You are tempted to take the bus ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, and have read about the beautiful scenery, but are worried about the insecurity and the poor condition of the road? Do not think twice: if you have a day to spare, do it!
Lonely Planet (2010) still talks about the armed attacks by the Hmong insurgency that took place in 2003-2004 on the Route 13 from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, but when we bought tickets, our travel agency based in Vientiane (DD Travel) had never heard about these incidents. The French guide book Le Routard also talks about the “bad reputation” the road has and the attacks that have taken place on it. To be absolutely sure (or as sure as one can ever be), we ended up questioning DD Travel a lot and the only incident that he remembered included a Frenchman called Vincent, who “treated the Lao people like shit” and who owed money “all over”. An another local source confirmed that it was no surprise that “he got what he had asked for” (he was eventually killed on that road, but that was in the end of the 90s and had nothing to do with insecurity or road condition…)Assured, we purchased the tickets. We were asked to be in front of our hotel at 7am. A mini van came to pick us up and drove us to the Northern bus station (this took almost one hour!). After some waiting around, our rather old bus finally left at 9am. The long journey begun. There were a lot of stops and often we had no clue why. There seemed to be just one driver and he liked to smoke a lot. The road kept turning left and right, went up and then down, so maybe he needed his cigarette in order to concentrate? Once we stopped in front of a monastery to pick up two young monks. We had been warned about this road so much in advance that we were expecting much worse but in fact it felt quite safe. The road was quite flat during the first two hours, and the climbing up begun only around 11am. We had been advised to sit on the left hand side (when the destination is in front of you) as this way we would not see how dangerous the road is, but in our opinion it made no sense: the cliffs were all over, on both sides. Sometimes on your left, sometimes on your right. And honestly, if you have done a little bit of driving in the Alps or other mountains, you will soon realize that this road is a piece of cake. The only advise we followed was to sit close to the security exit: an easy way to get out can become handy!There were plenty of stops to buy water and drinks, noodle soup and fried rice (we didn’t eat as we had had a decent breakfast before taking off). One could even buy fried frog legs and dried fish… and something else we did not recognize!Honestly, when you hear about the insecurity on the road, I think the only thing you should be worried about is the quality of your bus. Many people we had talked to in Vientiane had said that they had a flat tire (some even twice during the same trip). It didn’t happen to us, but even if it did, it would have probably only meant an hour delay. The only thing that could worry me is the brakes, but that is something difficult to verify before you jump onto the bus… right?We arrived in Luang Prabang at 8.30pm, almost 12 hours after we had left Vientiane. Was it worth it? Yes, because we saw some beautiful scenery and dramatic-looking mountains. Yes, there were many stops, but we were in no hurry. Would I recommend it –yes. For 160,000 kip, the journey is worth every penny.
Updated on February 2014: I wrote this piece one year ago and it is today the most-read article of my blog. I am happy that so many people find it useful! However, I have received a lot of questions and I think it is important to clarify some points.
- Yes, there are night buses, but I would personally take a day bus just because it feels safer. If there is a problem, you would need sun light, right?
- In case you choose to take the overnight bus, have a torch and warm clothes with you.
- You cannot really check the bus condition (brakes etc.) but you can be on the safer side if you travel under good weather conditions. If possible, do not travel by bus under the monsoon and extreme weather conditions. Vientiane and Luang Prabang are both lovely places to be stuck in, so wait a few days for better weather is my suggestion!
- Many people have asked me about DD Travel, so here you have the business card I was given in February 2013:
Lastly, other interesting articles about Laos:
- Articles about Luang Prabang are: Tak Bat and Buddhist Monks in Luang Prabang and Cooking class in Luang Prabang
- Articles about Vientiane are: The Sleeping Beauty: Vientiane (part 1) and The Sleeping Beauty: Vientiane (part 2)
- Article about Lao Airlines: Lao Airlines and other means of transportation to and from Laos
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