Archive for the ‘Cycle touring Rte 13 Northern Laos 2008’ Category

Wednesday November 19, 2008, 20 km (12 miles) – Total so far: 721 km (448 miles)

We fly home tomorrow morning. Today is errands day. Find boxes. Wash bikes, pack bikes and try to fit in eating, massages, shopping and sightseeing.

We had the company of Michel, a world traveler on a trike at breakfast, and I wished I had followed him some kilometers out of town just to see the reaction on people’s faces. He was heading to Thailand via the Friendship Bridge and eventually Bangkok. He has handled bandits before, so grumpy anti bicycle Thai customs and immigration should be a piece of cake.

Like his trike and trailer there’s long address at, http://tour-du-monde-en-tricycle.blogs-de-voyage.fr

another round the world bikes in Vientiane

First time visitors to the largest city in Laos will notice that prices are much higher than in neighbouring countries. More so if they’ve been used to longer stays, say in Thailand or Cambodia. Almost all consumer goods are imported from Thailand or China.

Being hungry cyclists, we try not to quibble too much about food prices, we need lots of it ! Then there’s the drinks. We were lucky to stay in guest houses where drinking water was supplied freely. On the longer hill climbing days, we drank more than we ate. It was difficult to resist the array of cold bottled drinks in the fridges of those small road side shacks along the road.

Probably the greatest expense were the guest houses. The Vientiane ones cost the most, averaging $25 and above. My quibble here is that the exact same establishment listed prices of $15 for the same room, last year. If you get to Vientiane, late in the day, like most cyclists do, be aware that rooms fill up quickly and most places have a take it or leave it attitude, at their not so good value prices.

The quality and variety of food in this town comes in a close second after Luang Prabang. There’s French of course, Indian, Chinese, Italian, Vietnamese and even Lao. At KKC we’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. Vientiane has the added attraction of a small Chinatown, which means just more food choices late into the night.

Shocked by higher than average prices, it’s not surprising that some cyclists just head out across the Friendship Bridge over to Thailand just 24 kms away.

To console ourselves, we remind each other that, everything back home costs a lot, lot more, period. We change the remainder of our US dollars which used to trade at the princely rate of 10300 kip to a dollar, back in 05. It hovers around 8500 kip now.

 

I’ve got so many blessings to count for on this trip, mostly friendship and laughter on the road, the graciousness and hospitality of the Lao people, arriving home in one piece (camera excepted) and just plain ol good timing.

The chaos at Bangkok’s Swamp Bunny airport was postponed by 3 weeks just for us.

Route 13 is described in some tourist brochures and guide books as the ‘Royal Road’ between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. I don’t know why yet, but Royal does sound much better than just Route 13.

In between these 2 must see destinations, you can fly (done that already), take a bus or van (did that on one 22 km uphill stretch) or like us cycle down, and up the only road linking the two towns. And what a journey this has turned out to be.

Looking back at 3000 images, I’ve realised that the essence of a good bicycle tour makes plodding around on two wheels a secondary afterthought. Yes it’s a means of transport, but sweat, sunburn and aching butt aside, your senses, mind and eyes are stimulated and enriched far beyond any monetary value. Just ask ol’ blue eye below. He never misses a blink.

Tuesday November 18, 2008, 95 km (59 miles) – Total so far: 701 km (436 miles)

School's out near Thalat

I left Thalat still wondering where the mythical lakeside village of Na Nam was. It’s highly possible it was a few kms north east out of the Thalat market, and not across that narrow bridge on Route 10 towards Vientiane. That led to the dam and the crazily steep hill to a single resort, the Longngum View.

*A post trip check on Google Earth, LP’s Cycling Guide and other sources point to the lakeside village of Na Nam, just after the steep 1.8 km climb. Ah, well.

Come to think of it, KG / LHT 3 went out on his own in that direction, I, LHT 1 was too dazzled by the lights of Thalat, and Alvin had sent Team Belguim to the Longngum view, saying that we’ll join them shortly.

Miscommunication all around and complacency setting in from riding together for some time. It happens sometimes, and the 5 of us had a good laugh about it when we regrouped, where else but in the shade of a small eatery 15 kms from Thalat.

Riding south from Phon Hong to Vientiane is a much shorter 70 kms. The detour to Thalat via Route 10 added one nasty hill and about another 25 kms more, but the relatively quiet road up to the Tha Ngon bridge 24 kms from the Lao capital seems to be a favourite among cyclists. The many scenic bridge crossings and guesthouses along the way make this a ‘safe’ road, in case you might want to call it quits early in the day. I cannot vouch for the traffic nor quality of Route 13 from Phon Hong to Vientiane mainly because I’ve not seen, much less ridden it.

 

Our guest house is close to Chinatown and we ride some more to get there. Fortunately for us we have our rooms booked, and were hoping that there would be at least one more for our Belgian friends. No deal. Sadly we parted ways again as they rode off toward the Mekong riverside to check out some hotels, only to bump into each other during dinner. They’ve got further travels to do, to Southern Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

If we did the same, I suspect the locks to our front doors back home would be changed before our return and all our bikes held hostage.

We arranged to have a farewell dinner the next night.

The finish line in Vientiane

 

Monday November 17, 2008, 115 km (71 miles) – Total so far: 606 km (377 miles)

An original plan to take it easy riding 24 kms to the lakeside village of Tha Heua to ‘catch a boat’ on the Ang Nam Ngum lake to Na Nam village, our destination for the night, did not happen. Simply because there were no boats to do the trip. I figured that there would a lots of boats if you leave from Na Nam, for the 5 hour trip north to Tha Heua.

Well there was one interesting fellow who wanted 300,000 kip even before we saw his boat, a simple dugout with a small motor. Imagine 5 of us with 5 loaded bikes on it, skimming the surface of this huge lake for a few hours.

Seeing out concern he dropped the price to 250,000 kip for two dugouts. We all had a good laugh and he would be lucky if I didn’t have a nightmare about it and ride back 85 kms the next day to throttle him.

It would be less fatal for us to ride another 80 or so flat kms to Thalat at leastKatrien who was looking forward to the short day looked visibly disappointed and we all decided to at least stay together during the day, enjoying the flatter road and drink stops every 15 kms or so. Fat chance. LHTs 2 and 3 as always would take off like the Road Runner, while I would lag behind taking pictures.

A Canadian Buddhist heading north

From Phon Hong (some guest houses here south of town) it’s about 7 kms east on Rte 10 by some nice rice fields to another junction. Make a left, north east for another 7 kms to Thalat with a string of guest houses along the way. Spot on navigation by Frank Roettgen. Danke !

There is a dearth of road signs and markers on Route 10. It pays to stop at every junction or ask around when in doubt.

On the surface Thalat seems like a nondescript market town, but the number of guest houses here has aroused my curiousity. Mainly because I find some condoms in the desk drawer of our room and the receptionist looks me in the eye a little longer than necessary.

I read that there’s a huge cattle market here every now and then. The town’s also close to a huge dam that holds back water from the lake, and the Nam Lik, a jade green river that winds it’s way down to Vientiane.

To confuse matters, locals refer to Thalat as Thinkeo village and are more familiar with that name.

the day market at Thalat

LHT 3 has gone AWOL a further 6 kms up the country road from Thalat. Last sighted near the Ritz Khamphang guest house. As if 115 kms wasn’t enough, he’s added 12 more. He gets an earful from Alvin, but all is well after some upsized fried rice and a giant of an omelette, followed by 3 chocolatey Magnum ice creams for dessert

Team Belgium has gone across the narrow bridge to the right of the town and another 4 kms or so up some very steep hills, close to sunset to a lakeside resort. They got the last bad value room as the place was packed with a cycling tour group heading north to where else, Luang Prabang.

LHTs 1 and 2 did ride up to the dam too, in search of LHT 3, but the sight of that hill, swarms of sand flies, failing light and a ‘bad feeling’ mostly hunger, made me decide to turn back to the bright lights of Thalat.

No matter, we have a nice AC room, hot water, a mini bar and cable TV with aerobics OZ style. $12 well spent. That’s just $6 each. My trucking day is complete.

don't forget to stretch now, boys

Sunday November 16, 2008, 20 km (12 miles) – Total so far: 491 km (305 miles)

We loved Vang Vieng the minute we got our rooms. The usual mod cons. Mod with a big TV, cool AC, huge balcony to dry our laundry, and a powerful hot shower in a big bathroom. Didn’t get too conned at 120000 kip or $15.

Contrary to what you can read about VV, with it’s profusion of backpacker bars and for want of a better term, tourist ghetto, simply stay at the edge of town and all will be well. Head into town for sustenance, massage and internet and cycle out once you’re done.

Even though Laos is a land locked country, many visitors in the Justin or Britney age group seemed to be dressed for the beach, trolling the streets in bermudas and bikinis. Most are harmless, some are loud, some are loud and drunk, and very few are sexy.

C'mon Rachel, it's your turn to find the internet cafe

Older tourists in the know, mostly the Samsonite toting crowd avoid VV like the plague. They fly over the mountains. What’s interesting is that most Thais seem to take Lao travel in their stride, coming to see what the fuss is all about and enjoying themselves without any preconceived notions. So what’s VV’s claim to fame? The Nam Song river paralleling the town. Play Tarzan and Jane, swing from a rope and splash into the river, kayak down it, rent a tube and float down it, stop at a riverside bar and share a bucket of booze with total strangers. Then there’s also all the magical stuff that you can puff…..

Business is so good during the high season, Vientiane and even Thai locals are fighting for a share of the tourist pie. Our guesthouse is adding a new wing, the neighbour’s is almost completed and older ones are being remodeled. Laos seems like a country under perpetual construction.

If you like lightning and flash floods, come in July and August. It happens every year and the huts get rebuilt after that.

There are caves to be explored too on the other bank, but the miles of off road trails there are enough to occupy our afternoon jaunt into the countryside.

We bump into Maarten and Katrien on a dusty trail and they seem happier than yesterday. They did the tourist thing and went to a swimming hole called the Blue Lagoon where the water is really blue. That was on my to do list too, but we got side tracked by too much photography and some bathing beauties by the bridge. Tomorrow, LHT 3 disappears into the sunset.

Saturday November 15, 2008, 78 km (48 miles) – Total so far: 471 km (293 miles)

What a glorious morning to be waking up to the sounds of chirping birds and a rushing stream outside my balcony. I stumble out in my flip flops, camera in hand to greet a crimson sky. Sure I should sleep some more but these early greeting the sunrise days are getting to be a good habit. Going to bed before 9 pm must be the deciding factor too.

LHTs 2 and 3 were rearing to go at 8. Being LHT 1, I decided to let them loose and took my time packing and relaxing with a cup of latte on my balcony. I left at 9.15 on the road to Vang Vieng, the sun in my face, the wind on my back and the marching mountains everywhere. Maarten and Katrien must be somewhere in between.

It’s time to introduce Team Belgium, or maybe it’s easier to look at this http://meerteenkatrien.blogspot.com

On the post rainy season gravel road to Kasi

Oddly enough ‘Kasi’ in the Malay language means ‘give’ What we got going through it was just a dusty market town and dustier bus lot. Signs of wealth are creeping in here. New Land Cruisers and large new houses. Kasi is said to be the next Vang Vieng, in eco tourism terms. Lots of undiscovered caves and trekking opportunities beyond the strip town. I counted about 6 guest houses in and after the town with more popping up for sure. First they have got to fix the road. Maybe they shouldn’t. Speeding traffic will have to slow down and it’ll be safer for cyclists. Since I was on a photo taking binge, LHTs 2 and 3 waited patiently a whole hour for me in Kasi. Bet they had a good rest, as I usually have 3 minutes to down a Lactasoy and move on again. Then again I have nicer, OK less hastily taken pictures.

The last 20 kms into Vang Vieng is an awful downright mess on a dusty broken road. Oh to be sitting on an unloaded full suspension mountain bike. It can happen, on a $150 a day tour, which will still include a night in KKC. Thankfully the long chain stays of the LHT made the ride through the rutted roads less of a bone jarring experience.

The last few hours in to VV were not good for our cameras too. I dropped mine, but managed to get it working after a few silent prayers and massaging the lens as it tried to extend itself with a flurry of whirring sounds while the LCD flashed ‘Lens error. Restart camera’

Team Belgium then dropped theirs some where along the road and doubled back some kms to look for it without any success. 3 weeks of images in India and Thailand lost. We volunteered to be their photo guys for the next few days. I’m going to make a sticker and stick my email address on the bottom of my camera from now on. You never know when you can start the bidding on your memory card or better still, meet someone honest who used to sell oranges.

Bucolic Vang Vieng

Through the wonders of the internet, we navigate into northern Vang Vieng with the help of Hobo Maps, down a side lane, by the town’s main Wat and right through the gates of the Mountain River View guest house. It’s second floor rooms opened out to a vista of Vang Vieng’s scenic limestone mountains.

By sheer instinct, gumption and probably anger from losing their camera they found our place too, but it was filling up fast, and hey there are a few dozen options down the road, on an island in the Nam Song and across to the other bank too. Those on the island suck, unless you need dimly lit bars with loud thumping music / noise through the night. They got a great room just 3 doors down.

Battered but still working

Friday November 14, 2008, 75 km (47 miles) – Total so far: 393 km (244 miles)

In keeping with it’s dingy reputation, breakfast at the Dung Rabbit consisted of yesterday’s or worse, microwaved baguettes stuffed with raw vegetables which were harder than my handle bar grips. Expecting Laung Prabang standards was probably too much to ask, so we left easily without any regrets.

At this altitude, our ride started a little foggy but it was hard to complain with an immediate downhill where we had to take it easy with about 10 meters of visibility. We join groups of school children on their commute, some cycling dangerously while texting on their cell phones.

It’s a roller coaster 50 kms to Muang Phou Khoun and the painful truth is that the coaster dips more heading south. You don’t really see the climb’s summiting as the road switches back and forth behind blind corners with thick vegetation.

Looking back I see, power lines and pylons indicating where the road leads up, skywards with a distant gap toothed pass back to Phou Khoun.

sucking it in before the climbs

Phou Khoun is the largest town after Luang Prabang as it’s also the junction for Route 7 veering east to Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars. Like most of northern Laos, the Chinese influence here is overwhelming. If you get stuck here, it’s street stall upon street stall of the same fake sundry goods spilling onto the street. We spot a black goat’s head on a table next to some vegetables. It’s gross and fresh and the eyes are fully opened. It reminded me of what some illegal loan sharks do back home. Hang a fresh pig’s head outside your house, as a friendly reminder when $$$ plus 200 % interest, per week is due.

Legal loan sharks have nice svelte girls working in cool, carpeted places called banks.

This stretch of Route 13 between Muang Phou Khoun used to be Hmong rebel territory. Looking at the terrain, even well fed and equipped government forces would loath to quell any insurgency here. I can’t find the Time magazine article in which a rebel attack on a public bus in 2003 left a about a dozen people dead, including 2 Swiss or Swedish cycle tourists, shot in the back as they stumbled upon the attack and tried to cycle off. The bullet riddled bus was left on the road side for some time, it’s parts and fixtures ripped off, er, recycled till an empty shell was left.

The rebels blamed the attack on government forces, and another popular theory was that a French resident with $40,000 cash on him, on the bus was the target.

It was on this stretch that we rode by some very basic army camps, they looked more like open spaces for a scouting jamboree, and they only give away signs of any military were the ageing trucks and jeeps parked haphazardly. One time I stopped to arrange the insides of my handlebar bag and before I knew it, I heard “No photo!” coming from a road side bath, opposite well, a fenceless clutch of wooden green buildings.

On our ride today the greatest threat to us cyclists must have been the speeding and reckless driving, especially around blind corners by traffic that looked like they were escaping a rebel attack.

There are some gruesome perspectives on the insurgency from Rebecca Sommer at,

http://rebeccasommer.org/documentaries/Hmong/index.php

Amazing karst scenery near Bor Nam Oun on Rt 13

The 5 room ‘resort’ of Bor Nam Oon is a great little oasis at the bottom of some really spectacular karst scenery. Heading south on Route 13, it’s on the right side of the road, a steep kilometer out of Namxa Noy village. We took three rooms on a hillside set among some very verdant jungle, overlooking a pool of supposedly hot springs. More like warm actually.

We recorded 24 kms after Phou Khoun and 22 kms before Kasi, whose main street is about 2 kms long.

We did not see our Belgian friends all day and thought they had stopped at Phou Khoun for the night, but were pleasantly surprised when they showed up a while later in the dark. Having made a promise to reserve for them a room at ‘the Ritz’, I felt bad that the last room was booked by a heavily tatooed falang and his ladyboy girlfriend. Not so much if it was just the ladyboy her/himself.

This place will get popular for cyclists on Route 13, but fret not. The original Bor Nam Oon has 4 more rooms down by the spring fed pool, 2 without bedding, all without ensuite bathrooms, but you do get to sleep to the sounds of the small stream outside and wake up to the cacophony of hawking and coughing of teeth brushing truck drivers. Engine noise available without request too, but things pretty much quieten down after dinner. I wouldn’t mind another night here. The restaurant has real bacon. It has to, backpacker central Vang Vieng is just down the road.

A big THANK YOU too, to the following for sharing and showing the way here,

http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/Frank2008Laos Doing it in the hot season

http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/weirdwayhome Surlying in the rainy season

http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/4338 Sadistically heading North

http://www.crazyguyonabike.com/doc/Salsa Damien passed through 10 days after I did. This is the very beaten cycling path !

Team Belgium arrives

Thursday November 13, 2008, 82 km (51 miles) – Total so far: 318 km (198 miles)

We try our best to leave at 7 but end up pedaling off at 8.15. Baguettes and bacon got in the way. The cool, foggy weather made it slow to warm up our bodies, and the first 25 kms to Xieng Nguen were relatively sweat free.

 

only 88 kms this morning

Racing our way up the mountains

The names don’t matter really. Once you get there, you can’t go wrong with the 2 reigning guesthouses perched on a ridge line at about 1300 metres high. Both are actually restaurants with basic rooms attached. Water supply is interesting. There are no wells or pipes at this elevation.

A water truck makes its rounds among the houses here, supplying water through a system of hoses which feed right through to each client’s holding tank out back.

Even further back you get to savour the bathroom facilities or lack thereof. The frequent long haul buses and vans that stop here at all hours get to use even dingier toilets even further back. I feel better already, as I’ve seen worse toilets in Nepal. One saving grace though, the mountain views behind them, especially from the Kiokajam, (I snuck in) on a clear morning are stunning.

US$5 'suite' at KKC

this is the cleaner toilet !

Some time after our arrival, Alvin spots two mountain bikers checking in. They bought their bikes in Luang Prabang and started their ride from LP just the day before and slept in a village close to Nam Ming. It took them close to 5 hours to climb the final 22 kms to KKC.

The five of us made it to Vientiane leap frogging each other over 5 days.

I remember the bike tour group leader back at the Oudom Souk in LP saying that the weirdest thing he ever saw in KKC was a group of 50 Thai cyclists camping out in both the restaurant floors here. Count me out. Besides food, drinks and peeing, the other main industry in KKC is the sale of fake CDs and DVDs to all the vehicles that stop here.

Tonight we are also lucky to have KKC to ourselves. No weddings, no karaoke, no drunks. The slightly better guest house next door is closed, the whole family having gone to Vientiane for the That Luang festival.
There’s a full moon, cold air and my sleeping essentials of an I Pod and ear plugs are within reach. I crawl into my silk sheets and doze off with the soothing trumpet of Chris Botti swirling in my head.

Wednesday November 12, 2008, 15 km (9 miles) – Total so far: 236 km (147 miles0

This journal will finally lift off once we leave this town. In the meantime, here’s 0.3 % of what I took.

Wat Xieng Thong's funerary carriage hall

the Nam Khan river as it flows to meet the Mekong in Luang Prabang

Joma Cafe's delights

a local eatery, packed every night

Tuesday November 11, 2008, 10 km (6 miles) – Total so far: 221 km (137 miles)

It was hard to leave Nong Kiau this morning, but the promise of a slow boat ride that had been put off for 3 years made me hop out of bed in a jiffy, only to hop on the bike for a chilly ride 10 kms to nowhere. I managed to find some solitude by the river a few kms before the town proper. That peace was shattered by mamy, many school kids on bicycles, some pillion riding as they plodded on to school. I wonder what they made of their tiny village being on the bluelist of the backpackers of the world.

2 words, learn English. That’s the Sheriff of Nong Kiau’s forte. He’s the one with the fancy hat and  can’t fault his dedication to serve the backpacking world.

Introducing the sheriff of NK

Conversing with the rest of the world in halting English, while cursing and joking with the rest of his Lao counterparts at the boat landing. He must get tired of the same old questions thrown at him, day in and day out. As Lance would say, racing the Tour de France, SSDD (same sh*t, different day)

Goes like this, “When’s the next boat?'”

Rhetorical answer, “Ten or eleven, maybe”

So in reality, it’s anytime a boat fills up. Your guess is as good as mine. I deduce it to be ten and eleven, 2 boats. The ten leaves from Nong Kiau, the eleven arrives from upriver Muang Ngoi. If heaven is smiling upon you, you get to Luang Prabang in 5 hours or so. If the boat from Muang Ngoi is full, tough.

“Maybe” is for engine failures, bad weather, drunk boatmen with bad hangovers, and Sheriff having heated exchanges with boatman on who gets paid what, etc etc.

To make matters worse, some backpackers get on the wrong boats going in the opposite direction, screwing up the Sheriff’s manifest.

Then we have to haggle with the price, or plice to the Sheriff. Officially it’s 130,000 kip each on a boat of 10 or 11, maybe. Naomi’s my witness.

Enterprising boatman says his boat is special, taking up to 15. Find 14 friends and you are good to go at only 100,000 kip each. We forgo this offer, as the boat will be overloaded and our bikes are pricey and precious. Sheriff is not happy with this blatant behind his back overloading, as boat rules are being broken, and just maybe, his cut will be less. Boatman is keeping the dosh from the extra 5 passengers. More shouting in Lao.

Sheriff gets me to write down our names on his list of 11 people. Nearby grannies chuckle at something. That’ll be the extra 30000 kip for each LHT. What? There’s a charge for motorcycles. says Sheriff. Maybe they’re just bicycles, see no bloody engines on the downtube. “OK, 20000, is OK”. No more maybes.

Flushed with almost a half million kip, Sheriff smiles, thanking me and says, “Have good trip, Bob” During the mayhem, I’ve signed off as ‘Bob Magee’

5 hours of gorgeous river scenery

Our captain manages a lot even without a left hand

We docked at Luang Prabang at 4 pm and headed for our reserved rooms at the Oudom Souk, again. A couple of wise Belgians followed us, seeing that the whole street of guesthouses where we stayed at did not exist in their ‘latest’ edition of LP Laos.

 

Monday November 10, 2008, 20 km (12 miles) – Total so far: 211 km (131 miles)

Nong Kiau used to be just a dusty staging post for the hour long boat ride upriver to an even more remote village Muang Ngoi or Noi. Seemingly inaccessible by other means. Slouching in a hammock all day was the thing to do there, apart from fishing, exploring some caves and trekking the countryside and bathing with the locals in the river, if bathing was a priority.

These days Nong Kiau itself is a destination and if you like limestone cliffs and the sounds of a flowing river while you sleep, search no more. 3 years ago the overnight choices here ranged from grim to grimmer. And like most far flung places in Laos it was literally lights out at 9 pm when local power generators are switched off. At last count there are about a dozen guest houses here, which quickly fill up in the high season when a boat or bus pulls in.

12 degrees C !!

The classiest place in town must be the Riverside. It’s partly owned an operated by Naomi from Japan. At $35 a night, it’s an astronomical sum in these parts, but with all things you get what you pay for. It’s a great honeymoon spot, but not today, not with two other guys and their mud splattered LHTs.

KG loved the top notch mattress so much, he slept in most of the day, surfacing only to eat. I don’t blame him, what with the cool temperatures and as promised on the NK website, Darling Brand comforters and matresses, suppliers to the top hotels in Bangkok. Naomi was surprised that I did my research and of course guaranteed a good night’s sleep. Our 85 kms yesterday did too.

Views from our balcony

Route 1 continues on to Vieng Kham, Vieng Thong and eventually to Xam Nua and the Vietnamese border on Route 6 over some wild and remote mountains, worth another trip in it’s own right.

Alvin and I had a field day with our cameras and even rode down Route 1 for 20 hilly kms before turning back. The other 400 kms or so to Vietnam will just have to wait.

Tonight all 15 rooms are full and we will see familiar faces on the slow boat ride back to Luang Prabang the next morning. And I have a date with Mr Maybe, aka the Sheriff of Nong Kiau.

On their way to school