Vang Vieng to Vientiene; at tour’s end. Day 19

If you love Cha-Cha, you’d definitely love it here in Laos. Cha-Cha, as the dance, that is. That’s because Laotion pop music seems to be permanently composed in that groove. Catchy as it may be, after a while, it gets under your skin. Which was precisely what happened last night.  I had gone to bed early in the hope that I would wake up fresh as a daisy the next morning to tackle the 150 km to Vientiane. But it was not to be, thanks to some local Karaoke enthusiasts nearby who were going great guns at it until well after midnight.

Cha-cha-cha, cha-cha-cha…..aargh!

As expected, Peter was too sloshed to join me the next day. He had slipped a note under my door in the middle of the night saying something to that effect. Well, regardless, I was still going to Vientiane, and it would be my last day of serious cycling here.

Another thing about Vang Vieng; the town generally stirs to life well past sun-up. I found that out when I got ready to pay and leave at around 6am. There wasn’t a single soul manning the GH. They were all still fast asleep! These people are simply too trusting.

Finally, after knocking on some doors, a sleepy-head appeared and I managed to settle my bill. Then, after a quick meal of rice porridge at a stall down the road, I was off to Vientiane. It was 7am. The road was empty of traffic and the morning was cool, but I knew it was going to be a long, hot day of riding ahead …

Out of  Vang Vieng, the road is gently undulating except for some bad patches similar to the ones I encountered before Vang Vieng.

Roadside entertainment -- 3 little clowns on a baby buffalo

Just before Phon Hong, about 40 km away, another cycle-tourer appeared at my side. And, as coincidence would have it, he was another Kiwi who was also riding a Surly LHT, just like Peter. Andrew, that was his name,  was heading towards to Vientiane and was due to be in Bangkok in a week. He had started in Japan 8 months ago. Well, finally, I had somebody to talk to on the road. But, to my dismay, it wasn’t for long …

Andrew from NZ...8 months on the road and still counting

Andrew was fully loaded and he estimated his total weight to be about 40-something kgs, what with front and back panniers, a tent, a full-sized Thermarest and a real bad-ass bike lock that was about 6 feet long. Even so, he had started an hour later than me in Vang Vieng and had caught up with me before the halfway point.

After a quick stop at Phon Hong, we set off together and as it was still undulating, I was finding it hard keeping up with him. First, his heavy weight made roll him down the declines at twice my speed. Secondly, I was unable to shift to the biggest gears to pedal at higher speed. I had lost 3 of them in my crash riding from Oudomxai to Pak Mong.

The only picture of me on the road, thanks to Andrew.

Pretty soon, Andrew was totally out of sight, and I was all alone again. The good thing was, it was really easy going now — the elevation was permanently at zero degrees.

This little piggie went to market ... At one stretch, I was following behind this vehicle and the weirdest thoughts crossed my mind -- what does a pig's fart sound like? and would it smell as bad as a human's? ... Such were the deranged ramblings of a cyclist who was in the sun for too long...

By this time, my legs were weary, my butt so sore I had to stand up every few km to ease the pain, and worse; the road was hot, dusty and heavy with traffic — expectedly so, as one gets closer to the capital. Along the way, I stopped at the slightest excuse — a Magnolia ice-cream vendor cheered and charged me up with a cold sundae. A stall manned by 3 giggly girls selling roasted bananas was equally welcome. And so it went on …

Arc de Triomphe ... not. Vientiane's most endearing French-influenced structure called the Patuxay Monument. In 1968, the Lao govt was given the funds to build an airport but decided that this monstrosity was more worthwhile instead.

Finally, at dusk, I rolled into Vientiane. It was almost 6pm and I had been on the road for 11 hours. I made my way to the backpacker district, checked into the first decent-looking hotel and luxuriated in the cool air-conditioning of the room.

It was a strange feeling that came over me. The end of a long tour (well, it was  long tour for me); almost 1,200 kms, and alone on the road for almost 3 weeks. Even though a part of me was glad to be able to go home to my wife and kids, I felt a strange sense of emptiness. It was only for a fleeting moment as I sat there in the hotel room peeling off my dirty clothes, socks and shoes.

As I looked into the mirror, the person that stared back at me was almost unrecognizable. Hair disheveled and badly in need of a trim, face tanned as never before and cheeks a little sunken. I guess it was a feeling that came with the end of every bike tour – when purpose is achieved, and knowing that tomorrow I would not be on the road again, looking forward to the next destination, and seeing everything with new eyes ….

Tomorrow, and the day after, I plan to chill-out big time — eat, drink, see the town and just be lazy.

Next: Checking out Vientiane



Vang Vieng to Vientiane — 154km

Total ride time -11hrs

Total ascent –

Total descent –

Total distance to date – 1162km

Ride description:

Relatively flat and easy out of VV, gently undulating hills until after Phon Hong, after which is flat and straight all the way to Vientiane. Plenty of traffic.

Kasi to Vang Vieng; unhappy in a happy town. Day 18

Bor Nam Oon offered nothing in the way of distractions other than the hotspring. So, with nothing to do, or see, at night, I was off to bed early after dinner. And with only 2 cafes there, you don’t have much of a choice either. Fortunately, I had company for dinner — 2 college boys on their customary see-the-world-after-graduating holiday. They were on motorbikes hired in Vientiane and were due to return the bikes the next day.

Bor Nam Oon is a lovely place to wake up in. Although it’s next to the main road, there wasn’t much traffic at night to wake me up. It wasn’t as cold as Kiewkacam but it was cool enough to ensure a good night’s rest.

The karst mountains near the resort.

The road to Kasi, about 20 km away, was a quiet one. At that hour, I was the only person on the road. A few km after Bor Nam Oon, my reverie was disrupted by the sight of a couple of cyclists heading towards me. As with all cyclo-tourists who shared a common bond, they waved excitedly and I could see that this was a very friendly couple … so friendly in fact, that they crossed the road to meet me before I could do the same.

Pius and Margrit Jorger, cycling into retirement.

Pius and Margrit Jorger are a couple in their late fifties who are cycling into retirement. When I met them, they had just broken camp a few km down the road in some Lao farmer’s backyard. They were as seasoned-looking as their panniers and bikes and were totally at ease and unhurried in their demeanor…. Continue reading

Kiewkacam to Kasi, cooling off at Bor Nam Oon hotspring, Day 17.

I woke up early today. It was a chilly morning.  At 5.30am, the skies were just beginning to flicker into life, and as I breathed in the cold mountain air, it had that unmistakable freshness that just seemed to just open up your lungs when you draw it in deeply. But one thing was for sure …

I wasn’t taking a bath this morning.

As I made my way to the cafe next door for breakfast, Kiewkacam was still smothered with a thick mist but it was beginning to clear as the sun’s life-giving rays warmed the mountain tops. The town was slowly stirring to life, and as I sat there eating my steaming hot Pho, I saw a rather comical sight across the street… Continue reading

Luang Prabang to Kiewkacham; up, up and … up some more. Day 16

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. Continue reading

Living it up in Luang Prabang. Days 14-15, Pt 2

Undoubtedly, being awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO does gives a destination a very big plus point. With recoqnition comes fame, followed by fortune in the form of tourist dollars. Unlike so many cities that suffer the inevitable decline into more glitz and kitzch than the tourist can handle, the likes of Luang Prabang will, hopefully, stay the same, thanks to the strict guidelines that UNESCO insists upon.
And so, with thoughts of enjoying this lovely town, I took an extra day off and roamed the streets soaking in the rich culture and heritage that it had to offer. Of course, there was no better way to start the day than with an excellent local breakfast ….

Breakfast Pho -- clear tasty soup with strips of tender pork garnished with crunchy bean sprouts, spring onions and pungent coriander leaves, accompanied by...

...sweet, thick Lao coffee. Quite often, coffee came with a complimentary glass of light but flavoursome Lao tea, possibly to balance the strong taste of the coffee.

This nice lady ran the shop I had breakfast at on both days I was here. It's just a few doors away from the tourist information office, and opposite the day-market. One of the boys who was playing with the oil lamps at the temple the night before turned out to be her son; I recoqnised his mischievous face as he was getting on his bike to go to school.


The tourist belt of Luang Prabang -- guest-houses, shops, Internet cafes, laundry and more

An obviously French remnant of Laos' colonial past in excellent running condition.

As far as Buddhist temples are concerned, it’s a been-there-done-that thing for me, having seen my fair share of them across Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.  Still, I did a quick tour of a few that were located in town. Monks were, of course, a common sight and they are much revered. Every morning at dawn the faithful laity would wait reverently for the monks to come by, earning for themselves valuable karma in their present life.

But today was different. It was the Buddhist Lent, a kind of celebration after the rains, and the town was in a celebratory mood…

Brightly coloured flowers were sold everywhere on the streets; to be used as offerings no doubt.

Patiently waiting for the monks. Patience is a virtue that seems to be prevalent among Buddhists in these parts of the world, unlike the Vietnamese who worshipped mainly Chinese gods.


The saffron parade making its way across town.


One of them seems to have a disdain for the rice that was being served

This was a scene outside of town. Monks, as far as I know, weren't supposed to desire anything worldly, let alone money. I had no idea what this bed-like structure was all about. I suspect it was used for the faithful to show their faith.


A little later, they took the whole thing apart, and of course, the money.

Even monks chill ... with a ciggie. no less.

One of the many Buddhas residing in serene splendour on Phu Si hill.


A elaborate paper boat waits to be launched into the Mekong that night.

A beautful example of Lao temples. This one was an elaborate work of golden art.

This temple, the name of which I can't recall, is very old, and wasn't as fancy as the modern ones.

Besides Buddhist attractions, Luang Prabang has its fair share of oddities, like this one: located inside the grounds of a museum, these petrol pumps stood forlorn against the greenery that surrounded them.

And the popular potent brews of deadly reptiles that never ceased to amaze me. Unlike the ones in the night market which sold whole bottles of the stuff, this stall located on the banks of the river offered to cheer you up for only 5,000 Kip per shot.

That afternoon, I decided to contribute a little more to the tourism industry. I had read about the cave of a thousand buddhas and I was fascinated. It was called Pak Ou caves and it was located about 20km out of town, half of it on a rutted country road. Earlier, I had also bumped into 2 fellow Malaysians and we all decided that it might be fun to check this place out. After some typically Malaysian-style bargaining, we headed out to the caves on a tuk-tuk, or 3-wheeled taxi.

After a bumpy, bone-shaker of a ride, we arrived at the village facing the caves on the other side of the Mekong. To get across, one had to hire a boat.

It wasn't often that I was on the other end of the camera. This was shot by my Malaysian friends as we were crossing the river to Pak Ou.

The entrance to Pak Ou caves

Just as I had feared, it turned out to be an over-hyped attraction and, in my book, a tourist trap. The entry fee was 20,000 Kip, and together with the tuk-tuk's 180,000 Kip which was shared among the 3 of us, and the additional 10,000 KIp each to cross the river, I didn't feel it was worth it. It was nothing more than a cave filled with retired Budhha idols. The story behind it was fascinating, but then again it would still be as fascinating just reading about it.

... I guess I was just a little bored with one Buddha idol too many.

Next: A long ride up into the mountains of Kiewkacam

Moung May to Oudomxai, 140km without breaking a sweat. Day 12

After a totally apathetic day in mellow Muong May — I was raring to go again. I had done nothing but eat, sleep, eat some more, and had hung out at the riverside cafe the whole afternoon (not that there was anywhere else I could go).

There really is something wonderfully sedative about the effects of a flowing river. The more you unwind, the more you want to unwind; and you’re constantly sighing with gratified satisfaction. Honestly, the cliche about not having a care in the world held true for me.

The morning before, I had chatted with the Thai cyclists and they had given me a grim report of the road conditions that lay ahead; for me, that is. It wasn’t very encouraging — plenty of landslides, some of which were being cleared when they were riding through. I decided then that I wasn’t going to take any chances with this particular leg of the ride to Oudomxai. As well, the 40km to Muong Khua was still 4×4 country. So thanks, but no thanks.

The obvious solution would have been to find some kind of public transport to Muong Khua, and I found out from the guest-house boss that there was indeed one that went to Muong Khua daily.The man who ran this service happened to live just opposite the guest-house. The ‘bus’ turned out to be a converted lorry, fitted out to carry as any as 30 people with its long benches; but in third world countries, there’s no stopping them from packing in twice as many people, as long as there is empty space to accommodate the skinny bodies.

As luck would have it, the boss-man said he was going to Oudomxai the next day and that I could hitch a ride with him if I wanted to. Hallelujah! You bet I would. I was very quick to take him up on his offer. So, today, me and my bike take another break, with me sitting pretty in air-conditioned comfort all the  way to Oudomxai, 140km away.

The Oudomxai Express...all loaded and ready to go, with 6 passengers in total, including me. I felt bad for the husband of one of the passengers who had to sit in the cargo bed.

The boss. Note the US dollars tied up in rolls on the steering wheel. The glove compartment was also filled to the brim with Lao Kips. I guess it was time to visit the bank in Oudomxai.

At Muong Khua, which sits on the banks of Nam Ou (or River Ou), the only way across is by taking one of these longboat ferries. I found out that if one wanted to, one could take a long-distance boat all the way to Luang Prabang from here.

Vehicles, however, had to use the vehicular ferry. It was actually nothing more than a floating pontoon, pushed along by a tugboat of sorts (on the left)

Waiting for the ferry to fill up.

The next customer was a truck, but it was not the driver's day because as he was reversing into the ferry, the rear of the truck blundered into the soft riverbank and was well and truly stuck; 2 rear wheels almost fully immersed, and the front left wheel already half sunk. It was blazing hot by now and it didn't look good for him.

I counted no less than a dozen 'helpers', all trying to extricate the hapless lorry. In the end, and after waiting some 15 minutes, the ferry had no choice but to carry us across first.

Just as the Thais had warned us about, there were landslides aplenty. Fortunately, most of it had been cleared. In fact, I counted one every few hundred metres or so.

The river had risen to as high as 20-30 ft during the heavy rains. I saw the remains of many houses which once stood by the river banks.

The devastating rains must have swollen up the river very badly. I could see the riverbanks all red with Nam Ou's mud.

After Muong Khua, the road is actually sealed but thanks to the heavy rains in past weeks, it was a muddy drive. It was here at this junction that Boss decided to stop for lunch.

There wasn't a single day on the road that I didn't come across a pig. No different today.

There wasn't a whole lot of choices for lunch.

We settled for boiled bamboo shoots and sticky rice, as well as barbecued fish and even some grubs that the other passengers bought and shared.

My fellow passengers. The man in the cap sat, and even dozed off at times, in the back of the truck throughout the journey.

Next to where we were sitting, a pair of goat's feet hung in posthumous ignominy...possibly a delicacy or more likely, an ingredient for some traditional cure.

At Oudomxai, which is a biggish town, I didn’t have to agonise over which guest-house I should stay in. The Boss had already mentioned that his base there was actually a guest-house. So, in a reciprocal gesture, I stayed there for the night. It was nothing like his Amphon Hotel in Moung May, though — the room was smaller and older, but happily, it had cable TV, which would provide me with some mindless distraction to help while away the night, seeing as I had already finished reading the 2 Robert Louis Stevenson books I had brought along — The Black Arrow (which was a 2nd reading actually, after many years), and Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, his first travel book which detailed his 120-mile solo journey on foot through south-central France with a donkey as his travel partner, and pack carrier. It’s a fascinating book which I highly recommend. Apparently, people literally follow in his footsteps today, retracing the path that he took more than a century ago.

After tonight, I will be fully-rested, and I will be very eager to continue my ride. Tomorrow, I head for Pak Mong, a mere 85 undulating kms away.

Idling in idyllic Moung May, Laos. Day 11

Waking up in a soft, clean bed, with not a hint of cacophonous honking in the background that was so typical of Vietnam, and the soft cooing of pigeons from a coop just behind the guesthouse … this was a few degrees short of heavenly bliss, and more so when my legs had just about reached their limits.

I didn’t care what the time was; it was early and the sun had just risen — and I wasn’t going anywhere today. By this time into the tour, my body had already  adjusted itself to waking up early; but today, I had the luxury of languishing in bed without having to think about packing up and getting ready to hit the road before it got too hot.

Nothing soothes tired a body more than a good night’s rest. Never mind that Moung May’s electricity supply only came on from 6pm to 10pm (Moung May was that rustic). While the power was flowing, Amphon guest-house was a like beacon in the night. No other property could compare with it in terms of the number of lights it had blazing. It was undoubtedly the pride of the town.

Muong May’s remoteness also ensured that the temperature was very agreeable when the sun sets. So, even when the power had gone off and there was no fan to keep the air moving, it still made for a comfortable night.

Eventually, hunger (you’re almost always hungry when you’re cycle-touring) forced me out of bed. As I walked out into the dusty street, the sun had just risen over the horizon although it was hiding behind the clouds. The air was cool and a light mist was slowly dissipating over the town. Some of the townspeople, small baskets in hand filled toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and towels; were on their way to the river to carry out their morning rituals.

After a not-so-hearty breakfast of Pho (what else), I went about exploring this little 2-street hamlet. The main street led to the river where one had to cross to continue one’s way to the next town. Some of the houses were decrepit and ramshackle, and some were a little better off, especially those engaging in some form of trade.

Early morning in Moung May…cool, misty, and peaceful.

Main street, Moung May. Amphon GH is on the left. The road continues on, a short distance away towards…

… a junction leading to the market, and about 150 metres straight ahead is the river.

Ahead the road ends in the river, and across was the road continued towards Muong Khua, the next town about 40km away.

My favourite hangout in Moung May was the cafe on stilts at the end of the road next to the river.

The best place to watch Moung May unfold. I lounged here for hours reading, or doing nothing, but always, my camera was ready…

when little kids came to frolick in the shallow river…

or when vehicles crossed the river. There weren’t many. It was also the only way for 4-wheelers to get into, and out of, town. This Chinese-made truck was similar to the one I hitched a ride on the day before.

Other interesting sights soon glided into view…like this fellow who had cleverly lashed bamboo poles together and floated downriver to his house, located just to his right on the bank, behind the bamboo fence.

And then there were little fishermen. In these parts of the world, as soon as you were able, you had to do your share of putting food on the table. This boy of about 12 years, carried himself with such a determined and confident manner, you knew he wasn’t doing this for fun.

The footbridge (also for motorbikes) a little downstream from where cars crossed the river.

Almost all the townsfolk did their washing as well as bathing al fresco.

Once, I happened to walk by the same washing place and saw a girl cleaning something that looked suspiciously like a rat…

IT WAS. I couldn’t imagine what it tastes like. One thing was for sure — I wasn’t going to be caught accidentally eating a rodent.

At the bridge crossing the river — these 2 girls were on their way home after washing in the river, but stopped in their tracks when they saw me with my camera.

A popular spot for washing clothes. Cars would cross the river precariously near them

Moung May’s police station, open only in the morning.

One of Moung May’s many convenience stores.

Kitchen ware, hardware, tyres …

The night before, as I was checking in, I had noticed a dozen or so mountain bikes in the courtyard and thought they must be cycle-tourers as well. I was too tired to find out then and I decided to talk to them in the morning instead. It turned out they were Thais and were following the exact route I had taken, in reverse, and going all the way to Hanoi.

These bunch of friendly matured guys were doing it a little differently from me — they didn’t carry their stuff with them; they would instead hire someone to take them ahead to the next town. In this case, they hired the guest-house boss and his Hilux to transport their stuff to Dien Bien Phu. And they would do the same again for the Dien Bien-Moung Lay leg. I though it was a pretty nifty idea.

The Thai riders who called themselves simply ‘The Gang’.

The oldest member of the group was 76 years old! More power to him!

Next: 140 km to Oudomxai without pedalling a single stroke….