Limestone landscapes, hazy horizons and Chinese construction: the route from Vientiane to Luang Prabang.03/04/19 - 12/04/19
Total distance travelled: 9080km
Vientiane to Luang Prabang: 420km
Laos: country number nine on our adventure and in which we reached the 9000km milestone. So much pedalling, and a fair amount of pushing the bicycles, had got us to the point on an uphill, gravelly section of Route 13 when I rang my bell, pulled on my brakes (which was quite unnecessary given how slowly I was going) and encouraged Olly to smile for one more selfie. Only this time, it was me who struggled to smile. I was indescribably hot and sweaty, I was breathing hard and I felt physically at my limit. A few days beforehand, I had said to Olly that despite all the climbing we had done on the trip I was finding the hills in Laos incredibly challenging. Olly's response was two-fold: we hadn't cycled continuously in significant hills for a long time and you always push as hard as you can, thus it never gets any easier. I wondered when he had got so philosophical!
|Water buffalo crossing on the way to Kasi|
Though, it wasn't the first time someone had reminded me of this philosophy: it was one often cited to me when teaching and on the cusp of breakdown as I wondered how despite delivering "recycled lessons" and clocking up experience I still had more to do than ever before and so little time to do it in. This morning I read yet another article about teacher workload, the pressure of accountability and the number of teachers leaving the classroom. My future is on my mind. I turned to the aforementioned article only after spending half an hour reading about the fire at Note-Dame de Paris. I share intensely in the pain of the French people. I first saw Notre-Dame on the return journey from Limoges and my French Exchange trip in 2005. I credit that trip with so much of what has has since come to pass. No photo that I took on my disposable camera could do the gothic cathedral justice and I realised then how important it was going to be for me in life to "see things". And so from contemplating my future and remembering my past, I return to the present and how the challenge of this journey is forcing me to live firmly and gratefully in it.
The present is our bedroom at a guest house in Luang Prabang. It is Lao New Year, Pi Mai, or in Thai, Songkran, and it's impossible to walk down the street without being soaked by Laotians revelling in New Year's celebrations which include wearing loud, fruity shirts, copious amounts of Beer Lao and a water gun. Or, better still, a hose pipe. Temperatures have reached 38 degrees most days since we've been here and so the dousings received every few metres are actually quite welcome. Spirits are high and everyone is having fun. It's a place in full-blown party mode.
It took us seven cycling days to get here from the Lao capital Vientiane, and what an experience it was getting there! We took a night train from Bangkok to the Thai border-town, Nong Khai. Booking our tickets just a day in advance meant we secured third-class, hard seats in a carriage with windows and a fan. We convinced ourselves it would be fine and anyway, what an adventure!
And the journey was fine. Uncomfortable and quite unpleasant, but fine. It had been a sweaty and stressful cycle across Bangkok to get to the station, but we made it in good time. We had read that once the cargo carriage is full, it's full and we didn't want to risk not getting our bikes on board. We found our seats and initially commented that they weren't so bad, especially as every thirty seconds or so we benefitted from the small relief offered by the fan attached to the roof of the carriage just behind us.
But then, she got on: the repulsive woman who smeared spit on the window and who carried a slopping bucket of melting ice and fish with her all the way to Udon Thani, the train's penultimate stop and the one just before ours. I'm not being unkind. I saw the look of relief on everyone's faces when she sat down opposite me and not them. She was large, rude and smelly and she insisted on putting her bare feet on my seat, once even shaking me awake so that I would move to make space for them. The same feet that she had walked to the dirty, squat toilet and back in almost every hour since getting on the train. Olly blames her alone for our getting ill a few days later. She threw her rubbish out of the window which was pulled down low so that she could spit out of it without having to stand and which also meant that the wind blew in my face for ten hours, a technique some employ to stay awake while driving and not to help them fall asleep. She bought stick-meat which she ate with her mouth open and, as she neared her destination, she unskillfully poured the water from her fishy bucket out of the window so that it went all down her coat sleeve. She laughed as she tipped the water from her sleeve all over my swollen feet.
What a relief to get off that train. Bleary-eyed and in need of a good wash, we headed for the border. We had no problem at the Thai border and relatively quickly had our exit stamps permitted us to ride across The Friendship Bridge over the Mekong and into Laos. We had no issue there either and after paying $35 USD each for our 30-day visa, we pedalled away, on the right hand side this time, for 20km to Vientiane.
|On 'The Friendship Bridge'|
We've cycled into just two capital cities so far on the trip: Rome and Bangkok. Neither compared to the simple and straightforward ride into the Laotian capital which is home to some 700,000 people. Vientiane does not exude capital city chaos, even though it did take us a long time to leave the city two days later, primarily because we got caught in rush hour traffic and hit all the red lights. Vientiane formed a stark contrast to Bangkok. Although there was a "mini-mart" (similar to a 7-Eleven) and plenty of tourist cafes boasting lots of vegetarian fare, Vientiane had none of the razzmatazz of "the big mango". It did have baguettes though, a throwback to the time of the French protectorate, which we've enjoyed in the tourist towns (Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang) since.
|First night dinner. First of MANY Beer Lao.|
After collapsing into our hostel room, which was perfectly adequate, but a bit dingy, showering and sleeping, we ventured out onto the streets of Vientiane to get a feel for the place. The Lonely Planet describes it as "languid to say the least" and it certainly had a sleepy feel. No one was in a hurry to do anything, apart from Olly who was keen to eat and return to our dark, air-conditioned room for more sleep. We strolled along the riverside and watched as the sun turned pink, taking the sky and the river with it. As the sun set and the temperature dropped by perhaps a degree, two, rival groups of zumba-aficionados emerged and set about side-stepping and three-point-turning in time to loud music and with the Mekong as their backdrop.
|Sun setting over The Mekong|
The next day, bolstered by more sleep, we took our unburdened bikes for a slow spin around the city. The highlight of the tour was definitely the Patuxai Monument where we were "interviewed" by locals learning English. Olly's guy was keen as mustard, using his name every few seconds and delighting in all of his answers. My guy handed me the pen and said I could just write my answers down. The teacher (not me!) quickly intervened! I really liked Vientaine's version of the Arc du Triomphe. It was built in 1969 with cement donated by the USA intended for the construction of a new airport! I find that quite amusing, though it perhaps tells you a little more about Laos.
|Cool artwork to look at on the ceiling|
Laos is one of the poorest South-East Asian countries. Whilst we haven't really seen a relative drop in our spending, as tourism is big business and we've been overcharged for water on more than one occasion, it is evident from our cycling through lots of small villages that subsistence living predominates.There are wonky, one-room houses on stilts with a bare bulb at most and a tap every few houses along. People seem happy for the most part, and, it might just be the time of year, but we've seen a fair few parties happening where deafeningly loud music and Beer Lao top the good times checklist. We witnessed a wake in Kiew Kacham with a similar vibe: the elaborate coffin was draped in fairy lights and the attendees were eating pasta and playing poker!
|Wat Si Meung on our Vientiane bike tour|
Setting off in the mornings earlier than ever before, we've watched as many children, almost all wearing lilac shirts, young monks are the exception, walk, cycle or scooter to school. There are a lot of very young monks in Laos and I wonder if that has something to do with large families and small incomes. There always seem to be a lot of young children running around, often shouting "sabaidee" and waving and grinning as if their lives depended on it. I love seeing the moment a child decides to wave, the decision is entirely their own and completely unbiased and pure. There are far fewer old folk here and I've also noticed that very few people wear glasses. This could just be testament to epic eyesight here, but I'm not so sure.
Post cycle around Vientiane, we stopped for a snack at Le Trio Cafe,which reportedly serves the best coffee in town. I nipped to the Coco cafe next door for a mango and banana shake and then in tandem we went to the Joma Bakery a few doors down to pick a pastry; Olly's choice of a cinnamon roll was the winner! As in Siem Reap, these places that cater to tourists and not so many locals are very nice and were all also social enterprises. If we were going to blow our budget, these were the places to do it.
That night, on the recommendation of another cycling couple (@rnbcycles), we ate at Jamil Zahid, a Pakistani restaurant down an unlit side street, and the food was delicious and quite cheap (£4 for the lot!). It was the first time I'd properly considered the amount of unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Laos, the most bombed country per capita in the world. The US dropped more bombs on Laos between 1964 and 1973 than during WWII. This was largely an effort to cut off Vietcong guerrilla forces. However, we learned that as the Americans didn't know where to bomb, and as they couldn't return with laden planes, they released the bombs wherever especially when it was dark and they were disorientated. I had no reason to be concerned in Vientiane, but it did get me thinking as we strayed a little from the path. In 2016, Barack Obama, then president, promised US $90 million to help clear UXO from Laos.
The following day we set off on the first proper day of our Laotian adventure. We cycled to a town that may have been called Thinkeo and may have been called Thalat. It took a long time to get out of Vientiane where we picked up two delicious vegetable baguettes from a street vendor for only 10,000 Kip (about 90p) each. We ate them only a few hours later, at 1030, as we sought shelter from an incredible downpour at a petrol station. The sky had been apocalyptic for about 10km and we were so lucky to be passing the petrol station because the rain really came down!
The next day we were done by 11am! We had an uninteresting day of cycling to Hin Hoeup and did some bike maintenance at the guesthouse before retiring to our room. Olly wasn't feeling well and following a brief stroll around the town I realised there wasn't much going on and so I settled down to read. Many of the towns we passed through seemed to be stopping places for Chinese construction workers and Hin Hoeup was one of them. Already we were quite surprised by how many huge trucks and cement mixers had hurtled past us, all with Chinese writing on. At one rest stop, where we discovered little cracker biscuits with a chocolate cream filling that we've had every day since, four Chinese guys leapt out of their truck to take photos with us. It all happened very quickly. The Chinese construction was perhaps most apparent in the town of Kasi that we reached in a few days' time: huge billboards written in Chinese with the occasional English caption advertised the new high-speed railway being built between Kunming in China and Vientiane. The billboards enclosed the construction which was happening right in the centre of town.
|Morning market in Thinkeo - spot Olly|
|On the road to Hin Hoeup|
|Noodle soup for tea|
From Hin Hoeup we cycled to the town of Vang Vieng and we arrived at midday after a 60km ride that included a taster of the serious climbing to come. We stopped for an iced drink not too far from Vang Vieng, even doubling back to go to the little roadside stall because we hadn't seen one in a while. Amenities were becoming fewer and farther between. We both ordered conservatively, we thought, but received a litre each of sweet, sweet liquid each. Our poor teeth!
Vang Vieng has come to be known as a backpacker's paradise. There were lots of youths clutching Beer Lao, discussing the merits of travel and ignoring everything that The Lonely Planet guide says about etiquette in Laos by walking around in their swim wear. They were drunk and noisy, chanting went on into the night, but for the most part they were having a good, honest time. They also didn't rise until the afternoon which is when grumpy me and miserable him retired to "escape the heat of the day" and nap!
|On the road to Vang Vieng|
|Early morning sun|
|So much litter on the roadsides|
|Boys with honeycomb|
|Dusty roads and Chinese trucks|
In Vang Vieng it's a case of not hating the players, but hating the game. The Responsible Travel website advises against going to Vang Vieng, not just because of the Beer Lao-ts (!) but because there are no rules governing how the area is used and abused by the tourism industry. This sentiment was echoed by the Australian lady we got talking to in Luang Prabang: her and her Laotian husband run a Mexican restaurant! They used to live and work in Vang Vieng, and the lady told us what we already knew: the limestone karst landscapes in Vang Vieng are the most spectacular in Laos. It was amazing riding towards them, watching the bulks of stone grow and take form as for days we had only seen them through the haze on the horizon. However, she told us of buildings going up in an instant and of trees being torn down and land upturned in order to do so. Combine that with the party scene and it does make for pretty ugly place.
|An early morning stroll along a rickety bridge|
From Vang Vieng we continued to head north on Route 13 to Luang Prabang and it took us four incredibly hilly days of cycling to get there. We cycled out of Vang Vieng as the local children cycled to school. We were gifted a fair few hellos, lots of sabaidees and plenty of giggles. The limestone karsts continued to astonish us as we pedalled towards Kasi.
|Cycling to school|
Kasi wasn't much to write home about and it's a shame we didn't have it in us to push uphill for another 20km in order to reach the Hot Spring Guesthouse which is mentioned in almost every cycling blog we've read about Laos. We didn't have it in us though, having climbed and pedalled plenty already that day (about 60km with 1000m ascent). Also, I can't imagine getting into a hot spring, however idyllic such a thing sounds, given the outside temperature of 35 degrees. It would have been like sitting in soup.
|Market in Kasi|
Kasi to Sala Phou Khoun Guesthouse which Stales had recommended to us and which I now fantasize about each afternoon as we cycle towards our evening destination. It was another day of serious climbing: a 20km hill with 1000m of ascent. But, I thought this was the prettiest cycling day so far in Laos. We passed huts on stilts in farmers' fields, herds of cattle and water buffalo and then as we climbed higher, rows of bright green lettuce growing on the mountain side and tended to by workers in traditional hats. The vivid green leaves formed a stark contrast to the hazy blue, grey hills and russet dusty skies.
Despite the hazy skies, the views from the guesthouse, which stood at the top of the hill (when we got there after countless water stoped and biscuit breaks) were wonderful especially as the sun set. The sun turned pink and cast everything in a rosy glow. The guesthouse was so tranquil. Our room was huge with windows that also looked out over the hills and the incredibly well-kept kitchen garden. We were gifted bananas from the garden at lunch and breakfast. There was a big dining area too and we ate tasty, freshly prepared vegetarian food in this most peaceful place. This was day 250 of our trip.
The next morning, the guesthouse prepared an early breakfast for us so that we could be on the road before 7. We had fried eggs and chips and toast and marmalade. The marmalade was such a treat. Feeling quite calm, we set off for Kiew Kacham (which has so many alternative spellings!) our final stop before Luang Prabang. We stopped first at the town of Phou Khoun which was 3km on. Here we bulk bought a packet of the biscuits we had had the past few days, sparing us the rummage around the dark and cluttered stores. I had a quick walk around the morning market in search of baguettes, but to no avail. Biscuits sustained us until we had a very peppery rice and vegetable lunch in Kiew Kacham made by such a miserable girl.
|A classic town store in Laos. This is where we buy our Beng-Bengs!|
When we arrived at the guesthouse the miserable girl had been instructed to show me a room by her dad (I assume) and she walked me to a door and then walked off. I thought she was going to come back, but she didn't. I then started to walk back towards the front of the restaurant and her dad went spare, waving his arms and shuffling in his sliders. He then led me back to the door before he too walked off. He returned a minute later with a huge knife and set about picking the lock of the door I had unintentionally been standing guard over for the past ten minutes. From the room with the now unpicked lock, he took a key and led me to another door, right at the back of the property and overlooking the mountains which was to be our room for the night. Kiew Kacham was a basic place and flushing the toilet required us to fill a bowl with water and tip. Though, this wasn't the first time we had done this.
|A very tough 3km into Kiew Kacham|
In Kiew Kacham we met Justin and Cara (@adventure.in.tandem), an American couple who have recently embarked on a cycle touring adventure from Thailand to Europe on their Black Friday tandem bike. It was great to meet some fellow tourers and we agreed to meet for dinner. Justin and Cara have just moved back to America after spending four years living in China, and so we went to the Chinese restaurant in town that night and in perfect Mandarin, Cara organised a vegetarian feast for us! A teapot was brought to the table as, we learned, in China cold beverages are rarely served with food because they disturb your 'chi'. Shortly afterwards, a big bowl of rice was brought to the table and then our main dishes. The table had a 'lazy Susan' so that we could spin the wheel to reach each different dish. It was a great preparatory experience! Cara demonstrated how you picked ingredients out of the fridge and asked for them to be cooked with certain other ingredients or in a certain way (aubergine, soy sauce and honey, for example - yum!). Without any command of the language, we're going to have to hope that pointing and presenting various vegetables will work in the first few days until we find our feet. It was a really great evening.
Upon returning to our guesthouse we saw that a gazebo had been erected, music was booming out of some ginormous speakers and white, plastic garden furniture had been put out, the tables covered in colourful cloths and an assortment of Beer Lao and fizzy drinks placed in the centre of each. We thought maybe that these were premature Pi Mai celebrations until we saw the coffin covered in fairy lights. It could have explained why miserable girl was so miserable.
The following morning, funeral celebrations were still in full swing and mourners, or life-celebrators, were drinking Beer Lao for breakfast - including miserable girl - and a huge TV and stack of DVDs had been brought out for entertainment. From Kiew Kacham we knew we had it easier than Justin and Cara because we were heading in the opposite direction. We had two big descents and one climb before we reached the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang. We set off early, and freewheeled for 20km which was so welcome after the final section of the "ride" the day before which had been gruelling. The road into Kiew Kacham had been ripped up and in its place was a boulder-sized gravel pit. Pushing my bike uphill for 3km had caused me to hit rock bottom (!) to the extent that I'd struggled to smile for our customary milestone selfie as we hit the 9000km mark.
|Construction under way|
After our descent, we had a 15km climb about which neither of us remember very much; we made it, though, and that is all that matters! We were soon descending again and we decided that when we made it to Xieng Ngeun, the town at the bottom of the hill, we'd stop for a much-needed, cold drink. As we wheeled into the bustling town, I spied a pyramid of condensed milk cans and a blender which indicate that 'iced-drinks are made here'. Just as we pulled up to the little restaurant, a man walked away carrying two white smoothies that looked fluffy like clouds. I had no idea what they were, but I wanted one and so I tried to mime to the lady that "I would like what that man who has driven away in his van and is now nowhere to be seen had", I added "please" in English for good measure. Olly says, as a spectator, that my charade was utterly indecipherable, but I watched as an apple and some dragon fruit were blended together with a cup-full of ice, a scoop-full of two special powders and a ladle-full of mysterious syrup and the fluffy cloud drink was made. It was absolutely amazing!
|Waiting for the rain to stop on our first day of cycling in Laos|
|Not too far until Luang Prabanng!|
We joined a busy road and lots of traffic heading to Luang Prabang, the foremost town for Pi Mai celebrations in all of Laos, though our arrival for New Year was complete chance. We had our first taste of Pi Mai on this road as some children tipped a bucket of water of each of us as we cycled past them. It was very refreshing in the 35 degree heat! We had a final hill to climb before we were able to roll into town, and those 4km were absolutely beastly after the few days we had had! As I reached the summit, I looked up and saw black ash floating to earth from some higher up crop burning. The hazy skies are quite alluring, but they're also polluted and leave an unpleasant taste in your mouth when you're struggling up a hill and gulping in the air! Finally, we stopped our spinning and let gravity do its thing and guide us all the way to Luang Prabang: we'd been looking forward to visiting this town for some time. A few days offline, however, meant we had no idea where we were going once we got there. We had booked a guesthouse and now we just had to find it!