The time Nate and I spent in Vientiane, Laos – food poisoned and hiding from the writing on the wall respectfully – was a lower point of the SE Asia trip, but hope lay on the horizon in the form of a little town called Luang Prabang. Google called it the crown jewel of Laos, and reliable friends concurred, touting that this quiet town was full of lazy and lovely remembrances of the French colonial period (included loads of french bread and bakeries!). In fact, the town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so we were all in. We just had to figure out how to get there. Laos is a bit of a no man’s land, having no passenger rails unlike its neighboring countries. We would need to travel by bus 12 hours north through winding mountains. The plan was to stay there for a few days and then get a new bus that traveled 24 hours east over the border and into Vietnam.
For each wonderful tale about Luang Prabang, there were two horror stories about the second leg of our Laos journey. Our only other option was to fly, but at three times the price of a bus ticket, we decided to tough it out. In theory, we’d have a few restorative days in the Luang Prabang paradise to prepare ourselves anyways. To put our theory to the test, we purchased two tickets from our hostel in Vientiane and found ourselves in the back of a pickup truck taxi hurtling to the bus station.
Our tickets included 12 luxurious hours on the King of Bus. In the place of traditional tour bus seats, this VIP double-decker had bunk beds, each the size of an American twin bed, but two feet shorter owing to the fact that we were in Asia. Nate and I climbed aboard and soon realized that we were to share a top bunk. Do you know that popular story about putting large rocks into a jar until you think it’s full, but then a wise man proves that it really isn’t full by adding sand and water? Our bus ride was kinda like that. We thought by cramming two fully-grown humans into every twin-sized bunk bed, that the bus was full. But we were fooled! There was still room for…a swarm of hungry mosquitoes!
Undaunted, we artfully donned our hoodies and blankets as protection against the pests and spooned in such a way that all of our limbs fit within the confines of our bunk. It was kinda cozy. Then it was time to get going and for us to mercifully fall asleep, so naturally, the bus driver pumped a lullaby through the speakers that were situated mere inches from our would-be-slumbering heads. We did eventually find sleep, remarkably, and 12 hours later, we accordianed our bodies out of the King of Bus and into Luang Prabang.
The crown jewel lived up to every five star review. We shared a fire and stories with a dozen other travelers on our first night, followed a truck with a water buffalo, and hiked alongside a waterfall with the most startlingly beautiful blue water we’d ever seen.
As a bonus, Nate was fully recovered and back to his street food eating ways. Everything was looking up, and we were feeling confident about our 24 hour bus ride to Vietnam. Until…that is…we returned from our waterfall hike and reentered the wifi of our AirBnB. That’s when I received the email that our bus to Hanoi had been canceled. Square one.
The chutes and ladder metaphor is pretty accurate, actually. Our only option to get to Vietnam now, besides a costly plane ticket, was to take another 12 hour bus ride back to Vientiane. Down, but not out, we bought tickets for a day bus this time and Nate contacted our Couch Surfing host in Hanoi to let him know that we’d only be able to stay for one night instead of three. We’d lose two days to traveling back down to Vientiane. Our host sadly replied that he couldn’t store us.
Welp, we’d just have to find other storage. Not so bad. We decided to figure that out when we got there. We had enough on our hands just figuring out how to get there. We were able to secure seats on a 24 hour bus from Vientiane to Hanoi (Yay! Back up the ladder!), but there were some hurdles.
One – we hadn’t anticipated spending money on a bus ride to Vientiane, as well as another night’s accommodation in the city before our bus left the next day. This meant we had about $10 in Laos Kip left to get us through the next 36 hours. We’d learned that Kip cannot be exchanged once we left Laos, so we decided to stretch the money instead of taking out more and paying the ATM fee. Fairly certain that snacks weren’t included on our upcoming trip (they weren’t), we used our ten dollars in Kip to buy one last meal of noodles, and some apples, crackers, and water for the trip. Fingers were crossed that that would sustain us through to Hanoi.
Two – we had to find the bus and survive the trip, which according to everything we read, was no small task. Even our e-ticket came with a warning that the bus could be below our expectations.
Sadly, we’d purchased tickets for a Wednesday, one of the days that did not have buses with better conditions. That meant no wifi or toilets. The predictions were 100% true. When we arrived at the bus station, there were three buses that had signs for Hanoi. Unlike promised in the first line of the warning above, no one ever sent us the correct bus number to look for, so we were helpless when a sea of men all started arguing in Laos over which bus we were supposed to be on, all the while grabbing aggressively for our bags. One man kept shoving a phone in my hands on which, presumably, was an English speaking person, but we never got beyond “Hello” before said person hung up. After several rounds with the information desk inside – containing the only person who spoke some English – we obtained our bus number and awaited our fate. To lighten the mood, we decided to read the terms and conditions of our e-ticket:
Now thoroughly on edge, we boarded the bus and just hoped the time would pass quickly. To keep our sanity in the midst of this nerve-wracking adventure, we both got out our phones and started video documenting each ridiculous twist and turn of the trip with the thought that at the very least we could create an entertaining video montage for your amusement. And here it is!
As you now know, having watched the video above, we survived the trip. As you may also have perceived from our increasingly haggard state as the clips progressed, we were a little worse for the wear as a result. Nate said it best when we were reflecting on the trip over a delicious bowl of Pho once a safe distance from our bus, “Logistics in SE Asia are taxing.” Taxing, indeed. We frequently feel like we’re being sent down a chute and having to re-climb a ladder to our next destination. We both agreed that we’d never do this trip alone. It helps to have each other as one always seems to have just enough reserves to pick the other up and keep moving forward. So, onward and upward…but perhaps we’ll avoid SE Asian countries without railways in the future…even if they do have lovely waterfalls.