I woke up with a strange feeling today — a kind of lethargy and sluggishness that I had never felt before. It hadn’t been a particularly restful night, and I worried that I might have contracted something awful. Dengue and Malaria were still the scourge of the country and, having been a victim of dengue more than a year ago back home, I knew first-hand just how devastating it could be for me if I was indeed infected with it.
Not one to dwell prematurely on negative thoughts, I hauled myself out of bed and got ready to leave Luang Prabang. Today would be an 80 km ride to a mountain-top town called Kiewkacam and, from my notes, there would be a long and nasty hill waiting for me.
After a breakfast of Pho and coffee at my favourite shop, I stocked up on riding fuel — 2 freshly baked baguettes, one filled with cheese and salad, and the other, generously spread with chocolatey Nutella. Add to that an orange cake I had bought the night before and I was ready to take on the mountains today.
As always, the road was very agreeable as I left town; it was flat and easy, and as I started warming up, so did the day. Before long, the sun was beating down with fiery enthusiasm. 27 km later, at the townlet of Xiengnguen, the road started climbing — gently at first, then slowly but surely the incline began to inch upward — for a good 15 km.
Halfway up the first climb, I met Thomas and Renee from Germany going in the opposite direction. This was their first time in Asia and they were obviously a little inexperienced as can be seen from the heavy backpacks they were toting on their backs; not a common feature among cycle tourers, as they tend to add unnecessary weight on the arms.
Then, for 15 glorious kms, gravity took over and I rolled down the mountain, occasionally whooping with unbridled delight as I negotiated the bends. Traffic was very light, and the mountains were getting more splendid by the minute. Obviously, the anti-climax of heading skywards would be happening soon. When it hit, I consoled myself that this would be the last climb of the day … only 22 kms.
What a 22-km uphill ride it would turn out to be.
The mountains were getting bigger. It was a fine, wild landscape all around … green and craggy; with ridge after ridge mounting into the distance — for as far as the eye could see. Clouds drifted in huge masses above, drawing billowy veils across the sky. Here and there, great shafts of light broke through the clouds illuminating the peaks and valleys below with heavenly grandeur. All I could do was stop and draw in an appreciative breath, as another of God’s masterpiece unfurled itself in animated brush-strokes of shadow and light. I could feel such life in these majestic mountains.
The mountains would continue to get higher and higher, and the climbing continued without respite. I was actually winding my way from ridge to ridge, traversing the mountain tops. It was blazing hot when the clouds parted to let the sun through; and to compound it, I was riding with a slow wind that was blowing in the same direction I was heading. In effect, since I was moving at the same speed, it was windless. There was no luxurious cooling to be had from the drying of perspiration; and worse, I was hungry. I had already eaten my 2 baguettes and the orange cake, and I was now down to only water.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, the milestones indicated that Kiewkacam was near. And yet, it never stopped climbing, and I felt as if the ride would never end. I had been on the road for almost 11 hours. The sun was setting over the mountains, and the clouds were beginning to look angry. They were also heavily pregnant with rain and threateningly on the verge of discharging its contents. When I rolled into town, the temperature was falling rapidly and I could feel the chill in the wind that always preceded a thunderstorm.
I rode up to the first guest-house I saw — Kioukacham GH, run by sweet and ever-smiling Mrs Phonsovan, together with her daughter. Actually, there is no other guest-house here. So, when they said it was 50,000 Kip for a room, I just smiled and said ‘ok’.
Fortune was with me that day. I had just barely arrived and the skies opened with a vengeance and deluged Kiewkacam with big heavy drops of rain.
After the extremely refreshing bath, I headed for the cafe next door (also owned by the GH) for some serious carbo-loading. The rain had slowed to a drizzle but the whole town was smothered with a light mist which crept right into the cafe. The chilly wind was still blowing and I moved deeper into the cafe to get away from it. A big plate of piping hot fried rice with an extra egg on top never tasted so good. Even when washed down with cold beer, I could feel the warmth coming back to my weary body.
Dessert was a cup of hot Lao coffee after which, feeling more human again, I whiled away the evening in the quiet cafe updating my journal; not that there was anywhere to else to go. I retired early, and sleep came easy. It was cold, but snug in my sleeping bag under a thick comforter, with no raucous karaoke or the sound of engines to rent the air, it was the most restful night of the trip thus far.
Luang Prabang-Kiewkacam – 80km
Total ride time – 8 hrs
Total ascent – 1750m
Total descent – 705m
Max elevation – 1430m
Total distance to date – 845km