Biking 12 000km from Singapore to Hong Kong in 180 days

Friday, October 06, 2006

Biking Laos
6000 kilometres and three months into our journey...

If Thailand was like velvet, then Laos has been dried, raw, hairy buffalo hide – at first horrifying and tough, but in the end deeply and unexpectedly rewarding. A Lao artist depicts the road from Luang Prabang to Vientiane just like we remember it – hellishly steep and breathtakingly beautiful.

Crossing the Mekong in a slim, unstable needle of a boat, our bikes’ weight making it tilt dangerously from side to side. Waving the luxury of Thailand goodbye…

Welcome to Laos’ National Highway 3. At first we thought the muddy mess to be only a patch of random roadworks. But over the next three days we would learn the horrific truth that it was in fact 180km of muddy hell to the nearest civilization and tar road.

Our first Laos roadside stop for which we had to haul out our emergency food stash – a far cry from Thailand’s well-stocked and luxurious one-stop shops.

Our first ‘guesthouse’ in Laos – a random hut in a small mountain village, our bed a mosquito-netted bamboo mat on a wooden floor and our shower a jar of rain water – for us it was as good as the Hilton.

The third day of hell in the mountains, of hauling our 50kg-heavy bikes through the pouring rain and knee-deep mud and landslides. The only way to keep the wheels turning through the sticky mud was to keep running at full tilt, praying for the best.

One of the spectacular views and a welcome reminder that someone was looking after us throughout.

Finally having reached Luang Namtha – humbled (and showered for the first time in many days).

From Luang Namtha (which was completely rebuilt after being flattened by the war bombings) we head into the unforgiving, but tarred mountain roads, climbing up and down one mountain pass after the other for what felt like an eternity, often passing naked children playing in mountain streams and yelling ‘falang, falang!!!’ after us.

The only reprieve from the steep gradients for almost two weeks – a 5km stretch of rice paddy outside Luang Namtha.

Mountain-shower to cool us down after hours of sweating it up the steep, humid, jungled passes.

Laos mountain 7/11. By now we were surviving on a diet of noodlesoup, fake chinese oreo biscuits (olio's), bananas, giant oranges and water.

The Lao people hard at work and at play.

Outside Luang Prabang we visited the Kuang Si waterfalls, a very Chinese-looking waterfall and home of giant bloodsucking leeches.

We imagined that our suffering in the mountains had no equal – that is until we met a French couple who are touring SE Asia by bike, towing their two small children along on special bike-trailers. We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy!!!
Check out their blog on

The Laos people have been wonderful, friendly, helpful and genuine. We are amazed at their spirit of forgiveness – no-one seems to harbour resentment against the western world for the atrocious bombings during the Vietnam war. A fruit vendor couldn't resist a go on our bikes...

Our only bad ‘rip-off’ experience in Laos:
We crossed the river to see the limestone caves of Vang Vieng. Once we’d paid the steep ferry-fare the locals knew we would more than likely carry on paying for guides, cave entry, bike watchmen, torch rental and whatever they could come up with.
They were right :-(

After two weeks of endless mountain passes we dropped onto a central plain flanked by spectacular limestone formations. Leaving the small bus-stop village of Kasi we entered the biggest of the limestone gorges before sunrise.

The journey through the mountainous north has left us ravenous. As soon as we hit the civilization of Vientiane we devoured a whole roast chicken, two mega-sized-mega-spiced papaya salads, half a kilogram of sticky rice and a tin of condensed milk. The meal made us conclude that Asians’ sense of wellbeing has less to do with ideology or philosophy, than with the bliss produced by wicker baskets full of steaming sticky rice.

The mighty Mekong forms the western border of Laos. On the other banks sparkles and winks lady Thailand, making us long for bygone days of luxury and easy traveling.

Dragon Boat racing is almost as popular as kickboxing or cockfighting. In October, at the end of the monsoon season, huge tournaments are held on the Mekong in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Savannakhet and Pakxe. Above a loan boat training in the late afternoon and dragon boats up close.

Vientiane, the capital of Laos bristles with new commerce and hope after the destruction and havoc sown by the 1970’s war. During the Vietnam war the US dropped the equivalent of one plane-load of bombs every 8 minutes on Laos for 9 years.

After the war Buddhism is making a comeback, giving hope to a nation rebuilding itself. All over the country Wats in various stages of completion and young monks in orange robes grace the roadside.

Further south, on the spine of the mighty Mekong, Savannakhet whispers memories of when the French occupied her. Under the eaves of dilapidated French buildings, Laos women sell baguettes and condensed milk and an old, beautiful Catholic church stands guard over the square.

Buffalo form an integral part of village life in Laos. They are used for ploughing fields, for carting heavy loads, for weeding out unruly grass in rice paddies, kids love them like pets and the meat is delicious.

Hairy, tough, dried buffalo hide for R1 a piece. It is baked over an open fire, thankfully de-haired and eaten as a snack with beer or stronger spirits. Some things should not be had sober…

In the south of Laos people live a simple life, farming rice and buffalo and making merry with brutally strong, homemade Lao Lao rice wine. Above an early morning gathering of village elders around jars of Lao Lao and a typical rural bamboo and wood family home.

Racing the motorbikes into Pakxe to update our blog after a month's silence...