Laos: Luang Prabang to Boten

Beng-bengs, biscuits, bizarre border towns and Luang Prabang

18/04/19 - 24/04/19

Total distance travelled: 9505km

I'm starting my writing of this blog post on our final night in Laos. We are staying at a Chinese guesthouse (wherein I had to pick the lock with my Leatherman to get into the room and there is currently a power cut) just 20km from the border crossing at Boten, the only Laos/China land border crossing open to foreigners. Olly has done heaps of research into cycling in China, but we still don't quite know what to expect and so we're just going to pedal 20km tomorrow, and then hopefully a few more, and see what happens.
The Old French Bridge in Luang Prabang

We'll have covered almost 800km in Laos by the time we reach the border tomorrow. We have followed arterial road, Route 13, almost from its source (we just spent a bit of time on Route 10 on our way out of Vientiane). It has been a challenging, but rewarding ride. Laos is a mountainous country and summitting each climb was a big achievement. And we've climbed a lot in Laos, almost 10,500m in the three weeks we've been here. Another big achievement has been surviving the intense heat of Laos's hottest month of the year. Temperatures have rarely fallen below 30 degrees and at their peak reached 40. Setting off earlier than ever before in the mornings, when temperatures are in their high 20s, has helped us the bend to the intensity of the hot season, there was no way we were going to break or beat it.

The Bamboo Bridge that washes away during the wet season

Clinging on for dear life, and wearing sliders...

In Laos we've also experienced intense pollution, in the air, on the ground, in the water. We've had faces full of fumes almost every day from huge trucks hurtling along Route 13 at incredible speeds. They honk their horns loudly as as an instruction for you to get out of the road. Or else. Their black, toxic fumes combined with the hot, dry dust have been unpleasant, especially when gulping for air on the steep, mountain climbs. The mountains themselves are covered in rubbish which tumbles and falls, collecting and coagulating in water sources. It's such a shame.

Fires still burning: slash and burn crop management

A rubbish problem

A huge dam being built across the Mekong

My opinion of the people of Laos is perhaps overshadowed by events today: I was hit five or six times by children as we rode through a tiny, mountain village. I didn't realise how much something like this would offend me! I was weaving through the playing children and so decided to keep both hands on the handlebars instead of trying to high-5 every outstretched hand to either side of me. In addition, past high-5 experience has taught me than many children (usually boys) actually want to whack you as hard as they can. I don't enjoy this. Anyway, my careful and miserly ways resulted in several hard smacks to the body. I slammed on my brakes, grabbed my sunglasses from my face and stared those children down. They flinched - which isn't great - and moved away. I went to pedal off and they moved in again. I stopped and stared again. "Do not hit me", I bellowed with my eyes. I'm quite sure that in no culture is hitting like that a kind greeting.

Mostly, children have innocently waved and shouted sabaidee or bye-bye as we've passed, many turn delightedly to their parents when we respond, giggling ecstatically. In some villages children have stretched their hands out to beg and this always causes me to internally recoil and my face to heat up with shame. I can offer nothing but a wave and a hello for if I do, there and then, what help am I actually doing? Adults have mostly been smiling, though clearly a little incredulous when they see us and our bicycles. During Pi Mai in Luang Prabang, Loatians were happy, (Beer) Lao-D, and clearly up for a good time. When I asked Olly for his thoughts, he simply said "poor". As we continued north, many Laotians actually turned out to be Chinese.

Pi Mai parade


And now I write from Mengla in China! We succesfully crossed the border today and bar the final five kilometres to the border town of Boten it was a smooth and easy process. The road to Boten is notoriously dusty, but a wild storm last night that raged for hours and cut off the power in the town of Natuey where we were staying, turned the dusty road into a red, mud bath. I was terrified of falling off and truly ruining my white shirt! It was a long trudge to the eerie, empty -of-inhabitants, building-site of a town that is Boten. It was a good job we had set off at 6.

But before Boten, there was Luang Prabang and we spent six nights in this wonderful world heritage town, which is three more than we had originally planned! We arrived in LPB on 12th April just as Pi Mai celebrations were starting. A gentle dousing by some youngsters about 15km outside of town was actually very welcome, but we must admit that four days later it was starting to get a bit annoying not being able to go anywhere without getting absolutely drenched, especially when you have such a limited supply of clothes! Some were kind and only flicked water as us from their overflowing buckets, others were less so and turned their water guns definitively in our direction. (We took to making one timely exit per day and then safely staying put in the guesthouse. Though there was an evil, little girl in the building next door with a hose pipe. There was no escaping her!) It was great fun! Everyone was having such a good time!

In Luang Prabang

Boats on the Mekong

Sunset on the Mekong

Usually languid, laid-back and even lazy, Luang Prabang was anything but whilst we were there and remained in full-blown party mode for the duration of our stay. I wouldn't recommend a trip to Laos in April in a hurry, purely because of the intense heat, temperatures reached 40 degrees during our stay, but it was very special to experience the Pi Mai celebrations. Pi Mai, or Lao New Year, known as Songkran in Thailand, is the most important holiday of the year. Pi Mai is celebrated from 14-16 April every year, just before the wet season begins so as to acknowledge the importance of water in our lives. Houses are cleaned, new clothes are worn and all Buddha statues are washed too. Interestingly, the 14th is the final day of the old year and the 16th the first day of the new. The 15th is a 'day of no day', a chance to reflect back and look forward.

Coconut pancakes

Luang Prabang has the most elaborate Pi Mai celebrations in all of Loas and our timing was purely coincidental. However, when we realised we would be there for New Year, we decided to settle in and enjoy it. One afternoon we met up with fellow cycle tourists and wandered around town soaking in the atmosphere. Literally. It is always good to meet up with other cycle tourists to share stories and it was especially interesting to meet Arthur (@thebiketraveler) who is cycling the world on a bamboo bicycle and who was just released from prison in Myanmar. He was incarcerated for a month, although he was sentenced to three years, for using his drone - illegally.

Our Pi Mai highlight was definitely the elephant parade which happened on our first morning in LPB. You've got to be quick because once they get going, the six elephants in the parade move surprisingly quickly down the main street, Sisavangvong and Sakkaline Roads. We had been told to head to the Mekong and the main street running alongside it, Khem Khong. However, as the clock ticked ever closer to nine, there was no one to be seen. Sensing that we were not where we should be, we half-walked, half-ran up a side street and as we did so a crowd of people started to emerge. And there, in the midst of it all, were the majestic pachyderms wearing their Pi Mai best: head-dresses and ankle socks. Their mahouts looked pretty dashing in their traditional, orange outfits too. It was quite an unbelievable sight!

We were wholeheartedly assured that these are happy elephants from a local sanctuary, but they were still being ridden through hordes of people. We, the hordes, were all absolutely in awe of the elephants and locals couldn't throw bananas at their feet fast enough! Many of the mahout gathered up the fruit that was thrown on the road and then fed to the elephants, one of whom I'm sure was smiling, unable to believe his banana luck! It was clear that locals and foreigners alike respected and loved these six, huge, wonderful animals. Me and Olly had a brilliant time, jogging to keep up with their big, plodding footsteps. Olly even touched one of the elephants, asking permission before he did so. I took to walking along side one and chatting to it / weeping at its beauty. Laos was originally called Lan Xang, 'A Million Elephants'. There are reportedly leas than 500 elephants left in the wild in Laos today.

The parade started at The Royal Palace and ended at the beautiful Wat Xieng Thong. It usually costs 20,000 Kip per person to enter this Wat complex, but in all of the excitement of the elephants we and several hundred others wandered in for free that morning. Wat Xieng Thong was stunning. Flowers were in bloom and despite the parade, it was a calm place. We looked in several of the temples, removing our shoes before entering and giving the faithful space to kneel before the Buddha. I loved the glass mosaic decorations on the outside of a small temple, known as La Chapelle Rouge, which houses a beautiful reclining Buddha. I have been completely captivated and entirely enchanted by Budddhist temples and statues in South-East Asia. I could have sat in the grounds of Wat Xieng Thong all day. It is the oldest temple in LPB.

There are some thirty Wats in Luang Prabang and as we wandered back along the now quiet, empty and banana-free main street, we took a quick turn around a few of them before stopping in at Le Banneton, a French bakery, for second breakfast. Luang Prabang received UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995, protecting and promoting the charming mix of traditional and French colonial architecture and spirit in the small city which was devastated by a Chinese, bandit gang in 1887. It was then that Luang Prabang accepted French protection. The Lonely Planet guide states that "Luang Prabang quickly became a favourite post for French colonials seeking a refuge as far away from Paris as possible" (p142 eEdition).

NOT an optical illusion: a durian fruit as big as my head!

War wanderings

The thirty Wats are home to many saffron-clad Buddhist monks. Every morning, at dawn, these monks, who range from very young to very old, walk barefoot down the main street for the call to alms, a ceremony called tak bat. On our second morning in Luang Prabang we set the alarm for 5 o'clock in order to observe this Buddhist ritual. In Thailand and Cambodia, we had seen a small number of monks seeking alms early in the morning as we rode out of the little villages and towns we had stayed in the night before. However, we had never witnessed such a significant outpouring of monks from their monasteries as happens in LPB because of how many temples line the main street. We had heard that tak bat had become a tourist-trapping, money-making, disrespectful sham of all that it is supposed to represent: monks demonstrating their vows of poverty and humility by searching for and collecting simple food, usually sticky rice, from the faithful who, by donating, gain spiritual merit (boost their karma). However, we had seen terracotta tiles with instructions on them stuck to temple walls and read similar notes not only in the Lonely Planet guide, but also the guesthouse guide too. We were therefore hopeful that the religious rules would be respected and that we could peacefully observe the ceremony from the opposite side of the road to the monks and take some discreet photos.

As we walked to the temples, I kept shushing Olly who was chattering and asking questions akin to a curious toddler. We had read that tak bat takes place in silence and that you shouldn't join the ceremony once it has started. As we weren't sure what constituted 'dawn', we opted for 'sunrise' which was just before 6. We were a little late, but that didn't matter. Neither did any of the other rules. There were people shouting for selfies as they dropped rice into the monks' begging bowls and women running across the road with replacement rice baskets, keen to replenish any that were empty in a bid to make some extra Kip. Few were sat watching quietly from a respectful distance. The whole thing was unpleasant and we felt like we were partaking in something forced, commercial and disrespectful. We took some photos and shrunk back to the guesthouse for breakfast hoping that no one would ask us where we had been for the shame of having being involved.  The saffron-clad monks are undeniably mesmerising.

Two tiny birds in each tiny cage.  Sold, bought and released.
Monks deposit their offerings in these buckets

We stayed the extra nights in Luang Prabang to benefit from a nice place to rest; to plan; to recuperate from a strange 24-hour illness that I contracted which caused my having stabbing pains in my upper abdomen (it turns out I was not the only one to suffer from this, a group behind us eating lunch the following day complained of the same symptoms); and to visit the Kuang Si Waterfalls. We rationalised that if we cycled there and back instead of joining a tour or taking a tuk-tuk, we would save the price of an extra night in the guesthouse. Only, the guesthouse was fully booked and so we moved to a different one across town. We packed up and cycled into the scorching heat for 30km in order to reach the falls. It was fun to ride without our panniers, but even at 8 o'clock in the morning the temperature was above 30 degrees and Olly thinks this ride caused his most significant sweating yet!

We arrived at the Falls at 10 and it was already teeming with tourists: Lao and foreign. Unfortunately, we fell victim to the men with flags and whistles who led us to their private carpark and tried to charge us 5000 Kip each to lock up our bikes, the same price as a scooter. We offered 5000 for both bikes, having made a case for green travel, and the man reluctantly accepted. The official carpark is to the right and not the left, we learnt upon leaving, and only charges 1000 Kip for a bicycle. (Again, I'm quibbling over pennies, but in Laos, almost every time we could be taken advantage of, we were. It's not the nicest feeling and I do chastise myself plenty for not speaking the language. We do have to think about the duration of our trip and our budget though.)

We first visited the bear sanctuary which is housed in the entrance of the reserve. All the bears here had been rescued from poachers who use bear claws, paws, gallbladders and bile in traditional medicine.

Then, after a short walk along a dusty little path, the foliage opened up and we watched as clear, unpolluted water fell over rocks and into turquoise pools. Up and up we walked until we reached the spectacular main waterfall. It was stunning and, we decided, definitely worth the sweaty 60km round trip.

The following morning we finally set off from Luang Prabang; back on Route 13 in order to head north to the border. Just five cycling days separated us from China. Four of the five days were long and hilly, each around 70km and with 1000m of climbing. We were fuelled by bulk-bought biscuits and Beng-Bengs (like a toffee crisp). On our second night we were aiming for a guest house at the top of the day's climb, or at least what we hoped was a guest house based on the two pictures and two dubious reviews on Google. After climbing and sweating and climbing and sweating we finally reached it and when we did the sign only said "restaurant". We pushed ourselves over to the restaurant, reading the scrolling LED sign as we went. We cheered when the word "guest house" appeared. Like Sala Phou Khoun had been, another hilltop accommodation, this guest house was calm, quiet and cool and we had a wonderful view out over the hills and neighbouring town from our window. That night there was a blood-red, full moon and we really felt we had front row seats.

Staying at the top of a hill always bodes well for the following morning too because it can mean only one thing: descent! It's nice to clock up the km early in the day and with minimal effort. I did get a puncture on the downhill and was worried about how far I'd have to walk before Olly realised something was wrong - he carries the spares (and is mode adept at changing rear tyres... Thankfully, it wasn't too long. At the bottom of the hill we paused to take a drink and something made me reach for my shirt pocket: the room key was still in it! I apologised out loud and pedalled on, there was no way I was heading back up that hill! Sorry again!

Guest house on the hill


Still climbing 
A Chinese man on a motorbike bound for Mongolia kept stopping to take our photos

Up high

Our final "big stop" before China was in Oudomxay, which was practically a Chinese town anyway. It isn't town that really warrants a three-night visit, but that is how long we stayed. We used the time for rest and trip-min and we made a few calls home too which was so nice to do.

Second breakfast in Oudomxay: a treat for arriving by 11am!

Sweet and sour bean curd!
Bulk buying

Our room in the guest house in Oudomxay had a window that looked out onto a wall, an industrial sized air-conditioning unit and a pet cockroach, "Cocky", we called him, in the bathroom, but it was a chilled out place that didn't mind my paddling around barefoot with my earbuds in, chatting in English to friends and family.

From Oudomxay to Natuey where we stayed in a Chinese guesthouse and where the family seemed so unaccustomed to guests of any kind, let alone those from the west arriving by bicycle, that two of the family just walked into our room and laughed. In that moment, I felt uncomfortable and nervous about what was to come. We went to bed early, partly due to the power outage, and this enabled us to be on the road for 6 the following morning and through the border and into China by 9 (10, Chinese time). The road to Boten was uninspiring and unpleasant and I seriously hoped that what we had read was true and that when we emerged in China such roads would be but a memory. (It was! It was like cycling around a theme park the roads were so smooth!)

Shake stop

Boten is being developed by the Chinese and so at present resembles a building-site and a truck car park. We managed to change our remaining Kip into Yuan at a small store and then along with four elephants we queued up for our exit stamps. It was so sad to see the elephants there, two had a chain around their ankles. Boten was a bizarre place, it felt a little sordid and surreal. But our time there was brief. We're glad to have cycled through and experienced Laos. And now for country number 10, double digits: China. It's a big one!

An elephant with tusks!

Off to the border we all go