night bus to laos

Matters of the stomach tend to rule my day to day decisions, so my choice to take a 19 hour bus from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, Laos was solely determined by the fact that the difference in cost was equivalent to ~8-10 meals in Thailand. Complete deal breaker. Proud of my frugality, I departed, gratuitously considering myself a feminine (albeit slightly less rogue) Jack Kerouac.  

Fatal mistake #1 was my blind trust in the timetable provided by the bus company. The projected ride time to the Thai-Laos border was grossly underestimated as was the immigration process out of Thailand and into Laos, which required a few different stops. We (weary, disgruntled bus-takers) scuttled around in confusion like dazed hermit crabs, mounds of luggage on our backs. The disorientation level was tangibly high- one young Dutch woman asked me what year it was when filling out her immigration card. I figured that maybe she’d been traveling through dimensions, too. Should lay off the Black Mirror?

We finally caught our first glimpse of the country- silhouettes of the Laotian mountains against the setting sun. This was beautiful, but also sort of concerning as we’d been told that the bus to Luang Prabang left at...sundown.

“Uh..sooo...when are we leaving?” I asked our guide, trying to disguise my panic. He smiled and nodded and I reciprocated because it seemed like a better move than losing my marbles in the middle of no man’s land. After a bumpy back-roads ride (enlivened by beats from a Laotian Bob Marley who was sadly not recognized by Shazam), we arrived at the overnight bus, marked ‘VIP.’ "Faaaancy" I sang to myself. Arrested Development fans, conjure a Michael Bluth voiceover: it was not fancy.

We were told to remove our shoes, which was not surprising (in Thailand, you are shoeless ~68% of the time). The shock came when we realized that instead of seats, the bus was stacked with camp style bunk-beds. It was stuffed to the brim with tourists, local Laotian families and the overwhelming melange of barbecue sauce, feet and pad thai. We (me + Lauren-travel buddy/now life partner) tiptoed our way down the waxy center carpet, stepping over children, splayed arms, legs and shopping bags. Then, complete and utter pandemonium ensued.

The bus driver had preemptively given our floor-bound bunk/shelf away to a family of five, who reluctantly climbed out as per his (aggressive) instruction. They took refuge with other families and in the empty storage berth. Tensions were running high, a tough situation to remedy while cornered in a two foot high bunk with about 8 inches of personal space. I aggressively huffed in the smell of barbecue and closed my eyes, praying for the swift passage of the next 12 hours.

That saying, ‘no rest for the weary’ really resonated during hours 8-19, which were characterized by a constant stream of sitar music played out loud on a tinny iPod speaker and sporadic, early morning chats between passengers. Sleep also escaped me (more favorably) due to the view outside my tiny, rectangular window. The sky was impossibly dark but it was spattered with glowing stars- more than I’ve ever seen in my life. Electric wires, mostly in lines of five, raced past the window. The clustered constellations started to resemble chords against what looked like a musical staff, but was only the pattern of wires. The bright, big moon was a full rest at the end of each stanza. I watched the sky as the bus raced around hairpin turns until I was interrupted by a perennially bus-sick child who yakked over the side of his berth, creating an unexpected waterfall for the Australian ladies beneath.

At this point, I fervently prayed to the dirty ceiling that I would never ever complain about riding NJ Transit again if this bus ride would just end. [Edit: in retrospect, I’m not entirely convinced that NJT is any better, but there is something about familiarity that distorts discomfort juuust enough to make us long for it.]

I’d like to say that a spectacular sunrise marked the end of the ride, but really the sky just turned a feeble, watery grey as we toppled happily out of the bus and into the dust of Luang Prabang.

Takeaways: if you’re feeling adventurous/good humored, try the bus one way, it could've been worse. If nothing else, the stars are worth the journey. But! If you can scrounge together the cash, it’s only an hour by air, so….