In January, 2010, I took the bus from Savannakhet to Pakse . The trip started off well when my tuk tuk driver in Savannakhet quoted me the local price of 5,000 kip for the ride out to the bus station. I bought my bus ticket for 35,000 kip, and after an outrageously overpriced breakfast sandwich at a food stall, climbed aboard a used Korean bus for the 250 km journey to Pakse.
The bus departed right on time at 0900, but that didn‘t mean much, since as soon as we left the station, the bus began making stops all over town. First it was for fuel. Then to pick up cargo. Then we stopped to adjust the cargo, pick up more passengers, adjust the cargo again, and finally to load a motorcycle and driver - the bike up top and the driver inside with the rest of us. When we ultimately got moving at 0930, we’d only covered a distance that could be walked in 10 minutes.
The road out of town was surprisingly good, with light traffic of mostly scooters and 6-wheeled trucks. Savannakhet is on a spur from the main north-south corridor, and we arrived at the junction with Route 13 at 1015. After paying the toll, we sat idling for no clear reason for about 15 minutes before moving on.
Our bus included plenty of western tourists mixed in with locals and the inevitable basket or two of live chickens. Along the way we made fairly frequent stops to pick up even more passengers and to unload cargo through the single front passenger door. People getting on universally exclaimed in Thai, Lao, or English that there were no seats. Duh! Yet they kept getting on the bus anyway, climbing over each other to get to any available spot; the luckier latecomers finding a rice sack or a plastic stool to use in the aisle. There’s always room for 8 more!
Nobody was thrilled with the crowded conditions or the slow pace of the trip, but everyone, locals and tourists alike, endured it in a good-natured way. For the westerners like me, it was a wonderful adventure to talk about later with friends; but for the locals, it was just everyday life.
At 12:30, exactly 3.5 hours into our trip, we made our one and only potty break. Be sure to go before you get on the bus! Have small change too to pay the 2,000 kip fee to pee at the rest stop.
Throughout the trip, whenever the bus stopped, vendors approached us selling things like BBQ chicken, roasted eggs, sweets, and a bunch of other stuff I didn’t recognize. At one stop I bought a bag of sticky rice for 2,000 kip. At another, a 3-year-old Lao girl picked exactly that moment to turn towards the bus, hike up her skirt, and pee in the road.
Between the stops was mostly nothingness or abundant litter, with the occasional scenic river, terraced rice field, or cute village. A little bit of countryside goes a long way. Back home, a 250 kilometer drive would take about 2 ½ hours. But in southern Laos, things move at a more relaxed pace, and this journey would take closer to seven hours before we were all said and done.
For most of us, however, that is exactly the reason we’d come to Laos in the first place. It is a chance to really slow down, have a look around, and experience life as though we lived there. Getting there may not be half the fun, but it is a major part of the adventure.
As we got closer to Pakse, the road became bumpier, and the 6-wheeled trucks gave way to farm vehicles and the occasional cow. Our driver zoomed past these obstacles while seeming to honk out his name, home town, favorite food, and other vital information in some kind of morse code. At least the horn was a break from the extra loud and always off key Thai folk ballads played during the entire trip.
It is hard to describe a bus trip like this as comfortable, but there are a few tips to help make it more reasonable. First, try to select a bus that originates where you will be boarding rather than one that is picking up additional passengers along the way. On the day I traveled, there were buses to Pakse at 0700, 0900, 1030, 1230 and 1730. But 0900 was the only bus starting from Savannakhet that day, which is why it was such a popular choice. Second, arrive at the bus station early and be set to board as soon as the bus is ready. Look around carefully and pick a seat that is near an exit or a window that opens, and one that isn’t too close or too far away from things like fans or stereo speakers. There isn’t much space between seats either, so if you are tall, look for an area with some kind of leg room. Check for curtains too, and is there aren’t any pay extra attention to the expected direction of the sun before you plop down in a seat.
We finally arrived at the north Pakse bus station at 1500, where the driver unloaded all of the western passengers’ baggage (and only the western passengers) and then drove off. The driver said it was due to the insurance, but we saw the tuk tuk owner who would eventually take us into town for 15,000 kip paying a kickback to the bus driver. After paying 35,000 kip for the first 242 km, it seemed wrong to pay 15,000 kip for the last 8 km into town. We all figured it was just part of the cost of doing business, although it is one of the very few times I’ve ever been fleeced like that in Laos.
To be fair, it is true that only the western passengers were issued the slips of paper with insurance coverage. Those stated that in case of an accident, we, or more realistically our families, would receive 25 million kip (US $3,000) for death or permanent disability; 2.1 million kip (US $250) for medical expenses, and a 160,000 kip (US $20) payment upon being discharged from the hospital. It made the travel insurance I had look pretty good.
I’ve got a few pictures too if there is a way to add them here.
I enjoyed your story, Exacto. I haven't been to Laos yet, but it reminds me of bus rides in Indonesia.
I could never figure out why the drivers didn't fill up the buses with petrol BEFORE they went to the bus station.
I rode a mini-van in Flores. We had 5 people in our row of seats (designed for 3), a dead chicken under my seat, and a young girl next to me who spewed the entire way. Fortunately, the parents had a good supply of plastic bags although these got tossed out the window at regular intervals. Reminded me of Hansel and Gretel leaving the trail of bread crumbs. There was an extraordinary of small plastic bag parcels all along the roads of Flores!
Good tips in your post - they can apply to any of the Asian busses!
i'm pretty sure that the buses wait until after people have purchased tickets to buy gas, because the profit margin is so slim that often times they need the money from that trip's tickets to pay for the gas. i've had this happen with buses all over asia and even with tuk tuks in bangkok. regards.
took the exact same bus about 6 weeks ago exacto.... was an experience thats for sure. seems like i got the better deal, my trip was only 6 hours long! didn't think it was possible to fit anymore people on the bus at one stage but as you said.....there's always room!
oh to be back there.....
#4 grenny has been a member since 17/8/2009. Posts: 6
fantastic story! seems like chicken buses we've been on all over the world do the same thing! just wondering if anyone has advice for getting to Pakse if we want to skip Savannakhet completely? We're aiming to arrive in Laos by the Dansavanh / Lao Bao border coming from Hoi An in Vietnam, and then plan to head south to Champasak and Si Phan Don before moving on to 4000 islands. But I know that sometimes it's better to travel further on a better road than attempt to take what looks like a direct route on a map!
#6 wildernessofsweets has been a member since 17/12/2010. Posts: 6
we ending up taking the same 9am bus as exacto. only took 5.5 hours though!
#7 wildernessofsweets has been a member since 17/12/2010. Posts: 6