Arriving in Laos meant finally arriving in Southeast Asia. For months we had dreamed of the day we would cross the Chinese frontier and enter the promised lands of Laos. When our bikes broke in Kazakhstan, when we were battling the ferocious head winds and immense cold in the Uzbek desert, and when we were snowed in to our hostel in Urumqi we would torment ourselves with visions of Southeast Asia.
Arriving in Laos burst that mirage almost immediately. We didn’t realise it at the time but we were completely and utterly exhausted from our China Challenge; adrenaline, stubbornness, and a desire not to be beaten by the sheer size of China had kept us going, but the very moment we did not need to be anywhere or do anything our bodies just stopped and said enough is enough. Unfortunately this occurred in the border town of Boten, which is not a place anyone in their right mind would ever want to stop. It is a purpose built border town, which in itself should have told us to keep going, but we couldn’t, we were broken. The town had had a huge amount of money poured into it from China, and just as quickly the money had been pulled out; what you are left with is a border town that has even less soul than normal. The hotel we stayed in looked as though it had close to 300 rooms, of which we think 5 were occupied; the “casinos” looked more like the gaming areas you see in a local pub in Britain, there were a number of building sites left abandoned when the money had dried up, and the people working and visiting the town (yes people actually visit Boten from China for the “casinos”) were quite clearly there to hide from something. This was certainly not the Southeast Asia we had been envisaging, the only positive being we were finally able to get our hands on some fabled Beer Lao, which we believed was thoroughly deserved after China.
The next morning we could not wait to leave and set out to reach Luang Namtha as quickly as possible. The 60km we cycled that day genuinely felt like some of the hardest of our journey. Our bodies were incredibly sore and refused to cooperate, and mentally we were on a beach somewhere in Thailand (ridiculous I know, but the mind is a strange thing). Thankfully for us the cycling was mainly downhill and on arriving in Luang Namtha we checked into a popular backpacker guesthouse and spent the rest of the day either looking in wonderment at the Internet (China has the Internet, but not really), sleeping, or dragging ourselves to the guesthouse restaurant for calories.
Initially we were booked in for three nights; this ended up being five and could easily have been 30. The guesthouse was brilliant, the rooms were cheap, slightly too dark, and perfectly cool in the tropical heat; all in all an excellent combination for a lot of sleeping. The staff were mostly fine, but had a tendency to scowl at everything and everyone but with all the sleeping we were doing it did not bother us.
For most people Luang Namtha is all about the exciting jungle excursions, kayaking trips, and “authentic” home stays you can do when based there. For us it was all about eating, sleeping, and doing nothing; so much so that we made a pact not to walk more than 200m from our guesthouse at any point in time. This did not seem to impact on our experience though; directly opposite our guesthouse was the famous night market, serving up all sorts of wonderful Laotian food; our favourite being a combination of roast duck, pork belly and papaya salad. When we were sick of that we could opt for an incredible restaurant at the entrance to our guesthouse, which served up both Laotian and western food, most exciting of all was the simple pleasure in having a fruit salad and muesli for breakfast, something we take for granted normally.
Luang Namtha was also the perfect place to make a plan for the Southeast Asia section of the journey, something that we had not had time to think about in the previous months. All we knew was that we wanted to see Angkor Wat, we needed to be in Kuala Lumpur on a certain date to meet some heroes who are flying out from London to holiday with us (not on the bikes), and I wanted to be somewhere guaranteed to be screening the first All Blacks test of the year (not cultural in the slightest, but important nonetheless).
So, after five days of over indulging in food, sleeping, and staying out of the sun as much as possible it was time to leave; as with China, Laos was not getting any smaller and our 30 day visa would not last forever, so with almost zero motivation we started down the long road to Singapore having made absolutely no progress on our plan for Southeast Asia, aside from the fact Bangkok might be a good place to try and catch the All Blacks, but we didn’t know.
The road south from Luang Namtha is a daunting one; there is no avoiding the mountains that make themselves at home in northern Laos and we had also inadvertently chosen the most uncomfortable month of the year for cycling weather-wise. Our first goal was reaching the famed UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang situated on the mighty Mekong, about 320km south of Luang Namtha. For this we decided on a four day approach, which in China would have amounted to the proverbial walk in the park, but here, in this heat, with the mountains for company and our bodies still believing they should be relaxing in a cool room it made for impossibly difficult cycling. The first day out resulted in a painfully slow 70km and the second day was even more of a struggle at a little over 50km. Admittedly there were a lot of mountains to pass, but still it was slow going.
At this speed it is very easy to truly immerse oneself in the culture of the country and for better or worse that is what we got. The children of Laos are some of the friendliest, cutest, most excitable we have ever had the pleasure of seeing and meeting. They do not seem to have a care in the world, and given that they live in one of the poorest countries on earth it is great to see. They have an unbridled joy for life; we would be cycling (very slowly) up hills and you would hear screams of “Sa-bai-Dee!” (hello in Laotian), or our favourite “Sa-bai-Dee Falang!” (hello French person – every person who looks foreign in Laos is referred to as Falang) coming from every waterhole, tree, window, rice field, or buffalo’s back. Wherever there were children, we would hear their enthusiastic screams. In some instances they would come hurtling along behind us, pushing us up the hills (occasionally naked), some times they would come rushing to the road side just in time to high five us before scurrying back to hide in the shade; no matter what they were doing their infectious happiness brought a smile to our faces that after a while made our faces ache (that is no exaggeration).
Unfortunately the same cannot be said for everyone that we encountered, in fact we started to get the distinct impression that all was not as rosy in Laos as the tourist authorities would have you believe. For every smiling child there was a scolding adult, often scolding a child for interacting with us; for every Sa-bai-Dee there was an adult who wanted nothing to do with us and let us know with a look of disapproval, and then there were the angry young boys… with the exception of China, where people were so polite to us it was almost embarrassing we have seen that boys everywhere east of western Europe have often held a grudge against us. I’m not saying all boys, that would be ridiculous, but enough to identify it as a problem and something to be wary of. In Laos it started to become a little bit of a concern; we don’t know if this is through boredom, lack of education, or genuine animosity towards foreigners but I can assure you that on bicycles you are very very vulnerable and the throwing of rocks and overly aggressive behaviour is not acceptable. I wish these were isolated incidents, sadly they were not. Dealing with this is difficult at the speed in which we travel and hard to comprehend after the brilliant interactions with children.
It was with some relief that we finally made it to Luang Prabang on the fourth day out of Luang Namtha, relief that we had survived the heat and humidity, relief that we had negotiated the rock throwing, aggressive local lads, and relief that we could again relax and rebuild our strength that was truly being sapped by the environment we found ourselves in.
Luang Prabang is arguably one of the finest looking towns we have ever had the pleasure of visiting. The colonial architecture, numerous Buddhist sites, location on the Mekong and the sight of so many monks is something to behold. One morning we ventured up to the top of Chomsy Hill to take in the stunning vista and had the temple that sits atop all to ourselves; a special moment, made even more special and particularly memorable by the conversation we had whilst there. When taking a look at one of the giant footprints of Buddha I caught a glimpse of bright orange out of the corner of my eye as a shy, young monk appeared and shuffled quietly over to us. “I allowed to speak with you?” he asked in his basic English; “of course” we replied. What followed was a truly remarkable conversation with this young man (and his friend who had now come out of the shadows to join him). We spoke about our home countries; they spoke about going to school, what it was like to be a monk in training, what their opportunities were like, if they would stay on to become a monk, what enlightenment might entail, etc., etc. … When we finally parted ways they thanked us for taking the time to help them with their English and we thanked them for giving us an insight into this remarkable way of living. It was one of those experiences that you felt was genuine, almost humbling.
It is these interactions with people across the world that makes this form of travelling particularly rewarding; a random meeting with a random trainee monk can have a profound effect on your day, on your week, and to some extent even the way you see the world. We got a small insight into their struggles, their dreams, their way of life. It was definitely a very small insight but it was marvellous.
Food plays an enormous part of any travelling experience, but even more so when you are a constantly ravenous cyclist. The food in Luang Prabang is outstanding (Falang/Laotian fusion we have heard it called), and if you get to the night market you can find some really amazing treats. Visiting the market every evening became ritual and a lot of the people we met were extremely nice and welcoming, particularly the lovely lady and her wonderful family who always provided us with unbelievably great fruit shakes and baguettes (did I mention the Falang influence?!?!). The market was also an excellent place to people watch, but more importantly sit back and watch the interaction between local and tourist play out. Following the rock throwing, remembering back to the lack of smiles from our hosts in Luang Namtha, and some of the general rudeness we had experienced since arriving from China we were intrigued to see if this was happening to other people. Believe me when I say we were beyond thankful that it was not limited only to us; as for a while there we thought we might have been offending the locals or their culture. This was interesting to us mainly because it appeared to be widespread, but equally because a number of people whose travel judgement we trust implicitly have raved about how good visiting Laos was and how they would love to go back.
In any case, with many thoughts running through our minds as to what had possibly changed over the past few years in Laos the main thought was of the mountains we still had to get across on our way south. So, after four nights we felt as though we could not put this off any longer, bit the bullet and headed off at 0530 on the fifth morning to tackle the mountains.
We knew that the first day would be the toughest and we were not disappointed. The day started with a slight incline and then a slight decline for the first 25km and then a 15km uphill stretch that took us up 700 vertical metres. This in itself is not too difficult, even on a touring bike, but with the humidity through the roof and the temperature knocking around the 30 degree mark before 0900 it was brutal; if only the sun could have hidden away more often it may have been bearable. By the time we reached the summit of the first climb we were exhausted and even more anxious about the day than when we started. It certainly didn’t help that snakes were out in force and we had seen more than our fair share of scorpions, including one very impressive specimen that narrowly avoided Katie’s tyre as it hurried across the road. I am not exaggerating when I say it would easily have filled the palm of my hand.
We stopped at the bottom of the 15km decent that followed the torturous 15km acent, made sure that the surrounding was clear of anything likely to bother us and enjoyed a roast duck and baguette lunch (cycle touring is not all bad). We lingered over lunch, which was a sure fire indication of how nervous we were of the impending section, but with the sun starting to do some real damage we had to push on. The final climb of the day started at 1030 and took the best part of 6 hours to complete. In terms of numbers it is nothing special; a 25km climb of around 1,200 vertical metres. But the sun, the heat, and the humidity were all taking their toll. I remember thinking more than once that we might not make it in a single day. It was brutally tough. Strangely, I found it infinitely tougher than Katie, who almost seems to thrive in the heat and handles this environment with aplomb. I recall at least 6 times I had to get off the bike for fear of collapse, lay down and pour water over myself. On one of these occasions I got lucky and had the use of a cascading waterfall on the side of the road to cool me down. Another time when we decided that the best course of action was to take a break from the sun at an abandoned roadside shelter, a man turned up (remember this is the middle of nowhere) on his motorbike selling ice creams! True story; we have photos to prove it. The man could see we were hurting and we could sense his sympathy, but you could also see him asking himself what the hell we were doing; to be fair he wasn’t the only one asking that question.
Finally, after 6 hours of slog we made it to a small rural town, found a guesthouse oft frequented by cycle tourists, consumed two dinners each and passed out. What a day; it was by far and away the hardest I have had on a bike and looking back now from the comfort of an air conditioned room I find it remarkable that we made it. It is one of those days we will remember forever!
The second day out of Luang Prabang proved to be difficult, but nothing on the first day. What the second day did have that the first day lacked to some extent were spectacular views; I don’t mean just spectacular views, I mean the crème de la crème of views. My ability as both a photographer and wordsmith could never do the scenery justice, but the following gives you some idea of what I mean…
… hopefully you get the idea; luckily for us this was not even the highlight of the day and again reinforces why this mode of travelling is hard to beat. As we rounded a corner passing right next to the rocky outcrop you can see in the above photo we came across a set of bungalows we had heard of from other cycle tourists. The very special thing about these bungalows is that they are situated almost in the middle of nowhere next to a thermal stream, which you are able to bathe in. I mean, seriously, how often do you get to sit in a thermal stream in the middle of a tropical jungle and wash away the day’s troubles whilst relaxing with a Beer Lao? Amazing times.
The last day into Vang Vieng was again spectacular, maybe not as spectacular as the previous, but still spectacular in its own right. It also marked the end of the large mountains, which we were incredibly grateful for. After a couple of days doing as little as possible in this backpacker haven, where we met a number of truly wonderful people we decided that we had to either push on to the border, or ask the proprietor of the local Irish bar for a job. Given we have deadlines it seemed logical to keep on keeping on.
Thankfully the final days were relatively uneventful and the cycling was decidedly dull. To us Laos was a country of contrasts; on the one hand we had many great experiences, some of which I have tried to paint above; on the other hand we had many, many unpleasant experiences and often felt as though we were incredibly unwelcome. This was most evident around the tourist hotspots and in the extremely poor areas that we travelled. Travelling by bicycle is great, but from time to time you really do feel vulnerable and it is not pleasant; this rarely happens on a frequent basis, but seemed to in Laos. As we approached the Friendship Bridge linking Laos and Thailand, I was more apprehensive about the journey that I had been on Day 1. What if Thailand is the same as Laos? What if Cambodia is the same as Laos? Are we going to experience more elevated levels of hostility in other areas? This all washed away as soon as we passed through customs on the Laos side and cycled on to the Friendship Bridge; you see the best thing about this bridge is that people drive on the correct side of the road, and after almost 16,000km in a strange kind of way it felt a little like home; almost like a home comfort telling us everything would be alright.
As we were welcomed into Thailand we could not believe what a difference a width of river makes to the people. Smiles, smiles, and more smiles! I had a funny feeling we would really, really enjoy Thailand!