I’ve always been a sucker for long walks across the border, getting caught in the rain, and faulty car mechanics. This is my story about the Mohan-Boten border crossing.
Travel tip #1: Traveling mishaps are not the end of the world. Cars will breakdown, there is always a risk of getting sick and it’s impossible for the sun to shine every day at your dream destination. All of my Dad’s favorite road trip stories begin with “One time, my bike broke down on the side of….” For the sake of this post, I decided to ask him about his all-time favorite break down story. This was his response
“When my motorcycle broke down coming home from Sturgis, South Dakota. I was picked up by a guy named Snake who lived in Memphis, Tennessee. I slept in the back of a pickup truck alongside a 1981 Sturgis motorcyle and decided to trade my broken-down 1973 Superglide for that exact 1981 Sturgis. I helped install a new gas stove in his kitchen in exchange for gas money before driving home on my new bike. I had to go 800 extra miles that day just to make it in time to be the best man at my best friend’s wedding in Rochester, New York.”
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, eh?
Travel tip #2: Never travel on an empty stomach! If you’re anything like me, you will turn into the Antichrist when you start feeling hungry. If you know that you will have a long day or two, always give yourself extra time to eat, or load up on tons of snacks.
16:30- I arrived at the bus station earlier than necessary. I scanned the row of shops and vendors outside of the bus station looking for a place to grab dinner before starting the long journey to Laos. I found one restaurant with a small little oven and clay pots lining the front table. There was a woman behind the counter holding a small child on her hip, she smiled and waved me over. After the usual game of language barrier charades I sat down for what I thought would be an average bus station dinner, my expectations were not high at all.
This quick stop for clay pot rice turned into one of the best meals I’ve had in China. The rice was still sizzling as she brought it over and after devouring the entire pot, I was content and ready for this 22 hour bus ride. I arrived in the waiting area with tons of time to spare.
18:15- A local walked over and asked to see my ticket. His eyes went wide and he started ushering me towards the door.
“Laos!? Come quick!”
I threw my main pack in the storage area and boarded the bus. I was the only foreigner on this bus and I was reminded of that by the look of total shock/confusion painted across the faces of every other passenger.
Some locals are very strict about seat numbers so I reached into my pocket to check my ticket. It was written entirely in Chinese symbols so the bus driver just showed me the number 25 using his hands while yelling..
“Èr shí wǔ! Èr shí wǔ!”
The passenger standing next to him looked toward the back of the bus and immediately cracked up laughing before ushering me towards the back. While scanning every bunk for my number, the locals all giggled and continued to point towards the back. That’s when my eyes discovered an innocent, little sign saying “Bunk 25.”
Bunk 25 was the lower middle bunk, which meant that I was squished between 2 locals to my left, two more to my right, and 5 more on the upper level. I crawled into my spot where I would be for the remainder of this excruciatingly long bus journey. Before the bus pulled away, I thought about hopping off, the journey started to feel like a weird sleepover that I had no intentions of attending.
Seconds after the bus departed from the station, my thoughts were interrupted by a man loudly snacking on sunflower seeds in the middle of the aisle. Phteww! Phteww!
Positive disclaimer: I’ll take sunflower shells over actual spitting anyway.
23:00- The border was only a few hours away but it didn’t open until 8:00 the following morning so we made our first break. We were able to exit the bus to stretch our legs and grab some food. I decided to relax on a bench since we would be here until the morning anyway. At around midnight, one of the other passengers introduced himself and offered me a beverage in a green carton. To my surprise, he gifted me a carton of apple vinegar juice! An hour later the same local showed me something on his cell phone. It was a translation app reading the words “Oil system failure. We will not leave tomorrow.” I was unable to get any more information, but we did continue to chat via google/baidu translate for the rest of the hour until the sky turned sinister and unleashed a sub-tropic rainstorm. At this point, I had no idea how long we would have to wait but I decided it was best to get some sleep.
As I made my way back to bunk 25, I noticed that the other 4 peas to this extremely “cozy,” pod were all scattered around the far-side of the mat and the aisle. The bus was leaking from all the rain and a stream of water was falling right onto our pillows and blankets. I claimed a dry corner of the mat and slept until the mechanics arrived around 9am and we were back on the road by 11am.
Almost 24 hours after leaving Kunming, we successfully crossed the China-Laos border.
FYI*** If you’re planning to make the same trip:
- Try to bring USD or Laos Kip with you. You can either trade Chinese RMB before leaving China or test your luck with skeptical conversion rates on the Laos side. I tested my luck, but I ended up paying a lot more than I was supposed to so I wouldn’t recommend it. The Laos visa should only be 35USD and it’s Visa On-Arrival for most countries.
- There is one bus that departs everyday at 18:30 from Kunming South Station. The ticket from Kunming to Luang Prabang should cost you approximately 300-400RMB.
- The bus will drop you off at the customs office and you will collect your bags just like any other border crossing. After getting stamped out of China you will have to walk down a small road with your luggage for about 10 minutes until you see the giant golden gate above the Laos Immigration office. The person at the desk will guide you to the correct window where a officer will take your passport and arrival card. You must wait until your name is called and you’ll see another officer waiving your passport. If you do not have USD they will show you how much you owe on a calculator, they will charge you extra and fighting them isn’t worth the stress. They have your passport and they will not give you your visa unless you pay. TLDR: Bring USD or trade for Laos Kip before leaving China.
As I started to make my way to bunk 25 the bus driver stopped me and pointed at another bunk which was now empty. I forced out my own butchered version of “thank you” and nestled into my new bunk. We stopped for lunch before leaving the border and I realized that I haven’t eaten a single thing since leaving Kunming. I noticed everyone from the bus went to one restaurant so I decided to join them.
Jian, the same passenger from earlier waved me over and handed me chop sticks and a bowl of rice. This traditional Chinese meal also made it to my top Chinese food experiences even though we were technically in Laos. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you eat, but it’s about who you’re with and how you got there.
According to Jian, we should be in Luang Prabang by 10pm.
The meandering, mountain road to Luang Prabang cuts through every twist and turn of terrain that makes up Northern Laos. The bus drivers will often whip around these turns at alarming speeds so don’t expect a peaceful ride. After spending 6 months under grey, smoggy skies, I almost forgot that it was possible for the sky to be this blue. After drifting in and out of sleep, I looked at my phone and it was 10pm. I asked one of the passengers if he knew when we would get to Luang Prabang via google translate. He took out his phone and started typing away. This was his response..
“To stop the sprinkle shop on the way.”
Oh well, translation apps work about 80% of the time. You win some, you lose some.
After 30 hours in transit, I finally arrived in Luang Prabang.
Are you looking for more details about this border crossing?