After our brief and bike focussed stop in Vientiane we were keen to get on the bikes and into the mountains to Luang Prabang. Part of our eagerness was probably due to the fact that we’d promised ourselves a luxury week once we got there to celebrate James’ birthday. Leaving Vientiane was pretty crap – narrow, potholed and dusty roads with more white utes than you could shake a stick at – but we were prepared. And we found a cafe amazon on the way out. It even had a minimart with our favourite lollies, so even though we’d only covered 15km in about an hour and a half, we stopped.
The traffic slowly improved, as did the road condition, and we found ourselves able to talk again. There weren’t any major hills throughout the day, just a few rolling hills as we got closer to Phonhong. There were a few pretty dodgy looking guesthouses on the road into town, but we hit the jackpot about 1km past town at a nice, clean and modern place. We spotted a sign for a guesthouse about 200m up a road to our left and groaned when we spotted it right at the top of a short but steel hill. Then on our way up we noticed one before the hill really got started. It didn’t take much convincing to stop there instead. We walked back into town for dinner at a restaurant with an english menu near the roundabout.
We got an early start in the morning to try and get some of the climbing done before it got to hot. We didn’t need to worry too much because a low misty cloud hung around until about lunchtime. This saw us over the first hill (with an awesome descent) and into the steep rolling section that lasted most of the rest of the day (except for the last 10km, which was thankfully flat). As the mist cleared we were just starting another climb when we spotted another cycle tourist taking a rest and thus met Stephen. He is on his first tour, with a gifted bike and borrowed gear and was heading the same way as us from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. We exchanged contact details and made plans to meet up in Vang Vieng before we spent too long chatting in the rice paddies. We ended up leapfrogging a few times and stopping for breaks together throughout the day, although he missed our bikes outside the restaurant on a lake where we had lunch and we only spotted him again as we rode into town. The road started to get a lot more rural again and we passed through lots of villages of stilt houses with thatched walls. Which is why we were pretty surprised when we spotted a huge car yard, full of shiny new utes, right in the middle of nowhere. It would have been at home in a city at home, but looked very out of place here.
We spent a bit of time looking around on Vang Vieng, although most places seem to be the same. There is a huge new concrete hotel being built right on the Mekong waterfront. Its about 6 stories high and blocks out most of the view of anywhere else. Our place was nice though, a big room with a huge bed and nice linen on the waterfront (without a view). Vang Vieng is a strange place. If we had to describe it in one word we would say jaded. It could just be the places we went and the people we met, but the Lao people in the hotels and restaurants didn’t seem particularly happy, interested or friendly. It’s not that they were rude at all, and we got everything we needed, we just didn’t feel like they particularly cared if we were there or not. It could be because Vang Vieng has been a major tourist attraction for a while, but not in a way particularly friendly to Lao people – first the drinking, drug taking and nearly nude tubing on the river, and now a box package adventure tourism often being operated by foreign companies. It is a beautiful place, with a backdrop of huge limestone cliffs behind the wide mekong river (if you can see them from behind the buidlings), but we were glad not to stay more than a day.
We met Stephen for dinner and relished trading travelling tales and speaking in English with someone of a similar mind to ourselves. It was also nice to eat with a cyclist who didn’t blink when we ordered a whole second meal. We decided later that it was nice to not feel out of place, because so often we do. In the tiny places we stick out like a sore thumb because we are the only tourist for miles, but in the touristy places we don’t quite feel like we share the same experiences as lots of the other travellers either.
Friday was James’ birthday, although that didn’t stop us from setting the alarm at 5.30 to give us a headstart on the hills. Stephen was taking a few days off in Vang Vieng, so we probably wouldn’t see him again, but promised to send a (positive) report on the hills ahead. Bryony managed to sneak off and buy one very dry chocolate muffin which sufficed as a birthday cake and was eaten at breakfast to prevent squashing. We rode of town just before school so were treated to a train of Sabaidee going in the opposite direction. You can see so many different personalities, from the shy kids who kind of smile then burst into a huge grin when you say hi, to the kids that are too cool and avoid looking at you at all and the loud boisterous kids who shout out (while their friends hide their faces in embarrasment). We started to see the big limestone cliffs properly a few kilometers out of town and made our way up a narrowing valley between towering cliffs.
Inevitably the gentle slope dissappeared and we were faced with a very steep, but relatively short climb at the head of the valley. Most of the time the gradient was bearable and consistent, but there were a couple of short sections which had us weaving across the road, even in our tiniest gear, to maintain momentum. The descent was fun and we faced a whole new valley with a new set of even higher limestone cliffs. We reached Kasi for a late (overpriced) lunch at a guesthouse then headed towards the second steep climb which would take us to the hot water resort. Again the gradient was consistent but steep, so we just got into our small gear and ground our way up the hill. A few kilometers from the pools the road leveled out and we passed through a couple of villages doing their evening chores, like washing in the communal taps and bringing the animals back inside. The hot water resort is just 5 bungalows perched above a hot waterfall flowing into a waist deep pool. Because of its location it makes it a perfect stop for cycle tourists and nearly every account we read of this route included a stop there. Although it wasn’t so hot because of all the rain, the warm waterfalls were a bit like a massage for our aching legs. In the evening the owner shared some deep fried bamboo grubs. With salt they tasted just like chips.
We got up before the sun to get a head start on the hills we knew we had ahead of us. A very short, steep downhill was followed by about 1000m of vertical gain. Again it was steep, but manageable and a pretty consistent grade in most places so we could get in a rhythm. We actually don’t stop much when we are on long climbs. We don’t get particularly exhausted, and we have plenty of time to admire the view at 4km/hr anyway. For about an hour we could see a building perched on a ridge which we thought might be Phokoun, the town at the top of the climb. It wasn’t, but it was a restaurant and store with a fantastic view so we stopped anyway. While snacking at the tables a group of tourists showed up with their selfie sticks and at one point a woman came and perched next to us on the bench without actually acknowledging us and had her friend take a photo. It was pretty uncomfortable and exemplified why we don’t really take pictures of people unless we have some kind of interaction with them.
We made Phokoun by lunch but didn’t hang around because we knew we had two reasonably big decents and one more big climb. There were a few shorter climbs as well, in fact, we basically didn’t cover anything flat. Midway through the second descent we came across traffic backed up at a landslide. They’ve been working on it for a while and close the road for 40 minutes to work then open it to let traffic through. We appreciated the break and spent the time chatting to some Australians on a group tour of Lao. It reminded us why we like to do things on our own, even if its more complicated sometimes.
Near the end of the last big climb we spotted two cyclists setting up their camp at a school on the edge of a village. One man was in his 8th month of a 5 year adventure. It seems like such a long time to commit to travelling from the outset. I had assumed that most people who tour long term either set out to get from a to b, which just happened to be very far apart, or they just started riding and never stopped. We shouldn’t have asked about the road ahead, because we knew we had only about 3km to go, and how hard one finds it is all relative. So the easy ride with a short pinch at the end was actually a 30 minute uphill slog. We made it to Kiewkacham just on dark and checked into the middle guesthouse for the night. As we were wheeling our bikes in clouds stormed in and it was soon pouring with rain. There was another cycling couple staying for the evening who were doing a supported tour back to Luang Prabang. It seems like a great way to do it if you weren’t quite up to the grueling climbs. As we ordered a foreigner on a motorbike rolled in completely drenched, freezing and looking as if he’d had a pretty rough day. We shared our beer and hopefully he felt a bit better! He’d left Luang Prabang late in the day, forgotten to visit an ATM and it had rained for the last part of his ride.
The final day into Luang Prabang marked the 123rd day of our adventure. It might not seem like a milestone, but it means something to us. Two years ago we met Andrew Nicholson and helped coordinate things so that he could break the New Zealand 24 hour record on our local velodrome (776km on a 250m track). A year later he decided to attempt the guiness record for circumnavigation of the world in the name of the cancer reasearch charity Bryony did her PhD through (te aho matatu). He broke the record in 123 days 4 hours and 43 minutes, averaging 240km, unsupported and carrying all his own gear. He covered nearly 30,000km in the time we’ve covered 6,000.
Unfortunately we couldn’t see many mountains around us in the morning as they were buried in cloud, and we rugged up for the descent because we would have to ride through it. A short climb out of town through the Sunday morning market took us to the top of a huge descent where we lost nearly 1000m. It was a little bittersweet as we knew once we reached the bottom we would have to regain more than half the elevation again. Like the previous day we got into our lowest gear and chugged up the hill overlooking more mountains, rough looking roads and jungle interspersed with small rice fields. There was nothing flat at the top and we were directly into a steep descent. We hadn’t spotted anywhere for lunch for ages, so when we spotted a small snack stall with some bamboo huts overlooking the valley towards Luang Prabang we ate peanut butter and banana on chips. Only 5km later at the bottom of the hill we spotted some good looking restaurants, but we were looking forward to arriving in Luang Prabang so didn’t stop.
Just after the turn off to Luang Prabang we started to climb again. Luckily we had read Clare and Andys blog pedalling west and were prepared for the steep finish to the day. Bryony thinks she may have chucked her toys if we’d come across that climb without warning. It may have been all the climbing over the last 5 days taking their toll on our legs, but the last pinch seemed steeper than anything else we’d encountered. Looking at the map later we noticed there is actually a 2km longer route that avoids this hill altogether. We sent Stephen this way to suss it out, but unfortunately there was a crash of some sort and he was forced over the hill too. We made it over and rolled our way to the Lotus Villa where we had splashed out on birthday treat accomodation as a reward for getting over all the hills (and maybe a bit of extra motivation).
Overall the ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang rates very highly with the most beautiful places we’ve ridden on this trip. The grueling hills were hard but manageable and definitely made us appreciate the views (and gave us time to!). Before we set off we did quite a bit of research on this route, more than we normally do, because the NZ government advises travellers against using this road due to 3 or 4 instances this year where tourist busses have been shot at and people killed. After looking into the instances, and talking with other cyclists who took the road during and after the shootings, we decided to go ahead. It seems that Chinease and Korean group tours have been the only target and the reasons are more political than general animosity to tourists. We weren’t so worried about bandits as we were about cycling for 5 days through a region that just didn’t really like foreigners. On a bike its very hard to escape any angry words or stares, especially going uphill! Although most people were extraordinarily friendly, there were a few kids who weren’t – we had stones flung at us, plenty of kids demanding money and candy, a kid spit in her palm before high fiving us and someone stuck gum on one of Bryony’s panniers. Most people report that the kids are so friendly on this ride, so we aren’t sure if things are changing or if they just didn’t particularly like our faces.
Cycling through reasonably remote places is great, and gives us a window to see the way people live here, however along with all the kids playing, people farming, trading and living we see other parts of life too. Like the kid screaming and being disciplined by parents, the tiny child of maybe 3 doing her laundry by the roadside and the toddler who ran across traffic to beg us for money. James ended up grabbing his hand so he didn’t run back to his mother into an oncoming car. We see people walking long distances with heavy loads on their backs in the midday heat. From what we have read life is better for Lao people now than it was 10 years ago – most people have enough to eat, have clothes and lots of kids can go to school – but life is still tough for some.
In Luang Prabang we felt like we were in a different Lao, but we’ll write about that, and our easy way back to Thailand next time.