To get from Luang Namtha to Phonsavan, both in Laos, we took a local bus. Here’s how this experience panned out.
L is for Loud: You know when you are driving along and a song suddenly comes onto the radio which is a favourite of yours so you pump up the dial and enjoy its 3 minutes at a volume level which you know is just a little too high – a kind of guilty pleasure. Afterwards, you turn it down again to a more acceptable level. Well we had the pleasure of the maximum volume level for pretty much the whole of our 18 hour trip (minus 1 hour but that was when one of the babies started to scream who seemed, somewhat unbelievably, only to be quietened by the music being turned on again at full blast (or maybe he just gave up competing or maybe we just couldn’t hear the child any longer)). The volume level was absolutely ridiculous. I’m not sure if the only speakers were in the middle of the bus (close to where we were sitting) and so the only way the driver himself could hear the music was to have it on ultra loud or maybe it was a way to ensure that he stayed awake: all I know is it was pretty deafening and a way to make sure that all his (paying) customers weren’t going to get any sleep: maybe he took the attitude that if he couldn’t sleep (because he was driving), why should anyone else be allowed to do so? It was like being trapped at some awful party when you were just wishing you could be anywhere else in the world (no prizes for guessing that I was dreaming of being in a nice comfortable clean bed somewhere miles away from that bus).
O is for Overnight: To be fair we knew that this would be an overnight journey when we booked the bus (but there were no other options available to us). So we had tried to do some mental preparation for the journey along the lines of “This is going to be horrendous” (end of mental preparation). This turned out to be woefully insufficient.
C is for Children: Our bus was full of them! And, from what I could ascertain, children travel for free and aren’t counted in the passenger numbers which is a little crazy as, other than babes in arms, most children take up at least half a seat and if you are only counting adult passengers you soon run out of room. But that was exactly what the conductor seemed to be doing. To be fair, on this bus, the children were well-behaved and fortunately they didn’t seem to get travel sick either which was good (I’ve already had to deal with enough people be sick over or near me on this trip).
A is for Arduous: Out of all our long journeys on our travels to date on this trip, this was our worst yet. OK, so it wasn’t scary and death defying (unlike our trip from Jomsom to Tatopani in Nepal during the Annapurna Circuit (see Blog Post “The Apple Pie Trail and beyond” dated 24 December 2017) but it was just awful and something you only want the experience of doing once. I think we physically aged as we sat on that bus.
L is for Late: The journey was meant to take 15 hours overnight but in the end took over 18 and believe me we felt every single one of those additional 3 hours (not to mention the 15 hours that preceded them). Somewhat amusingly, we had been told that the journey would start at 15.00 although we’d also seen another “time-table” with a 15.30 departure so our bus leaving at 15.10 confused us: was the 15.00 late or had the 15.30 departed early? Who knows? Either way the journey was way too long.
B is for Busy: Put simply, this 25 seater bus was way overcrowded. As I’ve already said, the children didn’t seem to count to the tally which meant the bus kept stopping to take on more and more passengers, the trouble often being that the latest passenger was also travelling with 1 or 2 children thus perpetuating the problem. All the flip down seats were taken so there was no aisle left and instead of sitting 4 abreast on 2 permanent seats, then 1 flip down and a further 1 permanent seat, we were mostly 5 or 6 across in each row. Far too many people.
U is for Uncomfortable: When we first realised that we would have to take an overnight bus, we had hoped that it might be a proper “sleeper” bus either with individual or double fully reclined sleeper beds. Various tourists we had met had told us about these buses although had also commented that the double beds were very narrow and a little too intimate if you weren’t travelling as a couple. But still, they were a flat or flattish “bed” which presumably meant (music volume depending) that you could sleep. And also these buses had toilets on them too so you had no worries on that front either. So we had started hoping that that might be the style of bus that we would get. Alas for us this was not the case. We were on a standard local minibus where they squash in the seats and so there is no real leg room for anyone who is not Lilliputian (sorry, I mean Laotian) in size. At first this was ok, as we both took individual seats on the right hand side of the bus which meant we could stretch out legs out into the aisle. But as the bus filled up an hour or so into the journey and all the flip seats were flipped down removing the aisle, it became increasingly uncomfortable: essentially we didn’t really fit into our space and therefore had to encroach into our neighbours’ space (and yes, that apostrophe is in the right place). And sitting in one cramped position for one hour is bad enough; then multiply it by 18 and it becomes truly painful and you start wishing you were anywhere in the world but there.
S is for Sleep Deprived: The irony of my personal situation was not lost on me. Normally, I get rather travel sick and so nod off almost as soon as any vehicle starts its engine and have even been known to sleep entire journeys. But on this fun journey? For the first 15 hours or so (despite the fact that we were driving through the night), I didn’t get a wink (probably because of the Laotian power ballads belting out at full volume). It was only at about 6 in the morning when I finally began to doze off but with that awful nodding head syndrome meaning you end up with an awful crick in your neck.
And with every single bone in our bodies crying out “Aren’t we getting just a little bit too old for this?”, we eventually arrived at Phonsovan bus station at about 9.15 in the morning.
Then there was the final sting in the tail which happens with every bus journey in Laos. Despite the various towns/cities being small and relatively under populated, all the bus stations are situated between 4 and 10 kilometres out of town (and some cities have multiple bus stations just to add to the confusion). This means that at the end of any journey, you are still not in the centre of your destination town but somewhere on its outskirts and so you then have to negotiate with a driver of either a tuk tuk (a 3 wheeler) or sorngtaaou (essentially a pick up truck with uncomfortable bench seats on the back) to run you into the centre and, if you are very lucky, to somewhere near your chosen guesthouse. And somewhat bizarrely, price wise, you can spend 5 hours on a bus at only double the cost of what the local transport demands to take you the last 8km into town. It can all feel a bit much at the end of a long journey but seems to be a necessary evil.