Our Guesthouse in Vientiane was fine… the room was big, we had a view out over the road to one of the city’s Wats, we got free breakfast, the fan in the bathroom made a noise that melted your brain so you had to shower in the dark and the receptionist seemed to have had his brain removed and installed into his smart phone. (If you want to see Jess cross, ask her when we get back about the length of time it took for her to get a towel from guy…)
When we asked if we could lock our bikes to something the hotelier directed us outside and, when we highlighted that there was nothing what so ever to lock them to here, he handed us a length of very heavy chain (which wasn’t attached to anything either..). He promised he would watch them for us, but when we came back later, after a few drinks, we decided that carrying them up stairs would be a better option, which was sort of proved when we managed to do this without the man at reception looking up from his phone…
Anyway, the 6th of Janurary was exactly half way through our trip, and to celebrate this we had made it to Vientainne, capital of Lao. Planned festivities included: getting the bikes serviced, seeing the sites of the city, and eating lots of croissants.
We found some croissants, and thusly sustained we headed to find a bike mechanic. A small amount of web based research had suggested the existence of no fewer than two such mechanics in the Laotian Capital.
The only “review” we had found of these came in the form of a description of one cycle toursits experience, where he had gone to get his derailleur fixed in the first shop, who had tried for about an hour to get it working, and had eventually given up. He had then taken it round the corner to the French guy who ran the other one, who had got it working in 5 minutes. We went to the French guy first, and then (out of shear curiosity) we went to look at the other mechanics who had failed so miserably in the web based anecdote. Wefound that like many bike shops in the richer parts of South East Asia this one has entirely dedicated its self to the selling and maintaining of brightly colour fixed wheels bicycles, and so to be fair to them were probably not well qualified for the fixing of derailleurs.
With these two chores completed as far as was possible it was time to do some sight seeing. We went to see Laos’s version of the Arch de Trionf (which is a bit of a congrete monstrosity), and this rather shiny stupa, which according to the Lonely Planet was rebuilt by some French students because the original was too ugly…
For dinner that evening, to celebrate the fact that we were exactly half way through our trip (and that Sam’s nearest ale was now in front of him rather than behind) we went to a very nice French restaurant. (Vientiane has a very wide array of European and world cuisine, and it had been an Italian restaurant the night before.)
Vientiane is also the only place we have found where you can pick up Belgiun beer. Amazingly, the prices are exactly the same as you would pay in Belguim (i.e. prohibitively expensive), but Sam skillfully managed to fiddle the accounts and slip a few into the days budget.
The next day we got our bikes serviced, went to a book shop, stumbled into a huge amazing supermarket (which was weird because a. it had literally everything we needed and had been looking for ever since Bangkok and b. outside it didn’t have any indication of what it was, and while we were in there we appears to be the only customers) and then went for a curry…
Finally it was time to leave Vientiane, and head north. This meant our first tentative steps into the mountains of northern Lao, and we were a bit worried that it was going to be too far and too hilly and we wouldn’t enjoy it and want to go home… before any of this drama could unfold however we managed to get lost getting out of the city and it was only by chances that we stopped to ask some police men for directions, who pointed us back the way we had come.
Out on the road 10, and the sceneray was amazing. It was all quite touristed, with every town having an apparently unstainable number of guest houses, but this only gave us more confidence as it meant that if our legs did fail us we would be able to simpy fall into the nearest bed.
Quickly the mountains started to appear in the distance, starting as a brown frilly rim to the horizon, and slowly rearing up in front of us like a lethargic tidal wave of mud and grass. We got closer and closer, and then just as it looked like this wave was going to crash over our heads the road made a sharp left turn, and we were given a momentary reprieve.
Past high visibility paddy fields, and a palm fringed river, and before we realised the mountains had snuck up on us from behind and we were already half way up our first climb. This caught us rather by surprise because we had completely forgotten about the mountains we had spent the entire morning staring at, but not wanting to seem amateurish in front of the waving locals we pushed on, and we rewarded with some lovely winding roads and views down the valleys.
We had been told about a lovely resevoiur, with lovely hotels by it, sadly this was at the top of another ((lovely) essentially optional) 4km climb, and so in the end we settled for an extremely nice, extremely cheep hotel, with free tea and coffee down in the town. (I say “the” town. In fact the town in question turned out not to be the town we thought it was, and it was only while we were sitting in the square munching some delicious night market grub that a local bus pulled up declaring it’s arrival in town that we thought was a further 5km down the road… oh well…)
The night market had unanimously been voted “a success” by the Cycle My Bicycle Food Acquisition Team, and so we headed to town the next day to see what it’s breakfast equivalent could provide. This however was only after spending some time strapping the vast amount of still wet laundry we had hand washed the night before (and which had failed to dry over night in these cold mountainous conditions) to be back of our bikes.
Today followed a similar pattern to yesterday, flat to start, quickly followed by a bought of gigantic hills. Today however there was no namby pamby pussy footing around, the hills approached, we rounded a corner then the road just went straight up the side of them.
We were also now on the much busier “route 13″, this meant a bit more traffic, and a lot more cycle tourists. The first pair we met were two Belgian girls who had cycled from Bulgaria, then it was an older German couple who looked like they new exactly what they were doing, and finally a flock of older still Dutch people. There were four altogether in the Dutch party, and they were really struggling with 3 out of the four having suffered from some sort of debilitating stomach bug over a week before, which was still making every pedal stroke an effort.
Finally things flattened out, and it was only a short blast into the infamous tourist trap of Vang Vieng, where we selected at random one of the 120 guest houses that reside in the town, and then (at the recommendation of the hotelier) went to a very nice local cafe for dinner.
Day 1, Vientiane to Thalat
Day 2, Thalat to Vang Vieng