Brian Alston (“Adventure travels of a greying-nomad”) , has been on more than a dozen adventure trips to all corners of the globe with World Expeditions over the last 10 years. He has hiked many famous trails, and observed wildlife in exotic destinations. This was his first cycling adventure and first time in Indochina… but not the last of either.
A Cycle through Northern Laos : Luang Prabang to Hanoi by Bike
“Tour de Laos” - January 2016
As a self-professed “Sunday cyclist”, a cycling trip through the mountains of Northern Laos with World Expeditions was an embarkation into a totally new realm of travel for me.
Contrary to most of the hiking trips I had been on, I had actually done some cycle “training” for this trip. Training had included one week of 30min cycles whilst exercising the dog on a lead, one weekend of kayaking on local waterways (for upper body strength), and 2 early morning Sunday cycles of up to 40km in distance. These were all designed to harden up the vital gluteus maximus for the ardours of cycle travel. I employed other measures to maximize comfort including the purchases of a bike gel seat cover, padded cycling shorts, and a fluorescent cycling vest. No expense had been spared. It was only when en-route on my overseas flight that I analysed my Lonely Planet guide book more closely and noted, “for hard-core cyclists, the mountains of northern Laos are the ultimate destination”. Hence there was an instant transformation from “Sunday cyclist” to “hard-core”, and I wondered if my preparation would be adequate.
Turning to the section on food did little to reassure me. “A trip to Indochina is incomplete without sampling the local cuisine and flavours of the region”. For a boy reared on meat and 3 vegie and where the only added spices were salt and pepper, this could amount to another instant challenge in the making.
Before landing in Laos, I had a short overnight stopover in Hanoi. The hotel was a quaint little affair and very compact with only 2 rooms on each floor, and a miniature sized lift wrapped on 3 sides by the stairwell. The linen was clean and crisp and breakfast a pleasant surprise with fresh fruit of papaya, watermelon, pineapple and my first experience of dragon fruit. Fresh buns were delivered to the front door, and a single egg omelette was cooked on a little 2 burner stove. I was beginning to think breakfasts may be the highlight of the trip, albeit a French Colonial influence. I took a short onward flight into Luang Prabang in northern Laos.
My presumption was dispelled that evening with my first dining experience in Luang Prabang; a lantern lit setting overlooking the Mekong River. The subtle flavours that are somewhat lacking in modern western dining experiences were a true delight to the palate. The freshness of the vegetables and the hint of ginger (not normally one of my favourite spices) that textured the meat dish were simply superb.
It was over dinner that we first got to know our Laotian cycling guide. Introducing himself as “Choy”; he was very personable, slightly built, and looked young, fresh faced, and very fit. A local to this area of Laos, Choy had joined the monastery as a novice monk aged 12, and remained there for 6 years. Now at 31 he was a freelance guide, after studying English, at which he was very proficient. He promised to introduce us to his family in the coming days. I was also joined at the tour briefing by my other travel companions, a family of 4, including a teenage son and daughter.
Although a country boy with an aversion to cities, I was determined to make the most of my time in Luang Prabang. Even though our hotel was in the touristy peninsular region of town, the whole place endeared itself to me almost immediately. I rose early the first morning for the traditionally alms giving ceremony, as the monks walked the streets gathering food offerings from the local people. This spectacle was marred a little by the interference of tourists, but was nonetheless still moving and spiritual.
Our first day of cycling was simply around the sights of the town and presented no real problems. All road users including scooters, cars, trucks, and Tuk-tuks were very courteous to cyclists. The sights included the Royal Palace, Wat Xieng Temple, silk and paper production, and the view from the top of Mount Phousi, a high point of the town.
That evening I explored the bustling Night Markets where locally made textiles and handicrafts abounded.
These markets provided the opportunity to wander by hundreds of stall holders without the harassment and insistence to purchase their goods, as occurs in many other markets around the world. Even though goods are cheap, you are still expected to haggle ruthlessly to get the best price. All this is done with a smile and in such a way that both parties come away happy. I call that a win-win situation for bargaining and highlights the wholesome and pleasant nature of the Lao people in general. The other great thing about the markets is the abundance of street food.
I was instantly hooked on the fruit drinks and had a combination of mango, dragonfruit and banana, for a miserly 10,000Kip ($2Aus).
Our cycle on day 3 out to the Kuang Si Waterfalls was our first real road test on the bikes and an opportunity to become more familiar with the appropriate gearing. Once out of town we cycled through villages dotted along the road with produce stalls, and by a stream with vegetable gardens and rice fields under preparation.
A final steep climb brought us to the falls carpark that was cluttered with tourist vans and Tuk-Tuks. I had “googled” the Kuang Si falls on trip-advisor and knew they were going to be pretty, but you can never be quite sure you will see them just like the pictures, or whether you are here at just the right time of year. We walked past the refuge where Sun and Moon Bears had been rescued from poachers.
Then we came to a swimming hole with a light blue calcium carbonate colour, courtesy of its spring fed location high above in the Karst formations from which the waters cascade into these pristine pools. I was not to be denied a swim in these refreshing waters after having biked 30km. We ventured to the next higher cascade and then the next, each more picturesque than its predecessor, until reaching the main falls. This truly was one of the most stunning waterfall settings I had ever laid eyes upon. I lingered for as long as possible to capture it in the best light and absorb the glorious scene.
I bought a dragon fruit on the way back to town. After 60km in the saddle; I sought a traditional Lao massage to soothe my aching muscles.
I then returned to the night markets for a Bar-B-que and another fruit drink.
I felt intoxicated by the sights, sounds, aromas, flavours and the simple lack of complexity of the Lao people, and even though Luang Prabang is a popular destination on the tourist map it seemed largely unaffected by the bustle of other tourist hot spots. I felt relaxed and safe, eager to embrace the culture and history, the culinary delights and the next stage of our journey, a couple of days upstream on the Nam Ou River.
We cycled out of town and made our way to a village that specialised in “Home brew”, and took a swig of the 50% proof whiskey. It was enough to take my breath away.
Next stop were the Pak Ou caves which housed hundreds of Buddha statues from many centuries ago. A short trip across the river to the bamboo moorings and wharf and some steep steps to the cave brought us to the high water mark and a view back across the river. We were beginning to enter the karst scenery of the region.
Before we left the bikes for a few days up river, we called in on Choy’s family. His parents, now 69 years of age, had endured much hardship during the second Indochina war, also known as the “Secret War” between the United States backed Royalists and the Communist based Pathet Lao. His family, who were hill rice farmers, were evacuated by both sides and returned on many occasions to find their simple home flattened. They kept a little over 2Tonnes of rice bagged and stored in the corner of a room as provisions for the next 12 months and had to pay a proportion of this to the government as a rice tax in lieu of monetary resources. Cement and other modern conveniences had superseded the traditional bamboo and thatch housing, but their existence still remained relatively simple and governed by the seasonal rains. This was a lovely personal insight into the generational differences between Choy and his parents and how Laos was progressing down the path of consumerism, epitomised by the Thai soap operas that dominated the TV screens.
The 2 days we spent upstream on the Nam Ou River were fun and interesting and provided some interaction with the White Thai village people of the area with a traditional homestay (and more home brew). We played Rattan with the kids from the local village, and were decisively beaten. We called in at the small primary school of Ban Sop Jam and donated a few books and pencils.
We sought a few bargains from the local weavers and their textile displays and observed village life, which centres around and along the river as the primary means of electricity, transportation, food, and a source of both domestic and irrigated water.
The village principles were also being upheld with a definite social structure, an elected mayor or spokesperson to deal with government officials, grants for achievements in health care, equality for women, conservation farming techniques away from the traditional slash and burn, education and lack of crime in a village.
For isolated rural community villages these were real achievements that represented progress for the next generation and away from rural subsistence.
Day 7 and the cycling was about to begin in earnest with 3 tough days ahead through the mountains of Laos. It started out gently enough with an undulating 15km to our first stop and a few snacks. However, the next stage proved to be the most gruelling of the whole trip with a relentless uphill of 10km at a steep grade. I was down to the lowest gear possible and was sweating profusely as the midday sun beat on my back and reflected off the bitumen road. On a few of the very steep sections I even walked the bike for a short while. Nonetheless I battled on and hoped each bend would bring some respite from the upward climb. The trip notes later confirmed this stage to be an ascent of 850m. My water bottle was empty, and after 90min on this mountain looking upwards for the elusive communications antennae that signalled the lunch stop, Choy and the bus eased up behind me. He asked me if I wanted to continue cycling to lunch and I had only 2 questions for him. “How far is it”; to which he replied 1.5km; and “is everybody else on the bus”, to which the answer was, “yes”. Well I certainly wasn’t going to give everyone else a start on me over lunch, so I joined them. I figured I had already proven myself as “King of the mountain”.
Lunch was at a pleasant hilltop village near to some roadside stalls offering petrol for sale in 1 or 2litre glass bottles; such is the economy of both the road users and the scooters they ride.
After lunch it was a leisurely hour down the other side of the mountain to the river valley and some undulations into town.
The trip notes for the next day read, “another challenging ride as we head up into the mountains to cover 3 peaks”. I thought they can’t be any steeper than what we had just done, but I was to be proven wrong.
Northern Laos has a familiar winter weather pattern, with fog blanketing the mountains until mid-morning, by which time the heat of the sun blows it off. On this particular day we actually drove to the top of the mountain first to begin cycling and found ourselves above the layer of fog clouds. What a great panorama!
I was a lot more cautious and consequently slower than the others on the downhill sections and was able to take in the mountainous scenery that surrounded us. Around almost every corner small villages clung to the steep cliffs and mountainous saddles; and there were goats and cows on the road as we passed through the fog cloud and down the mountain.
Eventually we emerged at a larger village with agricultural crops on the river valley.
Even though we had driven to the top of the first mountain, we still had 2 peaks to go. I was determined to meet the challenge head on and endure the pain in order to relish in the pleasure of reaching the peak and being able to relax on the subsequent descent. On this particular day I even made it into the lunch stop ahead of Choy, but I later realised this was only because he had had a flat tyre on his bike. Nevertheless it still rated as a stage win in the “Tour de Laos”.
Having completed 45km by lunch I was happy to coast the final 15km in the afternoon into the next town and visit the local hot springs where I did partake in a swim a little further downstream.
A third day in the mountains beckoned, and it followed much the same pattern as the previous.
Even though we covered some mountainous terrain in the bus together, we seemed to begin with some uphill prior to the descent. Today’s journey took us through the Nam Et Phou Louey National Protected area and I maintained a hold on the “polka dot” jersey as we cruised into the provincial capital of Sam Neua.
The large regional markets of Sam Neua were a highlight, with an assortment of live fish and eels in tanks, pork and beef in the Butchery area, and the ubiquitous fresh fruit and vegies. I purchased yet another dragon fruit for us all to share on the road tomorrow. At 7,000kip ($1.30Aus) it was a bargain.
We left Sam Neua on another foggy morning and had a lovely experience in a Hmong village just out of town. All the young people were dressed in colourful traditional, courting attire and were celebrating the approach of the Chinese New Year with dancing and games. We joined in for a short time and they didn’t seem to mind.
Further down the road a group of youths on scooters, stopped to send some texts to their sweethearts, and take a selfie on their cell phone. They even requested a photo with a middle aged Westerner dressed in cycling attire, (obviously a rarity around here).
We entered the karst country around Vieng Xai and were introduced to the importance of this region to modern day Laos. Vast cave systems lay within these karsts and during the second Indochina war, some 20,000 people sought shelter here as the region faced continual bombardment from US planes.
This area hid the leadership group of the Pathet Lao (the Polit Buro), for 9 years between 1964 and 1973, when a cease fire was signed.
We cycled around town, visiting the extensive network of caves set into the limestone karst mountains that housed Lao military operations at this time. This audio tour included the caves that served as the underground homes of the leaders, the Hospital cave, the Theatre cave, and the anti-aircraft gun placements.
It was a humbling experience to be in this area, and to understand the importance of this part of Lao modern history, highlighting the resilience and resourcefulness of the Lao people.
You get to a stage of fitness where your body and possibly your mind as well, yearn for the benefits of a physical challenge and the mountainous roads of Laos had certainly been able to provide that. I actually thought I was well past the days of inflicting physical punishment on my body. I had basically given up running half marathons or even 5kms, but the cycling had reinvigorated the soul. I have always said it takes 3 solid days in a row for me to get fit, whether it is carrying a pack on a bushwalk or cycling. So, over the course of the past 3 days, every little rise in the road had inspired me to keep up the pace, pedal harder, and meet the challenge. Besides that, after about an hour in the bike saddle, the butt genuinely needed a break before “numb bum” syndrome set in. So after the 3 solid days in the mountains covering distances of 50, 60 and 65kms, I felt as fit as a fiddle, and had begun to look forward to each day of cycling. These 2 days visiting the cave systems had virtually represented rest days, which in any multi-day endurance sport are very much appreciated. Although no massage was on offer, a 13hour sleep was more than adequate.
With the body well rested, 35km the next day was a breeze as we cycled past more karst country interspersed with rice fields.
This was our last day in Laos as we reached the Vietnam border and said farewell to Choy and our Lao team. This team also included Mr Ping who drove the support truck and repaired our bicycles; and Chan the Bus driver.
I had really had a great time. The people of Laos were so friendly, the pace of life relaxed, the food fabulous and cheap, and I always felt safe. We had been so well looked after and in a way I felt as though my race had been run, and even though we had 3 days in Vietnam to reach Hanoi, I knew it just wasn’t going to be quite the same.
I would miss the fabulous sense of humour of Choy, and I had come to appreciate his deep love for his country. We had been introduced to some of the culture and history of Laos along the way. I thoroughly recommend a visit to this lovely country before the next generational change comes about. By comparison I found Vietnam was busy, and hectic, even despite more hill climbs cloaked in low cloud and a cycle through the pretty Mai Chau valley where rice planting was under way with the traditional oxen.
I missed the Lao staple diet of sticky rice, the flavoursome fruit drinks, the markets and my new found love of dragon fruit. Laos, “the land of a thousand elephants” had captured my heart in a way I had never expected. The humble and unassuming nature of its people, the village children who would wave as we passed by on our cycles and greet us with “Zebedee” and the simplicity of life in the northern reaches of this mountainous country, that had endured so much.
It is a land now threatened perhaps by development from the north and the prosperous Chinese as well as Vietnam from the east, both of whom will be tempted to exploit Lao’s resources.
I was happy to have been here at this time, and be pleasantly surprised by my experiences on this cycle through northern Laos, a journey to savour in more ways than one.
Experience the journey for yourself!
If you would like to join on the Luang Prabang to Hanoi by Bike trip, find out more here