Laos first emerged in the region as Lan Xang, or the ‘Kingdom of a Million Elephants’, in the 14th century. Despite some bursts of independence, the kingdom generally found itself paying tribute to more powerful neighbours, including the Siamese and Vietnamese. Geography ensured Laos was sucked into the Vietnam War and a lengthy civil war culminated in a communist takeover in 1975. After many years of isolation, Laos began to experiment with economic reforms in the 1990s but political reform remains a distant dream for most. It’s certainly the poorest cousin in SE Asia to date. Right enough of the official blurb, let’s delve right in from the last blog where I left you in the Vietnamese Town of Dien Bien Phu…
Tuesday 6th August 2019
Dien Bien Phu Vietnam to Muang Mai Laos
Total 28825 km
Well after the rest day in DBP I’m feeling good and raring to go. I know I’ve got a large hill to climb up to the border, but the beginning of the day is an easy peasy flat 14km out of the city and down the valley. Before leaving I get breakfast on the street, sitting on my little plastic red stool, my knees up around my ears. I order Banh Mi, that crispy, crunchy, delicious Vietnamese baguette. Probably my last for a long time so I order a second to go and stuff it in my seat bag.
By the start of the climb the sun is out and I plod along, slowly climbing. Three hours later I arrive at the Border Post. Just as I cycle in I spot two other cycle tourists, wow! Ole and Ajela are a young German couple and they’re heading to Luang Prabang too, in fact they’re also getting the slow boat from Luang Prabang to Thailand, same as me. Small world!
We easily check out on the Vietnamese side, then cycle together through no mans land, about 5km, to the Laos Border checkpoint.
It’s very quiet. None of the offices are occupied and there’s just a few people lounging around outside. Where are all the officials!? We stand around for five or so minutes, we’re definitely in the right place, there’s signs everywhere saying how much we need to pay as foreigners. Then we spot one man in uniform, then another, it looks like they’ve all been on their lunch break and shut the border! We hear some calling and shuffle over to low window number 1, our passports are taken, and we’re given a form to fill out and resubmit along with a photo. Move to window 2, crouch, hold and chat to the lady. Do you want some money exchanged she asks. We do. So the Border Guards are also running the currency exchange! I change my remaining Vietnam Dong into Laos Kip. I only lose out on 1 dollar from the official rate so don’t feel too aggrieved. Next window please. More shuffling, crouching and looking through the small window hole. This man has got all the stamps, he proceeds to stamp my passport about 4 or 5 times, a few on the visa page and one on a nice clean page, ahh great, another page down. Next window please. I’m getting the hang of this now and perform a perfect shuffle. I’m requested to pay 35 US dollar and 30,000 KIP. The 30,000 KIP is a well documented Border Scam. 10,000 for admin fee, 10,000 for Stamps and 1 receipt that just says 1 x 10,000 KIP. Fortunately the scam bit only come to £2.83 so I just pay it and get my passport and 3 receipts. Job done. I can now stand up straight again from the stress position I’ve been tortured by for the past 15 minutes of shuffling and window crouching!
Good afternoon Laos!!!! Doesn’t have the same ring does it?!
Well the first village with any sign of accommodation is 27km away and for the majority it’s all down hill. Me and ‘Ze Germans’ swoop down the mountain road, hairpin bends cornered with panache and daring do. Another country to explore!! Although it all looks the same except for the writing! By now the sun is baking and I get my umbrella out to shield from the beating rays. ‘Ze Germans’ love the spectacle and take pictures of the mad Englishman out in the midday sun.
We finally arrive at the village and Ajela has read an accommodation recommendation online so we head there. It’s 100,000KIP so about 40,000 KIP more than I was paying in Vietnam, but when we see the rooms we instantly agree. Aircon, Fan, TV, WiFi, a huge plush bed and spotlessly clean. Bonus, well done Ajela.
I wash my clothes, grab a shower and we hit the streets looking for food. Now, this is where it can become painful when you’re travelling with someone new. What do they eat, what budget, any allergies, any weird Vegans, Vegitarians, Pescitarians, or Religitarian food no no’s I need to worry about (yes I just made that R word up!). But thankfully they are well rounded travellers and will eat anything so long as it is good German sausage. Only kidding. We find a street stall with lots of tupperware boxes full of ingredients, we eventually work out that you pick what you want, she weighs it, you pay and then she adds spices, sugar, salt, pepper, oil and soya sauce and gives it a quick toss. Voila, instant salad! Unfortunately we can’t recognise any of the flora or fauna on offer so leave it up to her to pick, just nodding our heads occasionally when she looks at us quizzically. I sit down next to the shack with my mystery plate and chopsticks. The locals watch expectantly. I shuffle my food around with my sticks. Here goes… Blimey, that ain’t half hot mum! Texture wise its all a bit weird apart from the leaves. There’s crunchy bits, rubbery bits and crunchy rubbery bits (the weirdest!!) but it’s not half bad and for only 10,000 KIP I’m not complaining.
I also order a jelly iced tea with evaporated milk topping just to calm the fiery mouth, 3000 KIP (hope you’re keeping up with the exchange* rate!).
Sated, we head back to the guesthouse and chat away about our previous travels, plans and which good phone apps we use!!
*10,000 KIP = 26,770 Dong = $1.15 = £0.95
Wednesday 7th August 2019
Muang Mai to Muang Khua
Distance 38 km
Easy cycle today, ish. There is a large hill, but with the company of Ole and Ajela the going seems easy. It’s much quieter in Laos. The countryside is less cultivated and so instead of rice terraces there are just green covered hills. The villages are poorer and few and far between but still a friendly smile here and there. There are an estimated 7.17 million people living in Laos. That’s about the size of the population in London, and compared to the 96 million people in Vietnam very small. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, nearly equal to the 2.1 million tons of bombs the U.S. dropped on Europe and Asia during all of World War II, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history relative to the size of its population. In quite a few villages there are old bomb cases being used as decorative garden or fence ornaments!
Thursday 8th and Friday 9th August 2019
Muang Khua to Muang Ngoy and Nong Khiaw by boat
Distance 5 km
Total 28870 km
We’re up early and cycle around to the river ferry boat slipway. Today we’re going to try and get the boat to Muang Ngoy, a little village on the Nam Ou river that until recently was only accessible by boat. There is now a track from the south to the village, but as we’re coming from the North its still the boat for us. On the way around we stop at a restaurant for a quick breakfast. We meet another traveller there, Antonia from Chile. She’s been travelling Vietnam with her boyfriend but he’s gone back home to Peru, so she’s doing some solo travelling before meeting back up with him. She’s also catching the boat today. Breakfast of pancakes and sticky sweet rice with mango is delicious.
We all move another 200 meters to the boats. There’s a little wooden shack with a man inside selling boat tickets. We need to wait awhile to see how many passengers there are as this will affect the price. In the end we pay 110,000 KIP for each person and 60,000 for the bikes. Some of us have read that it takes 6 hours, others 4 and a few other bizarre times either side, so we’ll have to wait and see!
My trike is placed inside the tight confines of the boat and the other 2 bikes are put on the stern section outside. Then all the luggage is layed around and on top of my trike!! There are 10 westerners on the boat and a small number of locals, babes in arms and 1 cute puppy. And then we’re off.
It’s actually good to be underway as now there’s a cooling breeze and we’re sitting in shade. Admittedly we’re all crammed into the small boat sitting on a long wooden board either side of the boat. Our knees are up around our ears and clashing with our fellow passengers across the non-existent aisle. Soon we’re pulling over to the side of the river, a man, woman and child appear from the jungle and wade over to the boat and hop in. Even more cramped, but how did the skipper know where they were, or that they needed picking up? No idea! The day carries on, stopping occasionally at muddy steep banks to pick up and drop off people and cargo.
Then we see a dam as we come around the corner and I groan. We’re going to have to switch boats and move all the bikes and luggage! We pull up beside some rocks and a muddy track just short of the dam and disembark. It’s a bit of a struggle getting our bikes and kit off, especially over the rocks but fortunately there’s a truck that’s going to take the other passengers and our luggage up and around the dam. We just need to cycle up the rocky, muddy track and around to the other side, about a kilometer in distance. Then we carry our bikes down another steep gravel footpath to the dock! What a palaver! The boat is smaller this time and all 3 bikes go on the stern, along with half the luggage.
Then we all get on board and off we go. Did I mention its smaller! If anyone moves their bodyweight the boat rolls alarmingly, we find this out when several people lean over to the other side to take a picture of a passing attraction, squeals from the women passengers soon have them back in their seats (wooden plank) and nobody dares move a muscle for the rest of the trip apart from the odd sphincter movement as we wallow around corners!
We do round a final corner and the small village of Muang Ngoy comes into view. There are several bungalow/sheds on stilts along the waters edge and hopefully one of these will have space for us tonight. We offload onto a floating plastic pontoon and then carry our kit and bikes up the steep concrete steps to the village.
It’s very pleasant, palms, jungle flora and wooden terraces sitting over the waters edge. We’ve just got to the top of the steps when we’re accosted by a local. “Rooms? You need accommodation?“ he asks. Well we were going to check out another establishment, but as his is the closest to the boat docks we have a quick look and readily agree. 3 rooms (Antonia is going to stay with us for a couple of days too.) for 50,000 kip each and a very comfy bed!
After a celebratory beer on the restaurant terrace next door we decide to walk up to the viewpoint above the village. It’s a steep climb through the humid jungle but about half way up we get a respite in the form of Phanoi Cave. There’s a small entrance in the rocks which looks pretty pants, and doesn’t look very deep. But we bend over double and duckwalk into the cave. The path soon turns a corner and the walkway opens out into an underground cavern. Ahh much better. In fact once we have a look around we see that the cave continues on into the darkness. Mobile phones torches come out and we’re soon traipsing deeper into the unknown. The cave goes on for several hundred meters, with stalactites, stalactites and rocky climbs up through narrow passages before the cave ends, for us at least. There are some worn out effigies sitting on rock ledges at the end chamber and quite a bit of local money and flowers as offerings to Buddha.
Back at the entrance we are once again immersed into the jungle heat and humidity and continue our ascent. But the climb is worth it. There are two lookouts, one either side of the peak, and the views are beautiful. The river valley and steep karst mountainsides are quite a spectacle. Anyone bring a beer?? Doh!!
On Friday we catch the boat to Nong Khiaw. Same sort of boat but this time it’s only expected to take us an hour to reach our destination. Yesterday’s actually only took us 4 hours so not bad in the end. Whilst waiting for the boat we sit on the concrete steps leading to the pontoon. Ole moves forward down the steps into the water to get a photo, he’s quite the photographer! One more step then we see him fall sideways and forwards in slow motion as the steps disappear and he drops half into the river. Fortunately there’s a kayak moored up and he manages to catch himself and his camera before they are both fully immersed! The rest of the trip goes without mishap and we’re soon in the town of Nong Khiaw.
Accommodation sorted I head off for a beer in a local hostel/pub. This is the way to travel!
There’s a couple of viewpoints here and some caves, there’s also jungle trekking, hunting, kayaking, and other adventures to be had. We settle on another viewpoint walk. It’s only me, Ole and Ajela this time as Antonia is feeling under the weather. Oh boy, this one is 500 meters up to a peak on the other side of the river. We cross the bridge and pay our entrance fee. The climb is expected to take 1 hour. It’s now 5pm. What time does it get dark? Who cares? The muddly track up through the jungle is very slippery after last nights rain. Fortunately there are bamboo handholds, knotted ropes and steps cut into the climb. Most of the steps have a wet branch at the front for slipping across if you’re not careful. At times the jungle is so thick the light virtually disappears, and you have to duck under creepers and trees, scramble over wet jagged rocks and generally watch your every footstep. I’m drenched in sweat immediately! The sign that says you have reached the halfway point comes a long demoralising time into the climb. Onwards and upwards!!
Finally after climbing up some particularly sharp rocks I come out of the jungle onto the karst peak. WOW!! If yesterday’s view was awesome, this is spectacular! A 360 degree view. Mountain peaks all around, with clouds swimming below them and the river running through! The light today is also incredible, but that could be something to do with sunset and it getting dark soon!! However, well worth the effort. We spend as much time as possible on top, just taking in the views and possibly fortifying ourselves for the descent.
A few slips and slides and the onset of night await us, but we get down in one piece, the final 20 minutes in the dark. Cut that a bit close!!
For dinner the 4 of us pop over the river again to what looks like a popular Indian restaurant. Well it’s a disaster. The owner, an elderly Indian man tries to memorise our order but when asked to repeat it back is stymied. He then disappears, we think for paper and a pen, but after a long wait our drinks arrive, or more likely just plonked down on the table. We manage to work out whose is whose then a little later our samosa starters come out. They’re not bad, but are accompanied by tomato ketchup. We ask about the masala poppadoms we also ordered as starters, oh yes! Hurried chopping noises come from the kitchen as they dice onions for our poppadoms. What comes out is an oily, soft approximation of what a good poppadom should be! The owner then asks us what we ordered for mains, as yep, he’s forgotten. More waiting and our curries finally arrive with naan breads. Well, considering we ordered 2 different curries they look remarkably similar, in fact they taste exactly the same, which is weird, because we ordered one mild and one spicy!! I complain, but all he does is grin, wobble his head and point at the dollop of cream in one of the curries. After a futile attempt to get him to taste them we give up and eat what we have. Oh and they’re quite salty too. What a disappointment. So far, food in Laos has been a let down.
Saturday 10th August 2019
Nong Khiaw to Hatkhe
Distance 77 km
Total 28947 km
Hot hot hot, and we’re back to cycling again. We say goodbye to Antonia, but may see her again in Luang Prabang. It’s 140km to Luang Prabang, either 2 or 3 days cycle for us depending on the weather and terrain. However we complete our first 50km quite fast. It’s been an undulating but speedy cycle along the river then out through the cultivated countryside and jungle alike. But by this time the heat is building, the sun is out in full force and I resort to riding under my umbrella to escape the burning rays.
At 70km we are tiring and pull up at a guesthouse, however it’s not very nice. Another hot 7km to the next one. It’ll have to do, we are all pooped. We did stop for some food just before, but the beef salad we ordered with sticky rice was way too spicy! Still the food saga continues. The accommodation is basic again but we just can’t go any further in this heat. Ole gets his hammock out and lounges away, what a great idea! I quickly get mine out and we hang together!
Sunday 11th August 2019
Hatkhe to Luang Prabang
Distance 65 km
Total 29012 km
We make an early start this morning to try and beat some of the days heat. More easy going until we reach about 30 km worth of road works, mud, potholes, and new bridges that we need to divert around. The Chinese are building a new road and railway from China to Vientiane, so at the moment the going is tough.
Also as we get closer to the city the traffic, mainly large Chinese cargo trucks, builds. But finally we arrive in Luang Prabang about midday. We’re in a hostel now. I’m in a 6 bed dorm and Ole and Ajela get a private room. Once we’re freshened up we take a stroll along the Mekong River, get lunch and have a wander around the temples.
Luang Prabang (ຫລວງພະບາງ) slows your pulse and awakens your imagination with its combination of world-class comfort and spiritual nourishment. Sitting at the sacred confluence of the Mekong River and the Nam Khan (Khan River), nowhere else can lay claim to this Unesco-protected gem’s romance of 33 gilded wats, saffron-clad monks, faded Indochinese villas and exquisite Gallic cuisine.
Over the last 20 years Luang Prabang has seen a flood of investment, with once-leprous French villas being revived as fabulous – though affordable – boutique hotels, and some of the best chefs in Southeast Asia moving in. The population has swollen, and yet still the peninsula remains as sleepy and friendly as a village, as if time has stood still here.
Beyond the evident history and heritage of the old French town are aquamarine waterfalls, top trekking opportunities, meandering mountain-bike trails, kayaking trips, river cruises and outstanding natural beauty, the whole ensemble encircled by hazy green mountains.
It really is a sleepy hollow, but with ample opportunity to get out and adventure!
Kuang Si Waterfalls
This morning we hire 3 motorbikes. Antonia hasn’t ridden one for any length of time so why not pick Laos for your first time!
We ride out of town in convoy and pass through small villages as we head 30 km south to Kuang Si waterfalls, probably the biggest tourist attraction after the temples of Luang Prabang.
After arriving and paying our 20,000 kip ($2.30) entrance fee, we first stop at the famous bear sanctuary. Asiatic black bears, or moon bears, are an endangered species, as their bile is used in Chinese medicine to “relieve internal heat” (it’s also prescribed for anything from hangovers to cancer and is found in common bath products). This sanctuary rescues them and houses 23 bears that are now allowed to roam and enjoy life outside a small cage. We walk on through the jungle, bubbling streams crossing our paths several times before we get to the main river. Normally the river is an aquamarine beauty, but with the rainy season upon us the waters are slightly tinged by the red earth of Laos.
There are languid pools and small limestone steps that the river flows over as we make our way upriver.
At one area there’s a large pool and people are swimming about in it. Plenty of tourists here too taking selfies and generally getting in the way when I want to take a picture. Especially maddening are the Asian girls in their frilly swimming costumes and lace robes posing for hours right in front of the picture you want to take as their friends take pictures of them before they all swap around for more pictures!! Finally we make it up to Kuang Si large waterfall. It’s huge and spectacular.
I manage to get my selfie pic too, but only take mere seconds to do so! On Maps.me we can see there is a path up the mountain around the top and down the other side. Let’s go check it out. It’s a steep muddy slog at times but at the top we are rewarded with views out over the verdant jungle. And bonus time, there’s also a swimming pool before the edge of the waterfall here, and it’s much quieter than the one down below. Time for a quick dip! So cooling and refreshing!!
The walk down the other side of the mountain is fun too. There’s a cascading waterfall down one section of the stone path. You’re literally walking down a small waterfall.
Back in the village we stop for some food. I order the crispy bbq pork. It’s totally delicious. Then after a rest we walk down to the Butterfly Park. Owned by a European couple and helped out by Workaway volunteers they have carved a beautiful garden into the jungle with its own gurgling stream running through. The butterflies, are very pretty flying about the orchids and flowers that have been planted for them.
There’s even a little pond with some seats placed in it where you can sit and let the fish nibble at your dead skin!
In the evening we visit the night market, a riot of colours and sounds, smells and taste. There are stalls selling touristy t-shirts, paintings, bowls and other trinkets.
BBQ’s and food stalls where you can buy a huge plate of food for $1.50, smoothie and drink stalls that’ll make any combination of flavour you like. We try them all and waddle away stuffed. My favourites were the roasted pork (again) and waffle balls with a soft creamy coconut inner.
Finally we chill out at Utopias. A large garden bar with cushion seating, firepits and a relaxed atmosphere as large groups of backpackers and exotic destination middle aged tourists come together and trade stories of their day, their adventures on the road and plans for the future. Tranquility in the heart of Laos.
Tuesday 13th August 2019
Oh oh, something I ate yesterday disagreed with me and there’s definitely no tranquility for me as I spend a lot of the previous night and today sitting on the porcelain throne. Oh well, it was going to be a relaxation day today anyway!
Wednesday 14th August 2019
Luang Prabang to Pakbeng
8km to slow boat docks
Total 29020 km
We’re up early today and thankfully my stomach issues seem to have abated. We cycle north out of town under dark clouds for 8 km and arrive at the Mekong Slow Boat wharf. We’re catching the slow boat to Thailand. It’s a 2 day trip with a stop at Pakbeng before arriving at the Thai / Laos Border towns of Huayxai (Laos side of the Mekong) and Chiang Khong (Thailand side of the Mekong). We buy a ticket to Pakbeng, 100,000 kip ($11.5) per person and 25,000 kip ($2.87) for the bike. Tomorrow will be the same cost for the Pakbeng to Huayxai stretch. Then those dark clouds open and we get soaked whilst cycling down a muddy track to the river and manhandling our bags and bike aboad via a floating jetty! The boat is about 30 meters long and wide enough for two sets of very old looking coach seats and a central aisle. Our bikes go on top and our bags at the back and we pick a seat.
The seats aren’t fixed to the boat, just to some short wooden planks and if you need more leg space you can scoot your seats back a couple of inches and steal from the row behind! Some seats also recline, so get there early to pick the best spot and stake out your space! By the time we set off the boat is about two thirds full with locals and backpackers alike. Apparently the return route is much more popular and the boats can be overcrowded and full. Lucky for us there’s plenty of space to shuffle around on your crappy seats for the next 9 and a half hours as your arse goes numb and your hearing is blasted by the engine. However, the scenery and cooling breeze make up for it, but after 3 hours I keep thinking I see the same tree, rock or long boat… are we going around in circles? Then it’s sleep, read, sleep, nibble on the meagre rations you bought for the trip and sleep some more!!
We arrive in Pakbeng just as the boat coming from the other way also docks. Its full of tourists, but there’s plenty of accommodation options in this out of the way town. In fact half the buildings are guesthouses and restaurants catering for the daily influx of tourists who are only going to stay for one night. We offload all our baggage and our bikes from the roof. The steep bank makes it a delight taking everything up to the road! A lady from one of the guesthouses waves pictures of her bedrooms at us and quotes us 50,000 kip. Too beaten to argue we agree after she says her place isn’t far away. We follow her daughter, who looks about 12, on her motorbike up 2 hills and I’m beginning to wonder how far ‘not far away’ is when she pulls up at a nice looking guesthouse. The beds are comfortable and after today’s arse numbing journey that’s all I need.
A quick refresh and we pop out in to the little village of Pakbeng. There are lots of restaurants and bakeries and we plump for another Indian restaurant, fortunately this one is very good and we have no problems.
Thursday 15th August 2019
Pakbeng to Huay Xai
Apart from the rigmarole of getting our bikes onto the boat, our boat breaking down after the engine compartment flooding, getting our bikes off the boat at the other end and a huge rain storm it was a pretty boring day. Highlight was probably seeing Thailand on our left bank for the last 30km and seeing modern looking roads, villages and resorts. I’m definitely looking forward to visiting 7-eleven convenience stores and Tescos Lotus stores in Thailand!! No more food issues!
We cycle from the docks into Huay Xai, find a cheap hotel and enjoy our last dinner in Laos. Tomorrow we’ll enter Thailand.
So long Laos, it’s been okay, but your food has been awful at times!