Archive for the ‘Mountain bike touring North Laos 2005’ Category

This was as remote as we got to in Laos without the possibility of being stranded for days. The location of Xieng Kok resort cant be beat. From our balcony we got views of the Mekong as promised in the guidebooks. A remote outpost at the end of the Akha road with the jungles of Myanmar on the opposite bank of the river. Once in a while a cargo laden vessel would amble on by, most bringing their tarp covered customs sensitive cargo upriver to Myanmar or eventually to Jinghong in Yunnanese China. As this was the dry season, river traffic was slow but we had the good fortune of having a fast boat ride offered to us right after checking in.

I was wondering why this blond haired Lao was getting too chatty right outside our cabin. He must have spotted us miles away and knew where we wanted to go, back to Thailand. So he figured on 2 guys, 2 bikes going 200 kms down river to Ton Pheung where we could start cycling again to exit Laos at Huay Xai. THB 1000 each ($25) plus a little more like THB 300 per bike. Our single biggest expense in Laos was in far flung Xieng Kok. Seeing that most fast boats can take up to 6 passengers at the going rate of THB 1000 each or more, we shook on the deal to leave at 9 am the next day.

Xieng Kok along the Mekong with Burma on the other bank

Watching this guy was as interesting as building up a bicycle. What a performance. Mixing the dough into his hand made mould, squeezing the squiggly contents into the boiling tub of water and watching the whole lot boil into long strands of noodles. The woman next to him would transfer the lot to another pail presumably to cool it off and then serve the noodles in little bowls. Then another lady came by dumping some greens into the tub. They would giggle each time I took a picture and laughed even louder when they saw their images.

Very instant noodles

What do you get when you attach a 1.6 liter twin cam Toyota motor to a hundred pounds of wood? A floating rocket that skims and aquaplanes over water like a skateboard on steroids. Even with 3 people and our 2 bikes and luggage I felt we were going at 60 -80 km per hour on the straighter parts of the river. It took a few minutes before my heart rate returned to normal and I guess if our driver had to sit on a mountain bike doing 50 kmph downhill he too would scared shitless.

Viengkham gunned the engine over most of the swirling rapids and I think the front end of the boat must have lifted off at least three feet or more on a few occasions. Other times he was just skillfully looking out for deeper but calm water which was always closer to jagged river rocks. He told us that the greatest dangers were submerged logs which can take out the underside of a whole fast boat and the wakes from all the bigger ships going upstream to China.

He was a bit coy when I asked about fast boat accidents in which the record number of fatalities must have been 10 or more. There have been rumours of such head on collisions or crashes into submerged logs and rocks and subsequent drownings in the past. Wearing life jackets and smelly motorcycle helmets are compulsory, so we had our cycling helmets on. We had about 3 hours of this F1 powerboat like thrills before the river widened near Chiang Sean and the touristy Golden Triangle area where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar share their borders along the Mekong.

To supplement their incomes in the low season or repay debts, some speed boat drivers get drawn into smuggling amphetamines or yaa ba pills from factories in Myanmar down the Mekong to their counterparts in Thailand. Most are just couriers or mules in an intricate chain of supply for a product that costs a few cents at source and fetches THB 1000 in a Bangkok disco. What’s ironic is that during the extremely busy peak tourist season at year’s end some boat drivers depend on yaa ba to maintain a constant buzz to stay awake and ply their trade.

Refuelling stop along the 'Khong

We started riding out of Ton Pheung at high noon. Some customs guys here couldnt be rustled out of their siestas, not that we wanted them to. Wonder what they thought of all the prosperity of Thailand’s Chiang Sean across the river, with Chinese freighters unloading boatloads of cargo every day.

I thought I would be nursing a huge headache after sleeping at 3 last niight, but surprisingly the cycle touring buzz kicked in, as it does every day. I suppose eyes dont get too fatugued from seeing far horizons when touring, as compared to facing an LCD monitor for hours, back home.

We road along a quiet laterite road which was dead straight for about 30 kms along the Mekong. Except for a few dry bed river crossings, it eventually led out to a perfect asphalt road with wide and hilly bends for another 30 kms before reaching Huay Xai. Like most infrastructure projects in Laos, there were signs in English stating that this road was being built by a grant from some donor country like Germany.

Back in Chiang Khong, Thailand and looking across to Huay Xai in Laos. 2 countries seperated by a $1 or THB 40 sampan ride across 300 metres of muddy water I gathered all our Kips to change it back to Thai Bhat at the BAP guest house in Huay Xai. This place is run by a cheery matronly Lao lady whose desk drawer was chock full of US, Lao, Bhat and Euro banknotes. She quoted the actual bank rates for the day, unlike the creepy wannabe money changer at immigration whose day job was well, stamping passports.

There is a licensed money changer at the immigration office but it was closed. Clearing Lao immigration was a breeze and we were hit for an extra $1 each for an ‘overtime fee’ clearly stated on a placard, as it was after 4 pm. This surcharge applies if you enter or leave Laos on the weekends too.

Back in Thailand looking across to Huay Xai in Laos

*** June 2007 update. The bridge is coming! Laos and Thailand have agreed that it’s finally time. China gave a big impetus. They’re paying for most of it. A third cross border bridge across the Mekong from Huay Sai to Chiang Khong to be completed by 2011. This will make it technically feasable to drive from Singapore to Beijing or smuggle stuff between Laos and Thailand without getting wet. Party time for rich Chinese and Thai investors with insider info and plots of land near the proposed bridge. With the completion of Hwy # 3, cycling from Huay Xai to the Lao north will be less of a Indiana Jones expedition of fording rivers and jungle camp outs.

After some time in Laos, crossing back into Thailand was something of a mild shock to the senses. There was more, of everything we usually take for granted. More buildings, more traffic, more shops, (and the shops were well stocked) more streetlights, more people but less screaming kids which we had grown accustomed to. And this was only Chiang Khong, a small, two street border town on the banks of a muddy river with its source in Tibetan China and mouth in the Mekong delta 4200 kms downstream. We had the next 4 days to get back to Chiang Mai, some 320 kms south and then fly back to Singapore, before the wives do some spring cleaning and throw out some precious bike parts….

Muang Sing’s market comes to life really early, like 5 am. I could hear voices and people pushing their wooden carts right by our guest house, the sputtering engines of tractor powered pick ups and a rumbling truck that shook the whole building every now  and then, on its way to China just 10 kms east. Might as well rise and greet the day then.

The surrounding villages in the hills overlooking a broad fertile plain has made Muang Sing a must do trekking destination. It also ‘helps’ that it was once a major O for opium producing region and you’ll be approached more than once by a local to get happy.

The market’s just winding down by the time we got there at daybreak and people were actually heading home. During breakfast at our Phou Ii guesthouse we got to talking with a couple form England who were planning to organise a cycling trip in Laos following the route we took the last few days from Luang Prabang, but in reverse.

They wrote down every detail that I could cough up, terrain, distances, hotels, prices, rest stops etc. They had come up river from Thailand on a speed boat and paid $150 for the privilege. Then it was a 6 hour wait at Xieng Kok for a bus to make the run to Muang Sing. Funny, doing a recce for a cycling tour of Laos without actually cycling it.

      

Denuded jungles with power lines coming up

The ride from Muang Sing to Xieng Kok was a bit of a letdown, scenery wise. This is one road where I expected to see thick, lush virgin jungle, narrow roads hemmed in by towering cliffs, fast flowing rivers and a myriad of wildlife. Fast forward a decade or two and we got a nice undulating road to ride on but the surrounding countryside has been denuded, chopped up and in some parts shaven like a cat going into surgery.

The Akha road we were on was so named because of the many Akha tribespeople who populated the highlands moved to lower ground with the opening of Rte 322 to Muang Sing. Most of the older women are used to being topless and we did pass by this hillside village with 3 grannies waving at us. We were going quite fast on this downhill and it was prudent to concentrate on the bumpy road ahead.

A river runs through it

A dozen or so wooden bungalows perched high on a hill above the Mekong river made for one very rustic final night in Laos. The XK Resort was built by a Thai investor in 2000 anticipating a rise in river traffic and tourism along this quiet part of the river, after the road to Muang Sing was finally sealed. When we first cycled in, the place was deserted and all the rooms were locked. Time for a self check in.

We made ourselves at home on the balcony and Paul even contemplated breaking the small padlock on Room No 7. It was a whole 40 minutes before a Chinese lady arrived out from nowhere with a key and Thermos of hot water for us. She asked for $5/LAK 50,000, smiled, said something about dinner at a Chinese restaurant down the hill and left. The restaurant in the resort grounds was an empty burnt out shell and from the looks of it, room service was not going to happen, or just did.

After a quick bath, we headed out to find dinner and found out that nothing would start till after 6 pm. That’s when most places would have their generators start up till lights out at 10. We found our Chinese lady cleaning a whole duck by a drain and went into the most lit up shack here, with a sign over head reading ‘Chiness Restaurant’ Her vegetarian fried rice with heaps of garlic was quite good.

We drank up most of her pot of chrysanthemum tea also. She told us to come back for a fried noodle breakfast tomorrow. With our bellies happy we did a stroll around the pitch black metropolis of Xieng Kok.

Camping out in Xieng Kok

I decided to sort of camp out on the balcony, seduced by the full moon rising out behind some hills. It was also much cooler outside and I really didnt want to deal with the contents of two panniers spread all over my bed. Paul was inside his mosquito net in a flash and I waited 5 whole minutes for his sleep apnea and snoring to kick in. It sort of had a stereo effect with the resort’s generator out back.

Our single light bulb went off at 10. Paul was still going strong, A deep resounding bass to go with the BBC news from my puny short wave radio. The moon made it’s way across the ink black sky, it’s larger than life reflection broken by the ripples on the river. I managed to doze off sometime after 3 am.

After yesterday’s mud bath today’s 70 kms to Muang Sing was a ride in the park. We even left later at about 10 am after I decided to have a look-see at the older part of town. That added another 20 kms.

I  came across this bright pink pub made brighter by the morning sun in the southern and older part of town. Some very young, but made up girls were holding up in the wooden shack behind. This is one aspect of Laos that few western tourists get to see, and couldnt even if they openly asked for it. The flesh trade in Laos is reserved mostly for cash rich neighbours from China and the occasional Lao male, right after pay day.

Lao establishment of ill repute

The road to Muang Sing starts off pretty well with a fine granite chip surface. Just out of town there’s a spanking new China sponsored dam where I took this picture.Small rolling hills with zero traffic for about 30 kms before a seriously steep 5 km climb out of the Namtha river valley. After reaching close to 900 meters ASL we were rewarded with a 20 kms jungle covered downhill, with no signs of habitation at all, and a final flat 15 kms into the hot and humid plains around Muang Sing.

Hazards of and on the road to Muang Sing

Earlier on we passed by a lone cyclist and these were his faster friends who said that they had waited for almost an hour by the road. And we passed him almost an hour ago. We all made it to Muang Sing before dark. There was even time to get a massage and if 35 C weather isnt hot enough, there’s always the village sauna.

No luck with finding any rooms with AC compressors in Muang Sing. We rode around to check out every single guest house out, at least from the outside. By this stage in the trip we were always feeling hot form our daily tan as well as the weather. As I’m typing this, a weather check online for Luang Namtha and Muang Sing reads night time temperatures of 8 C to 12 C. in January. There’s even a cute figure of an eskimo in front of a fire. Arctic conditions for those in South East Asia.

We chanced upon the newest new fangled guest house in town, but it turned out to be some new money from China grocery store. There was even a desktop but it wasnt hooked up. Family pictures on the wall and lots of wood panelling, but not a soul in sight. After a few loud ‘Sabaidees!’ we headed for a freezer, yes it was not locked just like the front doors, and helped ourselves to 5 bottles of half frozen Lactasoy, the thirst quencher wonder milk and soy drink from Thailand. I wanted to ask of they had a room for the night but still no one showed up. We put LAK 20,000 under the bottles, said a big thank you to the freezer and walked out the front door to our bikes.

97 kms on asphalt, 30 kms on a mud caked ‘highway’ No 3 masquerading as asphalt plus about 10 kms hitchhiking on a ‘jumbo’ – mini songtheaw.Feeling fully recharged after not cycling much the previous day, Paul and I got on the road at 7 am. After last night’s very oily and MSG laced dinner I didnt think any of the town’s restaurants could do better at breakfast. We were too early for any of them to be open either. So we decided on an early start and hoped to find something to eat along the way.

The young receptionist at the hotel was kind enough to place to cold bottles of water on our rear racks before we loaded up our gear. It was a nice gesture from a 10 year old to also take some time off playing with her cell phone and she even walked us to the front gates of the hotel, but ran back in when I took out my camera.

shy

Only in Laos would highway contractors attempt to carve a road through a hillside without giving any thought to trucking the mud and earth out to somewhere else. Lao mud is sticky, slimey and vicious. The bus that’s bogged down had to be rocked and pushed by it’s own passengers, providing some entertainment for the villagers perched above on the hillside. There were claps and cheers each time the bus managed to move a few feet. Hwy 3 in Luang Namtha province, if and when completed would link up southern China and north Thailand and the rest of South East Asia.

vile sticky Lao mud

What was probably a forest trail in the early eighties is now a full blown construction site, some parts motorable highway and some parts a jeep track that runs for 190 kms from Luang Namtha to Huay Xai on the Mekhong opposite Thailand. To date about 25 kms on each end of Hwy 3 have been completed while road crews are still clear cutting primeval forests and hillsides in between. Many cyclists, off road motorcycles, 4WD convoys and Lao public transport have traversed this road in a record 6 hours to a few miserable days. See http://www.pbase.com/serenab/vieng_phouka

Muang Na Le lies on the banks of the remote Tha river, a two day journey by slowboat from Pak Beng which is another day’s river journey on the Mekhong from Huay Xai or Chiang Khong in Thailand. Indiana Jones territory.

There’s something to be said for oily food. We rode pretty far today on yesterday’s reserves plus a couple of Clif bars each and about 3 bottles of water each. Oh yeah the last 35 kms plus hitchhike in to Luang Namtha was all down hill except for the muddy section. We passed by the French couple (who had left Oudomxai on the 8 am bus) a few kms outside Luang Namtha. They had hired hybrids and were thoroughly enjoying themselves cycling through flooded potholes around the countryside. Us? A hot shower would be nice.

This time round, I spotted a white tiled building with three compressors, yes it was a motel like place and more importantly there was a garden hose in the parking lot to wash our bikes. I was almost to embarassed and took off my mud caked shoes before walking to the reception.

Rooms at the Phay Kham guest house were $6 a night, paid upfront as usual. Paul got to the task of fiddling with the fake Soh-ny TV set and DVD player. Dinner and seconds was at the tourist oriented Many Chan GH and restaurant, replete with checkered tablecloths, napkins and laminated menus

Gorgeous evening light near Luang Namtha

15 kms on the bike, 117kms or thereabouts on the songtheaw, or ‘two rows’ a converted pick-up/bus with two rows of wooden benches on the flat bed.

After a good night’s rest and having more oxygen in the brain, a decision was made to give the bikes a rest (rrright) and hitch a ride on the 11 am bus/truck to Oudomxai. With a combined age of 91, the both of us could do with some pre bus ride sightseeing across the bridge in the village of Ban Sop Houn and some Vietnam era caves/hideouts a few kms down the road. The one that the bike whisperer took. Sometimes, a later start will mean better photo opportunities. Brighter colours and light as this scene looked positively drab and dull under an early morning cloud. A leisurely breakfast and extra dose of cafe Lao helps a lot too. We also got to send off the party of 5 China men who were also staying at the Phayboun guest house. 5 men who couldnt decide between 2 rooms equals a lot of door slamming till past midnight. We said good riddance before they drove off in a new Land Cruiser and they replied ‘Goodbye’ We felt bad, for about 5 seconds.

Nong Khiaw by the Nam Tha river

We got to the bus stop right on time, an open dusty parking lot by the bridge with a wooden shack where tickets were pre sold, and there was a price list to boot. I guess no Lao would do this, buy a hand written ticket from a guy in a booth. Much easier and definitely cheaper to pay the smiling driver directly, especially when he has a full load of 12 falangs or tourists and another 2 who are paying a ‘tip’ of $1.50 for two bicycles on the roof rack.
As I had expected nothing stirred till 40 minutes later as the driver waited for some more slow boats to pull in, disgorging more fresh meat, backpackers from up river Muang Ngoi. It was futile trying to get a seat in the cab next to the driver who retorted with a resounding, No! As it turns out those are reserved for local women and we stop just 15 minutes after leaving the dirt lot, for Mrs Truck Driver and some family members to board. 33 kms on we’re at Pak Mong for a longer stop. It’s close to one o’clock and our teenage looking driver gestures and indicates that it’s his lunch break for about 30 minutes.
A German couple we spoke to were at their wits end with the frequent stops and decided to question the driver. They were already unhappy with the late start and wanted to get to Luang Namtha before dark, to the extent of saying that everyone did not need lunch. Our not so smart driver then told every one that their ETA in Luang Namtha, another 220 kms away, was 4 pm. In reality they would get there around 9 or 10 pm, if there were no more delays. It could get ugly later in the day.
After lunch, the driver made a U turn in the direction of Nong Khiaw! What now? Oh, the nearby gas station to fill up presumably or check the radiator or tyres, which he did. Including some swear words, I heard the German version of ‘Why didnt he fill up before the start or during lunch?’ I was going to be witty and say that the P.D.R. (Peoples Democratic Republic) in Laos stood for Please Dont Rush but on second thought, I was out numbered.
Our 100 km ride to Oudomxai cost $4 each. Great scenery from every bend in the road and a couple of 10% uphill climbs totalling 35 kms made much easier by sitting on a wooden bench, until I realised that I had to deal with ‘the Squasher’
The Squasher (sounds like a WWF contender) sat for 117 kms, eyes glued to Henri Charriere’s Papillon, all 560 pages of it. She didnt get out at any of the stops, even for the long lunch break. The Squasher is in her element each time our truck grinds uphill squashing me against the rails, and thankfully backs off on the downhills, allowing me to breathe. Stares and tsks tsks dont work. Finally the Swedish hunk inside, all of 19 years old and I Pod ready decides to move outside, standing on the narrow back platform. Much cooler where we are.
He takes off his T shirt, to the delight of some women on board and drops the shirt over the chicken. Squasher takes her eyes off the book for 2.5 seconds to look at some Swedish abs, who by now is relishing in the cool and slight drizzle and mountain scenery. After 20 minutes and heavier rain, the young blond lad climbs back in, shivering and dripping rain water on most of us while searching for his T shirt. I hand it to him. It’s picked up a few footprints and some chicken sh*t and goes back to adorn its rightful owner. Everyone adjusts their bums and the squashing continues.

a view from the back

The best place to be on a songtheaw is right behind. Fresher air, clearer views and a quick exit if the 18 year old driving it losses control. On a brighter note, a nice young lady, OK she was hot, from Sydney wanted some time standing on the rear platform to soak in the scenery and take some pictures. I almost forgot about all that squashing as I now had to deal with a skimpy pair of denim shorts blocking my view of one of the poorest countries on earth. Paul sitting right across me puts on a wry smile and seems to have suddenly developed fast twitching eyebrows.
Lucky us, we got to Oudomxai at 4 pm brought our bikes down and had 2 hours of daylight left to see all that urban sprawl we drove by. Expectedly some others got off thinking that this was Luang Namtha. I looked to find the most level headed guy, I think he was French, who had his sunglasses on since the start of the trip. He had done his research and knew the not so good news. Their destination was another 4 to 5 hours away, which the Germans refused to believe. In the ensuing confusion the driver wanted to offload everyone onto another passing vehicle.
The French couple decided to abandon ship also, saying that they didnt want to ‘see’ Laos at night. Good move. We met them again in Luang Namtha the next evening cycling on rented bikes. Oh and there was another stop at Song Cha, a Hmong village on a steep hill side as Mrs Driver got out to buy some fruit.   Overland travel in Laos can be tiring and trying at the same time, which makes cycling where you’re in control, all the more alluring. On days like this, I’m just glad to arrive in one piece, squashed or otherwise. And the bikes held up OK too with a quick wash and dry to boot.

the giddy night life in Oudomxai

Oudomxai lies at a major crossroads in north Laos. All points on a compass lead to other major towns. Northwest to Luang Namtha or Boten on the Chinese border. Eastwards to Nong Khiaw and Luang Prabang where we had come from. Southwest to Pak Beng and the Mekhong where river travels lead upstream to Chiang Khong in Thailand and downstream to Luang Prabang. We checked into this huge hotel which looked out of place among some ramshackle huts and green rice fields. $13 for a really nice air conditioned room, grainy CNN and BBC channels and a really weird toilet flushing system. The dry but loud and hissing kind found on planes. Thanks Paul, whose hotel spotting skills from a fast moving truck are down to, “Easy lah, look out for AC compressors and lots of windows”

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

A UNESCO World heritage site since 1995, Luang Prabang’s 33 temples, some crumbling and some restored French influenced architecture seems to be the darling of the backpacking crowd. It’s location along the banks of the Mekhong river and smaller Nam Khan on the other side of a peninsula that houses the old city adds to its physical allure. Most sights can be easily seen on foot or rented bicycle. Good food is cheap and plentiful with French loaves and baguettes to be found at almost every street corner eatery. There’s even northern Indian, but not much better than those in Singapore or Malaysia.

The muddy Mekong

We also stumbled upon some very nice upmarket boutique hotels in and around town with rooms up to $200 or more. These must be for the retired from backpacking crowd. It’s easy to spend a week or more in Luang Prabang, sipping coffee at all hours, having late lunches and even longer dinners after a stroll along the night markets while trying to fit in $4 massages and trips to the Kuang Si waterfalls or the up river trip to the Pak Ou limestone caves.

With our own transport we managed to ride about 50 kms in and around the town seeing all the tourist sights before quitting after lunch each day to seek refuge in our air conditioned room. Did I say it was hot?

Ours was the simple but sufficient Rama Hotel in the suburbs or just a 10 minute walk from most of the action downtown. The low season rate was $15 a night in a nice wood paneled room with the usual cable TV, hot shower and all important air conditioning that wouldnt ‘ice up’ after running for 72 hours. Our bikes slept in the restaurant downstairs together with some of the hotel employees motorcycles.

My cycling buddy Paul and I decided to give cycling in Thailand a break and see what laid further north of the Thai border and Mekong river. That led us to Luang Prabang and north Laos. We spent 3 days in Luang Prabang, soaking in the sights and soaking in our sweat in 38 C plus daytime temperatures in the hot and humid season of May. It was slightly ‘cooler’ at night, but still about 33 C outdoors.

After a 2 hour stopover at Chiang Mai in north Thailand, we boarded a Lao Airlines flight to Luang Prabang. One whole hour on a heavily vibrating French made ATR 70 seater twin turbo prop with engines from Pratt and Whitney, Canada and after market propellers from Hamilton Sunstrand from the US. That’s what it says on the website. The fare of US$66 got us great low altitude views of Thailand’s and Laos’ mountains and rivers, tiny villages on ridge top roads disappearing into the hazy distance and a little blue box, the contents of which I think resembled…..a hamburger?

Down town Luang Prabang