26-27 June – Udon Thani, Thailand – Vientiane, Lao – 80 km
“I’m so excited to go to Lao that I can't get the smile off my face,” Tania said as we headed past the customary smokey breakfast BBQ stand out of Udon Thani. We were keen to get to Lao, stopping only once for coconut juice on our way to the Thailand/Lao border. Once at the border, getting our $30 Lao Visa was an effortless process. We cycled over the mighty Mekong River via the Friendship Bridge, and as always, it was soon apparent just how different things are on the other side of the border.
The French influence from years ago is still visible, especially in the architecture. Suddenly, we could find baguettes, and the smell of coffee seemed to permeate the air. I withdrew 1,500,000 Lao kip, which stretched my wallet to nearly breaking point! Once that was done, we headed into Vientiane, the capital city, which must be the easiest capital into which to cycle. We had hardly crossed the border, and Tania was already sampling the roadside food. The guesthouse we had in mind was no longer there, but that was not a problem as there was so much accommodation to choose from that it was fairly easy to find something else. After a quick shower, we explored the city and, at sunset, headed for the riverside for supper. We sipped a Loa beer, watching the comings and goings of Vientiane. The green curry we ordered was so good that we nearly ordered another plate; fortunately, we came to our senses just before placing another order!
We spent the following day in Vientiane, checking out the beautiful temples and shopping at the morning market for computer cables and other necessary stuff. That evening we ate at one of the local restaurants, ordering a variety of dishes, all equally good.
28 June Vientiane – Pak Ngum - 71 km
We took our time in leaving, and once on the bikes, we first stopped at Pha That Luang, the most important national monument in Lao. Legend has it that missionaries from India erected the main stupa to enclose a piece of Buddha's breastbone in or around the third century! After that, it was a short ride out of the city and onto the rural roads; we stopped for baguettes and bananas along the way. Tania also pointed out that all the cars on the road were new and in a middle to higher price bracket - fascinating!
I found the road interesting and loved seeing the temples jutting out of the forest and kids walking to and from school. It is refreshing to have such a safe environment that small kids can get to and from school on their own. It was very much a rice field and buffalo day as we peddled along admiring the scenery, temples, and friendly people of Lao. It was a rather rural area, and once we spotted a guesthouse we decided to stay there for the night, even though it was still early. But looking at the map, it did not appear that there was anything for the next 100 kilometres. The guesthouse consisted of bungalows surrounded by large green fields and plenty of trees, making for a lovely relaxing place to stay, and at 70,000 kip, it was a bargain.
29 June – Pak Ngum – Paksan – 87 km
We were on the road early, enjoying the cooler early morning weather. It was a beautiful ride through the countryside with the mountains on the one side and the Mekong on the other. Every so often, there were tiny villages where we could get water or something to nibble on. What a pleasure it was on the road!
We cycled along, sometimes close to the river, and sometimes the road would head slightly inland. Dried or smoked fish stalls lined the banks of the river, and we enjoyed nibbling on odd and strange things. We spoke to locals and sampled what they had for sale. They always seemed happy to let us try their produce. What a friendly nation it is! Kids shouted, "Sabaai dee" from the roadside; not even the stray dogs chased us. We reached Paksan in good time, had a shower, and then took a walk down the road to the river to look for something to eat.
30 June Paksan – Vieng Kham – 90 km
We woke to a constant rain and decided to wait and see what the weather was up to. Around 9h30/10h00, it cleared somewhat, and we headed out. It drizzled for most of the day, only clearing around 14h00, and even then it still drizzled from time to time. We also found that Google maps were rather useless in Lao. I don’t think that they have been here for the past 20 years. I looked in my diary and noted that I previously (2009) stayed in a place by the name of Vieng Kham but could not find it on Google maps, and neither could we see it on any road signs. In any event, it was supposed to be 92 kilometres from here, so off we went in that direction.
Tania did not feel well, but she pushed on regardless; she is a real tough one. I hardly took the camera out due to the constant drizzle, but it was still a stunning day. Locals tended their cattle next to the Mekong river; others planted rice, and others were busy ploughing the fields. The area was getting more and more rural the further away from Vientiane we cycled. The roadside stalls were now selling petrol by the bottle, charcoal, and steamed duck eggs. They seem to be fond of ducks and duck eggs in this part of the world.
It was a wet and muddy day as we headed further south, past bright green rice fields, interesting markets, and friendly folk. I was delighted when we finally reached a town by the name of Vieng Kham! Despite it not being on any map, it was quite a sizable village with more than one option to stay and quite a few places to eat.
1 July - Vieng Kham - Thakhek – 108 km
The weather forecast was for rain and thunderstorms the entire day. Fortunately, they were wrong, and we had a most beautiful day on the road. Again, the scenery was sublime with the misty mountains in the background and the lush green forests on both sides of the road. As we were heading farther south, the villages along the way were getting smaller and smaller and farther and farther apart.
We passed locals selling their fruit; some had stalls, and others were pushing carts along. We passed herds of buffalo and herds of cattle grazing by the side of the road. We passed farmers using the most ingenious piece of farming equipment. I'm not sure what it is called, but it is very versatile and can be fitted to a variety of innovative auxiliary equipment for planting, threshing, irrigation, and even carting people around. We passed locals carrying their wares in woven baskets on their backs and others carrying them from straps around their foreheads.
The roadside markets were even more fascinating, as they were selling things one only reads about, from rather illegal looking wildlife to interesting pieces of meat. We could not figure out which part of what animal it could possibly come from. As always, there were the rice fields with people standing knee-deep in water, planting rice, and I was wondering how their backs must feel after a day bent over like that.
As we neared Thakhek, we passed the Great Wall of Lao, or rather the remains of the Great Wall. Apparently, its construction is attributed to the period of the Sikhottabong Empire in the 9th century, no one seems sure about the purpose. Historians hold that the wall served as a defence system; others believe the wall functioned as a dike to stem rising flood waters. In Thakhek, we found a hotel across the road from the Mekong River for a very reasonable price. As usual, we were starving and headed out to a lovely restaurant right on the banks of the river where both the food and the view were out of this world.
2 July – Thakhek – Savannakhet – 125 km
I was no ball of energy as I had hardly slept the previous night. Nevertheless, we rolled out of Thakhek at around 7h30. The road was fairly undulating, and we were going straight into the south-westerly breeze, making for a slow day on the road. I was in no mood for taking pictures as we kept a steady pace, passing interesting stalls and loads of kids, doing what kids do during school holidays. The schools in Lao have a three-month break during the rainy season (July to August).
We cycled past plenty of temples where the monks' bright orange robes were drying in the breeze, making a pretty picture against the green of the surrounding fields. Butterflies and dragonflies were, once again, in abundance although it seemed to be getting less forestry. About 30 kilometres from Savannakhet, we found a shortcut, taking about 10 kilometres off our intended route, something we were happy about as we were getting tired. Tania even managed to fall off her bike. Fortunately, she was fine, except for a few bruises and a lump on her head! She is a real tough one. Once in Savannakhet, we found a room and headed straight for the night market, where I bought far too much food again!
3 July – Savannakhet
We spent the day at leisure in Savannakhet, doing laundry and checking out all there was to do in the old city. I went for a jog in the morning, and what a pleasure it was jogging through the streets with all its temples and decaying buildings. Later that day I popped in at the Dinosaur museum and although small, it was a fascinating sight into 110 000 000 years ago. I even got a tour and explanation by a staff member of all the exhibits which I found rather informative as all the information was in Lao and French only.
4 July – Savannakhet – Muang Lakhonpheng – 131 km
We were on the road at 7h30, anticipating a long day. We were lucky and had an excellent day, weather-wise. It was cloudy, but it did not rain, and we even picked up a bit of a tail wind! With all in our favour, we pushed on, making good use of the favourable conditions. I looked around me and realised just how lucky I was to be cycling in this beautiful country with its ever-friendly people. It was the rainy season, and every man and his dog were out in the fields planting rice, leaving the daily chores to the smaller kids. It was interesting to see these tiny kids doing chores we would never dream of allowing a child twice their age to do. It looked as if the little ones were taking over the household responsibilities, from tending the cattle to caring for the babies. The rice fields had the most brilliant green colour, making the colourful temples look even more colourful. Water buffalo grazed lazily along the road while goats and cattle were led off to graze somewhere else. Wooden houses on stilts, with hammocks swinging in the breeze, completed the picture.
The map indicated very little in the line of accommodation, food, or water along the way, but we found plenty of villages—quite a sizable one at around 70 kilometres and a nice-looking guesthouse at around 85 kilometres. There were plenty of little stores and petrol stations along the way where we could fill up with water and get something to nibble on. After 131 kilometres, we cycled into Lakhonpheng (not indicated on the map), where we found quite a few guesthouses. We picked one that turned out to be a poor choice, and Tania was not a happy chappie as the bed was lumpy, and the place had no wi-fi. I don’t care much. As I always say, I'm not buying the place; I just want to sleep, and then I'm off again in the morning. But, then again, I have been doing this for nine years.
5 June – Muang Lakhonpheng - Pakse - 112 km
We woke to bucketing rain and waited for it to subside, but by 08h30 we could see this was not going to happen, so we saddled up and hit the road. The rain continued throughout the day, sometimes just a drizzle, and sometimes, it came down quite hard. It would have been a nice ride were it not for a headwind, making the going rather slow. There was not much we could do but put our heads down and push on.
Tania was a real sport, never complained, and stuck to the task at hand. After about 35 kilometres, I got a flat tyre and realised it was not the tube that was the problem but that the tyre blew. I fixed it with duct tape, but it only lasted for another 35 kilometres. Fortunately, we were right opposite a motorbike repair shop, and lo and behold, did they not have a used bicycle tyre hanging from the rafters? I pointed to the tyre and my wheel, and in no time at all, I had a new tyre fitted, all for 20,000 kip! I could see that the tyre was approximately 100 years old and hoped that it would get me to Pakse, which was still 77 kilometres away.
Along the way, we passed motorbike salesmen with bikes loaded sky high and Gong Makers, hard at work. Gongs are the alarm clocks for the monks; they have to get up at 04h30 in the morning. First, they do a little bit of meditation, and then, they take a little walk to get [fed], after which they study and clean around the temple. The day dragged on, and it felt like we were not getting anywhere, but all comes to an end, and around 18h00, we cycled into Pakse, found the nearest guesthouse, and headed straight for a restaurant.
We cycled past pink water buffalo, and I swear that it had nothing to do with drugs or the fact that I had hardly drunk any water on this day. Locals were sitting under their houses, hiding from the rain, making small fires (they must have thought it was cold). I loved the smell of the wet, smoky wood mixed with the smell of wet soil; it is such a basic, earthy smell.
We passed plenty of ladies selling mushrooms along the way. It was not the fact that they were selling mushrooms that were interesting but the vast variety that was impressive; there were big ones and small ones, underground ones and above-ground ones, single ones and ones growing in clumps, and just about all the colours one could think of.
7 July – Pakse – Champasak – 55 km
The rain finally subsided, and we cycled the short distance to Champasak, and what a stunning day it was. Bright green rice fields lined the road, and the good rains of the previous few days had soaked the fields, making them ready for planting. We had the misty mountains to the one side and the Mekong River to the other side as, slack-jawed, we stared at the beauty of the country.
We found a room right on the river, offloaded our panniers, and then set off to the picturesque Vat Phu ruins, which date back to the 7th century. Today, Vat Phu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and consists of a ruined Khmer Hindu temple complex. The complex has a stunning location at the foothills of Mount Phu Kao, overlooking the Mekong valley. We wandered around for a while and then headed back to our humble abode, where we placed an order for dinner and sipped a beer (Lao) while the sun set over the Mekong River.
8-9 July - Champasak - Maung Khong, Don Khong Island - 107 km
After breakfast, we headed down a muddy road to the ferry that could take us back to the mainland. Although it was not a car ferry, we could push our bicycles onto the ferry without a problem. Once back on the road, we found ourselves another muddy, potholed road back to the main road. We were lucky and escaped most of the rain as we headed further south towards the Cambodian border.
Approximately 30 kilometres from the border, we turned off and found a ferry to take us to the well-known Four Thousand Islands, or Si Phan Don as it is known in Lao. This time, the ferry was not as successful as not only did they overcharge us (or so we thought) but the landing on the island was disastrous and must have been quite a spectacle. Tania got off OK, but by the time I tried to push the bicycle off, the boat started moving away from the shore, and I had one leg on the boat and one on the shore! I hung on to the bike for dear life while doing the splits, but there is only so far one can stretch oneself! In the end, I landed in the water, but fortunately, the boatman caught the bike and managed to get it to shore without too much water damage. As funny as this was, I was fuming as all my computer and camera equipment are in those panniers, and if the bike had landed in the water, all the equipment would have been ruined. Fortunately, all’s well that ends well, and we managed to get the bike onto dry ground undamaged. Tania found us a nice guesthouse with a restaurant on the river’s edge, which made up for the near disaster.
The following morning, we woke at the crack of dawn and followed the locals down the muddy road to the morning market. We filled our stomachs will all the delicious, and not to mention interesting, snacks for sale. The rest of the day was spent doing very little other than enjoying the view and eating. Tania organised us a boat trip on the river and at around 17h00 our boatman arrived and we puttered up river, past riverside villages and fishermen doing what fishermen do.