Well that was the most memorable bus trip I’ve ever taken. It’s 230 kms by road from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, and the journey is scheduled to take about seven hours. Do the math: that’s just over 30 kilometres an hour. The guide book recommends travellers prone to motion sickness take appropriate precautions. I can now see why…
It started quite amiably, with mostly flat roads and modest traffic for the first 56 kms to Kasi. After quite a long pit stop we board again for the long, steep, twisting, bumpy journey through some of the most spectacular highlands scenery I’ve ever witnessed. We slog upwards for over two hours, including one stretch grinding uphill in second gear continuously FOR AN ENTIRE HOUR. Can you imagine what that’s like? It’s bone-jarring, brain-numbing, and ear-rattling too if you’re right above the engine like I was. It gives a whole new dimension of meaning to the phrase “are we there yet?”.
All the way up we pass hillside villages, furiously poor places where most homes are single-room affairs with the walls made of overlapping leaves and the roof of thatch, though some also sprout satellite dishes. Where countless kids play on the road while trucks and buses pass, where parents wait behind roadside stalls trying to sell carefully gathered bounty from the hills. Everywhere are trays of tiny red chillies and mats of grain by the road to dry in the sun, and picking up a lovely patina of road dust and fumes in the process. After three and a half hours of this… we’ve come halfway.
The next section is less scenic but still rugged and winding, and my head lolled from left to right so much that I forgot what felt like to travel in a straight line. Conversation was futile above the engine’s constant growl, and sleep impossible for all but the most experienced or knackered. All we could do was stare out the window at the wild hills of northern Laos. Unless you’re me, who started typing this on the bus one-handed (because I needed the other to stop my laptop flying across the aisle). Eventually I got tired and started to doze, when suddenly we stopped for another break at a clifftop roadhouse of sorts. Just enough time for the vibrations to leave the body, then back on the bus for a rapid but still twisting descent to the lowlands. Once on the river delta villages become prosperous again, with markets, restaurants and solid houses of brick and tile, and small crops growing where they can, then finally to Luang Prabang itself.
Memorable but arduous, and this was a relatively comfortable journey in a full-sized touring bus with reclining seats (though it was forty years old if it was a day), on paved roads in good weather. Much more extreme travel lies ahead: bumpy dirt roads over the hills to the north, probably in a saeung-thaew (a pickup truck with two bench seats running the length of the tray – usually covered). I may look back on today’s journey wistfully in the weeks to come!