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

1 comment:

Myron E. Bennett said...

As I can see in the photo, the weather was better in the end. Therefore, I congratulate you on such a successful festival Luang Prabang.
Everyone has his own the history of travel. Travelers are always ready to share their experiences and tricks especially if it's mountains or far routes, attention is very important. I want to share my travel experience in
Thailand and in particular to Chiang Mai. We found accommodation and rented the vehicle in Cat Motors for travel around the city and excursions. If you are planning a Thailand trip soon, it will be interesting to you. I wish you new exciting trips.