Our visas were set to expire the next day, so we set our course for Laos. We knew we would receive a month-long visa upon arrival at the border. Though we hadn’t planned to stay in Laos that long, it would give us plenty of time to work out our strategies for the duration of our time in SE Asia. We both have really enjoyed Thailand, having converted all our financial thinking into baht already, expanded our vocabulary to at least 15 words, and understand the value of the baht. We feel comfortable with the lifestyle and customs there. We knew we’d be back soon. Though we didn’t know a whole lot about Laos, we knew we’d get along fine for a week or so, exploring a new country, learning a new language (and by that, I mean learning a new hello and thank you), and converting all purchases from a new currency. It was a new challenge and adventure awaiting us.
Our last evening in Chiang Rai required a quick decision of whether we’d take the slow boat or the sleeper bus to Luang Prabang, Laos. The slow boat would be scenic and more comfortable, but cost about B1800 each and take 2 days. The sleeper bus would cost about B600 each and take 12 hours, but you can’t move around much during the trip. After crunching some numbers, we decided though less comfortable, the sleeper bus would be the smarter option financially.
We caught the 10am bus from Chiang Rai to the border town of Chiang Khong. From there, a truck took travelers to the border station, where we had to exchange some baht to dollars to pay for the Laos visa, and some baht to kip, the Laos currency. After getting our passports stamped for departure, we boarded another bus to take us across the border to the immigration office in Laos. A few forms, some dollars, and some pretty stamps, and we were set until the end of the month.
Along the way, we met an Italian named Miguel & an English/Australian couple, whom with we took a truck to the other bus station to buy our overnight tickets. With tickets purchased, we enjoyed our first Laos meal at a restaurant near the bus station around 1pm while we waited for the couple’s bus. They were taking a day bus to a city about 4 hours away. Our bus wasn’t due for another 3 hours after theirs, so Steve & Miguel went for a walk around the village while I caught up on some work.
At 5:45pm, we began to board our sleeper bus. This coach bus was lined with 5 bunk beds on each side, accommodating two people per bed, and a bed across the back for 5 people, totaling 45 passengers. For Steve & I, it wasn’t a problem to share the bed. But Miguel, being a solo traveler, would be sharing a bed with a stranger. That’s a good way to spend 12 hours in confined spaces. Our bunk was a top bunk on the driver’s side next to the back bunk. As the bus loaded, we noticed about half of the bunks weren’t filled. Optimistically, we though the bus wasn’t as full as they made it sound and we’d all be able to spread out to one person per bed. An hour goes by, we’re still in the parking lot. The second bus has already filled and left. Steve & I played cards to pass the time. The bus was scheduled to leave at 6pm. It was now 7:15 and still a half empty bus. Then a stream of young foreigners start piling on, trying to find room, ignoring their assigned bed number, learning the bunks are 2 per bed, and complaining about the cramped space. Great, this will be a majestic 12 hours.
As soon as the people are on the bus, we take off. We had already heard the Laos roads we not very good, but we soon learned what that meant. The road to Luang Prabang was only 475 km long, but through these steep mountain passes, that would take 12 hours, rather than maybe 6 or so on a regular highway. We were already an hour & half behind, so we were cruising. I read my e-book until the first rest stop at 9:30pm. This was a half hour stop at a village restaurant for dinner and bathroom. We played with puppies and admired the roasted rat on a stick, deciding to opt out of the unique dinner options here.
Back on board, we spent the next 9 hours switching sides, adjusting pillows, changing laying positions, trying to combat the rocking motion of the bus to try to get some sleep. We each managed about 3 hours of sleep while laying on our bellies, since laying on our sides was less stable against the constant swaying from the sharp turns around the mountain curves. The moon was very bright, so while I couldn’t sleep, I could see out the window to see the fog & clouds of being high in mountains. Often, the driver would slam on the brakes to suddenly slow for an unseen massive pothole that could swallow us whole if we weren’t careful. We both agreed we wouldn’t be getting much rest, but could nap when we get there and find a hostel.
Around 6am, we were nearing the end of the drive, estimating only about 2 hours left considering the late start. Suddenly, the driver starts blaring the horn louder than his normal honking. At the same instant, I saw headlights coming right alongside our bus, as a crashing noise begins. We’re all jolted to the left as the bus is skidding along, then thrown to the right side of the bus as we came to an immediate halt. My first thought was we’ve been struck by the vehicle. Immediate yells and confusion begins as people are waking up in a tossed state, trying to figure out what just happened. Steve had been thrown from the top bunk to the aisle, but caught himself enough to be able to break my fall as I was tossed the same direction. Lights are dim in the bus and it’s still dark outside. One of the girls below me is becoming frantic as she discovers she’s bleeding from her head, blood going down her face & chest. Steve helps to calm her and ask her name, Paige, while grabbing a blanket for her to press on the wound. Steve begins to call directions out in his loud voice to remain calm and get off the bus.
We could see people standing in the front, but not moving quickly. We call out to get people to forget their belongings and just get off the bus. They tell us the front door is crushed in so they’re going out the broken side windows through the narrow gap between the bus and the trees. I remember the roof hatch I had located earlier in the trip and try to open it. It only opens enough to vent, but there’s no release to open it for an escape hatch. It’s bolted in. We begin to try to break the windows on our side, but kicking without my shoes was a fruitless, bad idea. The only thing hard someone handed Steve was a hairspray can which did nothing against the windows.
People kept working to climb out the side windows, careful to avoid the glass. Steve put blankets over the edge to help cover the shattered window edge. Steve worked to assist people exiting the bus, including Elliott who was in the bed in front of us & had a bloody face. I talked to Paige to try to calm her down to prevent the hysteria from spreading. Steve was able to guide them both out to the safety of the road. I grabbed our backpack with our essentials and some assorted purses I found below me, as some of the injured could only focus on making sure their purses were with them.
By the time I was able to clamber out the window and move along the small gap between the bus & the trees, Steve was out front assessing the injuries and buddying up non-injured with an injured to help in monitoring condition and assist with applying pressure to wounds. Another passenger, Joel, also had a first aid kit in his bag, so he & Steve teamed up their supplies to get injuries gauzed and wrapped. Paige, with her 5 inch forehead cut, & Elliot, with his split eyebrowand concussion, were bandaged by the time I arrived, showing how quickly the two were working together. Next, he noticed a formerly-blonde-now-red-with-blood-haired girl, Mary, with a bloody head wound. The next patient was Matt, who informed Steve he’d been ejected from the bus upon impact. Seeing quite a bit more injuries on him & with his story, he was listed as first priority of treatment.
While they moved from person to person, I worked to control the other passengers, many whom were not noticeably hurt. Many Laos passengers had no signs of blood or broken bones. Many of the non-injured began to remove bags from the bus, while others stood around, even smoking cigarettes next to the bus. With what seemed to be the smell of gasoline in the air, I quickly told them to get away from the bus and not smoke there.
Steve & Joel worked to keep assessing injuries and triaging the priorities. When a truck arrived, Steve instructed which people to get in with their buddy. The 4 people with lacerations to the head & face were sent in the first round of transportation. I traveled with the first group to keep monitor of them while Steve stayed behind to continue care & order at the scene. In the second round, 3 more injured arrived, 1 with a shoulder/collarbone injury, 2 with lacerations on the leg.
The truck took us to the closest clinic in a village about 10 minutes away. When we arrived, there were 3 Laos workers getting the rooms ready, having just been called in from home. They were able to care for 2 patients at a time, working to clean and stitch the injuries. As the injured were being cared for, a bus with the remaining passengers and luggage arrived. While at the clinic, people were able to connect to Wi-Fi to call their families while others were being tended to.
Steve had arrived with the second round of injured, then began assessing the happenings at the clinic. Since Mary was traveling solo, I had become her stability partner. While she was getting stitched, Steve found the lead doctor to communicate what had happened to Matt. At that point, she realized he was potentially more critical than initially observed, at which they started him on an IV, got the ambulance over, and loaded him in on the stretcher with oxygen. The rest of the injured loaded into the van ambulance to be transported to the hospital in Luang Prabang, our original destination. The remaining passengers were loaded onto the new bus with the luggage to be taken to the city as well.
There were 6 injured to go in the ambulance, along with a doctor, lab tech, and Steve & I as the first responders. Matt was close to nodding out of consciousness, so Steve talked to him & monitored him the entire 45 minutes to the hospital. We kept checking in with the other injured in the seats, as the doctor & tech spoke little to no English to be able to ask evaluating questions.
Upon arrival at the hospital, the injured were taken into the ER for evaluation. Each person was examined while Steve worked to relay the crash information to the staff & help translate information between staff & patients. I collected names and important information to assist in the paperwork. Elliott, Paige, Mary, & Christina (leg laceration) were evaluated as stable & were allowed to leave that morning with some pain medications and antibiotics. Matt stayed until the afternoon to have X-rays. Meanwhile, the rest of the foreigners on the bus arrived via taxi trucks with all of the luggage because the bus, which was supposed to bring them to the hospital, took them all to the bus station. In total, there were 18 of us foreigners at the hospital, awaiting to see how everyone was doing & comforting each other after quite a long night.
As good bills of health were being issued & payment bills were being settled, some started to leave to get checked into their hotels, while others without pre-arranged plans lingered together. Four of the passengers took a truck to go back to the accident to recover any belongings left on the bus, like shoes, clothes, and bags.
The tourist police arrived to take statements and information about the incident. Collectively, we were able to piece together the events of the morning and many had the presence of mind to take photos on scene, which were sent to the tourist police to help with the report. The bus company reimbursed all the injured’s hospital expenses, which was a bit unexpected, but welcomed.
By 12pm, one of the police officers loaded the remaining 10 of us into a truck and drove us to our hostel. We found a place, Down Town Backpackers, which could accommodate 12 of us for a couple of nights while we came down from the crash & evaluated ourselves & each other. Our support group consisted of 6 American/Canadian teachers on holiday from teaching in Abu Dhabi (included stitched up Paige & Christina), 3 British fellas traveling post-uni (incuding injured Elliott & first aid Joel), Steve & myself, and a saved bunk for Matt, who was expected out of the hospital later that afternoon. Mary had pre-booked at a place down the road, but stopped in that evening to check in.
Unbelievably, no one died. Had we gone off the road a few miles before, we would have been over the mountain cliff. A couple miles later, we’d have been at a bridge. The worst injury was some deep lacerations to the neck and spine, multiple lacerations to the head, and impact trauma to the back and hip. No broken bones, no smashed heads. It’s quite a miraculous thing. All in all, we were safe, Steve took the majority of our injuries with several bruises and a blown out knee. Myself with nothing but a broken fingernail. We all really appreciate how lucky we all are to be able to walk away from the accident with some sore necks, bruising, a few stitches, and a mild disdain for Laos roads & driving.
(*Note: all accident related photos are not ours, but from other passengers who were able to take photos during & after. Credit gladly given to the owners. Thank you each for sharing!)