Where To? Laos
How long? 5 Days
Thoughts: The slow routes are always the authentic routes.
13 WoW – Destination: Laos
Before I had made any plans to get to Laos, I had already been warned off going there by land by multiple people who advised me that flying to Laos was the best way. I was also told that there was no way to go into Laos from Sa Pa, that I would have to return to Hanoi before I could get to Laos. Well, I didn’t listen to any of them and thank God I didn’t because I saved time as well as money.
How to get to Laos from Sa Pa
In Sa Pa there are a number of tourist agents and you will see a few shops advertising tours or coaches to certain destinations. In addition to that, most hotels will also have information on tours and may even have the facility to book you onto a coach to your desired destination. I went to the Anh Nhi hotel to book my bus to Laos and the manager presented me with a couple of options on how to get there. I could either do a 24 hour bus directly to Luang Prabang, or I could break it up and head to Muang Khua then hop on a boat the rest of the way.
Now, it didn’t turn out to be quite as simple as that (especially with the drama I had before I even left), but it was cheap (just over 200 VND) and it was an adventure; in the end that’s all we really want!
At first, it all started well. I’m not a complete newbie to sleeper buses having taken several to get to where I was, so it all seemed pretty dreamy when I realised I’d been booked onto a double bed sleeper bus! So much room!
My first mini drama happened when I spotted, very near my head, a large spider. After pointing it out to the driver, he gave me a look that literally said “bitch please”, rolled his eyes and then walked away. I then had to deal with the situation myself, by using my cap to flick the spider to an unknown location (a.k.a probably somebody’s bed – SO sorry!).
The rest of the journey continued to be relatively uneventful as I took full advantage of the free wifi aboard and dozed in and out of sleep.
The major problem I had with my journey was the language barrier meaning that I had literally no idea where I was supposed to be getting off and how long for etc. So, I decided that Laos is pretty far away, the border is going to be a while to get to and at that stage I would probably need my passport, so I made a plan. The plan was simply to not get off the bus at any point until I saw people getting their passports out. Pretty good plan, I thought. Until…
I needed to pee, pretty desperately. By this point the bus had made several stops in which I shot up, groggy eyed, and looked for people with their passports. Some stops people went to buy food, others had been bathroom stops and even drop offs. At all of these stops, the driver had shouted something in Vietnamese and everyone but I had understood. This time seemed no different, so when the bus stopped, I thought I’d make communication with the driver to see how long the stop would be for. I interpreted it to be, 15 minutes.
I dashed to the bathroom which was hidden around the back of the “petrol station” and it was nearly pitch black behind there. I found the lights and paid my dues, rushing to get away from the dark eerie area round back. As I made my way back to the bus, I could hear the rumbling sound of the engine running, and to my horror the bus had begun to move off.
I legged it as fast as I could waving frantically, my heart rate up a million, my mind flashing images of me being stuck in the middle of nowhere with all my belongings on this coach. Luckily for me, the driver spotted me and stopped. As did my heart. And when I was finally let back on, he was laughing guiltily as I tried to laugh back. It was not funny. I did not get off that coach for anything after that.
So, my night was pretty sleepless as I sought for signs as to when I was supposed to get off the coach. When the coach finally came to a rather elongated stop, the driver yelled a few times in Vietnamese and one by one people began to exit the coach. I was not moving, not after what had happened. A good 15 – 20 minutes must have passed before I and some other foreigners started to get suspicious as more people started to get up and exit. I finally tried to ask my fellow passengers, two Japanese boys, who in broken English told me that they think we need to get off. So I approached the driver repeatedly saying “Muang Khua?”
It took a few repeats before he registered what I was saying and then nodded enthusiastically pointing to the hold. I think that meant, “get your bags”. After a while standing by the bus with my bags, the driver yelled “Muang Khua” and another man popped up out of nowhere. It was 5am by this point, my eyesight was questionable. The second man pointed to some seats where I waited with my bags unsure of where I was or what I was doing. Then I was joined by two others, a couple from Barcelona, also going to Muang Khua!
The Local Bus
An hour later, post brushing my teeth in the “bathrooms” that were holes in the ground with “sinks” that smelled more like urinals (deffo used bottled water to rinse). Myself and my two new Catalan buddies were ushered to a minibus with more seats than there should be inside. The bus was soon filled to overloading with locals, parcels, strange smelling packages, food and even chickens. This Spanish couple and I were the only tourists on the entire bus. The bus made many a stop after leaving Dien Bien and each time I thought “we couldn’t get any more in this bus”, and each time we did. One huge roll of plastic tubes atop the minivan here, and one chicken in a box under your feet. But aside from the odoriferous cargo and the stridency of the animals, the most uncomfortable element of this leg of the journey was the spitting.
Asians spit, a lot! Especially in Vietnam. I figure that this is due to the over-population which has lead to severe air pollution in some areas. Heck, I even wanted to spit at times! Ladies and men, boys and girls, young and old all do it, and not just a delicate projection of saliva in discreet intervals. Sorry to describe this, but they give it 100 with their spitting; a long, drawn out snort to clear the throat before launching saliva (and whatever else) far distances.
This may be why the window seats are so desirable, but it didn’t seem to bother the locals if they hadn’t managed to plonk their behinds on the sought after window seat. I learned this after witnessing an elderly lady, most probably in her 80’s, tap a young man on his shoulder, snort, lean over him and spit out of the window!
Feeling rather squeamish, I prayed a silent prayer that nobody beside me would get such a notion. Thank God, they didn’t.
Crossing the Border
This little local bus was the bus I used to cross the Laotian border. What you should expect at the border is A. Completing a fair share of paperwork and B. Going to a number of windows to pay through your ears for various whims (one window took my temperature and then charged me for it). Have a good amount of US dollars on you, and you will want to change cash to Laotian Kip if you have the chance as the likelihood of you coming across a working ATM in Muang Khua is minimal. I had $90 and just managed to get the visa, pay for one night shared room with the only two other tourists on my bus and get the boat in the morning. The visa was close to $45 in the end but I’m sure that could vary.
*Hint: Choose to pay in Kip if given an option or they will try rounding up in their conversion.
The local bus stops by the river where the slow boat departs every day, but the two tourists and I decided to jump out early hoping to get some money out from a cash machine. I had lent them $2 at the border as they also were caught off guard with the excessive charges.
We headed to the first cash machine in the village and found that it was not working and had been out of service for some time. After speaking with locals, we found the second cash machine and the third, but none of them worked! They were the only cash machines in the village, none of them worked, and nobody cared – they didn’t need it!
Hopeful that the banks may be open early the following day, we decided to put our money together and all share one room for the night. Dinner that night would be packet noodles that we shared with some coffee (tea for me) and biscuits. But before we settled in, we had time to explore the little village and see what it had to offer.
*Hint: If, like me, you find yourself stuck without an ATM, but you have foreign currency to exchange, try local shops. I was able to change my dollars (albeit at a bad rate) in the local electrical shop.
Muang Khua is very small and two rivers meet right by this village; Nam Phak which comes off the much larger Nam Ou. The highlight of the area was the suspension bridge where we could enjoy lovely views of the Nam Phak river. We also enjoyed playing a bit of football with the local children who got very competitive, and, following our walk across the suspension bridge, we enjoyed some super fun Karaoke at a local pub where we instantly made new friends.
I really recommend stopping by a Karaoke bar in this neck of the woods, it’s so warming to see the locals giving it their all, laughing, joking and having a good time!
The Slow Boat from Muang Khua to Nong Kiaw
The next day, the banks were not able to help us get any money out, so we headed straight to the dock in the hopes that we could get the cheapest tickets.
The way the slow boat works is that it only departs once a day and the time it departs depends on the number of people, as does the price you pay. The time it leaves is between 9am and 10am ish, so I recommend getting there at 9 and waiting. You can charter the boat yourself if you miss the regular daily trip but you will pay heavily for it.
As it turned out, we waited from 9am until around 9.30/10 when we had enough people to leave. The good news was that two German families who were backpacking with their 9 and 11 year old kids, topped up the numbers meaning that we could pay lower rates (I paid around 200 kip).
I’ll be frank, the boat journey is not a comfortable one and if it’s raining, you will be wet and cold. But it is definitely worth it for the unique experience and incredible views. Expect it to be a slow journey, taking over 6 hours, with many stops to pick up or drop off cargo and people.
*Hint: Be prepared to pee on a beach somewhere along the way if you need to go!
There are small beautiful villages on the way which you could stop at for the night if you have the time to, I recommend stopping in Muang Ngoi. I said good-bye to my friends here as they took 3 days to relax in this stunning location, but I carried on to Nong Kiaw hoping to get there in time to catch the bus to Luang Prabang. My original plans of getting the slow boat all the way to Luang Prabang were dismantled when I was told that the Chinese had built dams that now made that journey impossible.
See if I ever make it to Luang Prabang, and what challenges I face when I arrive in Nong Kiaw with no money, in my next post!