Cycling in LaosKevin (เควิน) Khaosan
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.