Five Weeks in Laos

After spending two months bicycling through Vietnam it was time to crack another border and head to Laos. Although I have lived in Cambodia for the past three years I never made it to the neighboring country of Laos. I guess it was about time. And boy am I glad I did!

Although I had heard and read a lot about Laos I really did not know what to expect. Laos is a very laid back country compared to the others in Southeast Asia from what I learned. I found this was as true as it could be. From the small mountain villages to the capital city of Vientiane the contrast between Laos and Cambodia/Vietnam was enormous.

Gone was the constant honking of very bus, car, truck and moto that passed me in Vietnam. The slow courteous driving in Laos was completely the opposite of the chaotic mad rush of Cambodian drivers. I even found it hard to cross the street here. Not because of any danger but because in Laos they drive slow, maybe too slow, and it was hard to judge when I should cross.

A drones eye view of the mountains in northern Laos with clouds blanketing the valleys.

Aerial view of the mountains of Laos

I crossed in to Laos at the Nậm Cắn border. I started the day in Tà Cạ, Kỳ Sơn District, Vietnam with twenty-six miles and five thousand feet of climbing in front of me. Crossing the border was a breeze. Being the only person at that time there were no lines. Stamping out of Vietnam took two minutes and getting a visa on arrival for Laos took about fifteen minutes. I had to go to three different immigration officials to get the visa, pay and stamp in. No issues whatsoever.

My bicycle was giving me increasing difficulties over the last week and they were exacerbated by the steep mountain climbs through the mountains. Being in such a rural area any bicycle repair is limited and usually only available for single speed bikes. I had no choice but to bear the increased workload and move forward.

There was a food stop just a mile or so after I crossed the border. As I sat there contemplating my entrance into a new country I was bitten on the knee by what I think was a fly. But this fly must have had teeth like a pirhana. I can’t believe how much pain was instantly caused by a simple insect bite. In no time I was convinced that death was near as I finally made my way to Laos and my demise was caused by an insect.

A Laotian mother transports her goods and child in a two wheeled cart in a small village of the northern Laos mountains.

Life in a Laos village

I quickly adjusted to the new country, new people, new culture, new money and new food. I had little trouble identifying the guesthouses since they are labeled as ‘Guesthouse’ in English. With an exchange rate near eight-thousand to one I had to rely on my math skills to understand what I was paying. Converting numbers in my head keeps me occupied through the day as I convert kilometers to miles and kip to dollars.

As I rode west thought the mountains of Vietnam the beauty of my surroundings got better at every turn. The mountains and the beauty continued into Laos along with the unrelenting climbs and minimal downhills. Small villages were spaced adequately for an old guy like me touring on a bicycle loaded with more pounds than is wise. Food and drink were never an issue.

Strokes to Spokes
Around the world bicycle ride

Help Keep Me On the Road
Thank you for your Support!

The people in the northern mountains are more reserved than in other parts of Southeast Asia. It is obvious that travelers like me are not often seen in these parts. People are very friendly, they just aren’t as open about it without some prompting. Children are children wherever I go so there is no limits on the number of “sabaidee’s” I exchange throughout the day.

Each village in the mountains of Laos has a community water spout. This one is being used to clean the moto of one of the residents.

These community water spots are used fro everything from cleaning the motos to cleaning the family.

These villages are small and poor. Safe water is usually limited to one pump in each village. Here people wash their motorbikes, wash their clothes and bathe as a family. As the day nears its end it is not unusual to see a family showering together at the water pump on the side of the road. Mom and older girls are covered with a muumuu, dad is in his underwear and little kids just bathe naked.

My reason for picking this route was my desire to see the Plain of Jars near Phonsavan. I read about these ancient jars a couple years ago and they have been on my list ever since. The stone jars were used as burial urns dating back to the Iron Age. Thousands of the jars are scattered around the area with three main sites available to visit.

During the 1970’s this area was bombed extensively by the United States in an effort to curtail the Vietnamese from moving through the area. Three times more bombs were dropped in Laos than the amount of bombs dropped during the entirety of World War II. It is estimated that up to one third of those bombs did not explode leaving the area a literal ticking time bomb to this day. In the area of the Plain of Jars many craters left from the bombing can be seen. Old diffused bombs adorn many of the businesses throughout the area.

Looking west I still had days of climbing through the mountains. At times my bike would not even coast downhill. To move I had to pedal. This made the uphills excruciatingly onerous. The problem was not a constant problem but it would come and go with no warning. In an instant I would feel like someone grabbed the back of my bike to slow me down. As quickly as it started it would stop. I never knew when or for how long the agonizingly slow ride would last.

Each night I dreaded what lay ahead. In the morning as I woke I kept my eyes closed and searched my mind for any way to avoid the inevitable. Each day I failed at my efforts at escaping my task at hand. I tried to avoid the inevitable but I could not. Out the door and on the bike I would go.

It is amazing to me that I was able to make it each day. But the problems got worse. My gears were slipping and destroying the gears on my rear wheel. Soon I was only able to use three speeds on my thirty speed bicycle. I had to keep the rear gears in the middle and only use the front derailleur to change between three gears.

My goal was to make it to Bangkok where I would take the bicycle to the shop that built it. I had some repairs done in bike shops I found in Luang Prabang and Vientiane. I was able to get a new cassette and chain giving me back my thirty gears but the bike still had its problem with random times of extreme drag. In my head I kept telling myself all will be good once I get to Bangkok. The problem was Bangkok is about one-thousand four hundred miles away with fifty-thousand feet of climbing. No one ever said this trip was going to be easy. If anyone said that to me while I was flighting with drag and gear issues they would have landed flat on their back. I wanted this issue to be over.

A bicycle mechanic works on a tire in Luang Prabang, Laos

My back wheel gets its first repair attempt in Luang Prabang

I took a bus from Phonsavan to Luang Prabang with my rear wheel in tow. That was where I had the first attempt at repairing the rear hub. After I bussed it back to Phonsavan and got on the road I realized it wasn’t fully fixed but it was better. Until the gears started failing me. There were many times I didn’t stop in a village I wanted to explore and photograph. This was because I was dragging my ass or the ride was going well and I didn’t want to stop and have the issues pop up when I started back up again.

The Patuxay Monument in Vientiane, Laos. Designed after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris

Patuxay Monument in Vientiane, Laos

I kept crawling forward knowing that once I dropped out of the mountains I would have a relatively flat ride. Once I made it past Vientiane (where I had the second repair) things would flatten out more. This made the ride bearable. At some points I could cruise along at eighteen miles an hour on the flats. Other times I couldn’t top seven miles an hour. I just put my head down and pedaled. Better days are coming!

Even though I was riding in the rainy season I ran into rainy days only a few times. There were three days in Vietnam and one in Laos. I had a few days where it would rain for five minutes or an hour but only four rainy days. I prefer the rainy season as everything is greener, the rice fields are full, less tourists fill the towns and accommodations tend to be cheaper.

Green rice fields and mountains in the distance.

The mountains along “The Loop” in Laos

A few days past Vientiane I had to make a choice. Continue straight south or take a three day detour through some mountains on “The Loop”. These mountains are less than half the altitude of the mountains in northern Laos and my bicycle could ride at eighty percent of a perfectly running bicycle at times. What would a smart person do? It is not an easy choice. I could finish Laos sooner by going straight but I could be bored by the surroundings. Or I could head into the mountains and take my chances.

Carvings of Buddhas along the side of the road on The Loop in Laos.

Buddha carvings along The Loop

I didn’t want to miss out on the exceptional landscape of The Loop so I opted for the detour. Overall it was a good choice but I did find myself pushing my bicycle a few times when the grade topped fifteen percent. I can’t count the number of times f-bombs came out of my mouth. Each time the hills got impossible that I reminded myself I was here by choice. I would just go a mile then stop and rest. Get back on the bike and ride another mile and repeat. It made for some long hours but the climbing only pasted half of the loop. After that it will be relatively flat roads all the way to Bangkok. I can do this. It was worse a few weeks ago.

In the end my decision to ride The Loop was the right choice. Regardless of the extra sweat and calorie loss the beauty of the mountains made the extra effort worth it. From there the ride to Pakse was a breeze. I stopped there for an extra day to take in a movie at the cinema – one of two cinemas in the entire country.

Next was the sleepy Four Thousand Islands area along the Cambodian border. Getting some computer work done was on my agenda as I spent an extra day here but I spent zero time on that. Don Det and Don Khon Islands are known for relaxation, even during the quiet season, but there is still more than enough to keep me busy. I could have stayed longer as I still had three days on my visa but it was time to head south and back into Cambodia.

A woman prays in front of a golden reclining Buddha in Laos.

Praying at a Reclining Buddha

Although I can always go back I have to remind myself there is so much more in my future. The number of countries I want to ride through continues to increase as I ride. If these countries make half the  impression on me as Laos did then this trip will end up being an unbelievable experience. As much as I was to re-do parts of Vietnam and Laos that I didn’t ride through I must forge forward.

The setting sun over the Mekong River in Don Det, 4,000 Islands, Laos

Sunset from my guesthouse in Don Det, Four Thousand Islands, Laos

It is daunting to think of the future on my bicycle. In Laos I passed the three thousand mile mark as well as one hundred days of riding. I have an overall plan in my head but I only plan the immediate future up to the next two or three countries. For me planning is part of the fun and excitement. It is thrilling when I find something I didn’t know about and see that it is on or near my planned route. I might be limited in what I get to see but I hope to make the best of my time and miles and see as many exciting places as possible.

2 Comments on “Five Weeks in Laos

  1. Scott this is Bradley Olsen. I went to RMSP with you. I love the journey and photos that you have and are taking. I need to get back into photography!

    • Hi Bradley! Haven’t heard form you in a long time! Thanks for following my journey. And yes – if you put your camera down you need to pick it up again!

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