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8 March 2013

Did you know – Luang Prabang means ‘Royal Buddha Image’ and is a city located in northern Laos.  At the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers about 425 km north of the capital city, Vientiane. It is the capital of Luang Prabang Province and has a population of about 50,000.

The city was formerly the capital of a kingdom of the same name and until the communist takeover in 1975, it was the royal capital and seat of government of the Kingdom of Laos. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The city is well known for its many Buddhist temples and monasteries and every morning, hundreds of monks from the various monasteries walk through the streets collecting alms.

Welcome to Laos – wow it’s hot here!  Almost as soon as we crossed the border the temperature soared and got to about 40 degrees!   The roads are very quiet which makes a big change from Vietnam.  You can see that it is a bit poorer here compared to Vietnam but the people, and children especially, are very friendly – always shouting Sabaidee, Sabaidee (hello) after us as we cycle past – half of them are running around in the nude!  The houses seem to be either made of bamboo and wood, graduating to bamboo with a concrete section underneath and then full concrete houses.  The scenery is also quite different – bushier, dry and lots of open areas with no people.

Our first morning in Laos and we struggled to find some food – mainly because we had set off at 6am to avoid the mid-day heat.  Sunrise was only around 6.20 and the morning markets tend to get going just after sunrise.  We settled on some local crispy cooked beef strips, pork on a stick and some sweet doughnut things.  We stopped about 5kms out of town to have some of the pork only to realise it was tongue – yuk!! Not feeling too adventurous first thing in the morning, we decided some of the local boys would appreciate the tongue more than us.  We found the first local boy on his way to school and gave it to him.  I’m not too sure how keen he was about it either, as he shouted towards his little house and two smaller boys came running out (maybe his brothers) and he quickly gave it to them.  Maybe it was brotherly love, who knows. 

Part of the road west to Savannakhet was being upgraded so there were a few bad sections full of pot holes and gravel – it really sapped our energy along with the heat but we eventually made it to Savannakhet after 5 long hot days in the saddle.  Savannakhet is the provincial capital and the biggest town we’ve been in so far in Laos. It is on the Laos/Thai border with the Mekong river being the natural border between the two countries.  We decided to have a few well deserved rest days there.  The town is pretty small with not much to do – it is almost deserted after 7 or 8pm, almost like a ghost town.  Not too many street lights and lots of stray dogs around barking and yapping at you as you walk past.  We did befriend a couple from Germany/Estnonia on a motorbike and spend an evening with them swapping travel stories over a fish steamboat.

The day we left Savannakhet was another big day – we were on the road from 6am to 6pm seeing the sun rise and set and doing around 130kms! 

The rest of the way to Vientiane was pretty much the same – long, hot days. At one of the towns we met Andy from Wales – he hardly had any baggage on his bike – we were both amazed and very jealous!  We ended up having dinner with him and went our separate ways the next morning, it was great to meet you Andy and good luck with the rest of your travel plans.  For those interested in seeing how light you can travel, here is his website:    http://bangkoktobeijing.weebly.com/

The day before we were due to arrive in Vientiane Jacques started to get a niggly feeling in his achillies heal again (the same one he injured a few years ago with running) – we think it was because of all the big days we have been having – some people (we won’t mention any names, seems to think it’s more to do with age than anything else).  We had 60kms to do which we managed but he was in a fair bit of pain, popping some Voltaren tablets every so often.

Our plan was to stay in the capital city for a while to apply for our Chinese visa but after a couple of days we realised it was best not to do the mountains of Northern Laos on the bicycles as this would only make the injury worse.  The mountain passes of the north is almost endless.  The one stretch is almost 200km of ups and downs climbing to about 1400m above just to descend again for 10km or so and then having to do a similar climb again and again.

We had to change our plans a bit, so after handing in our passports and paperwork for the Chinese visa we hired a 250cc motorbike and headed into the mountains for the next week.  The first day was hot and dry and also quite cramped on the bike – it’s certainly not as spacious as Jacques’ KTM.  We were so use to our bicycles and our comfortable leather Brooks saddles that it didn’t take us long to start moaning about the uncomfortable motorbike.  I think we started moaning after about 2 hours.  The next morning we popped in to say hi to Chris and Clive (another couple travelling 2-up on a motorbike) who we had met in Vientiane.  They are both originally from England, but moved to Australia more than 15 years ago.  We set off in the rain that morning, not a light drizzle or the spitting type rain, this was heavy monsoon type downpour rain – the rain lasted the entire day and we were soaked and cold. We only had our wet weather gear for our bicycles, and not cycling means that you get cold a lot quicker.  Not only that, we also didn’t get to see the beautiful scenery – meant to be the best in Laos!

Thankfully the next day was better but still cool – the day we left Vientiane, it was about 38 degrees, and all of a sudden the temp is not much more than 20 degrees.  It was a welcome relief, but was weird being cold again after so many months of really hot and sticky weather.  We spend 2 great days in the Luang Prabang visiting some beautiful waterfalls and a bear sanctuary – so sad though – the bears have been rescued from awful conditions where they are kept in cages so that they have their bile removed but the sanctuary is so small and you can see that they are mentally damaged – they kept rubbing their heads up against the enclosure door – I know that they are better off where they are but it’s still upsetting to see. 

Chris and Clive arrived the next day and we had a couple of beers on the banks of the Mekong river, watching yet another very nice sunset.  They are riding from Brisbane to Bristol on a Suzuki V-Strom – here is their website for those interested:  http://brisbane2bristol.wordpress.com/

It was time to leave and head back down the mountains – the weather had changed and we were able to see the amazing views everyone was talking about!  Our pleasant ride was soon to change though.  The roads aren’t that busy, but there are quite a few busses and trucks on the road.  Early on in the day we were going up one of the passes.  Just as we approached one of the corners, we saw this huge truck coming around the corner at a speed that would put Schumacher to shame.  Like in the movies, everything happened in slow motion.  I clearly remember looking at the truck, watching it coming around the corner with the wheels starting to lift off the ground and thinking, “slow down, slow down, don’t fall over, don’t fall over”.  Luckily, the driver managed to get around the corner, but unfortunately couldn’t stop it from falling over.  The massive truck landed on its side and was heading straight for us, skidding on its side!!  Mandy thought we were going to get hit, but I managed to avoid the rear end of the truck by less than a meter.  I managed to stop on the grassy area on the side of the road and somehow lost my footing, unceremoniously falling over, with both of us ending up in the bush – it was scary and we were very lucky not to have been on our bicycles as I don’t think we would have been able to avoid the truck then!  Thankfully we were ok, just a few scratches from the bush and the bike was fine too (I was really grateful for my riding experience, especially my days as a dispatch rider in London, squeezing through gaps in traffic where you shouldn’t really squeeze though). 

The truck driver was very lucky to have made it around the corner.  If he didn’t, he would’ve been down the side of the mountain and it would’ve been the end of him.  All in all, a lucky day for everyone involved.  It turns out that his brakes failed and he couldn’t control the truck anymore.  We think it was more a case of not in the right gear coming down the mountain and having to brake too much, so the brakes heat up and he can’t stop the truck.  Some (most) of the drivers are far too reckless and drive way too fast for the conditions anyway.  Anyway, after standing around for a minute or so we decided not to hang around anymore.  The bike started up straight away so we got back on and headed off, feeling a bit shaken up but ok.

We made it back to Vientiane without any further dramas and also managed to enjoy some of the beautiful scenery on the way back.  We also managed to collect our Chinese visa and were ready for the next part of the trip.  My achilles was still buggered, so we decided it would be a better idea to rather fly to China.  We booked our flights to Kunming in China and we hope to be able to cycle again once we’re there.

Our final bike ride in Laos was the 4km to the airport.  They have a wrapping service at the airport, and we decided it would be easier for us to rather have the bikes wrapped up in plastic than having to look for bicycle boxes.  This will hopefully also mean that they will handle them a bit better because they can actually see what it is, instead of handling a box and being able to throw it around without a care in the world.  Fingers crossed we don’t get nailed with excess baggage charges.

Final thoughts – All the cyclist we met said they loved Laos.  We did too – the roads are very quiet and generally in good condition and the people are friendly (especially compared to Vietnam).  Laos was a bit more expensive than neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam. We thought it would’ve been cheaper than the other countries.  The food especially, is more expensive – the quality of food isn’t great compared to the Thailand and Vietnam.  Overall a very nice place to go to and somewhere we would like to come back to one day.  Vientiane however was probably the most uninspiring capital cities we’ve been to so far.