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.