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Feb 17 2014

Independent Travel: Expect the Unexpected

I should have known that when I was awoken with a jolt by someone shouting, it was going to be one of those days.  Thankfully, it was the guy in the bed next to me, shouting in his sleep and nothing untoward, but that was enough to get the adrenaline racing around my body, so I couldn’t get back to sleep.  I lay there awake considering my options for the day.  If it was raining, I would head further south in Laos, towards Pakse.  If not, I would try to find the big limestone cave, Tham Kong Lo, I was told about the night before.  The photograph looked incredible, so I was keen to go.

It seemed pointless lying there, unable to get back to sleep, so I climbed out of bed, trying not to get tangled in the mosquito net covering it.  I got ready to leave and the receptionist at the guesthouse told me that, if I was going independently, I would need to get a bus to Ban Nahin (Ban Na Hin).   I got a tuk tuk to the bus station at Tha Khaek (Thakhek).  As it wasn’t raining, I asked to buy a ticket to Ban Nahin.  I was told that I would have to get a bus to Vieng Kham and then get a taxi from there.  It didn’t sound as straightforward as I would have liked.  Decisions, decisions!  The bus to Pakse wasn’t due to leave until 10.30 am, but it wasn’t even 7 am.  I really didn’t want to hang around the bus station with my backpack for that length of time, but I was concerned about getting lost trying to find my way to the cave.  In the end, I decided to chance it and bought a bus ticket to Vieng Kham, wherever that was.

The conductor on the bus knew where I was going, so I had to hope that he would let me know when to get off the bus.  I knew it would take a while to get there, but I seemed to be on the bus for way too long.  With every passing minute, I became ever less hopeful that I would get to where I had set off for at the start of the day.  I couldn’t see the conductor and didn’t want to get out of my seat while the bus was moving because it was a windy, bumpy road.  I didn’t see any bus stations on the way and I didn’t want to be dropped off on the roadside, in the middle of nowhere, in the pouring rain, especially as I was on my own.  In the end, I decided to stop worrying about it and just go with it.  I had to accept the fact that I was probably going to end up back where I had come from the previous day, in Vientiane.  I mean, what else could I do?  Anyway, it was raining, so the water level would probably have been too high to get a boat into the cave anyway.

Apart from the fact that I probably wasn’t got to get to the place I had set off for, I was in for a few other unexpected goings on.  The bus stopped.  This wasn’t a regular stop for people to get on and off the bus.  Oh, no, the bus… had ran out of fuel.  That kind of surprised me because I would have thought the bus driver would have made sure he had a full tank at the start of the journey unless, of course, the fuel gauge wasn’t working properly.  Whatever the reason, we were all lined up at the side of the road somewhere in between Tha Khaek and Vientiane, waiting for another bus to drop off a can of fuel.

Once that was sorted, we continued our journey, only to come to a halt once again.  This time, it was due to traffic congestion.  Along with the driver and most of the people on the bus, I got off and walked over to see what was going on.  It certainly wasn’t what I had expected.  I saw one of the ‘luxury’ buses on its side in a ditch, in the process of being recovered.  It sent shivers down my spine and I prayed that all the people on board were OK.  I had no idea if anyone was injured.  I knew they were crazy drivers and the roads weren’t the best, but it really brought home to me how dangerous the roads actually were.  It was also one of those moments that helped me to bring things back into perspective.  I had been kicking myself about wasting a day, one day, on a bus going back to where I had started the day before.  Big deal!  That was so easily rectified and hardly a catastrophe.

Once the traffic started to move, we got back on the bus, but I was feeling a little unnerved by what I had witnessed.  We made one more stop, this time at a petrol station, to refuel, before arriving at our destination.

I was glad to finally get off the bus, but not so happy to be back in Vientiane.  Even after seeing that bus on its side, I decided to get on another bus, this time to Pakse.  I bought a ticket for a ‘bed bus’.  ‘What the heck would that be like?’, I wondered.  It wasn’t something I had ever come across.  After having a much needed meal, I wandered around for a bit before getting on the bed bus or luxury sleeper bus.  I found out that I would be on the top deck.  That concerned me even more because it was the same type of bus as the one I had seen on its side earlier in the day.  All  I could do was hope it would be OK.

I found my bed for the night and was rather impressed.  I really wasn’t expecting it to be so luxurious.  I had a good sized bed all to myself, so perhaps I would sleep.  As I happily settled myself in the bed and sorted out my things, a female Laotian wanted to get in my bed.  I was trying to tell her it was my bed, but the conductor indicated for her to join me.  So, it wasn’t my bed, it was our bed.  I couldn’t believe it.  I had to share a bed that was about the size of a large single with a stranger.  I wasn’t the only one.  There were other solo travellers who were also told to move over and share their small bed.

It seemed a bit weird, but that was obviously the way it operated.  So, there we all were… snuggled up in our beds… together.  It was certainly… cosy!  That was something I had to learn about independent travel… expect the unexpected!  I was in for an interesting night – being on the top deck, sharing a small bed with a total stranger while the bus made its way south in the night along very windy, bumpy roads.

To my surprise, I slept on and off throughout the night.  The early start and all the occurrences during the day probably helped.  As the bus pulled into the station in Pakse, early the next morning, I was tired but relieved to have arrived, safe and sound.


The locations are indicated on the map.  The point for Tham Kong Lo is just an estimate because I never actually made it there.  I couldn’t find a map to pinpoint the exact location, but I did find some very detailed directions in a post on the Matador Network.

Center map
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Have your say

You never really know what’s going to happen when you travel independently, so you have to learn to expect the unexpected and go with flow, although that can be easier said that done sometimes.  I’d love to hear some stories of when you realised that.

Oh, did you make it to the cave?  If so, what was it like?  You can let me know by leaving a comment below.


    • Geert Marchand on 26/11/2015 at 19:59

    hello ,

    I have a question about sleeping-bus from Vientiane to Pakse …
    Do you still know the name of the company of this luxury sleeping bus ? and the price you had to pay ?

    thanks ,

  1. Sorry, Geert, I don’t. I just went to the bus station in Vientiane and bought a ticket for a bed bus. There was only one at the time. It was a few years ago, so there might be more than one bus company now. It was a bus that locals used, so it would have been inexpensive. Be prepared to share your bed or make sure you request a bed for yourself. There aren’t many of those, so you might have to book in advance.

    Sorry, I couldn’t be more help. Good luck on your travels!


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