I'm currently living in Thailand and have been planning a trip to Vietnam and Laos. I'm set on the Vietnam portion, but there is something about Laos that is unsettling me. Hopefully your advice can guide me...
At the end of the March, I will fly to Ho Chi Minh and work my way up the coast of Vietnam to Hanoi in about 15 days. From Hanoi I hope to transfer to Sapa to Dien Bien Pu and cross over into Laos on April 11 or 12.
In Laos, I wanted to spend Pii Mai in Luang Prabang, work my way north and west, take in the Plain of Jars, some trekking, some caves. I would love to see the Bolevan Plateau however, as I am very interested in the coffee plantations. I hope to end up in Vientiane, where I will transfer to cross back into Thailand via Nong Khai around April 19 or 20.
I've been scouring this forum, as well as Lonely Planet's, and continue to read stories about horrendous, arduous bus rides throughout Laos. I understand that travel is slow going, expensive and riddled with problems. I will be doing the Laos portion of my trip alone, after having spent 15 days in Vietnam, traveling overland as well. I really do not want to fly. I've travelled alone before, mostly throughout Europe and Thailand, but something about the way people describe the travel in Laos makes it seem rather difficult and intimidating. I can only hope those views from the bus window are really worth it?
Any insight? Any suggestions? Anyone want to join?
True, bus travel in Laos is slow going - its 6-ish hours from Pakse to Savannahket for example. But I didn't find it particularly difficult or intimating - and I was travelling solo too. Some of the places you want to go are at opposite ends of the country - if you're starting in Luang Prabang and doing Plain of Jars then heading to Bolevan Plateau its a long way to double back to Vientiene. That a lot of ground to cover in 7 days - you need at least one travel day to get between the major towns. And from all reports the ride from Dien Bien Phu to LP is at least 24 hours... Not to put you off but you may want to narrow your geographical scope.
The bus rides in Laos aren't smooth but they're not bad enough to put you off either. There's no highways, you're mostly driving over hills on narrow curvy roads. On the plus side, this makes the ride incredible scenic as you quite rightly pointed out. I didn't feel the ticket fees were expensive.
Unless you feel really uncomfortable with the idea of a slightly cramped drive over hills for 3-5 hours in a day, you'll definitely be OK.
On a different note, 15 days isn't a very long time for HCMC to Hanoi. Is it worth spending your whole trip in Vietnam and visiting Laos another day since you live in Thailand (you lucky thing!)?
Hope this helps.
I agree that the bus rides are not something to scare you way - they were one of my favorite parts of a trip in Laos. The ride to Luang Prabang from Sam Neua is very beautiful and incredibly long (over 12 hours to get to Nong Kiaow when I was there in 2008). The bus was rammed full when I took the trip and there was no leg room or storage space, had to sit with my bag on my lap. Still I enjoyed it a lot.
I'd agree that narrowing the geographic scope is probably a good idea, as you sound excited to see Vietnam and Laos on this trip perhaps save Southern Laos for another time. That way you can break of the long bus ride and stay a little in either Sam Neua or Nong Kiaow before heading on to Luang Prabang.
From experience, the bus ride to Phonsavan was roughly 8 hours and the roads are a lot better than in more northern Laos. But still, by the time you get there you've basically spent a whole day on travel and will need one or two days more to explore the area. I should say that the scenery on this bus ride is nothing near the view you get on the way Sam Nuea.
I spent just under two weeks traveling around just northern Laos and I think you'll find plenty enough to do there without stretching yourself down to the south.
"The bus was rammed full when I took the trip and there was no leg room or storage space, had to sit with my bag on my lap. Still I enjoyed it a lot."
My idea of fun and your idea of fun is definitely not the same hombre. 12 hours on a bus, and I'm ready to shoot myself.
Okay, okay, you've convinced me. I'll stay in northern Laos then,
although those coffee plantations will continue to call my name.
Any suggestions on places in northern Laos that should not be missed?
Should I try to get to Pongsali since I will be up near Dien Bien Pu?
For now, however, it seems I would head to LP, out to Phonsavan, down to Vientiene.
Or I could do Sam Neua, Phonsavan, LP, Vientiene...granted there's a way to get from Dien Bien Pu to Sam Neua?
Thanks for your help thus far though. I'm this much closer now.
cross over into Laos on April 11 or 12.
hope to end up in Vientiane, where I will transfer to cross back into Thailand via Nong Khai around April 19 or 20.
if you have only 8-10 days in Laos...might be quite a rush to fit in everything...let's say:
Vietnam to LPB overland = prob 2 days
Pi Mai Lao + the sights in LPB = 2 days (many will say this isn't enough for LPB)
LPB to Phonsavan = 1 full day bus journey
sights around Phonsavan = 1 day
Phonsavan to VTE = 1 full day bus journey (since you don't wish to fly)
VTE sights = 1 day
that's already 8 days...you can forget about Phongsaly...
given that it's Pi Mai Lao time, public transport might be more crowded too. & better book accomm in LPB in advance.
DBP-LPB overland route:
DBP-Muang Khua = 1 full day on road currently under construction...usually arrive in MK close to/at sunset
Muang Khua-Oudomxay = ~3h on paved road
Oudomxay-LPB = ~5h on 'used-to-be-paved' road
or if you can find your way to Thanh Hoa (however it's spelt) in Vietnam, there's a bus from there to Sam Neua. Sam Neua-LPB is 1 full day bus journey.
LPB-Phonsavan & Phonsavan-VTE: paved roads with good views.
for all we know, you might fall in love with LPB & end up extending your stay there & ditching your plans for Phonsavan.
Oh yes, I feel like a doormat after the bus ride, but find it exhilarating if its a local bus, stuffed full of boxes of baby chicks and bags of everything. However, much of your talk on bike rides has inspired me to attempt that new form of travel down in the Bolaven Plateau this February.
You can cross at Sop Hun/Tay Trang if you are near Dien Bien Pu. Make sure to research that though as I've never done it myself. That'll put you close to Pongsali - and instead of going to Sam Neua you could instead stop at Nong Kiaow on your way down to LP. It is a very pretty quiet destination and not out of the way as Sam Neua is.
I'd say some local bus rides are a must on the Laos Experience checklist. Get on find a seat if possible, then the driver smokes a couple cigs while everyone buys inordinate amounts of food at the bus station stalls and shoves it down their throat (seriously these people seem to think it's their Last Supper). Then the driver starts the motor - yeah we're going. Ups he turns the motor off and smokes another cig then some guys show up with a bunch of motorbikes that get strapped down on the roof. Driver starts the motor again and after grinding the gears several times the bus rolls slowly at a walking pace out onto the road but stops numerous times to pick up last-minute riders. Finally after the aisle is full of produce and people perched on little plastic stools the bus gets out of town but stops for just about any reason, and at roadside markets the bus is invaded by aggressive people selling chicken feet, sticky rice and fried tweety birds. So the riders hoover up yet more food as the bus rolls on. Then the hills start and people beging puking (kids first then teeenagers, then mother and grandmothers). They take turns puking out the window in front of you such that of course half of it comes flinging back in your window and your face (I now bring extra plastic bags and pass them around). Then when you're several kms from the destination the bus stops on the edge of town so everyone can fertilise the bushes and smoke more cigs. Never mind the toilet facilities at Laos bus stations which seem to go virtually unused. Nope, Laos folks prefer to poo/pee in a desgnated nature stop before arrival. Always nice to watch a 3-generation family build a log cabin before journey's end.
If you don't mind some discomfort and are hoping for a roads-less-traveled kind of trip, then totally go for it. Just give yourself LOTS of time, have a flexible schedule, and bring some Gravol (dramamine).
Sometimes it's not about the destination but the journey, blah blah blah.
This is probably a terrible defense of bus travel - but one thing is that I really like to read on holiday. Often I find myself very busy meeting people and seeing things when I'm at a destination and dont' have as much time to sit back and relax with a book (unless I"m doing a beach stay somewhere). So in a place like Laos I get a lot of reading done on the bus. I can read for a while, look up and watch out the window, try to communicate with the people around me, then go back to reading.
I also think it opens a certain window into the experience of living there . . . though I agree with MADMAC and Rufus that if I lived there I'd probably buy a bike or a truck so that I wouldn't have to use the buses.
Well, just to be contrary.
I don't mind the busses at all. It's like a big holiday. All the Lao people are happy and excited to be going on their little adventure. Lots of good vibes.
I sit up front if possible. That way I can chat with the driver or the guys working the door and the money. They drive the route all the time and they're great at pointing out the sites. Usually they know where the good food is. Many busses are noticeably less crowded these days.
Busses are very cheap compared to flying or buying your own gas, less of a carbon footprint too. I always manage to have room.
From anywhere in the country you can usually get on a bus to Vientiane . And that can be kind of handy. I've ridden the Vientiane to Luang Namtha bus a few times, and it usually takes a little under 24 hours. Most people just kind of doze after 9pm. The idea that you can on a few minutes notice, just wander over to the Northern Bus station, and the next morning be in Luang Namtha is pretty cool. Much better than finding plane schedules, buying tickets, going to the airport, etc.. Heck by the time most buy their tickets I'm there.
I used to take the 6am out of Luang Prabang so much the bus guys would wake me up to get off up by Nong Nam where I was staying, easy peasy.
We decided to splurge on airfare for the trip to Luang Prabang, and after looking at the picture in that WSJ article of LPB from across the Mekong, I'm glad we did. Those mountains in the background? Those are the ones you have to drive over!
The downside, of course, is lack of flexibility; we're in on the 13th and back out on the 20th. We'll be staying at a GH in town the first four nights, then a couple of nights at the Mahout Lodge. We'll definitely want to see the falls and do some trekking.
Let me know if the PM is working . . .