How to catch a bus in Laos and survive

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Asia » Laos » North » Luang Namtha
February 18th 2013
Published: February 18th 2013
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In a break from my previous location by location efforts, I have decided to compile a list of hints and tips of how to be a happy bus traveller in Laos:

1. Don't bother to turn up on time. Yes, they may tell you over and over again that the bus leaves at 8, and emphatically circle the departure time on the ticket, but this is all an illusion. The bus will go when it's good and ready, not when you need to.

2. But don't turn up too late - having a ticket and a seat number does not entitle you to a seat. It's surprising and strangely impressive how many people companies in Laos can fit in a bus. I've heard a fellow backpacker describe how she shared one seat with another woman, and 3 of the woman's children for 8 hours. The sleeper buses also have very narrow bunks which you will have to share. Prepare yourself for the bizarre situation of having to spoon a stranger to be able to sleep.

3. Also don't expect to even have a seat to share. Quite often you will have to sit on bags of rice stuffed down the aisle. These are surprisingly comfy. Less comfy are the plastic garden chairs which usually also get stuffed down the aisle. These are not attached to the bus in any way so every corner involved lurching around like a private rollercoaster but not in the fun way.

4. Don't expect to only share your bus with humans, or even just other living animals. Bus drivers use their job as an easy way to get their shopping done, irregardless of how long it takes or how discomforting it can become. I had a driver who stopped to buy four dead birds, then stopped and bought what can only be described as a mongoose/cat hybrid. I have absolutely no idea yet what animal it was, but it ended up stuffed on top of our backpacks for a four hour journey in the baking heat. Lovely.

5. Along with the departure time being somewhat flexible, never take the arrival time on face value. Usually they are 2 to 3 hours late. This is because of point 6:

6. Don't bother to buy food in advance. The driver will stop every 2 hours or so to have a full meal at some roadside cafe while you mill around and try and stretch out your muscles after sitting on your bag of rice and trying to avoid touching the dead animals inside your bus.

7. Don't use the onboard toilet. I truly cannot emphasise this enough. Notwithstanding the general filth and and hygiene standards, Laos buses also have the added obstacle of placing huge buckets of water which are filled to the brim inside the toilet cubicle. This water is meant to be for flushing the toilet, but in reality if you are caught short going round a corner... that water is coming your way.

8. You will learn to appreciate paved roads like you never have done before. Most of the roads, particularly in the north, are dirt tracks which wind around the mountains and go up and down at an alarming rate. It depends on your driver how many time you will be flung off your seat, but it will happen. Bring a cushion.

9. Any journey under 7 hours is speedy. Don't complain how long it's taking as there's probably some poor soul who is catching another bus afterwards and has 20 hours yet to go and is sitting there quietly hating you.

10. Finally, keep a sense of humour. Lots of travellers artificially do this by taking valium before long bus journeys. All I would say to this is you may be having a lovely little woozy time, but I have heard of many people's bags being lifted as they sit there stoned. Still, looks tempting after 10 hours.

So there you go - now you too can be a happy bus traveller in Laos, or at the very least, a mentally prepared one. To those people who say ''it's not the destination that counts, its how you get there", get on a Laos bus - then we'll talk.


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