A Tale of Travelling in Laos

Our visa for Laos only allowed us 30 days to visit the country. This meant that after seeing the Kong Lor caves we had to travel south a bit faster than we would have liked. Travelling through Laos is an interesting experience as it very different to any other country we had so far visited.

We tried several times to find out how best to travel south from there but the only information we, or any other guest at our guesthouse in Kong Lor, had found out was that two villages were connected by an infrequent bus (tuk tuk). At the second village we could get another bus (tuk tuk) to the main road. After which we could not find out any more information.

By the time the tuk tuk arrived there were 10 tourists sitting in the restaurant waiting to leave. No one was really sure of what the next step would be after the first tuk tuk.

We arrived at the larger village and were dropped off at a taxi/bus station. We then changed to a slightly bigger tuk tuk to take us to the main road. It was surprisingly efficient and left just enough time for people to pop to the shops and it left once everyone was ready.

We arrived at the main road and were kicked out of the tuk tuk and given blank looks when we asked where to catch a bus. This was not very reassuring but it was clear: we were on our own from here.

Five of us were heading south, the remainder went north. We crossed the road and went beyond the junction walking south; this was to ensure that any buses passing us would know immediately our direction of travel.

Before we had even finished walking, a bus came driving from behind us with its door wide open, a man was hanging out of the door asking us where we were we going to. We stated we were going to Tha Khaelk, this is a major town about two hours south. He quoted a price of 30,000 kip each (£2.40) and we agreed.

The buses in Laos are an odd affair. The previous day we got the official long distance bus to caves. The bus was a double-decker with the lower deck used for bag storage and the upper deck for passengers. The bus had about 40 passenger seats but about 55 passengers. The extra passengers take small plastic seats in the aisle or sit in a luggage area at the front of the upper deck. The plastic stools are identical to the type used in primary schools in the UK and would not be comfortable for an 8 hour bus journey; luckily we arrived early enough to get a normal seat. The bus departed at the time expected but then drove a 100 yards and stopped. The first stop was obviously the corner shop; the staff and local passengers got out and bought their lunch. Another 100 yards and it was the petrol station and bathroom stop. The third stop was time to buy pots and pans. The driver made several other pickups before leaving town, the bus was also acting as a parcel service between villages.

The bus we jumped onto heading south to Tha Khaelk was different; it was not a formal bus service but a goods delivery bus. The bus was a quite large single-decker bus split into two sections. The front half was seats, quite large seats with lots of leg room. The back of the bus was flat without seats and used to transport goods.

Delivery bus

The back of the bus was full of three different types of goods. Large bathroom tiles, fleece blankets and some sort of fold up plastic box. The most common of which was the tiles which in addition to filling the back filled the leg room between the chairs; this was not really an issue as seats were spaced out well and you could comfortably put your feet up on them.

The bus would stop at building sites along the way and the 5 members of staff would jump out and make deliveries. This was interesting to see as they had to move all the goods around in the back hunting for the correct tiles and then pass them out of the bus through the sliding windows.

We found out from a fellow passenger that the bus had originated in China; was travelling via Vietnam to Laos and terminating at Tha Khaelk. The passenger was from Vietnam and was excited to be heading to Thailand. Tha Khaelk is a border town and he could be in Thailand that night.

The progress of the bus was not too bad even with various deliveries but we were glad each time the workers took a cushion off of one of the spare seats. They would place the cushion in the aisle, making a row of 5 seats. They would then take the seats surrounding it plus two additional plastic stools and start playing cards. This meant that we would not stop for the next thirty minutes.

We arrived at our destination and were dropped off at the bus station. It was about 6pm and we needed to decide the next step in our journey. We had chosen Tha Khaelk due to its long distance bus station and needed to decide how to continue south.

At Tha Khaelk bus station one of our fellow tourists, Matthias, got on the next long distance bus heading south. Helen and I and an Australian couple choose to take a break; have dinner and to decide if it was worth resting up for the night.

After dinner we went to the ticket office and asked about buses towards either the Bolaven Plateau or 4000 Islands; for both of them you have to go via Pakse, which was about 6-8 hours away. We were pointed to a stand currently occupied by a very run down single-decker bus with a cracked front window with “Made in Japan” written on it. It was not as nice as the previous bus. We asked about later buses but they did not have any information about subsequent buses. The station appears to run the stand and ticket booth. Then private buses come and go without a formal time-table. The Australian couple, who had accompanied us this far, jumped on the bus but we choose to wait; the bus would arrive in Pakse in the middle of the night and it would be better to either get a later bus or wait until tomorrow.

The next bus arrived 10 minutes later and would depart about an hour later, it was more modern and more comfortable. We were also told it would arrive about 6am, a much more sensible time. So we took this bus.

The bus was surprisingly comfortable; the sleep was not great but a lot better than feared. The roads in the south of Laos are reasonably flat and very straight.

We arrived in Pakse just before 4am about 2 hours before we expected. The bus stopped in the town centre which was deserted, so we opted to stay on in the hope of getting to the bus station.

The conductor asked were we were going. I said replied stating the bus station and pointed at the long distance bus station on Google maps. This was a mistake! He kindly dropped us where we asked.

Once off the bus we looked around and cross-referenced Google maps and yes we were at the bus station. There was not a single light on; the bus station is not 24 hours. It was closed and would not open for hours. Helen, who was wearing shorts, started to shiver and had to rummage through her backpack to find more clothes to hastily put on.

A tuk tuk driver approached us offering a lift but we did not know where to go. We really just needed to kill a few hours before our connecting bus.

We chose to walk in the direction the bus had gone curious as to where he was heading. After a short walk we could see that all the buses had parked up on the main road. As we approached, the Japanese bus which the Australian couple got on pulled up; it had taken an extra hour but there was no sign of them. It looks like they may have got off in the town centre.

The drivers of the buses were standing outside and asking us where we were heading; this time we stated our final destination: the 4000 Islands. Something we wished we had stated when asked previously as it would have saved us the walk in the abandoned streets. He directed us to the bus at the front of the line.

The bus had stopped for interchanges and would leave in an hour or two. We took the spare seats and went back to sleep. Every 30 minutes the driver would come upstairs and state a location, this was to announce that a bus had arrived to interchange with. On one of the calls Matthias walked past! We then realised that this was the bus he had got on the previous day at 6pm and he had been waiting for an interchange to the Bolaven Plateau which had just arrived.

The bus eventually departed and we headed on our way. The bus terminated at a small town where we got a boat to Don Khon, which was the island we had chosen as the place to stay within the Si Phan Don (the 4000 islands).

The travel worked out quite well; we had travelled about 500km in 24 hours and were now able to relax on the beautiful 4000 Islands before crossing the border into Cambodia.

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