We had travelled around Thailand for about three weeks when we crossed the border to continue our journey into Laos. After reading that most people opt for a slow boat to the Unesco World Heritage city of Luang Prabang we decided to instead go up north and try bus travel in Laos.
From Huay Xai to Oudomxai
And bus travel in Laos turned out to be a real adventure! After spending one night in the border town of Huay Xai we booked tickets on a local bus to Oudomxai, the capital city of the Oudomxai province and a good stopping point on our way to the small village of Nong Khiaw. The busses that are used for public transport in Laos are all mini busses with very minimal space for legs and belongings. In Laos packing as much stuff as possible onto a roof seems like an art form and squeezing in a few extra people is the norm. So there we were, tightly fitted between locals with our backpacks squeezed under the seats and our smaller packs between our legs. At first everyone was inspecting us with curiosity and some suspicion. Then they just shrugged and settled in for the ride. And a ride it was. We slowly made our way into the mountains, the little bus struggling on the steep narrow roads. The further we got, the worse the state of the road became. Unpaved and full with potholes, the van swerving from one side of the road to the other, trying to avoid them.
A pitstop in the mountains
We were glad when the driver pulled over at a road side stop with toilets, tables and chairs in the shade and a little stall selling some hot food and snacks. We clambered out of the bus and found the toilets behind the “restaurant” area. They were little concrete shacks with wooden doors and holes in the grounds and the ground was mud and the smell of death was overpowering everything else. Fresh blood spatters were on the ground and we realised the restaurant was serving up some very fresh meat. Holding our breath we quickly went to the toilet. Because we were quite hungry we had a look at the snacks that were sold and decided to get some mango that came with a chilli mix for dipping. We sat down and excitedly opened the packet, took a bite and nearly spat everything out. It was unripe mango and so incredibly sour and bitter that we just couldn’t eat it. We tried a few more times but sadly couldn’t get used to the taste.
After our pitstop the ride continued for a few more hours before finally arriving in Oudomxai. By that time it had started to rain and we sought out a guesthouse to stay the night.
From Oudomxai to Nong Khiaw
The next morning we continued our journey on to Nong Khiaw. We left rather early to a bus station further out of the centre where we bought some cookies and bread rolls with sweetened condensed milk. This bus ride turned out to be equally as bumpy as the first one. While the road got worse and worse we bobbed along to the Laotian radio. The bumping and swerving didn’t bother us too much but we noticed some of the locals were struggling. One lady had to stick her head out of the window as to not vomit inside the van and a few others were holdings plastic bags at the ready. Along the way we picked up more passengers and dropped others off. The dirt road passed through small mountain villages with kids, chickens and pigs running around. On one stretch the road was so bad we were driving at walking pace, to get through the enormous potholes. And then we stopped. Nose down in the dirt. The driver stepped on the gas but nothing happened. The wheels were spinning in the air. After having a look at the situation, we were all ushered out of the bus. More failed attempts to get the bus out of the pothole followed. Finally all the male passengers got together and pushed the bus backwards and managed to get the wheels on solid ground again. And so our journey continued. Soon after that ordeal we made it to a better road and continued on to Nong Khiaw where we arrived in the afternoon without any further ado.
Practical information on bus travel in Laos
Bus tickets can be bought at bus stations that are often located outside the town centre. You can also buy tickets at guesthouses and travel agents although you will pay a commission. The advantage of doing this is that your guesthouse or the travel agent will take care of your transport to the bus station so you don’t have to worry about that part of the trip. Other than that, don’t expect to get anywhere fast, so make sure to stock up on water, snacks, motion sickness tablets and patience! One thing is for sure, bus travel in Laos is an experience!