Houayxai - Louang Prabang ... 05/12 - 09/12
We were told there can be a long queue at the customs so we get there early. Indeed, we haven't been here for long that buses arrive and start unloading Asian tourists. Foreigners are fewer, ten or so perhaps. A 8 am, the window opens, we get a stamp in our passport and that's it, we are out of Thailand. We get down a muddy slope at the bottom of which dugouts are moored. It is a miracle we manage to get the four bicycles in such a narrow boat. Luckily, the river crossing is short, we don't feel to proud on such a tiny boat. We remembered Houayxai, the Lao border post, as a small quiet town. In three years, it has got busier. The main road is lined with small shops and, outside the bank, there is even a cash machine. At the other end of town, about twenty big boats (the 'slow boats') are waiting for the passengers. Even though we are first, we get assigned to a boat that only leaves at 11 am. We hoped to put the bicycles inside but the crew insists we put them on the roof. They start piling them on the derailleurs so Ben jumps on the roof to place them and tie them up safely. The boat is filling up with foreigners and a group of Canadians and Americans come onboard... if only we had known! They start playing on a guitar and a tambourine, it is quite nice to hear some music. In the meantime, about thirty people arrive and start boarding. Our boat is nearly full, the Lao realise it might be time to start filling another boat. That boat leaves only five minutes later. And we have been waiting for three hours! We finally leave, well after 11 am. Beautiful scenery glides before our eyes: green hills, small villages perched at the top of the bank... but the idyllic cruise quickly turns into a nightmare. At the back of the boat, there is a bar that didn't exist three years ago. The locals used to put there bags of rice, chickens and other goods. Once their stock of alcohol has run out, the drunkards only have to extend their arm to get a new bottle of beer or whiskey. The trip is spent mostly amongst shouts, loud songs and noisy stamping on the roof. We had kept a great memory of our trip three years ago but this time we are just impatient to arrive, get back on our bicycles and head for the peace of the hills. In Louang Prabang we met again with a French couple and their little boy on a round the world trip who were also on the boat. They told us most people got on another boat the next day. The landing in Pakbeng is just as stressful. Trish and Sylvie set off to find a guesthouse while Ben and Dimitri are left to unload the bicycles and the luggage. But there are a lot of bags (we counted about 80 passengers) and, as we got on first, our bags are at the bottom. 15 minutes later, the girls come back, mission accomplished. The boys have just started to take the panniers out but some clever young boys have taken our bicycles. The girls are happy to see the bikes at the top of the sandy slope but they are quickly disappointed: '200 bahts for each bike... Really?!!' At the end, we don't yield but, still, we are enraged... not for long, well, we didn't have to carry the bikes after all! In the room, a small sign warns us: 'Electricity between 7 and 10pm'. The shower is cold, Ben and Trish can't help screaming while Dimitri and Sylvie stay stoic. Dimitri now shares a room with Trish and our rooms are just on each side of the corridor. We can talk... and hear the screams in the shower! To be on the safe side, the manager suggests we put our two bicycles in a separate room, one floor below, instead of leaving them in the reception. At 3am, we are waken up by some loud noises, just like if someone was moving furniture... or is it our bicycles? Ben turns on the switch only to remember there is no electricity. We rummage trough our bags looking for our head torch. Sylvie's batteries have run out, Ben finds his at last. He tiptoes in the dark corridor and up to the stairs but doesn't see anything. We get back to bed, anxious, as the noises carry on. The next morning, we learn it was a drunk truck driver trying to get in.
The village is slowly waking up when we get on our bikes. The road goes along a river down a valley. On each side, lush vegetation hides most of the view. It is thicker than in Thailand. The road is going up but we know Laos is hilly and it will be tough to cycle. Sylvie who hates long slopes has told herself there would only be tough ascents. So when the slope flattens up or even goes down, it is a bonus. We are slightly disadvantaged by the weight of our bags and also, we think, our bicycles. Trish and Dimitri are not equipped for cold countries (Trish is going home soon so she has sent a lot home already) and they carry between 10 and 15 kg each. They go ahead while we climb at about 7 to 8 km/h. A bit later, three Thai cyclists catch up with us. Two panniers, shirt and fitted shorts, they look like real pros! They are planning to sleep in Oudomxai. We are a bit surprised, this town is 140 km far and the road is not flat at all. We finally leave the river, the valley widens and we start seeing rice paddies. Three years ago, we were delighted by the green rice fields. That was in July. In December, the rice has been harvested and we can still see it drying on the side of the roads. Some fields are covered of small bunches looking like conic hats. The straw bundles are ready to be picked up while other fields are slowly burning ('slash and burn' culture as it is known). The end state is a desolate, charred stretch ready to be cultivated again. We prefer the rice paddies when they are green... The road goes up and down all the time but the slopes don't last for more than a km or two. We shift gears all the time, we go to the biggest sprockets and, when it is really steep, get on the smallest chainring. The slope flattens, quick, we get back to the middle chainring... On a steeper slope, Sylvie's chain gets entangled on the three chainrings at the same time! We manage to get it out of the biggest one but it is stuck on the smallest one. The three Thai cyclists who just took a break catch up with us. The first one laughs: 'I will send you a cab when I get there!' The next one passes us without a word but the third one, the oldest, stops and flies to Ben's help. Before we even move, he has taken out his tool kit and with a sharp knock opened the chain. We look, helpless, as the chain slips out of the protection tube into a small heap on the ground. Our chain is 2.5 times longer than the chain of an upright bike. Half an hour later, everything is back in place. We thank the cyclist and set off. 3 km further, we stop again, the chain is rattling. Ben notices he didn't pass the chain properly. We open it again but this time we don't let it slip on the ground.
In Mouang Houn, a village 50 km from Pakmong, we meet again with Dimitri and Trish who are waiting for us. But we get hijacked by a wedding! Music, orchestra, crates of beer and about one hundred people seated at big tables... it is Saturday, weddings day! Some men invite us to their table and we understand what it is about very quickly: 'You drink three times, then you, then I drink three times...' After the third round, Sylvie knows that if we stay here we will carry on drinking and that's the end of cycling for the day. We were enjoying the ride so we decide to leave. 30 km further, we arrive in Mouang Beng, a village as big as Mouang Houn. From the start we have cycled through a lot of small villages built on the side of the road. Most houses are built on stilts. Walls are made of woven bamboo peel. The huts are basic, one room where all the family lives and sleeps. Cooking is done outside, crouched around a small fire on the ground. People take their shower outside. In almost each village, a fountain has been built either on the side of the road or among the houses, often bearing 'Red Cross' on the front. Women bathe in sarongs (we wonder how they do it!), men in shorts. We sometimes see wooden houses and, very rarely, a concrete house which looks quite out of place amongst all the bamboo huts. Mouang Beng is a bit bigger than these villages. Some shops sell scooters and most houses are built in concrete. We stop at the only guesthouse and we are not really surprised to find the three Thai cyclists. Our room is at the top, in a bamboo extension. That way, we will know how it feels to sleep in a bamboo hut. A lamp bulb hangs from the ceiling. Sylvie follows the cable to find the switch but it leads nowhere. We meet a Swiss couple, also on bicycles. They started from Oudomxai where they bought one-gear bicycles! They are riding to Pakbeng. We admire them, the road is all up and down, it can't be easy with only one gear. Time to take a shower. There is only one bathroom, for the guests and the hosts. Well, if we can call it a bathroom... The floor is bare concrete, in the corner there is a tank full of water with a small plastic pan floating. From the room, Sylvie can hear Ben screaming. The water is as cold as water from a torrent. But we feel so warm afterwards! We have dinner at 6 pm. At 7 pm, electricity is turned on. That's when we understand: as electricity is switched for a limited time every night there is no need to install a switch indeed. We go to sleep with the light and when we wake up in the middle of the night, it is all dark. Strangely enough, we don't sleep that well since we started travelling. With all the exercise we take, we should sleep straight through the night though. But we wake up well before 6 am so at 7 pm, with about 100 km in the legs, we start falling asleep (8 pm, the cyclist midnight as Will said, a cyclist we met later in Laos). We wake up several times during the night and from 5 am we wait for the alarm to ring. It is only when we stop for a few days that we sleep better. The next day, we only have 60 km to reach Oudomxai. Each village greets us like if we were kings. Children run to the side of the road shouting 'Sabaidiiii'. Some hold their hand out for us to hit it. We hear a few cries of pain behind us! Even the toddlers wave their small hand and mumble 'Baidiiii'. Men and women smile and wave. We pass on our bicycles, at full speed in the descents, at snail speed in the ascents, we smile, wave to our right, to our left... just like a king and a queen in their carriage! As the houses are very small, people live outside, it is fascinating to watch. In the morning, people light small fires and huddle around for breakfast. It is cold and foggy, most of them look cold even though their wear jackets, scarves and woolly hats. Later, men and women leave to pick up some wood for the fire or work in the fields. A few women, children and old people stay in the village. We are surprised by the huge number of children, it makes it look like a generation is missing, those of our parents. We can follow all the daily activities: a young mother, wearing her baby in a carrier takes his hand and waves at us; a little boy tries to kill a bird with his catapult. A little further, we see a woman smoking a long pipe. Girls bathe in the river and comb their long dark hair. A few old women sat on low stools spin cotton. In another village, we pass women weaving the cotton on looms. On the road, we overtake a man carrying two heavy loads of long and narrow leaves. Next, we see some little girls and women tying the same leaves on long poles. They are making a thatch roof. We notice a lot of men with babies in a sling or on their knees. We even see children carrying their little sister or brother on their back! They are also often asked to carry heavier loads like bundles of wood or baskets full of roots.
There is only one road going to Oudomxai but, surprisingly, little traffic. In one day we see a few old buses, some trucks and 'tractor engines' pulling trailers. A dozen or so of scooters overtake us and from time to time, a ramshackle bicycle. More often, it is a new bicycle with a bulky cushion on the back rack. A lot of children go to school on these bikes, often carrying a little one at the back.
Oudomxai is our first 'genuine city' since Chiang Khong. We see again two-storey concrete houses, streets, shops... We find a nice guesthouse and leave the bikes outside to signal us to Trish and Dimitri. One hour later, they are already here. As we guessed, they slept in the first village, Mouang Houn. They partied until 4pm when a woman came to Trish and told her: 'I think you should better take your husband to the guesthouse'. Ooooops... Dimitri hadn't cycled 20 m that he had nearly hit a scooter and narrowly missed by a truck. At the guesthouse, Trish looks backwards to find Dimitri on the ground again, his camera in one hand, laughing his head off and the bike over him! Apparently, at 6pm they were in bed! We walk to Oudomxai market to stock up on bananas (dried and fresh) and stocky rice. Unlike Thailand, food is difficult to find outside the big villages. The closest to a shop we see are thatched huts selling small packs of washing powder, crisps and bottles of unknown liquid. So we tend to buy our food for the day before leaving. Oudomxai is nothing special but we like it. It is busy, there aren't many tourists and no one runs towards us shouting 'Sabaidiiii'.
The next day, we start our most difficult day since we left France: 1300 m of ascent over 35 km. In a few months, after climbing the mountains of New Zealand and Khirghistan, we will probably laugh about it. But for now, we are still testing our limits. We learnt in Uzbekistan we could cycle 150 km in a day on a slightly hilly road. Today, we will see how we deal with long ascents. We leave at 6.30 am, Dimitri waves us goodbye. We beg him not to leave too early so we have some lead over him. Breakfast at one of the stalls of the bus station: sticky rice and sugar for Sylvie and pheu (noodle soup) for Ben. The first ascent starts outside the city: a 25 km slope of 6 to 8% incline. The road turns and wanders along the side of the mountain. We are particularly careful about the vehicles coming the other way. Here, overtaking in a bend is common even if the driver cannot see what is coming. A bicycle is a feather compared to a heavily loaded truck and there is no hard shoulder to escape. In some places, the condition of the road is horrendous. It looks like some elephants have stamped it and then someone repaired it with soil and gravel. When we go uphill it slows us down but in the descents, it is really dangerous as we can slip on it. At the end, we do well on the slope at 8 km/h in average (don't forget we carry between 30 and 40 kg on the bicycles!). Some Thai cyclists overtake us but a few km further, we see one pushing his bike and soon, we overtake them all even though they have upright bicycles and only two panniers. We are proud of ourselves! Just before the pass, Dimitri joins us. It took us 3 hours and him, only 2 ! So, it is true, recumbents are slower when going uphill. There is also the fact that we carry nearly twice more weight than Dimitri. We take a break and have some dried bananas and sticky rice, just the time for Trish to arrive and then we all rush in the descent. We put our fleece on, it is only 10am and still cool. Even if winter is milder than in Europe, the sun takes some time to get up in the morning and mist surrounds us quite late in the morning. Downhill, we overtake easily Trish and Dimitri. Our bicycles are more stable (the advantage of being heavier), there is no risk of doing a somersault and recumbents have a more aerodynamic silhouette. About 15 km further, here comes the second slope. It is only 10 km long this time, easy! Another slope takes us down to the village of Pakmong. We have cycled 82 km, climbed 1300 m and arrived before 4pm!
In Pakmong, some people recommended us the last guesthouse where we meet some cyclists: the Thais we met on the road and also a Dutch man with his Thai wife. They came from Nong Khiao, some 25 km east of Pakmong. It has a nice feel they tell us but it is not on our route. We should keep a few places to discover next time we come. We are thrilled by the countryside and the villages and we already promise ourselves to come back, maybe with upright bicycles. We still think recumbents are the best for a round the world trip (especially when we hear the other cyclists complain about their saddle!) but we find it a bit frustrating in the mountains. So we are already talking of buying an upright bike for specific trips in mountainous countries, next time... We spend a great afternoon chatting on the terrace. Sylvie and Dimitri took their shower first (Ben always sends Sylvie first to test the temperature) and got cold water. Nothing unusual in these villages but Ben and Trish are lucky enough to get a bucket of hot water each. We have dinner in a small restaurant, pheu as usual. We have been eating fried rice and noodle soup for more than a month now and tonight the four of us are dying for something different. When you travel for a long time, you have to eat local food to stay on a small budget and also because it is easier to find. The lack of diversity creates cravings that we try to fill with snacks looking vaguely like what we find in Europe. Trish and Sylvie fall for a box of 'Choco-Pie' but it is a Chinese imitation! They realise, too late, that the box says 'Choco-Bie'. The cakes are barely edible, too bad.
We leave early the next morning, again one hour ahead of Trish and Dimitri. The mist surrounds the road like every morning. We meet a lot of cyclists on the road: all the children seem to have left at the same time for school. They ride in groups of five, ten, sometimes twenty, cycling three, sometimes four abreast. At first we only see boys, strange, girls don't go to school? Four km further, we overtake them. They ride more slowly to have time to chat. A lot of children cycle with a little one on the cushion at the back. Some boys race us and they manage to keep up. We won't see the school, on a side road but it must be huge, we have seen hundreds of children on the 7 km stretch. The sky appears at last and we start warming up. The scenery is still the same, bare rice paddies, yellowed by the sun. We have lunch at a tiny stall on the side of the road. Without the bottles of chili and soya sauce we would never have guessed it was a restaurant. Another pheu but tonight we know we will find baguettes in Louang Prabang. We reach our Eldorado at 4pm. That's it, we did it! People had described us this stretch as very difficult but actually we didn't too bad. The next route is even more hilly but we are confident. Trish and Dimitri arrived before us and they are waiting with a beer!