Over the Mountains of Northern Laos

After the festival in Luang Prabang, I got sick ( a few too many fruit shakes perhaps). After spending two days cooped up in our room waiting for me to not require proximity to the toilet we decided to hit the road. Even though I wasn't completely recuperated, we were were bored and wanted to move on. After a few kilometres of pained riding on flat terrain, it was obvious that I wouldn't have the energy for a full day on the bike. At lunch, after having ridden only 25km we stopped in the small village of Xiang Ngeun, home to the last guesthouses before the road climbed into the mountains.   Rain all day on the climb to Kiewkacham

We left Xiang Ngeun in the pouring rain, which continued until we pulled into the mountain village of Kiewkacham well after sunset. The day was difficult, with two major climbs and a downhill made extremely uncomfortable by the fact that we were freezing and soaking wet. For the first time, we were anxious for the climbing to start up again. If we weren't pedalling, we were shivering. The scenery was probably great, but we couldn't see anything through the rain and fog. By mid-afternoon, Yann was suffering from his recurring stomach cramps. Our last 400m of climbing dragged out for hours because we had to keep stopping so that Yann could bend over and try to relieve the pain. I can tell when Yann isn't feeling well because I can keep up with him, which was the case for most of the day.

When we pulled into Kiewkacham it was dark and the fog was so thick that we could only see a few metres ahead of us. As we entered the town centre, a cluster of a few buildings, we were enthusiastically greeted by a trio of men waving us down and calling us over. They were clearly wet and freezing and draped in blankets and towels wearing nothing but their boxers. They were so excited to see us, we soon guessed that they too had to be cyclists (cyclists with only one change of clothing). We settled into the same very basic (but better of Kiewkacham's only two guesthouses) where we were immediately asked by our new Thai friends to ride with them the next day. By their lack of warm clothes, we knew that they were travelling light. When we explained that we were probably too slow for them, the oldest of the three replied “I'm an old man! We ride together!”.
  Wisit and Anosorn showing-off their "Robocop" cardboard body armour

We left Kiewkacham early, avoiding our previous day's mistake of a late departure that had us riding in the dark. The toughest climbing was behind us, but we still wouldn't completely get over the mountains for another day and a half. After the cold of the previous day, the five of us set out wearing lots of clothing. Our friends took apart cardboard boxes and layered them under their cycling jerseys for warmth. But without the previous day's rain, the layers were stripped off quickly as we began the morning with a climb.
  Leaving Kiewkacham in the early morning

After lunch, we parted ways with our companions, who, travelling with less than 5kg each were much faster than we were (especially on the climbs). They were extremely good about waiting for us, but we knew it would be more pleasant for them to ride at their own pace, so we sent them off. Rather than ride to the larger town of Kasi where they were heading, we chose to stop about 20km earlier at a “Hot Springs Resort” outside a tiny village along the highway. Neither was it a resort, neither were the springs hot.   The spectacular scenery between Kiewkacham and Kasi

We spent a few nights in Vang Vieng, a once popular riverside party destination. Earlier this year, Lao authorities finally cracked down on the town's more Darwinist activities (after hundreds of deaths of drunken foreigners). Drugs are no longer sold openly, Tarzan ropes, “death swings” have been removed from the banks of the river and most of the riverside bars shut down. We had read reports that referred to Vang Vieng as a ghost town and we had spoken to some travellers who said it was a lot nicer and quieter than it used to be. We felt there were still a lot of tourists despite the relative “quietness”. But without the partying, the town seems yet to re-invent itself as a tourist destination. Uncontrolled and unsustainable riverside development has rendered the main strip an unsightly mess. We found that locals involved in the tourist industry were for the most part neither friendly nor welcoming. Vang Vieng needs a make-over, there are far nicer places to visit in Laos and we were happy to leave (although we had a nice float down the river for old times' sake).
  Then and now: seven years between tubing trips in Vang Vieng, Yann is as sexy as ever!

Leaving Vang Vieng we discovered our first real bike problem: Yann's back rim was cracked! This wasn't all that surprising. After purchasing the rims we had read several reports of the same thing happening to other cyclists who used this downhill rim for touring. We hoped that high-end spokes and our religiously keeping the tire pressure under it's maximum recommended psi would keep us immune to rim failure. But Yann had been carrying a lot of weight, especially in his back panniers (sometimes even strapping my bags to his back rack). We hypothesized that the pothole-filled downhill between Oudom Xay and Pak Mong had probably done us in.   Yann's cracked back rim

About to hit the flats, we chanced that the wheel would last the 160km to Vientiane, which it did. On our first day in the city we hit all of its bike shops to look for a solution. With very few bike shops catering to a higher end cycle market (and a virtually non-existent cycle-touring market), we came away with few options. One option was to buy an average-quality wheel-set. But we wanted to salvage the hub and in order to do this, there was one rim available in the city but no spokes to go with it. The store mechanic eyeballed Yann's wheel and without taking any measurements told us that we could re-use its spokes. Luckily we knew the new rim's specifications and we knew that the old spokes wouldn't fit it, losing all faith in the mechanic's ability to build us a new wheel. So we decided that we would ride on to Thailand, with a big city less than a hundred kilometres across the border.

We had been toying with the idea of trying to ride overland into Burma. With our wheel problems forcing us into Thailand, we reluctantly concluded that we would skip cycling in Southern Laos and make our way across Northern Thailand to the border at Mae Sot.

Stats for Luang Prabang to Vientiane:

Days of cycling: 5.5
Days of rest: 1
Kilometres cycled: 397
Metres climbed: 4683
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 7

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support

The Festival of Lights in Luang Prabang

We left Nong Khiaw a few days earlier than we would have liked because we decided to wanted to be in Luang Prabang for Boun Lay Hua Fai (the festival of floating boats of light downstream). The festival coincides with the end of Buddhist Lent and is celebrated in many riverside towns across Laos (including in Nong Khiaw while we were there). In many of the villages we passed on the way to Luang Prabang colourful bamboo boats were on display in front of shops and homes. But the country's biggest Lay Hua Fai celebration is in its most popular tourist destination, Luang Prabang. Sitting at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers the city is an obvious choice for floating boats of light downstream.

We were in Luang Prabang seven years earlier and had been overwhelmed and a little bit disappointed by how touristy it was. We came to the festival without any expectations, guessing that tourists might very well outnumber the locals participating in the event. Nothing much has changed, except maybe us. We were definitely more at ease with the comforts that we had previously snubbed. We still sought out budget options, but eating chicken sandwiches and drinking fruit shakes every meal didn't really faze us. We even bought a 5$ jar of peanut butter.
  Luang Prabang, an charming city even with all the tourists

We arrived the day before the festival and the whole city was in preparation mode. Colourful paper lanterns were being strung on shops and in temple courtyards, finishing touches were being made to the large dragon boat floats that would be paraded through the city, banana leaf candle boats were being meticulously assembled in every household.
  Festival decorations at Wat That

  This young monk took a break from stringing lanterns to pose for a photo

On the actual day of the festival the decorating-pace accelerated. As the darkness fell, the hundreds of lanterns hanging throughout the city were individually lit. The streets began to fill with procession spectators and participants. Shopkeepers and residents began lining the sidewalks with candles and lanterns. 
  Festival decorations at Wat Maysouvanhnaphoumaram

  Lighting lanterns at Wat Maysouvanhnaphoumaram

  Lighting candles outside the family store

We waited anxiously with the crowds for the festival's main event, the procession of the boats of light. Different villages and temples build their own bamboo boats, each carefully decorated and adorned with candles. The boats were paraded down Luang Prabang's main street. Each boat-procession was led by village representatives, often traditionally dressed carrying lanterns. The boat was accompanied by minders who made sure that it wheeled along correctly, that the candles stayed lit and that the float didn't catch fire. Tailing each float were the rest of the village representatives who sang and danced and celebrated their creation. 

Loud-speakers introduced every village as it passed describing each float. The English announcement for every float began with "the boat is made out of bamboo and is in the shape of a Naga". This was true. Every boat was made of bamboo and every boat took the shape of a Naga (a Buddhist serpent-dragon). But each was unique! One breathed fire, one flapped his wings, each one carefully assembled only to be lowered into the Mekong River and set adrift.

Once the procession ended, tourists and locals alike made their way to the Mekong River. Thousands of small candle boats were lit and sent down river. At the same time, sky lanterns (hot-air lanterns) were sent into the sky. It didn't matter how many tourists were around. No one seemed to notice the crowds around them, they focused on being with their families and friends, lighting their boats and their lanterns together.

Stats for Nong Khiaw to Luang Prabang:

Days of cycling: 1.5
Days of rest: 4 (in Luang Prabang)
Kilometres cycled: 143
Metres climbed: 1017
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 1

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support

Rest and Relaxation in Laos

What a difference between China and Laos. In Laos the village homes are mostly small bamboo structures with thatched roofs, the rolling hills stripped by logging and slash-and-burn agriculture. The roadside shops are poorly stocked, the markets sparse and the prices higher than in China. But we felt a calmness and tranquillity that was somewhat non-existent in China. Instead of the blank stares that we had gotten used to, we were greeted by bright smiles and cries of sabaidee (hello) from almost everyone we passed. Every time we rode by a village, small children would stop what they were doing to greet us with uncontrolled enthusiasm.   Greeters in the small village of Nateuy

  Rice terraces outside Luang Namtha

  A village along the highway between Oudom Xay and Pak Mong

Rather than head directly south from the border, we decided to take a short (40km) detour to the town of Luang Namtha, the main base for trekking in Northern Laos. We had no intention of trekking, but we knew we would find guesthouses, restaurants and other travellers' amenities that we had longed for since leaving Dali in China. Despite the fairly easy terrain, by our eleventh consecutive day of cycling we were really moving slowly and our legs were in pretty desperate need for rest. So we spent four great days in Luang Namtha doing very little. We met lots of cyclists and travellers, ate every night at the night market, went to the herbal sauna and watched lots of Star Trek.

Our only Luang Namtha (mis)adventure was stumbling in on a cooking class where we were invited to partake in the post-class meal. We were basically roped in by the two foreign tourists who were clearly too nervous to eat their creations alone: steamed bat and squirrel stew. The stew was palatable, but the bat, steamed whole in a banana leaf was a little bit difficult to handle. Attempting (probably quite poorly) to hide our discomfort, we gnawed away at it's tiny body, trying to get the little meat that there was. Yann was completely convinced we would get sick because the bats were steamed with none of their organs removed. Not recommended.   At the Oudom Xay market

From Luang Namtha we rode to Oudom Xay, the largest town in Northern Laos and a major trading point for Chinese goods entering the country. Subsequently it is Chinese-style ugly. We had fond memories of the city from our time there seven years earlier, so we were eager to see if the town had changed much. We had put a lot of hope into eating pancakes from a street stall where we had eaten every night on our last visit to the city. We roamed around in the evening, where our vendor used to set up, and we were very disappointed to find that he was no longer there. For years we had referred to the Oudom Xay pancakes as the best pancakes we'd ever eaten. We realised that those fried pancakes, smothered in condensed milk were the only real reason why we wanted to re-visit the city.

Our route continued south along National Highway 13 with the 80km from Oudom Xay to our next destination Pak Mong rumoured to be its worst section in terms of road conditions. We can confirm those rumours.   Can you spot Yann?

  The worst stretch of National Highway 13

After our intense riding in Yunnan, we tried to slow our pace in Laos. We planned to detour from the main highway again to spend a few days in the small river-side town of Nong Khiaw. What a great decision! We checked into a beautiful (inexpensive) lodge on the western bank of the river, away from the tourist ghetto on the eastern bank. Right up the street from our hotel was a small family-run restaurant with fantastic, (inexpensive) food. Everything on our side of the river basically shut down by night fall, which is pretty early in October. All we could do was sit and admire the incredible mountain scenery that surrounds the village over a cold Beer Lao.   The Nam Ou River through Nong Khiaw

  View from our room at the Nam Ou River Lodge

  Menu at the Nong Khiaw Family Restaurant where we ate every day

Stats for Mohan to Nong Khiaw:

Days of cycling: 3 full-days, 2 half-days
Days of rest: 5 full-days, 1 half-day
Kilometres cycled: 296
Metres climbed: 3249
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 6

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support