Even as we got into the taxi, it was obvious that the flight to Vientiane would be delayed as it was so foggy. The airport at Vinh has two tiny terminal buildings, domestic and international with four early morning flights scheduled. They were all delayed so the place was chaotic, with passengers and luggage occupying every inch of the waiting area.
Finding that the flight was delayed by four hours we expected to get free refreshment. The small cafeteria was overwhelmed with local passengers so, as the only western passengers in the airport, we were allowed to use the 'First Class Lounge'. It was upstairs, air side, in the domestic terminal so we had to go through security screening. First Class was a very loose description. Yes, it did have some cheap armchairs but everywhere was filthy. The only' food' available was pot noodles or rice crackers and the only drink was beer.
Vientiane - Days off
|Bench of legs|
|Bomb parts sculpture|
|Wat Si Saket|
|Bomb damaged Buddhas|
These are just a few of the Buddha images damaged by USA bombing.
|Couple in traditional costume|
|Haw Pha Kaeo|
|Haw Pha Kaeo|
|Wat Pha That Luang|
|Wat That Pha Luang|
Vientiane has its own 'Arc de Triumph', called Patuxa, which stands on the main road. Its nickname is 'The Vertical Runway' because it was supposedly built with cement that had been donated to build a new runway.
The day before we were due to set off Steve got another D and V problem, so we had to stay another day.
Vientiane to Thalat - 94km
Planning a ride in Laos is pretty straightforward as there are few surfaced roads. Route 13, the longest continuous road in Laos, which runs from the Chinese border in the north to the Cambodian border in the south, is the one most cyclists use. There are several long unsurfaced roads through the mountains but even the motorcyclists confirm that they are 'very challenging'.
|Pom-pom decorations on our handlebars from the COPE shop|
Unbeknown to us, today was a public holiday in Laos and it seemed that everyone was heading for a day at the reservoir. Trucks, cars and buses packed with passengers streamed past the whole day.
|Fish anyone ?|
Roadside stalls produced clouds of quite nauseating smoke as they cooked fish, chicken and pork, but the end results looked good. Not quite enough to tempt Steve's appetite though.
At lunchtime we neither of us could find the appetite to eat the baguette sandwiches that we had brought and just drank some pop. After more than 70km of flat, there was a 200m steep climb just as the afternoon heat hit its zenith. Steve could only manage short sections at a time with plenty of water and rests in the shade.
Thalat was not as big a town as we expected. There were several guesthouses which were all busy with weekend guests. We couldn't work out where all those guests went to eat as there appeared to be only one, scruffy place open for food and just us and one other family eating.
Thalat to Tha Heua - 77km
|Dusty red road, only fit for cattle|
In a lot of places it was just a wide, red earth road with passing vehicles throwing up clouds of thick dust.
Large water tankers were spraying the road surface where it passed through the small towns to make life more bearable for the residents.
Phoun Hong, the town at the road junction, had a popular roadside eating place with rice, roast pork and fried egg to set us up for the day's riding. So now we were onto route 13, and just as we had read, although it is Laos main highway, there is little traffic.
We had planned to have a short day and overnight at a guesthouse in Hin Hoeup, but we were there by 11.00am, so carried on, hoping to find accommodation at the north end of the reservoir.
|Rescued young wildcat|
Tha Heua to Vang Vieng - 24km
|Rescued baby monkey|
|Footbridge over the Nam Song|
|Kayaks on the river|
But over the last two years Vang Vieng has cleaned up its act. It has transformed from a rave destination fuelled by drink and drugs to an adventure tourism centre and the nights are pretty peaceful.
|Well earned beer|
|Japanese photographers wait for sunset|
|Hot air balloon at dusk|
Vang Vieng to Nam Ken - 78km
|Dawn hot air balloon|
|Nam Song Valley|
|View back towards Vang Vieng|
|Water buffalo cooling off|
|Road to Kasi|
|Mountain views above Kasi|
Grass broom making is a big business in the mountains. Grass is collected from the hillsides and laid out to dry in the sun on the edges of the road. Before it can be used for the broom, it has to threshed to remove all the seeds. This is also done on the roadside, an exhausting, hot and laborious process. Bunches of grass are repeatedly beaten on the road, then each head is rolled with the hands on the road to remove all the remaining seeds. Deep drifts of the tiny,pale yellow seeds line the roadside. The job seems to be allocated to aged adults or teenage girls
|Typical thatched mountain house|
They admitted they had already had a 'few problems' with it but planned to go to Phonsovan and Luang Prabang. About five kilometres further we passed them again, pushing the bike because the gear cable had broken.
|Hot spring pool and cabins|
Nam Ken to Phou Khoun - 27km
|Onions growing in raised beds|
The steep mountain sides here have had most of their trees removed although there is little organised agriculture. Sections of hillside were being cleared by burning, ready for planting wet season crops such as corn and pineapple.
|Fancy one of these for tea?|
This area is still more aligned to 'hunter gatherer' with men setting off into the hills with wicker traps, knives and cloth bags to collect animals, birds and plants.. A group of men sat at the roadside waiting to sell their captured wild animals.
|Ingredients drying at the roadside|
|Villagers selling hand embroidered products|
|Such small ladies|
|Views from the restaurant|
Just a little further was a restaurant with views back down the valley where all the tourist buses stopped. Haze and smoke from the burning spoilt the views again.
Then it was only a few kilometres further to Phou Khoun. This mountain top town, almost 1400m above sea level, doesn't win any awards for beauty. Just a scruffy crossroads with a handful of eating places, a couple of guesthouses, some dusty shops and a tiny market.
Phou Khoun to Nong Tang - 88km
|Local lady, Phou Khoun|
Before the sudden change of plan because of Karen's knee problem, we had planned to enter Laos on route 7 and visit the famous 'Plain of Jars' on the way. As we had been unable to do that we decided to turn east now and head to Phonsovan.
|Novel village arch|
|Long walk to school|
As we set off down the hill out of town crowds of children were walking and riding bicycles down the road to school. The younger ones were the luckiest, as their school was just down the hill. The older children had a much longer journey and a steep hill to climb.
|View back to Phou Khoun|
|Views on the descent|
At Nam Chat we had lunch at the only cafe for 88km. As we ate, another huge swathe of forested hillside was being devoured by massive flames, throwing more thick black smoke into the sky and raining large flakes of burnt bamboo leaves over the town. Once lunch was over it was up and up back to 1400m on a super, easy gradient following the river valley, followed by hairpins to the summit. Now we began descending onto the Phonsovan plain and immediately it was obvious that this is a much more prosperous area.
|Cattle grazing on the rice fields|
|Our cosy cabin|
Nong Tang was just a tiny village, the 'guesthouse' was three little wood cabins on the shore of a small lake and a little restaurant. The 'bathroom' had a squat toilet and a big bucket of water. Flush the toilet with it or ladle it over your head for a wash.
|The view over the lake|
Nong Tang to Phonsovan - 50km
|Road to Phonsovan|
Phonsovan is not the most attractive town in Laos, mainly a long street lined with unattractive concrete buildings but it does have some good hotels and a couple of international restaurants.
Phonsovan - Day Off
|Site one jars|
The area was one of the most intensively bombed during the 1970's and has only recently become safe enough for tourists to visit without official guides.
|Walking to site three|
Phonsovan to Kiukachan - 188km (bus 138km, bike 50km)
|Loading the bikes|
An agency near the hotel sold us the tickets and we had to pay almost as much for the bikes as for ourselves.The mini-bus station was shambolic, the buses had no form of identification, passengers, drivers and staff were milling around and the 08.45 departure time was just an optimistic guess.
After a long wait the bikes and panniers were lifted onto the roof rack of one bus and tied very securely in place, together with various other pieces of luggage. Then realisation dawned that there were 13 passengers to get on the 11 seat bus. So we all had to wait while another bus was arranged and luggage re-arranged.
The journey back to Phou Khoun was just as scenic in reverse, but travelling along the winding roads in the tightly packed minibus was not as enjoyable as on the bikes. By the time we arrived it was 13.00 and we needed to have lunch before starting the ride to Kiukachan.
|Climbing up to Kiukachan|
Now we had to climb back up to 1400m and as the sun started to dip below the peaks, our slow progress uphill made the kilometres seem double the length. Just before dusk we reached the village and booked into a very basic, but cheap and clean guesthouse.
Kiukachan to Luang Prabang - 80km
|Orchids in the mountains|
|Nam Ming River|
It was time for some real work now as the road started yet another 600m climb, with an easy and enjoyable gradient.
|Up and up|
The only nervous bit was having to traverse a section where there had been a landslip. A JCB was working high above in the loose red clay soil and large lumps of clay were rolling down onto the track ahead of us.
Just as we started the next descent we passed the Canadian couple on their motorbike yet again. Actually only he was on the bike, slowly riding up the steep hill carrying the baggage. His partner was walking up as the bike was not capable of getting two people and their luggage up the gradient. None of us cared to stop, just shouted greetings and we flew off down the hill, overtaking a large heavily loaded lorry on the way down.
Luang Prabang - Days off
|Old Luang Prabang|
|Haw Pha Bang|
|The Mekong, Luang Prabang|
|Cat after baby owls on the market|
The rest of the day was spent touring the temples, royal palace and wandering round the busy market.
|Tat Kuang Si Waterfall|
|Swimming in the river|
Luang Prabang to Pak Mong - 113km
|Nam Ou river|
For the first 50km there were fairly frequent services and a couple of hotels, but after that there was absolutely nowhere, not even a shop in the infrequent small villages.We were glad we had brought lunch before setting off.
We booked into a new looking guesthouse on the outskirts of Pak Mong. At dusk we wandered up the road to look for something to eat. There was a small, empty 'restaurant' near the bus station. The family were in the back sitting round a table loaded with empty beer bottles. They all looked and sounded drunk but managed to cook us up a plate of fried rice. Unfortunately there was no beer as they had drunk it all!
Pak Mong to Oudomxay - 84km
|Collecting alms in the rain|
As we came out of the guesthouse to get the bikes, we met another cycling couple heading south. They admitted that, having heard how awful the road was, they had travelled by bus from Oudomxay. This didn't inspire us with much confidence but we were determined to ride it.
|Start of the climb|
The lorries at least moved slowly, also in first gear, but the 4WDs just sped over all the bumps going though the little villages with no regard for the safety of the children, animals and cyclists.
|Market at the top of the hill|
After five hours of toil we got to the summit at 1,250m, where there was a small market, the only place where we could get food all day.
After devouring a whole barbecue chicken, a couple of sausages and some energy drink we continued down the first descent which, mercifully, was better surfaced. Then there was another 350m climb before beginning the descent into Oudomxay, yet another town in the middle of road widening and sewer installation so the main street was a mess.
Oudomxay to Muang Houm - 95km
|Upper Beng valley|
Some of the villages were friendly places with everyone waving and greeting, while in others we were ignored. Lunchtime found us at a small market stall eating yet another bowl of noodle soup and longing for pie and chips. Except for one small guesthouse in a village with no apparent place to eat, there was no option but to continue to Muang Houn. Here we tried a guesthouse and a hotel but both were fully booked. So we had to settle for the only other guesthouse and eat fried noodles for tea.
Muang Houm to Pak Beng - 53km
Our last day of cycling in Laos and noodle soup for breakfast, perfect. This one was truly delicious but the meat was suspiciously dog like. For the first 30km the road was very hilly and had several long unsurfaced stretches. With uninspiring scenery and low cloud following another overnight thunderstorm it seemed pretty dull.
|Beautiful Beng gorge|
Except, just around the corner was a large billboard advertising the construction of a new hydroelectric project, JCB's and teams of construction workers on the river bed drilling tunnels and constructing a barrage. It appeared the whole gorge would be flooded, what a shame.
|Children having fun in the river|
This geographically isolated town currently lies at the end of the 2w road with most visitors arriving here by boat from Luang Prabang or Huay Xia, staying for just one night and then continuing their boat journey. But the nearly completed bridge over the Mekong River here will change that, creating a new road link into Thailand.
|View on the Mekong from our room|
|Passenger boat arrival|
From 6.30 am the process was repeated as everyone continued their two day journey between Luang Prabang and Huay Xia.
|Elephant bath time|
We planned to have one day rest and then get the boat to Huay Xia. Overnight Karen got ill with a fever and a desire to stay close to a toilet so once again we had to stay another day.
Pak Beng to Huay Xia - boat
|Mekong river boat|
|Mekong rock formations|
|Up the Mekong|
Arriving at Hua Xia most of the mooring points along the jetty were taken. Our boat squeezed in a the end, which meant that we had to manhandle our bikes and bags up a muddy path climbing about 20 meters up the bank onto the slipway. We found the Phonevichith Guesthouse at the top of the slipway and checked in. It was a little way out of the town, but we just wanted a bed and food so it did the job.
(Note that the slow boats down the river to Pak Beng and Luang Prabang all go from this jetty, shown on Google maps as the "Barge Dock". The guesthouse that we stayed at is convenient for these boats, some of which leave early in the morning).
Tomorrow would be our last bit of riding in Laos as we headed to the border with Thailand, but that is another story...