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.

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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….

Dien Bien Phu to Moung May; crossing into Laos. Day 10

After 347 km, a major portion of which was spent in the mountains, my legs were begging for a full day of rest. But besides the remnants of a battleground, Dien Bien had nothing else to offer. If I were French and my father, or grandfather, had been in the thick of the battle, it might have been different altogether. But I was not and I was more anxious to see Laos instead.

And so, taking the advice of the guest-house owner who confidently told me that it was flat all 37 km of the way to the border crossing at Tay Trang, I decided to take a chance and go for it. And I was really taking a chance, as the information I had on the Laos side was quite sketchy. I wasn’t even sure about the exact distance to the first town in Laos once I crossed the border. But the spirit of travel and adventure is such; the lure was too strong; and so, even though I wasn’t fully rested, I left Dien Bien for Laos.

The predictable scenery around Dien Bien continued to roll itself out as I cycled on in a straight line out of the city. Golden fields of ripe padi looked even more golden in the bright sunshine, while some squares were refreshingly green in their immaturity. Bicycles carrying all manner of goods and little children filled the road, hurrying to their destinations, as did the motorcycles.

Threshing padi by hand

Sickles in hand, Vietnamese young and old were busy harvesting padi, bent over in back-breaking pose; some of them in long rubber boots, and some of them looking a little too well-dressed for such menial tasks.  A closer look revealed the reason — they were in their 9-to-5 work-clothes, mostly uniforms, and they were obviously obliged to contribute to the family farm before going to work.

Just out of town, I stopped at a little Pho shop for breakfast. It was the kind of shop that appealed to me when I’m on the road — only locals. Here, the patrons all looked battle-hardened; most of them tanned, with coarse hands  and leathery skin, and dressed in clean but well-worn and faded clothes. a typical picture of an agrarian society.

The husband-and-wife team who ran the shop along with their daughter were very friendly. Usually, the less contact they have with tourists, the more friendly and honest they are; and these folks were no different, even taking time out to chat with me, asking me the usual questions. Of course, I don’t usually pay tourist rates in places like this.

The friendly couple who ran the Pho shop outside Dien Bien. The wife was shy about having her picture taken.

It's always steaming hot when it comes to Pho, and this version was one of the best I had tasted in Vietnam.

It was a real luxury cycling on the flat road leading out of Dien Bien. I figured I would be in Tay Trang in 3, maybe 4 hrs. I didn’t stock up on any food and only carried a 1.5 litre bottle of water, plus whatever was already in the bottle on the bike. It was after all, only 37 km, and international border crossings were normally busy places, which meant there would be food and drink.

Pancake flat, and only 31 km left.

I was wrong. On all accounts.

I had been suckered yet again. I guess the old adage about being bitten once wasn’t true after all. In my case, it was twice bitten, thrice shy.

At exactly 17 km out of Dien Bien Phu, where a huge cement plant was located, the road started climbing, albeit gently … at first. Then it climbed, and climbed, and climbed. What’s more, there were many 10% gradient sections as well.

Note: If I ever visit Dien Bien Phu again, history will record another great battle  — The Battle of Dien Bien Phu’s Guest-house Owner Versus The Malaysian Cycle-tourer. And the Malaysian would win too, no doubt about it.

Now I knew what he had meant when he gestured ‘flat all the way’. He meant until the road started climbing upwards, wherever that point was. How typically Vietnamese.

Well, nothing to do about it then. Just keep pedalling and hope it ends soon. It never did, of course. I was to climb all of 20 exhausting kms. At one point, when it hit one of the 10% gradient sections, I decided to walk and push the bike instead. I looked at the speedometer and it was registering the same speed as when I was just pedalling.

There was no song in my heart today.

All this while, it seemed like I was the only person using this road; no cars, no trucks, no motorcycles. There were a few farms here and there but not many farmers to be seen. It was too quiet for my liking. Could I be on the right road? According to my GPS, I was. The Tay Trang waypoint was ahead, and even the milestones indicated as such.

Finally, after I had almost run out of water, feeling totally exhausted and extremely hungry, I came upon a grand building at the top of a peak. It was the Vietnamese checkpoint at Tay Trang. But, curiouser and curiouser … there wasn’t a single soul around. Now I’m really spooked.

Nasty surprise #2 -- there were no humans and no food stalls; the Vietnamese checkpoint was deserted.

See you again?...not likely.

Then I noticed a sign on the side of the building that pointed down the empty road – ‘Tay Trang checkpoint’. Now, why would they do that? So I pushed on. Less than a km away, an old yellow building, and an arch that was unmistakeably the Vietnamese/Laos border crossing, came into view. The whole place was empty save for a Vietnamese immigration officer walking across the road to another smaller, official-looking building. He gestured for me to go in there, obviously to do the paperwork.

I was the only customer that afternoon, and it only took a couple of minutes to write my details into a big ledger; and then, a solid thump later, my passport was stamped and my sojourn in Vietnam was officially over.

A lone cow welcomed me to Laos as I walked my bike across the border. I ‘walked’ because the Vietnamese border guards insisted on it. Weird…what about cars, then? Do they have to push it across?

Nasty surprise #3 of the day. The beautifully sealed Vietnamese road came to an abrupt end at the arch, and a cross-country mountain biking trail took over.

2 km of easy downhill later, the official Souphone Laos checkpoint appeared. It was barely 3 months old when I arrived in October 08; impressive, too, given the condition of the road that led up to it.

As I cruised into the equally empty compound of the Laos checkpoint, I was met by a young man in shorts and T-shirt. He spoke reasonably good English and turned out to be an immigration officer. He asked if I needed a visa.  I said “No, I’m Malaysian … ASEAN”.

Working life seems to be very easy here. I asked where I could get water, not really hoping for anything more than that, and he pointed to a small hut just outside the compound. “There’s a woman there. She can’t speak English but you can buy food and water from her”, he added. I was elated…food at last. The mystery of the deserted Vietnamese building was also solved when he explained to me that eventually the Vietnamese will use the new building. At the moment they had taken over the old Laos checkpoint where I had just crossed 2 km ago.

Cafe Checkpoint Laos. The chap repairing a tyre tube is the immigration officer.

The owner was sleeping when I came knocking. After my new Lao-government friend translated my lunch requirements, she got down to work getting ready my instant noodles with an extra egg.

The dining area of the unpretentious cafe...

and, a few feet away, the proprietor's bed.

After lunch, and armed with new information on my next destination, I set off for Moung May about 25 km away. The good news — it’s all downhill and flat to Moung May. The bad news — it was more of the same cross-country trail I had just biked through. Some how I believed my new friend. However, the only thing he didn’t describe to me in detail was the condition of the road. Until now, I had only seen one other vehicle going the other way – a Toyota Hilux. Well, I was going to find out very, very soon.

The road was like this all the way downhill. With panniers and a handlebar bag, I couldn't let go of the brakes and enjoy the downhill...very frustrating.

Then it flattened out, and it started getting a little rutty and muddy.

Then a river appeared, with a flimsy bamboo bridge clearly meant for 2-wheelers and 2-legged creatures. Anything else with 4 wheels had no choice but to drive across the river. Now, I understand why there were so few vehicles on this road...

... this was 4-wheel drive country! Not for bicycles with panniers and slicks! And, worse, this was just mudpool #1...

It got muddier and muddier, and harder and harder to cross. At one mudpool, I had to unload the panniers, carry them across to dry ground, then came back for the bike. After this pic was taken, I fell into the mud while pushing my bike across the next one.

Adventure, yes. Endless mudpools, no. This wasn’t what I had in mind. I was feeling quite defeated by the time I crossed the 5th mudpool. According to the cyclocomputer, there was about 15 km more to go, and if it was dotted with rutted mudpools, I was done for. There was simply no way I could keep pushing a fully-loaded bike across them. I was very tired, hungry again, and I was at my wits end. There was only one thing left to do — pray.

Help came in the form of a trio of Chinese engineers who were building a small bridge across the river. At first I didn’t know they were Chinese and I tried to ask for help getting to Moung May. It was no use. I couldn’t understand Lao and he couldn’t speak English. Then, after a frustrating exchange, he blurted out in Mandarin. Suddenly, my very limited vocabulary of Mandarin came into play. “Ah, ni shi chung kuo ren?” Hey, I’m Chinese too! In the end, we managed to arrive at some kind of solution.

They had a truck which would be passing this way again on the way back to Moung May and I could hitch a ride on it. Perfect. What more could I ask for? I was done riding, and pushing, through mud for the day. While we waited for the truck, there was nothing to do except chat with the 3 Chinese gentlemen…and what a conversation we had. They were downright friendly. They were also finished for the day ( it was that late) which meant they could afford to chill out and engage in friendly banter as well. I’m very sure I have never spoken as much Mandarin in my life as I did that day. And those who know me know how limited my Mandarin is. But we all seemed to hit it off and had a great conversation. At the end, they knew where I came from, how much I paid for my air-ticket, how much my bike cost, how a GPS works, how many children I had and how old they were, and on and on and on.

But the one thing that really surprised them was when I told them that my ancestors came from Fujian, China. Suddenly, we were friends for life. They even treated me to some sugarcane, and later, a steamed dumpling, which they were having for dinner. One of them insisted I had one. The freshly-steamed dumpling was plain with no fillings, but it was tasty.

Chinese blood brother #1

Chinese blood brother #2

As the sun began to disappear into the horizon, the truck finally came. It carried a full load of river sand, about 8 Lao workers, and many large pieces of dried wood. In Lao, dried wood is like gold. It’s the only cooking fuel they can afford. Gas is only available in the cities.

Darkness settled over us very quickly and after they unloaded the sand and re-loaded the firewood, everyone was ready to go, including me and bike. My new-found Chinese friend told the driver, a compatriot of theirs, to send me to Moung May’s guest-house and, for good measure, he reiterated that my ancestors were from Fujian, China. Well, that sealed it for him, too — no letting down our own countrymen here. We set off for Muong May. Incredibly, the truck had no working headlights but the Chinese driver could actually see where he was going.

A few more rutted mudpools and several kms later, the truck stopped at a junction. The driver got down and told this me this was it, and that Moung May was just a little way ahead. I loaded up my panniers, fixed my trusty Cateye to my helmet and I made my way to town. It was pitch dark, but I could see clearly with the help of my light.

As I passed a few dimly-lit houses, I stopped to ask a Lao man where the guest-house was. He pointed down the road and I continued, reassured. And then, I came upon it, a large, brightly-lit bungalow with a sign that proclaimed it to be Amphon Guest House. The perimeter was all lighted up, too, and it was quite surreal; a gaudy structure among the ramshackle shanties that made up Moung May.

(pic taken the next day) Main street, Moung May. It looked more like a slum to me.

Hotel Amphon, the sore thumb in the midst of Moung May's squalid hovels

I heaved a huge sigh of relief as I cycled into the courtyard of the guest-house. The owner, who was sitting outside drinking tea, got up immediately to greet me when he saw me coming in, covered in black mud, and totally exhausted. He helped me with my panniers and, without another word led me to my room.

The dinner of sticky rice with boiled bamboo shoots and vegetable soup in a cafe by the river never tasted so good. Tomorrow was going to be a full rest day; waking up whenever I felt like it. It was a blissful feeling and I didn’t quite notice the black-out that occurred at 10pm just as I was drifting off…

Next: Idling in idyllic Moung May

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RIDE STATS:
Dien Bien Phu to Muong May, Laos – 65km
Total ascent -830m
Total descent – 895m
Max elevation – 1170m
Total distance to date – 412km

Dien Bien to Tay Trang,  international border crossing Vietnam- 37km (17km flat, then steep uphill all the way to Tay Trang)
Tay Trang to Souphone checkpoint (Laos border crossing) – 2km
Souphone to Moung May – 26km, downhill and flat, country road, 1 river crossing, many mudpools (especially after rains, no problem in dry weather), rough and bumpy on many stretches.