Archive for the ‘Mountain bike touring NE Thailand and Laos 2007’ Category

Progress, development, aid, wealth…fourth poorest country on earth…what’s that again??  Laos is developing at a frantic pace. Physical changes are more prominent in the towns and cities. Lots of changes year on year. Once open sewers waiting to swallow tourists whole are now nicely paved brick walkways fronting fashionable boutiques. At the two M Benz showrooms that I was welcomed into, there was icy cold Perrier and attentive, pretty salesgirls. It also helps when you dont have a muddy proletariat bicycle, any kind of bicycle parked outside!

Nothing wrong with development though but at this bewildering pace, the haves and have nots are going to be spread wider apart.

Having no plans nor detailed map, I followed heavy traffic north for 20 kms out of town before turning off into this small side road. A grid of off road paths around green rice fields and fishing ponds. Amazing, cycling off road minutes away from a four lane highway. Even in these fields there were small pockets of luxury housing, huge villa style homes in gated communities. At least there were these dirt roads to drive one’s SUV home to. It was quite refreshing having no plan and heading beck to Vientiane was as easy as finding the main highway and backtracking to the river. After 60 kms or so, I found myself at PVO Vietnamese Food again. After a quick wash I plonked myself down just in time to see some spanking new Honda Bajas being delivered to PVO – these were rentals!

This was my alarm clock every morning. Loud booming bass speakers at 6 am. So loud that an Australian couple I spoke to had to change rooms, away from the river view ones.Might as well have Ricky Martin or Carlos Santana play on that stage. You could hear them streets away. No point fretting. Went down with my camera and took revenge by making one and all feel very self conscious. On second thought, Carlos isnt a bad idea at all.

If you thought sight seeing on a slow bicycle would get you into greater contact with your surroundings, walking is even better.

No sudden stops or U turns when a photo op comes up, and trying to keep on the ‘wrong’ right side of the formerly French road. Negotiating roundabouts and fast corners full of traffic on the first day was a little scary, so I just followed the crowd. Navigation on or off the bike became as easy as memorizing where the Mekong was. By the third day, I had cycled most of the town, so zero kms on the bike today. Another upside to endless walking? $3 foot massage, right after dinner.

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Cycling the unbeaten path in North East Thailand.     15 days from May 1, 2005 to May 15, 2005

Vientiane 2007: A slow start

Pop : 200,000

Anyone who’s lived in Singapore will tell you that everything runs like clockwork, so it was a refreshing change that I found myself early one foggy January morning at Udon Thani airport in north east Thailand, where expectations and schedules are just complicated English words.

The airport is spanking new, well about six months old without an international flight. Till today, 11th Jan 07. That’ll be the one I flew in on. It’s one of those airports where everything is switched off when a flight takes off, or after passengers are merrily on their way in buses or taxis.

At immigration, furniture was still wrapped in plastic covers, while a petite Thai lady in a smart uniform was looking for her tools of her trade. An ink pad and chop to stamp into my passport. That was after we had waited 10 minutes at 3 empty immigration booths.

On to a counter to buy bus tickets to Nong Khai, 60 kms away. It was really foggy and waking at 4 this morning was not conducive for a long ride. After some 30 minutes, a Nissan Sunny pulls up. Not enough ‘bus’ passengers it seems, so someone’s car will have to do. 3 passengers and a bike box half stuffed into the boot.

I had the whole day to decide which country to cycle to. North to Laos or east towards idyllic Issan, prairie country of Thailand. I’ll do both.

Tempted by the Lao capital’s proximity to NE Thailand, I cycled across the Frendship Bridge and 22 flat kms later, I found myself in a brand new hotel, aptly named the Riverside. A 5 minute walk away lies the Mekong River and Thailand on the opposite bank.

Vientiane is more like a large sprawled out town than a capital ‘city’ Well any place in Laos with more than a main street, traffic lights and cluster buildings is a city. A majority of visitors end up in Vientiane after some ‘hardship’ travel in other parts of Laos. Cleaner bed sheets, better food and nightlife, imported wine and cheese in the stores.

If starting out of Vientiane, be prepared to rough it out a bit. Long hours on the road and basic facilities at crossroads towns. Better still bring a touring bike and take on the 400 km mountain road that is Rte 13 (nice number) to the former capital of Luang Prabang.

Some stretches of this road in the mountains are still deemed rebel territory by the Lao government. Ethnic Hmong minority villagers claim the violence and attacks on passers by are the work of Lao soldiers. Not wanting to scare off tourists, most long distance buses have a private guard on board. That will be the guy in fatigues with an AK 47 or M-16 next to the driver.

An extract from Time Mag (Apr 2003) ;

***The Hmong say they are too ill-equipped to strike back. Most of their fighters are armed with ancient M-16s and AK-47s, and the heaviest weapons at their disposal are two geriatric M-79 grenade launchers. Ammunition is mostly dug up from former U.S. air bases. According to Moua, only a third of the rounds are actually live, negating Hmong chances of launching a viable offensive. As for the Lao government, which declined to talk to TIME, it denies allegations that it is decimating Hmong rebels and blames them for much of the unrest in the country. It insists that Hmong are doubling as bandits.

In February an ambush on a bus traveling the busy Highway 13 in the north left 12 people dead, including two Swiss cyclists. A calling card pinned to one of the corpses indicated the deaths were the work of Hmong rebels. And on April 20, gunmen opened fire on a passenger bus, killing at least 13 people. Eyewitnesses to this massacre say the gunmen spoke to one another in the Hmong language. Vang Pao angrily denies claims that his men are responsible for attacks on civilians.

“In the past there have been several events like this that have taken place and been blamed on the ULLF,” he says. “But it was not us. We believe it was organized by the government using Hmong people who serve in the Lao army.” For his part, Moua portrays the Hmong as helpless innocents. “We only defend and run,” he says. “If the Lao troops launch an assault, our ammo won?t even last an hour.”***

I wasnt really planning to be in Vientiane, but a 30 day visa FREE entry for good neighbours like Singapore does help, as my plan was to cycle Route 211 along the Thai side of the river.

It used to be that bicycles were not allowed and had to be bused the 1.24 kms across the bridge. That’s 99% history now. Thai/Lao customs and immigration have their hands full just coping with other traffic. I rode up into a lane for cars and was out in 2 minutes. If you dont like queues, get a visa at a Lao embassy elsewhere. The bridge’s quite narrow, so watch out for the turbo charged and fancy airbrushed luxury buses. I had a close shave or two. The no man’s land is in betweeen the signboards as is the railway tracks which end right in the middle of the road, near the minibus.

Most of Vientiane, if not Laos seem to be undergoing major infrastructure surgery. A lot of aid/money is pouring in from Thailand, China, Japan and dozens, dozens of well meaning NGOs. Ditches being dug up, roads widened, paved and lighted. In the far north,whole hillsides and forests are being felled, to be replanted with rubber trees, presumably to feed China’s insatiable demand for rubber and it’s auto industry.