Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A Crumpled Piece of Paper: Cycling & Rivers in Northern Laos & Vietnam


- Entered Laos at Huay Xai, from northern Thailand and caught the slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang.
- Cycled south to Vang Vieng (almost died of heat exhaustion), caught a bus back to Luang Prabang
- Cycled north to Nong Khoia and got a river boat upstream to Mgong Khua
- Cycled across the border to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam. Caught a bus to Lai Chau and biked the final stretch to Sapa, and Lao Cai (incl. a small backroad which cut out a big hill.)

- Train to Hanoi
- Next steps: South via train and bus towards Northern Cambodia

 ***** See "We Love Maps" Tab for our route (still to be edited properly)

Stunning Laos landscapes

Its 10pm, late for the cycle touring routine and the karaoke bar next door is thumping away, packed to the rafters, with the music blasting out across the quiet valley. Despite the ear plugs, sleep is not coming easily.

We're in Muang Khua, our last night in Laos and looking forward to the ride over the hills to Vietnam tomorrow. Little do we know, there's one more Laos adventure to come....

1am. Andy wakes up to see a Lao man in our room, flicking a lighter for light…naturally he starts yelling Oi! Oi! Oi! I wake up, thinking Andy is in the midst of an epic nightmare. ...then i see the man too. EEEEEK! He turned on our light and started trying to communicate something to us in Lao - which of course we couldn't understand. Fire? Flood? Evacuation? Nothing was making sense and finally we took him downstairs to find no-one else awake, Eventually he just got on his motorbike and left. Odd!!! We still have no idea what he was after or what the heck he was doing in our room! It left us somewhat unsettled, and rather thankful he didn’t have a knife or wasn’t the thieving type!

10 days earlier: We entered Laos at Huay Xai in the northwest, after a lovely night with Tian and Nisa (Warm Showers hosts) on the banks of the Mekong River on the Thailand side. It was such a treat having an incredible array of local food to try, a little welcome sign out the front of their house and company biking to the border the following morning.

A very special night!

Frustratingly, you have to load your bike into a bus for the 200m trip across the bridge, which acts as the border into Laos - such a pain in the butt! Once we were officially in Laos, we joined throngs of other travelers on a slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. Despite our general avoidance of mass tourism, this was a really cool way to get a sense of life on the river - such a dynamic, huge and powerful body of water snaking its way through the mountains. ** Mekong inspired poetry at the bottom!

The bikes loaded and ready to go - just waiting for the 70 other people to arrive!

These boats cruise the river carrying people, motorbikes, food, and whatever else they can squeeze on!

Life on the banks of the Mekong

Moods of the Mekong

Moods of the Mekong

Moods of the Mekong

Fishing - some good size fish for sale around - unsure of the stock levels!

Two days later, we arrived in Luang Prabang - LOVE IT!! Nestled in amongst the trees and rivers, it is a super laid-back town, small, friendly and easy to get around. Cafes, a fun night market and lots of good street food made for a fun day or two exploring, before setting off on the bikes again.

Towards sunset over Luang Prabang

Andy loving life!

Tuesday 26th July, 3pm. It is swelteringly hot. Like, suffocatingly, frying on the tar seal kind of hot. As the possibility of heat exhaustion becomes more of a reality we are forced to stop under a spindly tree offering some shade. Shirts get unbuttoned, electrolytes come out, not many words are being said….how did we get here?!

Lonely planet describes the topography of northern Laos as resembling “a crumpled up piece of green paper”, which is fairly accurate! The road south from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is a must do for any cycle tour in Asia but it is not without its’ challenges! Huge uphill sections combined with 37 degree heat gave us some good “personal growth” moments and the relief at reaching the top, at sunset was incredible! We’d started late this morning due to trying to find a spare part and applying for our Vietnam visa and it was killer! 6am starts became mandatory for the following weeks cycling in an attempt to avoid cycling in the afternoon heat!

Cooling down the body temperature! Sooooo goood!

Laos has hills. Lots of hills.

Biking in the sunset light - coming up to the saddle near Kiu kacham.

Thankful for the pineapple village en route

Another benefit of late night biking - awesome sunsets!

Encouragement along the way

Corn drying season

I cycled this stretch of road a few years ago and had shared epic tales of glorious descents with Andy, but i had conveniently, or not so conveniently forgotten about the endless stretches of uphill grinding!

Sunrise from Kiu kacham

The glorious downhill started here. See the road from centre left, stretching out for 14km, ending centre right.

Good spot to soak up the good life

Normal life - en route to Vang Vieng

Local transport - usually loaded with children, women, goods or animals!
Local market in Kasi, Laos
Miri and John, stoked to find Andy after the party got separated for a good few kilometers.

Monsoon season brings with it epic storms and it was so awe-some and impressive to witness some of the best thunder and lightning we had ever seen in Vang Vieng.

From here we caught a bus back to LP and then cycled north through rolling hills and valleys to Pakmong and Nong Khoia, a stunning village nestled amongst giant karst cliffs and caves. We then jumped back on a river boat – this time up the Nam Ou River - a much quieter river than the Mekong but just as stunning. We enjoyed being the only tourists on the boat as we stopped in at riverside villages to drop off or pick up locals. This trip possibly won't be doable for much longer due to the extensive hydro projects that are in progress on the river.

A bit of storm action, Vang Vieng

The Nam Ou river

Nong Khoia, Nam Ou River, Laos

Life on the River

Andy making friends

Nam Ou River

Nam Ou River
Mgong Khua, last night in Laos

Practicing my cycling skills
There is something gloriously simple about waving to children as you cycle past and one of our favourite memories of Laos will be the endless friendly children who line the road as you bike past, all chorusing “sabaideeeee” and either lining up for high fives or just standing and quietly waving.

Our final day (after the late night visitor) was 100km over the mountains into Vietnam – a daunting prospect but one which proved to be a pleasant and enjoyable ride thanks to the good road quality and gradient. It only got really steep the last 9 kms from the top, by which time we were satisfied we would actually make it, even if it took a long time! We had stocked up on our Laos staples – takeaway packs of sticky rice, large bottles of 7UP and even found a delicious bowl on noodle soup en route (Pho).

The change as we entered Vietnam couldn’t have been more pronounced - immediate deterioration of road conditions (until we met the main road), constant tooting, flat wide open valleys with rice, hundreds of motorbikes and a much busier feel on the streets.


Enjoying the downhill!

The Vietnamese are just as good as piling their bicycles full of stuff as elsewhere in Asia!

Normal Life, Lau Chau

Corn time!

Normal life

Fun in the drains

Loving life, approaching "Heaven's Gate", close to Sa Pa

Andy feeling particularly victorious!

Our goal in northern Vietnam was cycling up to Sa Pa - a crazy resort town high in the mountains. After a day in Dien Bien Phu, we caught a sneaky bus to Lai Chau and from there biked the final 70km to Sapa. This involved a 1300m climb over 30km, but again, the gradient was such that it was a lovely ride, sustained but very doable. We arrived 6pm, in thick fog to a pumping main street - crowds of tourists, the infamous H’mong Sa Pa ladies who follow you round pestering you for a sale, booked out guesthouses and expensive food!! Good to have arrived but ugh!!!

The Sa Pa rice terraces

The last pass of the trip! 2010m and about to go back down!! We enjoyed several Oreo's as our summit celebration!

Supplementary Section for the Hard Core

Caution:  Literary Works Follow That May Contain Many Words.  
Don't Read If your a Night Owl & It's Early Morning, If You're Lacking in Coffee or Been Staring at Your Computer Screen for Too Long!

Heat and Mind

Mind Battles
Sucks you dry
Normally easy, now torturous
10am and already thirty-seven degrees
Beaming up from tar-seal
Keep cycling uphill
Mind battles

Give up?
Shade, shade, shade,
How long till shade?
Overpowers, engulfs, strangles, empties, cooks
Even the breeze warms
Must Keep Riding!
Mind battles

It’s diminishing?
Breeze less warming
Pausing slightly less but
Dreams of Cold 7-Up remain
Hope seeps back inside
Weary, Sapped, Sweaty
Salty, gritty

Andy M - Aug 2016

The Mekong River

A giant mass, winding it's way through the mountains,
Pumping, Flowing, Swirling

A life-giving passage, in both the ebbs and the flows,
Food, Water, Transport

A mighty force, pushing against the boat, 
carving out sand, rocks and land

A river of a thousand stories, from the clear tibetian highlands,
to the muddy jungle, to the sandy delta

All who live on and near here,
need, respect and love this river

Yet amongst the flow, bottles, jandals, plastic,
testament to the changing times sweeping downriver

From speedboats to slow boats to fishing canoes,
Many travel and traverse it's length

Be kind. The river is life. 

Miri, July 2016

And a treat if you made it to the end!!!! (Gotta keep uphill riding entertaining amidst the pain!)