3 – 19 April 2016
Border control was a formality taking only 10 minutes. Vientiane accommodation reviews talked about overpricing and inadequate facilities to hopeless staff, so i found a guesthouse 10k before town - own big room with good wifi, aircon, fridge, bathroom and the bike stored in my room for USD 12, which downtown would have cost more than double for much less. I went into town and had an agent issue plane tickets in/out of China and in the afternoon, I biked around town. When I was in Vientiane in year 2000, it had a cosy small town feeling with great ambience - mostly old houses and gravel roads. Unfortunately, only a few old buildings are left and most have been turned into something tourist related - besides the few temples, the only things offered downtown are hotels/guesthouses, travel agents and bars/restaurants, so to me the city has lost most of it's charm (though it's still not as bad as most other Southeast Asian capitals).
The next morning I went to the Chinese embassy and after a few minutes of checking my documentation, I was send to the bank to pay with pick-up 4 days later – as smooth and easy as I had read. I biked around town a few more times the following days though I skipped the tourist stuff as I’d done all of that last time I was here. Different practical matters never worked out e.g. getting Chinese Yuan and maps. The rest of the time, I spent on more detailed planning for northern Laos and China. Previously I had made a rough itinerary based on distances but information about elevation (and grades) made me rethink and make a couple of alternative plans for China having to do 6,000k in less than 60 days or around 110k per day in extremely mountainous terrain without rest days.
I took the chance and went to the embassy a day early to pick up my visa which didn’t work out. However, I met Claire and Stewart also biking north warning me about shootings of random people on the roads around Kasi. I didn’t take it too seriously thinking it was domestic trouble – until I looked it up finding out that many people had been killed and injured the last years with an escalation the last 3 months. Weekly shootings of people in trucks and buses as well as on motorbikes and bikes – and more often foreigners. Not my kind of fun being a sitting duck, slowly making my way up a mountain. Without planning, I decided to go the only way around Kasi – from Vientiane west and later north along the Mekong River.
Next morning I picked up my visa and headed out the first day of a long heatwave with temperatures well up in the 40s (110F) and a feel of 50C (122F) - in the shade. Imagine what it's like riding the road fully exposed – I would soon find out. A good road and fairly flat with only a few small hills so I made good progress. After 60k I began losing energy and less than 10k later I had to lie down a couple of hours to rest – sweating profusely, finger and toe cramps as well as being very dizzy. After some hours, I tried to move on but only got 200 meters before massive muscle cramps in legs and stomach had me down again. Another couple of hours just lying on the concrete outside an old, abandoned building – every time I tried to get up my view was blurry and I was close to fainting so I quickly got down again. I had absolutely no energy but managed to drink regularly and after having an apple and some peanuts, I finally managed to get up late afternoon. Bad timing as I immediately reached a long stretch of rolling hills - short but steep so I had to muster all my last energy and take countless breaks. I passed a few villages and asked for accommodation but nothing for another 40k. People were friendly to let me lie down and rest but they would not accommodate me – even in my tent (though I’m not sure they all knew what a tent is). 8k (which felt like a lifetime) later I had yet another rest with a family working in their garden. The father kept pointing down the road for accommodation though I suspected he meant 30k, which was never going to happen. As he left for some chores, I asked the women if I could camp on their land, and after a bit of confusion and discussion, they offered I could sleep under the house. Very grateful I spent long 2 hours getting the mosquito net up and making my bed – having to lie down every few minutes. They were kind to invite me for dinner with sticky rice, leaves and some fried bugs. I could have used something more filling but I was happy not having to cook myself. During the evening, I drank 6-7 litres of water and still no peeing so I must have been close to dehydration despite drinking even more during the day.
I didn’t get much sleep as it was a wooden house on stilts so all sounds travelled down to me - on top of that most family members came down to smoke during the night. I got up at sunrise and felt tired and queasy eating breakfast. Left after 7 for more rolling hills that turned even worse – 30k of horrible sandy/gravel/rocky road – besides the heat I now also sat more or less permanently in a cloud dust and pebbles on the busy road. I had to ride very slow and still it was rough on the bike and my butt. I finally reached Xanakham early afternoon where some nice women invited me for a free lunch in their restaurant. For hours, they kept bringing more food and drinking beer while I went to a corner for a rest waiting for the temperature to drop. Still more food before I left and then an easy 20k north to Ban Nonsavanh where I decided against staying as it was Saturday evening with loud parties everywhere. So I turned west towards Paklay not knowing what faced me (no planning as I wrote). After 12k I was exhausted and asked a farmer for camping. A little hesitant as he was semi-drunk but he had a friendly face and attitude so I took the chance. He wanted me to sleep in his house but (fortunately) the bike couldn’t cross his bamboo bridge, so I camped a hundred metres from the house. I rinsed off the dust and sweat in the muddy creek while he brought some curious neighbours for a look. Early evening he came down a couple of times to drink with me and insisted I should come to his house. Certainly no drinking but we “talked” a little before I got him convinced that I needed to sleep. Still feeling queasy and dizzy with changing levels of headache, I really needed some sleep and though I got some, the temperature made it difficult until late evening.
Surprisingly (considering his late drinking), he woke me up at sunrise offering me coffee. Very considerate but I was not going to have coffee made from muddy creek water or wherever he got it – I only too well remembered my stomach problems in Myanmar caused by local coffee water. I headed right into double digit grades and made the first ones, but soon I had to walk the bike up the steepest hills (with about 100 kg not as easy as it sounds). After 1½ hour I had done less than 5k, and with even bigger mountains ahead, I knew I couldn’t make it the remaining 30k to Paklay. So for the first time ever I got a ride and I quickly knew it was the right decision. The hills just got steeper many with 15-20% grades, which I doubt I could have made even under normal circumstances. The most I have done is 9k with a 14% average incline being in super shape and with a much smaller load. From Paklay it was gradual uphill along the river so I made good progress until more hills slowed me down. People kept sending me onwards for accommodation in a town I never found and after 40k it was getting dark, so I spent ½ hour asking different people in a village for help – no, no and no; not even camping despite lots of vacant land! I headed out hoping to find a friendly farmer but a few kilometres down the road, I reached another village where I caught up with some young teens biking. Like everybody else, they just talked about that moving target accommodation (always 10k down the road), so I walked up a side street to find help at which time one of the kids decided to invite me home. I offered to camp but the family made room for me in granny’s house and they even had a big mosquito net for me. Again, I was kindly offered dinner – sticky rice and some small fish, which was all bone, so I didn’t have much.
Early to bed and slept fairly well until sunrise. I left at 7 and rode 55 hilly kilometres to Ban Nam Pouy which I reached at 11. Another un-interesting day of riding – very hazy and no views due to a combination of heat and smoke from burning of fields, brush and forests. I considered continuing late afternoon but it was extremely hot and no good places to rest for 4 hours, so I gave myself a treat and found a guesthouse. The aircon was poor but still better than outside – until I turned off the lights at 21 just as the power went for 2 hours. No sleep as the room temperature went above 30, I could hear all sounds from the road/hotel and the mosquitoes now had an easy target in me without a sheet.
Six hours of sleep wasn’t much so I considered staying an extra day but decided to move on as I was awake and it was easier to ride a little every day. Mostly flattish 55k riding to Xayaboury – had I known, I would have pushed the 2½ hours the day before. It was only 10am but it seemed unlikely to do the very hilly 35k to the next town before it got too hot – and again I didn’t want to sit around all day in the heat. I looked at 10 guesthouses and was again amazed by the lack of connection between price and quality. I found a decent place with internet, but it only worked an hour, so maybe it was a hint I should spend the day relaxing. I had my first big dinner and good night’s sleep since Vientiane.
I was ready to leave at 5.30 but the gate was locked and it took almost ½ hour to find and wake up the staff and for them to locate the key – not happy as I hoped to do a longer stretch before it got too hot. After a few hills it was fairly flat for 60k until a long steep hill after Muang Nan followed by 3 shorter steep hills. I was struggling in the late morning heat but happy to make it, proving I was recovering. Early afternoon I found a guesthouse in Xieng Nguen 25k before Luang Prabang avoiding what I thought was the last New Year’s evening. It didn’t help much as they were partying hard here as well preventing much sleep.
Next morning I reached Luang Prabang and was lucky to find a fairly quiet guesthouse at the outskirts of town. While biking I had spent a lot of time considering my options; the heatwave continued; it would still be too hazy for views due to heat/smoke; my bike was very heavy; I was weak and still not in shape; and I faced more and even bigger mountains. Bottom line - I was unlikely to do China within the visa limit and therefore decided to take the bus from Luang Prabang to Kunming, which would solve most of the issues. I never had interest in biking Southeast Asia and southern/central China in the first place, but my mindset was “around-the-world is around-the-world” for better or worse. Taking public transport felt like cheating so it was an epic decision even though there was no real alternative. What happened afterwards was interestingly that it set me free and soon it made sense (if possible) to take another bus to Xi’an where I can start my ride towards Europe along the Old Silk Route, which was what I wanted to do in the first place. Very interesting that it took a weak body to change my strong (read: stubborn) mind – not even all the recent months’ bike problems had accomplished that though they certainly made me consider it and in a few brief moments even quit the trip.
I got a bus ticket for 5 days later so I had lots of time to recuperate, update my website, (once again) change my planning, skype with family and friends, fix and clean the bike, etc. I biked around town a couple of times - like Vientiane it has lost most of its charm since i last visited in year 2000. The water festival and New Year’s celebrations went on every day from morning to midnight with heavy drinking all day – even lots of foreigners had come to take part. Despite all the drunk people, I never encountered any fighting and maybe more surprising no driving accidents. A nice local experience was being invited to join the guesthouse owner’s celebrations with the family – I only participated once from late afternoon when they were already drunk so conversation was very limited. They began partying around noon every day and continued until they were too drunk or ran out of beer, most evenings around 19-21…
Laos never became a great re-visit. The heatwave and my health problems together with no views made it a less interesting experience. However, again the people was the absolute highlight smiling, cheering and greeting as well as generous and helpful when I needed it most (at least some).