The Three Amigos and our noble steeds take on the north
Luang Prabang had been awesome, with new experiences and new people around every corner, and although I’d had such a memorable experience, I was excited to be getting back on Surly Temple, and onto the next part of the adventure.
Traveling and the experiences are a huge part of this entire adventure, but it’s the challenge of doing it on a bike, solo, that really makes this adventure special to me. You’ve probably seen that reiterated a few times because it really is.
It’s a completely unique way of traveling and always challenging. Where to sleep, where to eat, long distances, mapping, hydration, nutrition, psychology, bike repairs, remote areas, danger’s, security, traffic, potholes, animals, people and the list goes on. This isn’t traveling as it’s commonly known, this is adventure bicycle travel and it’s challenging, dangerous and the most incredible experience. It’s my first, but certainly not my last bike adventure, and I wouldn’t call it a short one either, with a possible 25,000-30,000km km to travel by bicycle.
Northern Laos is dominated by high mountains rising to an average height of 1,500 meters, with tribal villages dotted along the way, and meandering rivers carving their way through the cast formations and remote forested hills which extend for mile after mile up to the borders of Burma, China and Vietnam. This wild and mountainous region has long been a natural path of migration for a wide variety of peoples; many of them – intentionally or otherwise – ended their peregrination in these hills.
The first day back on the bike after 10 days was to Pak Mong, a nice flat 112kms north through some smaller villages. The road follows the Nam Ou River the entire way north, offering some incredible scenery and also an introduction into the many Hydro Dams being built by the Chinese along this stretch of the river, which has eliminated the popular river cruises which provided revenue for the local people and spoilt the stunning scenery. As a developing country and with 70% to 80% of electricity created by the dam exported to Thailand, accounting for about a quarter of Laos' foreign exchange earnings, it’s no surprise the authorities take the easy and quickest route by utilising and selling the country’s natural resources, to the detriment of the local people and the once magnificent surroundings. Unfortunately, the impact of the Nam Ou dams is already visible with the change of scenery and tourism. One Dams affect on the local environment and ecosystem is one thing, but the Chinese are building no less than 7.
I fear for the future of this relatively unspoiled, in terms of infrastructure and commercialisation, and currently peaceful country. Laos will benefit from these projects long after the drastic effects on the people and environment, with China reaping the rewards in the immediate future and Laos' future gain in jeopardy of corruption from the government.
With the Nam Ou and the Mekong converging just north of Luang Prabang, and once the life source of Southeast Asia, the Mekong’s future and the people reliant on it is a fait unknown, and it is sad to see.
Having passed the dams, I turned a corner and I was back surrounded by lush green forest. Soon enough the hills started rolling slightly, but nothing on what was to come further North.
Cruising down hill, surrounded by green forest, with no traffic or sign of life apart from a guy ahead of me in the distance, cycling towards me. We stopped for the usual 10 minute “bike chat”, as is now customary with every cyclist, even if they don’t speak English. He was French and mentioned he’d passed 4 other cyclists stopped at a restaurant 5 km’s back.
It’s amazing; of all the places in Southeast Asia, Laos, possibly the most antiquated culture and stark landscape, has the largest concentration of bike tourists.
5km later and I arrive at a roadside restaurant to see 2 people on their bikes and 2 people sat down. The 2 sat down were Americans and their luggage carriers looked like they were delivering fruit and vegetables, their racks comprised of plastic crates, which seemed to do the trick as well as anything else, so I’m certainly not criticizing, but I’ll stick to my Ortliebs for now.
It was here I also met Kirsty and Ian from the UK; Harrogate, to be precise. Ian having quit his job and Kirsty on a sabbatical and with their children at university, they are taking the opportunity to cycle around Southeast Asia for a few months, before heading back to the UK and cycling around Europe. We chatted for a few minutes and as we were all going the same direction, we decided to ride it together. It’s the first time I’d ever ridden with other people, so I wasn’t sure if chatting while riding is a done thing, or just something that, that really annoying tagger-onner does. Nonetheless, we chatted and pedaled away, waving at the all the locals on the side of the road who look inquisitively at these 3 ‘farang’ on spaceship like bicycles our away to Pak Mong, taking in the gloriousness of northern Laos. After a brief stop and sit down for some cold drinks around 90km in, we arrived in the small town of Pak Mong, after a 110km day.
On passing a restaurant, I hear someone calling out and turned to see a “farang” standing and waving. We stopped and he said he was on a bike also, so we arranged to come back for a beer.
Kirsty and Ian had been recommended a “ best of a bad bunch” hotel and it seemed easy just to stay at the same place, so we booked in, locked up our bikes and made our way down to the restaurant where we’d seen the other guy. Here we meet Yurik and Karina from Switzerland who are seasoned bike travelers having ridden in Laos twice before, but this time they are on a tandem, which sounded and looked awesome from the pictures.
We all had dinner together and shared stories of each others lives and travels which was nice.
Yurik and Karina were heading south the following day and Ian and Kirsty were heading in a different direction but to the same destination eventually, with me having a quick sprint to get to Nong Khiaw to meet Christian and Mike, my Alaskan compadres, to grab the boat. After a pleasant dinner, we bid each other ‘bon nuit’ and hit the hay, ready for an early rise. I shared contact details with Kirsty and Ian and will be sure to keep in touch and follow their adventures.
I’d liaised with Mike and Christian and had agreed to meet them in Nong Khiaw to catch the 5 hour boat ride north at 10.30, so with an easy 30km sprint that morning along the stunning riverside landscape, I arrived in the small town of Nong Khiaw to find Mike and Christian sat out the front of their hostel, bike’s loaded and ready for action.
We tied our bikes precariously to the top of the boat and loaded our gear on the boat, ready to cruise up river. The boat ride is a popular route amongst tourists, with a stop at a small, but growing and changing riverside village called Mong Ngoi, which I had originally planned to cycle to on a very dusty road, but decided to catch the boat with Mike and Christian. In fact, I had planned to cycle the entire way along side the river, which looked like it would have been a great ride.
The small, 20 something capacity boat was filled with a mix of ‘farangs’ and locals, with the boat stopping on the sandy banks in what seemed like the middle of nowhere to drop off the elderly locals.
One elderly chap, in particular, took and shining to my sunglasses, so we swapped for a few minutes to try each others on much to his delight. I also cracked open a bag of nuts and soon enough the elderly chap had his hand out wanting some, which made me chuckle. With a good handful left, I grab his hand and pour the nuts in. Look after your elders I say.
We’d bought a few beers for the journey, and having sunk a couple, every time the boat stopped, mainly Christian and I, would have to jump off and find a ‘respectful’ place to have a wild wee.
The boat was fairly uncomfortable, but fun all the same and a great experience. As we were approaching Muang Khua, our destination, it soon dawned on us that the boat was actually sinking and we were soon ankle deep in water, and with our luggage under a tarp, on the floor. My stuff is fortunately waterproof and was off the ground, however, a poor older German guy’s luggage got completely soaked through. To add insult to injury, on arrival, with a boat full of water, a panicking captain unloading everyone's stuff off, and people disembarking, the elderly chap lost his balance and fell backward into the boat and got completely drenched. We jumped to help and although he dealt with it well, you could tell he didn't really enjoy the experience that much. Poor bloke.
Muang Khua is a sleepy, pretty little town if you look hard enough, with few food options. It was just a stop over before our next leg to Muang Mai the following morning.
I’m an early riser these days and especially when riding, and it turns out Christian and Mike aren’t so much, and I had a feeling they would be much faster than I, so instead of waiting only to be left in their smoke anyway, I decided to stick to my routine and meet them on the road or at our next destination, Muang Mai.
Even though it was only 40km’s, the day's ride was awesome, with 900m of elevation followed by a chilly downhill all the way into Muang Mai.
It was in Muang Mai, of all places, that we had one of the best and most expensive meals in Laos. 900,000 kip, or £75, but it was delicious and quite possibly due to the Chinese influence, being so close to the border.
On the way back to our guest house, Christian picked up some Durian wafer biscuits, which were quite possibly the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten. Durian is a large, Southeast Asian edible fruit, but why anyone would want to eat it, I don’t know. Durian is in-fact banned in lots of hotels and even on the main train network in Singapore, due to it’s potent stench.
The next day started with an awesome bowl of noodle soup in a local restaurant that the owner had recommended the previous day as we cycled past by shouting “noodle soup breakfast" with a huge smile on his face. The day would see us cycling into Vietnam, which the three of us were very excited about. The ride was another day of steep climbing in the heat, with 66km and 1,077m elevation to Dien Bien Phu. On arrival at the Laos border exit, we were told that the border would be closed for 2 hours for lunch and sleep, which is a standard occurrence in Laos.
We sat, we talked, we planned and we ate, and soon enough we were back on the bikes in no-mans land, the stretch between Laos and Vietnam.
The border crossing was relatively simple and quick, with me having obtained my 3 month VISA in the UK. The boys took a little bit longer, with their VISA costing 140,000 kip and the border control pocketing 20,000 for himself, but we were soon on the road again.
After two months, two countries, around 2000km and with some of the best challenges and experiences of my life, this adventure is about to take me into my third country, Vietnam, with my two new friends, the awesome Christian and Mike from Alaska.
The road for the next 5 km or so was a rough, narrow ride on what could have been mistaken for a single track, one way road, which would have been a silly mistake to make, as half way down, steaming towards a corner, appears a fairly large truck not going that slowly, causing me to swerve fairly drastically and then worry about Christian flying down behind and Mike ahead.
The change in culture was instantaneous and drastic. Laos, a very quiet, laidback country with the people slightly confused by what they saw when you cycled passed them, to Vietnam, where the roads are loud and hectic, with every single moped or truck using their “modified” horns to let you and the rest of Vietnam know that they are passing, and the people entranced in you. So much so, that I’ve seen plenty of near misses from people looking back as they are riding their mopeds.
Once at the bottom, we had another long climb up some very gravely roads, until we reached the final climb of the day, where we stopped for a coffee and took in the view.
After coffee, it was a long, fast downhill, with roads doubling back on themselves and on coming lorries struggling up the hills.
Suffice to say, our introduction to Vietnam was a lively one, and very enjoyable.
Dien Bien Phu is steeped in history, and was the location of the climactic confrontation of the First Indochina War between the French Union's French Far East Expeditionary Corps and Viet Minh communist-nationalist revolutionaries. It was, from the French view before the event, a set piece battle to draw out the Vietnamese and destroy them with superior firepower. The battle occurred between March and May 1954 and culminated in a comprehensive French defeat that influenced negotiations underway at Geneva among several nations over the future of Indochina.
It’s a large city considering its location and a good one to stop in on your way into or out of Vietnam.
It was here that I had my first introduction to Banh Mi, Vietnamese for baguette, which differs from place to place and vendor to vendor, but on this occasion was filled with a variations of pork, onion, coriander, cucumber and 3 different sauces in a toasted baguette and was quote possibly one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten. A bold statement considering some of the sandwiches I’ve had. One sandwich that deserves a mention was the Cucaracha sandwich from Poco Loco in Chamonix, France. Having spent a ski season there, I consumed numerous of those things. I digress.
The morning started with this Banh Mi, or should I say these, with all 3 of us getting another one straight after the first, much to the delight and laughter of the woman selling them. Seriously good.
Having had our fill and energy boost, it was on the road for another 70km with 930m elevation to Tuan Giao.
This route really was something else, with some of the best scenery I’ve seen, slightly marred, however, by a very painful Achilles tendon, and this time, it’s the right one, and not the left as before. Grrrrrr….not ideal.
I let the boys go ahead and just took my time, trying ‘preventative further damage cycling’.
On arrival in Tuan Giao, you could instantly tell you weren’t in Dien Bien Phu anymore, nor Kansas. A real wild town. Electronic goods, mainly rice cookers, filled the entire side walks, with people everywhere, literally, everywhere. Who was buying all these rice cookers was another question all together.
I met the guys who had quite possibly found the best hotel in a 60km radius and was surprised to see another couple there from Belgium.
We had a nice dinner at the hotels restaurant and coffee shop. My Achilles flared up out of nowhere, and whilst not as bad as the last time, it was still very painful and “pingy” and I knew I couldn’t ride the next day if I was to continue this adventure.
The boys were happy for a day off as well, so the next day we took a walk round town, much to the delight of the locals. We were dragged into a barbers for photos with 3 local girls and a guy, Mike toked on the local tobacco bubbler pipes and a lady fried some local crackers on the street as we stopped for a beer on the road. The crackers were delicious and almost biscuity.
I decided, for the greater good, that I wouldn’t be riding the next few hundred km’s, and planned to take a bus. Christian decided he was going to get the bus with me and Mike continued on for a few days.
We went to the local bus depot and booked our seats for the next day, leaving at 7.15am.
One man, in particular, was amazed at the hair on my arms and started stroking my arms and beard and showing me his bare arms and giggling. It’s very weird when an old Vietnamese man comes and strokes you, I tell you.
On arriving back at our hotel, we met Joss, a solo Dutch cyclist who had taken the same route as us. We invited Joss to have dinner with us. The couple from Belgium had left that morning.
Joss was a really nice guy, in his late 50’s and I think all 3 of us really enjoyed his company. Just an all-round decent guy it seemed. It would have been cool to spend a few days riding with him.
After a delicious Banh Mi breakfast, Joss made his way and Mike the same, although on different routes I believe.
Christian and I rolled the 100m’s down to the bus depot with bikes fully loaded. After a few offers to by our bikes, we unloaded our luggage and watched nervously as our bikes were put in the back of this big, small, mini bus.
The journey was interesting to say the least. It was a 10 hour bus ride on winding mountain roads, in a bus driven by a man that I would consider, possibly suicidal.
These buses, it seems, are actually the local bus and also the postal service and possibly a drugs run, but that remains to be seen. Big bags of rice, big boxes of something frozen and quickly melting, and people jumping on left right and center.
20 minutes in and one of the guys working, grabbing bags and boxes from the side of the road from people, notices some smoke coming from the back of the bus and right where our bikes where, but fortunately, all was ok and solved. Turned out it just needed water.
40 minutes in and we stop to pick up an old lady and presumably her grand-daughter of about 18-19, who asked if she could have photos with me, which was fine by me.
At this stage, I had forgotten what I had read some months back whilst planning this adventure, about the bus journeys and the Laos and Vietnamese women. Now, an interesting fact is that these ladies, whilst strong as oxs and who can stomach anything edible and prepare the intestines of most animals, get the worst travel sickness known to humankind. Put them inside something with four wheels and you could set your timer to within 5 minutes I reckon.
20 minutes after the women getting on and I start hearing this terrible wreching coming from a few seats back. I don't turn to look, I just turn my music up, putting it out of my mind. A few minutes go by, and over the loudest volume on my headphones, I hear it again, that horrible horrible wreching sound “Yak, yak”. I turn around and see Christian grinning ear to ear which just set me off laughing. The old lady who had got on, continued aggressively yaking for an entire 2.5 hours, until they got off. These tribal ladies living in the remote mountains take this journey frequently and just deal it with such normality.
The rest of the journey was simple, and we were soon out of the mountains, free of any yaking and approaching Hanoi. The sun had set and we didn’t know where this bus was going, except that it finished in Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam.
It was 8 o’clock by the time we arrived with the traffic in full flow and Hanoi life in full flow.
“8 km still to go” I said to Christian, having checked the distance and with me concerned about my Achilles.
We loaded up and hit the road, lights on and senses in overdrive. This is a busy city unlike anywhere I’d ridden yet.
The ride was great fun, whizzing through the traffic amongst the mopeds and the beeping. As we were stopped at a traffic lights, it was the perfect opportunity to mark our arrival, sans one leg of the tripod who would be arriving 2 days later!