Over the border
Distance: 54km on the bike
Another day, another bus. This time to the border town of Boten.
At the bus station we had a complicated time working out which bus was ours, and it turned out to be a tiny bus with a small rack on the roof. Sam and Francois managed to fit all the bikes up the top while Severene and I loaded the bags into the bus. There were some spare seats so I put the bags in a corner up the back, thinking they were out of the way. Some men had placed big bags of bamboo on the floor of the bus and we had to climb over them to get to the back, but at least our bags were out of the way.
Unfortunately, the ticket office sold tickets for every seat on the bus, and then some. And the mostly Chinese people on the bus were insistent on sitting in their numbered seats. Along the back seat – where we had all been given tickets – there were five seats but six numbers. The four of us were meant to sit there along with a Spanish girl and Chinese boy. No way. We had paid for a seat each, and we would take a seat each. We put our bags on top of the bamboo sacks and then more people got on the bus. Just outside of town the driver stopped again to squeeze more people inside. It was crazy.
Despite the cramped conditions we chatted happily to the Spanish girl and Chinese boy for most of the journey over the bumpy, dirt road. It was a really terrible road and we were glad not be riding.
In Boten, Francois and Severene needed to change their Laotian money (you can’t change it outside the country) and we all wanted food. It was Sunday so the official exchange building was closed, but the owner of the little stall next door gave them the same exchange rate as was listed on the door of the exchange building. We found a restaurant to make us some friend rice with beef (by pointing to the ingredients we wanted) and we rode the 1km to the border.
The Laotian side was quite easy – fill in the departure card and get a stamp. For some reason we had to walk our bikes for a few metres across the border, not ride them, but then we got back on the bikes to ride to the Chinese border crossing. In no-mans land there were people offering to exchange money, and Francois found some more kip he had originally forgotten so he was able to change that money.
We went into the Chinese border building and filled in an arrival card each. At the desk we all got a grilling on where we’d got the visa, where we were visiting, had we been to China before… it took almost 10 minutes each. Francois had his bag checked and Sam got asked to show extra ID to prove who he was.
Outside the building and the guard on the road decided to also check every page of our passports and our photos before we rode through. We ended up feeling rather privileged to be in China.
The first big town, Mengla, was 42km away and we decided to ride there together. Just over the border was a town called Mohan and since we had no Chinese money Sam and I stopped when we saw an ATM sign. Severene and Francois were ahead of us and it looked like they kept going down the road. The ATM had been removed so we decided to catch up to our new friends and worry about money when we got to town.
We rode as fast as we could to catch up but didn’t see them. Wow, they are really fast, we thought, and picked up our speed. For the next 42km we were surprised not to see them. We thought it was very strange that they had ridden so far ahead of us…
The ride to town was largely downhill and pretty easy. There were some tunnels to ride through which were a bit scary, because they were so dark inside. The worst part though was that we were really thirsty, and had no Chinese money to buy drinks. Not that we passed any shops anyway – we didn’t. But despite this we made good time and got there in the early afternoon.
Our first mission was to find money so we could buy drinks. When we turned off the freeway we turned left into the town but it seemed dead. We went back the other way and soon came to a city bigger than we’d expected. We found a bank and went to the ATM. But it was in Chinese. I went inside to get help. When it was my turn I was told that their ATMs only accepted Chinese cards. I asked if I could get any money out in the branch. No, they don’t service foreign accounts. Could I change some US money? No. I asked about other ATMS, banks, currency exchange – explained we had no money. They told me to go to Jinghong (150km away).
I tried a few more banks and they each told me the same thing. We tried every ATM we saw in the hope that it would work, but none even had the visa or mastercard symbols. We were in China with no money, and no way to get any.
Eventually I got so desperate in a credit union that I stood there and refused to move, even though I knew they were telling me to go to Jinghong. The man must have taken pity on me because he ended up changing US$40 from his own pocket. The exchange rate wasn’t great, but at least we had some money!
We bought some drinks and were sitting down on the footpath wondering where to stay when we saw Francois and Severene across the road. They came across and explained that when we stopped for money they had stopped for the toilet and then waited for us. But we didn’t appear. Eventually they figured we had passed them and they’d come here. We were all glad to be reunited again.
They had checked into a cheap hotel up the road so we went up there. As we arrived a Chinese man walked in and told us he had an information stall outside and could help us with maps and currency exchange – so we changed another US$100 with him on the spot. We also bought a map off him with both Chinese and English names. This man would help us many times in the next couple of days, as he was one of the only people who understood any English.
Happy to be back with our friends and secure that we had some money, we found a restaurant with an English menu but the food was terrible. I think we all went to bed more than a little hungry.
A chance encounter
We were back on the bus – this time to the transport interchange city of Udomxay. We had opted for a real bus this time, hoping that the slower speed and larger size would allow for a more stable journey. We had to be in China by the next day, and a bus was our only option.
Although we’d requested and been given tickets with seat numbers at the front (hearing that the front is the best place to avoid sickness) by the time Sam got the bikes on top of the huge bus and we boarded, it was full except the seats at the back. We were told that seat numbers didn’t count. Luckily we were able to stack our bags on the backseat rather than put them up the top of the bus.
This bus journey was much better than the others, and Sam didn’t feel nearly so bad. Although when it rained the bus leaked above us, the rain didn’t last long. And the toilet stop was by the side of the road. But by now we realized that was how it was in Laos.
In Udomxay we set about finding a hotel. We asked at half a dozen guesthouses and hotels before deciding to ride a kilometer to one we’d passed on the way into town. It took me 15 minutes of attempting to communicate with the boy to get prices for a couple of rooms and we decided we weren’t going to stay there. Just as we were about to leave a tandem bike pulled in and a couple our age got off. We spoke to them and found out they were from Switzerland, and had been riding through Malaysia, Thailand and Laos like us. We were chatting away and decided to meet up in a couple of hours for dinner. In the meantime we all ended up staying at the hotel, as it was out of town and seemed quiet.
Before meeting the others for dinner Sam decided to check over the tube and tyre that we'd changed in the days earlier. He took it off and discovered a crack in the rim. A pretty bad one. He would need a new wheel, and in the meantime couldn’t ride the bike very far and I would have to carry the tent to lesson his load. We hoped that we would find one quickly in China.
We enjoyed chatting to Severene and Francois over dinner, and decided to all go to China together the next day.
For our French-reading/speaking followers here is a link to Severine and Francois' website
Distance – 130km in a bus
It seems that once you get sick SE Asia your stomach is more susceptible to future upsets. Sam awoke feeling sick and we decided to get a bus to Luang Probang. This was also a good plan because now that we knew what the mountain passes were like we doubted we could ride there in one day, but one day was all we had.
I went out to find out about a bus or taxi (like a ute with seats in the back). The lady at the guesthouse nodded when I asked about hiring a taxi to Luang Probang, but then just went on with her business. So I went for a walk to find one and offer the driver some money to take us. I found a public ‘taxi’ that was leaving at 9, but it would squeeze 20 people and their possessions in the back for a rough, cramped and long ride – stopping who knows how many times for people to get on and off.
The man in charge of buses in town told me (through a restaurant owner who spoke a little English) that we could get on the Vang Vieng mini-bus to Luang Probang when it passed through, but they didn’t know what time and couldn’t guarantee it would have seats. I tried to tell them I would pay for a van to take us, but they were telling me it cost 600,000 for a van or US$100 each for car hire and driver – both far too expensive.
Sam and I walked the streets of town asking people with vans and trucks if they would take us. I eventually found a guy with a van who would take us both and our bikes for 250,000. We would leave immediately.
Although we’d thought we would be the only ones in there a couple of girls came along for the ride too - I am sure they paid a lot less than us! It was a terrible ride. More twisting roads, fast speeds, crazy Laotian music blaring through the speakers... I was busting to use the toilet and he didn’t stop so I had to yell at him to stop by some roadside bushes… Sam didn’t vomit this time but I have no idea how, as I started to feel sick and I don’t get travel sick. He did feel horrible the whole time though, and it was a miserable journey.
In Luang Probang we found the town and ate lasagne and cheesecake at a café on the main road. They were both so good! We found a guesthouse and then spent the afternoon riding our bikes around the World Heritage Listed town. It was really beautiful and we watched the sunset over the Mekong River while eating fruit salad and banana pancakes at a small street restaurant.
The hardest day yet
We made it through the night and even managed to get a reasonable amount of sleep. We awoke with the sun and ate the last of the rice crackers as we packed up. A light drizzle was falling so we put our jackets on and prepared for the difficult day ahead.
Soon we were back on the road and reached the top of the hill we’d been climbing the night before. After that the road went down. And kept going down for 15km – until we reached Nam Chat. My hands were so sore from braking hard on the steep declines, and I had to stop a few times to stretch them.
In Nam Chat we ate a breakfast of rice and noodles, and were glad we hadn’t pushed on in the dark because there was no guesthouse.
After Nam Chat the road went up. And up. For the next 30km we were nearly always going up. Sometimes the road would take us down again, only to take us back up even steeper inclines.
The views were (of course) amazing, and in the villages we met so many nice people. The children were always excited to see us and one of the things I will remember most about Laos is all the smiling, waving children. I felt so sorry for them – often without shoes, caring for younger siblings, carrying sticks on their backs. They have so few opportunities in life.
At one town at the top of a hill we needed some food and water and had to settle for coke and cake – as that was basically all they had in the little shop. Luckily we were able to stop for lunch at a restaurant in the next small town. While we waited for our food to cook we were entertained by a young boy ‘Ben’ and his sister ‘Kim’ – aged 6 and 3 – the children of the owners. Ben would copy everything Sam did – pretend to punch, put his hat on the side… and laugh hysterically the whole time.
Back on the road and the grueling hills kept going. As long as I was able to do 8km/h I could get a rhythm and progress up the hill. But some hills were so steep that I couldn’t stay on the bike, I had to walk for 200m until the gradient became manageable again. Sam was able to ride the whole way, pushing the pedals hard enough to carry himself and his gear to the top.
As the afternoon wore on, the downhill sections were no longer a relief, but demoralizing. Every time we went down we knew we’d have to do the work again to regain the altitude. And our legs were so tired. I had to walk a few more times – sections that I would have been able to ride earlier in the day. But now my legs couldn’t do it.
With 13km to go we started downhill again. We hoped this was it. No more uphill sections. We could be in Phou Khon in 20 minutes if this was it. We were hungry, thirsty, tired and wanted a shower. We couldn’t wait to stop.
While flying down the hill Sam got his first flat. So we had to stop to change the tube. Then we realized the tyre had a big rip in it, so we decided to put a new one on. An hour later we set off again to the bottom of the hill. Only to start going up again with 3km to the town.
We pushed hard and made it. It was such a relief to be there! It had been our hardest day yet. Even though the distance wasn’t great, the mountains had taken us to the limit.
We each checked a guesthouse in the town (there were two) and while one was 40,000 ($6) with a shared bathroom, the cleaner one for 70,000 with its own bathroom had airvents with no cover, which would mean mosquitoes could fly in all night. We tried a place called China Hotel but it wasn’t actually a hotel with beds, it just served drinks. So we went for the cheap guesthouse.
After showering we went in search of food. A girl who spoke quite good English had some eggs boiling so we decided to have one each. When we cracked them open though we realized they were the ones with little chickens inside… not what we wanted to eat after a killer day on the bike. So we bought some normal eggs from another stall that the girl cooked for us, and we ordered some chicken and noodle soup. It took her an hour to cook the food! Exhausted and famished, we sat waiting. And just when we were going to give up and leave we got our soup. Not exactly the filling meal we would have chosen, but it would have to do.
We easily fell asleep in the surprisingly quiet guesthouse.
Into the wild
Distance: 26km to jars, 66km towards Phou Khon
The morning air was brisk, and a light drizzle was falling. We put our jackets on for the early ride to the fields where hundreds of jars made of solid chunks of rock have lay scattered for thousands of years.
We weren’t sure where to go, but we asked at a hotel aptly named Plain of Jars Hotel and were pointed out of town, where we would then take a left. There was no sign to say it was the correct street, but we asked a passing tuk tuk driver who made the shape of a jar with his hands and nodded that we were going the right way. Eventually there were signs confirming it too.
We headed through a village and past rice fields, and followed the signs to the site. We paid 10000 kip each for the entry fee (just over $1) and walked up a dirt path to the top of a hill, where the jars lay.
There were jars of all different shapes and sizes, some in perfect condition and others broken or missing pieces. Some lay smashed at the bottom of the bomb craters left from the Vietnam War. We couldn’t believe that such a amazing place, thousands of years old, had been bombed. Further along we saw trench lines and realized that this location really played a big part of the action. Bomb craters were all around and it was amazing that so many jars were still in tact despite the Americans' relentless bombing of a remarkable iron age archaeological site.
Even though we don’t know why the jars were made, we enjoyed our time walking around them and decided our side trip had been worth it, despite the short time frame and Sam's travel sickness.
We checked out of our hotel, ate some more food, and began our journey through the mountains - this time on the bikes. The start was ok, not too steep, many flat sections, and it felt great to be back riding through the friendly villages.
We set ourselves a target to reach the place called Nom Chat that featured on the distance stones. It was 80km away, and would leave us about 60km for the second day. As we made our way through the afternoon we were confident we would make it, until the big hills began. They were steep. And long. And we had a lot of weight on our bikes still (despite all our culling efforts).
The light started to fade and we were still 20km from the town. We realized that we didn’t even know if there would be a guesthouse anyway. We decided to find somewhere to camp.
We came to a house perched on a slight rise above the road with a very large area of land, grass and jungle undergrowth and thought we'd ask to camp on their property. As we approached two men came out of the house and we indicated to them that the time was late, the sun was setting, could we set up our tent? They said no. Maybe they didn’t understand. We tried to explain again. Still no. They pointed up the road. We couldn’t believe it. They were refusing us? We desperately tried one final time. The road was dangerous – we didn’t want to be on it in the dark. But to no avail. They were sending us back to the road.
We were already partway up a big hill so we struggled away from their property and continued up the hill.
Another couple of kilometres and Sam spotted a flat section off to the side of the road (elevation approx 2000 metres) that was actually partially hidden from the road by some massive reeds. We pushed our bikes up a steep muddy incline and as the sun was setting we retaught ourselves how to put up the tent – it had been a while! At least we had the tent, and Sam could be happy in the knowledge that he hasn’t been carrying it around for nothing. It amazed us how easy it was to be caught short of our destination because the hills slowed us so much.
As it grew dark we sat in the tent, dirty and smelly, eating Indian leftovers we had bought with us and rice crackers we had in our bags still from Thailand.
Exhausted, we talked for a while before deciding we needed sleep. But we were in a tent in a remote part of the Lao jungle, and there were noises around us…
Over the edge
Distance: 300km in a minibus
It shouldn’t have really been called a mini-bus. It wasn’t a bus, just a van that they’d managed to fit some extra seats in. There were three rows of three seats each. And all the luggage, including the bikes, went on top. We were lucky that our mini-bus to Ponsovan wasn’t full, so Sam and I had a spare seat in our row.
Throughout the journey the driver would stop in various towns to pick up Laotian passengers and take them to their destination along our route. This was one way for the mountain people to get between towns (most don’t even have motorbikes) and the driver made a little more money in his pocket.
As we drove up and down steep and winding mountain roads I couldn’t help but think that we’d be riding these mountains in a few days. The views at the top of each pass were incredible, and the villages built along the ridges were beautiful, if scary, and we could even see the clouds below us.
On one narrow winding road, after it had been raining, we came across a group of people looking down a sheer drop. There were skid marks on the road that veered from one side to the other and over the cliff. Our driver pulled over and we clambered out to see that a car had just gone down the ravine. We looked over the edge and could see the car down below us. Some local boys brought a Laotian woman up (we don't know how they got her up) who was groaning in pain.
A crowd had gathered and those of us in the mini-bus were wondering if there were more passengers to be pulled out. It didn’t seem like it though, as the injured woman was put in the front of our van (which luckily had no other passengers at that point) and all of a sudden we were the ambulance. We raced through more mountain villages, horn honking the whole time, and the woman groaning as she leant against a young man – we didn’t know who he was or what he was doing. But he was taking good care of her. Luckily the Phou Khon ‘hospital’ wasn’t far away. Some men came out to help carry the woman in and the young man who traveled with her gave our driver some money. We couldn’t believe it – even in this case he was trying to make some extra money…
An English girl in the bus was demanding over and over to know if the woman would be ok. There is no way we’ll ever know. The car dropped a long way down. And the ‘hospital’ was a small rudimentary building on the top of a mountain. We doubted they would have equipment to do the necessary internal exams. After that incident the mood in the van was somber.
The road became even steeper and windier. Sam grew increasingly nauseous. The driving became even more restless. Just at the crucial moment I handed Sam a plastic bag. A moment later and the van would have been covered in vomit. A few more turns and the bag was full. We still had 75km to Ponsovan. Luckily we seemed to be coming out of the mountains and the road improved- slightly.
In Ponsovan we were interested to find that no hotels or guesthouses had air-con. And as the evening came we realized why, it was naturally a lot cooler than other parts of Laos. We looked around town, but it wasn’t very nice. It seems the only reason people come here is to visit the Jars. We decided to ride the 12km to the jars in the morning, and then start the ride to Luang Probang.
We met a Dutchman who was now an English teacher in Luang Probang – he was just finishing a month-long cycle tour of Vietnam and was on his way home. He expected to take two days to get there. They would be long, grueling days, but he seemed sure he could do it. He told us that the first day, 140km to Phou Khon, would be the hardest, but then 130km to Luang Probang would be ok. We thought that sounded promising. A day and a half to get to Phou Khon (which we had seen – we knew the road would be hard!), then a long day to Luang Probang.
We ate Indian food again (such good value compared to the ‘Western’ offerings) and watched a movie on TV in our great value hotel room (70000 kip – less than $10). We were feeling good about the days ahead.
It wasn’t hard to make an early start, as we’d both spent a restless night back in conditions we’d forgotten about. We were awake at dawn anyway.
Just outside of town we were about to go up our first real climb and my chain snapped. When Sam looked at he couldn’t believe how distorted the broken link was. It took over an hour to use spare pieces of chain to fix the chain as the links around it had also been bent out of shape. Not the start to the day we were hoping for, but after that, each moment of the day was like riding through a postcard. The villages, mountains, lakes and rivers were so picturesque – we were stopping all day to take photos.
At one stop a man on a motorcycle stopped to ask us in a kiwi accent if we spoke English and when we responded yes he stopped to chat. He was headed the same way as us, Vang Vieng, and we would see him a couple more times during the day to take photos at the same spot or at a crossroads wondering which way to go.
After an incredible day of cycling we arrived in the town that surprised us both. We didn’t know much about it, and were surprised to find a tourist metropolis in the middle of rural Laos. There were westerners everywhere. It seemed the whole town was either a guesthouse or restaurant. Luckily we found a quiet hotel outside the main centre but could easily walk in for food. We had an incredible Indian feast, and realized that we missed the food from Malaysia. Food in Thailand just hadn’t been as good.
Over dinner we talked about what to do next. We really wanted to see the Plain of Jars, but it was a long way out of our way and we were so short on time in Laos. Eventually we decided to catch a mini-bus to Ponsovan (the town closest to the Plain of Jars) and then ride to Luang Probang. So we booked our bus tickets for the next morning and went back to get a good night sleep (after the ritualistic mosquito massacre).
I awoke early and was excited to explore Vientiane. Sam was still asleep, so I quietly grabbed the camera and slipped out the door. It was 6.30, the temperature was cool and the streets quiet.
When we arrived the day before I had found the city quite pretty, and as I walked the streets in the morning I realised how beautiful it was. There were no big ugly skyscapers, the highest buildings were maybe 6 stories, and there weren't many of them. Most of the multi story buildings seemed quite old, and quite European in stylye - perhaps a remant of the years of French colonisation. There were bakeries and cafes everywhere, and I was almost able to imagine I was walking through a French village.
The brief time I spent looking around I loved it – my favourite city so far. But then again, we were there for less than 24 hours, so maybe we look more fondly on places we wish we could spend more time in.
We checked out of our hotel and decided to give the bikes a quick tune-up and shed some more weight before heading out into the hills of Laos.
In the early afternoon we rode out of Vientiane, sorry that we didn’t have enough time in Laos to stay for another day. Just outside the city we stopped at a roadside stall where we ate a delicious French style bread stick with salad and meat. We sat out of the sun and while we ate the owner tried to fix my sunglasses, which had snapped, with super glue. It was an immediate reaction to the situation that was to become typical of our experiences with the Laos people.
It quickly became apparent that riding in Laos wasn’t like riding in other countries. Everyone we passed smiled at us and wanted to wave and yell “Sabaidee!” (Hello). We passed many people having parties together that invited us in to dance with them. And as we got further from Vientiane the scenery became increasingly beautiful. I spent the whole afternoon smiling.
Late in the afternoon we sailed down a big hill into a small town with two guesthouses. One was right at the busy intersection in the centre of the town and looked very noisy, so we made our way back to the one at the start of town. It was dark when we got there. The room was cheap, 50000 Kip (less than $7) but was pretty dirty and only had a small fan. We realized we’ve been spoiled for great, cheap accommodation in Malaysia and Thailand. In Laos it was back to basics, Indonesian style.
We walked about 1km back towards town in the dark to the nearest food stall, and ate some noodle soup with an unidentifiable meat component. We didn’t think about what kind of meat it might be, as we needed the energy.
Back in our small room the power went out and it was like a sweat box. A truck driver pulled in for a break and it sounded like he was rebuilding the truck with all the banging and hammering going on. Somehow Sam managed to fall asleep despite the noise and heat, and eventually, when the power came back on, I drifted off to sleep too…
Today we said good bye to Thailand crossing the Lao/Thai friendship bridge in the early morning.
At the crossing we met a couple of other cycle tourists that we chatted to for awhile and then followed into the capital of Lao, Vientianne.
They got a little lost and couldn't find there hotel so whilst they were figuring things out we took the chance to grab some food, we were starving by this stage, from a small local noodle shop. We chose this place because, one- it was very busy, two- there was no tourists or foreigners in there. It was a good choice and we were rewarded with some good cheap chicken and rice noodle soup.
After this we cycled around the city, trying to get our bearings and to grab a glimpse of the mighty Mekong river that runs through much of South East Asia.
Well I just lost the following 1000 words I wrote (and this is about the tenth time this has happened. So before I type the rest of the blog does anyone know a good website host. At the moment we are using weebly.com so anyone other than these guys would be great. Please let me know if you have had any good or bad experiences, and who these have been with (tearing my hair out!!!...)
Anyway, in the afternoon we spent a some time looking for a bicycle shop owned by a Frenchman, reportedly the only proper bicycle shop in Laos.
It took us a while but we finally found it. But looking up at the shop's facade I soon realised that it was closed, and reading the opening hours saw that it wouldn't be open again until Monday, two days away. We didn't have time to wait until Monday so we sat down and wondered what to do. If we weren't able to by new tires now then we may not be able to find any again until we get to Tibet or Nepal, a long way away I mused.
Just at that moment I saw a local Laotian on a racing bike speed past and give us a wave, seeing that I wanted to talk to him he slowed down giving me time to run up to him. He didn't speak English but I managed to learn that there was actually another bike shop in Vientianne, about a kilometre down the road.
We rode there as fast as we could. It turned out to be our lucky day, they were open and they had what we needed!
We spent the next hour or so cycling around the beautiful city looking for somewhere to stay, that was cheap and quiet, a tough combination to find here with all the drunk, noisy backpackers around (a bit embarrassing really). We found a nice one for about AU $20, and more tired than she realised, Shanna fell asleep within minutes.
Sam and Shanna Evans are from Melbourne, Australia