And into the wilds of the North I go, to grow stronger than I already know.
I’d made some great progress with my cycling en route to Udon Thani and felt my body and muscles were adjusting to the to the strains and tests of up hill and hard cycling, so having so much time off the saddle had made me think that I’d be starting again. Muscle memory is a wonderfully clever thing, but after only 2 weeks of cycling, I not sure short-term muscle memory applies the same principles, but I was just about to find out.
After spending 10 long days in Vientiane, it was finally d-day and time to put the rest and physio to the test. I’d planned an easy and flat 25km for the day to make sure I was fit enough to continue further North and still within reach of modern facilities should my achilles prove terminal.
The ride was very smooth and straight forward, with lots of basic wooden fruit stalls along the way. The change in the way of life is instantly noticeable only a short distance out of Vientiane.
I booked my hotel in the very sleepy town of Tha Ngon the evening before and on arrival at the hotel, I was excited to see the hotel over looked a stunning river setting, the banks lined with floating boat restaurants on either side playing relatively loud music!
The hotel, Lienkham Riverside hotel was in a perfect location and pretty cheap at £9.68 a night. Actually, let me rephrase that. Quite expensive for a heated conversation. They spoke very little English, and I no Laos, so that was the first hurdle. I showed my confirmation and receipt email from Agoda, which was seemingly understood based on the fact that I was shown to my room. As I collected the rest of my luggage from my bike, the chap walk’s over and shows me his calculator, which is how price is communicated everywhere! Hmmm, seemingly mis-understood. For the next 10 minutes I tried to explain the exact same statement in what seemed like 50 ways, but to no avail. Soon enough, an aggressive, mid 20’s something girl comes out and apparently shouts what could well have been expletives at the young chap that had showed me to the room. So for 10 minutes, and having had some practice, I re-iterate these statements. “I have paid, this is confirmation”, not wanting to pay the small sum twice out of principle and feeling I might be being taken advantage of.
“Cash , cash” she continued
One thing I have learnt, like most languages, is that the literal translation is often very miss-translated and interpreted, but even knowing this, we have a ‘google translation’ conversation back and forth, which only seems to confuse the situation more with this young women getting more and more aggressive and me just pleading my case. Turns out saying things slowly and phonetically just angers young, 20 something hotel managers further and is ill advised. Not getting anywhere, and after spotting a nicer looking hotel on my way into Tha Ngon, I collected my stuff, loaded up Surly Temple and make my way a short five minute ride back up the road. The Nonievong Hotel proved much nicer and at £13 per night, it was perfect. I was pretty pleased to find it as there were only 3 hotels in total in the town. Tha Ngon hasn’t got a huge amount going for it, it seems, but what it does have is some really cool floating restaurants on the banks of the Nam Ngum River.
I spent my afternoon eating delicious pad Thai and fresh spring rolls, writing and watching the world go bye up and down the river. Every 15 minutes I’d find myself in fits of laughter as a floating hut, full of apparently drunk Chinese people would float passed with one person standing and attempting to sing Celine Dion and Mariah Carey karaoke. I had the unfortunte pleasure of seeing one over zealous chap with both hands on the microphone, eyes closed, head rocking back and forth, giving it his all on an Aerosmith track. All very very funny and great lunch entertainment.
As the afternoon grew on and the wannabe superstar sounds subsided, I found myself closing my eyes and drifting off, my mind flowing down stream with the current; peaceful utopia.
Feeling very relaxed, I took a gentle ride back through this sleepy town back to my hotel to put my notes onto my Mac. As expected and as I wanted, blogging and cycling seem to be taking up alot of my time, with time spent in the bigger towns and cities to explore. Cycling really allows you to immerse yourself deeper into the culture of these countries with a new experience in each town you pass through and thus, more experiences to share.
Finding a restaurant for dinner in town wasn’t as simple as at lunch. I wandered the main high street, eyes peeled for something that resembled a restaurant, as more often than not, they don’t. After 15 minutes of walking one way with no luck, I turn and head back passed my hotel the other way. 10 minutes later and with lots of stares and sensing I was one of very few, if the only ‘farang’ in town, I find a roadside stall with tables and chairs and the usual condiments on, meaning only one thing; tonight Matthew, we’ll be eating pork noodle soup, again. So with my steaming bowl of pork noodle soup in-front of me and after adding the usual seasonings of fish sauce, sugar, chilli and chilli vinegar I start tucking in. It’s always a messy affair, especially with a beard and I’m not yet accustomed to the local way of eating with the slurps of soup and noodles. In-fact, putting my headphones in and cranking the volume right up to evade this blood boiling inducing noise has become a common occurrence at breakfast time especially.
After a few minute I was joined at my table by a man in his 40’s picking up his takeaway and apparently wanting to practice his English. “Hi, where you from?” “England, London” I reply.
“England, London.” He repeats, which seems to be a thing, as if to practice and confirm.
His name was Habkon and after five minutes of chatting, he’s showing me pictures of his wife, giving me his number saying “ if you need anything, you call me, I help you!”. “Thank you Habkon, that’s very kind of you.” At that point, his food was ready and after shaking my hand, thanking me for the chat and jumping on his bike he shouts over, laughing “ you want Laos Miss” and points to the shy girl working behind the stall and rides off, still chuckling away. Nice man.
I woke early the next morning to hit the road. I had originally planned to cycle to Thalat, a 65km ride from Tha Ngon, but managed to find somewhere 42km away, which was more in-keeping with my route and easier on my achilles which I was very apprehensive of. I’d wanted to visit Thalat, as it’s one of the closest town’s to the Nam Ngum Reservoir and the Nam Ngum Dam, the hydroelectric dam from the major tributary of the Mekong River. It generates most of Laos’ electricity, including all the power in the capital, Vientiane. It also exports power to Northern Thailand, with 70-80% of power generated exported to Thailand, generating a quarter of Laos’ foreign exchange revenue. Of course with this, there are studies that suggest the dam has had an adverse affect on the lake fisheries and the wider ecosystem.
I knew I’d be seeing part of the Nam Ngum Lake further north so I was willing to sacrifice this, knowing that.
I set out from Tha Ngon around 9am and after a u-turn a km down the road, I was back on track. After another km, it became apparent that this was going to be a rather dusty and bumpy experience.
When using the maps.me APP for navigation, it offers you three route option’s 1.Car, 2.Cycling, 3.Walking, with the bike and walking often the same. I choose the cycling route to take me from Tha Ngon - Phonghong and it soon became apparent that we weren’t in Kansas anymore Todo. This was a real, bumpy treat. Deep red clay roads, bumpy as anything and very dusty that meandered through small, sedate villages with lots of locals staring as I passed. Once out in the open, the rice paddy fields and duck farms on stilts where in their full glory. It was certainly the road less travelled by westerners and I’d certainly take that road again or suggest it to other biketourers. Amongst all the “hello’s”, “sabaidee’s” and wave’s, at one point as I’m passing a secluded school with a small café filled with a group of girls opposite, I hear lot’s of “hello, hello’s’, at which I reply with a wave, smile and “sabaidee”. Well, this really set them off on a ‘Beatles mania’ type scream and I just couldn’t help but smile and giggle to myself.
After 25 km of chewing dust, and having my saddle assault my b-hinde I was back on tarmac, with continued winding and pothole vigilance.
Food option’s are few and far between and for the next 15 km’s I keep my eyes peeled. After passing a few, and just when I though I’d extinguished all of my options, I notice a large, covered, forecourt style, open-sided construction with lots of food stalls in and tables and chairs scattered everywhere. There seemed to be plenty of options around, but not feeling particularly fussy, I settled on the first table that appeared in-front me and parked my rather tender derriere down on the chair.
No guessing what the options were at this place? Yup, pork noodle soup. This one however, was with smoked pork and more coriander than usual and was really delicious. Another lunch and another person wanting to come and practice their English with me. “My nick name is Nisa”, looking at the expression on my face and appreciating the fact that I was never going to be able to say his first name and nor am I going to attempt it’s spelling here. He was a nice friendly chap and explained that he was studying in Vientiane. After a brief chat and wishing each other well, I was back on the road and not far from my next hotel in Phonghong, that I’d booked the night before. This is where things got a little weird.
The town isn’t very pleasant, with little to no reason for a ‘farang’ to stay here. I follow maps.me to the pin locating me to my hotel, and stop just off the road. As I’m checking my maps, another young chap in his late teens pull’s up next to me. “Hello, where are you going?” “There I think”, pointing at the guesthouse sign.
We chat for a bit and he explains that he’s a teacher at a school down the road.
“What are you doing now?” he ask’s.
“I’m going to my hotel and to get some food” I answer.
“Maybe we can go for a beer?” he asked.
“Ok, maybe later, I’ll be at a local restaurant” I say, not particularly wanting to practice much more English for the day and needing to do some work. “Nice to meet you” I say, not expecting to see him again.
I get to where I think my guesthouse is and show the manager my email from Agoda, who then take’s me to my room. I chill out for 15 minutes, organizing my stuff then get ready for shower. I’m in my towel and about to go in to the bathroom when there is a knock on the door. In my towel, I tentatively open the door slightly, expecting to see the guesthouse manager, but standing there is the young guy I met on the side of the road.
“Ummm” I vocalize, surprise and a bit of alarm in my tone.
“Hi, the hotel want paying now” he said.
“Not again. I’ve already paid” I said. I went to grab my phone to show him the email and as I turned around he’s now in my room, making me feel very uncomfortable.
I showed him the email to which he replied “ This is not the same hotel, that is down the road”.
Slightly annoyed that this weird guy is in my room and invading my personal space and even more so that I’m in the wrong hotel, I ask him if he can explain this to the manager and apologise.
As he left, I closed the door and double locked it while I got changed and packed up my things. Fortunately I did lock it as 2 minutes later the door handle goes. “Right, this is weird” I think to myself.
Once I’ve got everything together, I open the door. “They want 50,000kip”. “Fine I said”, fairly abruptly and walking over to the manager and paying him. Sorry, I said nodding.
“I will take you to your hotel” said my new friend standing by his moped.
“Right, ok thank you” a little frustration now emanating from my voice.
150 meters down the road and we arrive at Sensawang, the right hotel that I had booked the night before through Agoda.
“Can you explain that I have a room booked and paid for through Agoda please” I ask my new, peculiar friend, making use of his interpreting skills.
“They want cash payment” he said.
“No! I’ve paid already! Look, this is the confirmation email and it say’s . Y-o-u h-a-v-e p-a-i-d.”
He tried to explain it but they weren’t having it and wanted another payment in cash.
“Right, ok, since I’ve already paid half, I might as well go back to the first hotel” I said.
I jumped back on Surly Temple and rode off, with my little friend following behind me, and arrived back at the first hotel.
“Can you explain please and see if I only have to pay the other half.” I said maybe a little too bluntly.
My interpreter explains and they ask for the remaining 50,000kip up-front which I’m more than happy with.
So after sorting out the hotel, I’m back at where I started. I say thank you very much to my new friend who then ask’s “What are you do now?”
“I need to do some work and have a shower” trying not to offend.
“Maybe we have beer?”
He’d actually been really helpful, albeit pretty creepy over the past hour or so, so I felt obliged and said yes.
“5 o’clock” I said
“20 minutes” he replied
“What? No, 5 o’clock” I said, definitely.
So, after a shower and some blogging and finally settling down and feeling relaxed, I sat outside in the sun, making notes and planning the flowing day.
At 5.15, as I'm walking towards the road, my new friend arrived and we made our way the short 2 minute walk to the nearest place selling food.
The next 30 minutes was all a bit weird and uncomfortable. We stopped at the first restaurant, which was a fly infested shack that was serving BBQ duck that had more flies on it than there was duck. The locals were all eating in there, spitting on the floor and throwing and spitting the bones from the duck on the floor. I order a couple of beer’s and say cheer’s to my new friend. At this point he’s moved his chair closer to mine. I start drinking my beer quite quickly and on noticing, my friend does the same. The duck comes and I start tucking in, meanwhile, this guy who seems like he wants to sit on my lap is now setting up his phone on the table and presses a button. I look at it, then at my food, then back at it, then ask “What's that?”
“Live” he says.
“Pardon?” thinking I misheard.
“It live” he repeats.
“No no no” I said grabbing his phone and placing it face down on the table.
“You are very handsome” he say’s.
“Ok, check bin” I call to the owner, meaning bill please. I knock back my beer and pay the bill.
“I have to go. Thank you for your help today” shaking his hand and remaining polite.
I ended up leaving the remainder of duck, now covered in flies. So after a ‘quick’ beer and a snack of BBQ duck in the most fly infested place in town, literally, less flies on a carcass, and being hit on by a very creepy 18 year old boy who wanted to film me, I was very glad to leave both. I walked down the road with a few glances over my shoulder and arrived at a small shack serving noodle soup but the restaurant was equally as fly ridden. After some noodle soup and another couple of beers, I popped to the convenience shack to grab some water and another couple of beers and headed back to my hotel. I double locked my self in my room and went and sat on my balcony, listening to the chirping of geckos and crickets, whilst blogging.
The town itself is pretty nasty and I would bet that there was no other “farang” in town, as there was absolutely no reason whatsoever to visit it, ever!
2 beers down and the first 1/3rd of this blog written, I wasn’t quite finished with the beers, so I pop to a tiny shop on an unlit back, dusty road. As I’m paying, I man pops around the corner “Hi, where are you from?” in fairly confident and obviously conversant English. “Hi” taken aback a little. “I’m from England”
“Wow, that’s great. My name is Kai and I am English teacher. I have a class now, could you come and teach with me?”
“Sure, I’d love to” holding my bag of Beer Lao and having already had a couple. “Can I leave this here?” not wanting to enter the class carrying a bag of beers.
“Sure, this is my wife” as he point’s to the lady in the shop.
We walked around the corner and walk to the front where I am presented like a star.
The class ranged from 15 -17 and there were 13 students in total.
“This is Andy from England” Kai continues. "He is here to help teach English."
With a few gasp’s from the students that understood and a few puzzled but excited faces from the people that didn’t, the class continued.
I introduced myself and wrote a few things on the whiteboard.
Kai asked every student in class to stand and introduce themselves. “ Hi, my name is ……., I live in …….., there are five people in my family and I enjoy football”
We did a Q&A, where, after a bit of shy silence, I was asked simple question’s. Two giggling girls asked if I was single and that turned to further giggles and blushes when I replied “ Yes, I am single”
The class was great fun and great to see these young teenagers let their guard down after a little while. As I was saying my goodbyes, I asked if I could have a photo with them all and much to my delight, nearly all of the class asked individually if they could have a photo with me, which was amazing.
After saying goodbye and now outside, Kai asked me if I’d like to have dinner with him and his wife, to which I obviously responded “yes please, that’d be great”.
I popped back to my room, which was less than 100m away to bring in a few things from outside that I’d be using.
Once back at the open shop front, I was surprised to see 4 of the boys of the class sat at the table as well and was thrilled to har that they would be having dinner also.
Dinner was delicious and consisted of sticky and steamed rice, pork ribs and bbq pork belly, with stir fried morning glory and a type of broccoli.
The conversation was great also. I learnt different things about the Hmong people and about the language and about their homes etc. The boys were surprised when I pointed out that they could speak four languages, Laos, Hmong, Thai and English and that I could only speak 3 French, English and bad English.
In possibly one of the most backward, western esque towns, I’d experienced something truly great.
I’ve crossed a lot of these experiences recently, and I’m not sure if it’s a case of ‘what you think, you attract’ helping me re-write my story, but it goes to show that in the most surprising of circumstance, great things can happen and incredible experiences had.
The night had been incredible, but I’d definitely consumed too many beers considering my next day’s challenge of 80km to Tha Huea.
I hadn’t book any accommodation because I wasn’t sure of what was available and the past few day’s had proven that booking in these remoter areas didn’t mean anything.
Despite the inconveniences, I must say, I have been very impressed by Agodas response. Having emailed them explaining the situations, they have reacted very professionally and promptly, and I have been reimbursed already for both hotel bookings.
The following day was tough. I wasn’t hung-over when I woke at 06.30, but I knew I’d have faired better if I hadn’t have had 7 big beers and some dodgy duck. Breakfast was a no-no in this town, so once I’d got myself ready, I hit the road and found breakfast 10km up the road that had a great selection of pastries and breads, the lasting influence of the French rule .
I was still nursing a pretty sore achilles, so I knew it was going to be tough in that respect; mentally as well as physically. I hadn’t really been on the bike much since Christmas and had also forgotten that when the route say’s it’s going to be relatively flat, it’s purely comparative and still pretty up and down! Flat in a car or walking is different than when on a bike. Even the slightest of gradient is felt and especially when carrying 50kg’s of guff.
I passed 1 female cyclist coming the other way who had no intention of stopping, so it was a brief “hi and bye”, then when I stopped for lunch at the highest point of the day, I was greeted by a French man called “ Alah or Alan”, who was a nice man and I suggested he sit with me at lunch.
My stomach had been cramping all day from the ‘quack’ the day before and the fear of another episode of ‘Travelers Diorrhea’ creped into my mind, so choosing food had to be strategic. I went for fried rice, the staple cyclist lunch, which went down well and Alah or Alan, went for the same. He was cycling on a recumbent bicycle, which I found amazing. First I’d seen and I was very impressed.
I’d been flagging all day and my left knee was in a lot of pain. I think where I’d been worried about my achilles I’d been changing my pedaling technique which just moved the issue further up to my knee.
It was also very hot and I was de-hydrated and exhausted from the beer and diet the day before, but I had to crack on. 20 Km’s after lunch and I really hit my wall. Hot, very tired and with no energy at all. I stood on the side of the road by the steps of a Wat (temple), bike between my legs and my head resting on my arms on the handlebars. For 15 minutes I stood there, sipping on fluids and gathering my self. I had 20 km’s to go and that 20km’s was either going to kill me, or make me stronger.
Tha Huea is a fishing village at the very northern point at the Nam Ngum Reservoir, the biggest stretch of water in this landlocked country.
On arriving in Tha Huea and to continued “Sabaidee’s” and “Hello, hello’s” from the kids, I kept my eyes out for the guesthouse I’d pin-pointed. Google maps navigation doesn’t work in Laos and I was reminded by this when after expecting to see the guesthouse I’d pin-pointed, I reset google maps and realized I was 3 km passed it. Going back just wasn’t an option, despite being dead on my feet, this adventure is all about moving forward and challenging myself. After another 4 km, I came to a signpost that said, Green View, Ngum resort and Nirvana, with an arrow pointing. I’d tried to book into Nirvanan the day before but they were fully booked, but there were 2 other, so I though what the heck, one of them must have a room. The road leading to them was steep and very very bumpy. Once I arrived, I saw my options and Nam Ngum Beach Resort seemed like the better option. As I pull up in a car park, I’m taken aback by the stunning view in front of me. Whilst stood there, admiring, the thought crosses my mind that if there’s no room in the inn, then I’ll just have to sleep in the car park.
The entrance to Nam Ngum Beach View Resort is secured by a guard and a chained entrance. As I approach, a man come’s from my left, “ Hello, can I help you” with a French accent.
“Yes, do you work here?”
“Yes I do”
“Can, I have a room please?”
“Yes, that rate is 53$ per night”
“Cool, that’s fine” knowing that I was going to injury myself or pass out if I continued.
Turned out to be a great decision.
On being shown to my room, Tao the assistant manager said “once you are ready, if you could come to the reception with your passport and pay, that’d be great”
“No problem, I’ll be with you shortly”
The room was lovely and by far the best since being on this adventure. Stunning views, clean, and upmarket with all the mod-cons. After gathering myself, drinking a sprite from the mini bar and having a loooong shower, I was ready to go and see Tao at reception, but just after a little lay down to take in and admire the view.
“Ahh sugar, knew that was going to bloody happen” waking up still in my towel.
“1 minute” I shout
I walked to the door still in my towel. “Tao, hi. I’m very sorry, I fell asleep”.
I gave him my passport and paid in dollars there and then and continued being very chilled out.
Having recouped for the afternoon and with a sense of serenity, the sun was going down and it was time to kick back and watch the sun set on one of the most stunning of locations.
Food had to be fairly simple for the evening as it seemed I’d come down with another bout of ‘travellers diaorrhea’, as I’d feared and much to my despair. This often means going for something western, so a burger it was, with fries and ketchup.
I had a couple of beers with a bit of lemonade and just kicked back and started writing, awesome.
I’d highly recommend Nam Ngum Beach Resort to anyone passing this on route to Luang Prabang or down to Vientiane, on highway 13, it’s a nice bit of affordable luxury. There’s kayaking, boat ride’s and a swimming pool, which regrettably, I didn’t take advantage of.
The following morning was my laziest yet. There’s been very few day’s in the past year that I’ve stayed in bed after I’ve woken up and that’s usually pretty early, but today was different, this was different and I’m certainly different. I woke at 6 and admired the sensational view. Smiling to my self, I flipped my pillow to get the cold side and closed my eyes. 9am came round and I whilst I felt recouped, I wasn’t quite ready to get out of the 53$ a night bed! At 10am, I made my cup of tea, at 12pm I had a falfal wrap and then it was time to hit the road, knowing I had a nice, simple 26km with a max gradient of 4.6%, which again, of course, was mis-calculated by some 3 degrees I’d say!
The road’s leading into Vang Vieng where dusty and busy and not that pleasant to be on. Every fourth vehicle kicking out black monoxide, leaving a trail of black smoke for the next 100m. This, along with the dusty, bumpy roads, makes for an uncomfortable ride. It wasn’t long till I was cycling into Vang Vieng to find lot’s of ‘Farangs’, walking the streets, sipping on can’s of beer, wearing ‘I love Beer Laos’ vests.
I looked for somewhere to stop for my now habitual arrival beer, but decided to just sit on the side of the road on the pavement and find somewhere to stay, which wasn’t going to be a problem as there were guesthouses everywhere.
I went for one of the cheapest, most central option’s and booked on agoda.com, again.
Popular View Guesthouse, my home for the new few days was as simple as it was cheap. My room suited my needs, the bathroom, like many, was a wet room, equally so, except for the fact that the sink wasn’t plumbed in at all, so the water just splashed onto the floor. Breakfast was including in the £12 per night price and consisted of 2 fried egg’s and a baguette which was a fried egg and a baguette.
The evening was very chilled out with a delicious dinner at Green’s restaurant, that over looked the mountains and was far enough away from the hustle and bustle to get my head down and do some blogging.
2 big Laos beers, a really tasty Massaman curry and steamed rice later and I’m feeling reflective. Blogging away and listening to a play list, when on come’s ‘Cranberries - Zombie’ and I get completely lost in a moment of reflection, staring out into the prodigious karst mountains and am just reminded of what a powerful song it is, then with the reality of where I’m sitting. This being quite poignant also with the recent passing of Dolores O’Riordan, the singer.
I’d tried not to take too much notice of what I’d heard said about Vang Vieng from others and online. I’ve received a very mixed reception so, like everywhere I visit, I wasn’t going to pass judgment until I really explored the place.
When you read about Vang Vieng, you hear about backpackers, high on drugs, raving, tubing and a fair amount of deaths, but beyond it’s infamous reputation is some of the most beautiful caves, hikes and views that make it worthy for your wanderlust bucket list.
You can spend a good 4-5 day’s in Vang Vieng doing activities by day and watching the sunset over the karst mountians by night.
Pha Ngeun Viewpoint, a short 3km cycle across the river, is an incredible, 1 hour 15 minute hike up a rocky, often challenging path which leads you to the top where you are graced by the spectacular views over looking Vang Vieng, where I sat for an hour. I was joined by Romana, a Swiss girl at the top who was really nice and two Italian guys. After a while, it was just me left at the top, the sun slowly lowering in the sky, the heat of the day around 27 degrees with a slight breeze. For 15 minutes, I sat there in the silence of the day, incredibly content with myself, and with a moment of reflection.
‘Quite possibly one of the best disguises for a blessing, and the blessing has been worth it. My being has grown stronger in the darkness and now my inner light shines brighter than ever before.’
There are two options as you near the top. Take the left path and it takes you to a lower view point with a very small shack selling cold drinks. Take the right path and it lead’s you to the top, another 25 minutes of sweaty climbing, but oh so worth it.
It’s a tough climb so take plenty of water and some snacks. I drank 3 litres during the hike and ate a lot of roasted nuts.
Wearing adequate footwear is advised, as at some points it gets pretty hairy. With that in mind, if you are not physically fit, allow your self a good 1 hour 45 -2 hours to climb it.
Tham Phu Kam Cave another 7 km passed Pha Ngeun on the same road is in the same location as the Blue Lagoon. Tham Phu Kam Cave is a 150 meter steep climb up a path which leads to this small opening in the cave.
At the foot of the steep pathway leading up to the cave is a stall, renting head torches which is strongly advised if you are looking to explore the inner depths of this mass formation in the mountain. Fortunately, I had brought my own head torch with me which made all the difference.
Once you step inside, you are immediately amazed by the sheer scale of this cave. In the center of this huge chamber is a Buddhist shrine, which only add’s to the sense of wonder.
As I got inside, my inner Indiana Jones came to life and I was off. Climbing all the nooks and cranies and going deeper and deeper. I met 3 people who’s rented head torches had run out of batteries and suggested they follow my lead. So the four of us, my very bright head torch providing the only light source in this otherwise pitch black expanse, headed to the very furthest point in the Tham Phu Kam cave. I was quite glad to have the company of the 2 girls and guy, as once you reach the very end, you realize how deep into this mass of rock you really are and navigating your way out isn’t as easy as you would think. At various points throughout, a simple trip, slip or loss of balance would mean a broken bone or worse.
After saying farewell to my 3 exploring buddies, I jumped back on my bike and headed back to Vang Vieng town.
The majority of bars and restaurants are lively, with the odd exception. A handful of restaurants are known for playing episodes of the programme ’Friends’, which, as trite as it sounds, is actually quite fun and a good place to sip a couple of beers and write and that’s exactly what I did for the remainder of the evening.
The food offering in Vang Vieng is nothing to sing about compared to it’s neighboring districts, and one thing Vang Vieng is known for is it’s ‘happy meal’s’. Ask for your meal to be happy and expect the following question. “What would you like, magic mushroom, opium, amphetamine?”
A childs Macdonalds happy meal comes with a toy of some sort, a Vang Vieng happy meal come’s garnished with class-a narcotics.
The following morning at brunch in a riverside restaurant, I over heard a western guy say ‘I can’t really remember the rest of yesterday as I did some opium.”
Suffice to say I had some very tasty meals in Vang Vieng, but non were happy.
My time in Vang Vieng was coming to an end and with the hardest leg of cycling day’s a way, I started focusing on my diet and ‘carbing up’. I was getting very excited to get back on the bike and between eating large meals of fried rice I was stocking up on essentials. Sun cream, electrolytes, oreos, that kind of stuff. As well as this, I was in the market for a vest t-shirt which you can find absolutely everywhere in SEA, but finding one with out ‘I love Beer Laos’ or “I heart Chang” is like finding rocking horse poo. I finally came to terms with the fact that branded vest where the only thing available, so I succumbed to an Adidas vest.
Over the past 2 day’s, I’d hiked 3 challenging hikes and my thighs were aching more than they had from any biking I’d already done, so I rested up for the final day, route planning and packing my things together ready for an early rise the following morning.
Vang Vieng – Kasi Hot Spring
I woke at 7, excited and raring to go. The morning before a day’s riding is fairly routine now with sun cream and chamois cream application, a priority. I’m not sure what the difference is between using chamois cream and not, but I know I certainly don’t want to find out. Even with padded short’s and chamois cream, after a long day in the saddle, my derriere feel’s like it’s spent an evening with an over-excited dominatrix with a fetish for paddles.
I’d only planned to ride 50km but after the first 50km, I decided I wasn’t done for the day and continued north for to my next stop and where the mountains started rising and the roads winding. Another 22km, 540m elevation and 13% gradients later, I knew the following week was going to be a sight to be seen, as I’d already read about. I arrived at Kasi Hot Spring Resort, set amongst large karst mountains with the most incredible views. As the name suggests, Kasi Hot Springs has 2 incredible hot springs, perfect to finish off a long day’s riding. It’s well known and recommended on the Laos bike touring circuit as a great place to stop, so I was expecting to see other bike travelers. Sure enough, as I walked over to the restaurant across the road, I spot 4 loaded touring bike’s, 2 of them being quite small. I sit, order some pad Thai and a beer Laos and I’m soon engaged in conversation with the owners of the bike’s. Arnaud, his wife and their twin 11 ish year old boys are from Grenoble, France, and here touring for a few months. We have a really great conversation in to the evening, talking about all things, touring, Laos Politics and their past touring adventures. Arnaud and his wife are seasoned bike travelers and were here 15 years ago, so it’s great to hear of their experiences. They tell of their past adventure’s, cycling through Syria, South America to name a few, which only stirs further excitement in me for my newly found passion for bike touring. Arnaud and family, it was a pleasure to meet you and I wish you all the best.
After a night sleep in a bamboo hut on stilts, accompanied by a few friendly lizards, I hit the road after a strong coffee and my routine chamois and sun cream application.
For the next 40+km’s, from Kasi to past Phou Khoun, there are global government warnings about rebels with machine guns patrolling the area and should be travelled with extreme caution. Not ideal, but it all adds to this incredible experience and actually stirred a little excitement in me.
The first 3 km of the day was an awesome, fast, chilly down hill ride and I knew what was to come, yet I was excited for the challenge.
It was only going to be a 25 km day, but 21km of that was up hill and the next 19km being one long, steep mountain road into Phoun Khoun. 25km, 1,062m elevation and 15% gradients. Awesome.
3km into this beast and the government warnings become an actuality. Through the first small village, I see an older, weathered looked man sat on his front porch, the butt of his machine gun resting on the floor and the barrel in his hands. As I ride passed I give him a nod, a smile and a “Sabaidee”, which is met with the same response. “That went well” I though to my self, a km past, as I’m stopped on the side of the road changing my underwear.
Having done some research on this and although there’s been few shootings over the past 3 years, I didn’t feel worried or unsafe. It only added to the extraordinary adventure I am on.
The day was amazing, with frequent water stops and constant food intake of nuts and oreos. The views got more and more breathtaking as I climbed this long, winding mountain road.
The children are mostly very shy, with some braver kids holding out their hands for high fives, with one particular little bugger trying to hold onto my hand, nearly pulling me off my bike. “Sabaidees” are softy spoken and some in-audible at a whisper. Lot’s of children stand there, silently and tentatively waving with their hand held close to their chest as to not be too obvious. I can’t imagine what their lives will be like, what they’ll do and become.
It’s easy to forget that the rest of the world and the stories we hear and watch on TV are a reality, happening at this very moment, when we get so wrapped in our own lives. These people are creating their own stories, living there lives. One thing I believe to be true is that happiness come’s from within and once you find it and focus on it, it grows.
If you stop with the children, the boys in groups in particular, soon enough their hands are held out asking for money.
At one point I stopped for some water when 2 children on the side of the steep mountain road, playing in a mound of dirt approach me. One was about 4, the other around 7 and holding a machete. Soon enough their hands were held out and they were repeating “money, money, money”
“Right! Nope, nope, sorry”, pedal, pedal, pedal.
If you are going to go, being shot by a rebel is one thing, but being hacked up by a 7 year old with a machete is another. I have no intention of letting either happen, so don’t worry.
I reach the top to see the most stunning, albeit hazy views. After 20km of pure uphill climbing, I needed re-fueling. At the top was the Phou Khoun Observation point and a restaurant, so after admiring the road I’d just battled up, I ordered a sprite, water and large Fried rice with chicken which really hit’s the spot. The view is stunning, with far reached views but unfortunately the haze blurred an otherwise uninterrupted view.
Feeling re-enegized and with a bit of stretching, I hit the road with another 2 km’s of steep uphill to the highest point of the day. From here it’s all down hill into Phou Khoun, a mountain town with 2 guest houses, a large market and little else, yet it’s a very busy through road for large lorries and buses. Phou Khoun is where 2 tourist were murdered 2 years ago, so of all the places to stay for a night, this might have been the worst choice, but with the next leg the hardest part of this route, I had little option.
My rooms view was pretty spectacular and the room clean enough for 80,000 kip a night, a mere £6.75. The evening was uneventful with an early night after some dinner in the restaurant downstairs. The following day was set to be brutal, but when I woke in the morning and before I opened my eyes, my ears were awakened to the sound of rain. I looked out of my balcony window to see the spectacular view replaced by thick white fog. I considered my two options and was grateful to have decided not to go, as by midday, the wind was howling, rain continued and the fog remained. As I sat in the restaurant having lunch that day, I saw another 2 rebels carrying machine guns that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a museum. “Come rain or shine, I will be leaving first thing tomorrow” I thought to myself.
One thing I did read was that the rebel threats were mainly targeted at the Chinese, relating to anti Chinese sentiment in the area, and advice was to avoid travelling in buses with Chinese text. So that morning, I had real giggle to myself when I walked down stairs to breakfast to see the entire front class doors covered in Chinese writing. “Great choice dude, great choice” I said out loud to myself.
The following day I was up and out early into the fog. This was going to be the hardest day on paper but I felt ready for anything. The route from Phou Khoun – Xieng Ngeun was 105km with 2600m of elevation with some very long and steep roads with a maximum gradient of 16.2%. The roads go on and on, rising and rising, each corner providing incredible scenery. The first 60km was pretty easy and I was feeling fresh as arrived in to Kia Kachum at 12.45, the village I had originally planned to stay in. After a large plate of fried rice and stocking up on waters, I hit the road again. The next 10 km was a down hill decent where I reached speeds of 55kmph. The roads are very unpredictable in Laos, with crater size pot holes around every corner, so caution and hands on the brakes is need all the time.
When faced with a challenge like this, my approach is simple. Just keep on going. Each pedal stroke, foot step, stride takes you closer to the finish line. Embrace it. If you think you can, you can.
The morning started out high in the mountains, cold and foggy. By the time I had started my second 20+km’s of climbing in the afternoon, the heat of the day was at it’s peak. Every little bit of shade offering a minute or two respite from the glowing yellow orb, seemingly aiming it’s rays straight at me, as if maliciously. My entire body, dripping with sweat, but each rotation taking me closer to the summit. 15 km’s from the top and I’m as focused as ever, bracing my core and gluteus, and keeping my cadence high and with good technique. “This is extraordinary” I think to myself, loving every last second of it and elevating myself to new heights and capabilities.
The last 10km’s just keeps on going and going until I finally reach the summit where it rolls up and down but fairly flat for a km, then the down hill presents itself. The next 14 km’s is a high speed rollercoaster and all smiles and brakes. 40kmph, 50kmph, over taking lorries, avoiding pot holes, focusing intently on the unpredictable road ahead and on coming traffic and mopeds. The feeling is ineffable, but it certainly brings meaning to the phrase 'high on life'.
Halfway down I met 2 French gentlemen cycling up, sweat dripping and glistening on their bronzed skin. “Hello” I wave furiously with a big grin, which is reciprocated. They seem happy for the stop and for 10 minutes we stand chatting on this mountain road in the middle of Laos, sharing stories and tips for the next towns. They were both nice gents and cool to chat. Knowing what they had for the next 7 or so km’s, I was glad to be going down after already doing 98km’s already and most of it up hill.
Xiang Ngeun is at the very foot of this downhill and I barely have to pedal to my next stop, apart from having to turn around, when I decide to go back to a guesthouse I saw a hundred meters back on my way through.
Stretching before and after cycling has become important and necessary after my recent injuries so after a good stretch, unloading my bike and getting into my £4.50 a night guesthouse, I get showered, throw my clothes on and head out for my habitual, celebratory beer and some food.
I look back on the day feeling proud of the awesome challenge. I’ve got the taste of it now and get excited at the thought of pushing myself further, harder and again elevating my mental and physical strength to levels I’ve only dreamed of.
For the remainder of the evening I’m floating on cloud 9 with the added excitement of the thought of arriving in the incredible UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang the following day.