Getting to Vieng Thong was a pain in the ass – literally. It took a taxi to the bus station, a one-and-a-half hour wait at the bus station, four-and-a-half hours actual driving time, and a one hour lunch stop to get there from Nong Khiaw. That’s over seven hours of sitting on your ass, much of it bouncing across roads that barely qualify to be called roads.
And while I am on roads…
The road between Nong Khiaw and Vieng Thong is a big one by Laotian standards, if the maps are to be believed. In the States, it would best be compared to a county road that fell into disuse and a state of disrepair a long time ago.
Potholed asphalt alternates with mud surface. It’s barely a single lane in width for most of its length (and sometimes narrower, thanks to fallen trees and other debris). It winds along river valleys, and climbs and descends hills. There probably isn’t a strait stretch of road longer than 300 meters.
Nonetheless, buses and trucks pass each other going both directions, at maximum speed, even through the center of the villages that straddle the road every few miles.
It took four-and-a-halfhours of actual driving to cover 170 kilometers (about 106 miles) of this roadway in a small, 24-passenger bus; in which were seated a driver, his three helpers, as many as 22 Laotian locals, a Brit, a Scotsman, and the two of us.
Along the way, a boy of about seven or eight year of age chucked all over the front of the bus and a handful of passengers, and the bus was attacked by a group of naked pygmies.
The up-chucking incident occurred early in the trip. A man and a boy got on by hailing the bus from the roadway. There were no seats, so they sat on cargo in the aisle.
After a few minutes of bus motion – enough to make anyone sick on these roads – the boy projectile-vomited all over the front of the bus. The man with him, and about four other passengers, were sprayed. The bus pulled over for some clean-up.
A young woman who had been slimed started sweeping herself, her seat, and the floor clean of gunk with some plant matter that was picked from the side of the road; all the while bitching up a storm. It soon became comical, and everyone started laughing.
Meanwhile, the cleanup solution for the boy was to get him off the bus and strip his clothes from the waist down. He finished the ride to the next stop in the bottom half of his birthday suit.
The pygmy attack came from a handful of naked young boys on the side of the road, armed with spears and makeshift bows. They stood near a puddle so the bus would spray them, and then attacked. We were lucky and survived.
Later, there was another group of naked attackers, except that they had superhero capes. We still were lucky and survived.
We were told that the scenery is fantastic along this stretch of road. Unfortunately, it was rainy and misty, with poor visibility, so we can’t verify the accuracy of the claim.
Bus drivers around here have the annoying habit of stopping whenever and for whatever they want. They treat the bus like it’s their personal vehicle, stopping for a long lunch or to purchase a roadside snack. This is what made the final half-mile of the trip the most painful part. The driver stopped to buy a snack, got out and walked around for some unknown reason, and then backed up into a gas station. I could smell the barn, and the additional twenty minutes was aggravating.
By the way, for those that ever make this little journey, the math is:
– 170 kilometers between Nong Khiaw and Vieng thong
– 4-1/2 hours driving time
– Plan on an extra hour for a lunch stop.
– The daytime minibus from Luang Prabang to Sam Neua will pull into Nong Khiaw somewhere around 12:00 noon or 12:30pm, and depart for Vieng Thong about thirty minutes after that.
– There ain’t no songtheuw service between Nong Khiaw and Vieng Thong, no matter what Lonely Planet says.
– The going rate for the daytime minibus is 110,000 Kip per person.
– There is a nightly bus that hits Nong Khiaw at varying times in the evening. We don’t know much more about that, though.
I pass all this because it took us four days of interrogations and painful experience to discover it.
We got into Vieng Thong as it was getting dark, and walked a hundred meters before spotting the Souksavan Guesthouse, where we got a room (click here to read about it). It’s not a great place, but it’s not a complete dump.
We grabbed dinner in the closest food stall, the only eatery we spotted in the central part of town, on the main drag opposite our guesthouse (the sign was in Laotian, so we don’t know it’s name). We got stir-fried noodles with vegetables. It sucked, being perhaps the worst thing we’ve eaten since departing the States.
The next morning, we wandered Vieng Thong for a while, walking end-to-end, as well as walking to the nearby hot springs. It was misty to drizzly all day long. The roads were muddy and filled with puddles.
Vieng Thong is not a place in which we felt warmly received. At best, we felt tolerated. Maybe that’s a reaction to increased tourism (we counted four operating guesthouses and two more under construction); or maybe that’s just the character of the place. Then again, maybe they still harbor Ill-feelings about getting the crap bombed out of them by the US during the Vietnam War (even Vieng Thong got hit pretty hard).
On top of that, there isn’t much to do around here. The hot springs isn’t a place to soak in a tub, but rather a dammed and piped affair for bathing by the locals (although there is the beginning of construction to do something more with it). There are new tiger treks being run in the nearby protected area; but with only a dozen or so known tigers about, it’s likely to just be a walk in the mud. There are no motorbikes for hire.
Other than a break in the twelve or so hour ride from Nong Khiaw to Sam Neua, there’s not much of a reason at all to stop in Vieng Thong.
But if you do stop in Vieng Thong, you should know this about the restaurants. The one joint that we ate at – the one mentioned above, in the center of town – is a real gut-buster. As I write this, three days after last eating there, both Jen and I are paying the price for dining at this establishment – if you know what I mean. There are alternatives at the bus station, on the eastern edge of town, around a bend in the road to Sam Neua. Here you’ll find five eating stalls, and any one of them has to be a better option than the joint at which we ate.
With nothing to hold us in Vieng Thong, the issue became how to escape.
The Scotsman who rode to Vieng Thong with us was told by his guesthouse that a minibus passed through at about 5:00pm, enroute to Sam Neua. This was the same minbus that had dropped us at 7:00pm, so you can see there’s a lot of flexibility in the schedule. Whether on-time or late, this minbus would have us arriving in Sam Neua in the middle of the night, still needing to find lodging. That was not a very appealing idea.
We did some inquiry of our own, and were told that a bus would be departing for Sam Neua at 7:00am the next morning. Since this would put us into Sam Neua during daylight, it’s the option we chose. We told the lady running our guesthouse that we were staying a second night, and set our alarm clock accordingly.
The bus to Sam Nuea turned out to be a van. It left an hour late. We ended up in the back of the bus. The driver went as fast as he could, whipping us around, and bouncing my head into the top of the van. A female Laotian passenger puked.
Are you noticing some trends with the Laotian public transportation system?
All this was becoming old-hat for us. The new thing on this ride was that the van dumped us at a road junction in the shithole town of Phao Lao, which is the crossroads for traffic to Sam Neua to the east, Phonsavan to the south, and Nong Khiaw back west from whence we came. The van did not take us to Sam Neua as advertised and billed, which was another 92 kilometers down the road.
To be fair, it dumped everyone at this shithole, but the other passengers had the advantage of speaking the language and knowing what was going on. We did not.
By the way, the guy running the van operation didn’t refund us the difference in price between going all the way to Sam Neua, and where we were dumped, until I started pressing him on what was going on. He had been sitting on the money since Vieng Thong, and I imagine would have kept it if he had not been questioned.
So, here we were, at 9:30am, in the armpit of northern Laos, 92 kilometers from our destination, with three different answers to the question of when and if a bus to Sam Neua would swing by.
At this point, a description of the crossroads would be appropriate. Hmmmm…let’s see…
We were sitting on a ragged wooden bench under the eaves of what was once a one-room, single story, wooden guesthouse – right at the road junction. It was now abandoned. From this vantage point, we could see…
…a store stall with a woman inside who kept talking to herself like a Hawaiian homeless person…
…another store stall with three kids sitting in front doing a lot of nothing…
…a third store stall, plus some sort of attached and tiny eatery thing, run by an older woman who wouldn’t give us the time of day and was pretty much a bitch…
…across the road from her store stall, there was her 55-gallon-drum gas station operation…
…her daughter, who spent most of her day yapping on her cell phone…
…the guy who spoke some English, told us the wrong time for the bus to Sam Neua, chain smoked, and apparently had no other job than to monitor the road junction…
…two dogs having sex in the street, and that were attacked by two other dogs in the middle of the act, with the female unwilling or unable to release the male to defend himself…
…many baby pigs running around…
…many chickens and chicks running around…
…many small boys running around…
We sat here three hours. We played some Scrabble on an iPhone. We drank some beer. We waited for a bus that might never come.
A bus to Sam Neau did come about an hour into the wait, but it did not stop, despite eye contact with the driver and lots of arm flapping.
During the wait, Jen and I eventually had need for a restroom break. It took four inquiries with the store-eatery-gas station bitch before she offered use of a restroom, for the fee of 1,000 kip a visit.
So…children…I am now going to give you the single most important advise I can give you on traveling in Laos.
Listen up, please.
Here it is…
GET YOUR OWN WHEELS!!!!!!!!
The Laotian public transportation system is unreliable, unpredictable, uncomfortable, infuriating, excessively time consuming, and just plain sucks a bag of crank.
Witness the typical bus trip in Laos…You get three or more answers to the question of what’s available; having sorted that out, the actual bus leaves an hour or two late; the driver goes so fast that you get injured just sitting in the seat; at least one person pukes; and the final mile of the journey takes so long, what with all the custom doorstep service, that you want to gouge your eyes out with a spoon.
Contrast this with the American girl we spoke to in Nong Khiaw, sitting atop the dirt bike she had rented in Vientiane. She was all happy with her own transport, while we were yet-again waiting for a bus ride from hell.
Contrast this with the transportation system in Thailand, where you can simply stand on the side of the road and grab a bus or sawngthaew (those pickup-type buses) in an hour or so. And where the buses load and offload people so fast that you better be ready to get on at a roll.
Of course, there are downsides to having your own wheels, one being the insulation from the locals that it introduces. Riding your own motorbike through rural areas is just not as intimate an interaction as is riding public transport through those same areas. You might get mud on your boots, but you probably won’t get puke on them.
There’s also cost. From what I’ve read online, long-term motorbike rental can only be done in Vientiane, and runs $25 US and up, per day.
Nonetheless, relying on buses is such a pain in the ass in Laos that the cost and insulation is a small price to pay.
So, go to Vientiane and get your own wheels.
Now, if you do ever find yourself stuck at that crossroads in Phao Lao, without your own wheels, trying to convince that bitch to let you use her toilet, let me give you some advice…beg, borrow, or steal any available transportation south, to the town of Ban Sop Lao. It’s only seven kilometers from the armpit, and it’s like going from darkness into light.
When a bus to Phonsavan passed by the crossroads and picked us up, it headed south and stopped for lunch at Ban Sop Lao. Here, there were actual restaurants. Here, the buses stopped and gave you an opportunity to catch a ride. Here, the assholes at Phao Lao might have been subjected to stoning (maybe not, but one can dream).
So, ride, walk, or crawl south. Your wait will be immensely less painful.
Back to the road junction and how we got on a bus to Phonsavan instead of Sam Neua…
After a couple of hours in the armpit, looking at one road to Sam Neua and another to Phonsavan, Jen and I decided to go for the best transportation node. I had earlier looked at the web site for Laos Airlines, and their route map showed flights in and out of Phonsavan – but not Sam Neua. Also, the Plain of Jars has made Phonsavan a major tourist destination, and with that typically goes better transportation. So, it was off to Phonsavan.
… if we ever caught a bus.
At 12:30pm, a bus from Sam Neua, headed to Phonsavan, rescued us from the armpit.
Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars
The bus ride to Phonsavan was 135 kilometers in distance, and five-and-a-half hours in time. Included in that was a forty minute lunch stop in Ban Sop Lao. Also included in that were the Laotian bus ride staples – vomiting passengers (Jen got her sandals sprayed), frequent piss breaks for the men, and doorstep service that made the last ten kilometers stretch on for what seemed an eternity.
At least this bus driver was slower than the other drivers, and I never felt like our lives were at risk.
Then again, he did manage to hit a dog.
But yet again… given the dogs, cows, water buffaloes, and children crowding the roadways…and the driving skills of the bus drivers…I am surprised a single dog is all the road kill we have witnessed so far.
The piss breaks for the men warrant additional comment, too. About every hour, some guy would grumble and the bus would pull over. Men would pile out, whip it out, and water the roadside while the women remained on the bus. This is exactly the opposite of my experience as an American male, where bathroom breaks are for the women while guys sit in the car bitching about the loss of travel time. Maybe Laotian guys have chick bladders.
We hit the Phonsavan bus station at 6:00pm. A tuk-tuk driver with a dull look in his eyes wandered up and just stood there while we looked at a map to find the name of the hotel we wanted to check. I asked him about the price for transport to the hotel, he said a lot of nothing, and two other drivers came to assist. One of these drivers understood where we wanted to go, and passed that along to the dull-looking guy. So, it seemed like an OK thing when we loaded onto this not-so-bright guy’s rig.
His tuk-tuk had to be the worst-running tuk-tuk in Southeast Asia. I think we could have walked faster. We certainly could have jogged faster. On top of that, the guy turned out to have absolutely no clue where we wanted to go. He took us to some shithole guesthouse that bore no semblance in name or location to where we wanted to go, then only responded by repeatedly pointing at the sign, before eventually leaving at our insistence. From there, he drove down a row of other guesthouses, hoping to hit the right one, oblivious to my instructions to just head back to the bus station. Eventually he ended up on the town’s main drag, where I had him stop, and got us and our things the hell outta his rig.
We had obviously gotten into a tuk-tuk operated by one of Jerry’s kids.
As soon as we un-assed the ten-percenter rig, a tuk-tuk operated by an eighty-percenter showed up. He took us to our hotel directly.
The place we stayed in Phonsavan was the Vansana Plain of Jars Hotel (read about it by clicking here). It’s a bit pricey, but we were un need of a trial divorce from the locals at this point, and the hill top location of the hotel gave us that.
The restaurant we used was the Sanga Restaurant on the main strip (click here). Good, warm food delivered by a lukewarm staff.
Another establishment we used was Happy Motorbike Rental. We rented a manual bike from the owner for 80,000 Kip a day. We used the first bike we rented to visit the Plain of Jars. It sounded like crap, the handbrake for the front wheel was sticky, and it struggled going from first to second gear. So, we took it back and got a replacement, which soon became firmly stuck in first gear. We took this back, and the third bike also beceme stuck in first gear. Back we went, with the owner getting pissy, and retrieved the original bike. Can’t say I’d recommend Happy Motorbike Rental, as their maintenance program ain’t so happy.
“So,” you ask, “what about the world-famous Plain of Jars?”
Due to almost non-stop rain, we only went to Site 1 of three sites near Phonsavan. This site has some 300 jars, most of which are on a football-sized field. A few are spread out on some high ground overlooking the main collection, intermixed with Vietnamese trenchlines and US bomb craters from the Vietnam War.
The jars are part of a beer brewing and distribution operation, which failed because – once the first batch was brewed – no one could figure out how to transport multi-ton, stone beer casks across shitty Laotian mud roads. The Plain of Jars is, in fact, the birthplace of the Laotian Brewing Company, which only took off after a better distribution system was developed.
That’s my hypothesis.
Now, we are headed south to Vientiane by way of Vang Viang. We had looked into flying, but the flights from here aren’t an everyday thing. So, it’s back on the bus.
Which brings me back to the most important lesson to take from all of this…
GET YOUR OWN WHEELS!!!!!!!!