Our Asia adventure began in China, where we headed south to cross overland to Laos. Initially we planned to take an “international” bus from Kunming to Luang Prabang. After reading some horror stories about shared beds with 5 strangers, children and adults peeing in aisles, and crumbling roads causing a 22-hour ride to take 30+, we reconsidered. Instead, we took a 12-ish hour sleeper bus to the border, then did some walking and mini-busing the rest of the way.
Booking the Tickets for the Sleeping Bus
We took the metro to the bus station at 7am to procure tickets in advance, our request for 2 top bunks, near the front, next to each other scrawled for us in Chinese by the hostel staff. Some sleeping buses mean you sleep in a bunk with a stranger, and we wanted to ensure we were stranger-free. We also felt the top was more cleanly and secure; less likely people will drop fruit/trash/spit over the bed on you, or reach up to rifle through your bags. Still a bit nervous about the sanitation of the sleeping bus, we headed to the station.
💲Budget Tip | Buy your bus tickets in person in advance. You’ll have to pay a bit for the metro, but it’s way less than an online booking fee. Saved $12USD.
Finding the Bus
Once inside, we entered into a massive hallway filled with black chairs. No timetables board. No bus station personnel. And, of course, no English. I grabbed the tickets and attempted to look for a bus with numbers corresponding to some random numbers on the tickets. Obviously this did not work. I went outside and began circling with a confused look; a few people came up to help, and I approached a few more people at random. Finally, after a lot of pointing and explanations I didn’t understand, a man walked me to a back area where our bus was. We were relieved to see many young, fashionable teens and normal people waiting. Of course, visions of sketchy bus bandits had been in our mind.
The Onboard Journey
Feeling more at ease we boarded and were instructed to take off our shoes and walk the carpeted aisle to our beds. We stashed the sneakers in our allotted shoe cubbies. Beds were 2 high and 3 wide – a sight I’d never seen! Each bed had a pillow and blanket folded at the end, which were of questionable sanitation. “I will not use these,” I thought. 20 minutes later, aircon blasting, I was using them.
[Mixed Emotions: Excitement and Fear]
A few hours in we stopped for the requisite bathroom and food stop in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. Imagine our surprise to see a cement trench, we affectionately dubbed the “horse trough” with no privacy in which to pee.
We arrived in Mengla about 14 hours later and spilled out into the station. The night bus wasn’t bad! We actually slept a bit, did not become carsick, and did not get any weird diseases from the used blankets. We used our pre-grabbed screenshot to show the ticket lady our next destination, but, despite being prepared with online research, were told no, no bus straight to Laos. And so, we readjusted and bought minibus tickets to the border instead. We hefted our bags into the back of the dirty falling-apart van and waited. 45 minutes through lush hills and temples that felt more like southeast Asia than China, we got out again in the town of Mohan. We walked to the end of the road – literally – into the customs building to exit China. We then continued on foot, in the sweltering heat, towards the Laos border, a golden stupa beckoning us.
The office was as expected; ramshackle but not very busy. 15 minutes and $37 US dollars apiece later we were out in the muggy air of Laos, heading towards our last mode of transport for the day. We negotiated down the egregious price of the minibus and set off on a private ride (no one else was going our way) through a literal construction site, around widening potholed roads, to the small town of Luang Namtha. We didn’t spot another Westerner the entire way! Lots of steps, but relatively pleasant compared to some of our other bus/border experiences.
Related | Kunming China (before the crossing) | Luang Namtha (after the crossing) Coming Soon