LAOS - INTO THE MOUNTAINS
My time in Laos starts poorly as I am almost immediately forced to swerve my bicycle off the road to avoid being rolled over by an enormous truck that is driving on the wrong side of the road. I start cursing at it before realising with embarrassment that in Laos you drive on the right – in the excitement of crossing the Friendship Bridge from Thailand and getting my visa I had completely forgotten, and of course I cannot read any of the signs which might have told me. After 7 months of riding on the left, this is going to take some getting used to!
The first 100km are not fun. I can immediately see that Laos is much poorer than Thailand. The road is rough, bumpy and incredibly dusty. Everywhere the buildings look unfinished. Trucks spew out noxious black clouds and everything is so built up that there is little to see from the road. My only hope lies beyond the wall of mountains in the far distance to the north, towards which I am headed.
The main road is horrible so I soon find a detour – 50km of jarring and even-dustier dirt road running parallel to the highway. Here at last I am able to see something of rural Laos – buildings are ramshackle and dogs, ducks and chickens roam the road freely. The people seem very happy. My first night in Laos is spent camped hidden behind a large rubbish dump. As with much of Southeast Asia it is very difficult to find a suitable camp site that is out of sight, flat and with ground that will not flood should the monsoon strike in the night.
I wake in the morning to bad news. The monsoon and accompanying storm which raged for much of the night has snapped one of my tent poles down the middle. I sigh tiredly, brew a cup of tea and sit down with the pole and my duct tape until I have completed an improvised repair job. This trip, as well as most of my gear, would soon fall apart without duct tape. Still, it is a bad start to the day and by the time I have re-joined the highway I am grumpy and caked in red road dust. Half the day continues like this, and by the time I finally reach the mountains I am in a thoroughly foul mood. I am grumbling to myself as I slowly climb the pass, but as I reach the summit and can at last see beyond the wall of mountains and over the other side, I am rendered speechless and all of my complaints and aches are instantly gone.
The mountains of Laos are spectacular, and after months of riding through the flat plains of Southeast Asia it is a revelation to be back in high country. Gone is the endless urban sprawl, the constant traffic and the noise and dust of the flats. Laos is spread out before me, undulating hills and valleys, rivers and cliffs. The traffic drops immediately, and the dust recedes. I fly down the other side, racing past rusting tractors which will catch and overtake me again on the next climb, before once again falling behind on the descents.
For the rest of the day I ride joyfully and with boundless energy through the green and vibrant landscape, passing sleepy villages and crossing a number of rivers. Everywhere people are outdoors, sitting around in small groups eating, chatting or playing cards. Clusters of small children run and play around the roads, and every time I pass I am greeted with wide smiles and calls of sa-bai-dee! I camp at the top of a pass with the world spread out beneath me. In the far distance I can see jagged peaks protruding from the surrounding clouds. I fall asleep with a sense of enormous contentment.
I rise early to watch the sunrise, cook breakfast and continue north. By lunchtime I have arrived at Vang Vieng, a town I know nothing about other than that it has a number of caves marked on my map. The location is spectacular, set in a large valley surrounded by enormous limestone cliffs known as karsts. I ride through town, cross a river on a long wooden bridge, and ride out to explore one of the lagoons and caves of the surrounding region. It is spectacularly beautiful, and over a blissful hour of relaxing in the lagoon I convince myself to stay the night in Vang Vieng. I check into a hostel, paying for accommodation for only the third time in more than 7 months.
By the end of the night I have drunk a significant amount of Beerlao and have met a charming Frenchman named Thomas who offers me a temporary job and a spare bed to crash on for however long I want to stay. I gratefully accept, figuring I’ll hang around for a day or two, and end up staying in Vang Vieng for almost two weeks. I reflect on how fortunate I am to have enough of that wonderful element of nomadic freedom in my life that I am able to stop spontaneously whenever I find somewhere I really like.
When I finally ride out of Vang Vieng it is on a week long hangover, but I have had a fantastic time and am sorry to leave the place and its people. I ride onward out of the valley and through more mountains to Kasi, where I am invited to teach a few lessons at an English school. I am impressed with the effort of the children – these kids really want to learn.
From Kasi there are two roads I can take north to Luang Prabang. The traditional route is the old road which meanders east around the mountains. There is also another newer route which goes west and then directly up and over the mountains before turning north, which is around 50km shorter than the old road. I have been advised by all of the bus drivers I have asked in Vang Vieng to avoid the newer road, and been warned of brutal gradients and sections of road being washed off the mountain. At the crossroads in Kasi I check my map, scratch my head and turn left onto the new road.
The scenery continues to impress as I begin to climb, first gradually and then in earnest. Night falls as I reach a bridge over a roaring river and it begins to rain. I take shelter in a nearby building which turns out to be a barracks for Laos army soldiers patrolling the region. They are all stern, serious and armed with automatic weapons. But it is raining so I shrug, put on my best smile and gesture that I would like to put up my tent for the night behind their outpost. Smiles and laughter immediately break out and I am quickly invited to sleep with them in the barracks. They cook up an enormous amount of Lao ‘sticky rice’ with mushrooms fried in chilli, which I gratefully wolf down. The men are almost incredulous at how much I put away. Soldier or not, there are not many people around who can out-eat a touring world-cyclist.
It is still raining as I set off the next morning, and it does not stop for almost five hours. The first two and a half of these are spent grinding up the mountain pass at less than walking speed. For 11 punishing kilometres the road climbs relentlessly upwards at an unwavering gradient of 12%. The wind batters the rain into my eyes and I am soon drenched, even with my waterproof coat and trousers. Towards the top the road gives way to rubble and I have to drag my bike through. So much water is streaming down the road towards me that I feel as if I am cycling up a river. My legs are burning as I finally reach the top at 1900m and the temperature has dropped from over 30 to less than 10 degrees Celsius.
I ride past more men armed with rifles and begin the descent. Everyone in these mountains seems to be packing heat. The descent is not much more fun than the ascent as the gradient is still 12% and I am leaning heavily on the brakes through the stinging rain. I fear for my life repeatedly as I grit my teeth and plummet downwards, and breathe a sigh of relief as I finally reach the valley floor and pull into a village for lunch and to dry off.
An hour later I am riding again and am thoroughly drunk, having been invited by four Lao men to join them for lunch as well as several bottles of Beerlao and seemingly endless toasts of Lao-Lao, a homemade rice whisky. I continue on, camp and arrive the following day in Luang Prabang. The former capital of Laos and a world heritage site, Luang Prabang is a beautiful, relaxed and interesting place. I treat myself to my 4th night of paid accommodation in another cheap hostel (in Laos I am really spoiling myself) and set off the following morning on a beautiful sunny day.
The first day and a half make for magnificent riding as I follow a river north towards the Chinese border, cruising over rolling hills and through numerous villages. Throughout Laos, the happy smiles and enthusiastic sa-bai-dees of the rural children never abated or failed to draw a smile and wave from me in response. For my final day and a half the road begins to wind and climb up into the mountains. Compared to my earlier route south of Luang Prabang, the gradients are far more forgiving and therefore although the first climb is almost 20km long, it is much more manageable. The heat however is less generous, and the temperature soars to around 40 degrees Celsius.
I am able to rest my legs for a few minutes by catching on to the back of a large truck making its slow way uphill, but my attempts to ‘truck surf’ are cut short when the driver realises I am there and begins to swerve in an attempt to throw me off. I let go quickly and resume pedalling. Towards the top of one pass I overtake a group of a dozen children walking up. As I pass they begin running after me, laughing as they try to keep up. One boy is clutching a very confused looking chicken tightly under one arm as he runs. I quickly recruit them to help push my bicycle up the mountain, and for the next five minutes pedalling becomes effortless. My underage workforce quickly tires however and before long I look back to see that the scoundrels are clutching onto my panniers and that I am now in fact pulling the additional weight of eight children and one large chicken. I am knackered and laughing when I reach the top.
My final night in Laos is spent camped behind a petrol station a few kilometres from the Chinese border. Laos has been by far my favourite country in Southeast Asia, partly because of the beauty of its mountains but also partly because of its wonderfully laid back atmosphere and adorable children. Lao PDR. Laos: Please Don’t Rush. I have now cycled all the way through Southeast Asia and have very nearly made it out of the tropics. My next two months will be spent riding through China to Central Asia. Tibet, the Himalayas and the Taklamakan Desert beckon. I can hardly wait.