Heart to Beat #28 Northern Laos

Published at February 25, 2019 at 12:00 PM

Our cycle route through Laos comprises roughly two loops. First a northern loop where we cycle towards the Chinese border and then gradually turn to Luang Prabang, the city to which all tourists at the border leave by boat. The second loop goes south where we will divert at Vientiane to the east along the Mekong. In Vientiane we see if we cycle through southern Laos to Cambodia or that we cycle a larger loop via Vietnam. If we go through Vietnam, we must apply for a visa in Vientiane.

The first day starts well: we have no money for the shuttle bus that is obliged to cross the border. The border crossing to Laos is a large new bridge with huge border offices on both sides. Everything is built by Chinese. Pedestrians and cyclists have to get on the bus to cross. Incomprehensible, the bridge is spacious and there is hardly any traffic, but it is what it is and it’s quite annoying because that stupid shuttle bus costs money. It costs 20 baths per person and 100 baths per bike. Of course no insurmountable costs, but we took a weekend off in Thailand and spend all the Baths we had. The Thai Namkhong guesthouse was a very nice spot where we made the blog & video about Thailand. We also removed the ‘tick’ from bottom bracket. Finally! Yes! Pilot Cycles, thanks for the tips and tricks!

The atmosphere at the guesthouse in Chiang Khong was very nice; the Frenchwoman Virgini, a German couple, a Dutch young lady, two Belgian women and many other guests, everyone chat with each other and enjoy this resort with – as icing on the cake – a very nice little pool. We stayed there until the (Thai) money ran out and because of that we have only 6 baths for the counter for the shuttle bus and that is too little. The cash machine at the border does not accept foreign bank cards and we walk back past customs to another ATM while the check-out stamps are already in our passport.

At the border office in Laos we exchange the freshly ATMed Thai baths for spotless US dollars to pay the visa and the rest in Laotian kips (btw: in Dutch language that means chicken). We hear later that only crispy & shiny dollars are accepted and that is very funny when you find out how dirty the money is in Laos, especially below 100,000 kip. They do not have coins here. With a scoop we are multimillionaire! One euro equals 10,000 chicken.

As said, most tourists take a boat from the border to the city of Luang Prabang. We don’t and cycle in a northerly direction and very quickly there is no longer any tourist to see. Children along the road swing enthusiastically at us and sometimes run to the road side to touch our hands. What is further (sadly) striking is that the waste in the roadside is back. In Thailand the roadsides were generally clean.

After a day with still quite a bit of altitude we arrive in Don Chai. The guesthouse there seems to be closed and the people we approach nearby gesture to continue a bit. We find a shabby room in Guesthouse Dormitory Sainamhgao abroad. A restaurant is just a bit further down the road. In sign language we order dinner and get sticky rice with omelette and soup.

If we want to fill up our bidons in the morning with the small bottles of water that we have bought, the smell tells us that we bought 5 bottles of pure alcohol instead of water. What would they have thought when we bought these bottles just before bedtime? Fortunately, we can exchange them for ordinary water. At the eatery of last night we have breakfast at 7 o’clock in the morning. We arrive with a rattling stomach. The eatery would be open from 6 o’clock but seems to be closed. They do prepare a noodle soup for us. It’s not that tasty and full of bits of bone; a chicken is just cut into small pieces and then thrown into the big bowl. The soup is unable to completely satisfy our hunger. After a few kilometers of cycling, the first bag of double-packaged, sweet mini-cakes, which we had bought together with the bottles of alcohol. is consumed. It is still cold and fairly foggy and even though there is just as much sweat as yesterday afternoon. The morning ascend brings us 500 meters higher. However, the highlight is constantly postponed by the fact that we may first descend about four times before we finally reach the ‘top’. By then the second bag of mini-cakes has already been consumed. The goal for today is either 55 km to Vieng Poukha or 110 km to Luang Namtha. Even though it is still quite early, at the top we know that Luang Namtha is ‘a bridge too far’ for today.

In Vieng Poukha we opt for a charming bungalow from the Thongmyxai guesthouse where a friendly and cheerful hostess welcomes us. When unpacking the panniers, Roelie finds out that her e-reader is missing. Probably it is left behind in the shabby room in Don Chai. The lovely hostess calls the guesthouse there and  they indeed find an e-reader. It is promised that it will come to us today or tomorrow. Pleasantly arranged!

So we enjoy the view on a small river from the veranda of our bungalow. We do some groceries at a mini shop down in the village. The sun goes down and the speakers at the pole are turned on. From the speakers comes a lot of talking, advertising and the national anthem for about an hour. Later it appears this happens every day, at sunrise and sunset. On the way back to our guesthouse we see paint on the road. We have already noticed this on the way up here. The paint is not from road management to mark maintenance places but shows the setting of the accident investigation. The marking in our village shows the macabre outline of a victim.

The next morning we eat a big portion of fried rice with lots of fresh vegetables from the vegetable garden of the lovely hostess. After that it is more or less waiting for the bus with e-reader. Later on it was promised that the e-reader would be delivered by bus expected to arrive at 12:30. That allows us to finish the rest of the stage in the afternoon to Luang Namtha, although it will be hot. Cold mornings are always followed up by hot afternoons.

Roelie has confiscated Harry’s e-reader, so Harry updates the blog. Around midday, we have changed in to our cycling outfit and the bikes are packed, we get the impression that something is wrong. Our dear hostess is making gestures and starts phone calls. Eventually we get a man on the phone who explains that the e-reader is not on the bus and says something about children. It is not entirely clear to us, but the fact is that the e-reader is still in Don Chai. All kinds of options are reviewed; eventually the man of the house will drive by car to get the e-reader. It is 1 PM and the ride will take about 4 hours up and down. So we book another night and Roelie sits down to figure out a plan to insure this will never happen again. She plans it on her own typical way: half asleep in the hammock with Harry’s e-reader on her lap …

On such a day, an e-reader ceded to Roelie and sitting on the porch of a very simple hut with a view of the river that flows through the village, you can picture the simplicity of daily life here. The people are up early, at the first daylight. They wash themselves in this river early in the morning and / or in the late afternoon. The ladies do this extremely handy and decently dressed in a sarong. The clothes are then washed in the same river. It takes place in groups with chatter and laughter. There is a shaky bridge of two bamboo poles over the river. The school is across the river, so a lot of children take this wobbly hurdle, back and forth. There is laughter and of course beaten bulling by extra wobbling and splashed with water. You keep on watching if someone falls off (what did not happen). In the afternoon the kids swim and play and we see boys with diving glasses and a kind of self-built harpoon to catch fish. Adults do a lot of lugging with buckets and watering water from the waterfront to the huts high up the steep slope. It is beautiful, peaceful and we really have the impression that people are happy here with little. We sometimes read on social media in communities for bicycle travelers that cyclist want to do something for these people. That we cyclists from the rich West are privileged because we can do what we do (long distance cycling). That these people do not have that possibility. But do not we (at least the world cyclists) crave such an existence? To the simplicity of life? Are we not a little less fortunate because of materialism, possession or the craving for it? Not to mention stress, daily excitement and complaining about nothing … Pfff, sorry for this intermezzo, it’s just a few reminders of a former manager on a bike 😉

When the e-reader arrives, it appears to be jammed. After a reset the font or maximum size is shown. Aha, probably children played with it, until it did not work anymore and they did not dare to give it back. Well, after the reset and some adjustments it works as usual and we have a wonderful day of reading, watching and musing.

Oh, have we already told you that we have treated each other with Valentine’s Day on sandals? We do not like them, and sandals are generally obscured by Roelie, but yes a cyclist only looks at practicality and does not show outwardly, right? It is so hot in our cycling shoes in the afternoon that it seems better to us (and to the people around us) if we let the toes ventilate a bit more during cycling. Additional benefit; the feet  get some color too. But please you really should not tell anyone that it was so cold in the morning that we left with socks in the sandals! Are there any limits?

The stage today is beautiful, especially in the morning. We cycle through idyllic valleys, along and over nice streams and through green rice fields. Furthermore, there is a lot of tropical greenery with the only dissonant: the planted rubber trees that all look dreary, or through the season or by tapping. We also cycle through a kind of National Park with many tourist investments: a botanical garden, a swimming / water paradise, a visitor center, all new and all very empty …

After about 90 kilometers we reach the “rubbish village” Nateuy. This dusty village is close to the Chinese border and that is noticeable. Everywhere Chinese people who roar and spit and a family enter the restaurant with a dog in a bag… wtf? The Chinese influences are also visible earlier. Large companies mainly focused on mineral extraction, construction and rubber and banana plantations, are invariably in Chinese hands given the Chinese signs on the business boards. On the road only Chinese trucks drive to and from China. To China the trucks are usually loaded with bananas. Not to forget the fast sports cars and expensive SUVs with Chinese number plates over the roads, they also unfortunately honk a lot.

We are happy when we cycle out of this ugly village again. It will be a beautiful stage that could have been nicer if there was no mega Chinese construction project in progress. A billions-high high-speed rail line is being constructed between China in the direction of Vientiane, a real civil engineering tour with tunnels, high and kilometers long bridges, mountain intersections, you name it. We can feast on this, but it is unfortunate that soil and minerals are being generated all around us and giga concrete plants have been set up along the route. Repeatedly, we cross the stretch of the railway. The mega-project is an example of how China is expanding its influence in this country that itself has no money to keep its own existing main road structure up to standard. On the way we meet the Austrian cyclists Chiara who is on her way to China. As usual we make a chat and exchange tips about what lies ahead and behind us. In the evening we arrive in Oudomxay, the first real city we visit on our journey through Laos. Also for the first time: a bathroom with a real toilet and a sink (and breakfast). A tip from Chiara.

From Oudomxay we cycle straight into the natural beauty of northern Laos. It promises to be a tough day with two climbs to about 1300 meters altitude and a total of 1700 altitude meters. Soon we start with an ascent where the tropical vegetation on both sides of the road above us intertwines. In this splendor we see a sign with “waterfall, 50 meters away”. We each pay 5000 kip (in Dutch:chickens) and walk after the waterfall. It is beautiful, it is quiet, we are the only ones because it is still early. Or not … behind us two western men arrive in cycling outfit! They are José-Luis and David from Andalusia, Spain. They cycle through Thailand and Laos and are super nice guys. It is a pity that David does not speak English, or better: too bad we do not speak Spanish (yet?), given the second part of our world trip. But thanks to José-Luis, there is a lot of chattering. Given that we have at least twice as much luggage with us, they are faster in the climbs and we are faster in the descent. This is how we meet these nice fellows three more times today.

At the second meeting the Spaniards keep a ‘chicken-break’: they have exchanged some paper kips (chickens) for a grilled chicken with a skin of plastic that only Harry’s Turkish knife splits through. At the third break they wait for us with ice cream cone. The Spaniards are starting to distribute to a few children and in no time there is a whole bunch of children around us. At the fourth meeting we are already drinking a cold beer in Pakmong village when they arrived and here our roads separate. They stay here overnight and then cycle east. We are going south and to shorten the stage of tomorrow we commit ourselves to do another 14 kilometers. When they say goodbye to these sympathetic men, they say that their homes in Andalusia are always open to us and José-Luis leaves his contact details behind.

The road between Oudomxai and Pakmong was a very nice road with new asphalt. After we turn off towards Luang Prabang we end up on a less good road. After 10 kilometers we see a lot of guesthouses, we stop after 14 kilometers in Ban Sang. Funny enough we hear that we made the choice that two nights earlier a bicycle woman from Austria was a guest. That must have been Chiara, what a coincidence.

We find a nice restaurant close by and because it is Saturday night it is pretty full of Laotians. Two boys offer us a ‘Welcome-to-Lao beer’. The fact that we were treated with it caused some misunderstanding after the departure with the staff, but in the end everything turned out okay and we were tired of finding our bed. Struggling not because of the beers, but because of the breakage of a slipper from Roelie.

There is still a distance of 100 km to Luang Prabang, the tourist heart of Laos. At 7 o’clock we are already on the saddle. We knew that the road would have countless ‘rollers”: go up and down (not our favorite profile), but that it would be broken up in hundreds of places, we did not expect. The first 60 km are therefore very hard. As it turns out, another mega Chinese project is taking shape: the construction of a dam by ‘ChinaPower’ and everything related to it. In the road that now runs alongside the beautiful river, no more investments are being made: large parts of this road will be flooded. After the dam, the road is slightly better and we can look around us for a moment. It is another great ride, but because we had to keep our eyes on the road all the time, we could not enjoy it much today.

Along the way we encounter a small daily market along the way, with mainly “fresh” products such as meat, fruit and vegetables. Besides the usual product our attention is drawn by a beast that is offered for sale. It seems to have been hit, but we do not know that for sure. Later we search on the internet what the beast may have been; the only animal that looks like it is the ring tail Maki, but it only occurs in Madagascar. So for the first time here a public question appears in our blog: does anyone have an idea what this animal is called?

Just before Luang Prabang the road gets bad again and we encounter that other Chinese projects: the construction of the high speed railway. We see a huge bridge over the majeustieuse Mekong which disappears a bit further east with a tunnel into the mountain.

Only when we cycle into the center of Luang Prabang do tourists emerge everywhere. It is a special mix of western and Chinese, young and old, (wannabe) hippies and macho boys and pretty girls. We decide to stay for a day and get better acquainted with this city that’s on the World Heritage list the next day. Of course, the leg muscles have to be loosened for a while and we cycle around the city. On a tiny tour through the old heart of the city we meet Martin from the USA (cycles from HoChiMin, via Hanoi on the way to India and beyond), Pieter from Germany (from Germany about the same route as we are but via Iran and fast) and Ken also from the USA (now two months cycling Indochina and keeps cycling around until he have to go to a wedding in Albania, yes really Albania!). Everyone likes a well-deserved rest day here, but apparently we all can not leave the bike alone.