After cycling through rural Lao for 3 days arriving in Luang Prabang was a very strange experience. The place is another of these UNESCO world heritage sites (in the same way as Ankor Wat is in Cambodia), and this is probably because it has the largest collection of posh coffee shops any where on the planet! Still recovering from our chicken lunch we were more than a little surprised to be presented with a sea of restaurants most of which would be pricing them selves out of the market even if they were in Islington…
We saw some temples, and they were very pretty, Sam got to hit a very large gong, and we were reunited with our muesli breakfast. The highlight of Luang Prabang for us was being able to meet up with one of Jess’ friends from home (Ellie) and her boyfriend (Julian) who were are also cycle touring, and happened to be in LP at the same time as us.
Julian without doubt smashes the “cycled furthest to get here” competition (with Ellie in a close(-ish) second). He’s cycled from Ireland, but to get where he is now he first headed south, going all the way down to Cape Town, then when up through both South (where Ellie joined him) and North America. They then cycled through Japan, South Korea, China, finally doing a comprehensive lap of South East Asia, and we were lucky enough to bump into them just before they started out on what I suppose you would have to call the home straight, cycling back to Europe. We think (although he told us when we had had a few drinks and so can’t really remember) that Julian said he was past his 65,000th km.
We had two lovely evenings with the pair of them, and were sorry we couldn’t have had more. All in all we spent three days in Luang Prabang, during which the most strenuous thing we did was walk up a very small hill, where Sam was able to impress the man at the desk by asking for two tickets in nearly fluent Loatian.
To make sure of catching the boat we rose early on our last morning in Luang Prabang, treated ourselves to one more visit to a posh cafe and cycled down to the pier. The first boat was already full of tourists, and there was a moment of panic when a group of uncharacteristically funny looking French people were suddenly struck by a fear that this would mean they were going to have to swim and so started a round of angry Gallic arm waving in the direction of the Laotians in charge. The situation was quickly defused when said Laotian pointed at one of the hundreds of other boats on the river side, and told us to get into that one. This one was in fact slightly better than the first one as it had comfy looking seats (all be in one too few, so Sam had to sit on the floor), and so everyone was happy.
The helmsman on the new ship was not afraid to push his vessel to the limits, and for a while we tore our way up the Mekong. The engine was mounted in a small shed at the back of the boat, which interestingly (for Sam) had the door open so you could see it working away as it forced us up through the rapids. We had one widdle stop on a sand back, however not long afterwards the googly eyed Frenchman decided he needed to go again, and to prove how egalitarian he was he crawled round the boat asking if anyone else needed the loo as well. We all didn’t because we had only just gone… but we stopped any way.
Sadly, when the driver tried to restart the engine it was clear the starter motor had detached its self, and so we were stranded for about an hour while the chief mechanic (who also happened to be the driver) set about reattaching it, absolutely fascinating.
The steep mountains dropping straight into the side of the river were amazing, and we passed stunning sacred caves, huge cliff faces, and one (what appears to be) very large damn construction, apparently being funded by the Chinese. Eventually we made it to Nong Khiew, and opted for the very first guest house we saw as we got off the boat. It was pretty cheep, and rather rustic, but Lao (as we were about to find out) can go very rustic indeed.
From Nong Khiew we were going to start heading east, and make a beeline for the Vietnamese border at Nam Meow. All that stood between us and there was about 400km of sparsely populated mountain range… and to show that we really were keen and enthusiastic about this forth coming challenge we actually got up and were ready to go before the hotel man was even out of bed. We then headed over the river, picked up some breakfast in town, pumped our tires, and headed out.
To begin with the road was merely (for want of a better word) undulatory, taking us along a tributary of the river we had cruised up the day before, and this lasted for about 10k before we reached the proper climb. This part of Lao is much less visited than the stretch between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, and there weren’t the tourist busses or fellow cyclist coming past to reassure us of the road ahead.
We went through a huge number of rural Laotian villages, in many of which people were wearing the traditional dress that we had seen in a museum in Luang Prabang. The response of the villagers to our passing varied wildly from village to village. In some we would receive waves cheers and shouts of “sabadee” as we crawled our way through, woman waggling the arms of their babies in an effort to make it look like they were waving. We would then climb a little bit further and in the next village we would get nothing but angry glares, and our efforts to say hello would be almost completely ignored. Most villages were however very friendly, all be it relatively surprised to see us.
The first reasonably sized village we got to (i.e. large enough to have a shop) was right at the top of the hill, and sadly turned out to be a relatively unfriendly one. We were considering having lunch there, but as we stood by the side of the road a man came out of the forest dragging behind what looked like a giant genie pig attached to a bit of string. The creature was clearly not looking forward to what it must have know was about to happen and was doing its best to break free, however the small crowd that quickly formed around it made its escape impossible. After seeing this it was swiftly decided that if this was the sort of thing that got served up in this town we were better off heading down into the valley to see if we could find somewhere else. (This meant that we didn’t see what eventually became of that poor struggling rodent… but we hope it was tasty…)
At the bottom of the valley we arrived at the veritable metropolis of Vieng Kham. We had only done 48k, and it would have been good to for further, however towns in northern Lao are much fewer and farther between than in other parts of South East Asia, and we were well aware that the next place with any chance of having a somewhere to stay the night would be another 51km.
Vieng Kham is so big that it actually has three guest houses! The first was all right, but was a bit out of town, and so we held our guns and pushed on to see if there was anything better. The second was terrible, and the people were unfriendly, so we sacked it off, and finally we found one which was right in the centre of town and appeared to have a policy of only employing delightfully friendly children, and so we stayed there (despite it probably being the ropiest of the lot..). The walls were made of cardboard, but fortunately we were the only people staying there so (after scaring the child at the restaurant half to death with out funny looking faces) we slept surprisingly well.
The next morning we got breakfast from the minute town market, and by some miracle there was a man there who spoken some English which meant for the first time in a while we were able to tell what the food was before we bit into it. We had been warned that lunch stops in the mountains were thin on the ground, and so we had been advices to take a pack lunch.
In Lao a pack lunch will almost certainly be based largely around the national delicacy of “sticky rice”, which is a sort of rice/play-doh hybrid and incredibly versatile. For the next four days lunch would involve a main course of sticky rise and tinned tuna, and then a delightfully prepared desert of sticky rise and strawberry jam (something else that is surprisingly easy to get hold of in northern Lao).
We started that days cycle with another long climb, eventually taking us up out of the clouded and providing us with stunning view over the mountains. We had a vague idea of the town we were aiming for, but the fact that the creators of our map had decided to try and make their own names up for the towns (rather than use the more commonly accepted ones used by the local people) meant that it was very difficult for us to confirm that this place would actually have somewhere for us to stay.
Eventually, while we were stopped having a drink of water, a man who appeared to have decided to completely dismantle his moped by the side of the road came over to us and asked if we were ok. He did suggest that there was a guest house in a town called (something like) Sofshuonig some 30k away, and despite there being nothing on our map that looked anything like this, it still gave us the first glimmers of hope.
Again, after a morning of up hill it was an afternoon of down, and before long we were once again heading along a valley bottom, following a river. There were quite a lot of little villages dotted along the road with names that matched neither the map nor the funny sound that we had been told by the moped man. None of these villages came close to having a guest house, and we were beginning to get a bit worried we had missed the town we were aiming for when we finally passed a school proudly declaring itself to be (something like) Sofshuonig Primary School! There was however still no sign of a guest house and so we stopped at a small shop to ask if there anywhere near by we could sleep. The shop keeper(s) didn’t seem very keen to see us, even when we bought some drink from them, but when we did the international sign for sleep (head turned sideways resting on closed palms) they all unanimously pointed over the bridge.
This appeared to going out of town, and it looked for a moment like what they were referring to was going to be a long way away. Fortunately however, after a bend in the road more buildings did appear, and after a few more sleep signs to the local population we were directed to the guest house. Dinner that night was at a very nice little restaurant on the edge of town, where the son of the owner (who had been learning English at school) was able to organise us another of Lao’s traditional dishes, a big bowl of rise and half a chicken. A very pleasant evening was spent drinking warm beer (the village had not electriciy supply, and so no fridge) and chatting to the lab about Laotian life.
[As an asside, when staying in a room with an en-suit Sam will almost never need the toilet during the night. When (on the other hand) the toilet is difficult to get to, down a flight of stairs, or a long walk away round the back of the house, his bladder seems to crumble under the increased responsibility, and so he will inevitably have to don his head torch and go for a midnight expedition On this night Sam awoke, headed out, came back, and just as he was going to sleep again heard the local man in the room above wake up and start to move about clearly about to have to perform the same task. The local however obviously decided the effort was simply too much, and so the next thing Sam hear is his urinating out of the 1st story window… a lesson for us all…]
We went back to the same restaurant for breakfast the next morning, and since we had clearly enjoyed the chicken and rise so much the night before it was only logical that we should be offered it again for breakfast the next morning, and with this in our stomachs and a lunchtimes supply of sticky rise in our pannier bags we headed out again.
The pattern repeated itself, up and up and up, sticky rise lunch, then down again. We stopped in a town to ask if we could buy some water, to which the man (who seemed to speak very good English) had to sadly inform us that there was no drinking water between here and Vieng Thong (the next big town and our stop for the night). We can only assume that he didn’t get out very often, because a 20 second roll down the hill brought us a shop that was more than happy to sell us some bottles of water. (Although they did over charge us slightly, asking for 30p rather than the more normal 25p per bottle. They then clearly felt rather guilty about this, because after doing so they giggled a bit and then hid.)
We finally arrived Vieng Thong, which is enough of a tourist hot spot to appear in the Lonely Planet. For the first time in days we had a proper shower, and the entire hotel was made of concrete, so we slept like logs.
Cycle Day 1 – Nong Khiew to Vieng Kham
Cycle Day 2 – Vieng Kham to Sof Seuong
Cycle Day 3 – Sof Seuong to Vieng Thong