Sitting all day in a VIP air conditioned bus or an overnight sleeper bus with beds? These are our options for our journey north from Vientiane. We’ve experienced the long VIP bus journeys in Myanmar. Sitting on a bus for ten hours is uncomfortable. It’s like a long haul flight. We have not, as yet, tried a sleeping bus where you get ‘beds’. The pictures look great. Our own cot. It will be cozy and surely more comfortable than sitting. So we choose the bus with beds to travel from Vientiane to Luang Prabang.
At the French inspired Cafe Vanille in Vientiane, we enjoy a baguette supper and purchase almond croissants for our journey. We’ve had an enjoyable and relaxing few days in this sleepy capital city. We even found a quiet room up on the 7th floor of an inexpensive boutique hotel. It’s been bliss to escape the incessant noise of the Philippines.
We are picked up by tuk tuk van from our hotel at 630pm and after a half hour drive out of town, we’re deposited at the bus station. There’s a lovely new sleeping bus waiting for us. Clean with a nice bright paint job, the bucket style beds are smart. It’s very space age. Then we are told that this isn’t our bus. This is the bus south to Pakse. Our bus is opposite. My spirits drop. Our bus is a worn out heap with a cracked front window and tiny traditional bunk beds. I’ve experienced these type of tiny beds before – cabin beds on trains crossing Croatia, a Hurtigruten ferry cabin in Norway – and I’m worried for Armand who’s 6ft tall. I ask at the bus station whether this really is the VIP bus as it’s not as nice as the Pakse VIP bus. I’m assured that “they are the same”.
On board and in the bunk, I feel quite happy. It will be snug. It will be fun. Each bunk bed is for two people and it’s barely wider than a traditional single bed and certainly shorter. They are 5ft6inches (165cm) long. I know this as I have my feet flat on the bottom dividing partition and am laying straight with the top of my head touching the top dividing partition. I’m 5ft6. Armand will have to bend his knees. I tell him it will be nice. Romantic even. We can spoon. Armand says he feels like a lamb going to market and he has a point. There is a resemblance to a cattle truck.
We are given a tiny pillow and a thin blanket. There’s no attempt at style, no corporate colours. The bedding is synthetic and have an image on them – the Asian equivalent of the kids character Bob the Builder.
The 8pm bus leaves at 815pm. From experience of travelling by bus in Myanmar, we are expecting breaks to visit the toilet every couple of hours. Just thirty minutes into the journey, we have already stopped and everyone appears to be getting off to have dinner. Any excuse to stretch my legs. I alight and wander into the small kitchen restaurant and attempt to engage with a cheerful lady serving up the food. I’m asked for my bus ticket and grasp that a bottle of water and dinner is included free with the price of the trip. I’m not really hungry, but it’s real roadside Asian food and it smells good. I want to try the noodle soup. Armand’s off the bus now and he’ll help me polish off a bowl. It’s delicious, although with ten hours on the bus ahead of us and delicate English stomachs, we wisely leave the small meatballs.
Armand settles down to sleep and he does a good job. I can hear him snoring. I know I’ve got to wait until 11 or 12 o’clock to get really tired and have a chance of sleeping, so I read with the help of a head torch. We are flung about on occasion, but the first few hours of the journey is relatively smooth. After a midnight toilet break, I put my earplugs in and cover my eyes with shades. Yep, I think I’m going to be able to sleep. I’m right. I nod off dreaming that I’m on a first class flight, in a cabin bed and the movement is not the poor road surface, but a little bit of turbulence.
Forty minutes later, I’m woken by things dropping on my feet. Armand has decided to rummage in his bag located on a shelf at the foot of the bed for a jumper and he’s knocked off books, specs and water bottles that were on the shelf with it. I’m not impressed. I will now struggle to get back to sleep. I look over at my fellow passengers envious of the many who are out cold and find it easy to sleep anywhere and through anything.
Armand settles again. It’s getting cold as the air con is on full blast and we wrap up. We continue the journey drifting in and out of sleep as the road deteriorates. I’m rolling in bed. The bus is starting to climb and we are getting thrown about. It slows to a snail’s pace and climbs for hours, snaking round hairpin bends. It’s struggling. At one break, I get out and notice a hot burning engine smell that should scream a warning. The driver is using a hose to fill water tanks and adding coolant at the back of the bus. It fights on and makes it to Luang Prabang at 6am.
It has been more comfortable lying in the small bunk than our experience of sitting in a bus for such a long time.
We have the usual hassle at the bus station to find a tuk tuk that knows where our accommodation is located and when we find someone, we don’t haggle. We have no idea what the going rate is and quite where our room is in town. The requested 50000 kip is £5.50 and we want to go and rest.
We’ve booked a beautiful room via booking.com, that’s described as peaceful. The manager allows us an early check in so we sink into bed at 730am thinking we may extend our two night stay. This is a nice spot set in a garden on the banks of the Nam Khan that flows into the Mekong. At 830am we are wide awake. What we can’t see as it’s obscured by the garden is that we are opposite a building site. They are rebuilding the riverbank.
As you can tell from previous blogs, I’ve a bit of a problem with the noise pollution in South East Asia. It may have the warm weather during our winter, but I’m struggling to find anywhere peaceful enough to really want to stop and relax for any considerable amount of time. That’s crowded, growing Asia. One massive development program. Progress? Here, at least, the noise will not effect us much. We’re usually up early and we’ll be away all day exploring. The work will be finished by the evening when we return to sleep.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO world heritage site and a beautiful town on the Mekong River. We take the free bikes from the guesthouse and explore. Away from the building work, we enjoy the laid back atmosphere of the town and the superb food including a delicious cracker made from Mekong river weed. The town has fine architecture. French influenced, there’s a mix of colonial villas with shutters and bougainvillea, alongside numerous ancient Buddhist Wats.
Wat Xieng Thong is amongst the finest I’ve seem in South East Asia and if I had a list of top ten Buddhist structures, this would be second only to the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar. Brilliant coloured glass mosaics depict Buddhist iconography and the lives of the Lao people. The Ordination Hall is dark with gold stencilled motifs and its roof sweeps down low to the ground. Stunning.
Armand finds another secondhand bookshop and swaps another book. We stop and climb the steps to the stupa upon Mt Phou Si, the sacred mountain, and enjoy the views of the city. At the market we purchase fruit and at the Riverview Cafe we indulge in an overpriced coffee and watch the boats on the Mekong and the action on the small bamboo bridge below. We are enjoying the delights of this pretty town.
However, with its fine dining, boutiques, patisseries and chill out bars, this gentrified Laos of Vientiane and Luang Prabang is not what I expected and it’s not really what I’m seeking from this trip. I like more remote places, to meet local people who are not wholly adapted to the tourist industry and I like to see old traditions still in practice. This place is more St Ives on a sunny day than a taste of a small third world Asian town.
We find a nice bar by the river and it’s full of chilled out, young people dressed in their ethnic clothes, the new hippies of the current time. But it seems to me that these wannabee hippies have swapped difficult journeys and the seeking of spiritual enlightenment for the safety in numbers approach to travel, cautiously herding together, walking the same path, fashionably getting a tattoo, in search of the perfect selfie and a comfortable holiday with some zip lining at a theme park. They’re absorbed in their devices and linked up to the WiFi, the essential and totally addictive drug of the millennials.
This town isn’t challenging to visit. There are direct flights straight from either Bangkok or Vientiane. I feel some frustration with these young people. Surely they should be seeking out more adventure whilst they have youth on their side?
But it’s my problem. I’m at that strange time of a woman’s life, when the caring hormone, Oestrogen, is depleting. As a result, it’s very obvious that I am less tolerant and I have to accept that I am, unfortunately, turning into somewhat of a Victor Meldrew character.
I know that there are young adults out there seeking adventure. Last year, I met a group of young men up a snowy and windy Munro in Scotland and my 20 year old niece has self funded many adventurous trips, most recently to Mexico, Belize and Costa Rica. But there doesn’t seem to be enough young travellers thinking outside the box. I’m obviously just having a peri menopausal moment, but it’s highlighted that I’ve hit and need to get off the backpackers trail. It’s lovely here in Luang Prabang and it’s a charming place to visit, but I feel that I’ve yet to start an adventure in Laos.
Tomorrow we will move by minivan three hours north, alongside the Nam Ou river, past the huge dam created by the Chinese and through farmland and rice terraces to seek out a more traditional and rural Laos. Here the red neck scarves and ties of the children’s school uniform will resemble that of the Khmer Rouge, the old Cambodian communists. The pace will be slow and there will be plenty of challenging misty mountain peaks to be climbed, although we will have to stick to trekking paths. Northern Laos was heavily bombed in the Vietnam war and although settlements and farmed areas have been cleared of UXO (unexploded ordinance), there will still be UXO in the mountains. We will walk in the hills and find a truly sedate place to stay by the river and enjoy the peace and tranquility for a few days. Maybe longer…..
Below: The Misty Mountains of Nong Khiaw, Northern Laos