Laos – The harder the uphill, the sweeter the downtime

posted in: Asia, Laos | 0

We bought our Laos visa at the border and set off to Vientiane. The capital was only a couple of kilometres away. We had read about the city to learn what to do and see but it turned out to be a rather boring place. Our only goal was to eat a khao jee, a baguette sandwich that spread in Laos in the French colonial times. According to some websites it is sold everywhere in the country, but we couldn’t find any in Vientiane. It was disappointing and the high prices also discouraged us from eating out. So we just walked a little and entertained ourselves by putting flowers into Adam’s beard. It made some other people smile too. We visited the Arc de Triomphe of Vientiane and the World Peace Gong then returned to the hostel to take a rest. It really isn’t an interesting town.

While we were getting out of the capital we finally found sandwiches. It was stuffed with some unusual but tasty things. We also bought some plain baguettes to make our own sandwiches later. With the fruits we bought we cooked delicious mango-banana rice for dinner. That day we stopped early and camped. We suspected that on the main roads among the mountains won’t be any neat places for our tent. So we planned ahead each day to be sure to find a guesthouse for the nights. There were some accommodations usually around 50 km from each other which was the perfect distance for us on the steep terrain.

We turned to road 13 which become our home for over a week. There aren’t many options in North Laos, only two roads cross the mountains. The other one is a bit shorter but steeper so we chose No.13 just like a lot of other cyclists. We met at least one bicycle traveler each day, although it isn’t an easy ride. The tarmac was probably the worst before Vang Vieng. There weren’t any big climbs yet, but the shitty road already made things difficult. There were gravel patches on the asphalt every few hundred metres – and it’s the road that connects the biggest cities!

The day before New Year’s Eve we arrived to Vang Vieng. We tried to find a hotel on the internet but every affordable private room seemed to be occupied. We didn’t want to go to a dorm in this party town so we started to ask around for a vacant room. Some guesthouses were full but we succeeded to find some bungalows that weren’t on the net, neither on the map and didn’t have any guests. The relatively cheap bamboo cottage with bathroom was perfect for a couple of days.

Vang Vieng is basically three streets with everything tourists need. The small village has a lot of hotels and restaurants. We started our visit with a sandwich full of vegetables, sauce and barbecued pork. We fell in love with it so much we didn’t even try any other food. When we didn’t cook for ourselves we just we to this buffet to grab a pork or beef sandwich. Service was slow and the first time we got only one sandwich, but still we kept going back. If we had traveled to Laos for only two weeks probably we wouldn’t have been so enthusiastic about sandwiches, but after seven months we really enjoyed a little taste of home. Also, khao jee seemed pretty authentic to me even if it is suited to Western taste. Adam didn’t agree, but I felt that this sandwich has more to do with Laos than those ‘artisan pizzas’ sold in Chiang Mai has to do with Thailand.

The first evening we had drinks then got sandwiches and banana shake at our favourite place. We spent the next day by getting over our pre-New Year’s Eve celebration. In the evening we didn’t feel like partying, we rather walked around to see how do other people spend the holiday. The locals were the loudest and most cheerful. Many people were eating and drinking at the river bank with their friends. There wasn’t any big fireworks, only some small handheld ones. The flying paper lanterns were a bigger hit. We heard karaoke until late at night. This often happened later as well, people of Laos love to sing karaoke so loud that the whole village can hear it. We didn’t like this custom.

We started 2019 with caving. We cycled to the nearby Phu Kam cave. First we tried to get there on the dirt road shown on the map but we couldn’t find the track across the rice paddies. So we returned to the tarmac road, that way was much easier. After buying tickets we climbed up to the cave that we could explore freely without a guide. For a while we could follow the path but in the darker part we couldn’t see the signs. With the help of our head torch we didn’t get lost, it was exciting to walk deep inside and then find our way out. The park had a blue lagoon too, but the weather wasn’t really hot so we chose not to swim while Korean tourists were jumping into the water from a tree.

From Vang Vieng our tour continued among gorgeous mountains. It took us four and a half days to get to Luang Prabang. We struggled a lot to be at such a beautiful place. Road 13 was still terrible. Hard climbs were one thing, but the dust swept to our faces by the trucks and the slippery parts were frustrating. Adam fell in one of the slippery curves, the good thing is he was riding slowly so he didn’t hurt himself. We ate big bowls of noodle soup to get enough energy for the climbs, it’s the most widely available dish in Laos. Food was still more expensive than in Thailand, but the portions were bigger so usually we were happy with them.

Not many people live in those fairy tale mountains, but from time to time we crossed some villages. Crowds of children waved and cried ‘Sabadee’ when we showed up. Every village is full of kids. Women and children carry babies on their backs, younger and older kids are free to play outside. Seeing these communities was thought provoking. Are they happy? They certainly don’t have much, but neither do they need to worry about lot. There is an abundance of wood and bamboo, most of them use those to build simple huts. People keep pigs, poultry and dogs. As days went by it got more and more suspicious that people eat dogs here, later we got proof when we saw people baking a dog. This isn’t the world of packaged meat, folks must use everything that’s edible. Though we only ate in restaurants in bigger villages, sometimes we were wondering what kind of animal is on our plate.

Road conditions improved as we approached Luang Prabang and after all day long climbs we got to some sweet, long downhills. So we reached the town in good mood and asked around for accommodation. It didn’t come as surprise that guesthouses were more expensive in this popular town. At least first 100.000 seemed expensive compared to the usual 60.000 Kip, but actually it’s barely more than 10 dollars. This bought us a beautiful room with bathroom in a quiet area plus free coffee, banana and biscuits. The owners were kind, they always put away our bikes for the night. We really enjoyed the 3 days spent there.

Luang Prabang is all about eating, locals sell food everywhere! We gave in to the pleasures – eating Lao food, sandwiches and pancakes. The town’s culinary center is the street food market. Many kind of food is sold in this crowded, narrow street. We chose the buffet where you could pack your bowl full for a fixed price. Even if it wasn’t the tastiest meal we had in Laos, it was exciting to choose of at least 30 different, unknown dishes and mix them. Sandwiches were always delicious, everybody made them their own way. Pancakes are similar to what we eat at home, just a bit more crunchy and instead of rolling them up, here they fold and cut them into tiny squares. While we were walking from one eatery to another we had the chance to discover the whole town.

We took a daytrip from Luang Prabang to the Kuang Si falls. Cycling 60 km without our bags felt uplifting. After entering the park we walked by a bear reserve. The bears locked into the small territory isn’t a happy sight, but shortly we got to the waterfall that surpassed all our expectations. It looked like it’s been photoshopped. After a high fall the water flows over pools of different sizes where you can see its incredible turquoise colour. We walked up to its source, then down the other side. The path lead through real jungle, it looked exactly like what I used to imagine back at home. We’ve never got to cycle in this kind of environment, walking there made us happy.

We tried to find the secret pools we had read about. An unmarked path was supposed to get us there so we took the first one, it followed a small creek in the jungle. We found a little pool where we could bathe. Okay, that’s an overstatement, the water was super cold, it wasn’t a hot day so standing in the ankle-deep water was enough.

In Luang Prabang we obtained the Vietnam visa. The process was very simple. We were over with it quickly even though we had to walk to the consulate because Adam had a flat in the morning. We didn’t take enough USD so he had to walk back to our nearby guesthouse while I was filling the forms. Still it was a thousand times easier than the stupid Indian visa. We got the 90 days visas two days later, it was time to move on from Luang Prabang.

Rain was dripping all morning, so we got soaked and in the afternoon we got completely covered in mud because the further we got from Luang Prabang the less asphalt the road contained. Besides that, it was a pleasant section with only short climbs. The villages around us were maybe a little bigger and had better infrastructure than the ones we crossed before in Laos, but the children were still the same, they waved and greeted us all the time. After two days of cycling we had a two days long rest again. This time in Nong Khiaw, the picturesque riverside village nested by the feet of amazing mountains. We were glad we had such a short distance to ride in Laos, we really enjoyed the rest days between the tough rides.

There were many travelers in Nong Khiaw, but souvenir markets and pancake stalls haven’t appeared yet. However there’s already a wide range of guest houses. We chose a cheap and cozy bungalow with useful (pink) mosquito net around the bed and a hammock on the porch.

We mostly just chilled out in the village and cooked gourmet dishes with fresh ingredients from the local market. We flavoured the rice with chili sauce, peanuts, herbs and vegetables and the results were much more enjoyable than rice with canned fish. We undertook only one short hike, an hour long climb up to a mountain viewpoint. After walking the jungly path we saw the lovely panorama of the whole area and the beginning of sunset. We used our head torches to get down, this way was somehow more demanding than the walk up.

We had some more mountains waiting for us, we climbed one or two each day. The road was rocky and bumpy at first but it got better. Our daily distances still depended on the location of guesthouses, we cycled till we reached one. Usually this method worked fine and got us a comfy bed way before sunset. Except that one time, when the hotel we found on the map just wasn’t there. We didn’t have enough time to reach the next one so we started to look for a campsite. Luckily, on the top of the mountain we found some wide, flat space. Not really hidden, but it was at a safe distance from the road. After all it’s worth carrying the tent even if we didn’t use it often recently. Same with that bag of sugar in our pannier. We bought it back in Thailand just in case we ever don’t find any daytime snacks. Well, in Laos came the day when we couldn’t buy any bananas or biscuits so we ended up pouring sugar into our mouths to gain energy.

The night in the tent was chilly. When we looked around in the morning and literally saw nothing, we realized that we were in a cloud. Our maximum altitude was around 1600 m, but we reached the clouds several times those days. In these cold, cloudy days we even had to put on our jackets, so no need to be jealous, it isn’t always summer here.

Sam Neua was the last big town on our way. As usual, we went to the market to buy some vegetables. I’ve been to several markets in Laos, but this was the first time I saw some unusual meat. Though I knew people eat all kind of animals here, it shocked me to see the wide selection of rats and other rodents. There were furry and skinned rats and even ones with cut bellies and visible internal organs. There was a dead cat for sale too. It was interesting that we saw this in one of the seemingly richer towns. I’m not sure people eat these animals out of necessity or for their taste.

The border was at a days’s distance from Sam Neua. Cyclists coming from Vietnam had told us about the terrible road conditions so we were prepared for the worst. There were some parts with only mud instead of a road where we had to get off the bikes even on a downhill, but other than that it wasn’t worse than most roads in Laos. We were eager to get over the bumpy parts and start to roll on Vietnam’s smooth tarmac so we made it to the border in the afternoon.

Cycling in Laos was hard work. This country often exhausted us, but we could keep our good moods all along. During the whole time we were surrounded by wonderful scenery and cheerful people. Whilst we couldn’t speak with the locals, we were affected by their happiness and we tried to reciprocate their greetings and waves even when we had to hold our handlebars real strong. Roads were bad, that’s true, but the low traffic made up for it. Above all, it was great to slow down, relax more and allow ourselves more. I’m slowly starting to realise that the goal isn’t getting as far as possible, but to enjoy the journey and get the most out of these special places.

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