Beyond the Bike 2015/16 - Bamboo with a View.
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Laos PDR - Please Don't Rush
We rushed through Laos (covering the entire country from southernmost to northenmost border in three weeks, cycling around 800km and 'cheating' on two buses. Despite our speedy journey, the affectionate version of PDR (People's Democratic Republic) was ever so true as we found out very quickly (if that is not a paradox!). In fact, we were told the same joke we had been told in several African countries - 'In the west you have the watches but in Laos (or Africa) we have the time.' Laos is one of the most relaxed countries we have visited with plenty of cyclists. Despite its hilliness (sometimes 20% climbs), we really enjoyed our time there - on a few of its 4000 southern islands, in the Mekongside villages and in its two main cities. The only time it was totally crazy was during Pi Mai or New Year.
We had plenty of company on the roads.
It is also another country of cycle tourists! After we left the team from UWS, Stu and I were worried we might not be able to cope to be just the two of us again, but we needn’t have worried as our last night in Cambodia we met Anthony who was also cycling to Laos. The three of us headed together at dawn to the border, tales of corruption at the gate did not disappoint with ‘admin fees’ and ‘extra dollars to get your passports back’ coming true. We were also amazed to see a brand new, huge duty free shop, complete with perfect western loos and a coffee shop. The only people in there were the border guards and cleaners. Who buys the $100 bottles of champagne at this border?!
We headed to the famous 4000 islands, enjoying the flat roads meandering along next to the Mekong. A very ‘chilled out’ couple of days was spent and we managed a quick trip to another ruined temple - the pre-Angkorian remains and Champasak. Again we were blessed with the friendliest of the local people and really enjoyed seeing more and more bicycles, especially children going to school.
Ruins at Champasak
More company on the roads
Then it was onto the ‘VIP’ sleep bus from Pakse to Vientiane - an interesting experience! Once I got over the fact that a) there were massive cracks in the windows (from previous crashes?), b) our bike was blocking the emergency exit and c) all the other westerners seemed to be getting on a different bus (what did they know that we didn’t), I did manage to get a bit of sleep and it was surprisingly comfortable.
Luckily we didn't need the emergency exit.
Then we had a great few days in the capital city. We really appreciated the peace in this relaxed city with a curfew at 11.30! Although it did mean that Georgie (who came up from Bangkok) spent a rather tame birthday with us! A high point was visiting the COPE centre for victims of unexploded devices. We didn’t realise just how much of the Vietnam War spilled over into the CIA's ‘secret war’ in Laos. This pretty neutral country is the most bombed per capita in the world. Even today children are still finding devices and suffering the terrible consequences.
We also did a good bit of admin - sorting out our Chinese visas. Stu laughed at my tactic to ‘drown them in paperwork’ but it worked out brilliantly. We were presented with mutilple entry visas which last two years. Not sure how we managed that but it will make things in China much easier!
We had heard various reports about terrorists shooting, apparently a hangover from the secret war, at tourist buses on the road between Vientiane and Luang Prabang - our planned route - so we had to do a bit of research into this. Luckily a cycling contact in town told us about an alternative route, following the Mekong around to the west.
Georgia, Stu and I set off for Pak Lay. The first day was hot with rolling hills but fine. The second day the rolling hills turned into 20% climbs - impossible for any of us to cycle. Even Stu had to get off and walk a few times. We were exhausted, hot and we ran out of water several times. This uphill 30km stretch is the longest stretch we have done in Asia without any shops, restaurants or even houses for us to get water. We were reduced to flagging down passing cars and asking for water. Luckily nearly everyone gave us a bottle or two.
Georgie joined us for some very beautiful but very hard few days!
Stu and I continued - on our own for the first time in over two weeks! The hills continued but luckily back to the rolling ones for a day. Then the steep ones started again. Laos is beautiful but the smoke we were warned about became unbearable. Fields are burnt at this time of year and the whole country is covered in a thick haze. It makes for some very atmospheric cycling but sadly spoils the view and makes it hard to breathe! We continued to have lots of company on the roads, including an elephant one morning!
Mid April is also Pi Mai, or new year (our third new year so far), this is celebrated by water fights which continue for five days. We were prime target as we cycled through villages and towns to Luang Prabang.
Ou final night before Luang Prabang we met Jacob, another American cyclist. We then spent several days in Laos’ second city. This city did not disappoint: it is beautiful, relaxed and fun. We had the craziness of Pi Mai for three days and then the chilled out ‘normal’ Luang Prabang.
We especially enjoyed hanging out at Utopia, the restaurant/bar run by our host Rob. An amazing place. We visited the Kuangsi Waterfalls (as we had not got enough water!). We loved watching the colourful but serene monks wondering around the city, popping into more stunning temples, heading across the bamboo bridge to the quieter side of the river, and just watching the world go by on the banks of the Mekong.
Then it was another bus, very dodgy, (more about that later) to get up us to Kunming - China here we come!