While pushing our bikes through the street market of Luang Prabang one morning, someone behind me tapped my shoulder and said “Hey, I recognize you!” It took me a while to figure it out but eventually it all came back to me. What a small world! In front of me stood Jason, an American cyclist who we had bumped into in Kyrgyzstan nearly three months earlier while cycling with Guillaume and Jérome.
At the time he and his Irish wife Kate were going south towards China whereas our group was heading north towards Kazakhstan, so we had only had time to talk briefly before setting off in our respective directions. After crossing China and Northern Laos they had arrived in Luang Prabang around the same time as us and were continuing south along the same route that Angela and I had planned to follow. After bumping into each other a few more times in Luang Prabang we decided to leave on the same day and cycle together for a while. We have been quite lucky on this trip: after Kath and Andrew in Turkey, Francesca and Sam in Tajikistan, Guillaume, Jerome and Masha in Kyrgyzstan and Paddy in Northern Laos, Kate and Jason were the 5th travel companions that we got to ride with. Ange and I really enjoyed it every time: it lifted our spirits when our motivation was low and it sharing personal stories and travel tips always made the cycling more interesting! Not that I find Angela boring of course, but after more than 200 days spent together sometimes you do need some new topics to discuss!
The road to Vang Vieng took us through the last mountainous area before the flatlands surrounding the Mekong. Angela bravely decided that she would attempt the ride and see how her knees would cope. The first 50km of that first day went by in a jiffy, but we then had to tackle a 25km long uphill in the scorching afternoon heat. The beginning of the ascent felt rather easy, everyone happily chatting away and enjoying the lush green hills surrounding us. But soon fatigue settled in and we all fell silent, struggling up the never-ending climb and sweating profusely. We stopped every five kilometres to rest our legs and drink as much water as we could, and eventually arrived in the little mountain village of Kui Kacham. Being back at higher altitudes the evening was rather chilly, but the little hotel where we were spending the night offered hot showers and stunning views of the surrounding peaks and valleys. The following day was another challenging one, with many steep climbs in the morning, in the thick jungle bush. As the day progressed the hills around us became more scattered and the jungle less dense, offering better views of the deep valleys and more and more high limestone cliffs started appearing in the distance. I particularly remember standing at the top of a hill shortly past the town of Phou Khoun, looking down at a road following the side of a mountain and disappearing in the distant mist at the foot of some impressive vertical limestone cliffs. As usual kids would appear out of nowhere, running to the edge of the road and sticking their hands out for a high-five, a big grin on their faces. By the end of that day we had left the hills behind and the following day we enjoyed some flat cycling, arriving in Vang Vieng in time for lunch.
Vang Vieng is famous in South East Asia for being a party town where any meal can be topped up with any “happy” ingredients of your choice (mainly magic mushrooms or weed). It is also famous for tubing, an activity that involves renting a huge tractor inner-tube, getting dropped off upstream of the river by a tuk-tuk and letting the current take you back to your starting point, stopping at the numerous riverside bars along the way… You generally hear mixed opinions about Vang Vieng: the party people generally love it, while others will tell you how disgusting it is to see totally wasted or drugged up backpackers passed out in the streets… But during low season the city is generally quiet and we were able to enjoy the laid-back atmosphere, filling up on delicious fruit shakes and tasty food, while watching episodes of Friends or Family Guy. And we went tubing of course. Anyone who has tried it will tell you that it’s not really the floating down the river that’s fun, but the swing ropes and water slides that the bars have set up in order to attract the floaters. We spent the afternoon in and out of the water while drinking laos-whisky filled buckets, although Jason had to cut the fun short (so to speak) after tripping on a wet board and splitting his Achilles’ heel open. We also celebrated my thirtieth birthday in a nice little restaurant that served delicious local food and Lao Hai, a traditional Laos fermented alcohol drink made from rice. Not a bad way to officially join the old people’s club!
We continued south towards Vientiane without Jason and Kate, Jason’s wound still too fresh to allow him to cycle. Directly south of Vang Vieng is the Ang Nam Ngum Lake, which we’d heard from other cyclists we could cross by boat, thus shaving off some kilometres and most importantly avoiding the busy and crappy road 13 leading to the Laos capital. We arrived in a sleepy little fishing village and ask around for a boat ride but no-one seemed willing to take us to the southern tip of the lake. We had almost given up hope when we noticed a few more boats at a lake-side restaurant on the edge of town. There we met a woman from Vientiane who was having lunch on her way to Vang Vieng. She spoke perfect English and helped us haggle with the fishermen who were also having lunch until one of them finally agreed to take us on his boat. The ride across the water was beautiful, with some fishermen out on the job and many tiny little green islands dotting the surface of the lake. Once on the other side it was already getting late and we only managed to ride of few kilometres before calling it a day and finding a hotel for the night. An early start and a flat terrain the next day allowed us to cover the 90km to Vientiane by lunchtime. Road 10 south of the lake was much quieter and in a much better state than road 13, passing alongside many Buddhist temples and through pretty villages. Vientiane was rather tiny as far as capital cities go, and apart from a few interesting temples to visit and crowded street food-stalls to eat at there wasn’t much to do… Still, one of my best memories from Laos comes from Vientiane. One afternoon after picking up our Cambodian visas, Kate, Angela and I cycle to the Wat Sok Pa Luang temple, where we heard we could enjoy a nice traditional Laos massage. We got there and walked around for ages looking the place, but the temple was situated in the middle of a forest and the grounds were vast. Eventually some monks pointed us towards a little dirt path at the end of which stood a house on stilts. A lady leaned over and shouted to us: “Come come, Laos massage!” A few westerners were lying on the beds with little ladies sitting on top massaging them. We got changed into a large thin towel, poured cold water on ourselves from a bucket outside the house and walked into the stuffy and foggy herbal sauna. It was already pretty toasty outside, but the herbal steam felt refreshing on the skin. After a few trips in and out it was time for the massage. The man who worked his way up from the tip of my toes to the top of my head spent quite a long time trying to loosen up every single tight and painful muscle in my body… The traditional Laos massage is definitely not the most relaxing type, but exactly what you need after a hard day of cycling! The place might have looked shabby, but that exactly what I loved about it. The scent emanating from the sauna, the peacefulness and ithe setting in the middle of forest with Buddhist monks walking around are memories that I will never forget.
After three days in the Laos Capital, Kate, Jason, Angela and I all set off again, following the Mekong River downstream. The first two days were uneventful and dull, our day-dreaming only interrupted by the sight of a half-destroyed passenger bus by the side of the road or of the incredible loads that some locals carry on their mopeds. At one point I saw a man riding a motorbike with what must have been at least twenty TV antennas somehow attached behind him. On the third day we arrived in the town of Vieng Kham where we had hoped to rent motorbikes in order to ride the “loop”, a scenic round trip inland with many natural attractions. To our disappointment the town was tiny and didn’t have any rental shops so we all agreed that we would cycle the route instead. After a beautiful ride through limestone cliffs and a mighty 16% uphill we arrived in Khum Khan, where we rented two old and battered Chinese motorbikes that would take us to the Kong Lo caves the next day. We walked around the quiet town in the evening looking for a restaurant, but struggled to find anything open. Eventually Jason and I settled for a shabby-looking place that served us a buffalo laap dish so spicy that it made Jason sick later in the night. The ride through the early morning cold air was refreshing and beautiful, with the rising sun casting its orange rays of light through the thick mist. We arrived in Kong Lo and hopped on one of the first boats which took us on the Nam Hin Bun River and through the dark mouth of the 7km long cave. Our two guides, one sitting at the bow, the other driving at the stern, used their bright head-lamps to navigate the wide waterways and to cast light on the surrounding walls. There was no other source of light inside the cave and it was such a surreal feeling to be rushing through the cool air, in almost complete darkness. Angela gave me a worried look when one of the guide’s head-lamp stopped working just as we were being pushed through rocks that appear during the low waters of the dry season. The boat was rocking from side to side and felt like it could capsize at any moment… Once back in Khum Khan we hurried back on the bikes after lunch as we still had 60km to cover that day. On our way up the first tough hill Angela’s knee started hurting again so she decided to hop on a bus with her bike. The rest of us carried on cycling through the amazing landscape until darkness fell and eventually reached the town of Lak Sao, where Ange had booked two rooms for us.
The next day was going to be a hard one. We had heard and read that it might be the worst road that we would have to cycle in South East Asia. It started with lots of rocks and gravel and ended with a thick layer of dust and huge potholes. In-between we cycled through a huge reservoir that was created by the construction of the NT2 dam on the Nam Theun River. It flooded the forested area surrounding the river and killed millions of trees. The sight of all those dead trunks sticking out of the water was impressive but also gave the area a gloomy and depressing feeling. We also came head to head with a group of buffalos who were trying to cross a bridge at the same time as us. They remained motionless for half an hour, staring at us from the bridge while we were having a short break. Towards the end of the day, as we were speeding down a big hill, Angela’s back tire punctured and her whole wheel became badly buckled. Unable to carry on any further, we managed to stop a pick-up truck that agreed to take Ange and Kate to the next town. Jason and I carried on into fading light, with only 15km left to go. As the road approached the river as one point the air filled up with millions of tiny little bugs, to the point that I had to hold my breath and even put my sunglasses on for several minutes in order to get passed the infested area! It was ridiculous! On the third and last day of the loop I woke up early to fix Angela’s back wheel. As I removed the tire and the rim tape I discovered to my astonishment that the rim had a crack running the whole way around. Back in Tajikistan after hitting a pothole that same back wheel had buckled a little bit. We could even feel it pulling on the brake cable. But over the following months the buckle had slowly disappeared and I had believed that the wheel had somehow trued itself again. I had it all wrong from the beginning! What had in fact happened was that after hitting that pothole the rim had cracked slightly, becoming wider in that spot and giving the impression that there was a buckle. The crack then slowly spread all the way around, giving the rim a uniform width again, and making me think that everything was back to normal! If the rim had lasted so long, I thought, it could surely take Angela all the way at least to Phnom Penh, where we could find a replacement… So we continued the journey on the last leg of the loop towards Thakhek, stopping on the way to visit some more caves and to swim in some quiet and secluded spots. Thakhek ended being a surprisingly quaint little city, with a long waterfront lined up with many food stalls. We enjoyed a tasty dinner at one of them while watching the sun set over the Mekong and Thailand. As we walked back to our hotel later on all of us suddenly froze as we spotted a massive black scorpion crawl into the gutter…
The following morning all of us got onto a bus heading south to Pakse. We were all running short of time and thought we would skip the rather flat and boring part between Thakhek and Pakse. Angela and I however got off in Savannakhet where we wanted to get our Thai visas, as we had heard that it is quite difficult to obtain them in Phnom Penh. We spent three days in the provincial capital and second largest city of Laos, waiting for our visas to be processed and enjoying walks around the old French colonial quarters. Once the visas ready we hopped onto yet another bus that took us all the way down to Pakse. Travelling on buses with bicycles has in fact been quite easy in Laos. We were hardly ever asked to pay extra for them and all the buses had huge roof-racks so taking them on board was never a problem. Pakse was unexpectedly full of tourists, generally travelling either east to the cooler temperatures of the Bolaven Plateau or south to the relaxed 4000 Islands. Ange and I rented a moped for the day and rode up towards the coffee plantations set high up on the Bolaven plateau. We stopped at every waterfall we passed and we particularly impressed by the Tat Fan and Tat Yuang ones, rising high above the ground. At the top we had a short break at a little coffee shop run by a Dutchman, a coffee aficionado who fell in love with the region during a holiday one year and decided to move there in order to grow his own coffee. Quite inspiring! Back on the bicycles there were two more places that Angela and I wished to visit before leaving the country. We reached the first one, Champasak, after a short day of cycling from Pakse. We visited the famous Wat Phu temple, dating back from the Angkor period and back at the hotel met Marie and Pascal, a French couple riding a tandem across South East Asia. After a last long day of cycling, during which we missed Jason and Kate by half an hour (if only Ange hadn’t had that puncture!) we reached our final destination in Laos: Si Phan Don, (meaning 4000 Islands) a collection of island in the middle of the Mekong in the far south of the country. Upon arrival we had the choice to stay on one of the the three main islands: Don Khong, Don Det and Don Khon. We opted for Don Det and after a quick boat-ride over the mighty Mekong we found a cheap little bungalow overlooking the river. We were even welcomed by a beautiful sunset right on the first night! We spent four nights on the island, either relaxing in the bungalow or at one of the many restaurants overlooking the river or exploring the idyllic surroundings. No better way to enjoy the last few days remaining on our visas!
Our five weeks in Laos went by unbelievably quickly. It’s the longest we spent in one country since leaving Poland yet we still didn’t have time to see all it had to offer. We had heard so many great things about it before arriving that our expectations were quite high. And if I was to give an honest opinion I’d say that I was very slightly disappointed as we rolled our bikes through the Laos/Cambodia border. Apart from the north, which still had a rough-around-the-edges feeling to it, the rest of the country wasn’t as untouched by tourism as it is made out to be and actually more expensive in general than Vietnam and Cambodia, as we were to find out later on. But don’t get me wrong, all in all we did have an amazing time! The friendliness and smiles of the people, especially the kids, the delicious food, especially the sticky rice and banana fritters, the variety of landscapes, especially between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng and generally the laid-back atmosphere of the country will remain some of the best memories of this entire adventure!
More photos of our cycling through Laos can be found here!