The Night Bus–possibly the worst travel experience we’ve ever had

Whenever I hear the term “night bus,” I think of Harry Potter’s trip on the similarly named “Knight Bus.” As I got ready to start this post, I re-watched that particular scene from the third movie. While his experience was totally different than ours (go figure), they were equally weird. Usually, when we do something out of the ordinary on a trip and someone asks me if I would do it again, the answer is an unequivocal yes. In this case, I would definitely try to find a different option.

Throughout this post, Mark and Allison are going to chime in. Mark’s parenthetical comments will be designated with an M while Allison’s will be denoted with an A. I hope that’s not too confusing. (M: if that is too confusing, close this document right now before your head explodes. You’re welcome.)

After our three day adventure with Tiger Trail, we planned to head to Houay Xai (pronounced way-sigh), a small town of about 18,000 people on the Laos/Thai border.

Two-day slow boat

It seems that the most common way to get from Luang Prabang to Houay Xai is on the slow boat—a two day journey up the Mekong River. Since Mark and I had already spent a week cruising up the Mekong and Allison didn’t want to “waste” two days in transport (A: a decision I now regret), we opted for an overnight bus ride. I did my research and found the VIP bus, which appeared to be pretty nice. (M: Regarding the term VIP, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means*.” That will quickly become the theme of this whole misadventure.)

One of the VIP buses

In the video about the VIP bus that I watched it appeared that there were big seats that reclined and all passengers were given a blanket, a pillow, and a snack. The website indicated that the bus would stop a couple of times to let the passengers to get out, stretch, use the bathroom, and buy food. It’s a twelve hour trip but since you travel overnight, you don’t lose any sightseeing days and you don’t have to pay for a guesthouse that night!

To make sure we could get tickets on the day we wanted to travel, we headed to the bus station as soon as we arrived in Luang Prabang. The ticket buying process was straightforward; it went as well as we could hope. We went to the correct bus station (based on multiple experiences in Cambodia, that’s much more challenging than you might think), we were able to get tickets for our desired travel day, and we knew when we were supposed to be back at the station.

Al at the bus station

On our travel day, we arrived at the station at 6:30pm as instructed. By 6:30 it’s already dark. I showed our tickets to an employee and he verified that we were waiting in the right spot. About 6:45, that same employee started yelling—telling everyone who is going to Houay Xai to get in a tuk tuk. That announcement created quite a bit of confusion and a lot of commotion as a whole busload of people grabbed their stuff and hustled to one of the tuk tuks. No one seemed to know any more than we did. We piled in as the driver threw our luggage on top. Nothing was tied on, so I spent most of the ride looking behind us wondering if my bag, which was perched at the pinnacle of the stack, was going to fall off into the street. Off we went, a whole parade of tuk tuks, into the dark, into the unknown, driving and driving. We probably drove for fifteen minutes. Finally, we pulled into another bus station and there, waiting for us, was our VIP bus. (M: Never judge a bus by its exterior, as this one was brilliant white and illuminated by cool blue LEDs.)

Me, being me, I decided I’d better make a final bathroom run and Al decided to go with me. While we’re gone, Mark learned that the numbers on our tickets, which we had been told were our seat numbers, meant nothing. There were no seat numbers; instead it was open seating. By the time we returned from the bathroom, three-fourths of the passengers had already boarded and claimed their spots. But the realization that we might not get to sit together was nothing compared to what we learned when we got on.

Not only were there no seat numbers; there were no seats.

Instead the entire bus is outfitted with padded (M: that word “padded” does not…) double-decker platforms.

No seats. For the entire twelve hour trip, you lie down.

I’m just going to let that sink in for a minute.



Interior of VIP bus

The lower row of platforms is at floor level; the upper row is about chest high. Each platform is designed for two people to share and by the time we got on, every platform was occupied by at least one person. As you are mulling over the fact that we were each going to have to share a platform with a complete stranger, you need to understand the size of these platforms. The length was approximately 64 inches (for reference, I am 69 inches tall) and we had to stow our backpacks at the foot of the platform. I don’t know exactly how wide the platforms were but they were not wide enough for two people to lie side-by-side without touching.

Allison and I headed towards the back, trying to decide which stranger we would bunk with for the journey. (M: I had already selected a clean-looking young man as my travel pal, since he was small and I planned to take more than half the space.) As more and more people climbed onto the bus, a couple of travel buddies who had hoped to each get their own bunk realized that they were going to have to share with someone. They decided they would rather share with each other than with a stranger, so when they consolidated, Mark grabbed the empty bunk for the two of us. Hooray!

I am perched in someone’s bunk, waiting for a chance to move back to the platform Mark claimed for us.

Allison, not wanting to squeeze in with a stranger (A: I can barely fall asleep in a hostel surrounded by strangers, much less in a bunk with one), opted to crawl into a space under the upper platform at the back—a space that she shared with luggage and a large (A: and sharp) fan. It wasn’t great, but she did have it all to herself. (In the pictures below, you can see her in the process of climbing into her cubbyhole.)

Trying to get everyone sorted and in a spot was challenging. There was a lot of shuffling around, climbing up and down, bickering, complaining about the open seating (open lying down), and a good deal of chaos. And then we took off. Before everyone got situated, while I was trying to climb up into our bunk, while people were still clogging the walkway trying to choose were to land, we took off. The really sad thing is that they had oversold the seats and one poor guy actually had to lie on the ground in the aisle! (A: A metal water bottle rolled off the top bunk and hit him about 20 minutes into the bus ride) (M: I was there and none of this is made up. I remember lying there, bent into a V shape, wondering if I could survive twelve hours of this. I gave myself even odds.)

It was only 7:00pm when we took off—way too early for bed—so I decided to sit up and read for a while. The ceiling wasn’t high enough to sit up straight, but I could prop myself up at the end of the bunk and not hit my head. It was fine, except for the road. I’m not a person who typically gets carsick, but as we careened around corners and the upper level of the bus swayed back and forth….well, I decided it was in everyone’s best interests for me to stop reading, lie back down, close my eyes, and point the vent directly on my face.

We rocked along like this for about an hour and then we stopped. The overhead lights came on and a few people grabbed their bags of shoes and filed off. (When we got on the bus, an employee handed each person a plastic bag for their shoes. We had to take our shoes off as we stepped on the bus and stow them at the foot of our bunks along with our backpacks.) I asked the girl across the aisle from me if she knew what was going on. She peered out her window, which was mostly fogged up, and replied that people were going to the bathroom but just alongside the road. It was not an actual rest stop. I figured someone had needed to make an emergency pit stop. Bummer for them. I was definitely going to wait for the regularly scheduled pit stop. (M: “regularly scheduled pit stop”….yep.) Everyone got back on and we were off again.

Two hours later, it was the same scenario. We pulled over, the lights came on, people grabbed their shoes, and filed out into the darkness. I started to clue in that these were the regularly scheduled pit stops. There were no brightly lit rest areas with food vendors like I saw in the photos online. There was just a long stretch of dark road and some tall grass on the shoulder. So we, like most everyone else, filed off the bus and spread out along the side of the road—men and women alike—finding a private place (that means at least four feet from the person next to you) to take care of business. The key is to just not look around and to go with that “if I can’t see them, they can’t see me” philosophy (A: this is a truly special experience to share with your parents).

Every two hours we stopped for a bathroom break. At one point I exited the bus, surprised to find myself standing in a light drizzle and heavy mud. It was at this stop that I watched a group of people a few hundred feet up the road trying to lift an overturned pick-up truck out of the ditch. What an unpleasant middle of the night activity, I thought. Then I realized, trying to find a semi-private bathrooom tree in the rain and mud isn’t all that great either.

Mark’s bus selfie

We continued this routine throughout the night. In between stops, we tried to find different ways to wedge ourselves into our tiny space. We discovered that the width of our bunk was equal to the width of Mark’s shoulders plus my shoulders, minus one arm. That meant that after a while the arm that was pinned underneath would fall asleep. Lying on our sides, facing the window worked pretty well for Mark, but it pushed me rather forcefully against the metal railing (but the railing did keep me from getting pushed off of our shelf onto the floor). (M: Just one more example of Laura’s very low tolerance for difficulties and unexpected events, which is why she hates to travel so much…). A few days after the bus ride, Mark and Allison asked me about a huge bruise on the back of my thigh (that I was totally unaware of). I think it must have come from being wedged against that rail as we bumped along the winding mountain road.

We stopped again about 5:30am. This time it was at an unmarked bus station. Some people, but not everyone, started gathering their belongings and getting off. Again, there was confusion as people tried to figure out where we were. Allison was able to determine from the GPS that we were just a few kilometers from Houay Xai. That, combined with the fact that they unloaded our suitcases and set them (M: threw them) out onto the wet pavement, convinced us that (maybe/probably/hopefully) this was our stop. According to the guy from the bus, who was assisted by a volunteer translator (who came from who knows where), to get to town we needed to wait at the bus stop until 7:00 when we would be able to catch a different bus into town. This seemed to be a poor use of time, so I asked a random tuk tuk driver if he would take us. Of course he would; that’s what tuk tuk drivers do! So the three of us piled into the back, along with four or five other travelers. Fifteen or twenty minutes later we arrived in “downtown” Houay Xai where, even in the pitch black of the very early morning, street-side cafes were already open and ready for business. Bring on the coffee! We had arrived, a little shaken, a little stiff, a little tired, but mostly unscathed.

I think we’ll mark that up as something we’ve done once that we don’t really need to do again (A: I may never ride a bus again). One and done.

Next up…the strangest kayaking outing we’ve ever experienced.

Until then…


*Yes, that is a Princess Bride reference.

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