When the guy at the ticket counter at Vientiane Northern Bus Terminal said that the only bus tickets to Luang Prabang they had left were the more expensive VIP tickets, I was sceptical. We argued that we didn’t want the VIP treatment, we just wanted to take the cheap day bus, but eventually we had to give in. After all, we didn’t really have any leverage: we needed a ticket, he didn’t care whether we went to Luang Prabang or not. In fact, he just didn’t care. So, begrudgingly, we handed over the extra £2 (or 4 bowls of noodles, which is the currency we’ve come to understand best), and prepared ourselves for our VIP bus ride to the north of Laos, where we’d be staying for the next few months.
I’m not sure what made it VIP. Perhaps it was the crack in the window, or the dirty and broken chairs. Maybe it was the rubbish left behind by another passenger from a previous trip. Or was it the dead gecko decomposing on my seat?
I honestly couldn’t say.
Three teenage boys seemed to be in charge. One was the driver, the second took our bags and tickets, and the role of the third boy seemed to be to provide entertainment for the other two. It felt very much like they were on a coming-of-age road trip, and us paying customers were merely along for the ride.
An elderly Lao lady, no taller than 4 foot, said a little prayer as we left Vientiane. Clearly she’d taken this trip before. Our VIP bus lumbered along even the straightest, smoothest of roads. How it was ever going to climb the mountain roads to Luang Prabang was beyond me. I tried to reassure myself that these lads, young though they might be, knew what they were doing. But from the clunking and grating sound of metal on metal, it appeared that our teenage driver was perpetually trying to find the right gear. And failing.
The miles were hard won, but we did make progress.
To pass the time we mostly ate. We’d packed crackers, boiled eggs, sweets, biscuits, rice cakes (the unhealthy Lao ones that are fried and covered in a sweet syrup), and oranges, which we shared with the Lao lady sat next to us. We also enjoyed the bowl of noodle soup which was included in our VIP ticket price, at a rest stop along the way. Just to make sure we wouldn’t starve, we picked up a carrier bag of sticky rice for 5000 k (50p) to have with the mu foi (or, as I call it, hairy pork) we’d brought along from Vientiane.
The lunch break seemed to revive the boys: their high-pitched squeals and exclamations, particularly when directed out the window at innocent female pedestrians, became increasingly grating as the road wound on.
And the road did wind on. The scenery around Luang Prabang is stunning, otherworldly, and each turn and hairpin bend gives you a new perspective, a fresh viewpoint from which to admire it.
The driver, to be fair, navigated the roads well, almost convincing me that this wasn’t the first time he’d driven a bus. Stunning scenery and sticky rice could only keep me going for so long though, and I was thankful when we eventually arrived at our destination, late but intact.
Sat at our hostel that night, enjoying cold, leftover eggs and rice, I felt relieved to finally be in Luang Prabang and excited for what the next stage of our adventure might have in store.