From Luang Prabang, we cycled north along the Nam Ou River to Nong Khiaw. After a couple rest days, we continued east to the more remote and mountainous Huah Phan Province and cycled through Sam Neua and Vieng Xai, to finally reach Nameo, the border with Vietnam.
With our Vietnamese visas in our passports, we were ready to leave Luang Prabang and experience more of Laos mountains. The road out of Luang Prabang lead us though rolling hills along the Nam Ou river to Nong Khiaw, our first stop. We enjoyed a couple of relaxing days in this cute little town, nestled along the riverbank of the Nam Ou and towered over by huge limestone cliffs. The old French bridge is the perfect spot to see the sun set over the mountains. One evening we hiked a couple of hours up a mountain viewpoint, which gave us equally breath taking views.
From there, we cycled through the mountainous Huah Phan province, which is apparently one of the least visited provinces in Laos. We really enjoyed the remoteness of this road and to be so far away from big tourist centres; one day we counted 15 cars on the road (while writing this we already experienced Vietnam and some roads in China, and I realise even more how peaceful that was!).
This province is also home to a handful of tigers that live in the Nam Et-Phou Louey national protected areas. The thought that we would cycle through their habitat really excited us, not that there was any chance of seeing one (which is probably a good thing!).
We also passed many tiny villages and had the chance to stay overnight in some of them. The village of Sop Huang was particularly interesting, as it is of the power grid. They produce their own electricity in the river (using bicycle wheels, which is enough to get a couple of hours of light in the evening. During this time women and schoolgirls eagerly went on with their silk weaving, each under their light bulb. When we were there the lights went off at 8.45pm.
After few days cycling along forested mountains, which are shrouded with morning mist, we made it to Sam Neua, the provincial capital. The market along the river was our highlight, a good opportunity to try out different breads, fried pastries and coconut rice steamed in bamboo. A short bike-ride along rice paddies (which are dry this time of the year) and limestone cliffs from there is Vieng Xai. This town hosts about 450 caves, which served as refuge for more than 20’000 people during the secret war, including the political headquarter of the communist party Pathet Lao. We took a tour to visit some of those war-shelter caves, which gave us a glimpse of how people lived through these 9 years of constant bombing.
Our Lao visa coming to an end, we continued our journey towards Nameo, the border with Vietnam, with mixed feelings – sad to leave Laos but also excited to discover a new country!
Nong Khiaw – view on the Nam Ou river
Local kids on their way to go fishing
Our home for a night
Morning break with Lao coffee and caramelized peanuts
Could be New Zealand
Cute little guesthouse in Sop Huang
Producing energy for the village
Feeling not so glorious in the afternoon heat after a few big hills
Since our last post, we cycled back to Thailand at the border of Ou Smack and went to Surin. From there, we caught a train to Nong Khai (border with Laos) and crossed the Thai-Laos friendship bridge to get to Vientiane. Then we cycled North along Hwy 13 to Luang Prabang in about 6 days, plus a couple rest days/ bike maintenance in Vang Vieng.
After 4 days in Siem Reap, we cycled back to Thailand. It took us a couple of days cycling, mostly on flat road with one little hill to get to the border of Ou Smach. The next day we cycled over the border and made our way to Surin, with an overnight stop in Prasat. As we were a bit pressed with time (we had to be in Hanoi by mid-March to meet with the family) and couldn’t wait to see the mountains of Laos, we decided to take a train from Surin to Nong Khai, which is close to the border with Laos, about 20 km south of Vientiane. The train ride itself was very entertaining, and we were amazed by the kindness of the people around us: everyone in our wagon had a hand in getting our numerous panniers and our bikes on and off the train!
The border crossing was super easy; we got stamped out of Thailand and were ready to put our bikes in one of the shuttle buses to get to the other side of the Mekong to the Lao border, as it is apparently forbidden to cycle or walk over the bridge. Or so we thought! Without expecting a positive answer we still asked a lady at the border control if we could cycle over the bridge, she looked like she couldn’t be bothered and just waved us to go through…and so we cycled the Thai-Laos friendship bridge! I was very excited about that!
The weather in Vientiane was average, and we got a few big thunderstorms while we were there. So we spend most of our time eating (a lot) and drinking – oh soo delicious – lao coffee, while mentally preparing for the big hills ahead of us. We were originally planning on getting our Vietnamese visa sorted while we were there, but found out that the embassy was closed for two weeks because of Tet (Vietnamese New Year). Fortunately, there is a Consulate in Luang Prabang, which would be open by the time we’d arrive there.
While in Vientiane, we also visited the COPE centre where they show lots interesting documentaries about the secret war (1964-1973) and how people of Laos still have to deal with the consequences of this war. Laos was the most bombed country and about a third of the estimated 260 mio “bombies” (from cluster bombs) failed to explode. And since they are contaminating large surfaces of the country and more than 10’000 people have been either killed or severely injured by those UXO (unexploded ordnance). COPE is an organisation providing essential support, artificial limbs and rehabilitation to those victims and families, and they also provide training programs for local staff. (Go check it out, their work is quite cool – www.copelaos.org).
The road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang was definitely a big highlight for us and made us fall in love with Laos. These few days cycling were also a good first challenge, especially given the heat (close to 40°C in the afternoon) as there we were a few >1000m climbs. But the cheering of the kids along the way, numerous smiles, sabaidee’s and high-fives we received, and of course the amazing landscapes were a great reward for all the hard work!
The first couple of days cycling were along rolling hills until we could spot the limestone cliffs surrounding Vang Vieng, a little town known mostly for its party scene. It came as a bit of a shock for us compared to the rural areas we just cycled through (and apparently it is much quieter than it used to be since the government shut down most of the bars along the river in 2012. It must have been madness before!) There was also a funny contrast between the drunk young westerners and large families from China spending their New Year’s holiday in Laos. The scenery though was incredible, we could have stayed there for days, sitting by the river and watching the sun rise and set.
After a couple of rest days visiting caves and eating greasy sandwiches, we cycled onwards through a narrow valley bordered by large limestone cliffs. We passed a Yao village, which is one of many ethnic minorities living in Laos, and there was a quite interesting marked with monkey meat, deer skulls and other things in big jars (not sure what it was…and not sure I want to know). Then we got into more serious hills… We passed some Hmong villages, another ethnic minority group living in the mountains, with women wearing very colourful skirts and head scarves, and greeting us with a cheerful “Sabaidee” in different tones of voice (but also the occasional grunt…). We also passed many traditional stilt houses, the shady area beneath the house used for storage, and where dogs, poultry, pigs, cows etc. were freely running around.
Along the way we treated ourselves with many iced coffees (served in little plastic bags), and other coloured drinks sold along the road. We tried a few different colours, still not quite sure what it really is (we could taste some green tea and soy milk perhaps), but they all had a lot of sugar which was exactly what we needed to keep pedalling!
Luang Prabang was a great place to rest as it is a very chilled out little city. For us it was also all about food. Outside the bigger towns, all we could find was noodle soup, eggs and sticky rice…well for vegetarians it is sticky rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner with the occasional omelette. So we had a lot to catch up! In Luang Prabang, we found many food stalls with large buffets, where you could fill up your plate for only 10.000-15.000 kip, and, of course, there were the many yummy French pastries as well.