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Cat with Nine Lives in Tact: Lao Road Trip

Updated on October 30, 2010

If I were a cat I reckon I would have used up at least eight of my nine lives on the mini bus trip from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. The road is extremely windy, narrow and its scary reputation precedes it.

I’d heard many horror stories about this bus trip between the Lao towns of Vang Vieng and historic Luang Prabang.

Now that I too have traversed this road, I agree with them. Every story! The driver on this mini bus trip took shocking risks on behalf of his six passengers!

Vang Vieng towards the mountains our bus trip went
Vang Vieng towards the mountains our bus trip went
Historic, beautiful Luang Prabang
Historic, beautiful Luang Prabang

From Vang Vieng, the road winds up and up and around and around. Just when I thought it wasn’t possible to climb any higher we continued our bus trip journey continued up and up and up. As we tentatively looked over the edge of the narrow dusty road on this six hour journey the majestic valleys below us receded in the distance.

There are many very tight bends and few straight stretches of road so when we got behind a slow vehicle, the driver would aggressively overtake! The blind corners didn’t stop him overtaking very often.  There were grab bars to hold onto in this packed minivan and they were used regularly.  I am not a nervous passenger but at times I white knuckled it! 

I didn't know whether to sleep so I wouldn’t know what was going on or stay awake to drink in all of the wonderful scenery.  I decided to stay awake.

Staying awake (which I usually do anyway) meant I saw a couple of narrow escapes. Once I screamed as a truck came around the corner on the wrong side of the road. We were also on the wrong side. Both drivers swerved and I swear the huge cab missed me by about 20 cm if that! I took several deep breaths to slow my heart beat. One of my nine cat lives saved! There were other close calls but not quite as close as this one.

If we were forced over the edge there would be no chance of survival it because protection barriers are few and very far between. But I chose not to think about that. Instead I focused my energies on getting to the destination safely.

We had to stop or slow almost to a stand still many times for a variety of things:

Big articulated trucks on the side of the road, broken down or having a rest stop. They were very common. When I did this trip I thought there was no warning, but I discovered later there was a system in place. When a truck breaks down, the driver picks a branch off a nearby tree and places it on the road as a warning to others to be alert to the dangers ahead. I thought that was an ingenious solution.

We also slowed down for a variety of other things wandering across the road, like:

A big fat goose
Mrs Pig and her pink piglets, curly tails held high and proud
A dog – unusually one was so fat it could hardly walk

numerous other dogs
Chickens and fluffy yellow babies following behind, single file.
Children in dusty clothes or naked
Rocks piled on the side of the road – sometimes blocking one of the two narrow lanes.

The villages we passed through are very pretty. This wonderful country and its people are very poor. Many of the houses are flimsy and simply constructed with sheets of woven bamboo and roofs of palm leaves. Sometimes they are made of concrete and occasionally wood. The yards are dirt but are swept clean. They take such pride in their surroundings.

There is no litter around.

Sometimes on this trip north we passed through big villages. Many times though, high up in the hills, when the roads had been cut through the mountain side, the extra dirt was pushed to the side creating a wide sweep on narrow corners. Houses have been built on this "extra wide" part of the road. Sometimes, on this reclaimed land just a few houses have been built; sometimes a dozen or so. Many of these dwellings are precariously cantilevered over the edge of the mountain with a huge drop down into the valley below. The children play in the only flat land available to them; right beside, or on, the road. People bathe within a metre of the roadside too.

The road through the villages was often very straight so our driver on this bus trip took this opportunity to speed through, honking his horn to scatter a variety of animals and people out of our way.

Aside from often travelling on the wrong side of the road and overtaking on blind corners, the other scary part of the trip for me was seeing, high up in the mountains, young men in the uniform of the youth, holding sub machine guns. Sometimes these weapons were held casually by their side, sometimes slung over their shoulder. At times these youths were alone, sometimes in pairs but once I saw a group of about a dozen. They were lounging, their guns menacingly arranged at the edge of the road, tee pee style, butts pointing skywards.

Is this why we traveled this road in min bus convoy and quickly?

At times, in this mountainous rural area, we would see a single person wandering down the road, back bent with the load of wood being carried. It was surreal to see people so far from anywhere. “Where are you going?” I wanted to ask them, but we didn’t stop.
But we survived this bus trip from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. We were hot, dusty and relieved to be in the beautiful, peaceful town of Luang Prabang.

After arriving, I too carried on the tradition of telling horror stories about my trip between these two Laos towns along route 13.

Having said all of this, the bus trip is not one to be missed. I still encourage travellers going between these two towns to consider taking it at least once because of the outstandingly beautiful scenery.


**Words and photos are copyright Travelespresso.  Please respect my work and if you wish to use them, ask me.**



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