To continue where we left of in the previous blog, the waterfalls at Tat Lo, we continued cycling to nearby Salavan to take the early bus direct to Tha Khek, further up north, as this middle part of Laos has limited appeal. According to our research, there should be a direct bus, 400 km and 6 hours travelling. And indeed, a bus is waiting, happy to tie our bikes to the roof, its not exactly a new VIP bus but more of a chicken bus, but who cares. We start travelling at a fairly leisurely pace, picking up lots of people and also lots of cargo, from sugar cane to charcoal. After two hours I check our position in Google maps, we covered 40 km and are going south-west, even past our guesthouse where we started cycling early this morning, so not exactly a direct bus. This is not the only surprise this day, in the end it takes us a lot of stops and 15 hours later we arrive, including a stomach bug from the food vendors selling stuff in the bus. It is a hard life, this travelling.
We take a rest day to recover from this experience and casually visit the nearby Buddha caves. Outside of the cave we see two fully loaded trail bikes with some creative repairs, it looks like the owners have already been on the road for some time. And indeed inside we meet a Hungarian couple, 8 months on the road, starting point in Hungary, final destination New-Zealand. To put our cycling trip in perspective. They are doing it hardcore, with lots of camping in temples and preparing their own food, very impressive.
The next day we continue to the capital Vientiane, also by bus, but this time we made sure its really a VIP bus, and it is also going to be our last bus as we will cycle the rest. Vientiane has a nice feel to it, there is a long boulevard along the mighty Mekong river, with lots of people walking around, a night market and even at sunset group sessions of aerobics with loud music and a teacher in front of a large group of mainly middle aged women who more or less follow the example of the teacher. Fun to watch. The city center is packed with boutique hotels, cafe's and nice restaurants. The french bakeries (e.g. Le Banneton) serve the most delicious almond croissants, and we also spoil ourselves with Sushi. With all these temptations, we stay an extra day, also because it is raining cats & dogs in the morning, not a nice way of starting the though climbing stages ahead.
We visit the COPE center, a museum/manufacture place for the victims of UXO (UneXploded Ordnance). The information provided is shocking: during the Vietnam war, Laos was officially a neutral nation but dragged into a 'secret' war, where the US was bombing supply lines of the Viet Minh. During this period 260 million cluster bombs were dropped, one plane load every 8 minutes for 8 years. Thirty percent failed to explode and ever since the end of the war, 12.000 people have died of this: children playing in the fields, farmers working the rice fields, people making a fire in front of their house, the personal stories told are very sad. Over the last decades, the US has generously donated 20 million dollar to clear up the mess they created. Compare that to the multi-billion dollar war-on-terror because two towers were brought down and you suddenly realize that the value of a life greatly differs and depends on where your cradle stands.
The whole route to Luang Prabang is 5 cycling days with an increasing amount of climbing. The first day is relatively easy to Tha Lat, where we stay in a room overlooking the big Nam Ngum reservoir and enjoy the (fairly cold) infinity pool.
The next day is a bit more climbing, after which we arrive in the very touristy Vang Vieng. The town does have some appeal due to the beautiful backdrop of almost vertical mountains, but tourism kind of spun out of control in the first decade of this century with rave parties on river boats with lots of alcohol and drugs. Yearly about 20 people died in accidents, overdose, broken necks and the like, and a few years back the government closed all the river bars. It is a lot more quiet ever since, but the town still seems to attract a weird crowd of people. We visit the nearby lagoon and very large cave (yes, there are plenty of them in this country).
Then comes the three day stretch to Luang Prabang, which is by far and large the most scenic (and mountainous). The first stop is in Namxa Noy at the very rewarding hot springs and with cosy bungalows around it. The second day is the toughest with 4800 meters of climbing, but at the same time absolutely stunning. Due to the decent amount of luggage on my bike, Strava calculates 6400 calories burned, which is likely to high but gives an indication of the effort. We stay in a very low-key place in the village of Kiewkucham (at 1400 meters), with at the back of the guesthouse a nice surprise, an amazing view of the valley that we have just crossed through.
We enjoy both the sunset and the sunrise, with a cloud cover obscuring the valleys in the morning. As we start the day with a long descent, we enter the clouds making it a bit chilly, but overtime the clouds disappear and we are back to climbing mode and properly sweating again. This last day, although still 3200 meters of climbing, feels easier as we roll into Luang Prabang with the promise of nice french bakeries with good coffees. We stay in town for another two days, visiting some of the many temples in this former capital (when Laos was still a kingdom, until 1975) and swim in the excellent Kuang Si falls. On Monday we will fly to Hanoi to start our tour of Vietnam.
To conclude, the coolest experiences in Laos:
- Literally:the 'infinity' pool at the Nam Ngum reservoir was pretty fresh with around 16 degree water, but with magnificent views.
- While cycling, seeing a snake just next to me chasing a frog, who managed to escape by crossing the road.
- The amazing amount of butterflies, and very big moths.
- Hot this time: the noodle soups, which is breakfast, lunch and dinner for the locals. With beef, fish balls, chicken or pork. Brought to own taste with taugé, lettuce, mint, fish sauce, chilies, sugar and lime. Delicious!