Long, narrow and landlocked, Laos is really annoying. It’s also in my top three countries in the world. I heart Laos.
What was annoying was the decision about how best to travel the length of the country. Shaped not unlike Italy, most of the action takes place in a long line down the west side. The southwest is very tourist-friendly with the gorgeous Si Phan Don archipelago, Pakse and the Bolaven Plateau all within easy reach. The northwest is also a major attraction with highlights such as Luang Prabang, Phonsavan and the fantastic Gibbon Experience in Huay Xai. The middle is somewhat barren.
I needed to enter and exit the country via Cambodia directly to the south so decided I would do one almighty bus trip in a single go from the border right up as far north as I was going; Phongsali, close to the Chinese border where I planned to go trekking. From there I would wend my way back down, stopping off at places of interest during my month’s stay.
After a few days R and R on Si Phan Don, I embarked on the epic bus trip north which would be done in three stages, starting with an overnight journey from Pakse to Vientiane.
I had no preconceptions of Laos and didn’t know it was home to the 8th wonder of the world – the disco bus. I joined the line of passengers waiting to board, intrigued by the buzz of excitement in the air. We were a mix of foreigners and locals, male and female. There seemed to be a well worked out seating plan whereby single passengers were being matched for suitability with one another. The most important criteria was gender, followed by nationality.
I had no idea what was going on.
When, finally, we boarded, the disco was in full swing – complete with flashing lights and glitter ball. The distorted sounds of screeching techno beats, heavy on the base, greeted us as we located our numbered seats.
I say seats, they were in fact bunk beds. The aisle was cushioned in a soft lino; lower beds were on the floor and upper ones just above – not high enough to warrant needing a ladder. The bus was no larger than a standard double decker, so it was very cosy for the 40-odd of us. The ‘double’ beds were as wide as the seats would be when in pairs – not very wide at all.
Take a moment to picture this; two strangers huddled up together in an extremely confined space for 10 hours on a bumpy, windy road. The driver would have happily kept the music pumping for the entire journey but a group of Spanish boys soon put paid to this and got it, and the disco lights, turned off.
My Laotian bed partner (thankfully female) proved no problem apart from the constant spooning position that she defaulted into. I usually ask a person’s name before getting that close.
By the following morning I was straight onto leg two; Vientiane to Luang Prabang, which passed uneventfully. The scenery was spectacular and we drew in to the bus station at 6pm, giving me a few hours before the final overnight bus to Phongsali.
By 9pm, and with only me plus the ticket clerk still in the station, I was told that the bus had been cancelled; the next one would be in 24 hours. I would have to bed down in Luang Prabang for the night and decided to take the clerk up on his offer of a lift on the back of his motorbike into the town centre, leaving my rucksack locked up in the office instead of dragging it round the following day.
Not long into the ride, we went over a pot hole. My whole body left the bike; I managed to stay on but the same can’t be said for one of my flip flops, which disappeared from sight.
I’d been travelling long enough by that point to not be bothered by being barefoot, but have to admit it was slightly embarrassing to be forced to do so for the whole of the next day around the genteel city of Luang Prabang.
The following evening I got a ride back out to the bus station. I didn’t even try explaining to the driver why, in an apparently random incident, I asked him to stop as we approached the pot hole having spotted an errant flip flop, picked it up and popped it in my pocket.
This time the bus came. With two days’ worth of passengers, it was packed and more than a little challenging not to have a seat for this overnight trip. I was instead curled up with a bunch of other passengers on rice sacks that were stacked in the aisles.
Again going along precarious mountain roads, we skidded to a halt in the early hours of the morning. It was too dark to see what was going on but word reached us that the lorry in front, laden with goods, had narrowly avoided going over the edge on a tricky bend. The jury was out on how badly hurt the driver was but the truck ended up lying on its side having shed all its load.
Nothing could be done in the darkness in such a remote location but when dawn broke there was a flurry of activity. Traffic was halted in both directions for the 8 hours it took to clear the road. Lucky we all had enough food to share around.
The Lonely Planet’s description reads, ‘Phongsali is a visual feast and is home to some of the nation’s most traditional hill tribes. Trekkers might feel that they’ve walked onto the pages of National Geographic.’
After a truly arduous three day bus trip, thankfully this is precisely what awaited me.
Breathtaking, and well worth the effort getting there.