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.
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.
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.
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!
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