Leaving Luang Prabang: Let’s see how far the road takes us

Posted: June 9, 2010 in Mountain bike touring North Laos 2005
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Lak 600,000 or Lao Kip or all of US$60. is just nough for 3 whole days spending for the both of us. The largest denomination in 05 was LAK 50000 note. I would be seeing another money changer in Luang Namtha to see how much more to change for Muang Sing and Xieng Kok.

Trying to break or get change for the LAK 50,000 outside of Luang Prabang or Vientiane is going to be a minor miracle, unless you’re paying for a very nice hotel room or dont expect any change. Before leaving Laos, change any remaining LAK into Thai Baht, Chinese Yuan or if you really still have a lot of LAK, USD. The LAK is non convertible outside Laos. To add to the confusion, if you spend any of the above foreign currency in Laos, you’ll always be given change in LAK or worse, a combination of all of the above. It’s almost impossible to get change in Thai Baht if you’ve just spent in Baht.

Dealing with such mental arithmetics on a daily basis does keep the mind sharp though and I’ve even had a granny or two out calculate me. You can also aggravate any situation further by not accepting any change, say 50 cents or a dollar equivalent (if you know that’s exactly what’s due to you) by grabbing a bottle of water, can of Coke or some snacks, assuming again that you know the average price of those items!

The better restaurants and most guesthouses and hotels in town will usually hand you a hand written bill in all the 3 widely accepted currencies in Laos. For eg, $5 or LAK 50,000 or Thai Baht 200. (May 05 rates)

The good thing about having price lists and fares spelt out in Laos, is that if you’re going to be overcharged for a service, every foreigner will be overcharged equally. I feel almost better already.

Hong’s Place an old French Lao house that moonlights as a Rasta Pub/Bar out in the suburbs. We rode there to try their khao thom or minced pork and rice porridge breakfast and were not disappointed.

It's going to be al oooong day

How far can the road take us? Well, heading south on Route 13 to the Lao capital at Vientiane is roughly 400 kms of which some 300 kms are mountainous. Heading north, through less steeper terrain will lead to China, about 300 kms away. We headed north, still on Route 13 which after 100 kms links up with the old Route 1 at Pak Mong, a small crossroads village.

After the last three days of sweltering heat, guess what, it rained for two hours on the dawn of our departure. No complaints here, so thank heaven our ride was cool and cloudy till about 11 am or after 70 kms on Rte 13. At this point the road which was rolling alongside a very scenic Nam Ou river veered westwards and started to climb gently for the next 20 kms, flattening out 10 kms before Pak Mong.

On the road in Laos, you’ll be greeted by children of all ages, from the hillsides and down by the rivers and streams. My quick guess is this boy has found that he’s getting a larger catch and more protein by using a mask. My apologies Paul for having to stop…again.

We came across some ‘eco park’ along Rte 13 for those not keen on Kenya. Lots of fake life sized animals. My 5 year old nephew still thinks I went to Africa.

The oven like conditions was a good excuse for lunch. Unfortunately, the menu did not match the size and splendour of this riverside restaurant. The kitchen was closed and all they could muster up was some instant noodles from their dusty shelves. Even tossing some eggs into the pot seemed too major an accomplishment. To quote Paul, “I’m feeling slimmer by the minute” and that was good.

We were ready to pack it in after reaching Pak Mong. Somehow sleeping at a truck stop (unless one is a trucker) didnt seem that appealing, so we decided to push on to Nong Khiaw where the scenery was better and sleeping choices were a bit better than grim. Thankfully the 33 kms were slightly downhill, there was a slight tailwind and we made this ‘I’ll go for it, if you go for it’ deal that always works and 90 minutes later Nong Khiaw was in sight.

This quiet back road is actually Rte 1 and has many thatched roofed homes and villages similar to those in the far flung provinces closer to China. Given it’s proximity to Luang Prabang, they wont stay the same for long.

On the 1975 China built bridge at Nong Khiaw

Paul headed straight to the Phayboun GH while I found some last ounces of energy to take a few rapid fire pictures of myself on the 1975 Chinese sponsored concrete bridge across the Nam Ou. Time check was 5.17 pm. 2007 update : A new swanky (for Laos) place, the Nong Khiaw Riverside Resort has six chalets with luxurious teak? rooms and balconies that open out over the Nam Ou. $15 a night. They should be perched high up on the jungle clad limestone hill ‘behind my helmet’

After one of the best cold water baths ever, we took a stroll around ‘town’ a very loose term, to check things out, dinner being on the top of the list. This one bridge village is surrounded by vertical limestone mountains on both river banks and has become one of the must sees in Laos. One hour up river on a slow boat brings you to Muang Ngoi, another one street village with about a dozen or more guest houses backed up against towering limestone hills.

I suppose there’s some some great trekking, caving and swimming spots up river, but the general consensus among some of the backpackers who’ve ‘done’ Muang Ngoi can be summed in one word. ‘Rats’ or maybe field mice. Lots of them, especially at night, in the rafters, rooms and backpacks .

Our last surprise of today was this guy on a hybrid with an improvised bike packing system. While I suppose everything works for him, the weird part (another loose term) was the he was setting off at sunset into 200 kms of mountain roads of Rte 1 towards Vieng Thong in the east. Seeing us and anyone that stopped to say hello, he just glared angrily and started muttering, to his bike or some imaginary friend. At one point he shouted at his map and bike, saying he did not want to ‘walk up’ any more ‘f***ing steep roads’ or shiver at night in a ‘crap room’ When a female tourist or two stopped by he waited for his grand finale, took of his long pants, mooned everyone, it was a skinny moon, and proceeded to wear a very loose pair of cycling tights. Cycle touring can be addictive, but I think fellow was on another high or a severe case of solo bike touring burnout.

Homeless guy on a bike

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