From former traveler posts, we knew our chosen route into Laos was not a fun one. When people dream about traveling around the world, this conglomeration of bus rides to cross from Vietnam into Laos at the Sop Hun/Tay Trang border is not what they fantasize about.

In any event, we chose to head on from Sapa over the Tram Ton Pass and onto Dien Bien Phu in order to cross the border into Laos. If there is a hell, I believe its a place where people live out their own realization of it. Mine? Well, mine would be this journey to Laos. Hell on wheels has a whole new meaning to me.

For some reason, Sapa doesn’t have an organized bus station or actually it has one, but no one uses it. Thus, in the early morning fog we found ourselves standing on the side of a road just outside of town trying to flag down a bus onto Dien Bien Phu. A minivan was the first to pass us, and we flagged it down. They had Posted prices on their door, but none for the Sapa/Dien Bien Phu leg. They wanted us to pay full price even though they started in a city 2 hours away. Of course, we didn’t want to pay that price since we were a good distance away from it, and logic would say that the transportation cost should be a bit less. Early morning negotiations never go well for us. I’m usually too irritated to deal in a friendly way with people blatantly trying to overcharge us. This one ended with the driver coming down in price but it only amounted to 50 cents. He refused to meet our asking price and left us to find other fares in town while we sweat it out.

In the meantime, we ran around to the shopkeepers trying to gauge the correct price. Chris took the calculator over to a guy on his motorbike and flashed him our price. Like the shopkeepers, he made the slightest nod of his head to indicate we were asking the fair price. Ascertaining the fair price is always a game for watching the slightest body movement. Our guess is that they don’t want anyone else to know they told us. It could be a flicker of the eye, a twitch of the head, or a smile. And thus, we ask many to ensure we’ve understood the intended meaning of their nonverbal reply.

Soon enough, a bus came around the corner with a sign posted in the window indicating it stopped at our intended destination. Negotiations of price started all over again. Bartering for every single little thing gets unbelievably tiring; I look forward to returning home and not haggling over bus rides. Eventually, they accepted our price after many fake-outs (they pretended to be leaving, but we held our ground). Heading off on the bus, we thought this might not be such a bad journey. The bus was nice (it’s all relative) and air conditioned; we weren’t cramped with bags of lettuce or rice below our feet and the windows actually shut. However, when we reached Lai Chau the bus driver informed us we’d be transferring to another bus. Pointing it out, my heart sank and my anger rose. It was the exact tin bucket I’d tried to avoid for this trip.

The drivers laughed at our protest of changing busses, and I lost my temper. I don’t think they understood a single thing I hissed at them, but it did wipe the smiles off their faces. Chris in the meantime, headed straight for the food stalls as he knew hangry had set in. We begrudgingly boarded the bus, and for the next 7 hours endured our worst bus ride to date.

The ride started out ok enough, but it wasn’t long before we hit the dusty, dirt road. Little dust storms circulated throughout the bus, making it hard to breathe. A fine coating of dust instantly covered our skin. I made several fruitless attempts to stay clean until I finally gave up. Potholes littered the road, making this an excruciatingly bumpy ride. My seat cushion wasn’t exactly attached so with every bump it moved forward. After about three, I’d have to put it back in place. This routine continued for the entire ride. But by far the worse aspect of this ride was the bus driver’s evil canival like driving. A steep ravine with a flowing river was all that lay below us. And yet, the driver took hair pin turns one after the other at top speed. On many turns, the bus lurched to the side closest to the ravine. Often, it felt like not all the wheels were touching the ground, and the attendant hurriedly switched people around to balance the weight of the bus. I wanted off more than anything else in my life. But, after a few soothing rounds of listening to “What a Wonderful World” on my Ipod, I made my peace with what seemed like the inevitable.

It’s our impression that the driver felt the lives of his passengers held little value. We were seen as cargo and nothing more. We honestly don’t think our bus driver has too many more routes left in his life. But, eventually we arrived in Dien Bien Phu and were set free of the tin death trap. Thank goodness! If it weren’t for the legions of tuk-tuk drivers staring at us like we were aliens, I might have kissed the ground.

Knowing the next round of bus rides into Laos might be just as awful, we opted to take a break and rest a few nights in Dien Bien. Unbeknownst to us, this city is not exactly tourist-friendly. A major battle in the Indochina war took place here. According to our guidebook as a result, the French flock here to look at the sights. We’re not sure if things have changed in recent years or this is the best example of things being published in the Lonely Planet without their writer setting foot in Dien Bien, but nothing in our guidebook was correct. In a town with limited restaurants (and I mean like none willing to cater to foreigners), we must rely on the Lonely Planet. They didn’t get a single thing right from where restaurants were located to guesthouses.

Dien Bien is by far the most bizarre city we’ve encountered. We were too tired to eat the first night, but having only eaten a package of crackers in a 24-hour period we headed out the next morning in search of food. Foolishly, we chatted about the great breakfast we were going to enjoy. We walked for 2 hours in search of a restaurant willing to serve us. We found several coffee joints, homemade breweries, and stalls selling worm liquor, but no one willing to serve us food. It was maddening. Even the rice and noodle places rejected us. We bought some oranges and crackers at a shop to hold us over until we found something more substantial. We decided to walk in the other direction in search of a guesthouse that supposedly served food. After another 2 hours of walking, we found the guesthouse. They served us some of the worst fried rice and greens imaginable, but we didn’t care; it was food. For dinner, we decided to stock up on fruit and crackers at the nearby market instead of foraging again for a restaurant. Dien Bien is hands down the strangest city we’ve ever visited.

Happy to be escaping the “no food for foreigners” city, we jumped on a bus at 5am destined for Laos. We heard this bus ride took 10 hours to go a mere 100 kilometers (60 miles), but we couldn’t figure out why until we were just a few minutes into the journey. After traveling for maybe 15 minutes, we stopped for nearly 2 hours beside the road. Besides another foreigner, we were the only farangs on the bus. All the locals filed off immediately and went about their shopping as we watched the sun slowly rise. I began to wonder if this trip was like the shopping trips people take by train from Seattle to Vancouver BC except Vietnamese style by bus. After 2 hours, everyone boarded the bus with their goods and we headed off again. For the most part, we only made small stops after that point. Like our previous bus ride, the road skirted along a steep ravine with only the river below it. But luckily, the bus went slow. I think it’s the first time we’ve been happy to be on a slow bus. If it weren’t for the rice bags fighting for our foot room and the produce crushing us against the window, this ride might actually have been somewhat enjoyable. The term “somewhat enjoyable” is all relative. You have to overlook certain things like the men hocking loogies onto the floor or picking their  noses with four fingers and wiping it all over the seat in front of you. Ah yes, we live the glamorous life.

We crossed the border into Laos with little fan fare. Border crossings always make us nervous because some sort of scam is inevitable. This crossing was relatively painless except that the border patrol stole my credit card number. He asked us a series of random questions and then requested a credit card for verification. It seemed weird, but I handed one of my cards to him. As we debated why in the world he’d need a credit card, I caught him typing my card number and security code into his cell phone. I immediately snatched the card from his hand as he sat there laughing at me. Luckily, I’d handed over an expired card for just this sort of reason. At the very least, border control guards always keep us on our toes.

After dolling out our visa payment and some sort of “processing fee” (don’t get me started!), we were on our way into Laos. We crossed through several rivers (literally) before ending up at Muong Khua. The bus didn’t cross the river here, so we had to catch a longtail boat to the other side. Arriving at the other side, we realized Laos was different than the other Asian countries we’d visited. No one shouted at us to take their tuk-tuk. No one rushed to sell us on their guesthouse. In fact, it took us a while to find further transport to the bus station. It was a welcomed break from the normal chaos that usually awaits us.

Eventually, we figured out the tuk-tuk system and made it to the bus station. From there, we caught a 5 hour bus to Udomxai. This bus ride gave us our first introduction into rural Laos living. The villages sit right up against the roadside. Thatched palm huts on stilts line either side. The villages seemed more rustic than those of the minority groups in Vietnam. A communal shower often enclosed by thatched palm sits near the center of the town. We passed village after village and saw many people taking their daily showers in these communal washing areas.

The road was eroding in this area, and yet huge hillsides were cleared of all growth. Landslides occur every year, but business continues as usual. The slopes are too steep to survive a rainy season with no vegetation on them. If there’s anywhere we’ve visited that seemed to need outside assistance, Laos would be it. It’s a country that holds so much promise. It feels like it’s at a tipping point though. We hope the pendulum will swing toward conservation, but only time will tell.

After 22 hours on different buses, we finally arrived in Udomxai only to catch a bus the next day. We will rejoice when our bus riding days are over!

5 Responses to “Hell on wheels: our journey to Laos”

  1. Gillian says:

    Wow – that is quite the journey! I’ve been researching on how to travel from Luang Pranang, Laos to Vietnam overland and haven’t found a good route. I’ve kind of been thinking of flying from LP to Hanoi or heading down to Vientiene and flying from there. You’re story pretty much cements it for me! Good luck as you continue!!

  2. Frederique says:

    Oh my god I am pretty chocked, I am a young lady travelling alone and the journey you made was exactly the one I wanted to do.. I only have cash, no credit card at all and I should get my visa in laos .. but I think this time I might take a plane.. I will spend 100 doll more but at least I ll be alive when I ll arrive

  3. Frederique says:

    Good luck anyway!!

  4. Elizabeth says:

    I have to say, now that I’m home I miss the day to day adventure and excitement that RTW travel brings, but I don’t miss the bus rides! I was telling my dental hygienist yesterday that I had just finished traveling the world, and she asked if I took tours everywhere I went. When I explained that it was too expensive/uninteresting, and that we normally took public buses, she was shocked. “I wouldn’t even know how to take a public bus in Albuquerque!” she exclaimed.

  5. kate says:

    Jodi and Chris take care, I hope that you are in the land of lovely buses, good fun and drink soon. Everytime I read Hangry I laugh and laugh… I am so stealing that.
    Travel Safe!
    PS I was just teaching Danilo about Asian animals starting with Pandas – we are looking forward to some pictures :) He will be so excited when you get to Africa – sometimes he just takes his african animals out to play.
    Miss you!