More photos in the Laos photo Gallery
After spending a few days in beautiful and laid back Vientiane, I took off towards the northern mountains of Laos towards Vang Vieng. Pretty flat, some undulating terrain and friendly locals made the ride much more interesting than the monotonous surroundings of the stretch from Savannakhet. On the horizon I started to see mountains, a sight I longed waited to lay my eyes on. I’m not talking about limestone rocks in Thailand or the Blue Mountains in Australia, but proper mountain peaks reaching several thousand meters.
Vang Vieng’s surroundings are impressive; limestone rocks, mountains and the Nam Xong River sneaking its way along town. The city is, in my personal opinion, ruined by the backpackers on a party binge. In the past, many have lost their life going tubing on the river, consuming alcohol and drugs along the way. Drowning of Australians has made the news on several occasions in the past couple of years. Bars, restaurants – some offering “happy meals” by putting mushrooms in the meal – and street drinking is everywhere in the main area. Vang Vieng is not a place where someone goes to have quiet time. Still, the place is worth a few days exploring the surrounding; numerous caves systems, treks and visits to nearby villages can make for interesting experience.
Then it was towards Luang Prapang, a World Heritage Unesco protected city. The riding was awesome; incredible roads climbing along the edge of the mountains, relatively quiet roads, amazing views and hospitality from the villages – mostly Hmong minority group – makes the journey memorable. Stopping in villages for a break is something I loved doing, sometimes giving candies to the local kids. On one occasion, they (about 10 of them) literally ripped the bag full of coconut sweets off my hands and took off running with it. Within a second, I was left alone. I simply smiled and jumped back on my bike and kept going.
I stayed in Luang Prapang for 3 days. I caught with friends I met earlier on my journey, explored nearby villages and went sightseeing. Luang Prapang is a beautiful city and it’s easy to fall in love with it. The Mekong being at its feet, thousands years old charming and authentic buildings and the many temples in the city makes it a popular stop with many travellers. Having been there 7 years ago, I was surprised at the incredible number of guesthouses. The city was a lot busier than what I remembered, but still kept its laid back atmosphere and friendly locals. Walking on a track along the Mekong, I was invited to drink beer with 4 local men sitting on tiny logs admiring the view over the Mekong. From their vintage point, it was the perfect spot to truly admire and take in the scenery. It was 10AM when they started to skull glasses of beer. It didn’t take long before I started feeling the effects and by midday I was happily smiling, head spinning and without a care.
Walking at the market one morning, I saw this guy on a push bike. Chen is from China and was cycling around South-East Asia on his way back to China. As I was going in the same direction, we exchanged emails in case we met along the way; he wasn’t sure how long he would stay in Luang. After about 15kms riding out of Luang Prapang, I saw him in front of me resting and drinking water. Great I thought, I have a partner to ride! We stayed together for a week or so.
We tackled the most difficult section of the mountains together; from Pakmong village to Oudomxai. We started the day with a 30 minutes wait due to road work; time wasting for cyclists about to tackle some climbing. Once on the go, the road quickly disintegrated to become part bitumen, part rocks and part dust, sometimes with long stretches of rocky terrain. Throw in there huge pot holes, heavy trucks, quite a number of pickup trucks and temperature in the mid 30’s. Gradients of 8-10% became extremely challenging in the tough terrain. We were limited to basically 12km/h on the descent so we could make up too much time. It was full darkness when we reached Oudomxai. We found a cheap guesthouse, ate 2 excellent and cheap ($0.70 for a soup) noodle soups each and collapse in bed, spent.
The next day was again in the mountains, but this time the road was is impeccable condition. It was so much easier and we had a lot of fun on the descents. The view was sometimes limited to a few 100 meters mostly due to smoke; local villagers are burning their paddies, dead leafs and debris as well as the occasional trash. We came across a huge fire on a mountain face obstructing the mountain views, making the air think with smoke. We could sometimes look down to see the road sneaking it way along the mountain ledge. The feeling of making a pass after a 20kms climb and looking down on the road ahead is sometimes hard to describe but surely is satisfying.
We reached the township / large village of Nateuy by about 16h, more than enough time to find a campsite. Earlier during the day, we decided to wild camp along the river if we could find a good spot, my first wild camp since Thailand. Later, Chen told me it was his first wild camp ever. He was a bit nervous, I could tell by his behaviour. I reassured him there was nothing to fear; there were no crocodiles in the rivers of Laos. After finding a good spot, we cycled back in the village and picked up some food; 2 packets of 2 minutes noodles, 5 uncooked eggs, plain sticky rice (about a kilo), canned fish and soft drinks. We gathered fire wood, cooked the delicious food (yes my friends, 2 minute noodles are a delight after 90kms of cycling in the mountains of northern Laos) and dipped in the chilly waters of the river for a brief wash.
It was great to be back in the wild after such a long time sleeping in cheap guesthouses. I realised how much I miss being out there, cooking at the end of the day, enjoying the moment and reflecting on the events of the day. I promised myself to camp more in the mountains of Yunnan in China. As it turned out, it proved difficult to find good wild camps in Yunnan; the steep mountain cliffs made it a challenge to find flat ground and where the flat ground was, so did the Chinese.