We planned to stay in Vientiane for only a couple of days, but were laid up longer than we wanted as I became increasingly unwell. Initially this didn’t stop me on the beers. We bumped into Ties and Chris around Vientiane a couple of times, but didn’t stop to speak until we eventually met properly at a bar – where else? They are a Dutch/British couple cycling round south east Asia and Europe for several months. They’ve previously ridden a loop round the entire of North America, and wrote a book about this journey: Wheels of Fortune.
I became more circumspect with my eating while getting better from whatever ailed me. We found somewhere to have a curry in between me absorbing my weight in chocolate milk.
The first few miles leaving Vientiane were fine, and it was nice and quiet once we cleared the city. And then the road just went to hell. Save for a few miles here and there, the whole of the main road from Vientiane is subject to road works. The bits that weren’t dug up were a nightmare: Huge potholes constantly, some of them filled in with large rocks which stick up above the road, red dust everywhere. Where the road was dug up: Huge potholes everywhere, a surface of gravel or stones, red dust everywhere, except when the dust is white. And then we got to sections of washboard surfaces, and even more dust. And it’s busy with lorries constantly. All this mixed in with an almighty headwind, and by the end of day one I’ve had enough of Laos. We found a really cheap place to stay, away from the road and the dust. It was on the edge of a village with nowhere obvious to eat, so in the evening we just walked around looking for other people eating and managed to get lots of amazing food.
After a few miles the following day we met an American couple on motorbikes when we stopped for some drinks. They were going the other way and told us that the road we were taking was really bad. The road we’ve been on is really bad, so we didn’t think much of the warning, but somehow the road got worse. By now the wind was raging and the dust was so thick I could barely see my handlebars. I went down a tyre-swallowing pothole that I saw too late and received a sore arse and an ominous sound from the front wheel. It turned out it was only a bent mudguard that was rubbing against the front tyre, which was the best possible outcome. We finally reached a finished asphalt road. Just as we did so, for some reason one of the works lorries dumped a load of gravel across it, which meant no other traffic could get through, leaving us to ride on in peace. It was a pretty section hugging the river on one side and steep jungle-covered slopes on the other. We thought we must now be done with the road works. All things considered a day and a half of awful riding isn’t so bad if the rest of Laos would be better like this. But no. It was just a random section of finished road, it got back to holes and horror after a few miles. The signs we saw tell us that this madness is a 10 year project, which is complete insanity.
We pulled into the town of Pakxan and found somewhere really nice and really cheap to stay. It had hot water, which isn’t a guarantee, and just washing the dust away is bliss at this point. I’m convinced it has penetrated my pores and coated my eyeballs, and I will sweat and cry out red dust for weeks to come. We had an early dinner and then a second dinner, and were still in bed and out of it by 9pm, even though the beds here are so firm it’s like sleeping in Markarth.
The following day was more of the same, but without the nice section of finished road. We did pass a school where most of the kids on their break ran out to shout “hello!” and wave, which is always uplifting. It’s safe to say we had not enjoyed Laos at all up until this point. The roads and the headwind have made for some terrible days, so we began to look for alternatives to what we’d been doing. I came across a backpacker diversion known as the “Thakhek loop” usually done by hiring a moped and riding a route with good scenery, while visiting caves and carvings. We want to get something good from Laos, and route 13 is not it, so we decided to divert onto the loop at the next town.
The food so far in Laos has been amazingly good, and apart from all the happy greetings from kids, it’s been the highlight so far. We muddled through ordering dinner by pointing at pictures, and once again the food was really great. The owner brought us an extra dish because she wanted us to try Laos’ national dish of laab, a minced beef salad.
Setting off in the morning we knew we’d be in for a bit of pain in the next few days tackling some hills, but gambled that the divert would be worth it. Within a few minutes we knew we’d made the right decision. I hadn’t realised how grindingly noisy the last three days had been until we left the stream of lorries behind, and despite this being a route into rural Laos, the road was in good condition. The dust was left behind as well, and in the clear air we finally got to see the landscape of Laos. It was one of karst peaks and open fields to start, and then a really enjoyable climb into the beautiful rolling hills.
The place we most wanted to visit on this loop was the Kong Lor cave, which is a turnoff of 40km in a valley. It’s an incredibly quiet ride through farmland, where many of the homes are made from woven bamboo and the happy greetings from kids are at their most heart-warming. We planned to stay two nights, because we thought the whole ride here would be pretty tough going and we wanted to visit the cave after a night’s sleep, but the road was much better than we had anticipated and we got there early in the afternoon. That meant I was able to cram in three meals of pork fried rice.
Kong Lor cave can only be accessed and travelled through by boat, since the Nam Hin Bun River runs through the length, cutting through the karst mountains which line the countryside here. The Laotians we’ve come across to this point have seemed reserved and chill. Our boat pilot was cocky, charismatic and clearly shit- talking to his fellow pilots. The ride was amazing, and probably the best thing we’ve done so far, apart from visiting Cappadocia. The cave is seven kilometres long, and most of it is in darkness apart from the head torches the three of us wore. It was eerie and exhilarating to hurtle along in a motorised long wooden boat, only being able to make out vague shapes until we were up close to the rock formations. There are lit sections in both directions where we went on foot among impressive stalagmites and stalactites.
Normally backtracking is something we avoid at all costs, but the road back out of Kong Lor was a good one, even though it rained heavily in the morning. The weather had changed overnight and became suddenly very humid, and I had a crushing afternoon of climbing. My legs were on fire, my heart rate was high I was gasping for breath and severely annoyed. Richard was way ahead and managing better. He stopped well before me at a viewpoint and was having his photo taken with some teenagers out on their mopeds by the time I arrived. The second half of the climb got worse for me, to the point I was stopping every 10 pedal turns or so. I hadn’t felt this crap for ages. We stayed at the only place we could find, and once again had some amazing food in a small village.
The morning broke to heavy mist along a river, which didn’t abate as we wound around the next hill and above the low hanging clouds. Those two things obscured the view somewhat on what would probably have been the showcase day of scenery so far. In the afternoon, after the descent, the road passed through the “flooded forest.” Except it’s the dry season, so it’s not so flooded at all. The scenery was still quite eerie though. I must have just had a bad day yesterday, but it was Richard’s turn to struggle and grumble along today. We were pretty upbeat from some online reviews that the day’s guesthouse would be good at the end of a long ride. There are only two guesthouses in this vicinity. One of them is touted as the place where backpackers in this area get together and share stories of their adventures, so we chose the other one. It was the worst place we’ve stayed on this journey so far.
The following day we got the rest of the payback for all the climbing, with a 400 metre drop in about 6km. At the bottom were some dusty villages and some pleasant scenery, though the natural landscape is somewhat spoilt by the heavy industry going on here and all the works lorries that go along with it. It’s hard to criticise a country as poor as this for what must be economically fruitful projects though. And it would be hypocritical, because I’m happy enough using this asphalt which has also destroyed some of the natural landscape. As the day went on though the vistas became jaw dropping. We rode along quiet roads up close to vast stone rock formations and mountains. It just cemented how rewarding this route has been, even though it was tough in places and even though we had some heavy rain on the final approach into Thakhek.
Our aim now was to head east for Vietnam, but we’d misread the visa situation. We were planning to get a 30 day visa in advance, but when actually paying attention saw that this is only available when flying into the country, and not at land borders. We can either backtrack to Vientiane to visit the embassy and apply for 30 days (this is not happening) or get a 15 day visa on arrival, which isn’t enough time to ride the coast south and get to Cambodia (at our pace anyway.) So, we were now intending to head south in Laos roughly following the Mekong and heading for Cambodia directly. That is until we got back on route 13 and it is being dug up here as well. We are not spending the next week or so dealing with a shitshow of a road like the one from Vientiane. So a last minute decision was made to return to Thailand, and get to Cambodia from there.
We turned up at the border with not a lot of cash, but forewarned to expect bribes on the Laos side. That didn’t materialise, although we did have to pay an extra fee we weren’t expecting. Then we were told that we couldn’t cycle on the bridge and across the border to Thailand. We tried three separate people, but the answer was the same. We are counted as foot passengers, and therefore have to get the bus. We were now in the no man’s land part of the crossing, with no access to cash. The bus fee was more than the kip we had left, but fortunately we’d kept hold of our baht rather than changing it, and we were able to get tickets using both currencies. The bus luggage guy then wanted a fee for the bikes, and to be fair they are a pain to deal with. He then put them in the aisle which probably pissed off everyone on the bus. The Thai side was nice and easy though, and with that we are back in Thailand.
It was a bit of a whirlwind departure, taking away my time to ruminate and agonise over the decision, much to Richard’s relief. Riding the Thakhek loop was one of the best travel decisions we’ve ever made, it was tough but incredibly rewarding. And I’ve had the most incredible food, and unlike in the past I haven’t suffered from it at all. I think what’s saved me is that the meat on stick stuff is so obviously covered in flies and left out that I have completely avoided it and mostly gorged myself on pho and fried rice. I could probably eat fried rice every day, if not live on it. At home I’m tempered by Richard’s lack of enthusiasm, but here I can go nuts. And since I’m cycling all day, I can now interpret every feeling as hunger and get away with it. Long may that continue.
A playlist for the ride: