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Shake, Rattle and Roll: Route 13, Laos

By the town of Kasi we pull over at a roadside restaurant – rows of plastic furniture arranged under a makeshift tarpaulin roof – indulging in a generous bowl of noodle soup. Happily I slurp up the slices of beef, coriander and meatballs, seasoned with flakes of chilli. It is one of the most memorable meals of our stay, and an absolute bargain at 15,000 kip (roughly 1.85 USD).

The previous morning we had wandered into the bus station at Talat Sao, just opposite the Morning Market. When we asked for buses to Luang Prabang, a man with an affable air approached us and shook his head. “Tomorrow? Only from the Northern Bus Station.” Unfolding our pocket map of Vientiane, we realised just how far away it was from where we were standing.

“But I can take you there by minivan,” He offered. “Only 8 hours. The bus takes 10 hours.” The man pulled out his business card, neatly illustrated with a blue livestock truck. “I can pick you up at the hotel; send you to the hotel in Luang Prabang.”

“What time can you do tomorrow?” I asked.

“7:30, in the morning.”

The next day we were curious to know the answer to a burning question: were we on our own, or would we be sharing the minivan with other travellers? Stepping into the vehicle, we had no clue that this was going to be a lesson in hitchhiking – the Lao way.

Every now and again the driver would stop at the sight of anyone waiting by the roadside, reverse for a few metres, and ask where they wanted to go. A handful of interesting characters piled on – among them an elderly gentleman decked out in a well-ironed military uniform, a chic young woman who was constantly barking down the phone, and a fifty-something with a bag emanating the pungent smell of fish paste.

To the sound of Lao pop, characterised by the heavy use of a synthesizer, we savoured the fresh country air rushing through the open windows. I had imagined that the road between Vientiane and Vang Vieng was flat, but it could not have been farther from the truth. This part of Route 13 seemed to alternate between stretches of asphalt and ochre-coloured dirt, pockmarked by a never-ending series of potholes.

For four relentless hours we were tossed around, mercilessly, like rag dolls in the back of the minivan. At the telltale swerving and the sound of brakes on the mud, we braced ourselves for each hard, inevitable bump. I felt as though our heads would eventually hit the ceiling.

About an hour from Vang Vieng we finally caught sight of the limestone karst formations, their summits partially obscured by wispy banks of low cloud. To our relief the road was more or less paved as it climbed up into the mountains, exposing magnificent vistas of deep valleys and virgin forest amid the towering shafts of rock. This dreamlike scenery was the reason we had picked the journey overland, and it was worth the sheer discomfort of those first few hours.

Meanwhile our driver fearlessly carried on at full throttle, racing around sharp turns and overtaking lumber trucks, lorries and tour buses at breakneck speed. We passed the scars of previous landslides, exposed walls of red soil looming above the narrow highway. As hair-raising as it was, we made it to Luang Prabang just before sundown – 3 hours behind schedule but all in one piece.

Vang Vieng


Rice paddies

Into the mountains

28 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sounds like quite the adventure! Not sure if we value the dreamscape enough to try it ourselves 🙂

    May 20, 2012
    • Oh it was, Madhu! The remarkable thing was that neither Bama or I got motion sickness – in spite of the road’s terrible state and all its twists and turns! I would advise you to take the more comfortable option and go by plane. 🙂

      May 20, 2012
  2. You described that ride so vividly! I could almost feel my head hitting the ceiling of the minivan haha 🙂 we had a similar trip to the Great Wall but I must admit ours was definitely not as bumpy 😀

    May 20, 2012
    • The funniest part was trying to take notes while it was all happening… I had to give up after 30 seconds because writing was just impossible! 😛

      May 20, 2012
      • oh wow!! yes and I bet even pens become dangerous in such a bumpy environment! imagine not only bumping your head but poking someone?! haha 🙂 oh well at least it was worth it, it looks lovely!

        May 20, 2012
      • Haha, I didn’t think of that danger at the time! 😀 The second half of the journey really made up for the bumpiness of the first – the photos give only a small glimpse of the immense beauty that we saw.

        May 20, 2012
  3. That man who smelled of a fish paste made me a little nauseous! But that bowl of noodle soup was our savior!

    May 20, 2012
    • I’m just glad the windows were open, the driver was smart to ask him to put it in the back!

      May 20, 2012
  4. The first photograph with the fog drifting through… beautiful:)

    May 20, 2012
  5. Oh, James, these mountains are stunning. Is it normal for the fog to loom like that? Gives the whole land an air of magic and mystery.


    May 21, 2012
    • Thanks for dropping by, Cara. 🙂 I can only assume that it’s a common occurrence – maybe more so in the wetter months of the year. We were just passing through at the time so I’m not entirely sure!


      May 21, 2012
  6. I usually fall asleep during long car rides, but it sounds like sleeping would be impossible during a car trip like that! Gorgeous pictures! I want to go now! 😀

    May 22, 2012
    • Thanks Rachel! 😀 It was more or less impossible – there was just one time I closed my eyes and almost managed to fall asleep. The next thing I knew, our driver suddenly slammed on the brakes and I was jolted back to consciousness. But the scenery made the whole trip worthwhile!

      May 22, 2012
  7. Todd Materazzi Photography #

    James, I had some adventures like this in the my younger days and remember almost getting (or) sick for days afterwards. Sea sickness I think they call it 🙂

    May 22, 2012
    • I was incredibly lucky – although I had heard stories of people getting sick on the same highway, there was none of it this time. It might have been down to the open windows. 🙂

      May 22, 2012
  8. Wow James it sounds like quite a trip! The landscape is so lush and green. How long were you in Laos for? Also, on another note I realized you were indeed correct about the cathedral! I looked back over my notes from Spain and lone behold it is in Seville not Toledo! Opps. Nice catch by you! I’m going to go back and change it now. Thanks for letting me know See what happens when I reply on memory of something 8 years ago! Should have just reviewed my notes again!

    May 23, 2012
    • It was just gorgeous Nicole – in a way it reminded me of your post on travelling through the Guatemalan countryside! We were there for all of 6 days, it was just enough time for the easy pace that we were going at. No worries, I was in Seville just last March so I recognised the bell tower!

      May 29, 2012
      • Looking forward to more of your posts! 🙂

        May 30, 2012
  9. Adventures in transportation abroad are often the most memorable, I think. I loved that we were taken along for the ride, experiencing each step along with you. That last photo of the vibrant green mountainside makes all the jostling and fish smells worth it, I bet!

    May 23, 2012
    • I couldn’t agree more, Meghan! It was painful at times but looking back I’m so glad that we chose to go overland. Strangely those 11 hours didn’t feel as long as they should have!

      May 29, 2012
  10. The scenery sounds absolutely stunning! and that car ride sounds horrific. Good thing you had that bowl of soup the night before.

    May 24, 2012
    • I was completely awed by what we saw – the scenery really made up for those first few (excruciating) hours!

      May 29, 2012
  11. Absolutely amazing, that is a proper adventure you had!

    May 27, 2012
    • You would have loved it Siobhan!

      May 29, 2012
  12. What a great adventure! Love it!

    July 2, 2013

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