayne’s case, you throw it out the window. There are some things even Dwayne can’t eat!
We arrived in Pakse about 21:00 and, once again, we were let out by the side of the road. We started walking to our choice of accommodation only to discover that the map was wrong and the hotel we planned on staying at was 7 km away. Finding a taxi proved to be impossible, therefore we began to look for accommodation nearby. It took us an hour or so to find a hotel!
The next day, after a sleep in, we hired a couple of scooters and prepared to explore the Bolaven Plateau – the land of coffee and waterfalls!
Having had our fill of waterfalls and coffee, we arrived back in Pakse and organised a bus to take us to the 4000 islands. For the price of ₭70,000 each we booked both the bus, and the boat ,that would get us to Don Khon.
The bus was a minivan which we shared with a couple of women also going to Don Khon. When we reached Ban Nakasang we were let out near the river. The driver said nothing; he simply got our luggage out for us, and then he got back into the van and took off before we knew what was going on! We all looked at each other and then looked around, slightly bewildered, before making our way towards the river. Looking left and right we saw a building by the water and made our way towards it.
At the building, which was little more than a hut, the women took their tickets to the counter and were then directed to a waiting boat and boatman. Dwayne produced our tickets for those behind the desk and, expecting to be pointed in the direction the boat, was surprised when they asked for money. No, he said, we have paid for bus and boat to Don Khon. The gentleman behind the counter then proceeded to make some phone calls. Since he was unable to get through to the hotel that sold us the tickets, it was quite some time before we were on the boat and on our way to Don Khon.
Having arrived at Don Khon, we were let out on the edge of the river and we had to scramble up the river bank. On horizontal land once again, we looked left and then right, before we decided on which direction to proceed. Now we had to find accommodation. OK, so it is here I will tell you that I was not feeling well. Hence we found a village and I sat down at a cafe, refused to move and sent Dwayne to find accommodation. I was not sure how much longer I could go for!
Accommodation found, I staggered up the stairs, dumped my pack and proceeded to spend the rest of the afternoon throwing up! Welcome to the 4000 islands!
Before long it was time to move on. We organised a boat and bus to get back to Pakse. Once we were let out at Ban Nakasang we, and the others in the same boat, wandered around trying to work out where we were suppose to go to catch the bus. Someone pointed us to a shop front. We showed them our tickets and we were told to wait. We stood there for about half an hour, during which time we were told twice “no, this bus is not for you”. Finally we were told we were in the wrong place and we had to walk further down the road.
We came across something that looked like a bus depot and showed them our tickets and sure enough we were shown a minivan that was to take us back to Pakse. Finally we were crammed into a minivan… and I mean crammed. Luggage was shoved into every spare crevasse and then some! Music blaring… it was time to shut my eyes and hold on for dear life!
We got lucky in Pakse when the minivan stopped near a bus station and we saw a sign indicating buses to Ratchathani in Thailand – that’s where we wanted to go so we got out of the van, grabbed our packs and thanked the driver for not killing us.
Fortunately we were in time to catch the bus. Furthermore, it was a very comfortable air-conditioned bus… things were looking up! Soon we were on our way to the Thailand border and sadly our time in Laos was at an end.
Please don’t let me put you off going to Laos! Everything you just read about was part of the adventure! Laos is a magical country full of wonderful things to see and do. If you are not so inclined for this sort of adventure I think the overnight buses are proper, comfortable buses…. I think? Also I’m sure there are some companies offering all-inclusive tours.
This is the way we like to travel and yes, sometimes we are dumped by the side of the road late at night with no place to stay; and sometimes we are sure we have only just survived the transport; and yes, sometimes you have to share your bus with vomiting tourists or embryo eating gastronomes… but we wouldn’t change a thing! These types of adventures become a deeply embedded memory… it is unlikely we will forget our journey through Laos anytime soon.
LAK – Laotian Kip written here as ₭
Cost of Transport Through Laos
Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng – 25 seat bus ₭140,000 each… ₭85,000 each at the bus station.
Vang Vieng to Phonsavan – Minivan ₭100,000 each.
Scooter hire in Phonsavan – ₭125,000 per day
Phonsavan to Paksan – 25 seat bus ₭55,000 each.
Paksan to Ban Nahin – Songthaew – First leg ₭60,000, second leg ₭50,000
Scooter hire in Ban Nahin – ₭100,000 per day
Ban Nahin to Thakhet – Songthaew ₭100,000 each
Thakhet to Pakse – Large local bus ₭60,000 each
Scooter hire in Pakse – ₭50,000 per day
Pakse to Don Khon – Minivan and boat ₭70,000 each
Bicycle hire on Don Khon – ₭10,000 per day
Don Khon to Pakse – Boat and minivan ₭70,000 each
Pakse to Ubon Ratchathani (Thailand) – Large bus ₭50,000 each
When we travel we book our accommodation through Booking.com
Don't miss a thing! Join the crew and we will send you free email updates. But don't worry, we promise not to bombard your inbox with too much awesome stuff!
Something went wrong.