It’s hard to say when we heard the rumor for the first time but it was definitely after the Pamir; we met a cyclist coming the other way who warned us about the steepness of Laotian roads.
Some months later, while tackling slopes of over 20% in Northern Thailand, we started wondering whether Laos could really be worse than that … Expectations were high and we couldn’t wait to find out!
Then, we had a bad experience at the border which really annoyed us and brought our morale right down to the floor and, for a little while, we really didn’t feel so good about going to Laos.
But we did, eventually, make it across the Mekong into Laos and so first up, of course, is the border town of Huay Xai which is definitely a place in which you shouldn’t stay too long. Having said this, we did end up staying two nights because we were both physically and morally knackered from the last week in Thailand and the refused entry at the border (long story… full details here).
A bit too much tourism on the Mekong ?
Huay Xai is mostly famous for the daily boats known as “cruises” which transport goods and tourists to and from Luang Prabang. There is now a good road doing exactly the same (and faster) but people have been spreading the rumour that this two days “cruise” is really worthwhile and so everyone just does exactly what everyone else does.
If observing river banks is your thing and you really enjoy spending two whole days listening to a loud engine fighting over noise supremacy with young westerners whose sobriety deteriorates as minutes go by then yes, this is definitely for you.
“Luckily” we were only catching the boat for one day and then continuing by bicycle. Again, Pak Beng, don’t go there, probably the shittiest tourist trap we’ve ever seen! We just had dinner, a good night’s sleep and we left the next morning.
And that’s when we finally started liking Laos.
As soon as we left the beaten track we got in touch with the locals and the villages filled with smiles and the sound of a word that we will forever remember; Sabaidee, “hello”. After Myanmar, Laos is the smiliest country we’ve ever been to and that’s something that we really loved; it gives more sense to all the hardships that, as cyclists, we endure. Countless times we’ve talked about the value of human contact and if you add a huge great smile to it, everything is multiplied by a million.
Anyway, back to the road.
Our objective was Xayaboury where we had a rendez-vous with Jojo, our Swedish friend, and the only road getting there (Road 4A) goes through Muang Ngeun which is where the whole “you can’t enter with bicycles” thing happened.
It was also our first real stop in Laos and we tried camping but without any luck, even the town’s monastery turned us down! The reason was simple; the police won’t allow it because of the proximity of the town to the border… we were very quickly finding out that 421adventure wasn’t going to like Laotian authorities!
We eventually found a cheap guest house run by some Chinese guys. It had a very pretty, lilly-full pond and Marco managed to drop his sunglasses in it which resulted in a muddy but successful fishing trip, and off we were. We had finally reached our original route and we could now just cycle and explore more of this amazing country!
Several days of deep Laos
We also battled with some of the hardest roads we’ve ever cycled (although we didn’t know it at the time) due to their steepness and the heat. Expecting the whole country to be the same, we told ourselves that Laos was definitely going to kill us! One thing we didn’t worry about was our bicycles; we had managed to solve an issue we had with both of our chains just a few days before and so we weren’t afraid of pushing our bikes to the limit! While we’re on the topic, fellow cyclists reading this; maintenance, just do it!
Needless to say, bad tarmac and steep climbs didn’t ruin our days and we actually adored the feel that this part of Laos has! Human presence is minimal and nature is queen. We very often felt privileged to be there because of the beautiful landscapes which seemed to swallow us whole and really just allowed us to feel part of it all. We also very often felt like we were the first bike tourists to cycle through there and experienced lots of short but meaningful encounters.
By the time we reached Hong Sa we realised that we still felt tired from the previously mentioned ordeals and decided to spend two nights there. Hong Sa is, by the way, a place definitely worth spending a couple of nights. No real reason why, and, if the story must be told, we actually tried to camp when we first got there but we got kicked out by the Police because there’s a power plant nearby and for security reasons… You know the rest… Just another example of the Laotian Police Force and 421adventure not mingling in the right way … But anyway, Hong Sa, it’s local, it’s cute and has a well stocked market which also brings us to an important point about Northern Laos; apart from bananas and instant noodles it’s not always easy to find food.
We noticed this while on the road and then we got confirmation from many other cyclists doing similar routes, and the advice is the following; whenever you find propper grub, buy it! We were organised enough to make sure we cycled through a decent town every 2 or 3 days and asked in advance to make sure there was a market there. Apart from that, we did regularly buy fruit and snacks on the side of the road but nothing really consistent enough to face the 1000+ metres of daily climb.
And so we slowly climbed our way up and down several valleys and into Xayaboury where we met JoJo! We had last hugged months before in Kashgar, China, and we were really looking forward to spending time together. It’s incredible how easily humans get used to their current situation and we had forgotten exactly how nice it is to cycle with other people! Cycling alone vs in couple/group is a long standing debate among bike tourers but, something which is an absolute, is that life in general is better when shared!
We decided to avoid the main road and saw that there was one labelled as “1” which ran parallel to the Mekong and decided to go for it. We had previously investigated this road using Google Earth and so we knew that it wasn’t really a road per se, and it should definitely not be labelled as one, but we loved it nonetheless, probably our favourite 60 kms of Laos! Why? It was just the perfect bike touring trail; very small villages right on the Mekong which is huge and rolls peacefully while reflecting perfectly what’s on the other shore and, best of all, no traffic!
To sleep, we somehow cycled into an unused temple (first one we had ever seen!). Once night fell, someone from the village came over, tried to tell us something using sign language and then proceeded to turning on a light for us which was very thoughtful. Another precious souvenir is that Aurelie showered using the hand water pump by the river which we didn’t know whether it was actually ok or not. Then, out of nowhere, a group of women came to do exactly the same and we understood that that was the way.
The time spent on Road 1 reminded us of something that a guy told us a few weeks before; he highly recommended us to take the 2 day cruise from Huay Xai because it would give us “a unique insight into a disappearing world” but we don’t even know where to begin to explain how wrong he was and how much more we experienced by just not following the herd.
Unfortunately, this is one huge drawback of the tourism industry and it’s vital to keep in mind that, eventually, any type of tourist walk or way or road just becomes disassociated with the reality of a country and it’s hence futile; why travel to see something that it’s not actually real?
The next day, as we were approaching Luang Prabang, we got hit by a storm and night fell upon us. We tried to stay in a monastery located halfway between LP and Kuang Si Waterfalls but without any luck; the Police called and explained that we’d need to pay a tax if we wanted to stay there. Best thing about it, we needed to go to Luang Prabang to pay it!
Laotian Police, please stop !! XD
A well deserved rest in Luang Prabang
We finally waited for the storm to blow over and rode into LP during the night, found a quiet hostel and spent a few days in this amazing city, not only because of its reputation and the fact that we wanted to spend time with JoJo, but also because we needed to do a very important errand; the Vietnamese Visa (which is very easy but not exactly cheap).
It was going to be the only real city we would visit while in Laos so we really tried to make the most of it; we met Mat, a cyclist expat who gave us a really interesting insight into Laos (and lots of great tips!), the UXO Museum, a westerners’ supermarket (with stuff like pasta and peanut butter!), a couple of massages, and we even tried a Karaoke but we were supposed to book in advance so we let it go.
We don’t feel like boring you with details about Luang Prabang, there’s lots of info on the net about it, but we do highly recommend this place; it’s full of life and great restaurants/places to hang out.
Views, bombs and jars
And from there we started the last leg of our Laotian adventure. We were actually dreading it because our route calculator was showing 8000 metres of climb in only 400 kilometres (yes, that’s an average of 20%!) and, based on what we had previously endured, we thought it was going to be hell. So we parted with JoJo who was heading for Thailand, bought LOTS of supplies and left.
In hindsight, it wasn’t that hard (easier than the road between Pak Beng and Xayaboury) and the landscapes were simply breathtaking! We truly had a lot of fun in this section and were only sad about the fact that it was difficult to camp due to the terrain and the fact that there are still millions of unexplored bombs lurking around in the jungle!
Generally speaking, the roads here are in worse conditions (the government built a new main highway to the capital and has abandoned this one and trucks involved in the construction of the high speed railway line are obviously putting a lot of stress on the tarmac) but they are pretty quiet and very scenic. On the whole though, we actually preferred this part of the country to the first one because climbs were longer but more gentle thus a lot more enjoyable (from our point of view).
Again, not a lot of food to be found so make sure to plan ahead. A side note we’d like to add is to really scrutinise whichever type of map you use to find hotels and the like; on Maps.me for example, we couldn’t see any such infrastructure until we really zoomed in and then a few very key ones popped out. By the way, while on the subject, make sure you spend at least one night in Strawberry Farm Campsite just outside Phou Kuon, town which also boasts a very interesting small market.
All that was left was to make the incredible ascent to the famous Valley of Jars with its incredible history (both ancient and modern) and gobsmacking micro-climate which makes you feel at home (it’s very Mediterranean!), almost got chucked out of a Police Station because we wanted to ask a very simple question about the border with Vietnam (last pun about Laotian Police, promised!), had a good rest and great food for the last time and headed for the border where we arrived a day earlier than expected and were denied entry into Vietnam (more info here) and had to wait there for a day (or go back to Muang Nonghet which we rather didn’t…) Amazingly, it was Sunday and there was a market in No man’s land!!!
And so we spent a quiet night in a room in the Quarantine Centre of the Vietnamese Army, we finished the stock of our treasured Khao Niew (sticky rice), and were seriously looking forward to 100+ kilometres of downhill all the way down to the South Chinese Sea where a totally different world was waiting with millions of adventures to live.
As always, don’t forget that we have a superb YouTube channel where you can find 3 amazing short videos on our time spent in Laos depicting all of the information told in this entry. Here are the links;
VLOG #9 From Huay Xai to Xayaboury. Link HERE
VLOG #10 From Xayaboury to Luang Prabang. Link HERE
VLOG #11 From Luang Prabang to Nậm Cắn border. Link HERE