Alright so, as of December 2015, this is what happens. It’s not really a scam, but more of a sneaky little thing to do.
Now being the backpacker that you are, you’ll probably love a sleeper bus. It’s such a good deal! Accommodation and transport, sleep while you get there, what’s not to like?
Well, there’s a catch, here’s my story.
My travelling partner, Jake, whom I had been travelling with since Vientiane, and I needed to get to Luang Prabang. He really wanted to take the sleeper bus to save on 40,000 kip of accommodation for the night, which is what we were paying at Central Backpackers, a lovely dorm/guesthouse in Vientiane. I didn’t mind either way.
So we started to look for busses, and all around Vang Vieng we saw schedules with the following information.
Vang Vieng – Luang Prabang
Minivans – 4 hours – 100,000 kip
Sleeper bus – 8 hours – 120,000 kip
My Spidey senses tingled. How can the same trip take twice as long? I knew something was off. From prior research I knew that the journey could not have been 8 hours. The travel agent insisted that it was a different route they took, a longer route. Somehow, it still didn’t feel right – why in the world would anyone drive for twice as long to get to the same place seems baffling? I suggested we spend an extra 20,000 kip to stay one more night and leave on the day bus. I disliked busses, so the less time I was on them the better. But he had such great experiences on them that he insisted we take the sleeper bus. And so we did.
The departure times were all over the place at 8:30, 9, 9:30. I found out why later. After being picked up from the travel agency at 9:30, we were dropped off at bus stand by the side of the highway, where our driver tried to flag down sleeper busses that had enough space to fit any passengers. Two busses passed by were full, so we continued to wait it out. I decided to just sleep on the bench (it’s a skill) as I hated waiting anxiously.
At about 10:30 PM, we finally get a bus that would take us, so we piled on. It was a double sleeper, so Jake and I took one bunk, while single travellers got paired up with complete strangers. A Korean man insisted he had bought 2 tickets to get a whole bed to himself but sad to say he had to share in the end. After we settled, I thought, finally, I could get a good 8 hours of sleep on this 8-hour journey.
At 4AM, people started yelling out, “Luang Prabang, Luang Prabang, get off here!”
Jake and I stared at each other with sudden realization washing over our faces. Pieces came together. We were duped. They put 8 hours on those schedules because that’s how long people sleep for. How sneaky!
We piled of the bus at 4 AM in the morning at the bus station without a clue what to do. Tuk-tuks were waiting to take us into town for 20,000 kip. But where would we go? We didn’t even have accommodation booked. The tuk-tuk driver told me that restaurants would open at 6 AM, so we’d have 2 hours to kill.
We piled into the tuk-tuk and followed other travellers as they were dropped off all around town. We decided to be dropped off close to Utopia, which is where I would be teaching.
We wandered around for a while and didn’t see anything open. We encountered about 15 other stragglers (who were there since 3 AM) and we all decided that we had enough of walking with our backpacks and that we should just sit down and relax at Tat Visoun, which I then referred to as “That thing over there.”
So we sat in one large group, beautiful stars in the sky and had our first taste of Luang Prabang. It was the opportune time for me to play some songs on my ukulele. We stayed till about 6AM before going on the hunt for breakfast.
It wasn’t a horrible experience given what happened in our specific circumstance. It was actually a memorable one and a nice sense of community as people began to band together during a time of crisis. That being said, I’ve heard other stories from my students that they were travelling alone or in smaller groups having to sit outside guesthouses for 3-5 hours until they opened.
So if you’re still going to take the sleeper bus. Know that the journey is not going to be 8 hours, and you’ll be awoken mid sleep in the complete darkness left to your own devices. It may be a better option to spend 20,000 kip to stay an extra night in Vang Vieng, take a day bus and get to Luang Prabang at a reasonable time during the day.
I just thought you should know.