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Luang Nam Tha to Houay Xai


Many people these days travel to Luang Nam Tha and Huay Xai (Houay Xai), make a stop in Muang Xing but how many ride a bicycle on this road?

In October 2006 I tried my luck and cycled Luang Namtha to Huay Xai (Houay Xai).

Earlier the year I had traveled Kunming to Vientiane and was told the road between the two towns would be completely upgraded by the end of 2006.

The new road between Mohan and Luang Nam Tha
The new road between Mohan-Nateui and Luang Nam Tha

So I wanted to find out if this was true and if this road was worth the effort.

There are two ways to reach Luang Nam Tha: by road or by air. Since flying was not an option, I had to use the road.

And thus, I rode my bike Jim to Vientiane and did the journey to Oudomxai for the third time. I had done the journey reverse earlier the year and in 2002 I had been riding north, as I did now. However, it was a new journey. Of course I recognized the scenery, the villages, the places I had been before but it was in many other ways like a new journey.

I arrived in Luang Nam Tha after a day of little problems. The day had started in Oudomxai where it was slightly raining but as soon as I had left the town the rain stopped and the sun came through.

The road to Huay Xai

Vieng Phoukka in 1996

There was little traffic on the road. Without many troubles I reached Nateui. In between Oudomxai and Nateui there is one village with a basic guest house: Ban Houaluang, about 50 km from Oudomxai.

In Nateui there are a few guesthouses too. Going north from here leads you to Boten and the Chinese border. In fact, the other side of the border contains better hotels then Nateui and Boten so if you plan to go to China, stay a night in Mohan.

A Chinese - Thai owned company has build a brand new road from the Chinese border to Luang Nam Tha and this was the road I wanted to follow.

In 2002, this road had been ok, but now it was in excellent condition. With hardly any traffic I could enjoy the valley I was passing.

The road was all under construction, Luang Namtha to Huay Xai
2007, the road was all under construction

Luang Nam Tha had not much changed. And the next morning I went on my quest to cycle to Huay Xai. The people in Luang Nam Tha had told me something different then a few months back. The road was not upgraded at all. Only the first 40 km was good, after that, well, I would see the rest of the 190 km journey for myself.

Vieng Poukkha

Do you suffer from nightmares every once in a while? Not me! But this road turned out to be a real nightmare. 20 km out of Luang Nam Tha the road ended in beauty. It was 140 km still to Huay Xai and I saw it would be seriously difficult.

The first few kilometers where going up in the hills. The road zigzagged around the mountain slopes but it was fine to cycle. The road surface was dry so I could continue without a problem until ....

27 km from Luang Nam Tha
27 km from Luang Nam Tha

the road preparations started. I arrived at the spot on the photo above and there was no descent passing possible unless I went behind the truck in the mud, knee-deep!

With troubles I passed this spot. But the truck in the middle had to be pulled out of the mud by the road workers tractor.

A few kilometers further it went wrong. My front tire completely teared out. The tube came through the tire and there was no way I could cycle further. And obviously I didn't have a spare with me. Plus, there was hardly traffic on the road and no village in the area.

tire teared up after Luang Nam Tha The tire really wanted to get out
The tube really wanted to get out!

So, what to do? No way to continue riding, but walking back was a long way too. In this part of the world there are usually passenger trucks passing. These song thaws, as they are called, are usually pickup trucks and I hoped to find one to bring me to the next town, Vieng Poukkha.

I was incredible lucky as within 15 minutes a pickup truck passed and was willing to bring me further.

I had no choice but one. So I arrived in Vieng Poukkha with little hope to find a new tire. Vieng Poukkha is a center for the area in trading but even in Luang Prabang I had difficulties to replace my other tire, some days earlier.

However, to my never ending surprise I found ONE made in China tire in a small Chinese shop. Quickly, as if someone wanted to steal away this precious thing, I changed my old (and expensive Continental Town and Country with only about 1200 km done) for this heavier made in China tire.

No way to fix
No way to fix this hole

And I could continue the next day. It started beautiful. Although the road was bad, it was dry and not too difficult. The sceneries were fine too. The road swindled through the hills. Then the climbs started to come. They were usually steep but as long as the road was dry, it wasn't a big problem.

The road in between Luang Prabang and Houay Xai

The road to Houay Xai

2 km out of Vieng Poukkha the new road was almost finished. I was cycling on nice new asphalt, passing small villages and made good progress despite the steep short climbs every once in a while.

The idea was to cycle to Ban Fan Ta and stay there a night. Ban Fan Ta was about 65 km away and in these conditions it would be ok to do. But for what ever reason, I missed the village. And Huay Xai was another 70 km away. But it was just after 1pm so I should be able to ride to Huay Xai anyway.

The good and new road I had left behind me when I reached the 80 km on the counter. And it became harder and harder. In this area the road was being build which meant that the road surface was frequently sprinkled. That caused mud and the mud started to attach to my bicycle. And thus I had to start to clean the bike every once in a while to remove then quickly harden mud.

Vieng Poukkha
The road through Vieng Poukkha, probably now in better condition

After one of the few villages I started a climb. The road wasn't too bad but by now I had become very tired of the on and off climbing on these dirt roads with their steep hills. There was always a thin layer of red dust on the roads in which the wheels sink a bit which made the cycling even more difficult.

Vieng Poukkha
Vieng Poukkha village center in 2007, nothing had changed

The climb I had started was difficult. I had another 40 km to go and it was already 4pm. In the speed I was cycling now I would not be able to reach Huay Xai before dark. So, somewhere in the climb when I felt my legs where numb I decided to get a hitch as soon as I could get. In the speed I was riding now, it would take me hours to pass the climb.

How bad can it be?
It was bad at some parts

I was lucky. The first pickup truck passing took me with them. The guys were road workers on their way to have a few days with friends in Huay Xai. I felt relieved. The bike went on the back and I stuffed myself next to the guys in the car.

It turned out to be a very clever decision to hitch further. The climb became even steeper and even the car had troubles to continue on some parts. At the top the ascending turned even worse. Stones came out of the ground like tombs.

But once the ascending was finished, the road now was nice and asphalted. I tried my luck again and asked the guys to stop and let me cycle further. It couldn't be more then about 30 km and I felt my strength back in my legs.

So I bid them farewell and continued cycling. On and off the asphalt disappeared but as the road was more or less following the valleys it wasn't very difficult. The only thing that made it harder was the red dust. By 6.30 I was Houay Xai. I was by now so tired that even after a shower and some coffee it took me a while to go out and find some food. I knew that I would need the next day a full day of rest.

Facts about Huay Xai

Huay Xai is a little town at the Mekong river. There's a ferry service for B20 to Thailand. There's plenty of cheap guesthouses in the town. Most people will continue their journey by slow boat to Luang Prabang or Thailand from here. You can arrange a pick up truck to Luang Nam Tha. There's a bank, no ATM at the entry point at the river side. US Dollars and Thai bath are best way to go around here. Thai Bath are preferred in Houay Xai.

If you come from Thailand, you can pick up a visa for Laos, $30 on arrival. If you want to cycle to Luang Nam Tha, follow the road out, it's only one way.

There are many guesthouses in Huay Xai. Although I do not think it's necessary to book in advance any guesthouse here, you may want to have a look what to expect, you can use Tripadvisor to do so.

Other pages about Laos:

North Laos Central Laos South Laos

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Oudomxai

Not a spectacular town but worth to spend a night or 2, especially after days on the bicycle.

You can do some cycling in the valley, explore some of the nearby villages or just hang out and rest

Oudomxai

 

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Pak Mong

The first stop after leaving Luang Prabang on the way to Oudomxai. From here you have to cross the mountains.

Pak Mong