28th to the 31st Janurary – Na Meow to Hanoi (via Dong Tam, Vhin Loc and Phu Ly) – 91.6, 76.2, 95.3 and 84.1 kms – GOOD MORNING VIETNAM!!

_MG_8299At 6am we were woken by a rendition of the Vietnamese national anthem, being played very loudly and distortedly out of set of loudspeakers mounted to a post outside our hotel. (At least, we assume it was distorted, we never actually hear this song ever played in any other way, and so it’s possible that that is just what it is supposed to sound like…) Noodle soup it turns out is as intrinsic to the culture of Vietnam as it is to that of Lao, and so that was what we had for breakfast.

_MG_8310It’s always a surprise when you cross a land boarder and find that on the other side of this invisible line things are actually very different. We had got used to the pace of life in your average Laotian town, which sat somewhere between slow and stationary, and only picked up when someone cracked open an urn of rice wine (normally at about 09:30 in the morning). Na Meow however was quite alive with activity, suggesting that here the people mig_MG_8314ht actually have jobs! Sadly, another difference was that in Vietnam the roads weren’t funded by the Japanese, and so they were in fact markedly worse than they had been on the other side of the boarder. It was also pretty miserable weather and for the first time in nearly 4 months we came across quite large patches of mud.

Mud wouldn’t have been a problem had it not been Jess’s mud guards which, in their enthusiasm to help, would grab onto huge lumps of CIMG7905mud and wedge them firmly between itself and the wheel, where they would make an unpleasant scraping noise as she cycled along. Various plans were formulate to extract the offending clods, small stick were sent it to try and claw it out, in the manner of a bush-bady trying to catch ants, however this proved ineffective and unsatisfying. In the end Jess found a large and solid piece of bamboo (which she christened “The Whacking Stick”) and this was proved effective in not only beating both mud and mud guard into submission, but also providing an outlet for Jessica’s ever mounting aggression._MG_8308

We’d sort of assumed that ones we got to Vietnam the hills would stop and it would all _MG_8325be mill pond flat. This was mostly thanks to the fact that our map didn’t have contour lines, and we are pair of wallys, because one things that both sides of the border have in common is that they are bloody hilly! These unexpected hills, combined with the mud and often rubbish roads were (despite the occasional mud bashing session) putting Jessica in a very bad mood indeed. This meant that she was not really in a fit state to entertain the 30 odd Vietnamese people (men, women and children) who crowded around us when we finally found somewhere to stop for lunch. This lunch stop was probably one of our strangest to date, where before our arrival the_MG_8355 customers were mostly either playing pool or sitting around smocking giant pipes, made out of lengths of bamboo. The people were very friendly, although Jess’s mud induced rage meant that she was really getting very annoyed with the old woman, who was leaning in so close to watch Jess eat that she was almost obstructing Jess’s chopsticks from reaching her mouth.

_MG_8338The reason we had stopped in this rather remote lunch location was because there _MG_8333had been very little by way of urbanisation and this was the first likely looking eatery we had seen in a while. Unsurprisingly, 15 minutes after this rather abortive meal we passed through quite a large (by the standard of the last few weeks) town, with restaurants abound… but by then it was all to late. We did however stop briefly in this town, just long enough to break its only cash machine, something that became quite a hobby of ours, as we tried get out enough Dong to keep us going until Hanoi.

_MG_8368Interestingly the Vietnamese Dong is now (since the abolition of the Zimbabwe Dollar) the lowest valued currency in the world (according to Wikipedia). There are (or at least were while we were there) 30,000 VND to the pound, and the largest single denomination is the 100,000 VND note (or just over £3). It’s therefore not surprising that a lot of the hotels (especially those in tourist areas) resort to using American dollars simply as a space saving measure.

_MG_8371After the town the road followed along a river, and we were hoping that it would continue to do this all way out onto the river delta. Sadly however it had other ideas and _MG_8391after only a few k of nice flat terrain it started to climb again, taking us up onto a huge open plateau, covered in rice paddies and thatched cottages. We were sort of hoping that after this we would be allowed to go down back to the river, but were ones again disappointed and our climbing wasn’t done yet as we first rose up onto a second even higher plateau, and then, before being allowed to escape from these hidden lands had to scale the side of a huge ridge where the road zig zagged its way up with Alpine style hairpins.

_MG_8345Finally, after what felt like a very long climb we were allowed to roll the very long way down the hill into the town of Dong Tom. We were directed to quite a nice little hotel, which had all the mod cons including wifi in the bed room (ones you had asked the hotelier to plug the router in), and a giant semi erotic poster featuring a a scantily clad women being fed grapes by a pair of plastic doves, with the phrase “Get Well Soon!” splashed across the bottom.

_MG_8349The next day, after what felt like a very long time indeed, we finally arrived in civilisation! We could tell we had arrived there because we stopped in our first coffee shop, and had a brilliant percolated beverage, served with finesse and style (and a giant blob condensed milk in the bottom). After finishing our drinks the owner of the cafe, and his entire family all came outside to wave us off. We stopped in another town for lunch and broke another cash machine. The restaurant here was of a completely different scale to one from yesterday, and seemed to server a wide range of fascin_MG_8387ating dishes. Sadly, we completely failed to convey the message that we would like one of these dishes, and so instead ended up with a plate of chicken and rise… (at least here (unlike in Lao) they went to the effort of flavouring the chicken with a dash of lemon.) At this restaurant no body came to wave us off, but we did draw quite a crowd when we tried to ask for directions.

Thanks to an interesting mix of European influence and CIMG7905Vietnamese nationalist pride, in 1918 Vietnamese officials decided that the language of the country should be written in Roman characters. However they didn’t chose to associate the letters with the same sounds as you might have expected. (We had already learnt this to our cost when we’d spent quite a long time trying simply to order a bowl of rise which we knew to be written “com”. We spent a very long time with the waiter, saying “com” in all the different tones, intonations and pitches we could think of, eventually writing the word down only for realisation to dawn on the chap and him exclaim “kerm”…) We were therefore aware that the town we were aiming for was probably not pronounced “Vihn Loc” but had no idea how it actually was pronounced… in the end we just pointed at the name on the map.

_MG_8385The appearance of civilisation had coisided with the disappeared of the mountains. _MG_8392There was one hill at the begging of the day, but pretty much the whole afternoon was spent cruising along perfectly flat roads, raised up above what appeared to be a never ending sea of paddy fields. In Lao pretty much all the paddy fields had been bare, the Laotians having clearly decided that they had enough rice, and so choosing to spend the rest of the year getting pissed. The Vietnamese however feel very differently about how much is good amount of rice, because the whole way along armies of people in conical hats were bent double, up their knees in mud, bevering away either planting seeds, or cutting… seeds… or doing other rice production based things. None of them though were too busy to look up and give us a cheery wave as we cycled past.

_MG_8378No patch of flat land was left unused either and the town of Vinh Loc (or “Vinh Loc City!” as the girl in the earlier restaurant had excitedly exclaimed) appeared like an island, the walls of the first house rising directly out of water covered fields. Once there we found a very nice hotel indeed, and later a very nice dinner at a place that was very far to right on the “restaurant”—-“someones sitting room” spectrum. To pay we had to interrupt the old man and his grandson from their martial arts film that they were watching in the next room.

_MG_8301The next day was more of the same, another brilliant cup of coffee, this time served in a garden full of banzi trees. We had been warned that the traffic in Vietnam was bad, and there is some truth in this, they seem to have developed a horn addiction, so it doesn’t take many actual cars to be on the road for the traffic to become infuriating. _MG_8399There are also a lot of lorries, and although the first time you see a “fun communist truck” you think its “fun” a few hours later you have been nearly run over by 10 of them and honked at violently by another 100 and the fun has very much warn off. The only time the roads we were really busy was at school letting out time, when they flooded with thousands of keen young comrades, all meandering along in huge bicycle riding packs, smartly dressed in their state prescribed school uniform.

_MG_8328We had a relatively assuming moment when Jess decided that she needed the loo and _MG_8407so we stopped in a petrol station to ask if they had such a facility. Sam thought he had learnt the word for “toilet” in Vietnams, but what ever the word he had learnt was it didn’t mean toilet to these people. We spent about 10 minutes trying to say this word in a way they might understand, as well as trying a few other words that the Lonely planet phrase book had to offer until one bright spark finally worked out what we wanted and in a breath of realisation went “oooohh… toilet?”.

We were aiming this evening for the Hanoi satellite town of Phu Ly (pronounced “Poo Lee”), which might (if anyone else took the time to make the comparison) be called “The Guilford of The East”. Before entering this monstrous sounding place we thought it _MG_8394prudent to stop for a cold drink. This started in the normal way, us signalling to the owner lady that we wanted a drink, and then her spending the next five minutes setting us up an assortment of child’s garden furniture in a vain attempt to make us comfortable. As is quite often the case, when we arrived the girl seemed to speak no English at all, but after a few minutes of us putting the effort in with hand gestures and funny noises some of the words that she had been taught at school or heard on TV started to float up to the top of mind, and within about 15 minutes we had almost forgotten that we didn’t speak the same language. Things then took a turn for the more unusual when this woman’s mother (possibly the smallest, oldest looking woman in the world) appeared excited brandishing an envelope, the contents of which turned out to be a happy new year message from none other than the Vietnamese President himself, hand signed and addressed personally this lively OAP! This was clearly quite a thing, and so we all had an apple to celebrate!_MG_8401

Phu Ly turned out to be a very exciting place, all bright lights and half price cloths shops. The traffic had warn away at us to enough of an extent to give us an excuse to splash out on a smart hotel, and after a drink in the bar we headed out to find some grub. After wandering for a while we found some street sellers, surrounded by a mass of locals sitting on miniature plastic furniture. We were tempted to play the sellers off against each other, but it turned out they were all doing different meals, all of which looked delicious, so in the end we got two plates from each of them, a snip at just 50,000 Dong…_MG_8424

Finally the big day came, and it was time for us to make one final push into Hanoi. We’d studied the maps long and hard, and were pretty sure we had found as good a way as was possible for this final strike. The road we were planning to use didn’t actually appear on our map, but Google suggested that there should be a delightful river road that would take us right into the heart of the city. We snuck out of Phu Ly in that vain, diving along narrow roads lined with stalls and periodically touching on the river bank. One very short hold up came when a women holding a huge plant stepped out in front of Jess, and received a Surley Long Haul Trucker to the arm as punishment for her carelessness. Fortunately no harm was done, and we can only hope that this lady learnt a valuable lesson…

_MG_8436The road we had found was pretty much ideal, taking us north along the river and into the city. We knew exactly where on the map we were and exactly which direction Han Noi was, and this proved to be lucky because everyone we asked seem to have absolutely no idea! The first person we asked told us that Ha Noi was 90k, this was very bad news because we had already done thirty and had calculated it being only an 80k total. The second person was convinced that Ha Noi was to the south of where we were, and put quite some effort into trying to convince us that that was the way we should go. We pressed on, but things then got really worrying when the next pair (who didn’t speak a word of English and were absolutely plastered) stopped and also tried very hard to make us head south… They were particularly troubling because they seemed to have nothing better to do than ride up and down our little road on their moped, and so when they came back the other way they stopped and seemed really quite offended that we should have chosen to ignore their insanely inaccurate advise. On balance they were not a helpful addition to the day. One guy was very very drunk, while his friend was only drunk, and first guy had a tendency of getting very close and shouting Vietnamese in our faces. The photo below somehow manages to make it look like Jess was happy in their company, but this is complete facade, because she was fuming! As if their presents wasn’t enough, the second time they accosted us they managed to do it right next to a giant pig abattoir, and so any gaps between the mans shouting we filled with the screams and squeals of hundreds of the poor creatures being forcibly introduced to their maker._MG_8432

For a moment it looked like relations with the very very drunk man had deteriorated completely, and that things were about to kick off, fortunately his friend whispered a _MG_8442few consolatory nothings in his ear and this seemed to calm him to such a degree that as he (finally) left he came to Sam, gave him a big hug, and as if the alcohol had instilled in him one solitary English phrase uttered the words “I love you!”…

Our quiet back road took us all the way into what would probably be called zone 2 of Ha Noi, before becoming a giant 8 lane motor way. Cycling along this wasn’t too bad, because there were so many lanes that we almost had one to ourselves, crossing it however was a nightmare, and took a very long time._MG_8443

We finally arrived in the Old Town of Ha Noi in time for lunch, having cycled 5800km over 113 days.

 

 

Na Meow to Dong Tam

Dong Tam to Vinh Loc City

Vinh Loc City to Phu Ly

Phu Ly to Ha Noi

26th of Janurary – Sam Neua to Na Meow – 29 and 56 km – Leaving Lao Behind

CIMG7900We well deserved a rest day Sam Neua, and restful it was, with the sole event of note being a stroll round the markets to look some of stalls selling (amongst other things) flaid rat. (It should be pointed out though that most of the stalls were selling perfectly normal produce and so we were able to enjoy a tofu and fish paste baguette lunch, followed by a bamboo-tube-full of sweet sticky rice for pudding, but they don’t make for interesting reading.)

_MG_8195The next day was a short day, heading to our final Laotian destination of Veng Xia. Out the other side of Sam Neua the geography seemed to be surprising different, all be it a variation on the continuing theme of “bloody hilly”. Gone were the rolling mountains and wiggly climbs, replaced by tight little nooks and wide flat river valleys, perforated by huge karst mountains rising out of the abandoned paddy fields. The climate had also changed, and the crystal clear sky had been swapped for low hanging cloud which appeared to be snared on the mountain tops, completely immobile._MG_8212

The mountains around Vieng Xia contain a rabbit warren of caves and _MG_8235tunnels, and it is in the these tunnels that many thousands of Laotian people (including the Communist Party, which now run the country) hid during the 50s and 60s while the Americans did their level best to flatten the entire mountain range. It is for this reason that Veng Xia is now a popular and unprecedentedly interesting tourist destination. _MG_8243We were shown round the caves, (hospital cave, war cabinet cage, presidents cave, family and friends cave) and finished in the auditorium cave where in the past Russian ballet dancers came to entertain the subterranean inhabitants, but now the cave we treated only to our tour guide performing a rendition of some local ditty. And very good he was to.

_MG_8255Sam Neua had failed us badly in the supply of Indian Restaurants, and it was in this same category that Vieng Xia outdid itself. The india restaurant there was run by an Indian man that looked as happy to see us as we were to see him (i.e. very) and although our hearts sank when we read the menu and saw only the _MG_8262normally Laotian fodder of noodle soup and sticky rice he quickly came back and, leaning in close, said in a conspiratorial whisper “This is the Lao food… I also do Indian.” And bloody good Indian it was to. So good infact that we came back for breakfast.

_MG_8257Our last day in Lao went much as those before it had done… hillylyly… It _MG_8263featured all the thing that had come very much to symbolise our time in Lao, namely sicky rise, and it was a surprisingly long cycle to the border. Ever since our first Laotian border official debacle we have always been wary of border crossings. However, once again we arrived at the exit to Lao and received only interest and friendly comments of support, then crossed unhindered into no mans land. Rounding the corner we were confronted with the formidable looking _MG_8279Vietnam border control building, (of which there would be a photo however sadly at this point Sam’s camera seems to have failed (possibly disabled by some Thunderbird style photo deleting force field emanating from the Vietnamese offices) and so no photos exist). Here too proceedings were carried out exactly by the book, many hundreds of lines of forms and documentation was filled in to make sure that our arrival in the country was properly recorded, our visas checked and verified and were free to go.

_MG_8221This complete fidelity to process was if anything a bit annoying for Sam, who had realised while we were in Luang Prabang that his Vietnamese visa was infact due to expire three days before were booked to fly out of the country. People had suggested that, rather than incurring an overstay penalty he might be able to slip the man on the door a couple of bob and get the numbers jimmied. Sadly however the men in racing green military uniforms were having none of this, and so he had to go into the country with the rather worrying promise of being an illegal immigrant in a communist state.

_MG_8284On the way out the other side everyone’s belongings were getting thoroughly checked, our panniers were gone through with a fine tooth comb, and as we pulled away a woman pushing a small cart was stopped, and a number of her chicken were carried away, presumably for questioning.

_MG_8277Just over the border was the town of Na Moew, and we plugged for the first hotel looking building we could find. This was a sort of cross between a prison and hospital, where the beds stank of cigarettes, and the bathroom stank of urine. To begin with the electricity didn’t work, but after a while that picked up and it was the water that gave out instead. Features included a sort of _MG_8296weird communal balcony, a French style open courtyard and conference room featuring a bust of Ho Chi Minh, reminding us (had there been any doubt) that we were indeed in Vietnam.

Before heading out for dinner Sam popped down stairs to buy a can of beer, being (it turned out later) horrifically over charged for a beer that tasted like a cocktail of sulphur and cabbage. We had more luck when we headed out for dinner however, and we managed to find aCIMG7902 restaurant with a manager who spoke essentially fluent English. We could therefore be pretty sure that the local delicacies we were introduced to did not contain any of the pickled snake, which sat in pride of place on top of the fridge.

Day 1 – Sam Meua to Vieng Xia

Day 2 – Vieng Xia to Na Meo

22nd to the 25th of Janurary – Vieng Thong to Sam Neua – 57 and 91 km – Exercising Your Right to Party

There isn’t a huge number of restaurant options in Vieng Thong, and so during the roughly 40 hours we spent there (since we decided we deserved a rest day) we actually ate in the same place for 5 consecutive meals, which is a trip record. To begin with we thought it was going to be difficult to entertain ourselves in what was quite clearly a no horse town. We had however spent much of yesterday cycle through one of northern Lao’s national parks, and one thing that was mentioned in the Lonely Planet’s (very brief) entry on the town was that it contained the visitor centre and head quarters of said park.

_MG_0547While at the visitor centre we were lucky enough to bump into an American (Troy) who is tasked with managing the park, and was in town for a meeting with the local park rangers who are supposed to protect the animals (primarily the tigers, over which the park prides itself) and deter poachers. We had a fascinating conversation with Troy, as he highlighted some of the difficulties of trying to protect an animal that the carcass of which can easily make the owner $10,000, even when sold simply at the local market.

By the end we were keeping Troy from his meeting (not something we have had to worry about for sometime) and so we headed off on what we were promised was a very short and very easy hike. It was indeed both short and easy, and was made easier by the fact that the local school maintains the forest as part of an environmental education project, and they had even cut steps into the side of the hill in any of the bits that showed any threat of being in the least bit steep.

At the top of the hill there were some trenches used by varying sides during (what is called here) The America War, and these provided the only evidence we saw to the fact that apparently the whole town was flattened by the Americans during the 60s.

_MG_0550We had been warned by a local man in the visitor centre that we had to be careful when we finished the walk, because if we went the wrong way we would arrive at the back of some hot springs, and therefore wouldn’t have to pay to enter them… We did go the wrong way, and so ended up at the back of the hot springs, and when we went to the desk to try and pay it was a real job trying to get the man at the desk to accept any money. He finally did, but only after filling us a personal hot water plunge pool (then filling us another one _MG_0552because Jess kicked up mud on the bottom of the first). We chilled out in the delightfully hot water for a while, and then on the way out were invited to sit down with the man while he (and his entire family who had also turned up) enjoyed their lunch. We sat down for the moment, but the food they were eating was spicy enough to cause heart palpations, and so we made our excuses and headed back to town.

We bumped into Troy, and a fellow conservationist, at breakfast the next morning (our 5th and final meal at the aforementioned restaurant) and they were able to give us a bit of valuable insight into the potential accommodation options of the upcoming towns.

_MG_0556Finally, and after putting it off for as long as we possibly could, it was time to go.

Yet again the day started with a monster climb (about 15k). We quickly broke out of the clouds, and they formed a carpet below us, stretching across the valley. The climb continued, and we finally stopped for lunch (another sticky rice and fish picnic), although this time a friendly Loatian man saw us sitting by the side of the road and decided to sit with us. To begin with we thought it was a bit strange him sitting by us, chatting away in a language that we couldn’t understand three words of, but he didn’t seem any more interested in sharing our food than we were in sharing his cigarettes, and by the end of our lunch it was a shame to say good bye (not that he understood that either of course).

_MG_0558The people of Northern Laos obviously felt that they had something to celebrate, and every town we passed through seemed to be full of drunken revilers stumbling around. Weird plinky plonky music was coming from at least one house in every one, and people were sat out drinking horrible somethings through long straws out of terracotta urns. Our stop was no exception to this rule, and the karaoke was playing lowdly as we entered the delightful junction town of Poulao._MG_0559

We cycled toward the centre of the town and were lucky in as much as the first place we asked turned out to be the town guesthouse. As we got off our bikes a man so drunk that he could barely stand stumbled up to us, and (having to use most of his energies simply to focus both eyes on us) half collapsed onto Jess’s bike. Worried that he was going to be sick in our general direction the woman in charge of the guesthouse run out to shoe him away, but not before getting a beer from the fridge which she gave him as he staggered away up the road._MG_0564

Sam negotiated a room rate, being shown our delightful suit, decorated in the customary corporate calendar wall paper what is all the rage these days in Northern Laos. This place even had an indoor toilet, although the woman made it extremely clear (with all the necessary gestures) that this was not to be used in any circumstances, and instead the out door facilities (which were far to close to the edge of the cliff for Jess’s liking) was the only place one was to relieve ones self.

_MG_0565Jess’s concerns about our current watering hole were heightened further when she realised that in the small plastic tub next to which we had left our bikes were a large _MG_0573number of recently deceased rats, slowly drying in the sun. Sadly, of all the potential food allergies listed in the Lonely Planet phrase book rat was not included, and so there was a real fear that one of these poor critters was going to be on the menu. Fortunately we didn’t have to worry, and the local delicacy of a packet of instant noodles floating forlornly in the middle of a large bowl of boiling water was served up instead. (Half way through our meal a man turned up, staggered into the room where we were eating, and collected the tub of rats, much to the amusement of the other locals there getting drunk.)_MG_0568

_MG_8135When we had gone down to dinner (that makes it sound a lot posher than it was) there was already a group of four local teenagers sitting in the… lets call it the restaurant… trying in vain to focus on a karaoke video that the landlady (who we swear was the only person in town not completely trollied) _MG_8138had sat them down in front of. Sam’s best attempts at asking where dinner could be found failed to solicit even an acknowledgement of his existence from the group. However half way through dinner they all decided that enough was enough, the karaoke video went off, and they all got on their mopeds and drove off.

_MG_8142We would have already been kept awake buy the noise of the distant karaoke penetrating the wafer thin walls of our guesthouse, had it not even been for the reappearance of these teenagers at about midnight. They mopeded up the building, two of them copulated for a short while in the room _MG_8137next to us (separated only by a wall that would have been better suited to the job of kitchen towel it was so thin) and then they mopeded away again… the landlady them came up to change their sheets and (thank god for small mercies) that was the last we heard of them.

Most of the other towns we have cycled through had not had a permanent electricity supply, the town of Poulao however was lucky enough to be part of a “Northern Province Rural Electrification Project”. This means that in this fortunate town the karaoke never stops, and the light in the bedroom never goes out…

_MG_8143The sun eventually rose, and the karaoke was still going on. We scrounged together some breakfast, found someone to buy some sticky rise from and were very keen to get out of this town as quickly as we could, passing on our way the building from which the music was emanating… apparently deserted…

All that mattered to us was to get out of Poulao, and we hadn’t even given that much thought to where we were going. Sam Neua (the relatively large provincial capital) was still 91km away, over seriously mountainous terrain and so getting that far seemed like an insurmountable challenge. We had been told by the Americans in Vieng Thong that there was a town near some standing stones where the locals had been “trained in guest house”… and then a local in Poulao had confidently slerde that there was somewhere to sleep in a town called (something like) celery… somewhere along the road. We were however so tired _MG_8145after the toxic combination of hills and karaoke that Jess was beginning to canvas hard for the notion of getting a lift. For the moment though we simply pushed on and decided to see how far we could get.

The road wiggled through a mess of hills and hidden valleys, dropping down along rivers, winding through Shangri La style towns and then climbing back up again. Progress to begin with was very slow, and by midday we had barely done more than 30k. Things were looking pretty bleak, and although Sam was seriously unkeen on flagging a lift, even he was beginning to admit that it looked like we might not have an option._MG_8157

There was however a bit of a let up after this, and the road settled down, sinking into a river valley where it seemed content to stay for a while. We started to speed up and it was only 13:30 when we reached the town of Sallery about 50k in. There was indeed a sign here proclaiming that this town had a homestay, and for a while we ummed and ard about whether to stay here or to push on and try our luck for Sam _MG_8160Neua, slowly we were begging to think might be possible. You can say what you like about self belief, and the confidence we had in our selves at being about to push on the rest of the way, but what it really boiled down to was the soul destroying thought of another night eating instant noodles in a cardboard room with karaoke ringing in out ears that finally convinced us to continue on.

The challenge was not over yet, we went through one more valley based town (where every single house had hanging outside it a number of dead _MG_8171squirrels, hoisted up by a bit of string from a post… we didn’t stop) and then it was back into the hills. Starting with one or two rollers, then hitting us with some really sharp climbs. Another ten k and we were excited to see not only another waterfall (our first for a while), but next to it a proper, fully fledged restaurant! Conclusive proof that were were getting back in “civilisation”. We had already wolfed down our sticky rice and fish, so didn’t spot, but it was still nice to see.

_MG_8175By early evening the up and down had solidified into one long up and we climbed for a long time going right up onto a huge semicircular ridge. The ridge and road swung round to the right giving up a brilliant view back over the mountain range through which we had just _MG_8182picked our way. By this time we knew we had done it, as it was down hill all the way. The sun was clipping the mountain tops as we rolled our way into the town, having completed what was far and away the toughest day, having climb (according to the GPS) a sum total of 2500m.

_MG_8190One reason we had been so keen to get to Sam Neua was because the Lonely Planet promised us it had an India restaurant. This was of course a lie, and so we ended up having rise in (what appeared to be) the only restaurant in town with the surprisingly large number of other tourists that seemed to have found there way here…

Day 1 – Vieng Thong to Poulao

Day 1 – Poulao to Sam Neua

15th to 21st Jan – Luang Prabang to Vieng Thong (via Nong Khiew, Vieng Kam, Sof Seuong) – 48, 50, 67 km – Leaving civalisation behind

_MG_0375After 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…

_MG_0384We 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. _MG_0403They 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.

_MG_0396You can find Julian’s blog at http://theslowwayhome.blogspot.in/ and Ellie’s at http://borntohorn.blogspot.in/, which we’re worried about telling you because it makes our seems very tame.

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.

_MG_0410North of Luang Prabang there is one relatively flat section of road before you get back into the mountains, flat is boring so we decided to take the boat up the river for the this bit.

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 _MG_0374boat 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._MG_0398

_MG_0402The 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.

_MG_0391Sadly, 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.

_MG_0404From 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.

_MG_0379To 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._MG_0476

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 _MG_0414response 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 _MG_0479the top of the hill, and sadly turned out to be a relatively unfriendly one. We were _MG_0421considering 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…)_MG_0450

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.

_MG_0474

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.

_MG_0478_MG_0480The 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.

_MG_0522In 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).

_MG_0491_MG_0490We 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.

_MG_0541Eventually, 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 t_MG_0501o 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._MG_0544

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 _MG_0510more 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._MG_0515

[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 _MG_0514stairs, 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…]

_MG_0513_MG_0504We 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 _MG_0483could 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.)_MG_0494

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.

_MG_0512[One of Jessica’s pet grievances with all these “rustic” places that we were staying in is that in the photos they somehow all look rather nice…]

Cycle Day 1 – Nong Khiew to Vieng Kham

Cycle Day 2 – Vieng Kham to Sof Seuong

Cycle Day 3 – Sof Seuong to Vieng Thong

12th Janurary 2013 – Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang (via Nam Kie and Sala Pak Thu) – 77, 73, 77 km – Party Time on a Laotian Mountain

_MG_0212The balcony based Ozzies meant that we had not slept very well for some hours before the alarm went off. When it finally did we got ready in double quick time, and (after a slightly spiteful, but ultimately failed, attempt by Jessica to lock them outside, we) said a fond goodbye to the hotelier and got on the road.

We very quickly got back off the road and into a backpacker cafe, to enjoy what we knew would be our last bowl of fruit _MG_0217and muesli for many days, and as we sat there a pair of cycle tourists on a green Dawes tandem came past, appearing not to even notice us and our bikes propped up by the roadside. This obviously put the thrill of the chase into us both (well… Sam) and so we wolfed down the rest of our rabbit food and started the pursuit.

The road out of town was extremely beautiful. The karst mountain ranges grow higher and higher as the valley closed in. After about an hour of peddling we stopped for a quick visit to the “little cycle tourists room” and as Sam waited outside there was another flash of green and the same tamdeming two shot past yet again. Annoyed at having been overtaken not once but twice by the same pair Sam hurried Jess back onto her bike when she reemerged,  and (ignoring the demands of his own bladder) restarted the hunt. Then under increasing pressure from both sides, the valley then gave up altogether and we started to climb._MG_0221

The town and villages of northern Lao are famous amongst culinary circles for their unerring willingness to eat things that most people won’t even go near. This meant that on our first climb we were continually distracted by the interesting wildlife hanging from the roadside markets, a very large bat probably being the most unusual of the recognisable creatures on display.

_MG_0227We stopped near the top of the second big climb of the day, looked back to get a view of how far we had come, and low and behold, we were yet again being pursued by a green tandem  This time thankfully they stopped, and were able to get to know this pair that seemed to take such relish in overtaking us. Excitingly they turned out to be the first other British cycle tourists we had met in three months on the road (Paul and Dawn from Hampshire!)!

_MG_0240Giving it our all we managed to get ahead of them on the first climb, however their increased weight (cough) gave them a big advantage on the decent and they were well ahead by lunch, where we caught them up again. They hadn’t done as much research as us (well… Jess (but then who has)) and so weren’t sure about where was a likely sounding place to sleep, and so we were happy to impart some of our encyclopedic knowledge, giving them the location of a very promising sounding hot springs at the top of the next hill.

_MG_0280The next hill was quite a beast, and the climb took the best part of the afternoon as the road wound it’s way through limestone pinnacles and weaved round the mountain side giving amazing views out over the saw-toothed landscape. It seemed to take forever, but the feeling of getting to the top was more than worth it when we rounded the corner and saw the steam rising from the thermal pool._MG_0269

Paul and Dawn were already recharging their batteries in the thermally energised water, and we quickly joined them and then spent a few hours floating around, discussing the advantages of 1 big bike compared to 2 small ones, watching locals come and bath in the pool, and trying to work out what geological phenomenon it was making the water warm…

_MG_0287The next day started with a lovely, all be in short, stretch of downhill. The mountainsides were covered in tufts of pampas grass, and rolling into the valley, with no sign of human life and a slight mist in the air you could image than any sort enchanted creature lived out there in that alien landscape… (what these creatures might have thought of the poorly installed overhead cables that ran the whole way along the road, I can’t imagine anyone ever thought to ask…)

_MG_0295_MG_0292Sadly, before you can say “where have the over head cables gone”, we started to climb again, a windy road hugging the mountain side like a bit of freshly cooked spaghetti.  It was quite a long climb (20km) slowly working our way out of the valley, and at times the hill side would swing round and give us an amazing view of the distance we had already covered, the road disappearing in the distance behind us.

_MG_0310We were climbing for some time. We would work our way round a ledge cut in the mountain, aiming for an outcrop hopeful that that would be the end of the up hill, and each time as we came round the corner we would be presented with yet another sweeping accent, and yet another distant outcrop. Eventually though one outcrop (not as strong as the others) gave up, and the road flattened and headed out across a very narrow ridge, joining this mountain with the next. The ridge was very narrow, not so narrow however as to have prevented someone from building a village on it, with the backs of the houses supported on stilts where they stuck out over the edge of the cliff._MG_0298

It wasn’t long before we were heading up yet again, now with the mountain on our right and valley on our left. Where as the previous hill had seen fit to hide from us the full extent of it’s hight, this new, more confident peak candidly displayed the route we were going to have to take, and a bloody long way it was to.

_MG_0315Our route stretched out in front, curving round the inside of a huge notched semi circular range, the road visible for some 5km as it determinedly crawled its way up to the top, where we had no option by to the follow it.

The climb was pretty steep.  An occasional lorry would hurtle past, and we would get to watch it appear and disappear as then struggled it’s way up round each of the snaking bends. To begin with the end of the climb appeared a very long way away, but slowly the distance between us and it grow smaller. Eventually a building came into view, and much later still it became clear that the building had sun umbrellas outside.

_MG_0329Normally, when you get to a remote mountain top in South East Asia you would justifiably expect to find some sort of wise old hermit, probably sitting under a blossoming fruit tree. He would then probably teach you a mystical karate move, or impart some Confucian wisdom. Sadly however, at this remote mountain top someone had built a cafe, and so as we wandered through the car park all we found were American and Korean tourists, all of whom you got the impression were feeling very smug about the fact that they had got to the same beautiful view point without having to climb the 700m to get here…

_MG_0266Disadvantages aside, the existence of this cafe did mean that were able to re-energise ourselves with a packet of crisps and relatively decent instant espresso, and then went and sat with the tamdemers who had just beaten us here and had bagseed themselves a choice spot on the viewing platform.

They were already pouring over their map and doing the all important terrainal analysis to try and come up with the golden ratio of “climb done:climb yet to do”. Sadly, early indications suggested that we had not yet reached unity. Even so though, we were proud of how far we had come, and were quoting phrases such as “well that’s broken the back of it” and “The worst is certainly behind us”. In fact, even those clichés turned out to the false, although we weren’t to know that for a while yet.

_MG_0246For now though the only climb that separated us from lunch was the one out of the car park, and before long we were feasting on a fine noodle soup in the next town.

The afternoon started with a decent length of downhill, just long enough to make sure that your legs had properly ceased up by the time they needed to do any more peddling. On the way down we passed a very large number of cycle tourists coming in the other direction. The first pack were led by a man who had come all the way _MG_0258from Iceland, and so for a short while held the title of “person who has cycled the furthest to get here”. After saying goodbye to them we passed others, but didn’t stop and only shouted such choice words of encouragement as “your nearly there” as we whizzed past. This was of course a lie.

The road then bounced along another wider ridge, not being able to make up it’s mind between up and down. Soon however this criss of confidence was over and after another short section of decent, taking us all the way down to lovely a river valley, it settled on what it thought it new best which was of course up._MG_0225

Until this point we had not been too worried about the passage of time, it was getting to mid afternoon, but we only had 20 km to do before getting to the next likely looking village, and since “we have broken the back of it” we were sure that the rest of our days cycle would fly by and we would be sipping BearLao by tea time. This new climb made us re-evaluate that.

Once again the road ahead was clearly laid out, and again where we were going was considerably higher than where we were now. However we were still feeling fit when we arrived at the bottom, and so up the hill we went, slowing only momentarily as we headed off road to avoid a broken down lorry, currently in the process of having it’s entire engine replaced. This work was of course blocking the entire road, but traffic volumes were so low that this presumably lengthy process had so far only produced a tail back of one car and one van, the drivers of which were making the most of their newly won free time by sitting in the sun and enjoying a cigarette, making a very concerted effort to not help with the repair work, and so potentially risk speeding it up._MG_0346

There were still 9 km to do when we got to the top of this long climb, and the slow march of time had turned into rather more of swift jog. It was already later than we like to be on the road, and there was strong concern that if this 9k was like the last 9k it was going to be dark by the time we found somewhere to sleep. Fortunately their was about 6k of undulation which we kangarrood our way along relatively quickly, before we rounded a bend and saw far away in the distance (and a long way above our heads) the radio mast that almost certainly signified the location of our village.

The thought of having to do this new final climb was so horrific that neither of us mentioned what we had seen for a few minutes, until it became all too clear that that was where we were going, and then the dread started to set in.

We were now running on Oreo fumes, and so stopped for a few minutes to have one final sugar injection. While we were waiting there an ancient Laotian woman came past, also heading up the hill, and stopped to share a few words of gibberish and stare intently into Jess’s open pannier bag. We gave her a few pieces of chocolate and a wafer, (since in these situations you can never be sure that what looks like a normal old woman isn’t in fact a mountain spirit, tasked with the job of handing out good luck to cycle tourists). She eventually got bored, started to wander off, and as you might expect, when we looked back she’d disappeared.

_MG_0339[We then passed her some considerable time later, proving that although cycling is fastest up hill, riding little old ladies is probably a close second.]

Finally, and at the very limits of our strength we rolled into the village square and pushed our bikes in the guest house, powered now by a potent cocktail of relief and pride. The Garmin read a total altitude gained of 2300m, the same height of Val Thoren (Europe’s highest ski resort) above sea level.

We arrived just in time to join the party, as the 8 other cycle tourists also staying at that guest house cracked open some beers, and a very enjoyable evening was spent discussing various cycle adventures, until someone saw that the time was approaching 8 o’clock and as one man we all unanimously decided it was time for bed.

_MG_0342Since reading this blog now requires almost as much stamina as the cycling did (and you’ll have noticed that I’ve completely run out of interesting photos), I shall keep my accounts of the final day into Luang Prabang brief. Misty start, followed by some piddly little climbs. The only slight distraction being lunch where we panicked a bit and stopped in a pretty ropey looking road side eatery, and after (we thought) ordering two noodle soups, were presented with an entire and complete chicken, where the only bits missing where those bits that you might actually want to eat…_MG_0352

Along a very pretty (and very flat) river side, and after one final climb (accurately described by the “Travelling Two” as “Short and sharp”) we were rolling down the hill into the beautiful and historic city of Luang Prabang.

N.B. Sadly our one regret from this section (excluding the chicken) is that we never managed to get the contact information for our fellow cyclists, PaulPaul and Dawn (a.k.a. the tandem couple) as they got ahead of us on the downhill. Only one photo exists of Paul, and so if you should ever meat this man, can you please thank him sincerely for looking after us, and wish him and his wife all the best for their future adventure.

Day 1, Vang Vieng to Thermal Springs at the top of the hill.

Day 2, Springs to a different place at the top of a different hill.

Day 3, that place… to Luang Prabang

10th – 11th Janurary – Vang Vieng – (no cycling) – The Lost City of Party Island

_MG_0054We had been warned about Vang Vieng. The history of the town as we understand is:

10 years ago it was a lovely quaint Lao town, at the base of the Annamite mountains in an amazing location, backdropped by stunning lime stone cliffs in front of a leisurely flowing serpentine river. Someone had the brain wave that going down the river in tractor inner tubes would be fun, and when it proved not to be fun enough some locals set up a number of bars along the river bank selling a local happy shake full of local ingredients such as BeerLao, Laolao (rice whisky), cannabis and opium.

_MG_0058This wonderful coming together of local initiative and local produce obviously attracted travellers, keen to support the Lao economy, and soon the town ballooned. (At last count it had a total of 120 guest houses, and even more bars.) Travellers would be so keen to help the locals that on occasion they would over indulge in happy shake, and apparently all day and night the town would be a wash with semi-dressed tourists staggering around, shouting and generally vomiting on them selves.

_MG_0063This sort of distraction can detract from the beauty of a place… but since now the only people there were either locals (who knew what the place looked like already, and were making quite a lot of money running probably the world’s only tractor inner tube cartel) and travellers (who were too worried about where their next happy shake was coming from to notice the mountains) nobody seemed to mind. (Except apparently the editor of the website TripAdvisor, who was actually brought to tears on his return to _MG_0067the town when he saw how much it had changed… what a woos)

The only problem was that the mix of happy shake, river and traveller was managing to cause a rather staggering 30 deaths a year, almost entirely Australians. The Australian government was getting so worried about this phenomenon causing problems for it’s already sparsely populated country that they applied pressure to the Laossion Government (highlighting also that technically cannabis and opium are illegal…) and almost overnight the whole shabang was shut down…_MG_0095On our first night in the town we went for a bit of an explore to see how bad _MG_0098things really were in this Blackpool of The East. We walked past deserted bar after deserted bar, periodically punctuated by a single traveller sprawled out over a table apparently still recovering from a come down. On the whole though the town was far form the “Friday night Nottingham Town Centre” we had expected. It also turns out that since all the locals are now so desperate to find new revenue there are in fact a lot of activities that can be done.

_MG_0108_MG_0111The first day we went to visit one of the most amazing cave complexes we’ve ever been in. And when Jess refused to get out of bed on the second morning we decided we would treat ourselves to a hot air balloon ride!

This was blissfully easy to arrange (in theory). You simply had to go to one of the hundreds of adventure type stuff organising offices, say you wanted to go in the balloon, _MG_0121and then they would ring someone and (in English) book you a ticket… We were told we would be picked up from our hotel at 4 o’clock that evening, and so spent the rest of the afternoon exploring (what used to be called) Party Island, which now has the feel of some sort of lost civilisation, with scores of abandoned bars are now being slowly recaptured by the surrounding flora.

To be on the safe side we returned to our hotel for 15:30, and waited patiently to be collected. 4 o’clock came and went without note, and it wasn’t until 16:30 (the scheduled flight time) that we begun to get a bit anxious. This anxiety had matured into a full bodied concern by 16:45, which was then uncorked when we saw the hot air balloon inflate in the neighbouring field, and slowly and gracefully lift into the air.

Sam was sent on the warpath to find out what was going on, however, when he got to travel agent it was clear that no waring was going to have to be done. The man behind the desk gave over the impression of being someone who had already had a very bad day, and that the prospect of getting a customer onto a balloon that was already 400m in the air was not the biggest irritation he had recently faced. His manner suggested that a failed pick up was common, but he had enough professionalism to make up a story in which the balloon man had just wrung him and was running late, but it was ok because he would give him a quick ring and tell him to pick me up from here.

A short conversation in slightly angry Laossian, and a thirty second wait later and a man in a people carrier did indeed appeared, and we went and picked Jess up from the hotel.

At this point neither of us were entirely sure what the people carrier man was going to do next, since both balloons the company owned were very much airborne and unless his Toyota was fitted with ejector seats he was unlikely to get us much nearer than the balloon than we already were. We were however very wrong. We then spent the next twenty minutes in the back of the car taking part in a very exciting Twister style “Balloon Chase”! We quickly cought up with a group of Laotions in a pick up who were spending most of their time looking at the sky. Something would come in through the walky talky, the vehichles would accellerate, dive off down a side road and then wait again all craining their necks above the line of roves of the buildings until the next update arrived.

We thought that this was all rather unlikely to get us anywhere, because we were clearly the only people who had been missed, and so we were getting ready to start pressing for a refund. It’s lucky that we didn’t because after only a few more updates the car dived off the road again into a sports field, and this time we could see the balloon, just having come into land and unloading it’s passengers. The car pulled up along side, and in seconds_MG_0123 were bundled out of the car, and into the basket. The door was shut behind us, 5 or 6 words of Laotian were spoken to the pilot and the ground started the fall away below us. The game of football that had been interrupted by the arrival of the balloon quickly pickup up again with only a few waves from the bemused players.

Our solo balloon ride was amazing, brilliant views over the mountains, river and valley, and the decent was just as exciting as the departure had been as we skimmed our way over buildings and power cables.

After landing we were driven back to town, and after treating our sevles to some cocktails by the river we slept like logs… that is until the pair of Austriallians in the room next came back at 03:00 in the morning and spent the next three hours talking gibberish on their balcony… presumably just happy to be allive.

6th – 9th of Janurary – Vientaine, then on to Vang Vieng via Thalat – 94 and 98 km – Into the Loasian Mountains

_MG_9896Our 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…)

_MG_9877When 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 _MG_9886when 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.

_MG_9853We 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 _MG_9873experience, 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. We_MG_9898found 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…

_MG_9911For 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.

_MG_9918The 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…

_MG_9940Finally 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.
_MG_9933Out 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.

_MG_9958Quickly 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.

_MG_9947_MG_9943Past 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 _MG_0006mountains 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_MG_0012 “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…)

_MG_0009The 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.

_MG_9990Today 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.

_MG_9985We 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 o_MG_0039f the four having suffered from some sort of debilitating stomach bug over a week before, which was still making every pedal stroke an effort.

_MG_0050Finally 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

2nd to the 5th of Janurary 2013 – Savannakhet to Vientienne, via Thailand – 120, 89 and 79 km – More Friendship bridges than friends.

_MG_9752There were a number of options for how to get between Savannakhet and Vientienne, and according to the research that we did they were all boring! For that reason we decided to go for the quickest one, which was to take a direct beeline through Thailand. This had some advantages, namely… Thailand.

In Thailand there are lots of magical and mystical things that are often taken for granted, such as supermarkets, post offices, pharmacies and bike shops, all of which we were hoping to make use off.

_MG_9750From Savannakhet, Thailand is literally a stones throw away across the river, and in case your throwing arm isn’t good enough the Ozzys have even helped fund a gigantic bridge. Finding the bridge was easy, however getting onto it, (since we had left our grappling hooks at home) wasn’t quite so straight forward.

_MG_9755After our last Lao border crossing experience we were a little apprehensive about the prospect of giving our passports over to the man behind the desk. In fact we needn’t have worried because this border seemed to have an almost English-esque desire for things to be done by the book, and protocol was obeyed religiously. The protocol that caused us the biggest hassle was that you aren’t allowed to cycle over the bridge and the only provision that has been made for this is that would be cyclists have to flag down a pick-up truck as it goes through border control.

_MG_9758The only real problem with this is that the traffic volume over the bridge can be approximated to zero, and so it was possible we were going to have a long wait on our hands. The border officials were very sympathetic to our plight, recognising the slight absurdity of the situation, and even brought us some water while we sat in the sun waiting for a potential lift.

Eventually a pick-up did come past, Sam jumped on the driver and the man still seemed in a slight puzzled daze as to what was happening as he helped load our bikes into the back.

_MG_9762Most people in Thailand seem to drive huge pick-ups! Massive, with more than enough space for an army of bicycles and cyclists. Sadly we had found the only man in the country who had decided to “go eco” and have chosen to down scale, and so we had to cling on, with our bikes hanging somewhat out the back cruising along at 70kph. Whether this was safer than cycling over the bridge is questionable, but we survived.

Back in Thailand and we started smashing the kms like pros!. It’s not hugely exciting countryside, but the month and a half in the very poor countries of Lao and Cambodia meant that we took great joy from the periodic posh coffee shops.

There is an old Thai trick _MG_9763played on cycle tourists. Essentially what happens is, someone will buy a herd of ostriches and then position them by the side of the road. The honourable cycle tourist, coming along, minding his or her own business, is then so completely distracted by this that they veer off the road and come flying off their bike, at which point the Thai person in question has a bloody good chuckle at their expense. Called The Ostrich Shuffle it’s a trick played mainly on the road to Udon Thani and sadly Jess fell right into it, coming spectacularly off her bike and flying into the road. Fortunately no cars were overtaking at the time, and although she caused a minor traffic jam, the pick-up behind did stop to check she was ok._MG_9765

With some new scrapes and cuts we were able to finally make some proper use of our first aid fit (although sadly all the bandages had already been used covering up Jess’s sun burn) and we were quickly on our way again.

We covered quite a lot of ground on our first Thai day, finally stopping in the town of Sakhon Nakhon, where we got a very cheap room in yet another huge hotel! It was so big that our bikes even got their own room! Here still everything seemed completely shut, and the only place we could find to get dinner was a quite smart Vietnamese restaurant, where rather than having a menu they showed you pictures of potential dishes on an iPad. The only down side of this was that food came to four times the price of our hotel room… a whopping £15.

_MG_9771The next few days flew by, racking up kilometres faster than you can say “Is that a herd of ostriches?”. We stopped briefly to see the occasional interesting religious watsit, and had a very nice drink with an old Australian man, who gave us quite a bit of an insight into the (surprisingly large) community of ex-pat Europeans who have moved to Thailand and married Thai women (people we have code named ‘Spatulas’). Initially, this bloke didn’t inspire us, having now lived in Thailand for two years, not visited any further a field than the town in which he lived and not having picked up a word of Thai. He then however turned out to be both interested in and knowledgeable of Thai culture and people, and we enjoyed a very interesting hour or two chatting, by the end of which we felt guilty for a previously being so judgemental.

_MG_9783The next day was a short one, and brought us into Udon Thani, which it turns out is quite the metropolis. We made it there by lunch, which gave us the whole afternoon to do some to-dos, which was good, because there were quite a few challenges we had to complete before we thought it would be safe to go back into Laos.

_MG_9802Keen observers will have noticed that Jess has in recent photos has been sporting a very fetching bandage round (first one, then) both her calves. “Is this what they’re wearing on the catwalks of Phnom Penh?” I hear you ask, well no! (In truth, we don’t actually know about the catwalks, but in Phnom Penh, as throughout Cambodia, most people seemed to wear pyjamas pretty much all the time. The only reason we have been given for this is that it is because they are both colourful, and matching. Can’t argue there…)

_MG_9804The reason for Jess’s bandage is a to cover up a horrible and disfiguring rash that has started to form. We think the rash is caused by the a mix of the sun, and the doxycyclone anti-malarial drug we are both taking, and so the bandage is there to both protect the area, and to stop such disfigurement scaring the children. Since Thailand’s health system is both efficient and cheap we thought that this was a good place to get the rash looked at by a strong stomached medical professional. So we headed to Udon Thani General Hospital.

_MG_9818At this point it would be convenient to have some terrible story about how awful the hospital was, how dirty, how they kept trying to convince Jess that the only cure would be the application of leeches, as this would obviously make for a much better read. Sadly the hospital was both clean and efficient (hence why we’d chosen to go there) and so we were in an out in double quick time with Jess having received a check-up, antihistamine jab, pills, and new lease of life, all for the princely sum of 96 Baht (£1.92). The nurse agreed that it was almost certainly the doxy and that Jess must stop taking it, Jess than asked what she should do instead to prevent getting malaria, to which the response essentially was “Don’t go to Lao”. Very helpful stuff.

Udon Thani is a very vibrant and interesting city. After the hospital we went for a walk around the lake, sat down (on the floor) at a very trendy market side eatery which did us a lovely salad which tasted amazing right up to the moment you got hit by a huge wave of spice, completely eradicating your taste buds and making you scared to have another mouthful.

_MG_9805We were then attracted by the sound of music, and stumbled across the Udon Thani Love Music Festival! Which was free! The music was rubbish (well… Thai), and there was little chance of getting caught up in a mosh pit, but other than that (oh and the zero tolerance to alcohol policy) it was practically indistinguishable for Glastonbury.

CIMG7893We left Udon early the next day, Sam got chatting with a man who gave him a home brew receipt for pepper spray (for the Thai dogs), and then we were out on our last section of Thai highway. We stopped at a cafe where you could buy probably (no, definitely) the worst garden ornaments in the world, and before we new it we were at yet another friendship bridge.

_MG_9841In theory your not allowed to cycle over this one either, but the guards weren’t looking, and the signs weren’t very large so we went for it, and won! We then even got a receipt for the $1 over time charge on the Lao immigration! Amazing!

After that it was a very short cycle further along the river before we got into Vientienne city centre where we eventually managed to find a hostel that wasn’t full, and then a bar with an amazing view of the Mekong, just in time for sunset. Gruelling stuff!_MG_9846
Day 1 from Savannakhet to Sakhon Nakhon

Day 2 from Sakhon Nakhon to Sawang Dea Din

Day 3 from Sawang Dea Din to Udon Thani

And last but not least, Day 4, Udon Thani to Vientienne

29th to the 31st of December – Pakse to Savannaket (via two very small places) – 110, 60 and 86 km – The perfect end to the perfect year…

CIMG7886With the descent amongst the ranks successfully quelled by another day in Pakse it was finally time to get back on the bikes. The next stretch of our journey was to rejoin us with the Mekong, and take us further north, heading towards Laos second city of Savanakhet, where three none to strenuous days would hopefully have us there in time to celebrate a Lao style new year.

_MG_9682The truth of the matter is that, having survived a Laosian Christmas we were more than happy to sit new year out altogether. Our bed times are now heading south of 10 o’clock, and so even managing to stay awake until 2013 was going to be tough. Before that though there was roughly 260km of cycling to do.

[So far, if there is one bit of advice that the Cycle My Bicycle Team would give a prospective cycle tourist it is “check the prevailing winds before you go”. This is because it turns out that the whole of South East Asia, (at various times between the months of November and February) enjoys a warm, dry and (crucially) north easterly wind. This weather pattern has meant that for pretty much the whole of the last two months we have been cycling into a head wind, all the way from Southern Thailand.]

_MG_9685For the first day the head wind was pretty bad, but manageable, and we were able to push on relatively well. We cycled past of hotel at about kilometre 60, which Jess then grumbled about not stopping at for the next 50kms, until we finally found at a very nice lake side motel on the outskirts of a town that we hadn’t even notices we were cycling through.

[If there were two bits of advice that the team were to give, the second would probably be “take a kindle” (which they would then reword to “take an e-reader” in an effort to quell the rumours of product placement). Sam’s kindle had already been hard at work while in the home stays of Cambodia, where happy evenings was spent learning Khmer phrases, and it was to come into it’s own upon arrival at tonight’s accommodation.]

_MG_9687We were greeted by a very friendly man who not only spoke absolutely no English, but seemed to speak absolutely no international sign / arm waving either. (And, rather bizarrely, wasn’t able to work out what we might conceivably want from his clearly labelled guest house.) After a couple of abortive attempts to communicate our desire for a room the kindle came out, and after a certain amount of button pressing we were able to bag ourselves a lovely double room overlooking the lake, for a price that seemed to continually be getting lower.

_MG_9693[At this point Sam feels he must air a particular grievance he has about the Lonely Planet South East Asian phrase book he’s downloaded. Why is the “meeting people” section (which is the only place you will find translations for _MG_9696little used phrases such as “Hello” not until page 28!) tucked carefully underneath a list of toiletries! And who writes a dictionary for South East Asia that doesn’t include the word for “rice”! (Fairs fair though, it was the only one he could find that was available to download, it has all the languages of the region (minus Malay) and was only about £4… and it has been very very very (very) useful…)]

CIMG7890Yet again we had found a motel that doesn’t have a restaurant, and here there wasn’t a convenient hospital for us to go and eat at. The wife of the owner however was willing and able to throw us together a very nice sticky rice and fish dinner, and while we waited the 4 year old daughter impressed us with her recital of the English alphabet, rivalling Sam’s own ability (Sam is putting this down to more practise..). While we were eating the owner came over with a rather scratty Lao-English phrase book of his own and the rest of the evening was spent trying to learn each others language. (After much discussion and arm waving we discovered that he was a hotelier, and that this was his daughter… amazing!)

_MG_9699The next day was shorter and easier. In the 60km we did we passed 7 other cycle tourists going in the other direction and enjoying a delightful tailwind. The first two where a Belgian couple who had cycled from Belgium. They had originally planned on only going as far a Hong Kong, but had been three months ahead of schedule, and so had decided to box off South East Asia as well… and why wouldn’t ya?… (Find there blog here: http://opnaarhongkong.weebly.com/) The second was a German/Scandinavian man cycling along topless (who we have since Christened Rambo). The fourth and fifth were a pair of Italians who had decided to tackle rural central Lao on there Italian racing bikes, and were now regretting it (mostly because they had decided to go as far off the beaten track as they could on 23mm tires and racing gel saddles, and now neither of them could sit down without weeping)._MG_9711

The final two were another Belgium couple, this time slightly older, and if anything slightly more experience cycle tourists. We met them in the town we were planning on staying in, and then said our good byes to go and find a guest house.

_MG_9704Lao has a bafflingly large number of guest houses, and even in the middle of nowhere you are never more than a couple of yards away from a very nice, very clean (normally pink) roadside motel, although they don’t seem to have anything other than double rooms. Our theory for the reason behind this the fact that all their houses are made of wood…

We wandered back up to town to find dinner, and after sitting for a few minutes, the second Belgium couple wandered into the restaurant as well, and a very enjoyable evening was spent listening to tales of their previous cycle adventures and amazing tales about the amount of holiday you get if you a Belgian civil servant.

_MG_9715Our final day was a bit more interesting that the last two. We headed off the main road and into more rural pastures. We were hoping to see something refereed to on the first sign we saw for it as the “stone house”, but then when we saw the second sign it was pointing us 16km back in the direction we had come. The rest of the day was spent cycling mostly along dirt tracks through some fun looking Lao villages, made more fun by the fact that they all seemed to be setting up huge speaker system in preparation for their new year festivities.

It was a long, quite tiring day, and although there was enough party in us to want to do something, the prospects of us pushing each other through to midnight were slim. That is _MG_9724until we happened to bump into a couple of American Cyclists who were staying in the same guest house, who were willing to go to dinner with us, the company of which meant that we were still very much enjoying ourselves by the time the countdown for midnight started.

At the strike of 12 the street erupted with hundreds of locals all coming out to launch fireworks(… from their hands… often in the direction of passing vehicles,) and then complete effect was brilliant, if a little scary.

True to new year form we woke up with hangovers, and so it was clear no cycling was going to be done. It turned out that nothing else was going to be done either, because everything in town was shut for New Years day. This was especially sad because Savannakhet is reported to have a particularly good dinosaur museum, which we walked to the outside of, but could go no further._MG_9741

In the end we spent the whole day resting and trying to plan the next leg of our journey.

Day 1, Pakse to a place that Google calls Ban La Khone Pheng…

Day 2, that place to Pakxong (not to be confused with Paksong on the Bolavan Plateau)

Day 3, Pakxong to Savannakhet

24th to the 28th of December – Pakse to Pakse (the Bolovan Plateu Loop via Paksong and Tad Lo) – 54, 64 and 84km – A Decent Christmas Descent

You’d have thought that  since Loa is 90 something percent Buddhist Christmas wouldn’t be a thing, but ignoring it had turned out to be impossible because by now, on Christmas Eve, even the most remote of road side eateries were often adorned with Christmas Tree and festive greetings. (Although all our attempts to get Turkey noodle soups never went anywhere!)_MG_9576_MG_9518Our plan was to give ourselves the Christmas present of what is every cycle tourist dream, a completely down-hill day. The only slight short coming this otherwise perfect plan was that in meant spending the whole of Christmas Eve cycling up hill in preparation.

Christmas eve started at the same Indian restaurant as we had been in last night, munching down two banana pancakes each to provide the necessary balance of nutrients to power us up the hill. We were just pipped to the post at being the first cycle tourists out of _MG_9539town by a German pair (who we have since christened “The Adventure Couple”) who when we flagged them down told us they were on a trip from Bangkok to Mongolia, the next leg of which was going to be to cycle The Ho-Chi-Min Trail (which sounds bonkers!)! They quite clearly didn’t need sustenance of any kind, except the wild animals they would catch and eat on the way, and this gave them the jump on us.

Unperturbed we headed out of town and started on our first proper climb of the trip. The internet had told us that it was going to be 50km long, and 1100m up and so a quick bit of trigonometry had shown that we would tackling an average angle of 1.26 degrees, or 0.02 radians. Pah!

_MG_9530To be fair, in this case the maths turned out to be not far off. The acuteness angle of the hill, the fact that nearly 3 months in the saddle has given us legs you might expect to find on a titanium elephants and our loop shaped itinerary (which meant we could leave a large proportion of our stuff behind in Pakse) meant we fairly well stormed our way up! We even had time to stop for a leisurely lunch by Tad Fane waterfalls.

We arrived in the (relatively poky) town at top by about 4 o’clock, had time for a drink in a cafe with it’s own owl chained to the bar, and then started looking for a guesthouse. We didn’t really find any, but then to be honest we didn’t really look that hard.

_MG_9541Our first attempt at searching was cut short by someone in one of the road side mechanic shops setting fire to something, and then throwing part of the burning what-ever-it-was into the road. The mechanic shop in question was very swiftly evacuated, with women carrying babies and men jumping into a pick up truck, while the rest of the world who already considered its self to be at a safe distance just stood back and watched to see if anything was going to explode. After about five minutes it become depressingly clear that no explosion was imminent, and so people went back to whatever they were doing before.

_MG_9587Our next attempt to find a cheap guest was slightly longer, but no more fruitful when after only a small amount of exploring we saw a very large and impressive looking hotel sat at the very top of a hill overlooking the town. After some (but not very much) deliberation we decided that it would only be fair to treat our selves to a nice hotel, since tomorrow was Christmas, and so we went to see how much it would cost._MG_9544The hotel was a bit strange because to begin with it was almost completely deserted, with its soul inhabitant being the one (rather odd) man behind the counter. Despite this, and although the price was quite a lot higher than we would normally pay we decided to go for it.

CIMG7876What was good about being this high up was that for the very first time since our trip begun it was actually freezing cold, and therefore slightly Christmasy! One minor downside of this was that the restaurant had been designed very much for alfresco dining and so we (and all the Thai and Vietnamese business men who had now turned up) shivered our way through dinner.

_MG_9571Like excited children we rose early on Christmas day! Sadly we had received no visitation from father Christmas, but we didn’t let this dampen our mood, mostly because this hotel had a gigantic breakfast included, which was enough of a Christmas present for Jess. We then gave our bikes a Christmas Day scrub and headed off.

_MG_9597With hill cycling all the rewards come up at once. You go up and up and up and all there is to see is the road (and the occasional waterfall) and then only when the downhill comes and you can stop working do you finally get the views.

The views coming down of the plateau were amazing, and we hardly had to pedal once. The cold was a nice change from the heat of the valley bottom, and if you looked closely there was even a bit of dew!_MG_9601

_MG_9591We continued our Christmas treat by stopping for coffee at a very nice coffee plantation about a third of the way down, then 11ses at a Lao market, and were at our picturesque waterfall side destination of Tad Lo by lunch time, where we found little hut overlooking the river. We spent the rest of Christmas day in a bar with free wifi… Lovely._MG_9605

_MG_9612Having successfully survived both our first Christmases away from the UK we decided to celebrate and spend Boxing Day having a “rest day” at the waterfall.

[For some months now there has been a small amount of contention about the nature of our so called “rest days”. It might surprise you to hear that cycling for 6 to 8 hours every day can get a little tiring, and so it is nice to try and make the rest days as restful as possible (we have met a number _MG_9623of cycle tourers who, on their rest days don’t even get out of bed if they can help it). This however lies at loggerheads with the fact that we are cycling through fascinating places where there is of course a lot to do, so we often seem to spend our rest days doing things even more strenuous and tiring than the cycle day from which we are trying to recover.

Boxing Day was a case in point.]

_MG_9642We had been told (or had read, or something) that the rather impressive waterfall over which our hut looked was not the best waterfall in town, and since we were quickly becoming waterfall connoisseurs we were keen to see what this even bigger and better one had to offer. (Waterfalls seem to be for Lao what Wats on hills are for Thailand, literally everywhere, but still we are compelled to go and see every last one.)

This “waterfall extraordinair”  was apparently about 10km further up hill, and so we decided to cycle the first bit and hike the last. This was a really bad idea.

_MG_9629We cycled up the hill some way, past the large hydroelectric power plant, and then stopped in what the sign called an “Ethnic Village”. It looked almost exactly like the 100s of other villages we had cycled past and through in Cambodia and Laos, although the fact this one had a sign meant that it felt very different from all the others. (For example, like all the other villages we instantly got set upon my a huge group of children who followed us for the first part of the hike, the difference was that when we finally managed to shake them off they then demanded payment.)

_MG_9638The first part of the walk was through lovely (Japanese Encephalitis ridden) rice paddies, then over some large rocks to get to the base of the falls. Things then got a little bit rougher underfoot, and quite a lot steeper, as we tried to clamber our way to the top. It wasn’t actually very far, but the fact that Sam was wearing flip flops, the path was in places muddy and often vertical (and those were in the places where there was a path at all) meant that it took quite of lot of very hot and unpleasant clambering before we made it to top.

_MG_9650We were able to rest here for a while, but our enjoyment was slightly tarnished by the prospect of going back down again. In the end we decided to take the road way back, which involved less clambering, but did involve a 7km walk down hill in the heat… so wasn’t ideal… We tried to flag down a ride, but since most of the moped drivers going in the same direction as us didn’t even bother to turn on the engines it was very difficult to hear them coming.

_MG_9661We eventually made it back to the (presumably once) quaint village, only to find that the delightful “Ethnic” children had stolen our bike lights… despite having been paid off… The lesson then is, if a man in a suit ever turns out in your town and installs a sign saying “Ethnic Town”, burn it and then him.

It turned out that the “Adventure Couple” had turned up in the same waterfall side town as us. They had said they were going to be heading off the day _MG_9669before us, but when they were still there that lunch time it was clear that we had a chance to prove who was the best cycle tourist and beat them out of town. For this reason we set our alarm for 5:30, wolfed down breakfast and were overjoyed to be able to wave goodbye to them as we cruised past their cabin! It was then an interesting, although certainly not flat, cycle back to Pakse.

The evening was mostly spent trying to scrub down the bathroom of our hotel room after Jessica tried to wash down our oily rags and ended up painting the entire room black.

_MG_9671After the last botched attempt at a rest day an anonymous complaint was submitted to the management committee of the trip saying simply:

If we don’t have a proper rest day soon I will die of exhaustion and then Sam will have to bungee cord me to his pannier for the rest of the trip.

Upon reading this the committee unanimously decided to have a rest day in Pakse, where we did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

Up the onto the Bolaven Plateau, Pakse to Paksong:

Across and half way down, Paksong to Tad Lo:

Mostly down, but with quite some up on the way, Tad Lo to Pakse: