Every day a lot of travelers make the well known 2 days and 1 night slow boat journey from Houay Xai at the border with Thailand to Luang Prabang. It is especially common within the backpacking ‘community’ for various reasons that we didn’t completely like.

Apparently the scenery along the Mekong River is amazing and that would have been the only motive that might have pushed us on that boat, unfortunately it wasn’t enough to make us join the masses and see what all the hype was about for ourselves.

Slow boat in Laos - The Slow Bus Alternative to the Laos Slow Boat

We chose not to take the slow boat because it would have taken 2 entire days of traveling to add on top of our journey of getting to Houay Xai from Chiang Rai, because it was more expensive than the bus, because we read it’s usually overcrowded and there aren’t seats for everybody and also because it is well know as a ‘party’ boat, where often people drink to overcome the boredom, something that didn’t particularly attract us.

Getting Lao Visa - The Slow Bus Alternative to the Laos Slow Boat

So as soon as we got our Lao Visa sorted we decided to make our way to the bus station which is about 6 km away from the border crossing point. Finding a tuk-tuk was easy, trying not to get scammed was a little bit harder. In fact the driver tried, as usual, to overcharge us and decided to be fair only when we were about to get off the vehicle and find another one.

If you’ve been to Southeast Asia, I’m sure you are more than familiar dealing with the fact that there aren’t set prices, that almost everybody tries to get as much as they can out of your wallet and that it’s up to you trying to bargain for an honest and reasonable charge or pay what you are told. We were simply tired of it, so we decided that this time we wouldn’t pay the extra, even if it wasn’t going to break our bank accounts.

Is this the main bus terminal? Are you sure?

This was the question we asked to the tuk-tuk driver when he dropped us off to what seemed more like an old and forgotten bus station, with a couple of buses that looked like they’d seen better days and only few people around – mainly locals that couldn’t take their eyes off us loaded with our backpacks.

The only way to find out if we were in the right place was to try to ask for some information about a bus going to Luang Prabang. We were even ready to stop for a night in Houay Xai if necessary in case the buses had already left or were fully booked. So naive of us, we didn’t know yet what we were about to experience, only later would we realize that booking a seat would have been completely unnecessary. Wait and see why!

There was a local bus to Luang Prabang ready to leave in the next minutes, how lucky was that?

So we quickly bought the tickets – only 120,000 Lao Kips (approximately £10, $15 and €12) compared to the 220,000 for the slow boat – and made our way to the bus … hang on which bus?

The only one that we could see was ready to leave looked like a bus from the 50’s and was already full to bursting with people.

What did it happen to the long journey buses we were used to?

Anyway it was too late to change our minds, with tickets in hand we got on and – after walking on huge bags of rice that filled the entire aisle – we found the last 2 available seats on the very back row fortunately close to the window. We soon noticed that there was no air conditioning (I guess it was too early for such high technology in the 50’s :)), that everybody was giving us odd looks and we were the only 2 farangs and English speakers on that very local bus.

Bus from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan, Laos
our bus was very similar to this one, only more loaded – photo by Lorna

We exchanged a quick glance that said everything: Where the hell did we end up?

Finally the bus left the most dusty bus terminal I’d ever seen to that point, but before even going 500 yards it stopped again only to let more people on each with another enormous bag of rice.

Where else could they possibly sit if there aren’t any more free seats?

What a silly question. On the bags of rice of course!

To that, more and more stops followed until there wasn’t even a small little space free, we thought those people needed just a short ride somewhere along the way, but we were wrong, they were heading all the way to Luang Prabang too.

Lao bus - The Slow Bus Alternative to the Laos Slow Boat

still half empty

Everyone had a bags of rice or cereals with them, the baggage storing area was full like the corridor, so they started to put their possessions on top of the bus trying to secure them with ropes.

A short bus stop - The Slow Bus Alternative to the Laos Slow Boat

We also stopped for ‘toilet’ breaks, where no actual toilet existed.

Men easily used any available spot along the street to do their business and the women tried to find a bush, a tree or used their sarong to cover themselves.

We simply chose to not drink too much, only a sip every now and then to stop our throats drying out.

There were children (some of which still babies drinking milk from their mother breasts), old ladies and old man sitting or lying in the middle between the seats, each and everyone of them trying not to fall off at every curve and finding it hard to snooze thanks to the bad conditions of the roads which are incredibly bumpy and wind around the hills.

Lao bus overcrowded - The Slow Bus Alternative to the Laos Slow Boat

fully loaded

What A Trip!

The seats were very uncomfortable but we didn’t complain and felt lucky we had one. The bus was very hot despite having all the the windows open that let all the dust came inside. The roads were pretty scary in some points and it looked like we were about to fall down the steep mountains we were driving through.

Dale reading - The Slow Bus Alternative to the Laos Slow Boat

On the way we encountered a couple of very bad accidents that involved trucks and burnt out buses, in fact how could a bus and a truck possibly drive through such narrow roads at the same time? I’m not sure how, but we managed it few times. I tried not to show Dale’s my worries and anxiety but it was inevitable.

Could It Get Any Worse?

The answer is yes, it could and it did.

In fact we stopped 3 times because of a puncture, you should have seen how they changed the tyres. I have to admit it was pretty amazing, they did it by using a simple iron bar and you could tell they were pretty much used to such accidents.

Changing the tyre - The Slow Bus Alternative to the Laos Slow Boat
Keep changing tyre - The Slow Bus Alternative to the Laos Slow Boat

The dark came pretty soon, and we found ourselves parked somewhere while the driver had a nap, the other guy got the tyre with the puncture fixed and we managed to buy some plain sticky rice to keep our tummies happy.

At that point Dale was starting to lose his temper while I was trying to calm him down explaining that it was probably best for the driver to recharge his energies than to get all of us into an accident.

Only 18 Hours Later…

…We finally made it to Luang Prabang, very tired, very dusty, in need of a shower and a coffee but happy to be alive and to still have our backpacks with us.

Tired faces on the bus - The Slow Bus Alternative to the Laos Slow Boat

What a journey that was!

If I look at it now, it was very dangerous at points, but the view we got to enjoy before the pitch dark arrived was fantastic. We drove through mountains, various hill tribe villages where normal people go about their daily lives, having a wash in the rivers or on the side of the street with the help of a bucket.

Half dressed children or some naked but for a pair of shoes would watch as the bus went by.

You could tell how poor those villages were, some of which had no electricity, the bamboo huts where people lived looked so fragile and easily breakable. The landscape was very scenic, raw and dusty, very dusty!

The whole experience gave us a taste of the real Laos, I don’t think it could have got any more local than that, don’t you agree?

Which would you chose to take? The slow boat or the bus?