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They say that travel is about the journey, not the destination…
In our recent Reflections post, we said that we love the nitty-gritty of bus travel. We thought it was about time to share just what ‘nitty-gritty’ entails, so we are inviting you along on our journey from the tiny, unremarkable town of Muang Sing in the very north of Laos, near the Chinese border, to the beautiful river town of Nong Khiaw.
Day 1: Muang Sing to Nong Khiaw…we hope!
6.45am Alarm goes off in our strangely idyllic bungalow in the desolate village of Muang Sing.
7.10am Awake now, we pack up and head to breakfast at hotel restaurant – coffee and baguette with scrambled eggs. It’s included in the room rate and not too shabby.
8.20am Off to walk to the bus station. It’s a far walk with heavy packs – the bus leaves only at 9:30am but we have nothing else to do.
8.40am Arrive at bus station. The bus is there and we get the last two seats on the bus. Lucky we left early or we would be stuck sitting on rice sacks on the floor for hours.
9:00am Strike up a conversation with two Spanish girls who just came through from China (we are three miles from the border). They did India and China and now South East Asia. Also on their way to Nong Khiaw, they are planning to make it in one day, so we hope we can too. Either way, this will be a long day!
9:15am The bus is fuller than full. Women with babies slung on their backs sit on rice sacks in the middle, all 12 seats are full and the roof is fully packed boxes, bags, baskets, fruit and more rice.
9:30am We’re actually leaving on time! The bus starts its ride over the bumpy dirty roads of Muang Sing to our first bus change in Luang Nam Tha, where we had come from the day before to check out this town.
9:40am Only ten minutes in and we are a bit nauseous. We’ve taken this mountain road already on the way up, what torture to do this all again.
10:00am The grandpa in the seat in front of us seems to be in a lot of pain. He cannot move his hand and arm and gestures his grandson to massage his back and arm. We are hoping that he’ll make the two hour journey.
10:30am Going through the mountains now, on a narrow dirt/gravel road that winds around the steep edges, hitting enough potholes to cause four flat tires, but luckily the tires survive.
10:45am We are stopped, dropping a few of the moms off in a village in the middle of nowhere, nothing more but a few bamboo shacks lined up along the road, with plenty of naked children running around, as well as dogs, pigs and cats.
11:10am Just a few minutes from Luang Nam Tha, the driver decides that he can’t hold it and stops the bus to take a pee on the side of the road. Dozens of guys untwist from the packed van and join him for his al fresco piss.
11.25am Still haven’t arrived at the station. More locals get dropped off and the driver has to climb each time to the roof to untie a box or a bag. We are getting impatient, as our bus to the next stop, Udom Xai, leaves from another station outside of town in 30 minutes.
11.30am Arrive at the bus station in town, where a songthaew (a covered pick-up truck with room for ten in the back) is waiting to take people to the main bus station 8km outside of town.
11.45am Finally leaving the bus station, after everybody paid their 10.000 kip ($1.25). Very nervous now as to whether we’ll make this bus. If we don’t, we don’t know how long we’ll have to wait for the next.
12:00pm Arrive at main bus terminal. The bus to Udom Xai is still there but ready to leave! We sprint to the ticket counter, I’m told it’s full. It sure looks full when we peek inside, except for some room in the middle row on the rice sacks. Not willing to spend the next four hours on a rice sack, I decide to let the bus go and wait for the next bus. The two Spanish girls get on the bus though, braver than we are.
12.10pm Buy tickets for the next bus to Udom Xai, which is leaving at 2.30pm. Nothing feels very ‘main’ about this main station. Shacks surround the actual station with chips and fruit hanging down or piled up on tables. We walk around in search of food.
12.15pm I decide on an apple and a bag of tangerines. Thought about getting a baguette, but the stand in the middle of the dusty station doesn’t look particularly inviting, so decide against it.
12.30pm We are allowed to get on the bus (it is an actual bus this time) and make sure to reserve good seats for the long ride. We still have two hours to kill.
1.00pm Still waiting on the bus. I read a book on the Kindle and Jess decides to get off the bus and join the Lao teenage boys who are obsessively watching a Lao soap opera on the TV. She has no idea what its about, but these are some hipster teenagers, so it must be good!
1.15pm A stray dog comes and I feed him some cookies out of the window. Jess won’t be happy when she realizes that I give away our only food.
1.30pm I check out the bathroom and see if the toilet is clean enough to pee. It is a squat toilet, but rather clean. I hate squat toilets, but I go anyway.
2.00pm The driver jumps in, starts the bus and we start reversing. Are we leaving 30 minutes early with a half full bus? No. We drive just 30 ft to the edge of the station to pick up a super heavy, rusty motor and a grill which, after being loaded on, will effectively block the bus aisle for the rest of the journey.
2.30pm Our bus is about to leave. The soap opera fans bounce over the motor blocking the way and get to their seats.
2.50pm This road is paved, but the winding mountain roads are tough to stomach. The Chinese guy behind us is smoking a cigarette. On the bus!
3.15pm I listen to music, Jess is happy as a clam listening to podcasts. The seats are actually comfortable.
4.00pm The winding mountain roads are never-ending and we are amazed at the number of mega semi-trucks traversing these roads.
4.15pm The lady who belongs to the motor gets off the bus in mountain village. Again, nothing more than a few bamboo shacks lined up along the road. A toddler has a small machete in his hand and no pants on. Sticky rice cooks on a fire in the front of a shack.
4.30pm We slow down to pass a semi-truck that fell over in a curve. He must have driven into the truck in front of him. The handmade wooden furniture being transported is now scattered all over the road and across front lawns and we don’t know if anyone is badly hurt. He couldn’t have been going very fast. Dozens of villagers are standing around watching the scene. The Chinese guy behind us is smoking again.
5.30pm We’re not far from Udom Xai but we’re stopping so that the driver can take a piss. We realize it will be awhile anyway until we are off this bus.
6.15pm We arrive in Udom Xai. The bus station is closed, no more buses today. We’ll have to spend the night here.
6.20pm Checking into a hotel across the street, we can’t be bothered to walk much further as we’ll be on the first bus out in the morning anyway. Decide to splurge on a 100,000 kip ($12.50) hotel which is definitely a step up from the cheap guesthouses we have been staying in: AC, cable TV, big soft towels, toothbrushes and toothpaste, shampoo and, the most coveted amenity, hot water!
6.30pm Put our bags down in our room and head off to find some food in Udom Xai. We’ve had only a few cookies and fruit to eat since those egg baguettes this morning.
6.45pm This entire town seems to be run by the Chinese. We find a Chinese restaurant with an English menu. We try to make clear we are vegetarians, and hope the waitress understands our order: fried rice and vegetables, and a plate of boiled rice and vegetables.
7:00pm There are bits of chicken in the rice they bring out.
7.02pm The plate returns with the chicken pieces picked out. They forgot a few little pieces, and I return the plate to the waitress, trying to express that we are vegetarians. No chicken. No fish. No meat.
7:10pm My food arrives. It seems to be actual vegetarian food.
7:30pm We pay the bill – $5 for two meals, a big bottle of water and a ginger tea and explore the town. People seem friendly but quite surprised to see us as we wander through a Chinese supermarket and find a night market.
8:15pm Back at the hotel. Time for a hot shower and a TV show on the laptop before making it an early night.
10:00pm Fast asleep. Bus travel is tough.
Day 2: Udom Xai to Nong Khiaw…we hope!
6.45am Alarm goes off.
7.15am Jess kicks me out of bed. She wants us to get to the bus station as early as possible, to make sure we get seats on the bus. According to the sign at the bus station, there is only one bus to Nuang Khiew, at 9.00am, and passengers are advised to buy their tickets one hour in advance.
7.40am Packed and ready to go, we check out and head to bus station.
7.45am Bus station is already buzzing, but we get our tickets.
8.00am ‘Bus’ is a minivan. We save our seats the Lao way, by putting our bags down on them, and head off to look for food. For all the poverty in Laos, no one will steal our bags.
8.05am Unable to find baguettes and condensed milk, (the typical sweet Lao breakfast) we head back to the minivan. An older couple from Hawaii, who we had met a few days earlier in Luang Nam Tha, arrives at the minivan – they’re also going to Nuang Khiaw. They spent a few days here in Udom Xai, hired a private driver to take them out to some villages.
8.10am We buy a bamboo branch filled with sweet sticky rice from a lady that runs all over the bus station with her basket. Her sticky rice sticks seem to be popular, so we figure it’s safe to eat.
9.00am Expecting to leave, only us four foreigners are on the minivan. One man gestures to us that everyone is eating now. So much for leaving on time. In fact…where’s the driver?
9.15am Still waiting. Nobody comes. Are we waiting till the van is full?
9.30am Getting two black coffees from the coffee stand. It comes in real glass cups that we have to return. The lady puts a lot of effort in making the coffees nice and strong with her filter cloth. Normally this comes with an inch-thick layer of condensed milk, but we ‘crazy foreigners’ opt for plain, black coffee instead.
10am Still at the station. Hawaiian woman is getting impatient. Jess is happy, she has her podcasts. I am taking pictures of the bus station from the window of the minivan when suddenly the driver appears.
10.15am Boxes are being loaded on top, and people start piling in now.
10:20am We’re off on another four-hour journey through winding mountain roads.
10.40am The road is hideous, paved only in patches. It is mostly dust and dirt, and the locals are all wearing masks around their mouths.
11.30am The first people get off at their stop, making more room for everyone else. The poor little boy in the back is crying. His belly is upset from these winding roads.
11.45am Time for a break, but there are no rest stops here in northern Laos. We stop just past a roadside mountain village to pee in the bushes. I just can not make myself do this on the side of the road in daylight, but Jess goes local and joins them. I wander instead around the houses and shops along the road. The most beautiful colorful birds are hanging there, upside down and dead, for sale.
12.15pm The little boy behind me starts to vomit like crazy, all over everything. The parents just hold him, but don’t seem to feel pressured to clean it up. Jess and the Hawaiian women go through their bags for wet wipes and toilet paper. They may not care, but we just can’t watch (or smell) the boy in his vomit.
12.30pm Little boy still vomiting. He’s naked now, as they’ve taken off his stained clothes.
12.40pm Jess finally asks the driver to stop as the little boy seems to be really sick and has puke all over him… so does daddy.
1.00pm The poor boy and his parents get off the bus in a medium-sized village. Now it’s just us and the Hawaiian couple on the bus.
1.45pm We finally arrive in Nong Khiaw. The road is dirt and empty, and we are not sure where to head, but follow our gut and head toward the river. We’ve survived this bus trip, now comes the long hotel-search walk with 15kilos on our back in 95-degree heat. Jess has a bit of a temper tantrum and I’m relieved this journey is finally over…almost.
2.00pm Finally in town, we find a guesthouse that will work for the night, at least.
30 hours after we’ve left, we finally arrived.
After all that effort, was the trip to this sleepy river town even worth it? It turned out, we absolutely loved it and could have stayed much longer. In fact, we wrote a handy comprehensive Guide to Nong Khiaw – perfect for planning a trip or just dreaming…