Robert Munro
/ Rob Munro

Laos Blog

4th Jan 2003

After being in thailand, laos seems like a whole other country. From Chang Rai we cycled due north to Mae Sai on the Burmese border, then around via the golden triangle to Chiang Kong. Every last person we met during these two days was an absolute freak. I don't know if was a border town thing or due to the festivities of the five day holiday leading up to new years, but it made trying to get a room or meal surreally time consuming.

while peter and i crossed the mekong to huay xai in laos, marc beat a retreat to chang mai for some urgent repairs to his bike. For the next two days the two of us rode through the most remote mountains and largest forest i've ever been through, passing only 3 vehicles (i use that term loosely) on the second day. the first night, new years eve, we spend on the floor of a 'restaurant'. They seemed indifferent to the fact it was new years, and so we celebrated quietly with a burmese cigar and a well deserved sleep (we counted down for Sydney's midnight). the next day we arrived in Vieng Phuka an overgrown village, to discover that it's new years day that's celebrated here, as every second person was rolling drunk.

It's supposed to be the dry season here, but it seems the rain australia isn't getting is also holidaying here. it's rained every night, and when we woke the next day we found it had really poored, and continued to rain us in for half a day. It turned the road into a 70km line of mud snaking through the forest, so we threw our bikes on a songthauw (ute-bus) to get to Louang Nam Tha.

behind our guest house here, along a bamboo bridge over the rice paddies, suspended in a small grove of trees, is a herbal sauna and massage hut- the perfect evening for two cold and tired cyclists.

The last two days have taken us to Udomxai- our first place with more than 3 hours electricity a day (and another, bigger, sauna). The road was pretty rough- ankle deep mud in places. a few sections were sealed (i use that term loosely too) though, which is what we expected more of on highway number 1.

having entered Laos in one of the remotest and leat populated corners, it seems like we're seeing the country in reverse- the villages and towns getting larger and the markets more diverse, the only constant being thick forest following us the whole way.

14th Jan 2003

the rain poured down as we road northwest to muang khua. the mud was knee deep in places, and i gave up try to slip around the edges of puddles in my dry weather tyres and just plowed through the middle. it worked ok. we stayed on the banks of the Nam Ou, Laos second biggest river, and we found out why all the roads had no traffic- the rivers are the main highways. There were dozens of huts along the flats of the river, but with all the rain, overnight the river rose over 2 metres flooding them out. it would have been tragic if the owners didn't seem to find the sight of their huts floating away hilarious.

taking a break from the rain, we spent two days on boats going down the river. on the first night we stayed in Muang Noi, one of the biggest towns we'd been to so far. it had no road or trail linking it to villages over the sharp mountains surrounding it, which meant that the only vehicles on its paths were two muddy bicycles tearing around. the mountains, river and lack of traffic noise also made it a good place to chill out for a while.

we didn't make the whole distance we planned the next day, and ended up staying on a spare mattress in a motorcycle repair shop at Pak Ou, where the Nam Ou meets the Mekong. Arriving in Louang Prabang threw us into a city where the french colonialism could be seen everywhere- buildings, boulevards and bakeries. After two weeks where at least two meals a day where sticky-rice with an egg cracked over them, chocolate cake and bagettes with cheese never tasted so good.

it took another four days to ride to Vientiane, where we're at now. after a few days we were out of the mountains and back into dry hot weather. There's still not really much traffic, but there's alot more tourists. every now and then a bus will pass with some jammed into it. even when we're going up the steepest hill the people in the bus look hotter and seem to be sweating more then us. They definately look more exhausted and seem to complain alot about it.

Our last night in the mountains, at about 1400ms, was spent in a dank agar dish calling itself a hotel in Phou Khoun. In the middle of the night i was woken by the sound of something bashing itself against the walls in our room. pointing a torch up i saw a bat flying around. all i could think of was rabies. i woke up peter and said 'there's a bat in the room we've got to open a window to get it out'. he looked up saw it swooping down and said 'oh yeah' and quickly pulled the blanket over his head. using reflexes honed by table tennis, i snaped an arm up and opened a window. the bat flew straight out. i thanked peter for his help and went back to sleep.

There's far more cycle travellers than we expected to meet- probably as many as 30, which has been exciting for everyone concerned. We also met Frank Van Rijn, at 400,000kms the world's second most cycled man, and with 9? books probably the most published cycle traveller. We'd heard rumours that he was in the country, and as we were stopped for lunch by a river one day he pulled up next to us. it turned out he'd followed pretty much the same route as us, and the same route as me before that in north thailand, and like us was heading for a lake that night, but he settled for the guaranteed quiet of a nice guesthouse in town while we arranged a boat to take us to a guesthouse out on an island we'd heard rumours about. It wasn't quite The Beach, but still fun to discover. Managed to get lost again the next day looking for a shortcut to a national park.

As far as capital cities go, Vientiane is as exciting as Canberra, and as vast as Wellington, which means i haven't felt guilty about relaxing these last couple of days rather than dragging myself off to the tourist sites (although we managed to see both of them in 20 mins ealier this evening). tommorrow we start following the mekong down to southern Laos.

28 Jan 2003

Riding down the mekong (well, near it) was nice, but there weren't as many views to take in, villages, caves and ruins to explore or waterfalls to swim in as the mountains (just one temple with attached carnival), and we covered 250kms in a day and a half due to lack of distractions and flat terrain, where we then happily turned off back up towards the mountains and national parks.

here we almost made it to what is probably the least accesable village in Laos- connected to the rest of the world only by river that runs through the middle of a mountain. we turned off again down a dirt road leading into a national park. it was about 50kms long, and for the last half we were simply following tire trails over rice paddies alongside the Nam Hin Boun. i guess one wet season when the road is impassable anyway some farmer decided to shift the walls of their fields over it. A k or so past the end of the road, the hin boun flows straight out the side of a cliff indiana jones-style. we took a boat up into it- in places it was so wide or tall that my torch couldn't reach the walls. we continued up for an hour, fording a couple of small waterfalls, but we were running out of time and had to turn back before we reached the other side. i really wanted to visit a village where rivers flow into mountains not oceans, but as it was we still had to ride back under the light of the full moon.

we headed further into the mountains the next day, to Lak Sao. It's name means it 20 kms from the border, but it's actually more than 30. it must have been named by the same person who made the map i'm using. from there we headed south for two days along what was called highway 8 but turned out to be a disused road with missing bridges, through Laos biggest national park. We didn't see any of the leopards, tigers or elephants that live there, but it was still nice to be on a road with no traffic and lush forest.

1st Feb 2003

After 4,136kms of cycling (assures my odometer) i'm finished my trip.

From Thakek, back on the Mekong, we caught a bus down to Pakse, saving us 3 days of flat riding so we had time to head up into the mountains again- to the Bolavean plateau, which grows some of the most delicious coffee in the world. expensive on the international market, but for us less than 40 cents a glass with breakfast. (scenery was nice too).

After a couple of days and a great downhill we ended up in Pakse. From here we rode to the Khmer ruins at Champasak where we split up- Peter had to get back to Pakse and across the border to go home, while i spent the next couple of days on boats getting down to the 4000 islands. It was pretty spectacular where the mekong spills over the waterfalls into Cambodia.

After a couple of days on the islands i cycled the two days back up and across to Ubon Ratchatani in Thailand. They were long hot days, and the border at Chong Mek looked like a fence someone had accidentally missplaced in the middle of a market, hidden in which were the thai and lao immigration buildings that i needed to locate and visit in the correct order to get the right stamps. i must have crossed the fence half a dozen times trying to work it all out and no-one seemed to care.

Then all of a sudden is was a smooth road with a big shoulder to the train station and an overnight trip back to bangkok.

The tally for the trip:

  • 5 puntures
  • 4 thousand kms
  • 3 broken cables
  • 2 months
  • 1 bike still rolling