After our last cycle trip to the Spiti Valley in Northern India, John and I started to look around for another amazing destination. We considered Patagonia, but with only two weeks in February, it seemed too big and too far away. We talked about Sri Lanka, but we fancied something a bit more adventurous. In the end we decided on Laos which promised the three essentials for cycle touring: great scenery, quiet roads, and good weather. In truth, we didn’t know much about Laos apart from a vague image of steamy jungles, rough roads, and the Mekong River. There was little information on the internet about travelling outside the main tourist areas, and we even found it hard to get decent up-to-date maps. It was sounding better and better. In the end, Laos was both like I imagined, and quite unlike anything I had expected. It is a great place for a short cycle tour, but not quite the adventure we had hoped for.
Arriving in Thailand
We didn’t have much of a route plan to speak of. We decided to start from Chiang Rai in the north of Thailand, as we could both fly there easily, John from Zurich, me from Tokyo. It would also give us easy entry to the north-west of Laos where we figured we would get the best cycling. We were only half right about flying there easily. I flew Thai Airways as my bike would be transferred on to Chiang Rai, and they have a 30-kilo luggage allowance. Taking a bike was no problem: the box size allowance is huge, but they do require at least 48 hours’ notice. John was not so lucky. A couple of day before departure he learnt that eBookers had not processed his flight despite taking his money. At the last minute, he had to fly out one day early and delay his return one day. From Chiang Rai airport I took a pre-paid taxi to Grandma Kaew’s Guest House, a pleasant place in a quiet cul-de-sac near the town centre. John was waiting for me, all smiles and even a hug – it had been a frighteningly short two-and-a-half years since we last saw each other in India.
We talked about our route over dinner in a crowded Chinese restaurant on a busy main street lined with massage parlours. The border with Laos looked too far to do in a day, so John had booked a hotel two-thirds of the way. We then had a hotel booked in Chiang Khong near the border crossing, and another in Vientiane ten days later. Between these two places, we would just see where the road took us.
Chiang Rai to Chiang Kong
Setting out from Grandma Kaew’s
I got up at 5 a.m. the next day and assembled my bike before breakfast. We cycled out of Chiang Rai amidst the chaotic morning traffic but were soon out on the main road north, safe on a wide hard shoulder. Soon the traffic thinned out and we could enjoy the easy ride through fields and villages. We made good progress on the fast road surface so John cancelled the hotel and we veered north-east on the direct road to Chiang Khong.
Heading north from Chiang Rai
Thailand has changed a lot since my last visit twenty years ago. It seemed much more developed with its smooth roads, new houses, and 7/11 convenience stores. We made the most of this comfort as Laos was sure to be different. After six hours of riding we passed the border turn off and rolled into Chiang Khong. The narrow town centre was jam- packed with a lively street market and a temple decorated for the Chinese New Year.
Street market in Chiang Kong
Chinese New Year lanterns
Our hotel, the Day Waterfront, was fantastic – off the main street down by the broad, brown Mekong River. Our rooms were huge and spotless with balconies overlooking the river and Laos on the opposite bank. Dinner was once more at a Chinese restaurant up on the main road; two days in Thailand and not a bite of Thai cuisine.
Sunrise over the Mekong River
Chiang Kong to Donchai
Tuktuks in Chiang Kong
Before the trip, I had spent hours on the internet searching for running races in Thailand or Laos. I really wanted to do a race with John as part of the trip, but in the end I couldn’t find anything on our dates. The next morning, as we cycled to the border, we passed numerous tired looking runners walking back towards the town. They had participated in a Friendship Half Marathon across the bridge between Thailand and Laos. I tried hard to contain my frustration at missing a big race in a unique location on the precise day we had arrived. There has to be a word for this – reverse Schadenfreude perhaps…or maybe inverse serendipity. Fortunately, there was soon lots to take our minds of this disappointment. We left Thailand, got our passports stamped, and then found out that we wouldn’t be able to cycle across the Friendship Bridge. Instead, we had a half-hour wait for a bus to take us over to Laos. At Laos Immigration, we had a long wait in line for entry visas. Finally, we handed over the two immigration forms, $36, and a passport photograph. (We later learnt that you can only leave and re-enter Thailand once in a year.) We exited Customs and were out in the blazing midday sun.
The first of many vegetable fried rice lunches
There were three possible routes from the border (or four if you count taking a boat along the Mekong and then riding north on Route 2W). We could head west along the Mekong River, north on Route 3, or east on a minor road. We stopped for an early lunch of vegetable fried rice and discussed the options. Route 3 was wide, smooth, and relatively free of traffic, so we decided to head north. We later learnt that only the handful of major roads in Laos are surfaced; everywhere else is steep, rough, and very slow going. More important, although we had tents, we didn’t have cooking gear, so we would need to find restaurants along the way. The paucity of places to eat along Route 3, a major link between Thailand and China, told us we made the right decision to stick to the main roads.
Getting in a rut
The first part of our ride was fast and comfortable on new tarmac with little traffic. Before we could get too relaxed the first hill reared up in front of us. Oh my, was I glad to have put on a tiny 24-tooth chainring just before the trip. The slopes were well over 10% and dragged on and on beneath the baking sun. In places, deep ruts had been dug by cars and trucks which added a new dimension to the regular struggle to climb on a heavily laden touring bike.
Village along Route 3
The main impression of that first day in Laos was one of contrasts and surprises. The road is extremely wide, although there is little traffic to justify this. It is also mostly smooth tarmac which made our fat tyres rather superfluous. Along the road there seemed to be one long, endless village. Simple wooden homes, some with corrugated tin roofs, some with grass thatch, were built on the roadside. Some were perched on stilts over steep drops. It seems that roads provide a tiny clear, flat space for people to create a home. Among the homes, small children ran and chased and played. Other older children joined in the omnipresent activity of making brooms from tall grasses. Everywhere chickens herded their chicks, goats grazed with kids, and pigs sorted through rubbish with their piglets. Life lived on the roadside.
There was one word that accompanied our ride: the calls of “sabaidee” as we passed every group of children. As soon as we were spotted, they would stop what they were doing, wave frantically, smile broadly, and scream “sabaidee” at the top of their lungs. There are an awful lot of small children in Laos so we got an awful lot of practice shouting sabaidee back to them. At times it was so joyous that it was hard to tire of the need to wave back and return the greeting. In contrast, our contact with adults was not always so joyous. Time and time again we would ask for food or water at the tiny stores along the road, but we would frequently just get the cold shoulder. It wasn’t that people are unfriendly; they just seemed indifferent to us. In other countries, we inevitably attract the attention of people hoping to make an extra bit of money from us, but in Laos that just wasn’t the case. We would enter a basic restaurant, mime eating, only to see the owner walk away. It soon became clear that we were mostly to blame as we hadn’t anticipated that no one would speak English – not even words like “hotel” or “restaurant”. On our third day we finally sat down and copied out some words and phrases from our guidebooks. We went less hungry after that.
Our rooms overlooking the river
The afternoon was hot and the route was hilly so we stopped at the village of Donchai and searched for somewhere to stay. Google Maps suggested there was a guesthouse, but we spotted nothing except for a couple of food stores. At the last one we stopped and asked about hotels and were told we could stay there. I expected a mat on the floor like in an Indian Dharba, but after a long wait we were shown to a wood and bamboo shack overlooking a river. It was basic but clean, and the view was perfect. I later asked the owner why there was no sign, but he just smiled knowingly; I guess he knew the reason. For dinner, we had a mountain of stewed vegetables and rice – a temporary break from the vegetable fried rice which would provide another theme to the trip. We also had our first Laos Beer which went down very well after the day’s exertions.
Donchai to Don Moune
Going to school in Donchai
The next morning, we got up before dawn and tackled the world’s biggest omelette and a pile of toast all washed down with sweet coffee. Sweetness would also be a noticeable theme in Laos – every drink seems to have heaps of sugar added – sweet soya milk, sweet coffee, sweet green tea. At most of the roadside stores, the only “food” available was salty processed snacks, or sweet processed cakes and cookies. No vegetables, no fruit – everything packed in a plastic bag in a factory.
The previous day, we had noticed several convoys of luxury cars with Chinese number plates. They sped through villages with their hazard lights flashing, blaring horns to scatter chickens and children playing on the street. We had assumed they were some diplomats or dignitaries speeding to important meetings somewhere. However, it gradually became clear that they were rich Chinese on driving holidays through the wilds of their poor southern neighbour. As our second day in Laos progressed we lost count of the hundreds of luxury SUVs passing in convoys of ten or twenty vehicles like visitors from another world. Most of the cars were huge Mercedes or Audios, but every luxury brand was there – Volvo, BMW, Porsche, Range Rover. The more modest vehicles were Land Cruisers or Land Rovers, but they were far outnumbered by top-of-the range German cars. I had never seen anything like it. Fortunately, they were nearly all going the other way.
The contrast between all this conspicuous wealth in air-conditioned luxury and the surrounding conspicuous poverty was stark indeed. However, we were struck by another contrast. While most Laotians seemed to use their feet for transport, and a lucky few got to sit five to a scooter, a significant number cruised up and down Route 13 in huge shiny Toyota pick-ups. We hardly saw an old car on the whole trip; people either have nothing or they have a monster new pick-up truck. It provided a lot of food for thought as we climbed one long, steep slope after another.
We had expected the north of Laos to be the most remote part of the trip, but the further we progressed, the busier the road became. Not exactly busy, but not as empty as we would have liked. The good thing was the space given us by drivers. As a cyclist, I can’t help judging people by the space they give cyclists. Spain good, France bad; Slovenia great, Japan poor. Laos now goes to the top of the list. Every truck slowed down and gave us several metres of room. Cars, scooters, pick-ups – everyone slowed down and pulled out. In nearly two weeks, not one vehicle passed too close. Living in Japan, I have to deal with vehicles skimming close by, scaring the living daylights out of me. In Laos, we could simply enjoy the ride.
On our side of the road, giant trucks climbed the endless hills, giving us several metres of space as they lumbered past. But it was never too busy, and often we would have the road to ourselves. The main problem was the gradient of the road which demanded long periods grinding away at 7 km/h in first gear. I was grateful for my 24-tooth front chainring, and the occasional shade from trees. The last climb of the day seemed to go on forever, but finally we got to the pass and rolled for kilometre after kilometre back to the valley floor.
Bougainvillea swathed hotel in Don Moune
At Don Moune (Ban Done Moune), ten kilometres before Luang Namtha, Route 3 veers off north-east towards Route 13. At this junction, there are several guesthouses and hotels which proved too tempting for our weary bodies. Instead of riding on to Luang Namtha, we checked into one of several hotels near the road junction, and then went in search of a restaurant for dinner. It soon became clear that there were plenty of places to stay, but few to eat, so we took an overpriced taxi to Luang Namtha for dinner. There we found a little centre of tourism with bakeries, coffee shops, and a choice of good places to eat. If only we had ridden on for an extra 10 km we could have stayed in a hotel surrounded by all this luxury.
Don Moune to Oudomsay
According to the otherwise excellent Hobo Maps, the northern section of Route 13 between Luang Namtha and Oudomxai (Oudomsay, Oudom xay, etc) is dangerously steep and narrow with huge trucks ready to cast you off a precipice. Cyclists are urged to take the bus. True, it was the busiest part of the trip, but absolutely fine for cycling. The road was narrower than Route 3, but there was plenty of space for trucks and cars to pass, and as with everywhere, we were given plenty of space.
Plantations have replaced old growth forest
However, this section of the tour was not our favourite for other reasons. The scenery was disappointing; much of the forest had been felled and replaced with rubber and banana plantations, and factories and dams and power stations are springing up everywhere. We had expected remote, virgin rainforest, but instead we found ourselves riding past a surprising amount of industrial development. The traffic was also heavier, much of it with Chinese number plates.
Khao phak in Na Teny
Despite the lack of wild scenery, it was still an enjoyable day of riding. We had bought bread in Luang Namtha, so we could leave our hotel early and breakfast by the side of the road. After a big climb we descended into Na Teny where we had a 10 a.m. lunch of khao phak (vegetable fried rice). There were also a lot of food stalls along the road where we stocked up on bananas and more bananas. We needed this fuel as the road climbed over passes between each town or village, but at least the scenery was better in the hills and the road a little quieter. Thirty kilometres before Oudomsay we climbed the highest pass of the day, and then rolled down towards the town. After 117 km of hills, we were relieved to arrive.
Oudomasy is a lively town which has benefited from its proximity to the Chinese border. Big, shiny mobile phone shops vie for space with hotels and banks. It is obviously a boom town. In one of the shops, I managed to persuade an unsmiling clerk to set up my phone for internet, but when I tried to pay, she refused. I had a dollar of credit which lasted me the rest of the trip.
Sunset in Oudomasy
We stayed in the Xaymoungkhoun Hotel, set back from the road just east of the river. It is an attractive place with a carved wood front, and quiet, spacious rooms. As with everywhere, the insect screens left much to be desired, so I strung up the mosquito net John had brought for me. Later, we dined in Souphailins restaurant, which is a bamboo and palm house run by a friendly woman. There we ate delicious perch steamed in banana leaves, as well as a mountain of fried spring rolls. It was the best meal of the trip so far.
Map of Oudomsay
Oudomsay north to Muang Khoua
We decided to leave the main road and head north on Route 2E. We cycled out of Oudomsay through heavy early-morning traffic, but within minutes we were on a quiet road climbing briefly through dense forest before descending to a beautiful broad valley. We passed through village after village as people dried grain, sawed wood, cut bamboo, and went about their daily lives. As we passed through, it felt like a long, slow movie telling the story of life in rural Laos.
At Donsaat we joined the river at a high bridge beneath which swallows were flying. From there, we spent the day on the left bank of the river, stopping time and again to take photos and soak up the view. Along the river, teenage boys waded into the river with diving masks and homemade spear guns to fish for perch. One group of people cut reeds and loaded them on to bamboo rafts. Another collected river weeds and pressed them into sheets for drying. All along the roadside, people of all ages, from young to old, worked at making the typical broom which is used all over Laos. They cut tall grasses, rolled them on the ground, and then threshed them against the asphalt. With the sun burning down on the road it must have been exhausting work.
At the junction with Route 1B, we dined on our usual meal of veg fried rice at a popular restaurant overlooking the river. A 73-year-old German cyclist joined us for lunch. He was cycling for two months around Laos, as he had done for the last thirteen years. It was great to see someone his age cycling solo around the country; there are no excuses for the rest of us.
Views from Route 2W
As usual, the afternoon was ten kilometres too long. We arrived wearily in Muang Khoua after another 100 km day, but soon found a pleasant guesthouse near the boat landing. The Charlernsouk Hotel has decent rooms, clean bathrooms, good wifi, free coffee and hot water. Best is the veranda overlooking the rooftops where I sat and wrote emails and drank instant coffee.
Muang Khoua is a pleasant little town lined with the usual mix of shops. We stocked up with oranges, bananas, apples, and rice cakes for the next day’s boat trip. As always, prices were cheap and fixed. 5,000 kip buys a bunch of bananas, a kilo of oranges, or a big bottle of water. Vegetable fried rice or soup noodles costs 15,000 to 20,000, and a decent guesthouse room is 70-80,000 yen. With an exchange rate of 10,000 kip to $1, we could get by on $30 a day.
Muang Khoua to Pak Mong, via the Nam Ou river
Boats moored at Muang Khoua
We had hoped to charter a boat to take us speedily down the river, but in the end there were no boats available for hire. Instead, we took the regular narrow boat along with a dozen or so tourists and Laotians, while our bikes were put out on the deck. Comfort doesn’t seem much of a priority with these boats. We sat on narrow wooden boards running along either side of the boat, our knees intertwined with those of the people facing us. At least the boat was not as crowded as the ones arriving upstream, so it was possible to spread out a bit. Despite the noise of the engine, it was a peaceful trip. We sped down the river which wound through dense forest broken only by the occasional village balanced on stilts above the steep valley sides.
I had been too optimistic about our uncrowded boat. Soon we started to stop at villages along the way to pick up local people. Boats are still the only transport for many remote villages, so of course we would be stopping along the way. Gradually our boat filled with various people, who contrasted greatly with the tourists on the boat. A young mother fed her baby, while two young lads – one was perhaps the father – sat over from me with their bags of food and a home-made spear gun. An old man in khakis, who seemed somewhat inebriated, kept gesturing about the extraordinarily long wispy beard of a Dutch man sitting in the middle of the boat. At the other end, a group of young travellers sat glued to their smartphones, occasionally addressing each other about something happening elsewhere in the world.
I gradually entered that calm, accepting state of mind which allows you to get through a long, uncomfortable journey – half zoned out, and half taking in the beautiful scenery we were passing through. The boat sped down a series of small rapids, bumping and throwing up spray, past beautiful sandy beaches on which buffalo stood motionless as the sun removed the chill from the morning air.
After two-and-a-half hours, we arrived at a huge dam being constructed across the river by a Chinese power company. We got out of the boat, waited for a van to take us around the dam, and then waited again for a new boat. It took at least an hour – it was going to be a longer day than we had thought.
We had thought of stopping for a day at Muang Ngoy which was supposed to be a little slice of paradise, but when we arrived we realised the tour companies had discovered it already. Guesthouses crowded the river banks while tourists floated around on truck inner tubes. We stayed on the boat. Unfortunately, some of these tourists were returning to our destination, Nong Khiao, so they squeezed into our already cramped boat.
This part of the river is truly spectacular. It passes through impressive karst scenery – huge cliffs rise up from the river, and jagged limestone teeth stick up through the jungle canopy. The new growth forest gives way to old growth virgin rainforest which stretches right up to the mountaintops. It was the best scenery we had seen on the trip and it made the discomfort of the boat trip pale into insignificance.
And then the rains came. First the skies darkened, and then the wind picked up. Soon large raindrops were pummelling the roof of our boat. Within minutes, rain had turned to hail, and the wind became a gale. We were lucky to have canvas blinds rolled up above the windows, so we pulled these down and held on tightly as they flapped in the squall. Our driver steered the boat to the riverside, out of the main current, and we sat sheepishly as the storm roared and drummed on our boat. After 30 minutes it died down and we could draw breath again.
We arrived at Nong Khiao at 4 o’clock as the sun was peeking out from the clouds. John bought a large wrench at a hardware store to fix a loose bearing cone, and then we headed the 32 km to Pak Mong where we planned to spend the night. At 10 km, the skies darkened once more and an almighty storm bore down on us. We took cover beneath a large canopy in front of a house, and spent the next hour with three people on motorbikes and the owner’s family watching as the rain poured down. The owner was a beekeeper and seemed totally unfazed by his surprise guests; instead, he brought out some chairs for us. We felt very lucky to be out of the storm, especially as lightning flashed and thunder cracked all around.
On the road to Pak Mong
A 5:45, the rain stopped and we headed out for the last hour to Pak Mong. We arrived in the dark but soon found a hotel as the town is at one of Laos’s rare road junctions, with long distance buses stopping there for meal breaks. Our hotel was run by a Chinese family who spent a long time arguing with each other about keys. Curiously, they didn’t seem to have any kind of key system, only a cardboard box full of unmarked keys. We were shown to our dingy rooms, but there was no way to lock them. The wife kept shouting at the husband, who tried one key after another, but in the end we left them to it and went off for dinner. We each had a huge bowl of veg rice and a bowl of veg noodles – our first meal of the day.
Pak Mong to Luang Prabang
Heading out of Pak Mong
I was awoken at 5 a.m. by the sound of heavy rain penetrating my earplugs and flashes of lightning coming through the time-worn curtains. It soon became clear that it was also penetrating the roof as the corridors were flooded. We left soon after daybreak with the roads drying and the sun coming out. We ate breakfast of apple sandwiches in a bamboo roadside shelter surrounded by the usual piles of rubbish that line every road.
The first 30 km were pleasant enough as we rode beside mud brown rivers flowing through palm-fringed rice fields. However, soon the road became monotonous, and convoys of Chinese SUVs made it easy to forget we were in Laos. We passed yet another massive hydro-electric project, but places to eat were much harder to find. The best sections were when we cycled up small hills away from the river. There the views of forested hills were pleasant, and we even met an elephant being ridden along the road. .
As we neared Luang Prabang, the road got more crowded, and a plane from the airport passed low over us. Route 13 was turning into the soulless main road I had feared it would be. But then it all changed. One minute we were pedalling down a dusty, noisy, traffic-filled street, and the next we were cycling over a narrow motorcycle bridge onto the peninsula formed by the confluence of the Mekong and the Namkong. In a moment, we had stepped back in time and into a different world of fine architecture and tropical vegetation. Hotels with balconies and verandas, cafes selling French pastries, fine restaurants, and stylish shops. And lots and lots of tourists.
We rode all the way around the peninsula, soaking in the atmosphere and looking for the perfect place to drink coffee. We randomly picked a modern-looking café called Saffron, which served us the best cappuccino I’ve tasted since Athens ten years ago. We sat on the veranda, soaking up the view of the Mekong and eating delicious banana bread with tamarind butter.
View of the Mekong river from Luang Prabang peninsula
I suggested hunting for a guesthouse the old way. Instead of going online, we wandered around in search of a likely place. After a few false starts, we ended up at the Xieng Mouane. A couple were just leaving and persuaded me to take a look at the VIP suite. It was $65 dollars compared to the $8 dollars we were used to paying, but what a place. Two connected rooms with high ceilings, polished wood floors, shuttered windows, and calm elegance. Behind the house, an enclosed garden was full of tropical plants. We took the room.
At night, we explored the main street with its upscale backpackers’ shops, restaurants, and guesthouses filling the colonial era buildings. We had a beer in one fine place followed by braised fish in a garden restaurant. It was all such a contrast to what we had been experiencing for the previous week.
I slept like a log in my beautiful room, and then at 6:30 a.m. went out for a run around the peninsula in the cool of early morning. We had breakfast in the guesthouse, and then walked up the steep steps to That Chomsi stupa on top of Phu Si hill. After more delicious coffee and cake in Saffron, we moved on to Khaiphaen (a “training restaurant for marginalized youth”) for an excellent green curry. In the afternoon, we spent time in the tranquil Wat Xieng Mouane just opposite our guesthouse. It has a restaurant, a tea shop, beautiful gardens, and no tourists.
Wat Xieng Mouane
Luang Prabang to Kiew Kacham
As lovely as Luang Prabang is, cycle touring makes you impatient to move on to the next place. We said goodbye to the Xieng Mouane guesthouse and were soon climbing into the mountains. And that was what we did all day. Apart from a couple of short descents, we spent most of the time in first gear grinding uphill.
Rice crackers at one of many roadside shelters
At least the road was quiet. A new road links Luang Prabang to the cities in the south, so the old route 13 is now a great cycling route. The first main climb of the day was really steep, but at least we were fresh. The second climb was much longer, and it was really hot in middle of the day. Fortunately, it was somewhat less steep at 7 or 8%, and we could find some shade at times.
Lunch in Nam Ming
For lunch we stopped at the tiny hamlet of Nam Ming on the river of the same name. There were no restaurants, but we persuaded a kind couple in a small shop to boil up some water for cup noodle (for John) and cup sludge (for me). A kilometre up the road we passed a restaurant. The scenery was pleasant, but nothing more. We had been told to expect spectacular scenery, but it was at best pleasant. There has been a lot of forest clearance, and fires were still smoldering here and there. There are also several big construction sites, one for a railway, and several for dams. We’d expected to be riding through impressive karst scenery like we had experienced on the boat trip, but instead the views were rather underwhelming.
The remains of yet another fire
We arrived in Kiew Kacham after 6.5 hours of riding and looked around for a guesthouse. The first one turned my stomach, but fortunately the second (perhaps called Duang Vichit) had clean, new rooms precariously balanced over a steep slope out back. It also had a decent restaurant with views of a karaoke party going on for much of the evening. We spent a relaxing evening watching village life and eating a twin dinner of first veg fried rice and then veg noodles.
Kiew Kacham to Kasi
Early morning, Kiew Kacham
The next morning, we fuelled up with more veg rice which we needed for the morning slog up long, winding climbs. The scenery was much the same as the day before, but the weather was cooler with the promise of rain. There was little traffic which was lucky as we had to negotiate what was a treacherous road surface in places. There was a lot of resurfacing work going on which involved scraping off the asphalt down to bare rock and soil, layering on rocks, gravel, and loose asphalt, and then pouring over it a layer of wet tar. We had to negotiate each layer in places, but the worst by far was a downhill section of shiny wet tar which we teetered down in fear of a disastrous fall. We stayed upright but still our bikes and clothes were splattered with tar – not ideal.
A giant milestone marks to the start of fantastic limestone scenery
Although there was little traffic, we did meet some cyclists, first a Danish lad cycling home from Hong Kong, and then four Germans. We stopped for lunch at Phukan in a busy restaurant at the junction of the main road which heads off to the east. We continued on Route 13 which had almost no traffic. From Phukan, the scenery gradually improved as we rode up and down through patchy forest. The reason for its patchiness soon became clear as we descended into the valley: smoke curled up from deliberately-lit fires, and ash fluttered down like light snow.
Smoke and haze…
…gave way to spectacular views
Through the murk we started to get glimpses of spectacular saw-tooth mountains which became clearer as our road took us towards them. As we descended further, the views became progressively more stunning, rugged karst peaks rising up behind fields of tall grasses, all set to a backdrop of deep blue skies.
Farm terraces above the river
We cycled along a terrace above the river, where whole families were out in the fields watering rows of lettuces with watering cans. And then we started to catch quite awe-inspiring views of the river valley cutting a path south through lines of toothed limestone peaks. Finally we had discovered the scenery we had hoped for.
Children returning from school
After a final descent to a wide valley floor, we cycled the last 10 km to Kasi, past waving school children returning home two to a bike, many holding umbrellas for shade. Kasi is basically one long, straight, and very wide street lined with stores and a few guesthouses. We chose the Daling GH as it is somewhat set back from the road. The rooms were basic and grubby but only 60,000 kip yen, and the owner was very friendly and spoke French. Alas, dinner was not so promising at the attached restaurant, so we went to another place along the road where the staff seemed initially dumbfounded by our arrival, but eventually warmed to the task of engineering massive amounts of noodles and rice for us. They also promised us an omelette for breakfast at 7 a.m. A good end to a fine day.
Kasi to Hin Heup
Wet morning in Kasi
It was a slow start to the day. And a wet one. At 7 a.m. we strolled to the restaurant where the shutters were down and there was no sign of life. We waited a while in the rain and finally the sleepy cook opened up the shop, but it took an age for our omelettes to arrive. When breakfast came, it was well worth the wait – not only omelette but fresh baguettes and Lao coffee without sugar. We enjoyed our long slow breakfast looking out on the rain falling upon morning commuters, many serenely gliding past on scooters with a passenger holding an umbrella.
By 8:30 the rain had stopped, so we headed out of town, but only got a short way before spotting the source of the bread – a small bakery on the edge of town. We loaded up with bread and pastries, and then cycled on towards Vang Vieng, 60 km away.
Karst scenery between Kasi and Vang Vieng
It was fine riding on a quiet road which passed through more spectacular karst scenery, made particularly atmospheric by the swirling low cloud and mist. At one point, we passed through a narrow gorge where a line of stalls were selling live crabs and all manner of interesting plants and fungi. From there the valley gradually broadened, but the views of limestone cliffs were still splendid.
Repurposed tequila bottles, roadside market
Vang Vieng had once been a sleepy town, but twenty years ago was transformed into a backpackers’ party destination. A few years ago, the government clamped down, ended the party, and it is now billed as an outdoor adventure paradise. As we cycled into town, signs for eco adventure holidays pointed down narrow roads, but when we arrived in the town centre, it was just another dusty strip of dilapidated stalls and glitzy mobile phone shops, albeit with a lot of Western tourists. However, we did find a good restaurant in the centre where we dined hungrily on Thai red curry, a delicious relief from our usual pile of fried rice and/or noodles. We could also get cash at one of the many ATMs.
Lunch in Vang Vieng
After Vang Vieng, the road is busier until it reaches Nam Ngum Lake, but after the lake most of the traffic heads off on a new road, so we could continue on the now much quieter R13N. We wound up and down through hills until we reached the small town of Hin Heup. There were two choices of guesthouse, and we chose the Vonemany with surprisingly good rooms and the luxury of clean sheets. The restaurant was also okay and gave us a good view of pickups rumbling up and down the dark road outside.
Hin Heup to Vientianne
Early morning, just south of Hin Heup
Our last full day of riding: about 100 km to the capital. We set off early, ate some bread by the side of the road, and then hit the main road which takes you all the way into the city. It was busy and dusty, but plenty wide enough for us to keep well out of trouble. We just hunkered down and pedalled the last 70 km of our tour, arriving just before noon at the Vayakorn Inn.
On the road to Vientiane
Arriving in Vientiane
John had chosen well. The Vayakorn is a lovely place with polished hardwood floors, Laotian wall hangings and ornaments, and palms outside. After numerous basic guesthouses along the road, we could really appreciate the comforts of this place. We were also spoilt for food choices outside. For lunch we had an excellent Indian curry for lunch, and then mid-afternoon an amazing vegan chocolate avocado cake and fine coffee. Our disused taste buds were in heaven.
Vientiane has some interesting buildings and places to visit, but I soon got tired of walking around tourist shops all selling the same tat. There was one exception, though: the Carol Cassidy textile showroom. We spent an interesting hour being shown around by the Ethiopian co-owner, watching the amazingly skilled weavers at work. I regret not buying a wall hanging, but they were expensive.
Vientiane to Bangkok
In the afternoon of the next day, we cycled from Vientiane to Nong Khai across the border in Thailand to catch the overnight train to Bangkok. It took about 90 minutes to get to the border via a rather circuitous route. We cycled right up to the Immigration kiosk for cars and they quickly let us through. We were supposed to take a bus across the Friendship Bridge, but we decided to see if we could cycle. Despite signs saying No Cycling, the officer at the barrier let us through after a bit of pleading, and we rode across the bridge to Thailand. The bridge is quite narrow and there is a single railway line down the middle of the road, but fortunately there was not much traffic.
Riding across the Friendship Bridge into Thailand
At the Thai side, we cycled through the car lane and found ourselves in Thailand – we’d missed immigration control! We cycled back and the official at the barrier pointed us to Immigration. We filled out the forms, got our stamps, and then rode round to the barrier and back into Thailand again. Immediately, we stepped into a much richer world. Our first stop was a 7/11 store to stock up on food and drink for the train. Next, we cycled the kilometre or so to Nong Khai station to find out about the trains. We had to pay for our bikes to go on a separate train to Bangkok as they couldn’t go on the sleeper train. This was a bit of a worry – I had lost a bike just like this in France thirty years earlier (it turned up at Kings Cross several months later). We had a couple of hours to spare, so we cycled back to the big roundabout near the border and spent the time in a very comfortable coffee shop.
Nong Khai station
Back at the station, we found the train for our bikes – or at least thought we had – but then it disappeared off into the night. It returned some time later, and people pointed us to the luggage compartment at the front of the train where staff helped us on with the bikes. We locked the bikes and waved them goodbye.
First class sleeper compartment
We travelled first class on the sleeper train to Bangkok. We had bought the tickets online and from our expensive countries they had seemed like a bargain. In fact, they were fantastic – we had our own compartment, sink, power, monitor showing the route, and wifi. The food was not so good, though. Twenty years ago, my wife and I had travelled first class with friends and enjoyed a feast delivered to our compartment. Times have changed; this time we had to make do with tiny portions of heated up food in plastic containers in the restaurant car. Progress isn’t always in the right direction.
Riding through Bangkok
The next morning, we arrived at Bangkok station and started looking for our bikes. It took a lot of searching. Finally, we found them lying on platform 3; at least we had locked them so they couldn’t be ridden away. We cycled to our hotel, Citin Pratunam, which is squashed into a side street in Pratunam Market. We managed to find two bike boxes at Probike near Lumphini Park, 100 baht for the two, and packed the bikes ready for our flights home. The trip had come to an end.
John’s video of the tour
Video slideshow of the tour
Strava maps and Relive flyovers of Northern Laos Cycle Tour
Hobo Maps – Excellent detailed cycle touring maps
Reise Road Map – good map of Laos, but rather out-of-date