Bombs on Laos

10 – 21 June, 2013 – We spent one full week in Vientiane to recharge our batteries, believe it or not. We really liked the city for several reasons: it is very relaxed, little traffic, nice food, nice sites to visit and last but not least we met our cycling friends Astrid and Gerd again, with whom we would spend all evenings.

Four cyclists in front of the Patuxai monument

Four cyclists in front of the Patuxai monument

Two enthusiasts in front of the same

Two enthusiasts in front of the same

Pha That Luang, a symbol of both the Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignty

Pha That Luang, a symbol of both the Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignty

A temple near Pha That Luang

More of Pha That Luang

The most memorable event in the city was the COPE visitor center. COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) is the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos. The visitor center offered a myriad of interesting and informative multimedia exhibits about prosthetics and the UXO (unexploded ordnance) that unfortunately make them necessary. We watched a film about an Australian organization helping to deactivate the many unexploded bombs and bombies (=bomblets or submunitions from cluster bombs), that can still be found everywhere in the countryside.

In 1964 the US began its air war over Laos as the Vietnamese used Lao territory to infiltrate personnel and supplies into South Vietnam along what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Did you know that

  • Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world?
  • More than 580,000 bombing missions were conducted over Laos, which equals one bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years!
  • Up to 30% failed to detonate and remained in Laos after the war.
  • About 25% of all Lao villages are still contaminated with UXO.
  • More than 50,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in the post-war period between 1974 and 2011 of which 40% are children!
  • It will take more than 150 years to remove all UXO!

We knew nothing about this before we came to Southeast Asia and it is really shocking to us how little is known by others as well. Thankfully this wonderful visitor center exists and hopefully a lot of visitors share our enthusiasm for them. For more information or donations you can visit their website.

At the visitor center: artwork made from bombes

At the visitor center: artwork made from bombes

One week after our arrival in Vientiane we left the capital together with Astrid and Gerd to visit Xieng Khuan, a Buddha park next to the Mekong. In a field by the river this park is full of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures designed and built by a yogi-priest shaman in 1958. We took a few fun pictures and continued cycling along the Mekong river on a very bumpy and hot road. At around 5pm we decided to camp next to the river as we didn’t make enough progress to get to the next town. We found a nice roofed stilt-shack along the road, checked with some locals on the rice fields if we could stay here and spent another nice evening with Astrid and Gerd.

"Oh, how nice!"

“Oh, how nice!”

Buddhas, buddhas, buddhas...

Buddhas, buddhas, buddhas…

I survived!

I survived!

I also survived this pose...

I also survived this pose…

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Kids along the road

Kids along the road

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Another rocket festival to welcome the rainy season

Another rocket festival to welcome the rainy season

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Campsite spotted and Gerd is performing the mosquito dance in the background

Campsite spotted and Gerd is performing the mosquito dance in the background

Getting ready for the night

Getting ready for the night

The night was hot as our little tent is missing fan and aircon and we were glad when we could pack up our things the next morning and leave again to enjoy the airstream. After our first break at around 10am we said our goodbyes and continued cycling alone as we usually rode more kilometers per day and a little faster than the others. Our visas expired soon and we had to move on. We were a little sad as we had a lot of fun with Gerd and Astrid and really enjoyed their company. The sadness didn’t last long as we met another cyclist and while chatting with him, Astrid and Gerd caught up with us. What a nice surprise. It was close to lunch and we enjoyed another last lunch in nice company (we thought!). More goodbyes after lunch and we cycled again alone for the rest of what would become a very long and hot day. When we finally arrived, shattered and hungry, we couldn’t find a hotel, either they were full or shabby and so expensive that we would have rather camped once more. After about an hour we finally found a nice hotel, but then we couldn’t find a place to eat. And we weren’t really picky but they either wouldn’t want to serve us at all, were closed or sold out! Lao mentality at it’s best. Another hour later we finally succeeded, had some rice and went to bed.

The next morning we left late as we slept so well and were still recovering from the tough ride the previous day. It was another very hot day and this time Johan wasn’t doing well. We were making slow progress on a boring road and at lunch we decided not to continue as we feared that Johan had a sunstroke. While checking into a guesthouse Astrid and Gerd suddenly passed. What a wonderful surprise to see them again. They decided to stay with us and we spent our last Lao days together. The next day we rode more than 100km together, again on a really boring road with just some scrub along both sides of the road. Every once in a while we caught a glimpse of the Mekong river, but very rarely. This part of Laos is certainly a distance that could easily be covered by bus, as there is really not much to be missed. But we are the stubborn cyclists that have to cover whatever possible by bicycle. Just to remind you, this is not a fun trip ;-).

Enjoying the company of Astrid and Gerd

Enjoying the company of Astrid and Gerd

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Almost done for the day

Almost done for the day

1.5 days later we arrived in Thakhek, the town where we would leave Laos to go back to country #12, Thailand. Finding a hotel was as challenging as a few days before and Johan and Gerd spent two hours to find a decent place where we could stay for two nights and say our final goodbyes to our cycling friends. If all goes as planned we will meet them in New Zealand again, which would be wonderful!

A hotel with a view - Mekong river view

A hotel with a view – Mekong river view

We spent almost a month in Laos and enjoyed the landscapes, the warm welcome of villagers of all ages when we cycled through – at times we felt like movie stars – the mountains in the north despite its challenges and the food, which isn’t just noodle soup and of course having cycled for the first time with other touring cyclists. We did not really enjoy the far too laid-back mentality of the Lao people when everything seemed to be a huge effort for them. Sometimes we felt as if we were trying to sell them a refrigerator and not like someone who actually wants to spend some money on them. We never found out what time would be good for them to help us as at any time of the day Lao people just prefer to watch TV or sleep. While we really liked the scenery, Vietnam was much more dramatic and spectacular, but I have to admit that we didn’t leave the beaten track in Laos which we did quite often in Vietnam. Time on our visa just didn’t allow.

In total we cycled 1,142km in Laos, took a boat once, spent 29 days in the country, haven’t seen a single elephant in the land of a million and met a lot of other interesting cyclists as Laos’ empty streets are a cyclist’s heaven.

Sabaidee!

Yippie, Thailand we are coming!

Yippie, Thailand we are coming!

Leaving Laos via friendship bridge 3 (Thakhek to Thailand), bicycles and pedestrians are not allowed!

Leaving Laos via friendship bridge 3 (Thakhek to Thailand), bicycles and pedestrians are not allowed!

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Where have all the elephants gone?

28 May – 9 June, 2013 – We still haven’t seen any elephants in Laos and it is most unlikely we’ll ever do. Never mind. We are still enjoying our time in this relaxed but hot country. Louang Prabang was a wonderful city at the Mekong river with lush vegetation, beautiful colonial and Laos architecture and great food. We enjoyed it so much that we extended our stay for a few days. Besides eating and sleeping we discovered the little town by bike and I think we didn’t miss a single road.

Chill-out time

Chill-out time

One morning we got up at 5am to see the monks’ peaceful and meditative alms ceremony. Each morning at dawn saffron clad monks pad barefoot through the streets while townsfolk place tiny balls of sticky rice in their begging bowls. Although these ceremonies take place all over Laos Louang Prabang’s peaceful atmosphere and extraordinary concentration of temples create an especially romantic scene.

One of the many temples

One of the many temples

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Another day I took a cooking class in a fantastic rural pavilion overlooking a fish pond. We first went to the market and the chef explained all the different herbs and delicacies you can buy there. And then we cooked. Another advantage of traveling in the low season is that there weren’t many participants and instead of two cooking together we could all cook our own meals. I now know how to prepare sticky rice, fish in banana leaves, lemongrass chicken, laap (minced beef salad) and my favorite dessert, pink rice in coconut milk.

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Sightseeing in Louang Prabang

Sightseeing in Louang Prabang

Beautiful sunset at the Mekong

Beautiful sunset at the Mekong

We could have stayed forever but decided to move on as we definitely wanted to see more of the world and Laos. We were now heading south in the direction of Vientiane, Laos’ capital. It is a famous cycling route recommended by many other touring cyclists as well as most travel guides even though it is quite difficult with long climbs and the hot climate. After slightly undulating roads we started our first long climb of about 15km. A bit more than halfway we had a short break and met about ten race cyclists from Louang Prabang. One after the other passed us during the first part of the climb and they had already enjoyed the beautiful view when we arrived. After a short break and a chat with the cyclists we continued and soon afterwards met another cycling couple from Australia – they luckily had the tough part behind them. They told us about a few more couples ahead of us who we would meet later on. Shortly after lunch we had to stop again as a thunderstorm with heavy rains wasn’t really appealing to continue cycling. Luckily we just arrived at a small village and found a nice roof to protect ourselves from the rain. You might think that life comes to a hold during such heavy rain. But no, this is the time when there is finally something going on. First we saw a few boys in their underwear taking a shower under a dripping roof, they really enjoyed themselves. Then people started to put buckets everywhere to catch the rain water. The big barrels under roof rails filled within minutes and needed to be emptied into bigger barrels, so men were walking forth and back with small buckets full with water. And then women came out of the houses to wash themselves as well. They would wear sarongs and just stand in the rain and soap themselves from head to toe. This was a very entertaining hour for us but as the rain lessened we moved on as we knew about another 20km climb we wanted to tackle that day.

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Fun in the rain

Fun in the rain

In the afternoon I wasn’t feeling well anymore and I wasn’t sure if it was the heat, the climbing or the food. The longer we climbed the sicker I became. After about 10km into the climbing I had to stop every 500m and sit down in the shadow. Johan took some of my luggage so I could cycle better, but my condition didn’t improve. By now my average speed on the hill was about 5km/h and I just didn’t know how to get up there. There was also no way for us to put up the tent as there was just the road and on one side of it the mountain went up and on the other side down. Right before nightfall we arrived, I took a quick shower and went straight to bed. In the village we met a Japanese/American cycling couple and Johan had dinner with them. I instead vomited a few times and felt slightly better the next day.

After breakfast with the other cyclists and a late start the day kicked off pretty easy and I was doing OK. With every kilometer the landscape became nicer and after a while Alex and Asako caught up with us. However, as we were still in the mountains the day would continue difficult and I got weaker and weaker. With an almost empty stomach, the soaring heat and the continuous up and down pattern of the road I collapsed during a longer climb and knew I wouldn’t be able to continue cycling. Thankfully we were in a small village and Johan arranged a truck, loaded our bikes and luggage and we were driven to the next town 22km away. I went straight to bed once more hoping to recover quickly.

Early morning view at around 1,400m from our basic guesthouse

Early morning view at around 1,400m from our basic guesthouse

Alex and Asako at breakfast

Alex and Asako at breakfast

More kids along the road

More kids along the road

Chatting with Asako and Alex

Chatting with Asako and Alex

Refueling!

Refueling!

The next day I felt better and was ready to continue our journey to the next village. This day would become the most beautiful cycling day of this trip and by 11am we already arrived in Kasi, where we actually wanted to stay. I was still OK and after a nice lunch followed by a nap in front of the restaurant TV we decided to continue. And the landscape was stunning. We climbed a last time, 10km in total, but very easy for about 7km and tough the last 3km. I could tell I wasn’t really at my best, but things still went OK. As soon as we had reached the peak we would descend for about 10km and then continue the rest of the day in the valley along a nice river. Despite having cycled more than 100km we arrived in Vang Vieng by 4.30pm, found a nice guesthouse and went to bed early, as always.

Getting ready in the early morning

Getting ready in the early morning

Cycling in the clouds

Cycling in the clouds

More clouds...

More clouds…

Alexander from Russia who has been cycling for 3 years already!

Alexander from Russia who has cycled for 3 years already!

Fun downhill!

Fun downhill!

The clouds slowly disappear

The clouds slowly disappear

Enjoying the scenery

Enjoying the scenery

A Czech hitch-hiker hoping for a lift to Louang Prabang

A Czech hitch-hiker hoping for a lift to Louang Prabang

Lao pointed fairy bossom,  Vietnam's counterpart, but this time we baptized the hills

Lao pointed fairy bosom, Vietnam’s counterpart, but this time we baptized the hills

Finally blue sky again

Finally blue sky again

Village life

Village life

Napping after lunch

Napping after lunch

Finally downhill for a looooong time....

Finally downhill for a looooong time….

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In the valley and still about 30km to go

In the valley and still about 30km to go

Vang Vieng is an infamous city. Infamous, because most tourists come here to get pissed and stoned. If you order a happy drink somewhere, you’ll for sure have either opium, marijuana or mushrooms in your drink. We haven’t come across such a menu but the travel guide warned us. Infamous as well for the many adventurous activities such as rock climbing and tubing. Never heard of tubing? You swim in an inflated truck tube down a muddy river, stop in between to climb into caves or drink some more beers. It’s supposed to be great fun, as long as you are drunk! Last year 22 people died from tubing there. As we are too old (or maybe too boring?) for these ‘fun activities’ we missed all of that. Instead I went on my own micro-adventure and cycled through beautiful karst scenery, minority villages and some other small villages. I hardly met any tourist and had great fun on my own. Johan first wanted to join me but turned after about 2km as the road was too bad for him and his bike ;-). Good choice as his diarrhea was back later that afternoon. That would not have been fun at all on the bike!

Having fun on my own :-)

Having fun on my own 🙂

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In Vang Vieng we met an Austrian/German cycling couple, who actually aren’t a couple and spent most afternoon chatting with them. They have been on the road since April 2012 and were heading in the same direction as we did.

After some more recovery days in this strange town with bikini-dressed hippies, teenagers, wannabe cool kids and forever young oldies we embarked on our last piece of the journey to Vientiane. All cyclists we met told us that as from Vang Vieng the road would be flat and we were looking forward to two easy cycling days. Failed once more. The first day we cycled more than 75km on undulating roads and only about 25km on flat roads and the second day we had three long climbs. On the first day the scenery was still quite nice and time passed quickly. We cycled through villages where they were preparing for the rocket festival when self-made rockets are shot into the sky to welcome the rainy season. We missed the shooting though. And we cycled on slightly busier roads, we clearly were on our way to the capital city. We decided to make a detour via an artificial lake as we were told it would be the more scenic road anyway and worth the detour. Despite another 102km cycled on the first day we arrived by 3pm but couldn’t make it to the lake as thunderstorms were on their way. As the lake was on our way the next day anyway we decided to relax for the rest of the day and see it on our final leg to Vientiane.

Leaving Vang Vieng in the early morning

Leaving Vang Vieng in the early morning

One of the many self-made rockets, more interesting are the two statues in the background though....

One of the many self-made rockets, more interesting are the two statues in the background though….

Almost there

Almost there

On our way to the lake we wished we would have done it the day before despite the risk of getting wet as it was nearly impossible to get there with the luggage. We were still looking forward to flat roads, but the lake-road is flanked by mountains, and these mountains have steep roads, annoying roads with luggage. Finally up the hill, admittedly it wasn’t too long of a climb, but still, we were rewarded by fantastic views over a lake spotted by hundreds of small islands. After our picture-taking session we continued downhill and were now finally on our way to Vientiane, when the road suddenly ended, at a small harbour. We looked once more at our map and there clearly was a back road leading to the main road to Vientiane. We asked a few people and all confirmed that we had to turn and go all the way back. Oh no. Climbing once more. There is nothing worse than cycling back and adding more kilometers to an already long distance. Bravely we turned our bikes, ascended the steep hill and by the time we were at our starting point we had lost more than an hour. The rest of the journey continued uneventful and by 4.30pm we reached the capital.

Distances cycled:

2 June, Louang Prabang – Kiou Ka Cham: 79km

3 June, Kiou Ka Cham – Phou Khoun: 28km

4 June, Phou Khoun – Vang Vieng: 102km

5 – 7 June, Vang Vieng: rest days

8 June, Vang Vieng – Thinkeo: 102km

9 June, Thinkeo – Vientiane: 107km

Laos, the land of a million elephants

25 – 27 May, 2013 – We finally arrived at the border, much later than expected as nobody told us about a pass and that the border would be exactly on top of this pass at around 1,200m. Too late to get a Laos visa right away as we arrived at 11.30h just with the beginning of the lunch break until 1pm, we lost precious 1.5 hours. Getting a visa is pretty straight forward though, except for the many fees you have to pay: it begins with a visa fee of 30 USD for me and 35 USD for Johan. Then we had to pay a 1 EUR fee each for getting a visa, plus 1 EUR each for Saturday overtime, plus 1 EUR fee each for the stamp on the visa, plus another 0.5 EUR each for the Saturday overtime, plus 0.5 EUR each for the H1N1 test, which consisted of measuring our temperature with a pistol-like tool held on our forehead! At that time we were both suffering from hypothermia as our temperature was around 32 degrees C, at an outside temperature of 33 degrees! LOL! All in all there were three people busy with our visas and it took 30 minutes for the whole process. Another way to create employment, but seriously, why don’t they just increase the visa fee instead of having multiple additional fees? This would certainly increase their efficiency. We even got receipts for each and every fee, so we don’t come to think the fees might just be some pocket-money for the officers….never mind, we got our visas and happily continued our journey downwards for a while. 20130607-101714.jpg

Still a long way to go to the capital city

Still a long way to go to the capital city

As always we immediately noticed a difference to Vietnam. A big difference. Our travel guide already warned us ahead, Laos’ population is very laid-back. Lao commonly express the notion that ‘too much work is bad for your brain’. And it is so true. Nothing really bothers them and for the first time since India we see many people just sitting in front of their houses doing nothing or sleeping or drinking or chatting with whoever is passing. A no-go in Vietnam. There is never a dull minute in their lives, they always have something to do. The Vietnamese remind me on my father and we often had a great laugh over some of these similarities.

But we are in Laos now, and we need to slow down once more. You might think that after nine months on the road we would have become more laid-back and relaxed but the Lao mentality is far beyond how much we can slow down. I think that I can cope with it slightly better than Johan seeing all his attempts of teaching Laotians a lesson. But that’s a different story.

Northern Laos is mountainous. Very mountainous. The rough guide could not have described it any better: ‘if a careless god grabbed a giant sheet of green paper and crumpled it into a ball, the contours would resemble northern Laos. At every turn, convoluted rivers curl through layers of mountain ridges.’ After our long descent we had to climb once more, not just for a bit, for a long time, in total we climbed two hours and ten minutes. At every turn we were hoping the peak is near and each time all we saw were more mountains and a road snaking up the hill. It’s been a tough day: all morning we were riding in the pouring rain, wet to the bones, and all afternoon we were climbing in the sun, wet to the bones from sweat. It’s been the first time for me that I really didn’t like the cycling. Johan tried in vain to cheer me up but it wasn’t my day at all.After the strenuous pass we continued along a river, continuously up and down and arrived tired in Muang Koua at 6.45pm. We checked into a basic guesthouse with extremely unfriendly staff and decided to leave the next day as there was nothing to do or see.

Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world and doesn’t have many roads, let alone good roads. Only about 25% of the roads are sealed which makes some roads impassable in the rainy season. As we were now heading south towards Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site, we decided to take a boat to the next town as the road would have been a huge detour via many more passes. The downside of travelling in the low season is that the boats don’t leave as frequently and only if there are enough passengers, unless you pay the full fare for a boat. Luckily two backpackers on a shoestring budget wanted to take the same boat and after long discussions with the owner of the boat Johan was able to negotiate acceptable fares for all of us. The boat trip took about five hours through ragged mountains with sometimes thick jungle and sometimes the still practiced slash and burn agriculture, where forest is cut down and used for farming for just one year to be unused for up to 15 years as more forest will be cut down. During our road trip we will pass many villages with signs ‘this village is not practicing slash and burn tactics’. It seems that the government together with a lot of other organizations try to find other occupations for villagers in the mountains to be able to make a living such as planting organic coffee.

Every now and then the boat stopped to take on more passengers and half way through our river journey the boat is cramped with more than 20 people aboard. Thankfully only for about 20 minutes as the seats weren’t really comfortable with just the few of us. The last two hours of the trip were the most scenic with more cone-shaped mountains and jungle as far as we could see and rapids that reminded me on a river rafting trip in Austria many years ago. By 3pm we arrived in the little town of Nang Khiao, had lunch, looked for a place to sleep and relaxed for the rest of the day as we wanted to hit the road to Luang Prabang early next morning and tackle the distance of 144km in one go.

Right before our departure

Right before our departure

Just cruising...

Just cruising…

Anyone keen on joining?

Anyone keen on joining?

Small village along the Nam Ou

Small village along the Nam Ou

Pink buffalos are actually no albinos and much more expensive than their dark friends

Pink buffalos are actually not albinos and much more expensive than their dark friends

Slash and burn farming

Slash and burn farming

Another beautiful and remote village, the only access is via the river

Another beautiful and remote village, the only access is via the river

We rose early at 5am and Rudi and Smokey were ready to go by 6:45am. Yes, I know, we are slow in the morning, and I think the fastest we ever managed were 1.5 hours to be ready to go. Never mind. Before 7am is still a good and relatively cool time to be on the bike. The journey kicked off easy with a modest rolling pattern, up and down through many handsome villages. A big relief after weeks in the mountains. I by the way like the Lao villages much more than the Vietnamese. Most houses are still wooden houses, also the ones from the richer people, and many of them have little gardens with even lawn around it. Bushes and trees are blooming at the moment which adds to the beauty and the villages often remind us on the French or southern German countryside. And then there are hardly any concrete houses in these villages and if they are painted, not just on the front but on all sides.

Ready to leave in the early morning

Ready to leave in the early morning

More early morning scenery

More early morning scenery

A typical Lao village

A typical Lao village

A blooming xxx tree

A blooming and to us unknown tree

Leguan for lunch?

Iguana for lunch?

The longer we rode that day, the more difficult it became with longer and steeper climbs and a relentless sun and more than once we are afraid we’ll not be able to make it to Louang Prabang. But we made it, by 6pm we arrived, found a nice and cheap guesthouse, ate a great meal and slept gorgeous! And by the way, we haven’t seen an elephant as yet!

Shelter from the sun

Shelter from the sun

More beautiful scenery

More beautiful scenery

The river Nam Ou seen from the road

The river Nam Ou seen from the road

More climbing

More climbing

Distances cycled:

25 May, Dien Bien Phu (Vietnam) – Muang Koua (Laos): 102km

26 May, Muang Koua – Nong Khiao: Boat trip

27 May, Nong Khiao – Luang Prabang: 144km

Total distance cycled: 12,011km of which 208km in Laos