Theoretically, you could travel south in Laos on the Mekong River, in custom-made speedboats, but these are not considered safe enough (and especially not if you’ve got anything valuable in your backpack). So most of us will hop on the bus and make the journey from sleepy Luang Prabang to the Lao capital of Vientiane by road.
There is an option to travel by VIP air-conditioned bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and this will set you back around 150,000 Kip. For slightly more (180,000 Kip), you can save on accommodation and take the VIP sleeper bus. The journey does take around 9-10 hours, depending on the mood of the driver, but on the whole it should be a relatively calm journey by South East Asian standards. It is slightly less organised than similar journeys in Cambodia (i.e. from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, or even from the border town of Dom Kralong to Siem Reap) but that is because there is less tourist infrastructure in Laos. The reason it takes so long to get to Vientiane is because of the winding countryside roads in the first half of the journey before you get to Vang Vieng (6 hours), which snake through some lovely scenery yet are often in a state of disrepair. On the “second half” of the journey from Vang Vieng to Vientiane (4 hours), it becomes a bit more boring with not so much nice scenery to look at, so you end up becoming a bit fidgety.
Ordinary buses also ply the route from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, and as you expect these much cheaper than the VIP buses (typically 70,000 Kip one way) – but you do get what you pay for! It is to be expected that most of these ordinary buses won’t have air-con, so make sure you sit next to the window if you want a bit of “fresh” air! One thing you can be sure of, though, is that you’ll be sharing the bus with many other backpackers. It is a great place to perhaps strike up conversation and compare travel notes from your time in Luang Prabang and to advise each other on what to add to the itinerary when you finally arrive in Vientiane.
Tickets for the buses can be purchased at any travel agency in Luang Prabang (or in Vientiane, if you’re doing the return journey), but I was able to source tickets from the hotel I was staying at. Don’t expect the air-conditioning to be switched on for the whole journey, even in the VIP Bus, as on my journey it was turned off not long after leaving Luang Prabang – much to the disgruntlement of the passengers!
After about an hour outside of Luang Prabang, our driver stopped at the side of the road. Nobody seemed to know why, but in actual fact he got out to help a Lao family lift heavy equipment from one house to another! I don’t know if he actually knew these people, or whether he was just being a good Samaritan, but it added an extra hour on to our journey for no reason. Some bus journeys in Laos, especially the one from Savannakhet to the border with Vietnam at Lao Bao, require efficient time-keeping as to not miss the correct time of the day at which to be there. Luckily, I was not in a rush today!
If you even bother to look at your watch in Laos (no point really), you should realise that the first half of the journey from Luang Prabang to Vientiane effectively passes through Vang Vieng, the once-infamous backpacker haunt that has cleaned up its image recently. My VIP Bus was not scheduled to stop at Vang Vieng; in fact I specifically asked the people at my hotel from whom I purchased the ticket that I wanted a bus straight to Vientiane. Yet, it is not surprising that we made a stop in Vang Vieng anyway, and this time we were not stationery for an hour, but 3 hours. More and more people came on to the bus (including some good-natured tourists, so it’s not all bad!) and now it was cramped to the rafters! I even lost a memory card and a few friendship bracelets that must have fallen out of my rucksack. I never did find them – I suspect they were stolen…
We finally arrived in Vientiane at 20.30hrs, which is 4 hours later than I had planned. My bus ride from Hell had taken a whopping 14 hours since leaving Luang Prabang not long after 6am! I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I stepped off the bus and hoped that my next Lao adventure would not be as difficult or unpleasant.
Vientiane is of course the Lao capital and is a city that is backpacked quite regularly in the north of the country on the ever-popular Luang Prabang-Vang Vieng-Vientiane route down National Highway 13. Vientiane does not have much to offer tourists, but there are some amazing wats (temples) scattered about the city. After a much-needed rest in a hostel that night, I awoke to a cheap and cheerful breakfast (western breakfast!) and then set about my tour of Vientiane in earnest.
A couple of days later, I was due to make another bus journey, this time heading further south to the 1930s time warp known as Savannakhet…