Pickup from our guesthouse in Vientiane for our overnight bus trip north to Luang Prabang was 6.30pm. This was by minibus to get us to the bus station which was about 4kms away for our big bus due to depart at 7.30pm. Or something like that. You can never be 100% certain about anything with these transport arrangements. We were the first pickups and we must have past our guest house three more times as we circled around gathering more passengers. Finally we were dropped at the bus station and herded onto our VIP bus. VIP buses cost more and are supposed to be better. But you can never be sure of that either.
Our fellow passengers were an assortment of foreign tourists and Laotians. The Laotian man sitting opposite us had a voice like a foghorn or maybe he was deaf and didn’t realise how loud he was talking. Not that he ever paused to check. And the old Laotian man sitting in front of us should really have been in a Respiratory Ward somewhere getting urgent treatment. He wasn’t well. We just hoped it wasn’t something infectious.
The good news for the evening was that the TV for the back half of the bus was disconnected or broken or something. We were just relieved to have peace and quiet – apart from Loud Man and Lung Man. Eventually Loud Man fell asleep – maybe exhausted from all his shouting. And Lung Man fell quiet – maybe his lungs were exhausted and had nothing more to produce.
Eventually we slept – and woke – and slept. At one point we stopped in the middle of nowhere to load something very heavy. It took several men and a big bar to lift and lever whatever it was onto the bus. I joked that is was probably a gearbox for a Mark 3 Zephyr. Much later when we were retrieving our luggage I saw that it was actually a gearbox – for something.
Eventually we started climbing through hills, which became more like mountains. In the moonlight I could see clouds below and lights far above. I thought it must have been a distant mountain village but eventually our bus passed the lights and continued to climb. The road itself was awful. We promise to never complain about Northland roads ever again. The Laos roads are really an alignment of potholes. And deep potholes at that. Sometimes the co-pilot had to jump out to guide the driver into and out of the potholes. Every few hundred metres we would slow almost to a halt, then drop into another hole and lurge out the other side. Once or twice the bus bottommed. It is the rainy season and there were lots of little washouts and holes in the road. They must wait until the end of the rains before starting repair. Wyn started muttering that New Zealand has riverbeds that are easier to drive up than this highway. And it is a main highway with lots of trucks struggling with enormous loads of very heavy things. All of which needed to be overtaken. but luckily we had a horn to ward off evil spirits and apparently our driver had ESP which made overtaking on blind bends possible. The buses all drive at about 1000rpm – much higher and they change down. Maybe to save fuel. And when they pull out to overtake on the blind corners going up hill at 1000rpm it takes forever to build up enough extra speed to get past. Meanwhile we are down the back making sure our wills are up to date and starting to get religious. Such are the joys of bus travel in Laos.
At about 4.30am we came to a halt descending a long hill. There was already a queue of vehicles disappearing ahead. I thought maybe we were allowing our brakes to cool down. Or perhaps it was a checkpoint. Or maybe we were early, we were due to arrive in Luang Prabang at about 6am so we must have been getting close. With the engine off the aircon was off. And with no windows that open it started getting hotter inside the bus. More and more passengers started getting out as it got lighter. People started walking up and down and around. Eventually news filtered up that there was a big landslip/slide blocking the road – and there would be a delay.
News of what was happening came in different forms and directions and with varying degrees of authority. We made several sorties down, past dozens of trucks and buses and vans and cars. Eventually we reached the bottom to see a sight that sunk our hearts. The landslide was maybe 100m high and 100m wide and it had taken the road with it. Out in the middle was a truck bogged way past its axles. With three big diggers and a loader trying to dig it out and/or make a new path behind it. All in mud. We could see that it was going to take a while.
It was all wonderfully disorganised. There were groups on either side of the slip, as well as the diggers in the middle. Often there were three different ideas on what to do next. After a few hours they towed a truck through which was then blocked by another truck trying to go the other way! Then later a bus was towed through by a digger but then the digger was blocked in front of the bus by the queue of vehicles waiting. Always the vehicles at the front came too far forward and got in the way of any vehicles dragged or pushed through. They tried getting through the ones from the other side first which meant they were coming uphill as well. On our side the seal still existed but was as greasy as ice. And with much of the road blocked by the queue on our side, trucks and buses started sliding sideways into the ditch. And so another hour would pass while they dug it back out again.
Eventually a man in a uniform started giving some orders. But still they slid and slipped – some into the ditch. It was so frustrating. But we were lucky enough. Some buses had been there since 3pm the previous day. We walked back up to our bus to find some shade to sit. And soon enough a bus appeared, struggling up the hill. We cheered. Then a few minutes later another. This was starting to look like a trend. And then more – this was starting to look hopeful. For some reason the first 50-100 vehicles were let through from the other side. You’d have thought batches from both sides might have been fairer – and better for breaking up the lines of traffic on the road from there on.
Eventually at about 2.30pm our bus started down, and kept going across the slip. The middle bit was the worst and we bottomed the bus and for a moment thought that we might be there for a while. But it lurched on, and through and across. Further down we took off the chains and were on our way. Almost immediately we ran into heavy rain. Weirdly it had rained for mo0st of the night but stopped in the morning. The sun had dried the mud on the road enough to allow passage by the afternoon. We were very lucky. As it was, for the several hours on to Luang Prabang we traveled on roads running with brown water and passed through endless small washouts and slips.
Finally we started to descend and could see the Meekong and knew we’d make it that day. We pulled into the bus station at 5.30pm, 23 hours after leaving our Vientiane Guest House. We were happy to be there, realising that it could have gone much worse. We’d made some friends with fellow passengers and shared a tuktuk into Luang Prabang and headed off into the maze of lanes to find the guest house we’d booked into to see if we still had a room. It had been quite a journey.