Busted Flat in Vang Vieng

Trip Start Jun 05, 2011
Trip End Feb 28, 2013

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Saturday, February 18, 2012

Nong Khai, Thailand or Bust!
(Busted Flat in Vang Vieng)

Luang Prabang to Vientiane 8:30AM to 11:30PM 
187 miles in 15 Hours!

We didn't really want to leave

One week had turned into two in Luang Prabang. Henrik had suggested we spend less time in southern Laos and more time in Cambodia. The thousand islands and the motor biking to the high plateau and its coffee plantations in southern Laos sounded great but it was going to take us two 8 to 12 hour bus days to get there. Would it really be worth it? We didn’t want to leave LP but it was high time. Now we had a new, new plan. We were going to get to Bangkok in 24 hours by bus and train.

The plan

8:30am bus to Vientiane. Arrive in 5 to 8 hours. Cross the Laos/Thailand border at the Friendship Bridge. Hop on the overnight train to Bangkok in the border town of Nong Khai, Thailand. If everything goes as scheduled, we’d be in Bangkok at 7:00 in the morning!

We could have taken the night bus to assure ourselves of arriving in Vientiane in plenty of time. But night buses are more dangerous and Mike from Ireland had told us the sleeper buses in Laos can be weird. On Lao sleeper buses, two people share the same bed. Mike was traveling alone and shared his bed with a chubby Thai gentleman who confessed to Mike that he was gay. Then the Thai put his hand on Mike’s knee and asked if it was okay to leave it there. My said 'no' and he took his hand away. That was the first and last pass, but Mike said he had a tough time sleeping. Of course we are a couple and would not have that kind of problem. But the tight squeeze wouldn’t be desirable. We really enjoy looking out the window and watching the country side. The daytime bus made sense.  

We took the first bus of the morning to make sure we had as much time as possible.

The worst thing that could happen is the bus would breakdown and we’d get stuck in Nong Khai overnight. What are the odds of that? We were paying a premium for a seat on the VIP bus after all.

Nightmare in the Day Time

The VIP bus looks like a fine bus. We soon learned VIP is merely the name of the company and not an indicator of the service provided. As it rolled out of the station in Luang Prabang, it felt like we were riding on square tires. And the suspension was shot. We were feeling every small imperfection in the pavement. We could hear a scoocch, scooch, scoosh sound that I suspected was the brake dragging a bit as the wheels turned. I was hoping we wouldn’t have to turn back for repairs. The bus continued on slowly but surely. Then I could smell the aroma of hot brakes. I was a bit surprised that the smell would get inside a closed air-conditioned bus. Then I looked over and noticed an engine cover protruding into the cabin. It was distorted and bent and I could see three inches of daylight into the engine compartment. We were getting dust and fumes in the cabin. It seemed only mildly unhealthy because most of the fumes still blew out the back of the engine compartment.

We chugged deliberately down the highway. We were passed by faster moving cars and motorcycles. My first thought was that the driver was just taking it easy until we got a bit out of town.  We speeded up only slightly and were still getting passed left and right. Then the local bus zoomed by our so-called deluxe bus.

We caught up to the local bus at a rest stop. I was encouraged. Then we drove through some incredibly beautiful mountains. The high peaks were rugged and dramatic. The road had many twists and turns. It became clear that it was going to be dicey getting to the train in time. I called ahead to a hotel in Nong Khai, on the Thailand side of the border, and made a reservation, just in case. After a lunch stop, we still had not reached the halfway point of Vang Vieng. At about 5-ish we came to the outskirts of Vang Vieng and started seeing some landmarks that were familiar. We knew the road was going to be flatter and straighter from here.

The Breakdown

The bus pulled over to the roadside and idled. No one moved and no one made any announcement. The bus just sat there. Then I noticed a tire repair shop on the other side of the road and presumed we must have a flat and were waiting for help from the tire shop. The door opened and some of us got out to stretch our legs and to investigate. The tires were fine. The bus seemed to be idling fine. Still we waited without getting any explanations.  At 6:00, a big truck pulled out of the repair shop and our bus moved in. We had been waiting for the mechanic to be finished with another job. There was not an immediate flurry of activity. They revved the engine and listened. They eventually turned the engine off and the mechanic climbed under and started looking in front of the engine. He was perplexed.

I called the hotel and cancelled our reservation. Someone on the bus knew the border would close at 9PM and we had until then to cross. After this delay, it was going to be a miracle if we could get to the border before it closed at 9PM. And our hotel was on the Thailand side.

On the plus side, during the two hours plus of waiting for repairs, we met Louise (Lola) and Laurence, a young couple from Québec, Milan a solo German traveler, and Tessa a Dutch clothes designer. We exchanged travel stories before moving on to a discussion of favorite foods! Sumatra was highly recommended. Ahh, another place in Indonesia to put on our radar!

The mechanic finally pulled out the welder and began welding sheet metal. What kind of fix can be made welding sheet metal? We could not really see what he had going on under there but he wasn’t working on the engine or drivetrain. After an hour of welding, they fired up the engine and began revving it again. It sounded the same, it sounded fine. They deemed the bus repaired and we boarded after the 3 hour delay.

The bus still didn’t break any speed limits. We didn’t have a chance for dinner and the driver pulled over at 9PM at a stretch of stalls that sold dried fish exclusively. Some of the passengers were game, but not us. 

Midnight in Vientiane

We rolled into the bus station in Vientiane at 11:30PM. It had taken us 15 hours to cover less than 200 miles. That means we averaged just over 12 miles per hour. Sander goes faster than that on his bicycle!   

Two songthew taxis stood in the otherwise empty bus lot. They wanted an outrageous 20000 per person to take us into the city. Lolo had the idea to walk out to the road and find a reasonable taxi there. After a short walk and peering out into the dark nothingness of midnight, 20000 kip for the songthew sounded pretty good. The first songhew was full and a dozen of us piled into the remaining one. It was still a long ride into town and driver pulled over and told us we were in the center. "Where are the hotels?" , we asked. “Some in that direction and some in that direction”, he said as he pointed vaguely while making a wide sweep of his arm. Then he asked for 30000 per person. We gave him only the original 20k and walked away. He sputtered a bit and it looked like others followed our lead and handed over only the original 20000 quoted.

We knocked on the door of a guesthouse that was right there. It was full. It was looking like a bit of a walk and we stopped to adjust the straps on Michelle’s pack. The others rocketed off as if they knew where they were going. We hurried to catch up but they soon were a block and a half ahead of us. “I thought we were friends?” Then Michelle said the street to the left was familiar, we had been there before. We saw a pair of westerners having beer and noodles at a sidewalk café. I stopped and asked if they could recommend a budget hotel where we could crash for the night. “Sure”, I am staying up that street for 50000 ($6.25)” one of the guys exclaimed. “There is a string of them, just start knocking on doors.” That was back in the direction and down the street Michelle had recognized. The rest of our “team” was long gone having gone in a different direction.

Happy to Crash at the Youth Inn

The next hotel we knocked at had a great lobby and available rooms. It was $25. We could always come back. Then we went by the Best Western, an upmarket hotel surprisingly located in this part of town. We didn’t bother to ask. Then we came to the Youth Inn. The scroungy lobby smelled stuffy. They had rooms for 60000 so I took a look. The clerk led me to the third floor to a giant room with a big bed on the floor.  That seemed odd but it was clean and the room smelled fresh and was otherwise much better that we would expect for $7.50. We took it. We were hungry but too tired to go out. We slept like babies. 
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