It was pitch black. But when I looked out the window, I could tell there was nothing but a steep drop down the mountainside. There was barely enough room for another car to pass. My heart was in my throat. I was scared. I’ve done some crazy things in my life, but I had never felt like this before. I was becoming convinced that this could be my last ride ever. It didn’t help that the only English the driver knew was “SMOKING, DRINKING, HEY HEY HEY!” Were we going to die in Laos? How did we get here?
Mistake #1 – Not Enough Research
Let me back up a little bit. We were down to our last few days in Laos before going to Thailand. With this being our second time in the country, we wanted to go somewhere new and not very well known. We chose a little village called Nongkiaw.
It’s perched on the Ou River, surrounded by mountains. It’s only a few hours by bus from Luang Prabang, the most popular destination in the often forgotten country.
We did an overnight trek to a smaller village, did some cycling, hiked up to a stunning viewpoint, and lounged by the river. It was a great place to end our 3-week trip around Laos and one of the highlights of our gap year around Southeast Asia.
Now we were running out of time. Backtracking isn’t our thing; our preferred method of travel is to keep moving forward. Rather than go back to Luang Prabang, we searched for a place selling bus tickets to Chiang Rai. Finally, we found one travel agent advertising just that.
Mistake #2 – If It Sounds Too Good to be True, It Probably Is
The process for getting there was a bit confusing. Turns out, the only direct buses from Nong Khiaw go to Luang Prabang. So to get to Chiang Rai, a driver would first take us to another small town an hour away. Then, we would get on the overnight bus coming from Vientiane, the capital. If that didn’t work out, we could also catch a mini-bus that was going to Luang Namtha or Oudomxai and continue to Chiang Rai from one of those places.
It didn’t sound worse than any other long journey we had ever taken. I mean we traveled by motorbikes through the Central Highlands of Vietnam, where everyone is a crazy driver. This couldn’t be worse than that. So we decided to go for it.
The initial mini-van ride was fine. We actually arrived at the station earlier than expected. With time to spare, we decided to get some beers and noodles before the big bus showed up. A few minutes later, a man ran up to us and motioned for us to follow him. His body language was emphatic. With no large bus in sight, we were a bit confused. He stuffed the four of us along with 14 Laotians into a 15-passenger van. That’s 18 people in a 15-person vehicle. Through body language and caveman English, he assured us that there would be a large bus in our future.
Mistake #3 – Not Asking Enough Questions
For the next eight hours or so, we sped around treacherous curves high up in the mountains of No Man’s Land, Laos. We assumed that all the locals were just going to a city along the route. There was no way all of us were going to the border. As the ride went on and no one got off, it became clear that there was no big bus. This van was our ride to the border.
Around 1 AM I decided I should try to sleep. I put my headphones in my ears and closed my eyes.
I heard my friend Dana through my headphones, “Dude, this guy is nodding off.” I sat straight up. Anxiety swept over me and that ‘fight or flight’ feeling took hold. All the other passengers were fast asleep, most of them snoring. I guess Buddhists can more easily be at peace with the idea of plummeting off the side of a mountain. It felt like our entire lives had been leading up to this point. It was up to us to make sure everyone made it to the Thai border.
Time to Get Animated
The driver was blasting music, chugging energy drinks, and splashing water on his face. For the next several hours, we did everything in our power to help him stay awake. At one point he turned off the radio. I was like – “Oh HELL NO!” I came armed with speakers. So I pulled them out along with my iPod and started blasting the Disco Biscuits. He particularly enjoyed one song where the only lyrics are the band yelling “Hey hey hey hey!” This added to his limited English lexicon. Up to that point, it only included two words – “drinking” and “smoking.” Not exactly reassuring when the guy is steering your vessel around hazardous mountain roads in a developing country.
It was so obvious when he would start to doze off. He would drive really slow and start to swerve to the other side of the road.
“You need to stop!”
“Yeah, let’s stop. Sleep is good!”
“Look! They are all sleeping. You should sleep!”
“Drinking, smoking, hey hey hey!” (schwills M-150, rips a cigarette, and pumps the gas)
He gave in to our pleas to stop a few times. He would get out, smoke another cigarette, chug another M-150, and use the restroom. The other passengers were still blissfully asleep, unaware how in control of their lives we were. Every time we would set off again, he would be fine for about 10 minutes. Then it was back to dozing, driving slow, and swerving into the other lane. This went on for about 3-4 hours.
Finally, Some Help
Around 4:30 am we made another stop. This time he literally stopped in the middle of the road. He hopped out and immediately starting peeing! Right there on the yellow dividing lines. It didn’t matter. We were the only souls awake in that part of the country. All the smart people were at home sleeping, not out driving through the mountains.
This stop was different though – all the Laotian passengers woke up! I’m convinced that Laotian people always wake up at 4:30 am because it’s when the roosters get going. I never thought I would say this, but thank goodness for the roosters. I was so happy they woke up because I was exhausted by this point. They must have slept well cause they were all chatting away. Little did they know how terrifying the driving had been.
I silently put my life in their hands, deciding it was their turn to keep the driver awake. I said a little prayer to whatever higher being may be out there and passed out.
Waking up to a Bang
A few hours later, a loud bang woke me up. Startled, I jumped up and looked around.
WE HAD MADE IT!
We were sitting in a parking lot. Our little group were the only souls in the van. The loud noise was the van door slamming. The sun was starting to come up over the horizon. I had never been so happy to see a new day. I got out and found the driver cracking jokes with some other guys like nothing had happened. Like he hadn’t made me question ALL MY LIFE CHOICES.
We got our backpacks and headed in the direction he was pointing. There was an extra pep in our step as we were all pretty stoked to be alive.
At the border, we handed over our documents, got stamped, and waved goodbye to Laos and that terrifying experience.
On the Thailand side, we finally saw the big bus! It wasn’t the one the travel agent promised us but it still gave us an extra sense of relief. We were 4 of 7 people on the entire bus. Everyone got to have their own row. I’d say we earned that extra comfort for our efforts the night before.
As I was drifting off, I thought about all those other Laotian passengers. Did they have any idea what we had done for them? For us? I also wondered if I would still be sitting here if we hadn’t kept him awake. I counted my lucky stars and slept peacefully the full two-hour ride to Chiang Rai.
Have you ever had a terrifying experience abroad? Tell your story in the comments!