I’ve been on my fair share of sleeper trains, and they’re a great way to get from A-to-B overnight without having to spend a day sitting still on one form of transportation or another. But Laos doesn’t have trains. Enter the Sleeper Bus. Thailand has overnight buses too, but Laos does things a bit differently: goodbye reclining seats, hello actual beds! That sounded like just what we needed. The travel agent tapped a finger on a picture taped to his wall of a smiling couple relaxing on their bus. “Very comfortable” he assured me. Great, sign us up! I booked four spaces for the 12 hour trip from Vientiane down to Pakse, leaving that evening. I asked when the bus would be leaving and was told 8-8:30pm but if it was full it would leave earlier. We’d be getting picked up from the travel agent’s shop for a transfer to the bus station outside of town, so he told us to be there at 6pm. Better yet, make it earlier than that and arrive at 5:45pm. As instructed, we dutifully arrived at his door at 5:45pm and proceeded to wait until 7pm when the transfer songthaew finally arrived. We are in Laos after all…
Driving through the dark, perched at the back of a songthaew bench with the cool breeze floating over my skin in the warm night I look out at the stars. I watch moths fluttering around neon lights and see street-lit islands of swaying palms marching off in the distance down country lanes. Diesel fumes waft around me as my spine crunches with every bump; the driver giving no concessions to potholes as he races through the crumbling streets. An hour later and we arrived at the bus station where we were quickly herded onto the bus which we were told was ready to leave. I looked up at the black and yellow double-decker bus with the words “VIP” and “First Class” and “King of Bus” festooned all over it. We were each handed a plastic bag in which to put our shoes before boarding the bus. Gotta keep the luxury transportation tidy you know. We were looking forward to a restful, comfortable night as we boarded the bus.
Now, if you’re thinking that reclining on a soft mattress as your bus whisks you through the night sounds a bit more luxurious than your typical backpacker is willing to shell out for, then you’d be right. There are compromises to be made when fitting mattresses into a bus. First and foremost is space. And I’m not just talking about physical space – you need to be prepared to compromise your personal space as well. The mattresses are about 5ft 5inches long, so most people shouldn’t expect to be able to stretch out. In terms of width I’d guess them at about 3.5ft wide. That’s a little narrower than a standard single bed. Oh, and each mattress is for two people. That’s right, two. So unless you’re travelling with a friend or family member, you need to be prepared to get cozy with a stranger for the night.
I knew all of that in advance, but I still had high hopes. It took me about two steps onto the bus to ascertain that “VIP” in Laos must be defined rather differently than in other countries. As we mounted the stairs to the top floor, the ingrained smell of years of nightly human habitation, unsuccessfully masked by liberal layers of Febreeze, overwhelmed me. My eyes suffered a concurrent visual assault from the bold, mismatched ’70’s floral patterns covering sheets and pillows. Pillows that had no discernably removable cases. Sheets that I highly doubt were changed nightly. Leopard print fleece blankets, some of which smelled decidedly “funky”, according to Ben. I didn’t even bother checking for bedbugs. What would be the point? Sometimes it’s better not to know if you can do fuck-all about it.
As I moved down the length of the bus towards our assigned berth, the floor rose in steps reducing our headroom. I creeped forwards bent over double and flopped down on our mattress. I tried to sit up straight, but my head hit the padded pleather ceiling which somehow smelled of B.O. Chloe was able to sit up, just. I was feeling a little confined to say the least.
The bus set off, rocking side to side on the bumpy roads and I lay down, resigned to a night of slight nausea and a general feeling of filth. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a cockroach scuttle past. The kids on the other hand, were having a blast. Beds! On a bus! Wow!!
About 45 minutes into the drive we found ourselves pulling into a different bus station. I assumed we were picking up more passengers so I took Chloe down to use the toilet before getting ready to sleep. A toilet which, by the way, was about 3 ft square. A tiny cubicle with dodgy electrics leaving you intermittently in the dark; on a bus that rocks, bumps and brakes sharply; containing a very large bucket of water filled to the brim with which to flush the toilet. On this occasion, the toilet was locked. I tried to find out why but then a bus company official appeared with a clipboard in hand, and started moving along the berths one by one, asking to see everyone’s tickets and then shooing them off the bus. This bus was not full enough, so it wasn’t going anywhere. Instead we were issued new berths on a different bus and herded over to it and I can’t say I was disappointed to leave that shit hole.
The second bus was a considerable improvement over the first. Newer, cleaner, funk-free, copious headroom and it even sported individual TV screens! I still didn’t check for bedbugs but I didn’t feel it was a dead certainty we’d get feasted upon, unlike on the first bus.
I slept…Okay. Luckily my mattress partner was Ben who is small, and a family member. I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed being so squashed in with a stranger. The lights came on a few times through the night for drop offs, and there were some champion snorers nearby, as well as squeaking compartment dividers, and the rocking from the tumultuous driving added to the sleep disruption. I guess it was better than a sleeper bus with upright seats, but man this country could do with some trains! I can’t say it was an experience I’d be too eager to repeat, especially as I’m not sure how you bag yourself a seat on the good buses. As far as I can tell, it’s a crap-shoot.
We arrived in Pakse at 7am, made our way to the Alisa Guest House where we discovered we couldn’t check in until 2pm. More hanging around then… Luckily once we got into the room we were pleasantly surprised to find it spacious, clean, and with a nice hot shower which we immediately took advantage of.
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