There are four ways to get from Luang Prabang, Laos to Chiang Rai, Thailand. First, you can fly to Chiang Mai and double back. But it’s expensive and generally we avoid flights if not over water. Second, you can take the slow boat up the Mekong. It takes two days to the border and you need to pack your own food but it gets you there. Eventually. Third you can strap yourself in with crash helmet firmly on to a speed boat and hope you don’t hit anything. It’s loud and tiresome but it will get you to the border faster than the slow boat can. Lastly, you can take a VIP bus overnight to the border and bus it into town from there. We opted for the last option and took the 7pm VIP bus.
As I jammed my legs against the back of the seat ahead of me, it was quickly made clear to me that I was simply too big for the bus. Even Susana who is not tall in particular but not short either, was having trouble. As we pulled out of the terminal a little after 7pm, I knew we had made a mistake.
Being a non sleeper bus meant I was going to have to sleep sitting up. Given how ridgidly I was sitting, my head was more than a stretch away from any resting cushion. I tried every option including turning my body sideways in the seat and switching chairs with Susana. Nothing worked. All that was accomplished was to thrash and cause trouble for the passengers that were sitting in the aisle on plastic stools stolen from some child’s tea party set. Did I mention that I didn’t have the worst seat in the bus? Well, I didn’t. Sleep this night was going to be a non starter for me and, looking around, pretty much everyone else.
To compound the pain a bit further, the roads in Laos are some of the worst in South East Asia and rival those in Cambodia for the title of ‘Least Favorite Highways to Travel’. They are often unpaved and invariable windy. Laos is very mountainous and any ride will have you going up, down and back and forth as much as it has you going forward. When the bus driver started to hand out little plastic bags – the VIP bus equivalent of an airline puke bag – I didn’t need to ask why and happily took my two.
During the course of the trip, our bus would regularly stop to pick up and drop off passengers. It was only half full of tourists and the rest were clearly not interested in leaving the country. We kept exchanging passengers in small numbers at all hours of the night.
And then, finally, around 3am after perhaps 3 constant hours of swaying back and forth along the roads, my fellow passengers started to succumb to the nausea. The sound of vomit came first from the woman that was seated just to my right. She went a good while until she ran out of fluid and started to dry heave which, I oddly noted, sounded like a cat in heat. Her baby didn’t much appreciate being such a close observer to the event and let us all know as much. 20 minutes later, directly behind me, another one joined in the fun. And, then a third, again, 20 minutes after that. The sound and smell of vomit seemed to be taking over the bus.
Amazingly, it didn’t go epidemic as I had expected. Despite my fever and diarrhea, I was able to hold out. Exhausted, sick and sleep deprived, I survived and stumbled out of the bus in Huay Xai in one piece a few hours after sunrise. From there it was a simple border crossing and a local Thai bus ride to Chiang Rai along well paved roads.
There are a number of ways to get to Chiang Rai from Luang Prabang. We fell victim to the pressures of time – our flight out of Bangkok is on the 18th of February and we still have a lot to see and do in northern Thailand – and opted for the bus. That was a mistake I would not wish anyone else to make. If in Luang Prabang and wanting to make it to the border, opt for the slow boat. You will take two more days to do it but the experience, as it has been recounted to me by those that have done it, sounds a million times better than what we endured.