I’M cycling through a dusty village dwarfed by sharp granite hills and sprinkled with thatched bamboo huts. From a makeshift playground of old tyres a handful of kids wave madly and scream “hello” while a villager sharpens his machete next to a bungalow. It feels as though I’m a rickety bridge and some war paint away from an Indiana Jones film but instead I’m in little old Laos – a country that feels one yawn away from a permanent siesta.
And the contrast to our last destination couldn’t be more stark.
The minute we crossed the border from Vietnam to Laos the deafening trucks, blasting horns and general chaos vanished to be replaced by a blissful silence punctured by occasional squeals and “hellos” from grinning kids.
It felt as though I’d popped a giant chill pill and and after a couple of hours of gentle cycling we reached the day’s first destination – Lak Sao. It was scarcely a step above the basic villages we’d passed but there was a sprinkling of guest houses and a couple of ATMs which worked for a few hours each night (the electricity generally turns off during the sunlight hours).
A line of carts and tin stalls made up the restaurant strip where locals rolled balls of sticky rice and dipped it into a snot green soup that featured some floating testicles while kids chowed down the more appealing sweetened egg crepes.
We left our dusty bikes and bags at a hotel that charged us about $5 USD (mind you it was small, basic and had a bucket for a basin) and prepared to dive taste buds first into Lao cuisine. It will be a sad, hunger filled month before I hook into testicle soup (do you chew them or swallow them?) so instead we loaded up on crepes, chicken and a chunky looking stew that turned out to nevertheless feature a few of the aforementioned balls. That aside it was cheap and cheerful and we wash it down with a cup of Beer Lao while the locals smiled lazily from their plastic chairs.
From dusty Lak Sao and it’s nearby granite hills we would strike slightly south west before hugging the Mekong to the country’s capital – Vientiane – before turning north for the jungle-covered mountains surrounding Luang Prabang. We had a month long visa to spend in this pint-sized South East Asian nation before we rolled into Thailand and as I digested my spicy, ball soup I realised I knew bugger all about it.
Laos only made its way onto the backpacker’s “banana pancake” trail a few years ago and a quick rifle through Lonely Planet revealed what a few hours of cycling here had already told me – it’s the poorest of all its neighbours and still suffering a painful hangover from the Vietnam war. While a few of the villages we passed proudly announced joint efforts with Europe to wipe out the surrounding unexploded ordnance (landmines) there are still enough left to worry the population. From 1964 to 1973 more than 580,000 bombing missions were launched by the US Air Force and as a result more than two million tonnes of ordnance fell on the country. Add that to the fact that the communist government has a reputation for corruption, the economy’s crap, outdated laws prevent progression (Laotians are forbidden from reading books) and you’ve got a country that clearly appears like it’s riding on good vibrations but’s really struggling to stay afloat in a shit storm.
The following morning we pedalled off into the western scrub on the hunt for nearby waterfalls and gorgeous camping spots but after a few hours all we’d found was the searing heat. I’m an Aussie who lived in the north of our sunburnt country so I was no stranger to high temperatures but this humidity struck with the force of a bullet and forced us to huddle in pitiful scraps of shade while we crawled along the steaming bitumen. A village elder stopped us for beers mid-afternoon to preach about the virtues of Communism – just look at Thailand with it’s democracy – it’s chaos, he said (um, is it?) and by evening we’d found a patch of spiky scrub to pitch the tent while nearby villagers get tanked on the local brew to celebrate a national holiday.
They’d set up camp at the waterfall we were hoping to visit but after a crafty local placed a log over our path and told us we’d have to pay for the privilege we grumbled and slunk back into the craggy but free shrub.
By midday the next day we’ve found a street stall with noodle soup to refuel and escape the mercury when two Spanish cyclists from the Basque country rolled up. South East Asia is a mecca for pedal powered travellers but these were the first we’d seen since Vietnam and we greeted each other like old friends. Pello and Idoia were making an eastern detour to a famous cave and river and convinced us to join them for what promised to be a Lao highlight. Who can resist that?
We jumped in the back of a ute with our bikes loaded on top and bumped along a dirt road for 40km before a tiny oasis town sprung up. If the rest of Laos was relaxed this was figuratively sedated to the extent that the cave could have been a 2×2 cubby house and I would have been happy to be there.
Luckily it was far more than that, and as sun set over the town we rode long boats through the enormous water cavern and walked up a sandy path through stalagmites and stalactites.
We’d found paradise and so ditched the bikes for another day and floated about the crystal clear river while eating, sleeping and reading in between.
After pedalling the second half of the 40km detour back to the road we said goodbye to the fabulous Spanish couple and tackled some short, sharp hills towards the Mekong. The scorching heat quickly sapped the life out of us and after 80km we reached a small town and checked into a cheap and filthy room. I was shaking from heat exhaustion and threw up while Scott tried to cool me down with a wet cloth. We’d forgotten just how dangerous cycling in hot weather could be and reminded ourselves to drink more water, wake up earlier and take longer breaks during the hottest part of the day.
From our small crossroads town the road ran directly to the west along a decent tar highway or dribbled off to the south and the Mekong before winding lazily towards the capital the slightly longer way. We figured this route would also be the more scenic and so hit the orange dust early in the morning to meet the country’s biggest river. Our map app had warned of a slight 2km climb before the Mekong but we scarcely paid it attention – after all what’s 2km when you’ve scaled the Pamir Mountains or Sichuan’s brutal western snow-capped peaks?
Which just goes to show we’ve really learned nothing in almost 15,000km of bike travel.
After a few kilometres the road gave way to a small river which we waded across and just a few kilometres after that the small climb rose before us. It was steep – proper get off your bike and push steep – and to make matters worse it was sandy as hell.
After a few metres we realised it would take two people pushing one bike to get to the top and a few metres after that we stopped for a rest. Two kilometres might be a laughingly small distance but when you’re pushing the fat arse of a loaded bike up a sandy 20 per cent climb it might as well be bloody Everest.
Two hours later we were down the other side looking like hobos who’d had a fight with the Sahara and lost.
Small, rustic villages dotted the Mekong as we bumped along the dirt road and for four hours we swallowed a desert worth of dust before the road joined back up with the blissful tarmac. We’d hoped to camp along the river but as dusk settled midges and mozzies attacked with gusto and with every inch of our clothes and bare skin coated in a thick layer of orange dust we decided to bite the bullet and stay in yet another shitty guest house.
The problem with budget travel is you can rarely afford accommodation that’s better than your tent and Laos was proving to be no exception to the rule. It’s one of the region’s most expensive countries to begin with and while $5 USD might get you a bloody basic but albeit clean room in Thailand with a western loo, wifi and a fan – in Laos it got you a feral piece of squalor with a bucket shower and the kind of questionable stains on the bed sheets that make you want to sleep on the floor.
The following night we got our wish however, and ignored the mozzies for a prime piece of wild camping next to the river. Our new freestanding Nemo tent had already become our favourite piece of kit but as we camped under the stars with just the tent’s fly and watched a firefly land on the mesh we fell head over heels in love again.
Vientiane drew closer at the pace of a heatwave and on the last night before we hit the city we camped with our old cycling buddies Nico and Gokben. They were pedalling the other way towards Cambodia and had been roughly a couple of months ahead of us since leaving Chengdu so it was brilliant to marvel over our new weather-worn faces and swap stories.
They gave us some tips for the road ahead and we stayed up gossiping until sheer exhaustion forced us into our tents (at about 9pm).
So far most capital cities we’d pedalled into had been a chaotic mess of traffic, congestion, colour and capitalism but as Vientiane’s shadow loomed it seemed to be lacking a few ingredients. The traffic was subdued, the chaos was, well, not really chaos, and there seemed to be a hell of a lot of locals napping on any available piece of land. Tuk Tuk drivers snoozed away in hammocks strung in the back while half hearted street vendors kipped behind a stack of coconuts. It was clear we’d come across the world’s most laid-back capital and while it lacked the charm of Chiang Mai or the sheer vibrancy of Hanoi, it was peaceful.
We’d planned to spend a week kicking back and getting odd jobs done but after spending too much time trying to track down a new tyre for Scott it was soon a week and we still weren’t ready to go.
In the meantime we’d met gorgeous Spanish/Colombian couple Diego and Natalia who’d begun cycling from Singapore after living/meeting and getting married in Australia. They were headed in the same direction as us and so decided to spend time and even cycle to north together. We dined at street stalls, spent a boozy afternoon in a local village with a bright young student who’d found us in the city and ate our way through the night markets that overlooked Thailand before finally getting back on our bikes to strike for Luang Prabang. For the first stretch we bused it – wanting to skip the flat, dry and hot section (our visa was quickly drawing to an end) and so we jumped back in the saddle for some serious climbing.
It was slash and burn season in Laos which meant the normally striking mountains were a little hazy but still the landscape was dramatic and spectacular as we wound our way past hot springs and a strawberry farm on the slow road north.
This part of Laos is particularly plagued with problems after a bus full of tourists was gunned down a few years ago (the government sited clashes with different ethnic minorities) and for the first time since entering the nation we saw civilians and military alike armed with guns and patrolling.
We’d been warned camping would be tough but after getting the blessing of a local one night in a small village we thought it would be fine to camp by a small stream nearby. The tents were up and we were finishing up our curry dinner when the police arrived and told us to leave. It was unsafe, they said, and we must check into a hotel. We were all knackered and utterly uninterested in leaving but after 40 minutes of negotiations they wouldn’t have a bare of it. Apparently it was too dangerous to camp by the river but safe enough to pack up and pedal off into the night without a police escort. By 9.30pm we’d checked into a truly horrendous guest house with sheets covered in splotches of blood and …ahem… semen and so threw our sleeping liners on the duvet before crashing out.
The heat, combined with the climbing made the going tough as we neared Luang Prabang and after a few jokes that we should hitch hike we decided to half heartedly stick our thumbs out at the start of a particularly brutal stretch. The first truck stopped and we were so shocked they had to tell us to hurry up and put our bikes on if we wanted a lift.
There was just one problem however, the truck had no back and sides and we had to lay the bikes down while we held onto a nearby rope. It was one of those situations where you know you’re being incredibly stupid but figure the alternative is worse so decide to go along with it. But that was until we realised a raging lunatic was behind the wheel. He drove like a bat out of hell around steep and sharp switch backs as we hung on for dear life with one hand while desperately trying to hold onto our bikes with the other. It felt as though any minute I’d be seeing poor little Hercules fly off the back but here’s the sad part – as terrified as we were we all too bloody lazy to stop the truck and get off and cycle.
Eventually hell’s truck stopped and spat us out 25km from Luang Prabang so like shell-shocked war survivors (coated in so much dust we looked like we’d coated ourselves in butter then rolled in dirt) we got out and cycled hard to our final, major Laos destination.
By 8pm we’d made it and we scoffed down a celebratory meal before hunting around for a guest house that wasn’t obscenely priced. Luang Prabang is the former capital of the nation but is now home to around a few thousand Trustafarians, a hell of a lot of upmarket backpackers and a healthy dose of elephant-pant wearing travellers on a quest to find themselves. It’s made the place pricy and just a touch pretentious but despite that you couldn’t help but feel charmed.
Perched on the banks of the Mekong it was truly beautiful and the food was a huge improvement on the rustic villages we’d pedalled through on the way.
Just a couple of days remained on our visa come leaving time so rather than pedal a few hundred mountainous kilometres to Thailand we booked the slow boat from Luang Prabang to the border for a casual two day paddle down the Mekong.
By the second day we were going stir crazy but despite the almost too-relaxed pace the scenery was gorgeous as we floated past small villages and herds of buffalo stomping in the shallows.
I’d truly loved parts of Laos but it times it had been a chore. It was still poor and under-developed, while desperately trying to cash in on the tourist dollar and with Thailand waiting on the other side (with all its ease, affordability and beauty – not to mention the food) I was desperate to cross over.
We spent one last night in the border town (the boat rolled in too late to leave) and then pedalled the six kilometres back to the bridge that would deliver just to country number 21.
We’d heard countless cyclists whinge about this bridge. For starters they won’t let you pedal across it – but take a bus – and secondly, they made you pay for the privilege.
We were sick of being squeezed out of every Lao Kip and decided to put on our persuasive pants and attempt to cycle it.
After several fruitless minutes it was charming Diego that won the cross looking border guard over and they agreed to let us cycle with a police escort. Unfortunately we still had to shell out a leaving fee but it was less than the bus and we felt as though we’d had a minor victory.
The minute our feet touched Thai soil the difference was profound.
A smiling border guard joked with us as he stamped our passports and told us how strong we were, there were no mentions of “stamp fees” and a smiling lady offered us a free map as we exited. I could almost feel the Pad Thai sliding down my throat with a cold beer but for poor Scott (who’d had a case of the “runs” since the morning) it was the thought of a clean western loo that had him racing for the nearest town.
Little old Chiang Khong was roughly the same size as its Lao equivalent but that’s where the similarities ended. Shops were spotless and gleaming, a nearby giant Tesco looked like it could have walked out of an English town and the guesthouses were clean, cheap and fabulous.
A mere $5 USD scored us a room in a resort with a pool and we all patted Scott on the back for giving us an excuse to spend an extra day kicking back in paradise.
I already felt head over heals in love with Thailand and we’d only just begun.