Verfasst von: rbontour | Februar 21, 2011

Laid-Back Laos, Bus Rides From Hell… And The “Secret War”

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Welcome to laid-back Laos… yeah, we realized quickly that everything around here happens very slooooow. In Laos, patience is not a virtue – it’s a survival tool! Our guidebook published an interesting statement: “The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao LISTEN to it grow.” At first, we noticed it, but didn’t take it serious. Well, after one week traveling through the northern part of the country, we think this statement hits the nail on the head. We just find it hilarious! For the time being, we gave up on counting the hours waiting on bus terminals or traveling at snail’s pace on a boat or chicken bus. The concept we call “time” is meaningless in Laos and once more we put aside our deeply ingrained German trait of thoroughness and punctuality (lol).

Marvelous Landscapes  & Cultural Backdrop In The North
Before we immerse into stories about chaotic bus rides, you should know that this country is a fascinating destination. We love it! Of what we have seen in the far north, it’s absolutely gorgeous and not as deforested as we currently see it on our way down south to the capital, Vientiane. The north is not very populated, there is still “pure” wilderness with beautiful streams and river valleys, waterfalls and impressive mountain ranges… the landscape is just incredibly green with lots of fertile rice paddies and veggie plantations. Getting truly off the beaten track and taking some extra challenges was worth it. And besides fantastic scenery, northern Laos also offered us genuinely South East Asian cultural experiences, which were both authentic and unforgettable.

Tough History With Unpleasant World Records
Unfortunately, Laos – formerly ruled by the French – has to accept an unpleasant historical record. During the Vietnam War, the USA made it the most bombed nation on our planet when they started a secret bombing campaign. They not only dropped over 270 Million explosives on the country (1964 to 1973), they also forged a hidden war by recruiting tribal Laotian people (The Hmongs) to fight the communist Vietnamese troops. Hundreds of thousands were killed. Up until today, people are still suffering from the bombing with around 300 people being injured or killed every year. Why is that? Hmmh, about 30% of the dropped bombs did not explode, which means there are still some 80 Million left scattering the landscape (click here to read a recent article in Times Magazine). As the “country in the middle”, it seems that the wonderful people of Laos have suffered more than most… wrongful punishments using deadly weapons against civilians, French and Japanese occupation, civil wars, dictatorship, communist government parties, and so on.

Bomb victims in Laos – Want to know more? If you want to learn more about the secret US bombings, click here for some more facts, which we gathered in a local non-profit organization, called COPE, in Vientiane. COPE provides access to prosthetic devices for Lao victims and seeks to raise awareness about the terrible consequences of the “secret war”. Visit COPE’s website – they’re doing extraordinary work to support the mine victims!

Today, Laos remains a poor country, but somehow they told us “Lao people are resilient” – their smiles, their welcoming gestures and their hospitality are definitely unforgettable for us. Although the country is still heavily dependent on foreign aid, we can see it is developing rapidly. Some facts of the 2009 version of our Lonely Planet are already outdated; the tourism industry is growing enormously especially as we are heading down south, construction works can be seen all over the country, roads have been improved and we even spotted some of the extremely fancy new scooters, which are so common all over Thailand. We definitely didn’t see these scooters and this rapid development in Burma.

When Traveling Becomes An Odyssey
We often receive emails with questions like: “how is your long vacation”, “are you lying around a sunny beach again”, “when is the last time you didn’t relax”? We have to smile about this, as we don’t see this trip as a vacation at all. The purpose if you go on a 2 week vacation (once in a year), traveling in a far-away country, is often different. Firstly, you are seeking out other types of activities (if any at all). Secondly, you will also spend money in a different manner – after all, it’s the only time you are vacationing this year, you are off from work and you want to enjoy. If you travel for so many months, it becomes an inspiring learning journey or a time of “awakening”. We still use every opportunity to finally paint a larger picture of “our” new world.

However, the simple truth is that traveling can also be damn ugly. At first, our trip through Laos started out quite relaxed: 2 days on a wooden boat, floating down the Mekong (12th longest river in the world). It really wasn’t as bad as we’d been led to believe and we enjoyed magnificent scenery while observing rural river life. Well, but things got worse.

As the Burmese, Laotians cram so many people, animals, luggage, veggies and other objects in local (!) buses (and on top of it) that some people end up sitting nose-to-nose on plastic children’s chairs in the aisle or stairwell. Sometimes a family of 5 may sit right in front of you on a two-seater chair, but don’t think you’ll ever hear the kids complain, screaming or whining – it’s fascinating! Other times, people have to sit in the most uncomfortable position on the top of rice bags. All in all, local bus seats are extremely tiny and very narrow, meaning the luxury of typical “economy class airplane legroom” is unheard over here (believe us that flying economy is spacious, although we may never appreciate it).

Getting from Luang Prabang to Phongsali, the most northern town of the country, was just like previously described and we even had challenges to literally get on the bus. We ended up waiting over 5 hours sitting on wooden benches at the bus terminal. Finally, an overloaded bus arrived and what a surprise, we were able to catch 2 places on the very back of the bus – the admired last bench. The guy at the bus station told us it would take us no longer than 14 hours to get to Phongsali. Funny… in town they talked about 17 hours. Apparently, both of us hoped for the 14, but this was wish thinking! It turned out to be 21! 21 hours to cover a distance of about 420km.

The 420km either meant driving on dust and dirt roads or paved roads with huge potholes. So we bumped along brain-rattling streets for 21 hours… oh, and how lucky we were to sit on the no longer admired “last bench”. Gosh, it was such a gut-jarring ride, because if you ever sat on the “last bench” in the back of a bus, you may have noticed that it bumps up and down much heavier than in the front.

In addition, we tried fighting the cold during the night, the heat during the day and the freaking dust all of the time. Obviously, the wonderful window right next to us – and many others – was broken. The dust problem was so extreme that most locals wore a mouth guard (we really did think about many things when we packed our first aid kit, but not about this one). The dust made us incredibly thirsty, BUT how could we drink so much? No toilet! The bus driver only stopped on the side of the road when enough people would complain; decent food stops were also rare. Clearly, all of this was quite nerve wracking, but we are happy: 1) We survived the longest and scariest serpentine road ever, which weaved treacherously between the mountains… no guardrails of course. 2) Also a flat tire did not stop us – the bus driver and his ‘handyman’ were very well trained. 3) We didn’t get dust poisoning. 4) And luckily, the motorcyclist-girl, who our bus driver hit badly, didn’t die. Note: Sure, there was no first aid kit on the bus. This guy just knocked the girl off her scooter and we and 2 other travelers were the ONLY people to supply first aid. We were happy that we could help. Finally, we saw the bus driver bribing the girl’s father before they left to the doctor. Interesting!

Well, this is where the story ends, but eventually you can understand why traveling SUCKS at times! Our family asked us a couple days ago: Why the hell are you putting yourself through this? It would be like a journey of suffering! Honestly, it’s not. We see it as a positive experience. When we talk about these crazy adventures, we are not whining about them or complaining. For us, bus rides like this may be an adventure. For locals, they are reality. Hence, we constantly learn how hard it is to live and survive in such a country. And how lucky we can be to enjoy a wonderful infrastructure, which gives us opportunities, other cultures can only dream of…


  1. Hello Brigitte, hello Robert, looks like Laos relaxation behavior can be a key for life?? (sometimes). The Buffalo trails sound weird but for sue an adventure. I read about the US bombs from history, but I never did the math, means 80 million bombs still lying around at some places and wait to explode?? CRAZY!!!!!! I hope the tourism branch money will help to clean out Laos from the bad bombs and give these people a better life. Remarking your bus rides it gives me a flavor of getting stressed already be only reading it, don’t worry I know traveling is not a vacation at all, as I’m traveling 70-80% of my time. Yes “reality” sounds like 21hrs bus ride is normal in between dirt dust and rice and veggies. I only can say please find a better “reality” and sometimes take the more expensive bus (if possible) and don’t take too much risk, have fun at your double strong “Jacobs-way (Jakobsweg)”, love Dad PS: …..and see you soon in Cambodia

    • Danke fuer den lieben Kommentar… Ist kein Jakobsweg… Wir haben’s Dir erklaert ;-). Bussi und wir freuen uns auf Cambodia mit Dir!!

  2. Hallo ihr 2 Lieben,
    Oma und ich haben heute euren Lhaos-Bericht gelesen und die Bilder angeschaut – einfach unglaublich. Einige Landschaftsbilder haben mich derart fasziniert, mußte sofort an Herr der Ringe oder Avatar denken – super schön.
    Paßt auf euch auf und viel Spaß mit euren Waisenkindern in Kambodscha.
    Bussi Ma & Oma

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