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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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