For previous blog entries of our ride through NZ, Australia, South East Asia, China and Central Asia, click on the little arrows beside the dates in the Blog Archive below and use the scroll down menu.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Northern Laos - Vientiane to Boten

Route: Vientiane - Vang Vieng - Luang Prabang - Oudomxay - Luang Nam Tha - Boten

Distance cycled: 15,124 kms

We crossed between Thailand in the North East and Laos across the Thai-Lao friendship bridge which spans the Mekong river. With another visa in our passports we set off cycling to Vientiane, whooping and cheering as we had someone very special waiting for us there. As we pulled up outside the Full Moon cafe we peered in through the glass and saw Steve munching on a tofu burger. After a round of hugs we set off to find somewhere to stay.

You'll fit nicely in my handlebar bag, let's go.
 Not one hotel in Vientiane would let us take our bikes inside. This had never happened in Asia before. The hotels were also around twice the price of Thailand. Who said Laos was cheap? Our first impressions of the country we had been looking forward to visiting for months were not good. The people there also seemed grumpy and stressed. We thought Laos P.D.R stood for Please Don't rush! In the end we booked into a brand new place for 75,000 kip a night(6.25) with free breakfast and reluctantly agreed to leave our trusty steeds round the back.

Staying at the Mixay Paradise was like being back in a university halls of residence. CCTV covered every square inch of the building to make sure no-one was smiling and the walls were plastered in signs telling you what not to do and how much you'd be charged if you did do it. Maybe whoever runs this place had had his fill of 19 year old backpackers misbehaving but come on, we're on holiday. Have a laugh.This was not the Asia we knew and loved and we weren't too keen on Vientiane. However, we did manage to get our Chinese visa there after a couple of trips to the embassy. We couldn't believe it. No tests, no itineraries, no letters of recommendation. By all accounts, obtaining such a hassle-free visa is unheard of as chinese bureaucracy is a pain in the ass! Before leaving Vientiane we treated ourselves to a massage and herbal sauna. We cycled 3 kms out of town to a beautiful temple in a forest and got a fantastic open-air Lao massage listening to the sounds of nature. The whole thing including the sauna cost less than 4 pounds. Ben and Steve got a guy this time who gave them a great treatment. Thankfully Ben's last experience of massage in Cambodia didn't put him off too much. He got touched up by a wee 18 year old gay guy. Ha ha! Sorry shouldn't laugh but it is comical to think of him pointing to his nuts and saying to the guy's boss "No thankyou!'. You're very handsome Sir. Apparently so.

We set off to Vang Vieng 150 kms away. Steve took the bus and spent the first day up there on his own. Riding out of Vientiane was dusty and horrible but the road started to clear after 40 kms or so.We ended the ride at a small village temple. The 2 monks who lived there brought us mattresses, pillows and water and we set up the mozzie sheet in the open-air temple. Unfortunately, just as we were drifting off to sleep, the strip lights were switched on and a load of random Laoatian men piled in. A crowd of onlookers was forming outside as we lay in our see through mozzie net, exposed to the world. It's not easy to fall asleep with a crowd of strange men staring at you. Just as we were considering getting up and cycling into the night, a guy came over and gave us a reassuring look. We've no idea what he said but he looked like a nice man and he told the guys to get out and switched the lights out. Earlier when we arrived, I'd gone into the toilet in the dark wearing my headtorch.As I was getting changed, the light from my torch hit one of the slats on the toilet wall and I saw a pair of eyes staring at me. I shouted at the peeping tom, a weird guy who'd been hanging around earlier and he ran off into the forest. We slept well nevertheless, thanked the monks the next morning and left them with a picture of the 60 metre high Buddha at Roi-Et, Thailand.

Cheers guys
 The next day we finished our ride to Vang Vieng. The day's ride went from average to spectacular as we cycled through the rural villages of Laos. The people were AMAZING and everyone greeted us with a sabaidee. Now we could see what everyone had been raving about. Having a bad day? You won't be after 5 minutes up here. The kids are a joy to behold and we spend most of our day high-fiving them as we go along our merry way. High fiving in Laos with Ben and Margo, it's all the rage. The Laoatians, like the Cambodians are laidback, gentle people and their reputation for being super-friendly is well-deserved. By the time we reached Vang Vieng we loved Laos.

Harder than it looks - honest.

After one night out in the real Laos we were back in tourist Disneyland, a world of chocolate pancakes, whisky buckets and magic mushroom and grass topped pizzas. Vang Vieng is also the home of tubing. Tubing involves sitting on a tractor inner tube and floating down the rapids of the Nam Song river. It's madness, we had to try it. A tuk tuk dropped the 3 of us off at the start point. After a drink in bar no.1 we did a short tube down to the next bar. The highlight for Ben and I was the trapeze swings shoddily erected at each bar. The first one was at a modest height but they got higher and higher until at the last one we stood on the platform staring 40 feet down at the river below. Moments later we were swinging through the air with the greatest of ease as Steve and our tubing pals, the Brighton girls whooped and cheered from the bar. We found ourselves chatting with steaming 20 year old backpackers with f***ed written on their backs and took part in a mud volleyball contest. Had we accidently gone on a club 18-30 holiday? We couldn't care less, this was fun! At each bar, a rope is thrown out to you which you grab onto to get dragged in. The whole thing is a bizarre concept, but fun.

Tubes in tubes

Yes slapping against the water from a great height does hurt

We got split up on the way back and Ben paddled 3 kms home on his own in the dark, through the rapids. Steve and I also floated home in the dark but managed to join up with a bunch of merry tubers on the way back. We all held on to each others tubes for safety. As we floated home in the darkness we had a good old sing-song, belting out classics such as Tiffanys "I think we're alone now". It had been a cracking day all in all. You've never been tubing till you've been tubing in Laos.

Another cracking sunset

One way to singe your eyebrows
This week in "Hello", relaxing at home with Margo Denholm and Ben Casson

We had a great time in Vang Vieng. Despite being full of pissed-up backpackers, it's a great place to relax for a few days. Even better if you have a Steve Perry with you. The beautiful backdrop of limestone crags along the Nam Song make for the most stunning of sunsets. Steve jumped on a bus again and we arranged to meet him in 3 days.

Caving in Laos with Steve Perry

And this guy

No. 140

Anyone else think the middle one looks like a koala?

Massive heid, small mouth

Our first day's ride out of Vang Vieng was a short 60 km ride to the little town of Kasi. The scenery was fantastic as we cycled alongside the limestone crags bordering the Nam Song. We set up the mozzie sheet at a roadside shelter, somewhat in view of the passing traffic. However it was nearly dark. After a few hours a group of lads turned up on scooters and kept saying sabaidee to us and laughing loudly despite us clearly being asleep. We both got a look at them in the light of their scooter's headlamps and they all looked like they were out their nuts. They seemed sinister in a way we'd never seen in Laoatian people. Shortly after they left, another guy came, got a parcel out of the bushes and zoomed off. We decided to pack up and go. We booked into a guesthouse and finally got some sleep. The next day's ride was a punishing 45 km ride up into the mountains. The gradient was unrelentingly steep and we climbed to 1600 metres. However, the scenery more than made up for it with mountain views that could give the Scottish Highlands a run for their money. This is the sort of riding that you come cycle touring for. The people living in the remote mountain villages we cycled through were so excited to see us and once again we were blown away by their friendliness. Northern Laos is a cycle tourists paradise if you have a head for heights, strong legs and a good set of gears!.

That day, we ran into 4 cycle tourists in the space of an hour. We are a rare breed so it's always a nice surprise to bump into someone. Firstly we met Pascal from Holland, cycling from China and off down to Singapore. As we were chatting, a friendly Chinese man rocked up. He spoke not a word of English but showed us on his map that he was Malaysia-bound. We left those two and bumped into Annalisa and Johan, touring South East Asia. It's always great to swap advice when the two of you are heading in the direction the other has just come from.

That evening we arrived in the mountain village of Phoukoun. Sitting at 1400 metres above sea-level it's pretty chilly up here. We delighted at having to dig out our fleece tops and woolly hats from our panniers which hadn't seen the light of day since NZ. Our little hotel room was a cell with a bed and no windows but we were happy that night. The village was a bit wild west but felt buzzing with life and activity. We were excited about snuggling into our sleeping bags in the freezing cold room. Ben went out to get us some food and as well as noodle soup, came back with these two..................

Cycle tourists no 5 and 6 were Eline and Xavier who'd bought a couple of bikes in Vientiane and headed North. It was the last place you'd expect to meet foreigners so we were really happy to see them. We were all heading for Luang Prabang the next morning so arranged to cycle together. 8 o'clock the next morning we were eating noodle soup in preparation for the 135 km epic over the mountains.

The ride started easy as we zoomed downhill for 10 kms or so knowing however that the height lost would be made up again later. Again the scenery was mindblowing but the ride was a killer. After a steep 15 km ascent we arrived Kiou Ka Cham where we ate lunch. We had only covered 55 kms of the 135 needed to reach Luang Prabang. We ate our way through several bowls of rice and those 3 had a super-strong Lao coffee to kick them into action. We had the greatest respect for these two. They didn't have any of the proper gear needed for touring such as pannier bags but had improvised by tieing on plastic bags, ruck sacks and whatever else they could find. It just goes to show that if you want to do something badly enough, you make to with what you've got and go for it. After lunch we had a steep 20 km descent to look forward to. It was great fun and our speed rarely fell below 50 km/h. We overtook scooters and buses as, on a winding downhill section, not many vehicles can beat a bike for cornering. Once again though, our enjoyment was short-lived as we knew we had a 15 km ascent climbing to 1400 metres to tackle straight afterwards.We all made our way up at our own speed, each of us on our own for most of the climb. We met up again at the top as night was falling and got some serious lighting set up for the final 50 kms into Luang Prabang. The first few kms were downhill which we tackled carefully in the fading light. 5 kms downhill, Xavier realised he'd left his rucksack at the top of the hill! Ben, being a good egg accompanied him back up the steep hill in the dark and Eline and I set off on our own. My new dynamo light did us proud and we made it back without crashing into any potholes. A village emerged from the darkness and we waited there for them. They turned up a few minutes later, ruck sack in tow. Doh!

We flew back for the last 30 kms keen to get the ride finished. It was downhill except for a 4 km climb near the end which was just unfair! Thankfully, the darkness can make hill climbing easier as, if you can't see the gradient, you can genuinely convince yourself it's flat and keep up a good pace.We rolled into LP around 9 o'clock feeling really pleased with ourselves. We couldn't believe those two. With no training and substandard 7 speed bikes they had just completed a 135 km ride over the highest mountains in Laos, one of our hardest rides so far. We take our helmets off to you. Bloody well done!

That night we booked into a lovely little hotel ran by a lovely old guy who spoke French very well. He only charged us 40,000 for the room and told us tea, coffee, water and bananas were free. He was the sort of man who you're glad to give business to. After a baguette we flopped into bed. Ben, I must mention was also a bit of a hero as he did the ride with a stinking cold and sore throat. First thing next morning I went out to find Steve. He was in a hotel down the road. He said he'd had a nice time on his own but was happy that we were here again! Sadly, since buying a laptop we have become slaves to hotels offering free wi-fi. A place further up the Mekong offered just that although was slightly more expensive(and didn't give you free tea). Xavier and Eline stayed at the other hotel and Ben, Steve and I moved into the other place. The rooms were lovely and there was a great courtyard to hang out in. Xavier and Eline still came round to hang out with us every day.

Xavier gets some good luck wool in a Buddhist ceremony

Luang Prabang is a lovely place to visit. Every morning, the monks walk around to receive alms from people in the town, alms being their food for the day which they must eat before noon. It was great to watch. The town is full of temples and it is clear that the monks here take their Buddhist practice very seriously. Ben was ill the whole time he was there but it was a nice place to be ill I guess. I brought him baguettes, fruit shakes and fried rice and he stayed in bed using the free wi-fi. Whenever we stop somewhere for a few days, we do very little. Whilst tourists on a 2 week holiday are zooming off in tuk-tuks to see caves, waterfalls and ride on an elephant, we generally like to spend time relaxing in the hotel and going out to eat. As we don't have a home at the moment, our little hotel room becomes home for a few days and we go into nesting mode. This was probably a bit of a pain for Steve who, fresh out of the dreech Scottish winter, was keen to get up and go.

Alms giving, Luang prabang

One night in a bar in LP, two familiar faces caught my eye. I ran over to their table and shouted "Wahey!" like a crazy woman. The week before we featured in the Westmorland Gazette, Ben's Dad had sent us an article about another couple from Crook in the Lake District also cycling from NZ back to England. We'd been in touch with them for months and had been reading each others blogs. We'd also been staying at the same Warm Showers hosts at different times. We'd been hoping to meet up with these guys for ages and at last here the were. Next day Chris and Liz moved into our hotel so by then our gang was 7 strong. After a couple of days Xavier and Eline set off cycling North, shortly followed by Chris and Liz who went off to get their bikes from Luang Nam Tha. Chris, my I.T man, spent most of his time answering my inane computer queries and sorting out the website. He also downloaded loads of movies, comedy shows and music on to the computer. A perfect but slightly surreal way to spend a night in the tent up a mountain in China. So Ben, Steve and I had one last day on our own. As we had our last meal together overlooking the Mekong River, we toasted our forthcoming adventures. We were looking forward to our 6000kms through China. Our holiday with Steve was great because we got to keep moving. Have a blast on your travels. We are so happy you came to see us. Unforgettable.

Chris and Liz

Sun sets over the Mekong

Beerlao sponsors Ben and Margo's world cycle
South East Asian men like to wander round with their t-shirts rolled up sticking their bellies out
Peep show marathon

We set off from Luang Prabang and did a 115 km ride over undulating hills. We arrived in the village of Pak Mong and saw a big group of western cyclists. It was the last place you'd expect to meet a foreigner. These guys, all from the UK were on a 2 week cycling holiday in Laos. We spent the night in the guesthouse with them and were treated to BeerLao and LaoLao shots by this friendly bunch. The organiser Dave asked us if he could interest us in a 2 week guided cycling holiday in Laos. I soon realised he was being funny.

Red spokes gang set off

Next day started with a 20 km uphill cycling through the lovely Laos villages. We bumped into Roger, a hardy retiree who had cycled from England. He had just cycled through Pakistan on the Karakoram Highway without any trouble and would recommend taking that route into Iran. Once we reach Kashgar in North West China we can make a call on whether we take the Stans or the Karakoram. We've met more cycle tourists in Laos than anywhere else.


Village school

We arrived in a little village 50 kms later after chatting with Roger for an hour and stopped for a couple of bowls of noodle soup. It was a lovely little village which unusually had a guesthouse(a room with a bed and an oil barrel to wash in). The village had such a nice feel to it so we decided to call it a day there. These little dudes were a crack up....................

On the way to Oudomxay next day, my rack snapped. Ben managed to tie it up with some wire but it needed fixing properly if we were to continue on these bumpy roads. A welder in Oudomxay did a terrible job of fixing it but we didn't have the heart to say anything as he seemed so pleased with himself. We spent the rest of the day looking for a rod of metal that could be used to fix the rack properly. Oudomxay is a good place to be stuck for a day or two. We were really surprised to find a handful of tourists here as it's a bus drop off point for connections to China, Vietnam and Southern Laos. We found a hotel with wi-fi and Ben spent the rest of the day getting the rack fixed. In the end, he asked a metal man if he could borrow his tools to do the job himself. Being a fella, he was a bit put out that Ben took over. Ben did a great job of fixing it and it's stronger than ever(famous last words). Sometimes if you want a job doing properly you gotta do it yourself.

Ben's trusted wire saves the day

The final fix

In Oudomxay there is a staircase of a couple of hundred of steps leading up to a temple. I walked up to catch the sunset and some of the monks came over to chat. 17 year old Noi and 20 year old Bunpeng were the most keen to practice their English and managed to chat about their lives and daily routine in the temple. The 25 monks living up there had befriended a mother dog and her 8 puppies and it was really great to watch them playing with and taking care of the animals. They were lovely young guys and very dedicated to their practice, telling me that the worlds problems could be solved through meditation. It was nice to hear some true Buddhist wisdom. I spent a couple of hours up there, coming back to the hotel after watching the most glorious of sunsets. Noi took my email and asked if he could write to me to practice his English. I also had a great massage for $3 at the Lao Red cross.



We set off from Oudomxay on our way to Luang nam Tha. The road was a shocker and we spent most of the day on gravel, veering round giant potholes. It was tough riding and in the end we didn't make it to LNP, covering only 75 kms before nightfall. We pulled in off the road, climbed a small hill and put the tent up. It was great to be back in the tent as the weather at night is now cold and we sleep much better. We were even able to watch a couple of episodes of "Peep Show" which Chris downloaded onto the computer. Needless to say though, spending a whole night undisturbed wild camping in Asia continues to seem near impossible. Even in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, someone still walked past our tent. After that we were undisturbed and slept well in the cool night air.

Our road

Sara and Peter. Just cycled through the Stans and China and gave us their map of China

We got up next morning and cycled the remaining 40 kms to LNT, meeting 2 Italian cyclists on the way then , what a surprise ............... a Dutch couple. Is there actually anyone left in Holland or France who's not on holiday in South East Asia? Funnily enough, being a small world 'n all the Dutch guy we met had stayed at Ben's Mum's hotel on Orkney a couple of months ago. We arrived and booked into a great little place for 50,000 kip(4 pounds) with wi-fi and a nice garden. LNT is a great wee town as it's not too touristy. There are a handful of people here for trekking and bus connections and the town has a great feel to it.


Our last 2 days in LNT we spent with Eline and Xavier. Ben managed to fix Xavier's buckled wheel and a welder did an excellent job of attaching a couple of baskets for them at the front of their bikes so now they can take some weight off the back. The sky's the limit now guys. You two are amazing. Really hope the bikes get you to where you want to go. See you in Holland/France one day.

So this afternoon off we go into Wild China(I call it Wild China as we've got the 6 part BBC series called just that on our computer now). To be honest with you, we've no idea where we're going. The problem is this: Northern China is fricking freezing in Winter and when I say freezing I mean a bollock shrivelling -30. If we head straight North we'll be okay in the South for a month or so but then will hit the cold. So we are currently considering a) hanging around in China for a couple of months when the weather starts to get cold b)heading west by skipping over Tibet into Nepal and staying on a similar latitude for a couple of months) c)just going for it with some high-quality winter gear and perhaps living to regret that decision after losing a few toes and fingers due to frostbite. Either way, it's all good! What's the worst that can happen?(don't answer that you cynics).

Our trip has now entered a new stage. As soon as we leave Laos the hard work begins. We face harsher weather, a huge language barrier and some of the hardest cycling to date. In the coming months we will rarely have the comfort of socialising with other foreigners and speaking to people in our own language. However, despite being a challenge, China will be amazing. We know it. We also hope to be back in the tent most nights enjoying nature at it's best and living simply again. Eat, sleep, cycle. Unfortunately, the Chinese government with their fear of freedom of expression have banned both blogger(our website provider) and Facebook, our 2 ways of keeping in touch with the world. However, we may have a few tricks up our sleeves for still getting the blog out so leave it with us. Don't worry though if you don't hear from us in a while. We'll pop out the other end right as rain I'm sure!

As for Laos, what can I say? It could quite possibly be the friendliest, safest country in the world. When we are in Uzbekistan being bribed by corrupt police or having stones thrown at us by kids in Tajikstan we will think back to Laos and remember how easy we had it here. We will remember the Lao people for their abundant happiness and gentle ways. Again, an honour to travel here.

In South East Asia, the people are wonderful. Full stop. It's been great to travel in countries where people have time for you and don't lose their temper over the most trivial of things. So what if someone takes a bit longer at the ATM or in a shop.? What's the hurry? Wonderful also to be smiled at wherever you go.It is certainly a different way of life to back home. South East Asia is also completely bonkers but as long as you embrace it and don't expect things to run as smoothly as they do back home, you'll have a great time. We did!

Remember our friends Stevie and Lucy who cycled through Malaysia and Thailand with us? Well it turns out that there were actually 5 of us on that trip. Lucy was pregnant the whole time and didn't realise! After cycling over 1000 kms with us, they then went on to climb to Everest base camp and travelled round India. It was only 5 months later in Oz that they discovered they were having a baby. That's one well-travelled bambino you've got there. Congratulations. Best of luck on your "fast-forward pregnancy rollercoaster".What a story.

I love Roti Canai