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Cycling in Laos

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Cycling in Laos
Cycling in Laos
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Cycling is fun in Southeast Asia; it has become a way of life for me. I can’t even imagine a trip without my bike. I have had many adventures and lots of great experiences. There are so many new things to see and learn from. This story is just a glimpse of what I have done, how I have felt and where I have gone.

A couple of years ago, I was lying in a bed. It was cold, the kind of cold you get on crisp English mornings in winter time. I was wrapped in my guest house blanket, a blanket of dubious history. These are the kind of things you must deal with when you are cycle touring, or backpacking, around Southeast Asia. Blankets and sheets in guest houses often give you a strong indication of the economics of the guest house you are staying in. If the bed linins are old, dirty or smelly then it doesn’t bode well for your stay. If the blankets or sheets are crisp, clean and new (ish) then your stay may be full of care and attention. I have found that the blanket rule often supersedes the pricing rule, prices do not necessarily reflect the quality of your stay.
 
My journey to this blanket had begun on khao San Road in Bangkok. I had battled through the Bangkok heat, pollution and traffic on my bicycle. This is never a safe or healthy thing to do, but it is a necessary journey. I boarded my train to Nong Khai at Hualompong Station as I was heading for the Plain of Jars in central Laos, close to the town of Phonasavan. My cycling would start in earnest in the northeastern Thai town of Nong Khai. The journey had been planned for months; my goal was to see the mysterious jars of central Laos.
 
Getting off the sleeper train in the cool morning haze of northern Thailand, I collected my bicycle from the front luggage compartment and assembled the various parts (panniers, bungee cords etc.). The ride to the border point was a gentle 4 Km. The Laos border crossing was as user friendly as any good border crossing in the region. Everything is detailed for you with clear instructions and the wait for the slow bureaucratic clogs of the immigration police is minimal.
 
The ride into Vientiane was excellent. The welcome from the people is always good. You pass the Beer Laos factory on your right after about 10Km. This, after my first visit to Laos 10 years ago, was to become a place of worship and awe. I stopped and took some photos, I already have plenty of photos from previous trips, I just can’t help myself. This time I went on the tour of the brewery. The free samples went down well and provided an excellent break for my ride into Vientiane. Beer Laos truly is one of the worlds great largers.
 
The ride into Vientiane is a relaxed affair; you pass the old communist work slogans on advertising boards on the way into the sleepy capital city. These act as a reminder that you have entered a ‘workers’ paradise’, although I doubt Marx would agree with the 21st century version of his dream.
 
The local folk are very unobtrusive in the interest in a
western cyclist riding through their neighborhood. Vientiane is one of my favorite capitals in the world, primarily because you feel the lack of bustle and hustle of the place; you get the sense that the tumbleweed will float passed at any second. The place is small, there are no high rise developments (bar that huge new Chinese hotel) and the place has a sleepy, relaxed feel to it.
 
Leaving Vientiane the next day, the ride to Phonasavan took me north to Vang Vieng in a 2 day ride through the central plains of Laos. The ride to Vang Vieng is flat and one of those great little stretches where you can take a gentle pace, stop and chat with the locals over a meal of rice and fruit and feel good on a bike. There are no difficult mountain stretches and the scenery is beautiful.
 
Vang Vieng itself nestles in between a few mountains and is an idealic spot to stop and recharge for the coming ride to Phonasavan. I stayed for 2 days as there is plenty to do, not least the fun day out tubing down the river or taking in the nearby caves and wonderful swimming in clear, fresh lagoons.
 
I set off early on the next leg of the trip, the most difficult part of this tour. This is a monster stage, much like the Alp D’huez in the Tour de France. There is a 130Km ride to Phu Khun in the mountains. The wind was blowing fiercely; I was battling the head wind until the town of Kasi. At Kasi the challenge began in earnest. Here each assent to a higher plateau left me exhausted. At each peak there was a Hmong village waiting to welcome me, invariably selling the same lukewarm cola refreshments. The refreshments were lacking, but the locals’ reception definitely made up for the lack of cool coca-cola.
 
The day climaxed in a stunning uphill section that really took my breath away. About 10Km from my destination of Phu Khun I began the final assent. I did run out of energy and water at some point and had to stop by a mountain stream to fill my water bottle. In the process I managed to scare some Laotian ladies who were taking a wash in the stream, naked. I don’t know who was more embarrassed, the naked Laos ladies or the sweaty, sun burnt, limping semi-naked white boy. After both parties covered their dignities we managed to have a chuckle and communicate together, they even offered me some of their food.
 
I have christened this style of riding ‘whirlwind riding’ as you just have to go at it as quickly as you can come-what-may. I was definitely on my last reserves of strength, but still I needed to get to the village and a bed. I had to get on with the ride, there was no other option. Everything was hurting me, but between the fresh water and the stunning views across central Laos I was revitalized enough to push on.
 
Eventually I found the down slope in the road and headed into Phu Khun and I ventured into the first guest house that I found. I took a look at the room, and the all important blanket, and did the (not so) complex equation of cost vs comfort vs tiredness. My legs made the decision for me, virtually screaming at me that they couldn’t go on to the other guest house 100 meters down the road.
 
And so it came to pass that I awoke wrapped in the dubious blanket on the cold, crisp Laotian mountain morning at the end of December. I was being welcomed to the hills of Laos at Christmas time by a smelly blanket and guest house which didn’t have a shower. The bed bugs had been kept at bay by my sarong; my legs felt better but were still aching a little. I stumbled out of my room, threw some water over me from the bucket in the ‘bath’room and repacked my bike.
 
The reason for putting myself through the previous days’ pain and the ache in my legs really hit me when I cycled away from the guest house; the air was fresh, the mountains surrounding me looked like they had been taken from a movie set and the roads were empty. I will never forget me exit from Phu Khun, it was made even more special by the locals who all waved and shouted ‘sabaii dee’ as I past. It really does make you feel special and alive.
 
I set off for my destination, the town of Phonasavan nearly 140Km away. The first assent of the day left me delirious with joy, so much so I was laughing and sweating at the top of the first peak. The views across the valley which unfolded before me were spectacular. Any soreness in my legs was replaced by adrenalin. The climbs continued, punctuated, thankfully, by a few great descents. At one point I descended 19Km in one long downward free wheel. This is truly and exhilarating experience. These kinds of days are what you start (and seemingly I can never stop) cycling for; upward challenges, downward enjoyment, stunning scenery and friendly local villages.
 
The 140Km stretch is punctuated by villages, both Hmong and central Laos villages. I stopped at one point at a village which seemed to be full of AK47 toting Laos army cadre. I decided to have my morning tea (you can take the man out of England but you can’t take England out of the man) in the middle of the village. I was immediately surrounded by Laotian soldiers carrying guns. However, the threat level did descend a few notches when I looked down and most of them had dispensed with the customary army uniform boots and instead were wearing flip flops. These guys certainly didn’t look menacing but there was a threat in the air as they were all carrying guns, albeit in a relaxed fashion, slung over their shoulders.
 
Now, the situation may seem to be a worrying to some as I was miles from any main town, alone and surrounded by soldiers. However, my survival skills were not required as, to a man, the soldiers were laughing and goofing around. They were obviously curious about my presence, but they soon settled down, sat on their haunches and watched me brew my tea from a polite distance.
 
At one point I opened my map and asked the guys where we were. The most senior officer was pushed forward to answer my question. Apparently the village wasn’t on any map, presumably for military reasons, but I am only speculating about that as my Laos conversation skills are not what they should be.
 
After my tea I packed up and handed my rubbish to a young lad who took it and held it with a confused look on his face and I rode off with the bemused military men staring at me.
 
My cycling was becoming better; I was becoming used to the merciless hills. I eventually stormed up the last hill. Getting onto the plains of central Laos was a joy I have felt only a few times in my life. I cycled into Phonasavan at dusk, a tired, sweaty, aching cyclist nut with a warm glint of joy in my eyes. I had battled with some big mountain stages and I had won.
 
My hotel was luxurious in comparison to my previous night’s encounter with the blanket. I collapsed in my large bed and slept the sleep of the dead.
 
Early the next morning I awoke and got out of bed with a bounce in my step. This was the final leg of my tour, the finish of my tour was within grasp. I asked at the reception for directions, never underestimating my knack for geographical embarrassment, and headed out. I soon found the road and cycled the short distance in under an hour. I found myself at the reception hut for the Jars and paid the small entrance fee. Walking up the small slop and arriving at the crest of the hill I caught my first glimpse of a stone jar. The round, skewed, moss covered jar was a sight that gave me a euphoric high. I enjoyed the sight, but not as much as I had enjoyed the journey to it. This trip was, as most are, about the journey, not the destination.
 
The jars are impressive for their mystery, they are strange and intriguing. The recent history of them is as interesting as the speculation about the origins. There are hundreds of these large man size stone jars strewn across the Laos plains. No-one knows why they are there, and therein lays the intrigue.
 
Cycle touring has become a way of life for me. I enjoy the sedate pace of the bike; you get to see so much more of the places you are traveling in. You also interact with the locals more, often seeing a friendlier, and more helpful side to a country or culture. Cycle touring can be tiring, it can make your body ache, but cycling is fun, healthy and a great way to see a country.
 
About the author: Simon Stewart is a cycling evangelist who has made it his mission to spread the gospel through the excellent tours he organizes.

Slowly Down the Mekong

Slowly down the Mekong
Slowly down the Mekong
Slowly down the Mekong
Slowly down the Mekong

In Southeast Asia, smug backpackers parade their Laotian transport horror stories like war medals. Mention Laos to a group of travelers and you will no doubt be entertained by a playful one-upmanship, with stories of buses catching on fire, boats capsizing, innocent tourists becoming unwitting drug mules. Each survivor’s tale is a testimony to their own fearlessness. Now I’m no backpacker princess, I’ve endured my share of spiders in the bed and pickpockets in the markets. But even in the adventurous travel game, the risk of injury sends me clutching my first aid kid like a baby blanket. This cautiousness was tested when I crossed the Thai-Laotian border into Huay Xai, a tiny border town that people enter in order to leave again. Here, the travel options were a spine-rattling bus, a deafening speedboat, or 2 full days on a longtail slowboat. And so I signed on for a two-day slowboat down the Mekong, from Huay Xai to the reputedly charming Luang Prabang. For better or worse, it would provide an up-close introduction to Laos.
Day One

My fellow boaters and I have stuffed the vessel with enough baguette sandwiches, Pringles, and water bottles to last us days. Also aboard are every model of ipod, ipod nano, and mp3 player possible, six copies of The DaVinci Code (in six different languages), and two dozen Lonely Planet books. Armed and ready, we set off down the river.

The land around the Mekong is mostly unspoilt, with a few sparse hilltops that are clear-cut for local farming. It’s a peaceful change from the hustle of Thailand, seeing the countryside unfold at each bend in the lazy river. With an economy dependent on agriculture and a topography where arable land is sparse, the land surrounding the Mekong accounts for a good portion of Laos’ rice production. This is a staple of the Laotian diet as well as its economy, and in a country with limited roads and no railways, the river is a hub of transport. And yet, while the Mekong is a hub of sustenance for the country, today the waters are calm and the scenery is tranquil.

The boat stops on a sandy bank and local children bustle on board, their arms full and voices loud. Cold soft drinks, Beerlao and water; cigarettes, cookies, and potato chips, and the odd bag of pineapple, are all for sale by the quick and persistent children, whose fearless vending tactics make them tiny, pushy adults. I start to wonder what poor impressions the Laotians have of a Western diet. Apparently, they have been led to believe none of us.

Biscuits and snacks are passed around as we sail on. I barely notice the darkening sky as we dock in Pakbeng, a tiny riverside town ripe with English-speaking vendors and foodstalls stocked with more Western goods. At the rickety wooden dock, the whole street seems uniquely catered to

slowboating tourists on their evening stopover. The slow parade of backpack-laden figures spills into town, everyone happy to be up and moving after a long day of sitting on wooden benches. Back at my hotel, other slowboaters sit drinking beers at the open-air restaurant. The hustling noise of the town, vendors yelling, dogs barking, old cars coughing, makes me eager to be back on the calm river again.
 
Day Two
 
In the morning, there’s camaraderie on the boat as cheerful but weary travelers compare guesthouse notes (mine had Indiana Jones bedsheets, but only a trickle of cold water in the shower) . My hunch to arrive early proved correct – there are limited cushions on the seats today, but my boatmates are getting creative with sleeping bags, towels, and sweaters. No one comes onto the boat today to sell snacks. Instead, we are all are quietly occupied with books, diaries, and card games. Some people are at the back, cold bottles of Beerlao in hand, chattering in that good-humoured way that large beers allow.
 
Two days on the Mekong is a vivid introduction to Laos, in terms of scenery but also character. Here, the pace is steady but relaxed, the breeze cooling, the landscape fantastically unspoilt. Apart from the splash of the boat’s wake, and the occasional tinny Jack Johnson tune from a backpacker’s ipod, the only noise comes from the odd roaring speedboat, splitting the calm. Their racket confirms our thoughts: to roar speeding through Laos would be all wrong. Go crashing through a country and you’ll miss the fine details; the mountain goats on clifftop, the thatched huts dotting mountain peaks, the clusters of children splashing and waving on the riverbank.
 
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

Taking it Easy in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos

Tourists arriving off a 2-day slowboat bustle around the town, eager to stretch their stiff legs. Trekking enthusiasts use the town as a base point for their ventures north into the dense jungles and tribal villages. Buddhists and curious scholars flock to Phou Si, a sacred hilltop site where Buddha’s footprint is still pressed into the side of the mountain. Luang Prabang may be a mere stopover point on your trip through Laos, but this town merits a few days for exploring. Veteran travellers praise it as a place they’d visit again and again, UNESCO named it a heritage site, and KhaoSanRoad.com applauds it as one of Southeast Asia’s most charming sites.

The remnants of French colonization are still visible on Luang Prabang’s main streets, where colonial architecture coexists with the gilded or teak points of traditional Laotian buildings. Old churches stand beside older wats, and the result is a picturesque mix of architectural styles. While the city is in rapid development thanks to tourist exposure and foreign business, it still maintains a picturesque, European feeling. On a clear day, the city’s winding streets and pretty rivers make it a photographer’s dream.
 
For accommodation, Luang Prabang has a competitive guesthouse market, and touts will greet you no matter where your arrival point may be. The Merry Guesthouses (1 and 2), on the northern end of the downtown, are fantastically clean, spacious and quiet, with kind and helpful staff. Those looking for a view of the Mekong should try Vong Champa Guesthouse, which is clean, cosy, and impressively cheap.
 
By day, the Phou Si mountain offers beautiful views of the surrounding landscape, as well as ornate Buddha statues, a Buddha footprint, and a solemn cave shrine. Near the main street, the former royal palace of Haw Kham is the stuff of postcards; opulent shrines, murals and furnishings, showing many different traditional styles of Laotian art and decoration.
 
For a bit of downtime, L’Etranger is a two-storey gem with a used bookshop/book exchange on the bottom floor and a comfortable teahouse on the top, which plays smart artsy films on weeknights at 7pm. Located on the north side of Phou Si mountain, the great selection of books, teas and snacks make it well worth a visit.
 
Those looking to get out of the city should book a taxi or rent bikes to get to Kuang Si Falls, 30km outside the city. These perfectly blue, multi-layered falls are set amidst lush jungle, and tourists may find themselves lounging all day in these pools. At the entrance, by the odd yet heartwarming bear zoo, stalls of food and drinks ensure that visitors will not go hungry.
 
Come nightfall, restaurants illuminate their patios, inviting travellers to eat and drink while people watching on Xiang Thong, the main street which hosts a vibrant night market. Here, tourists stock up on anything from handmade quilts to ubiquitous Beerlao T-shirts. Foodwise, baguette is a local specialty, and many restaurants go the mile in western offerings by boasting full French menus, with wine and cheeses among its fare. While the food is indulgently delicious, cheaper and fresher fare is available at the many night markets in alleys branching off Xiang Thong. Here, a vegetarian buffet of fresh produce from the Laotian countryside will cost a mere 5000 kip. These markets host a more local nightlife, where Laotian families gather to eat at tiny plastic tables.
 
Though the city is relatively quiet at night, there are still a handful of good bars. Young and thirsty tourists flock to the funky Hive Bar, beside L’Etranger, or the breezier Laos Beer Garden. When the bars close at midnight, tuk-tuk drivers are ever-available to take tourists to Vietnam Bar, an after-hours speakeasy of sorts with good music, plenty of seating, and the liveliest crowd in town.
 
Though Luang Prabang serves as a stopover point for many, its languid pace and compact downtown make it an easy spot to relax. In the midst of the eco-tourism that makes Laos so famous, this city is a great place to spend a few days sipping good coffee, exploring old buildings, and feeling immediately at home in Laos’ most welcoming town.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.

Laos Lifts Us Up Where We Belong; the Gibbon Experience of Bokeo

The Gibbon Experience of Bokeo, Laos
The Gibbon Experience of Bokeo, Laos
The Gibbon Experience of Bokeo, Laos

When globetrotters book their tickets to Southeast Asia, they usually anticipate weeks of lounging on beaches, eating delicious spicy food, and touring stunning temples. But as any traveller can tell you, the most rewarding and memorable experiences are often found off the tourist trail. For some people, it’s hard to tear through such beautiful countries without giving something back. Well, eco-minded adventurers take note of the most exciting conservation project on the map; the Gibbon Experience in Bokeo, northern Laos.
The premise sounds a bit like a boyhood Tarzan fantasy; guests climb up to treehouses and don’t touch the ground for days. Instead, they zipline between huts and throughout the conservation area in attempts to spot the elusive-but-adorable black gibbon. But as thoughts of Swiss Family Robinson come to mind, remember that this project is operated with nature and wildlife conservation in mind. The Societe Animo is the brains behind the operation, working with the Bokeo Nature Reserve to help promote environmental awareness and conscienciousness through this hands-on style of eco-tourism.

The organization is located in Huay Xai, across the river from Thailand’s popular northern border crossing. Here you can book your Gibbon Experience package and catch the 3 hour ride into the reserve (trucks leave every other day at 7:30am).

Once you’ve arrived, you can spend hours touring the camp and its environs by zipline, eat delicious fire-cooked meals, and chat with local guides who will dazzle you with their bottomless knowledge of the forest and its animals. A 3-day stay (approx. $110 USD) includes all food and accomodation, plus hiking excursions and visits to stunning waterfalls.

When you’re not swinging through the trees, monkey-style, take a moment to ask the Gibbon staff about their environmental efforts. Animo encourages grassroots conservation; a common goal that should be realized by local inhabitant, not imposed upon them by foreign organizations or NGOs. The emphasis of the project is on the protection of the black gibbon, a species that was once thought to be extinct before it was discovered again. This is different from the hilltribe tourist treks of “ethnotourism,” which Animo believes is an exploitative move to peddle a tribe’s otherness for tourist profit. Animo wishes to draw awareness and respect to the environment itself, not simply the people. All profits of the Gibbon Experience go towards the conservation of the forest, to help prevent logging, poaching, and scorched-earth farming in the area.

If you’re interested in stepping off the beaten path in Laos, why not forego the tribal treks in favour of the Gibbon Experience? Your money will go towards an important cause, and your three days of tree hut living will be an adventure you won’t soon forget, even when you’re back on the ground.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.