Louang Prabang - Vientiane ... 09/12 - 18/12
Since we landed in Bangkok, we were looking forward to get to Louang Prabang. We remembered a small town with colonial houses, quiet albeit touristy. Our enthusiasm cools down when we arrive in the centre. The price of the guesthouse we stayed at three years ago has tripled and is no longer within our range (the price went from 90,000 to 250,000 kips or 8 to 22 euros). Some other guesthouses give the price in dollars straight out! All these places look like guesthouses on the outside, charming wooden houses but they have fitted the rooms like in hotels: satellite TV, fridge, and air conditioning. We don't need all this fuss but that's how they justify their high prices. We end up in a quiet guesthouse with a reasonable price in a back street. The room is tiny but all in wood as we like it. There is even a communal place with hot water for the tea and the coffee and that's where we take our breakfast in the morning. Trish and Dimitri go for another place, cheaper, and the next day, they leave the centre for a place even cheaper.
A bit shaken by these changes, we go for a walk in the main street. Here too the prices have shot up but not as much as for the hotels. The night market has tripled in size. Three years ago, women were displaying souvenirs on sheets on the ground. Today, they are still sitting on the ground but some canopies have been setup above their head and the stalls extend to small streets on the side. The same artefacts come back again and again: embroidered handbags, cushions and duvet covers decorated with geometrical patterns, colourful silk and cotton scarves. There is also some silver jewellery and wooden objects. After pacing up and down the alleys for three nights, we feel weary. How does each of these women earn a living when all the women around her sell the same things? At the end of the night market are the food stalls where all the people who can't afford the restaurants in the centre come to eat. Roasted chicken, grilled fish in salty crust, spring rolls and a vegetarian buffet appease our hunger. During the day, we treat ourselves to chicken sandwiches made with genuine baguettes. We meet again the Swiss couple and Carole (the English cyclist) we met in Chiang Saen. We also see again the Swiss couple we met in Mouang Beng, the one who was cycling on one-gear bicycles. They managed to cycle up to Pakbeng but they already have to change the brake pads.
Having already visited Louang Prabang, we spend a lot of time chilling out. Mornings are cold and misty so we stay inside. In the afternoon, we go for a stroll with Dimitri. The boys change the oil of Carole's Rolloff (the equivalent of a gear box). We have a big surprise, we see the Dutch couple we met in Yazd, in Iran! They travel by public transports and also found it too cold to carry on in Central Asia.
On the last day, we go to see the most famous and beautiful temple of the city but we now have to pay for it, too bad. Dimitri meets by chance a Dutchman who organises cycling tours in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. One of his clients sent him the profile of the two next legs (recorded on his bike computer). On the day we leave Louang Prabang, there is 40 km of ascent and 2000m in change of altitude... Dimitri and Trish leave one day before us, we will see them again in Vang Vieng.
The first 25 km are up and down and then we start the first true ascent of the day, 15 km steeper than the route Oudomxai - Pakmong. The scenery has changed, the road winds up along the side of the mountains. At every bend, we think it is the last one but we discover a new side of the mountain. Some parts are really steep, maybe 12 to 14%. The speedometer reads 4km/h, even less and we put all our energy into pulling and pushing slowly the pedals. Luckily, these 'walls' don't last very long and at the top, the road seems to flatten. We don't get thrilled though, the road looks flat but we know in reality it is only a bit flatter than the part we have just ridden. The speedometer goes up again: 5...6...7 km/h wouhou! Yes, we are happy with 7km/h! And when we read 11km/h, we stop pedalling, the road seems to go down! Knowing how long an ascent is, is very helpful for the morale. We look at the distance that remains and also the milestones that indicate the distance to the next villages. Some also read 'Capital city'. Going down, the bents are so close to each other that we can't take over. A truck, just in front of us, is poisoning us with its exhaust fumes. He is slower than us but won't let us take him over. Not a problem, we stop for lunch and enjoy the sun and the view over the green rolling hills. The mountains are so steep that there are no rice paddies or corn fields as we saw before Louang Prabang. Villages look poorer, dirtier and people don't smile as much. They look at us like if we were Martians. We carry on going down carefully. We often see chalk drawings on the road. Probably a car or a truck accident. At about noon, the second ascent starts. This one is the nastiest of our whole trip in Laos. 25 km and 1300 m of difference in altitude. We have already ridden 55 km. The heat is at its worst and Sylvie experiences a big drop in energy, she has to stop every 2 km to rest. At the end, we stop and prepare 2L of rehydration salts. After a few minutes, energy comes back. Soon, we see the pass, marked by a big electrical pylon. We are at the pass but the road is still going up. On the other side, the valley widens but the road is still going up ... we feel like crying! The sun is setting, we thought the road to the village was going down. It is just as well the engineers who built the road are not here, they wouldn't be happy to hear what we say about them! At last we arrive and find Carole. She left a bit before us this morning and also she has less luggage and an upright bicycle (always the same story). The guesthouse is not very nice but we get a bucket of hot water.
The next day we get up at dawn. Sylvie nearly has a fit when she spots a giant black spider on the white wall in front of her. We are always divided between calling someone to kill them (they are so big in Laos, we wouldn't know where to start!) or letting them live. We are leaving today so she might as well live. She probably sensed us because after a short while, she decides she prefers to stay under the bed. Sylvie frenetically packs her bags before she gets out again. A hearth full of glowing charcoal warms up our legs while we have breakfast. We are at the top of the hill and the village is still foggy. A local tells us it gets better at 10am, we are a bit worried... Buses stop in Kiewkachan. Women start to get their wares out. It looks a bit like in Louang Prabang except the place is dusty and houses don't look colonial at all. We leave at 8.30am, one hour late. The mist has cleared out a bit but we cannot wait otherwise it will be too hot to ride, what a dilemma. We have lunch in Phoukoun. Built at the junction with road 13 that goes to Vang Vieng and road 7 that goes east to Phonsavan, this little town is buzzing with animation. A group of women selling vegetables and herbs is huddled around a milestone just in the middle of the crossroads. Who would have thought it was the best place to sell vegetables?
Three motorcyclists are having one of their bikes repaired at the local garage. Two small buses full of tourists stop at the market place. They go out, take pictures and get back in their respective buses in no time. Poor them, at least we can stop whenever we want during the day, it reminds us of when we use to travel by bus and couldn't take pictures. We feel privileged as we eat our soup or Pheu. We only have 30km to go and the day is over, after that the route gets much easier. We now have a 25 km descent before we reach the hot springs. Further down we can see the road winning down like a long silver ribbon shinning under the sun like a scar on the side of the hill. The view is often obstructed by high grass so when we see an opening we stop and shoot. It is also a good opportunity for the rims too cool down, the road is so steep that we have to hit the breaks all the time. We have seen beautiful things during our trip but this is probably the best: Green hills everywhere, their sharp edges going down like furrows through the dense vegetation.
Central Asia was full of desert landscapes which is may be one of the reasons for us loving this green vegetation so much.
Two motorcyclists take us over at full speed but we don't envy them a bit as we can absorb every bit of the landscape during the descent. As we reach the bottom of the hill, the road starts climbing at a massive 14% but only for a short distance before we reach the amazing hot springs and the attached "resort"! It is actually a set of 5 little charming wooden bungalows. What a treat after so many days in the mountains, the light switch is even located next to the bed! There is a bicycle leaning onto the bungalow next door. It belongs to Will, an American who is going north, to China. He is good fun and his accent and his cheerful mood reminds us of Dave, one of Ben's best friends. We just have time to invite him for diner before we run to the hot springs. What a feeling, our sore muscles can finally relax, we could spend the night there.
Carole and Sylvie manage to convince Ben to stay an extra day. He is impatient to reach Vang Vieng to drink a milkshake in front of the TV watching Friends. But here, there is a nice balcony overlooking the hot springs and the mountains, a permanent hot spring and cold beer :o) We spend a great evening together with Carole and Will, tasting the local laap (a spicy meat or fish salad). Will has been retired for 2 years and has taken this opportunity to cycle the world for a few months every year.
The next day we wake up at 7 am even though it is a rest day for us. We have breakfast with Will before wishing him a good trip. He has barely left that a red bicycle rushes towards us. It's Trish! The previous evening Will explained us he had met Dimitri on the way. He and Trish had had an accident but we hadn't got any more explanation, and we thought Trish had taken the bus to Vang Vieng. We have a second breakfast with Trish and Carole. Trish explains how she fell on the road on the way down from Kiewkachan. As Dimitri was just behind her he didn't have enough time to stop and fell over her. Trish took some pictures and by the look of it, Dimitri got more injured but he still managed to cycle all the way to Vang Vieng. As for Trish, she met two motorcyclists who dropped her in Phonsavan. She is very excited and we quickly understand that she has fallen in love with... No, not the motorcyclist but his beautiful BMW GS 1200! We advise her to stay for a day and heal her injuries in the hot springs. We spend the whole day between the hot springs, the restaurant and our lovely balconies. At around 4 pm, two other cyclists stop for a rest. They are from the Netherlands and are cycling through Laos for a month before heading back home. It is therefore six cyclists who turn up at this restaurant in the middle of nowhere.
The road still goes up and down the next day but isn't very steep. Half way, we meet a Canadian couple from Vancouver. They also cycle the world for a couple of months a year. They ride the famous Bike Friday, these little 20" foldable bikes. They are great to travel as they fit in a suitcase. We pass a couple of hills before we reach a nice straight downwards slope. Sylvie wants to beat her own record and lets the brakes go, her eyes on the speedometer: 50...55...60... From the corner of her eyes she just has time to realise there is a massive hole in the middle of the street. She hits the brakes but she is way too fast to stop on time and she falls. Ben who sees the whole thing shouts, it looks like the whole scene is in slow motion like in the movies with Ben voice going Nooooooooooo (in a distorted voice). The bags take the hit and Sylvie lands on the side. She isn't hurt so much as frightened. She checks her speedometer, 64km/h, too bad, she didn't beat her record. Ben checks the bike, everything is fine. We meet again with Trish and Carole a few km further. As usual, Sylvie doesn't hear the shouts and whistles and she has to climb back for one km. Noodle soup at a small stall and for once, we have dessert, bananas fritters. The road to Vang Vieng is in a dreadful condition. It seems the government has decided to rebuild the road, a good thing. But reality looks like hell. Every 100 m, the road has been ripped, we ride on big rocks before getting back onto a smooth portion. 100 m further, it starts again. It makes us fume, what's the point of redoing only some patches? In some places, the road has been packed down and, to our horror, we notice a thin layer of fresh tar. The cars drive on it but we manage to ride on the side of the road.
Vang Vieng is just as people described it, Sodome and Gomorrhe has we dubbed it before even arriving. Foreigners wander in the streets now asphalted, girls wearing mini shorts or even just a see-through shirt over a bikini. Boys go barefoot and shirtless... we feel ashamed to be falangs. The main street is lined up with restaurants all looking the same: big cushions and coffee tables and a giant screen showing episodes of Friends or the Simpsons. We meet again the Swiss couple. The took the bus to Kasi, their brakes have broken down so they can't cycle big descents. They tell us where we can find Dimitri. He has taken refuge on the other side of the river, in a small bungalow. He stills bears impressive scars from his accident.
We leave the following day at noon with Dimitri. Trish left early and Carole, one hour before us. We enjoy Friends for an hour or so with a refreshing lemon-mint shake and we leave at the hottest time of the day. The road is even worse than before. The fresh tar covers all the road, cars drive on it without paying attention to us. We have to get off and push our bikes in the grass. We don't feel too thrilled at the idea of washing tar stained clothes. Carole has waited for us at the next village. She has already visited all the guesthouses. We go for the one on the lake, next to the fish market. We lounge on the terrace, watching the sun set on the lake.
The next day, the road is still up and down for about 40 km and then becomes nearly flat. It is so easy that by noon, we have already done 60 km. When we see the sign bearing 'Vientiane 70 km', we decide to arrive the same day. We wanted to take a longer route supposedly more beautiful but it can't be as beautiful as all the mountain views we enjoyed. Dimitri plays the train driver for one last time, Sylvie, Carole and Ben in a line behind him. At 24 km/h, we get in Vientiane at 4:30 pm. We have a farewell drink together at the Kopchai Deu while waiting for Brice, Ben's cousin. 'Youhou, hello ...' it's Trish, she arrived a bit earlier this afternoon. She has a drink with us to celebrate these two months of happy pedaling in Thailand and Lao. We stay in Vientiane until early January before heading back to Bangkok. Trish, Dimitri and Carole carry on south.