Pak Mong to Luang Prabang, living it up in a French provincial town. Days 14-15, Pt 1

The French province of Luang Prabang? Well, that could likely be your first impression when you venture into the heart of this alluring, and very French-influenced, town. The Frenchies may have left a long time ago, but their legacy is what keeps the till ringing with tourist dollars, especially in certain parts of Luang Prabang where pre-war French colonial buildings have been beautifully restored to their original glory. Add to that the ubiquitous baguette and coffee combo, and you have yourself a very charming destination. Even the weather is quite agreeable, when it’s not the monsoon season, that is.

I had just ridden 110 monotonous kilometres from Pak Mong where I had been the previous day. The only thing that broke the monotony of the gently undulating terrain which, thankfully, wasn’t as taxing, was the non-stop ‘sabaidees’ from Lao children along the entire route. I especially looked forward to the kids who would go out of their way (even crossing the road) to high-five with me.

Once I was within Luang Prabang, I couldn’t help being struck by the stark contrast between this town and the preceding ones (including the hovels that passed off as towns) I had passed through earlier. Luang Prabang was more affluent, more confident, and more lively — thanks to the huge number of tourists that have made this a ‘must-see’ destination.

The eastern view of Luang Prabang from atop Phu Si hill... entrance fee 20,000Kip

...and the western side of it from the same vantage point, with the Mekong in the background.

The stupa at the top of Phu Si hill

Overlooking the mighty Mekong, the formerly royal town of Luang Prabang is the pride of Laos; being a UNESCO World Heritage Site — and deservedly so, too. According to the World Heritage Committee, a recipient of this accolade must ‘represent a cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value’. In every aspect, it fulfilled the stringent selection requirements.

Take away the air-con compressors and unsightly wires and, voila, you're in France -- complete with sidewalk cafe.

A typical guest-house -- with signature French windows and doors

The affluence is especially evident in the vehicles you see on the road – from brand-new Mercs to the ultimate in immoderation: the petrol-guzzling Humvee. Although these were far and few in between, they were still obscene symbols of extravagance. Such disparity in living standards in a poor country like Laos is very disturbing; more so when you have seen the other more unfortunate end of the extreme, just as I had while pedalling through the country.

As usual, the first task on hand was to look for a decent guest-house. And there were many to choose from, I had a hard time picking one. As I wandered around looking for one, I’d thought maybe a guest-house with a view of the Mekong might be a good idea. But, a couple of cursory inquiries later, I thought better of it — USD25 to 50 a night didn’t exactly fit into my measly cycle-tourer’s budget.

In the end, I wandered into a more agreeable guest-house by chance, one that was decently priced and which offered a nicely appointed room. I decided to make it my base for the next 2 days.

Cosy, clean and big -- all for about USD12


Luang Prabang boasts a very vibrant night-life -- on the streets, that is. Everyday at dusk, the famous night-market rolls itself out for tourists, offering everything from trinkets to t-shirts...

... to exquisitely woven Lao cloths...

... to fortified rice wines. Take your pick of flavours -- scorpion, cobra, centipede, and other venomous reptiles. Check out the one of the cobra with a smaller snake in its mouth.

And what would a night-market be without the complementary food-stalls offering a colourful menu of inexpensive, delicious and yes, even grotesquely exotic array of food? Here, the food-stalls are located on a narrow lane off the road that hosts the night market. It’s crowded, it’s noisy, it’s hot and it’s a wonderful place to try out some local delicacies.

Meat features very prominently in the Lao diet; usually roasted or deep-fried

Sweet desserts are another must-try

Barbecued sweet sticky rice on a stick

Before buying any eggs, make sure you ask what it is, otherwise it could turn out to be a very nasty surprise when you crack it open to see half-formed chicks instead.

Meat sausage, blood sausage...take your pick

Nothing goes to waste as long as it's edible, except maybe feathers.

Poultry innards are just as popular

The day I arrived in Luang Prabang, it was Buddhist Lent and the temples were ablaze with the warm glow of countless oil lamps. Chanting was also in full swing, and at full volume, too… but strangely enough, it wasn’t jarring to the ears; it was actually quite soothing.

The mythical dragon seems to have a place in all Asian religions

A boat-like structure, adorned with numerous oil lamps, stood in the courtyard of one of the temples and provided endless fiery fun for some cheeky Lao boys.

Made out of banana trunks, this 'boat' was destined to float away on the Mekong...

...but not before these boys had their fill blowing out the lamps, relighting them, then blowing them out again.....

Next: Exploring Luang Prabang



Pak Mong-Luang Prabang – 110km

Total ride time – Just under 8hrs

Total ascent – 295m

Total descent – 355m

Max elevation – 410m

Total distance to date – 758km

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.