|Laos Pure Laos|
Written by: Steven
Pure LaosWe are early at the border between China and Laos because we are in the mood to discover a new country. Before they open the fence at the Chinese side there is some sort of flag ceremony. The customs officers are marching, shouting and saluting before the Chinese flag. After this they open the border crossing, give us a stamp in our passports and let us through into Laos. At the customs at the Laos side we arrange a 30 days visa and after this we are cycling through the hills in this new country for us. The first couple of kilometers are lovely and we notice the differences between China and Laos. It’s very quiet on the road and it looks like the only other traffic consists of buffalos and chickens. There are many small villages with wooden houses standing on poles. When we enter a village the children start running and shouting falang, sabaidee and byebye. Thanks to the kids we learn the meaning for foreigner and how to say hello. We as “falangs” are a real attraction and everywhere the people wave, smile and cheer. In Luang Namtha we really see that Laos is a big tourist attraction. Everywhere we look there are western people walking and many guesthouses are full. The Lao people speak good English, the menus have western style dishes and the French have left their famous baguettes in the country. We stay a couple of days in Luang Namtha to enjoy all the nice things we can eat here and to get a feel for the atmosphere of our first city in Laos.
At the ‘Banque pour le Commerce Exterieur Lao’ we exchange our dollars for the Laos Kip and we’re ready to go. On the map we’ve seen a route which hopefully takes us of the main tourist drag through the country. Instead of cycling south we start cycling west. After 24 kilometers on new tarmac we drive our bikes into the sand and dust of an old rough road. They’re busy making a new road and which means we’ve to cycle the next 200 kilometers on this dusty track. We enjoy the bumpy ride through the sand and the overwhelming nature surrounding us. It’s a big jungle out here and everywhere are palm trees, bananas, teak and other tropical plants. At night we sleep in a bamboo cabin somewhere in the middle of the forest. There is no electricity and the silence is great. The next day the kilometers are going fast besides the bad road. We decide to cycle a village further than planned and as a reward we get a steep climb uphill. At the top stands a fully loaded truck and the minute we stop there is a happy cheer and followed by a running western girl. We encounter a very special group of cyclists: the Cyclowns! These cyclists are traveling on their “tallbikes” around the world to make street theatre at the places where they stop. At the moment they travel together with a Laos circus which tours from village to village.
The Cyclowns consists of 2 Italians, 3 Americans and 1 Russian. They invite us to travel to the next stop together and spent the night with them.
The road is very bad and cycling is though. We have to plough our way through deep layers of sand and Jeanine, the Russian Cyclown, falls from her tallbike which is made of two bicycles welded on top of each other. We arrive in Phimonsin when it’s dark and here we see how the circus puts up their camp at the fields of the local school. The planned show is cancelled for tonight but we still enjoy a nice evening chatting about all our travels. We get to know that we saw the Cyclowns in Turkey when we’re cycling there last year. At night we sleep beneath the veranda of the school and in the morning we enjoy the joking of the clowns with the school children.
In Houaxai which lies at the Mekong River our road stops. Here we catch a boat for a day to get to the first place where to road starts again. The Mekong is also the border between Thailand and Laos. From Thailand many tourists come into Laos at this border crossing. When I’ve tied our bicycles on the roof of the boat I see tow other cyclists coming to our boat. Marie-José and Paul from the Netherlands came by bicycle from Thailand. Like us they’re on the way to Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Better still: they also cycle on Santos bikes! During the boat trip we chat a lot together and in the evening we find a hotel in Pakbeng. From Houayxai most people take the boat to Luang Prabang because this is the most convenient way of traveling in this part of the country. Pakbeng lies halfway and is the stopover for the night.
After one day on the boat Marie-José and Paul are really looking forward to cycling again and they decide to come with us. One hour by boat after Pakbeng starts a road which we take to Luang Prabang. When the boat stops and we step onto the beach in the middle of the jungle we get many surprised looks from the other passengers. The whole boat waves us goodbye when they ship of leaving us behind on the riverside.
There is a small rough road leaving Thaxoang climbing into the hills from the Mekong. Here we cycle with the four of us slowly to the top. It’s nice to cycle with other people and we talk a lot. The scenery is beautiful full of different types of green and other colors. Once we arrive at the top we cycle on a ridge and enjoy the views surrounding us. After this everything downhill until the village of Hongsa. In Hongsa are a couple of guesthouses and we decide to stay for the night. After a good night rest and noodles for breakfast we’re ready to set of to Luang Prabang. On our map the road is written as a main route and we expect a reasonable good road.
The road appears to be a little bit different then we expected it to be when we cycle on a narrow path. The first kilometers are almost flat so here we can cycle easily until we reach the first climb. The road gets even narrower and goes up with 20 %. It’s really hard to cycle here and we have to push our bikes many times. After three ours of hard working we are on the top and we conquered a distance of 9 kilometers. A steep descent follows on though sand and stones. We arrive in a small village where we can buy something to eat. The people of the village are looking with amazement at the 4 cyclists who arrived here by going through their jungle. We try to find out where we are, but no one can tell us exactly which village we are standing in. They point at the next mountain we see and they tell us that we have to go there for Luang Prabang. The next village will come after 25 km and we think it will lead us there by following the stream of water. We decide to move on but when we are half way up the mountain we are all very tired. We are pushing our bikes and many times we slide away by the stones. Soon it will be dark and we decide to return to the last village. We ask for a place to sleep and the people offer us a bamboo hut where we can spend the night. Paul and I are taken into a house where a group of people is sitting. They ask us to sit down and to drink from their wine. In the middle of the group there are four big jars full of rice wine and the people drink from it through bamboo straws. As a guest I’m expected to join them and carefully I take a sip of this strong drink.
With the alarm clock at 6:00am we hope to make a change of arriving in Luang Prabang today. Unfortunately today is even harder and more difficult than yesterday. The first couple of hours we’re busy pushing our bikes uphill. It’s to steep to cycle with climbing percentage up till 30%. Marlous and I have placed the Hongsa – Luang Prabang road as toughest road ever cycled by us. At the moment the road is impossible for cars and what’s left is just a trail through the forests. We’re al getting tired and not sure if we’re on the good track. The last couple of hours we didn’t see anything besides the dense vegetation of the jungle. Our food starts running out and there is a lack of rivers for drinking water. We start wandering if we have to turn around and the tension is hanging in the air. Fortunately we see a couple of small huts and we stop where a boy tends for his cows in the middle of nowhere. He’s got some water for us and with sign language we get to know that the next village is a 4 hours hike away. This is the point of no return and with a fresh mood we start cycling again.
It’s getting dark pretty quick and this makes the cycling impossible on the bad road. On a little field we pitch our tent and we take one candy bar and one sip of water each for dinner. Marie-José and Paul sleep also in the tent which is normally meant for two. It fits exactly. In the middle of the night Marlous notices a small light on the tent. Within 3 seconds I’m outside to greet the newcomer. A man with a big gun slung over his shoulder has spotted our tent and enjoys the fact that we sleep in the middle of the jungle. He shakes his head, laughs and waves us goodbye before retreating into the darkness.
From the moment we wake everything goes smoothly. After a short climb the road starts to descend and 10 kilometers further we’re having breakfast in a village. The people love it that we came from Hongsa by bicycle. With sign language they let us know that the road is easy from here on. This is great news and with a big smile we continue our trip to Luang Prabang. There are many small rivers and the road doesn’t climb anymore. After 60 kilometers the road stops and we’re standing at the riverside of the Mekong. At the other side we see Luang Prabang and with a small boat we cross this mighty river. A beautiful end for one of the toughest and most beautiful roads we have ever cycled.
* Boten – Luang Namtha: 64km
* Luang Namtha – Vien Poukha: 68km
* Vien Puokha – Phimonsin: 92km
* Phimonsin – Houay Xai: 31km
* Thaxoang – Hongsa: 27km
* Hongsa – Houayngang: 36km
* Houayngang – Camping in the wild: 32km
* Camping in the wild – Luang Prabang: 65km