Cycling in Thailand and Laos, winter 2010/2011
By Jan & Toto
An e-mail out of Lop Buri after one week in Thailand, being full of new impressions:
At midnight before departure we are still packing. Shall we bring the trailer and the tent or leave it a home? Where is the spare key of our bike lock? We both feel busy and excited for our winter trip in Thailand & Laos.
Checking-in with our Tandem for our Emirates flight to Dubai
After an easy flight we’re picked up by my friends Roelof and Zen. It is very nice to stay at a home when you fly so far to an unknown place. We stay three days at their place, and after some rough girl watching in the red-light districts of Bangkok, we leave on a Sunday morning for our bicycle trip through Thailand and Laos. The adventure begins!
The first 30 km is in busy traffic, though we do not feel unsafe because everyone is very sharp and drives politely, no honking or yelling. Bit by bit we leave the metropolis of Bangkok behind us. The route gets quiet and the roads smaller, often following a channel that drains this natural swamp area. We make it to Bang Pa In, where we sleep in the Teenage Love Hotel, with mirrors around the bed.
In Bang Pa In we visit the modern Palace, a luxury colorful palace, surrounded by a big garden. The next city we reach is Ayutthaya, the old capital of Thailand. Impressive ruins are scattered all over the city.
Ayuthaya: the old capital of Thailand (Siam)
On our third day we make it to the peaceful Thai country side. The GPS (with the Thai Maps) is working very well, so we can take little roads through rice fields, forest, and little towns, you would never find on a paper map. We cycle relaxed because it’s hot. Locals wave and laugh at us. And when we're hungry, there is always a local noodle restaurant where we order in our best Thai a meal. Sometimes it's a surprise what we will get this time!
Lop Buri is also a historical town of Thailand. We stay here for three nights in a very nice guesthouse, very light room and beautiful beds, with friendly and proud people running the place. Every morning we wake up by the monkey gangs who own this city, running over the iron roof tiles. Quite a way of waking up! Monkeys are everywhere is this town and the people are not hurting them. It is not Buddhist to hurt animals, and as most of the Thai are Buddhist, they rather take care of the creatures.
Monkeys on Buddha
Our tandem is already getting dusty. Meal portions are small here (even with 2 meals I'm not full) and with the exercise we both lost weight already, though our legs are getting stronger.
We feel very comfortable between the Thai. Thai look happy, especially the less wealthy. They don't envy us western people. They don't higher the price when a foreigner buys it, and stealing is a big shame in Buddhist culture.
Many people start talking Thai to Toto but for her it sounds like Chinese. Most people ask then how expensive our bike is. We feel a bit ashamed that the bike costs 200.000 Bah (a dayincome here is 200 Bah) so we answer "not for sale". That is always a good joke.
Part two: Cycling Lop Buri (South Thailand), Chiang Rai (North Thailand), Luang Namtha (North Laos)
1400 km, 22 days, a story with pictures, 16-01-2011
After 3 days in Lop Buri we cycle out of town early morning. It is peak hour, and the roads are full with trucks, cars, scooters, and tuk-tuks. In Thailand the traffic rule is; who’s first, biggest or fastest, has right of way. Stopping at an intersection is no option, as you will have a hard time starting again. So we go, on the highway, crossing intersections, and making U-turns. Our advantage is that the tandem is rare here. People do slow down, looking surprised; “what's that?”
The GPS gives the correct way out of the city. It is also the shortest way out of town and at some point we have to cross a military base. At the entrance we’re stopped by the soldiers. “Where you go”, they ask. We answer we’re heading for Lom Sak, a city 400 km north. Of course, I could also have answered we’re heading for the moon, or for mars, it’s all fine, the soldiers just want some English small talk.
The surroundings leaving Lop Buri
A beautiful morning 50 km south of Lom Sak
The day out of Lop Buri is a long hot day. We manage 104 beautiful kilometers, along big dams and rice fields, and through quiet towns. We end just before sunset in a little motel in Tha Luang. The local doctor of the hospital brings us to the motel, as motels are only posted in Thai and therefore hard to find for foreigners, even when you pass it closely.
The next days we pedal up north, direction Lom Sak, where we will catch up with our good friend Andi. We depart early, before sunrise, cycle over never ending country roads and sometimes over some bigger highways, we eat in one of the Thai restaurants we find along the way when we’re hungry, and stop before we get to tired, mostly around 2pm, in a motel, where we relax, read a book, and listen to music. It’s a good life.
My friend Andi is cycling since January 2010 and he managed so far 17.000 km, all the way from Switzerland to here. While we can take is easy (we planned to meet the 28 th of Dec, 4 days left for only 300 km), he had to pedal his “bum” off to get the 28 th in Lom Sak. On the 28 th of Dec, we both arrive in Lom Sak, he from the north, we from the south, with only 30 minutes difference. It’s a happy meeting in the Noodle restaurant. Then, we fill up our food supplies (rice, noodles, cookies) and water (from the water filter station) and head off north, to the Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park.
The climb into the national park is a climb I will never forget; it by far the steepest climb ever. Steeper then the Alps, Rocky Mountains, Jura or Pyrenees, and not because the mountain is higher (the pass is only at 1700 meters), but because the Thai constructed the road straight up: average climbing is around 15%, with the curves even getting steeper, up to 25%. We have to push the bikes up for 6 hours! But, on the top, it’s all worth it. The road stays on an altitude of around 1500 meters and for 30 km we cycle through dark green Jungle.
We stay at the official campground of the national park for a few nights and celebrate New Year. Secretly we buy beer in the national park shop. Drinking beer is, as the girly-ranger told us, in the tent, as alcohol is not allowed in the national park.
Fun climbing up into the National Park
Toto pushes up Andi's bike
The steepest climb ever
Camping in Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park
Phu Hin Rong Kla tropical forest
Then we hit the road again. It’s the 1st of January, the road is busy with campers all leaving the national park. Their holiday is over. The road is on the south side just as steep going down as it was going up on the north side. Every 200 meters down we have to stop to let our brakes cool off. On the other side of the mountain the climate is a bit different. The air is less humid then the air around Bang Kok, and the vegetation makes a dryer impression. Also we see less rice fields, and more pepper-, pine apple fields, or teak forest.
It’s a week cycling to Chiang Rai, a populair backpackers destination. On the way we spend an afternoon in Uttaradit, a not-touristy city in central Thailand. It is a shabby city with a shabby hotel. The day after we discover that in Thailand a Buddha statue can cause a traffic jam: on the top of a little pass on highway 11 people are slowing down, honking, and praying 5 to 10 seconds to the sacred Buddha statue, before accelerating and driving on. Phrae, the next city, is a surprisingly pleasant town where we spend another day, checking out on the temples and the night food market. Then in Pong, we get the good news that Toto has received her one year Dutch residence permit! We drink to that in the evening.
Cycling to Chiang Rai
Most nights we did find a hotel to sleep in; just one night we had to camp in the wild, but in the wild doesn’t have to be that wild in Thailand: we camped opposite of a restaurant so we were sure we wouldn’t miss out on a Pad Thai Gai meal (noodles with chicken), and also we got mattresses from the people running the restaurant, so we surely had a soft night “in the wild”.
In Chiang Rai we hang around for two days, visiting the hot springs and exploring the city, but then our legs and travel spirits start to itch again and we head off to the east this time, to Chiang Saen, the Mekong River, and to Laos.
For the first time its cloudy and cool during the day. Perfect for cycling. We follow a side river of the Mekong, first cycling out of Chaing Rai over a highway, then on a concrete one-lane road, to end up on gravel. We enjoy the ride and the scenery. People are harvesting the maize by hand, or irrigating their crops by digging canals to flood the fields.
Cycling over little tracks along the side river of the Mekong
Crossing the Mekong to Laos
In Chaing Saen we visit the Golden Triangle, a place where three countries meet: Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Then we head off for 70 km cycling along the mighty Mekong. We have an amazing view of the river that flows through a rocky valley. Jungle is around us, and the road is quiet. We cross the border to Laos the 13 th of January, the same day my Thai visa expires. In a small speedy boat we’re brought to the other side in no worries at all. There, Andi, with his Swiss passport, gets a simple two week visa, but Toto and I plan to stay longer and queue up for the one month visa on arrival. After the paperwork and paying 65 USD, we get the visa. That was easy! More difficult is getting cash out of the ATM, all my visa/mastercard/maestro cards are refused by the Lao bank. Andi is our saver and provides us the money for three weeks travelling in Lao: 7.000.000 KIP, we’re millionaires.
The three of us head off to the north-east, to Luang Namtha, about 180 km further. Laos is very poor, compared to any other country. As soon as we leave the border town (where tourism keeps the economy running) we hardly see any farmland like we saw in Thailand. The scenery around us is jungle, or, sadly enough, logged eroded mountains slopes. The people in the little towns live accept for their Arsenal T-shirts, in the Iron Age. The houses are made of wood and reed, and the tools they use I recognize from historic museums in the western world. The people seem to have no money at all, eating just sticky rice most of the time. Also, about half of the population in the little villages is under 10 years old and together they give an enthusiastic concert; yelling and waving Sabaidieee (Hello!!) to us, and occasionally “Bye Bye!” or even an “I Love You!”
The road to Luang Namtha
A Lao village along the way
In Thailand we had bought a few colour pencils to give to the Lao children. I don’t know why, but I had the idea that it would be difficult to give to the Lao children. I thought, they would be a bit shy, not surely understanding that we have a present for them. Then, in one of the towns, we have a good opportunity to give some of the pencils away. We see a young lat carrying a 150 kg tree trunk on his back. Andi and I pull over and help the fellow carrying his trunk to his home, what is luckily not 3 km down in the valley, but only 300 meters away. What a weight! We don’t understand how he carried it on his own. After, we find Toto and our bikes surrounded by more then 30 kids. I look in my bags for two set of pencils and hand it out to the kids. Within 0.1 sec the pencils are taken, it went that quick I still don’t know who the pencils took.
The guesthouses we stay in are also made of wood and very basic, with the toilet and “shower” (a bucket with water) outside. The road to Luang Namtha goes up and down; it’s a tough road with climbs from 500 meters up to 1100 meters, down to 500 meters, and up again. Some parts of the road are in a bad condition, gravel with holes. The trucks passing make a lot of dust. Other parts of the road are newly paved (by the Chinese) and as smooth as a pancake.
After three days we arrive in Luang Namtha. Luang Namtha is a luxury town with electricity around the clock, hot showers, and fast internet. What a difference with the mountain villages! But also here you see, on the morning market for example, the poor people (often not Lao but from a minority tribe who live in the desolated mountains) looking for the rotting mandarins that have fallen from the trucks. Toto buys a colourful bracelet from a tribe-lady for 15 eurocent. Somehow they survive with this little money.
Today we plan to go to a Lao Herbal Sauna, maybe including a massage. Tomorrow we will be heading south, to Udomxai, km32 village, and Luang Prabang. For km32 village Andi has a big surprise: he collected around 1700 CHF for new books and pencils for this village. We’re all looking forward to arrive in 32 km village, but we’re also a bit tensioned how to organize it.
Introduction part 3, Luang Namtha – Bang Kok
Before I continue my travel story, I must correct myself for telling that the tribe women in Luang namtha live on the little money they earn by selling bracelets. This is not totally true. I heard later these women have another good, hidden under the bracelets: this is Opium. Opium, and other drugs (marijuana, methamphetamine), are widely available all over Laos. In Luang Namtha the tribe women sell the stuff, in Luang Prabang it was the tuk-tuk drivers who always could supply you some, and in Vang Vieng it is on most menus in most restaurant: a happy brownie, happy shake or happy pizza, with "happy" meaning here not happiness but a state of mind. Mind here, most drugs users only get sick (seeing the amount of tourists that had to be carried back to their hostel!), and it is also strictly forbidden with Lao law: the fine us 500-700 USD (don’t expect a receipt) or, if not paid, a few years behind the bars. The choice is yours!
The only drugs we used was an alcoholic beer, from time to time, but, dosed, as our route ( Luang Namtha - Udomxai - Km32 town - Luang Prabang - Nan Muan - Vang Vieng) is not an easy one: only the first 10 km out of Luang Namtha were flat, then it started to climb. Here is my story.
Part 3a Luang Namtha – km 32 Town
Leaving Luang Namtha means that we're on our most northern point of this journey. At the intersection with highway 13 we turn right, heading south, with from now on the sun in our face.
It takes two days the reach Udomxai. Highway 13 is in an awefull condition: the corrugation, bumps and holes is forcing us to cycle slowly. Passing trucks make big clouds of dust. Half way we stop in a bigger town that has a few guesthouses, with most of them full. With some help of a local we find three free beds in the shabbiest hostel we've ever been in: the guesthouse is right on Main Street, made of wooden planks. Each time a trucks passes (and trucks do drive at night) dust comes through the gaps between the planks into the rooms. The guesthouse has no shower, but, is has a toilet. To walk to the toilet you must not forget your headlight at night: the little alley is pitch dark at night. It is a place for washing clothes, washing the dishes, to keep the animals you'll eat soon, to slaughter the animals, for storing waste, and for draining sewage water. Indeed, we're “going” as little as possible. Nonetheless, we're having a good afternoon in this little town. We wash ourselves with the locals in the river (we can borrow a bucket from a friendly lat, and the girls are watching Andi and me, but, as Toto is saying, we're not supposed to look back!), make a little walk in the town and have a nice meal in the Chinese restaurant.
Washing with the locals
Andi on the road to Udomxai
Chinese Roadwork Ad: Things will eventually sort themselves out just like we'll build roads where impossible and needed
A picture of the three of us
Udomxai is a busy little city at the intersections of two highways: the north-south highway 13 we're on, and highway 2, to Hanoi in Vietnam. From here it is 32 km to 32 km town (that explains a bit about the practical name of the town). In Udomxai we try to get Big Brother Mouse books. Big Brother Mouse is a not-for-profit Lao owned project who started in 2006 publishing books “that make literacy fun!”, as they say it. In Lao literacy is poor. One of the reasons for this is that there is not much fun to read in the Lao language, so why bother learning reading? Reading is not cool and not important, as many people in Lao think. Big Brother Mouse is trying to break through this way of thinking by saying "Look, if you turn the page, there's more!". They design, publish and distribute Lao & English books, for young children, and also for older readers to “access the information, ideas, and pleasure people in many countries take for granted” and “to improve their education and their quality of life”.
Big Brother Mouse looks well organized: with a practical English speaking founder and for the rest owned and managed by the Lao. They have a few distribution centers around Laos. However, the one in Udomxai is closed. It is a pity as we had hoped to buy books here for km 32 town. However, we are able to buy an English-Lao dictionary and some other English school textbooks. With these example books we head off the next morning to km32 town (if you want to know more about Big Brother Mouse, please visit their website: http://www.bigbrothermouse.com ).
Andi raised up a fund for km32 town and collected 1700 CHF, an incredible amount. Toto and I could, also because of donations out of the Netherlands, add another 130 euro to this. I would like to thank everyone who donated for km32 town!
I was glad to help Andi organizing his fund (I hope he also appreciated my practical view on thinks) and I must also say that Andi helped km32 town in a truthful and balanced way. Here is his story:
Wir radeln also erst mal ins 32Km Dorf. Ich bin aeusserst gespannt, wie Somphone (= local unofficial English teacher) und seine Familie, wo ich bereits einmal uebernachtet habe, auf meine Wiederkehr reagieren. Sie wissen ja nichts von meiner Rueckkehr und schon gar nichts von meiner Aktion!
Im Dorf sehe ich zuerst nur den 5-Jaehrigen Sohn von Somphone. Der Vater oder die Mutter sind anscheinend nicht zu Hause. Nach einigem Rumfragen kommt er dann aber auf mich zugerannt. Eine riesige Freude bricht in ihm und auch in mir aus. Er hat mich sofort wieder erkannt und ist sichtlich geruehrt ueber unser Wiedersehen. Somphone zeigt uns zuerst sein Reisfeld, sein ganzer Stolz. Alles mit eigenen Haenden gebaut, ganz ohne Maschinen. Eine beachtenswerte Leistung, ist das Feld doch in einer huegeligen Landschaft und so muss alles terrassiert werden.
The classroom of Mr. Somphone
Am Abend erklaere ich Somphone mein kleines Projekt und gebe ihm einige Buecher, die ihn bei seinem Englisch-Unterricht unterstuetzen koennten (...).
Am naechsten Morgen treffe ich den offiziellen Englischlehrer der Schule. Sywanh ist 26 Jahre jung und hat Klassen a 40 SchuelerInnen zu lehren. Dass dies keine einfache Aufgabe ist, ist wahrscheinlich allen klar. In der Schule werden insgesamt 300 SchuelerInnen unterichtet. Wir besprechen, was dringend gebraucht wird und meine Aufgabe ist nun, dies auch in sehr kurzer Zeit zu organisieren.
Noch am selben Tag fahre ich per Minibus ins 3 Stunden entfernte Luang Prabang.
Ich kaufe noch mehr Buecher bei der Niederlassung des BIGBROTHERMOUSE Projekts. Ebenfalls organisiere ich Buecher fuer die Englisch-Schule von Somphone sowie Notizhefte, Schreibstifte, Kreide, Farbstifte, warme Kleider fuer die Familie, frische Fruechte und Obst sowie etwas Bargeld.
Nach zwei Tagen voller Einkaufsstress in Luang Prabang, kehre ich mit 4 Kartonschachteln und einigen Einkaufstaschen an Material ins 32 Km Village zurueck
Fuer die Familie ist dieser 22. Januar wie fuer uns Weihnachten und Geburtstag zugleich. Die Kinder freuen sich riesig ueber ihre neuen Pullover, nicht nur weil sie neu sind und schoen aussehen, sondern auch weil sie damit weniger frieren muessen. Und die Roecke fuer die Toechter und die Mutter passen auch. Ein weiteres Highlight fuer die Kinder sind die frischen Aepfel, die ich aus Luang Prabang mitgebracht habe.
Der Familie schenke ich auch etwas Bargeld, damit die Mutter zum Arzt kann (sie leidet Rueckenschmerzen, die Toechter zur Schule und wenn mal etwas weiteres sein sollte, etwas Geld zur Verfuegung steht.
Der Dorfschule uebergebe ich am naechsten Tag die dreihundert Buecher von BIGBROTHER MOUSE, Englisch-Lehrbuecher, Farbstifte und jede Menge Papier.
Die Buecher sind zur Ergaenzung fuer die Bibliothek der Schule gedacht. Eine kleine Bibliothek besteht bereits in der Schule. Jedoch sind nur wenige Buecher und nur fuer kleine Kinder erhaeltlich. Unter den Buechern, die ich organisiert habe, sind aber auch welche fuer Jugendliche und. Da die Bibliothek allen offen steht gebe ich saemtliche Buecher, jedoch nur mit dem versprechen des Dorfchefs und des Schulpraesidenten, dass die Dorfeinwohner aktiv darauf aufmerksam gemacht werden, dass nun auch Buecher fuer Jugendliche und Erwachsene vorhanden sind. Dies wird, wie mir gesagt wurde, an der naechsten Dorfversammlung, die zweimal Monatlich stattfindet, mitgeteilt.
Am Abend hat Somphone eine Baci-Zeremonie fuer mich organisiert. Dies ist ein Ritual, welches eigentlich aus dem Hinduismus kommt, sich aber vor einigen hundert Jahren mit dem Buddhismus vermischt hat. Es soll die Geister erwecken und einem zu Glueck, Gesundheit und einem langen Leben verhelfen.
Eventual not the full fund is spent in km32 town. Development work is a difficult task and the time was too short to spend the total raised amount in a little town as km32 town. The remaining fund is donated to Big Brother Mouse directly, who will be able to organize four book parties with it (to see what a book party is, go to their website).
Mr. Somphone and his family hosted us terrific: the dinner and breakfast they provided us was simple but as generous as they could offer. Mr. Somphone showed us around in his town and was very patient with understanding us, as communicating with an English Teacher in Laos can still be difficult. Mr. Somphone is an honest guy, with a heart for his family and the society around him.
Our evening meal with Fam. Somphone, Andi explaining about his fund.
Part 3bKm 32 Town – Bang Kok
Our cycling with Andi ends in Km 32 town. He catches a mini bus to the city Luang Prabang, while we head to the same city by bicycle, a beautiful 2-day ride.
The ride leads is over a mountain pass. Slowly we climb up. The road is never steep; we can pedal steadily all morning. On the way there is a little market, but there is very little food suitable for cyclist available: the ladies sell Bamboo sprouts, gathered in the mountains. This we see a lot in Laos: the poverty is that extreme that proper food, like rice and flour, is too precious to sell. The families need the food for them selves to survive. Other food, like fresh vegetables, fruits, or sugar, you can totally forget is these remote mountainous area. Hopefully these things will change soon.
From the top it is a long downhill to Pak Mong. The downhill is that long, around 25 km, that halfway we take a break from cycling down and concentrating on all the potholes, stones, washboard, and other obstacles that make sailing down a tricky event.
The next day it is all flat. We leave early to manage the 110 km to Luang Prabang. Laos is covered in morning fog, it is cool, and we cycle with our sweaters on. Little fires are everywhere, surrounded by children and adults. These fires are multi-functional: not only you stay warm with them, but people also burn their rubbish this way.
Slowly the fog rises up and disappears. The sun breaks through. We cycle through the Nam Ou valley (river Ou) and the panorama is stunning. Steep mountains are surrounding us, and the river is big and wild, with tropical forest growing on its shores.
Luang Prabang was the capital of Laos, until in 1545 when the administrative seat of that time moved to Vientiane. Between 1694 and 1887 it has been a capital of an independent kingdom, which competed with the kingdom in Vientiane. Between 1887 and the end of WWII Luang Prabang has been under French Rule. In shorter words, Luang Prabang is a city with a rich history. It has a population of 26.000 people. The French colonial past time is still touchable; many of the houses are made of stone with wide balconies. After the WWII the Lao people were not so interested in these French Houses, but since 1989 (the year Laos opened her border for foreigners) most of the stones houses have been renovated and turned into a nice guesthouse. It is said, that still now every 18 days a new guesthouse opens its doors. Believeable, as most of the people walking down the roads are tourists from Europe, America, Australia, Korea or Japan. A second thing from the French colonial time are the banquettes widely available in town.
Luang Prabang is since 1995 on World Heritage list. It is beautiful situated on the banks of the Mekong River and it is a pleasant place to take a rest for three days from all the hard pedaling. Together with Andi we buy the books for km32 town. At the market we bargain hard to buy dresses for Mr. Somphones daughters and sweaters for his sons. Andi will bring this to Km32 town (see “Andi recalls”) and we have to say farewell to him for this trip.
View over Luang Prabang and the Mekong
Toto and I decide to explore some of the back roads of Laos. Instead of just cycling highway 13 we head end of January for a track bringing us via Kwang Si Waterfall and Muang Nam town only 20 km south of Luang Prabang, back on highway 13. It is a 110 km detour what would take us three days.
The start of the detour is easy: it is the touristy route to the Kwang Si waterfall and the road is well paved. We spend an afternoon exploring the waterfall and swim in its light-blue colored basins. We have our first experience of “champing”, the Lao version of Camping, with the only difference the spelling mistake on the sign of the “champground”. The next morning we hit the real dirt: dried up clay in all forms and shapes. Sometimes there are holes that swallow us until our hips. The road goes right along the Mekong; but flat it is never. Often is goes amazingly steep down, where at the bottom we have to cross a river or creek, before it goes that steep up again that I have to push the fore wheel back to the ground to prevent a wheelie. We pass many towns. Some are totally devastated, with all trees logged and the slopes where the wooden huts are standing on eroded. Other look well organized, with electricity in the evening, and the beautiful trees preserved. In all towns we get a lot of attention. The locals are not used to strangers here. When we’re hungry we stop at a little shop and ask for Kauw and Foe, rice and noodles. This confuses the people a bit, as not many people stop here and ask for a meal. But they are friendly and prepare a simple meal which we eat, surrounded by curious children. They charge us 0,20 euro but we leave leaving five times this amount behind.
Kwang Si Waterfall
Our detour: the start
A devastated town; children and adults looking at us
The road gets worse. The somehow still smooth clay road surface changes in an unclear rocky track. We have to push the tandem over. Process is slow and we don’t make it to the town Muang Nam. We call it a day when we spot a little shelter next to a river. We wash us in the river and roll out our sleeping bags in the shelter. With the setting sun we cook our emergency rice. The surroundings around us, rice fields, mountains, forest, are beautiful. Before bedtime we make a little wood fire. The next morning we wake up fit for a next cycling day, and although the shelter was close to the road and many people have seen us, no one has bothered us during the night.
Rocky part of the detour
Our shelter for the night: just behind it flows the river
The third day of our detour is also not an easy one. We leave the rocky track behind us and turn left back to highway 13, but this road, highway 4, is also in a bad condition. It is a gravel road with quite a few trucks on it. Covered in dust we reach just before darkness highway 13 where we luckily find a nice guesthouse. At night during our meal Laap (lettuce in which you put spicy mince with sticky rice) we think our detour over. It was interesting to get of the main road and see the backwaters of Laos, but, as other travelers had already warned us, the road condition is too bad for proper cycling. “It was quite a cool experience”, Toto Recalls, “for once”.
Well, if we thought that the hard pedaling would be over being back on highway 13 we were wrong. After washing of the dust of the chain of the tandem, we head off for the hardest tandem-ride day ever. From 400 meters we climb to 1100 meters, go down again to 450 meters, and pedal up again to above 1400 meters where we arrive in Kiou Ka Cham, a little town on the top with a few guesthouses. We are wasted, but after a warm shower and a good meal we can smile again and think of the beautiful day we had. Today it had been hard to find a meal for lunch. It happened in Vang Pang, at the 450 meters above sea level point. There were some little shops selling cheap bad quality Chinese cookies (which you never know what’s in it: the front picture gives you always a false promise) but we couldn’t find a simple restaurant. Eventually the garage owner called at us: Kauw, kauw? (Rice rice?). We and our hungry stomachs gladly accepted and so was the garage changed into a little restaurant and was a simple meal served. Again we left with paying an amount like two euro, for them a nice extra income, and for us also good, as we had our stomachs filled with never ending energized sticky rice for the climb up.
The fifth cycling day since leaving Luang Prabang starts beautiful. The road brings us over the top of the mountains. The clouds are under us, the forest around us, and tropical birds are singing to one’s heart’s content. But later in the day it’s gets hot again and we have to climb, more then we had expected. My complaining about things (Toto does not like complaining, it is in Korean society undone) is taking its toll. Also it is her fifth day in a row Toto must look at my ass (I tell you, you really must like someone to keep that up) and she starts to be a bit bitty at me. It is obvious we need a break from the tandem.
Wonderful views over the Lao Mountains
Literally; above the clouds!
Just before the downhill to lower ground
After one amazingly beautiful downhill from the high mountains to lower ground, we find our spot: a little cabin right next to a hot spring! We call it a day and also the day after we don’t do anything else then reading “The life of Pi” (which we cut in half), eating in the restaurant, and bathing in the hot spring.
After our rest is the ride to Vang Vieng an easy one. We have left the mountain stretch behind us and it goes mostly flat through valleys surrounded by limestone mountains with sharp impressive peaks.
Limestone to Vang Vieng
Vang Vieng is a crazy place, taken over by the backpacker generation who are drinking alcohol and experiencing on cheap dodgy drugs. But there is also place for the cyclist: for 10 euro we have a room with a view to the limestone rocks. Vang Vieng even has a Korean restaurant where you can watch a movie in an open air cinema. We stay three days in Vang Vieng. We explore some of the caves in the area, read books, and make a little cycle trip west of the town.
The cave, called the Blue Lagoon, is most impressive. We arrived early morning, before the backpackers, who are still sleeping off their debauch. After paying 2 USD we get a little flashlight and we go through a small hole in the mountain. Inside it is mighty: it is like a huge cathedral. With our weak flashlight we look for our way, what is not as safely signposted as the you might expect being a European. There are enough holes to swallow a whole classroom of kids in, never to be found back, and for sure, you must not enter a cave after experiencing with some of the drugs. At last, there is also the thing orientation: caves are mean in that. Even for people with a good orientation; the moment you turn around, you don’t recognize anything of the way coming in.
We make it out safely, but others sometimes don’t, as the guidebook Lonely Planet warns.
Our view from our hotel room
Also this picture is taken from our hotel room, beautiful sunset!
From Vang Vieng it is 160 km to Vientiane, the capital of Laos. The road is now mostly flat. We divide the route in three easy days, taking some dirt (but good quality this time) back roads along the Nam Lik (River Lik) and visiting the Lao Zoo, where a bunch of animals in cages can be seen. Vientiane is a small laid-back Asian capital with around 400.000 people. It is a great place for trying different kitchens: for 4-5 euro you have quality meals in good restaurants. And the choice is big: Lao, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Indian or Thai? Enough to keep you busy for a few days!
Vientiane is the end of our cycling trip. We were 7 weeks on the road and cycled 2620 km. From Vientiane we catch the night train back to Bang Kok, back to our friends Roelof & Zen. From Bang Kok we fly home on the 12 th of Februari.
Crossing the Nam Lik by ferry; the employee, a friendly lady, ask where we're from. Well, we said, Toto is from Kaulieeee (Korea) and Jan is from the Netherlands. She didn't know what "the Netherlands" meant, so she changed the story a bit: she is from kaulieeee (pointing at Toto) and he (pointing at me) is "Falanggg", meaning, "foreigner"!
We have a great memory of our trip, although it was not always easy. It was the first time to come in contact with real poverty, a situation in which people have to worry about very basic needs, like having enough food. Health care in Laos is on a very low standard; people die of the simplest diseases. It is the poverty very hard to get out of. For example, wealthy parents do sell their scooter and animals so their eldest son can go studying, but after graduation, there is no job to make money. Investments for the future are very limited, as people are so struggling surviving this year, don’t have the knowledge how to do any planning, or feel futureless and spend their time doing nothing. The government of Laos, a corrupted one-party government, has hardly any income at all. Further it must not be forgotten that Laos has a complicated past in which she was paying contributes to or was occupied by one country or another. Also, many people flew the country: in the ’70’s of last century, when communist won the second Indochina war, about 10% of the people left for Thailand. That is, most of the intellectuals. This certainly leaves a mark on the population for a long time to come.
Nonetheless, things might get different in the future as the income of the government is increasing by exporting hydropower and mine products, and different alien financed projects are starting up, but it will be a long way before any of this money reaches the poor villages.
Thailand, however, was the little miss sunshine herself. The wealth is on a very good basic level here. With hospitals spread out over the country, it looks like healthcare is available for everyone. There is plenty of food, and also a lot of choice in food. In Thailand you can find luxury and comfort, which we appreciated from time to time after a hard day pedaling. In Thailand people look, in general, very happy. They are very proud of their King, whose aim it is to give everyone “a fair and happy life”. Also Buddhist religion is, together with the Spirits, soaked in Thai society. This makes people (in my view) social and understanding to each other, an ability we lack of in western society. Thailand was great and easy, and certainly made it on our list of favorite countries for cycling.
A 32 lane highway in Bangkok, heading by bicyle to the airport
Packing the bike at Bangkok BKK's Aiport