Are we really cycle tourists? I don’t think you could call us cycle tourists in Laos. We spent more time on a bus than we did on the bicycles. This was because my back rim decided to peel like a banana and put a holt on most of our cycling tour through Laos.
Leaving the magical land of the Thai’s, we embarked on a journey to the mountainous land of Laos. For the past few days we had amplified our excitement (and nerves) to tackle these monstrous hills which we were told would be some of the hardest climbing we will have to do as the roads are steep and in poor condition. So, with stern resolve we entered Laos and…….. we rode 10 kilometers to the ferry dock to catch a boat.
There were many reasons we caught the slow boat from the border town of Huay Xai in the northwest of Laos to Luang Prabang in the northern/central portion of Laos. The main two reasons were: the paved road from the Thai/Laos border crossing to Luang Prabang, heading northeast then turning south/southwest, took nearly the same route we needed to take from Luang Prabang to the China border, and; the dirt road from the Thai/Laos border crossing to Luang Prabang, heading south/southeast along the Mekong River, we were told was nearly impossible to ride due to the rain and road conditions. Therefore, we went the easy, more expensive but relaxing and scenic slow boat to Luang Prabang.
The slow boat was a two-day trip from the border crossing to Luang Prabang with a stop at a not so friendly town called Pak Beng. It appears that the revenue of this town relies heavily on tourists entering from the slow boat for an overnight stay. Here you will be instantly greeted by Laos people trying their hardest to get your business. It was like eating fish and chips at the beach surrounded by seagulls waiting for you to throw a stray chip. Luckily, our time in Pak Beng and on the Mekong was much better thanks to the Belgium friends we made, a cycle tourist couple Brecht and Marijka. These two had cycled through New Zealand and were having time off their bikes through South-East Asia and, as always, it is a meeting of two halves when cycle tourists get together.
The slow boat takes you carelessly along the famous Mekong River. Flowing gently down the Mekong you will pass undulating hills that seem to rise ever higher and were covered in thick, impenetrable rainforest. On the river banks, you could see ferry stops with several docked boats, but it was impossible to see where all the villages were as they were hidden within the dense jungle. We knew there were people though, somewhere, as you could see herds of water buffalo every couple of kilometres and the odd thatched hut perched precariously on the incredibly steep hillsides.
Once we were off the slow boat we rode the 10 kilometres into Luang Prabang, secretly trying to beat the Belgium’s who boarded the tuk tuk service. We noticed a huge difference in the road quality in Laos compared to Thailand and Malaysia. The roads were littered with pot holes and they have no shoulder for the cycle tourist to hide away from passing trucks and cars. Not only that, there was dust everywhere on the road and even in the short ride we could feel it in our lungs and on our faces.
Entering Luang Prabang was transformative compared to the 10 kilometers we had just rode. Suddenly, the roads were in perfect condition supplemented by well maintained brick sidewalks and surrounded by unique, charming French colonial buildings. Every second or third building was a restaurant or guesthouse and, before we were even off the bikes, tuk tuk drivers were already asking us if we wanted to be driven to the waterfalls.
Riding down the streets of Luang Prabang, we were suddenly stopped. Who would stop a sweaty cycle tourist? Of course, it was fellow sweaty cycle tourists. Somehow, we ran into two more cycle tourists. These were two Swiss guys, Simon and Pierman, who had just ridden from Kunming, China to Laos. By chance, all six cycle tourists, including the Belgium’s, were staying at the same hostel (as it was easily the cheapest in town). We gladly stayed for five days in Luang Prabang, lavishing the time we get to have off the bike and spend with other cycle tourists.
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO Heritage listed city because of its French colonial buildings. It is unbelievable how a miniature French Riviera was built in the middle of a rainforest and in a strangely remote mountainous region. From atop of Mt Phousi (the local view point that has a small stupa at the peak) you can see what looks like a little French village with rainforest interbedded along the streets and densely covering the hillsides encompassing the city. This little French colonial town is unique, and we enjoyed walking the streets imagining times past.
The remaining big attraction in Luang Prabang was the ‘Kuang Si Waterfalls’. We were originally apprehensive about going to another waterfall, particularly a waterfall crawling with people, as the many waterfalls we went to in Thailand and Malaysia were not anything spectacular. But the ‘Kuang Si Waterfalls’ are too remarkable to be overshadowed by millions of tourists. The waterfalls begin with small ‘blue pools’ atop of a large waterfall. Water flows over the cliffside and, during its freefall, the water is broken by several smooth limestone steps before flowing in a large blue pool.
The turquoise water then cascades into several pools making the lower steps of the falls look like blue mystique rice terraces. You can swim in the pools and get you feet cleaned by the tiny fish who love that dead skin you have been carrying around with you. This is a must see in Laos!
Following Luang Prabang, we cycled north/northwest heading along highway 13 which is the main paved road most cycle tourists take in Laos, pedaling towards a town called Oudomxay. The ride through Laos is a landscape of never ending hills and rainforest. The temperature was cooler than Thailand and the hills were, for now, not very big. We were very excited to be on the road again and we were encouraged in every village by the hundreds of animated Laos children waving and calling out “Sabaidee”, hello in Laos. We were surprised by how many children there were in Laos. They seem to out number the adults ten to one. We liked it though as the kids were cute and outrageously friendly.
Since we were in rainy season and the sky was grey all day, we felt that at any moment a down pour could come. Luckily, the rain on this day came just as we were outside the only temple we had come across and it was in the late afternoon. We asked the monks at the temple if we could stay one night and they were very kind, as always, to show us a place to set up our tent.
In the early morning, the people of the village came to the temple to give alms to the monks and pray. Once the monks were finished with the morning ceremony they came to talk. One of the monks, Khammouane, asked if we would like to go to his family home for a special celebration. We gladly accepted, and we spent the day playing with kids in the temple before we rode to his family village in the afternoon. We stayed in a motel that night close to our new friend’s house.
The next day we went to his house around 8am and already there were many people there making food and constructing the ceremonial plate called the marigold pyramid. The ceremony was a “Baci” ceremony and is a day of giving blessings. We were given simple jobs of helping make parts of the marigold pyramid. When the ceremony began, everyone sat in a circle around the marigold plate with an elder of the group at the ‘head’ of the plate and Mr Khammouane’s sister at the opposite end. They were attached by a piece of string which also touched other people in the circle. The elder then prayed and the people closest to the marigold plate were touching it while everyone else was touching someone who held the plate. I believe that this must have represented a sharing of energy/prayer or something similar. After the praying was finished, everyone took little cloth string bracelets from the marigold plate and tied them to the wrists of the sister followed by the mother, father and then to us. While they tied the bracelets they quietly said blessings. The day finished with a massive amount of food and beer. The event was a special moment in our trip and we felt fortunate to have witnessed this ancient cultural practice.
The next day we sadly parted ways and began our first big hill in Laos. We were still on our way to Oudomxay. It was a slow, arduous journey and took us most of the day to climb the mountain. Just as we reached the top of the mountain, the rain came again so we rode to the only hotel available, luckily this was a well-known view point too. By late afternoon, the rain had passed, and we were able to witness a great sunset over the Laos mountains.
We rode to Oudomxay the next day and had to get a hotel because we were not feeling very well. We ended up staying there for three days which is three days too long in a town whose main function is to act as a bus terminal. Being excited to get out of Oudomxay we didn’t take much notice of the soon to be nightmare problem that was occurring to my back wheel. About 20 kilometres out of Oudomxay Teagan said the foulest words of our trip so far “why is your back wheel sooooooo wobbly?”. A quick assessment showed that my back rim was broken, cracked in multiple places, and it was starting to twist like a 'Curly Whirly'. With a head full of worries and feelings of severe frustration we went back to the one town that is so boring it will drown out any unwelcomed feelings…Oudomxay.
As there are no bicycle shops with double walled rims in northern Laos, we had to bus it back to Luang Prabang where we found a friendly bicycle shop called Tiger Tours. These guys were super helpful and even allowed us to keep the bicycles at the store for a week with no charge. We had to leave the bicycles for a week as we had organised for a replacement rim to be shipped in from a store in Hua Hin, Thailand. All this was covered by the company who we originally bought the rims from, Velo Orange, who were super helpful through this difficult time.
While we waited for the rim to be sent and the wheel to be rebuilt, we caught the night bus to the Laos capitol, Vientiane. The buses in Laos are an experience, not a particularly great one though. I’m sure the Laos bus drivers are all aiming to be contenders in the Formula 1 someday. On one bus trip we had to even stop for an hour while they cleaned up an overturned quarry truck with its contents spilt all over the road. We missed our bicycles more than ever after the bus rides in Laos.
The capitol of Laos, Vientiane, is a strange city. Most of the buildings are run down and derelict but every now and then there is a coffee shop or restaurant that is very hipster looking. These buildings were out of placed and many appeared to be owned by foreigners. Vientiane also had the first night market in a big city that was more populated by locals than tourists.
The city centre is relatively small and the main attractions in the city can be seen in one day of walking. Surprisingly, Vientiane has its own version of the French Arc de Triomphe just with a more Laos/Buddhist influence. We also visited the COPE centre which is an NGO dedicated to the serious issues of landmines and the ongoing damages they are causing in Laos. The COPE centre is a small museum showing the history of cluster bombing in Laos and its terrifying trans-generational effects.
In the end we didn’t know what to make of Vientiane. It is rundown, but up and coming. It is a little cold and boring, but we were very relaxed there. Love or hate? like or dislike? We are undecided and just confused by the identity of this city.
When it comes to food in Laos, we wouldn’t say they are culinary experts. The main dish we ate in Laos was noodle soup. Seems to be a local favourite and, other than the big cities, it is impossible to get anything else. As we spent most of our time in the big cities we didn’t get as sick of noodle soup as much as other cycle tourist we had heard of who were on struggle street when it came to a bit of cuisine variation.
When we finally got our bikes, we took another bus from Luang Prabang to a town called Luang Namtha which is in the north of Laos, so that we didn’t run out of time on our visas and so we didn’t have to tackle the same mountains again. We then rode to the border in one day which is a story within itself. The last five kilometres to the border of China was a mud covered, dust ridden, truck beeping adventure that left us cleaning our bikes for two hours and wondering what the hell did we just ride through? I think we will write a short story of our last day ride through Laos. Sorry but you will have to read the next blog to find out about this mini-adventure.
We left Laos in a state of two minds. We thought the country side was remarkable not to mention Luang Prabang and the Kuang Si Waterfalls. However, the people were very timid, and we felt often that we were not welcomed. It is common practice for Laotians to overcharge tourists too, even in the villages. Because of this and due to our bicycle troubles, we left Laos as weary travellers and ready for a change of culture in China.