Northern Laos through to Northern Thailand by bicycle.
by Damian Batten
Cyclists in Laos
Initially I had formed some idea about, taking my bike from Australia and going to Chiang Mai followed by Chiang Rai. From there I wanted to catch the ferry across and coming down the Mekong River, two day cruise. From there cross the border into northern Laos at Udomxai and Luang Prabang.
Bushfires in Laos
But that was a time frame thing, so it could have taken 4 days out of my time of a fixed fourteen days. But I changed my mind ‘coz I can. I decided to head straight for Northern Laos.
Northern Laos is very, very hilly, sparsely populated and inland from the city it’s a bit of a frontier world with small groups still living there lives without any modern crap The highest peak in Laos is 2840 meters.
Surrounding of Vang Vieng
It has different ethnic groups, with lots of different names, who had often taken different sides to the now ruling LPDR. There seems to be constant surveillance of their bad behavior. As soon as you leave Luang Prabang, the world heritage listed town and head south your visual world changes rapidly.
Three days before I left I decided to buy online a ticket from Bangkok Air, departure time 9.30.a.m. flying directly to Luang Prabang. I had emailed Bk Air about the fact that I was bringing a bike. It should be noted here that if you rock up with a bike and have not notified them they won’t take it. They need 48hrs notice.
A funny sign in Laos
So they’ll leave your bike there for 2 days!! Well I suppose that’s what happens. Thai Air‘s flight from Melbourne had landed on time 6.30 am. So I had plenty of time to do the transfer, or so I thought. The big problem being the processing of bike “too big saga “…extra costs cycle etc.
Well it happened like I planned it, but I hadn’t and never do . Yes the box is too big, phone calls to the unseen person. The bike I had carefully packed the day before and thoroughly wrapped in industrial plastic, ‘coz I had read that they cart then that way, was not needed. The box (now well oversized) would go on the plane, but I was overweight and must pay $ 50 Aus.
Another stand another queue another counter, now the plastic credit card machine didn’t work so I had too go and get Baht. . Finally organized, I then had too wheel the bike over to over sized baggage counter on a luggage trolley, check my bike in and my panniers because they were also deemed oversize and collect my baggage tickets. How do you carry two bike panniers? Well I put them in one of those oh so cheap refo bags, not a good look but effective. See I needed all that time, then off for breakfast.
Village center of Phou Koun
I was traveling with what I considered very minimum gear level. I had a mountain bike with front suspension which had, fat tires and two rear panniers plus a slide in top carrier only. Having fat tires was very questionable, but I had no real knowledge of the road conditions.
Clip in Shimano pedals all up the bike and full panniers weighed 30 kilo’s. I had a few things that were sinful too, I was carrying a BOOK which I eventually gave as a gift, a CD of didgeridoo only music, was another one and probably one pair of shoes too many.
I eventually lost the third pair somewhere. The carrier bag that had my tools and money, spare tubes, slides in on top of the pannier bracket and locks in position, a great piece of design and was absolutely essential. Mine was small, you can get bigger ones but then you put more stuff in them and they get heavy and you have to carry them.
Minimalism is the secret. So I headed off for breakfast . Time for a massage, oh yes!! Neck and shoulders, I knew I as in Thailand coz I got the ”you give me tip“ and ”I am not married” crap, but as always the technique is great. I actually had some Baht, left from last time so I didn’t have to go and change more dollars.
The flight from Australia had been as boring as ever, it was made worse by the fact that I was traveling using my points so they didn’t actually put me in cattle class just next to the toilets, that is in itself punishment enough for daring to redeem.
The game is you use your redemption points to upgrade. But not this black duck. But I look at it this way, you still get a seat, you still get fed, you get a return ticket and you get the ability to change the ticket any time. So are you going to complain? Well of course you are, but not yet. The airport costs and the fuel excise levy add up to over $500 so it’s not free ... ever.
The flight into Luang Prabang was disappointing, it was a rocky trip, full cloud cover and it was pouring with rain, which is a bugger, because the view coming into Luang Prabang is spectacular.
Also when you have a bike in a card board box , it becomes a sagging affair, a bit like me. I stayed at the Rattana guest house last time so I emailed them and asked to be picked up from the airport (Oh yes email works in Laos).
Rattana is about 50 mtrs from Nam Khong river and the street is about opposite where the same same night market started and know drags itself further and further down the road back into town. It was very quiet when I was there.
Not many tourists, not much water in river either, I suppose that’s thanks to the Chinese. Luang Prabang is at the convergence of the Mekong an the Nam Khan rivers and has a mighty rock of marble sticking up almost at the point the two rivers converge. This has allowed this unique town it’s premier position.
The French got the Vietnamese to labor hard, and build lovely colonial buildings which seemed to have missed the Americans bombs and the hit squads of communist modernity. It's unlike Vietnam which has developed a love for aluminum shop fronts.
Buddha’s foot print is here too if you walk the 200 odd steps to the Wat at the top. Marvelous views and it was a great place for a gun placement. Most don’t do the walk, hah fools !!.
Any rate, Rattana didn’t pick me up, “more fool you for organizing them too pick you up“. Ended up in tuk tuk which was just a piece of crap and the driver had no idea where Rattana was but eventually we found it. And yes there is a racket at the Luang Prabang airport US $5 for having the luxury of a Tuk tuk which takes you from the airport car park back into town. Then you pay the Tuk Tuk driver 40000 kip.
Otherwise you walk out of the airport 100 meters onto the road and get a tuk tuk there. This bypasses the whole system. Luang Prabang is as basic and uncomplicated an airport as you will ever find. All they want is your money, and it costs more for Americans and Canadians, just love it. US $30 for ozzies and an instant visa.
So customs is just a series of very small queues. I had forgotten to get the prerequisite photograph, so I was charged US $1. Always carry a few American dollars with you, if traveling any where in Asia.
Also they noticed from my passport that I had been before and they presumed I spoke Lao. His little joke me thinks!! The plane was full of French frogs, so one had too start walking like one too fit in with the crowd in Luang Prabang: monsieur, madam, bonjour, baguette, etc. The European evening stroll, the linen pants, the hat, and the bloody smoking of those awful Gauloise, all of them seemed to smoke! I was constantly thinking about Jacque Tatti movies
The ladies who own and run Rattana wanted me to have one room then another then one with a double bed , so I don’t care . The guest house seemed to be full of more French children all perfect of course. Well perfectly dressed that is .We get the room sorted out , no mention is made of the fact that they forgot to pick me up from the airport. I must be dwelling to say that … I am invited to attend a Buddhist house pre-spring festival warming and that will happen in the house tonight at 6 pm, with supper after. I thank them and say I will attend of course.
By this time I have my bike downstairs and am trying to put a couple of water cages on my bike and too my horror I have found that the brand new (brand new broken ) Blackburn pump that I purchased for the journey is anon goer …. efit.
So we walk the bike up the street, ”are you taking your bike for a walk, story” too find a man too pump it up: 2000kip. Then ride around town and find the Chinese market and buy a pump made in china that works. What really sticks in my gout is the fact that I had the similar problem with a high pressure road bike pump at Christmas time, brand new but broken Blackburn pump (“something wrong with the seal“).
I have too say the chink pump as ugly and cumbersome as it is , worked ace. The idea with the Blackburn was that it screwed on where the cages fitted so it would have been compact. Having a pump that works is a good lesson from our riding trip in Cambodia, where I was eventually rescued by the Cambodian army whilst riding down Mt Bokor. After the pump I had fell off the back of the carrier, and I couldn’t repair the flat I had. So a firmly attached pump is a MUST.
I go back too the Chinese market 3 times over the next couple of days as I have no rain coat and no chain and gear oil and not enough quality batteries for the camera. The Chinese market is located opposite the southern bus terminal and it had many things for sale that are found in the night markets. Hate too tell people this. Prices are a lot less, but no bargaining.