Phonsavan to Sam Neua: a long and dangerous journey

The journey from Phonsavan to Sam Neua was an unforgettable experience: exhausting, slightly scary and fascinating all at the same time. Sam Neua wasn’t our destination – it was just a stop-over on the way to the famous caves in Vieng Xai.

A view at the deep, green valley from the road between Phonsavan and Sam Neua

Laos to Vietnam via Sam Neua

Most of the people traveling from Phonsavan to Vietnam take a direct bus to Vinh. However, we wanted to visit the caves in Vieng Xai which were used by the communist guerillas during the Vietnam War. I’d read the audio guides to the sites were as good as those at the Killing Fields in Cambodia and I didn’t want to miss it. Particularly that there was a smaller border crossing (NaMeo/NamXoi) with Vietnam right next to Vieng Xai.

It all made sense, as the bus from Vieng Xai would take us to Thanh Hoa, just 60 km to Ninh Binh where we were heading. The journey to Vieng Xai would require staying for a night in Sam Neua, a large town located a short journey from Vieng Xai. Not knowing what we were getting ourselves into, we took a minivan from Phonsavan to Sam Neua.

From Phonsavan to Sam Neua in 12 hours

How to fit 21 people in a 12 seater?

We arrived at the Phonsavan bus station 45 minutes before the scheduled departure. We got our tickets and left our bags at the best seats in the minivan. The van filled up quickly but there was still a crowd of locals who wanted to get in.

Our minivan was an old -12 seater with 2 extra folded seats in the aisle. The driver placed all the luggage on the roof and somehow managed to squeeze inside 17 adults and 3 children. There were just four people sitting in our row so we were relatively comfortable, particularly compared with the passengers in the remaining rows who literally sat on top of one another. Since the minivan got filled to the brim, we left slightly ahead of the schedule.

Just as we were reaching the outskirts of Phonsavan (after 20 minutes ride through the city), the driver suddenly took a U-turn and came all the way back to the station. A co- passenger who could speak English explained that two people bought their tickets in advance hence they were entitled to board. That meant the driver had to kick out one unfortunate lady (together with her bulky luggage). With two new people boarding, the grand total of passengers increased to 18 adults and 3 children. We lost an entire hour for the whole passenger swap operation.

The first obstacle

We didn’t have to wait long to encounter our first obstacle: a 5 metre stretch of the road was flooded. In fact, there was quite a fast flowing stream of knee-deep water which didn’t seem to be much of a problem for the motorbikes and pick up vans wading their way through. Our driver got of the minivan, rolled up his trousers and checked the water level. Then, he reversed the bus and took a short- detour.

The minivan driver standing in the water on the flooded stretch of the road outside Phonsavan, while a motorbike and a bike filled with cookware are crossing the water

Road full of dangers

As soon as we left the Phonsavan valley and started climbing the serpentine roads up the mountains, the road deteriorated. Huge chunks of the road crumbled into the precipice while innumerable small and large landslides were partially blocking the way.

Around midday, the minivan stopped in front of the power shovel and a bulldozer which were removing a 1-metre high and 5-metre long mound of soil spread across the road. We were truly impressed how skilled and quick they were. In no more than 20 minutes, we could carry on.

A landslide encroaching on the road on the route to Sam Neua

Vomitting and pissing

The winding, mountainous road to Sam Neua rewarded us with truly beautiful views. During the entire journey we climbed up the mountains and went down to the bottom of the valleys a few times.

Panoramic views at the forest-covered mountains and a narrow strip of a road on a route from Phonsavan to Sam Neua

After the traumatic Luang Prabang – Phonsavan journey, I wasn’t surprised when a few passengers started vomiting into the plastic bags provided. I was very pleased to be able to stick my head out of the window and get the constant flow of the fresh air. Rather unfortunately, the bag of the lady sitting next to the driver got torn and its contents spilled everywhere. We had to stop, get off and wait for the mess to be cleared up.

Judging by how remote the road was, I could not hope for any toilets or rest stops on that route. I had a choice: pee in the view of others or risk getting into the bushes. The risk comes from tens of thousands unexploded ordnance dotting the entire region. All went fine, though- I didn’t explode. The unexpected break was a great opportunity to stretch out the legs and eat some snacks. Thankfully, we took plenty of food with us – just in case we got stuck somewhere.

When the mud avalanche passes right across the village

Our joy didn’t last long. After a short ride, we got stuck in the traffic right in the middle of a small village. We all got off and the driver switched off the engine which suggested this time we were going to wait for a longer while.

A digger clearing up the watery mud from the area in front of the stilted wooden houses in a Lao village. The villagers watch by from the shadow of their verandahs

We walked to the source of the obstruction and saw an enormous pool of watery mud covering the stilts which were supporting two houses and completely burying a large stretch of the road. The power shovel-bulldozer team was piling the mud on top of the road, rather than pushing it away. The entire village was watching by, sheltering from the sun under the shade of the spared stilted houses.

A string of minivans and trucks wade through a deep mud covering the road in the middle of a Laotian village

The machinery was working for a longer while before the team decided the road was fixed. We jumped into the van in celebratory moods. A small truck, a car and a bus all went through without any trouble but then another small truck got stuck in the mud. The power shovel heaped more mud in front of the truck and smoothed it with the concave part of the dipper. The truck managed to back off a bit and then drove through.

It was our turn. The engine of our overloaded minibus war revving, then coughed desperately in the last effort and died. We were stuck. One of the passengers sacrificed himself and jumped off the minivan straight into the knee-deep mud to attach a chain that a helpful bulldozer operator was offering.

A digger pulling a scooter out of deep, watery mud in front of the villagers sitting in the shadow of their wooden huts

In the meantime, we watched the power shovel excavating some bizzare, huge object from the mud. At first, I thought it was a dead animal but I soon realised it was a machine. After a closer look, I was able to distinguish the shape of a scooter, fully caked with mud. It was gently picked up by the digger and dropped at the feet of his owner. A group of villagers rushed to attend to it but I’d guess it was beyond saving.

Shortly after, the bulldozer started the engine. Our van skidded and dug the wheels deeper into the mud. One more trial and we were out. All along the valley, we could see the marks of the devastating mud avalanche. Some buildings were destroyed.

We stopped at the end of the village for a meal break but nobody really fancied eating- we’d lost too much time already. It was my last opportunity to use the toilet during this journey.

Through the river

Barely few hundred meters further, still in the same valley, a fast flowing stream cut across the road. If we were taken by the water, we’d end up in a violent river below. The driver got off the minivan and waded through the water to check its depth. He must have considered it safe enough as we carried on, fortunately without any difficulty. The road climbed up quickly and I could soon see the entire valley below, (if only I looked over the crumbling cliff).

A minivan covering a flooded section of the road between Phonsovan and Sam Neua

The power of … a tractor

We were travelling for quite a while when we noticed a bus standing in the distance -a sure sign the road was blocked again. The surface of the uphill road was covered with thick mud. It was a tractor that brought the salvation at this stretch of the road. We were impressed how easy it was for this unassuming machine to pull the bus out of the mud.

We were the next ones to go. Half of the passengers got off to make the minivan lighter but me and Sayak were gestured to stay inside. The engine was roaring like a wild animal and we did manage to cover a few meters until our minivan came to a halt. Not a problem: a rope was attached to the tractor and we were soon out of trouble.

A red tractor cum bulldozer dealing on an extremely muddy section of the road in the Laotian mountains

Getting late

The time was passing by quickly and we still couldn’t see much progress in the distance covered. The minivan simply couldn’t go any faster on such winding roads. Around 4pm we reached the crossroads, supposedly meeting a larger road, optimistically marked in Google Maps in yellow.

A tiny Laotian village consisting of wooden houses on stilts

The first three passengers got off, making the minivan suddenly very spacious and comfortable. The main road wasn’t really bigger or straighter than the previous one. Anyways, soon we encountered a road closure which forced us to take a huge detour via white-marked, dust roads.

When the driver asks children for directions…

After an hour on the dirt roads, we reached a large village where the driver asked a group of kids for directions. It wasn’t particularly reassuring to see that even our driver didn’t know where were we going! Thanks to the kids, we reached the ‘main’ road again. The sun was already going down and we still had 60 km to cover.

The near-death experience

I was just enjoying the spectacular sunset over the mountains when the bus came to a halt yet again. There was a queue of vehicles in both directions. A driver’s cabin of a huge lorry (we were on the main road, after all) got stuck in the mud. A much smaller truck was trying to pull it out. It seemed impossible but the wee truck took only 15 minutes to succeed.

A section of the mountain road in Laos which edges crumbled into the precipice

When our turn came, I knew this time we were in real trouble. The mud was scattered over an upward curve and there was a high precipice to our left. When I saw a similarly sized van in front of us dancing on the mud without any control, I got really scared.

Just as I feared, our minivan also started skidding, moving dangerously close to the edge of the cliff. The back wheel was literally 50 cm from the edge when the van stopped. I swore loudly but the passengers just laughed. The driver regained control over the van and we were out of trouble. I sighed with relief. That was probably the closest to death we were during this trip.

Orange clouds and the mountains already in the deep shadow, with the mist raising from the valley

Reaching Sam Neua

We covered the remaining 40 km in absolute darkness. I decided not to look at the road to avoid further stress and had a nap instead. We reached Sam Neua station at 8 pm, exactly 12 hours from departure. We could consider ourselves lucky as the minivan had ‘just’ 4 hours delay.

Sam Neua outskirts, green paddy fields and the surrounding mountains

The bus station in Sam Neua is located on top of the hill, 15 minutes downward walk to town. Sam Neua isn’t a touristy place at all but it has a cluster of guesthouses in the centre.

We entered the first hotel we saw and easily bargained the price from 80 000 to 60 000 kip. We soon understood why: the last guest signed in a week earlier! The room had a very good standard. We dropped our bags and went to the restaurant next door where we had a generous portion of tasty food for a very low price. Then we just dropped dead tired to bed. We promised ourselves not to travel anywhere for the whole next day.

Monsoon travel in Laos

I’ve written g all this not just to tell you an entertaining story but to strongly discourage you from long-distance journeys in Laos in the monsoon season. Don’t take the Phonsovan- Sam Neua route in the monsoon season if you don’t like a bit of adrenaline and require some level of comfort.Even though the roads in Laos are usually smooth and the clearing teams are efficient, the landslides can be a real pain and lack of railings poses a real threat on muddy, slippery roads.

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