Around the world by bike
(1 304km - 28days - 17 August – 13 September 2009)
17 August - Bao Lao, Vietnam – Sepon, Thailand – 50 km
The Vietnam/Laos border crossing came without much difficulty, and all that was needed was an application form, $35 and a photo. There were, however, no ATMs on the Laos side and Ernest had to turn back to draw money on the Vietnamese side, which could then be changed to Lao kip. I didn’t like doing it as changing money at borders were always a tricky affair and seldom a win-win situation. There was, however, no other choice, and it gave enough local currency to reach Savannakhét, the next sizable town on the map.
Laos immediately appeared more laidback, less populated and with fewer motorbikes than Vietnam. People carried their wares in woven baskets on their backs or shoulder poles, and friendly kids shouted “Sapadii, felang”, which made me fall in love with Laos almost instantly. The first day of riding in Laos came with stunning scenery and a few hills.
18 August – Sepong (Xepon) – Donghen (Dong Hen) – 133 km
The route between Sepong and Donghen was pleasantly undulated past dense forests, valleys, rivers and waterfalls. Like the previous day, children shouted, “Sapadii, falang”, translating to “Hello, foreigner”, from their stilted homes where water buffalo, goats, chickens and black pigs roamed freely. Our route led past small villages and Buddhist temples surrounded by rice paddies. The air was fresh and smelled of herbs, cow dung and smoke from charcoal fires, coupled with scenes of women preparing food on open fires, and small children herding cattle reminded of Africa.
The rest of the day consisted of overtaking people going to the market in basic, wooden, homemade carts and others in equally minimalistic longboats heading upriver. After 133 kilometres and dodging chickens, goats and small black pigs, an unexpected roadside guesthouse at Dong Hen rolled into view, making it a perfect overnight stop.
19 August - Donghen- Savannakhet – 73 km
It was a lovely rural and scenic ride to Savannakhet, with tiny settlements and roadside markets, and it was a pleasure to be out on the bike. What little breeze there was, was just enough to cool us down but, still, I sweated buckets. Upon arrival in Savannakhet, there was still enough time to look around for accommodation at a leisurely pace. Before unpacking, Ernest went in search of spares for his bike, but to no avail.
With much of the population being Buddhist, it was easier to find vegetarian food than in Vietnam. I made good use of this luxury and found myself a decent plate of food for a pittance. Sticky rice appeared to be the main staple and was eaten with every meal. Rice boiled in a banana leaf was also popular.
Once again, I bought a SIM card but, as was the case in Vietnam, it seemed one could send SMSs but not receive any.
20-21 August - Savannakhet
Savannakhet was a maze of crumbling French colonial buildings as well as old Buddhist temples. As always, sunset was the best time to be out, and people sat outside eating from roadside stalls while old men sat playing board games and kids ran amok. Hundreds of food stalls lined the river frontage and locals sat on kindergarten chairs, chatting and watching the sunset over the Mekong River.
It was Buddhist “Lent” and, from early morning, gongs were sounded and monks chanted, a wonderfully peaceful way to start one's day. There appeared even more than the usual amount of street food available, and it was a novelty sampling all the strange and delicious dishes.
Ernest spent much of the day working on his bike, which appeared to be in constant need of attention.
22 August - Savannakhet – Tha Khaek – 131 km
After another day in Savannakhet, it was finally time to start heading north. It was a slightly hilly route but came with a cloud cover, making for comfortable riding. Lunch was noodle soup from a roadside stall, and if it wasn’t frog soup with noodles then I don’t know what it was!
23 August - Tha Khaek
A day of leisure was spent in Tha Khaek (Thakhaek) and, although there were some interesting caves close by, Ernest was uninterested in visiting them and, instead of dragging him along, I did my laundry and chatted to kind monks at temples. Thakhaek was a lovely little village with a riverside setting, crumbling old French colonial buildings and quaint restaurant/coffee shops. It was a pleasure to wander along the riverfront watching men fish in longtail boats and ladies peddling wovenware from shoulder poles.
By evening, I got a takeaway pizza and beer and enjoyed it while overlooking the Mekong River with Thailand just across on the opposite bank. Ernest, like a true South African, found it difficult to walk past anything resembling a barbeque but, to his surprise, found not chops and sausage, but pig intestines and a bowl of crickets.
24 August - Tha Khaek - Vieng Kham - 107 km
Ernest and I, once again, parted ways and, in the morning, I set off with an immense sense of freedom. The first few kilometres followed the “Great Wall of Lao”. This kilometres-long Kamphaeng Nyak wall was a geological phenomenon caused by fissures, but its physical resemblance to a man-made structure led to many Lao myths on its origin. Based on local legend, it was an animal trap built by ancient people who had large bodies like giants and stood as high as the sky. Some say it was made as a defence system, and others say it was used to stem floodwaters from the Mekong.
I felt good after a day of rest, but the euphoria didn’t last long. Shortly after leaving, my front wheel started wobbling like an eggbeater. It was as if I was cycling with brakes on and it was difficult to go in a straight line.
It was a very rural part of Laos and it wasn’t unusual to see ladies tending cattle or kids driving goats to better feeding grounds. As has become the norm, the road continued past modest Buddhist temples and kids on bicycles who found it the highlight of their day to give chase.
A bizarre roadside market sold enormous cockroaches, dried frogs, grilled squirrels and cut-up monitor lizards. I must admit, seeing lizard feet on a plate was somewhat uncomfortable.
After 107 kilometres and seven hours of cycling (that’s cycling time, not including stopping), I finally reached Vieng Kham completely exhausted.
Lo and behold, would Ernest not be at the same guesthouse. Probably not unusual as it was about the only place to stay within a stretch of 200 kilometres. None were thrilled to see the other, but I was too exhausted to care. Never a dull moment.
25 August - Vieng Kham
First thing in the morning, I went looking around for a new front hub and found an old, rusty, second-hand one, probably from the 1800s. Ernest must have had a plan up his sleeve as he offered to fit the hub and spent most of the day doing so. I knew this would cost me later, as he needed new parts for his bike, but I had little choice and accepted his offer.
26 August - Vieng Kham – Pakxan – 92 km
I was as happy as the proverbial pig as my bike ran like a dream compared to my previous ride. Ernest still struggled along with limited gears, but all could be repaired in Vientiane, which was only 150 kilometres away.
The scenery was again sublime, and it was no wonder it was such a popular travelling area. The stretch of road between Vientiane and Savannakhét formed part of the "Golden Triangle Route” and we encountered several motorbikes, moving slightly faster than us.
About halfway to Pakxan was the Kading River, a large tributary of the Mekong. The road crossed it at the confluence of the two rivers via a Russian-built bridge which commemorates the first person in space. Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet pilot and cosmonaut, was the first human to journey into outer space when his Vostok spacecraft completed an orbit of Earth on 12 April 1961. What a brave man and a true explorer.
The river was a popular stopping place for superstitious truck drivers who would light a cigarette before crossing the bridge. After lighting it, they would toss the lit cigarette into the river below, to appease a legendary water serpent believed to live in the river mouth.
27 August - Pakxan – Pak Ngum – 90 km
It was a lazy day, ambling along, accompanied by two-wheeled tractors (for lack of a better word) pulling homemade wooden carts, loaded with jovial ladies in conical hats. Scores of “Sapadee, falang” came from children along the way and small villages and Buddhist temples jutted out of the forest around every corner. Although kids were super friendly, they would run for the safety of their mother's apron as soon as one stopped for a picture. Others would stand stock-still, allowing one to take a picture, and then shyly retreated to their homes.
Our path followed the Mekong River; from time to time it ran flush next to it, and at times moved more inland, only to meet up with the river again a few kilometres further. Water buffalo enjoyed the abundance of water and villagers sold smoked fish and other delicacies at roadside stalls.
28-31 August - Pak Ngum – Vientiane - 70 km
It didn’t take long to reach the capital of Laos, and Vientiane was one of the most accessible capital cities by bicycle. It was straight to the bike shop to inquire about the all-important spare parts which Ernest needed - only to find the shop locked up. Neighbours told us the owner was away in Thailand and would be back after the weekend. First thing Monday morning it was “take two”, but still the shop was locked. This time, neighbours informed the owner would be back the next day.
It was, however, a pleasure walking the streets of Vientiane. Touristy shops, selling beautiful handmade jewellery and silk items, and the lack of rip-offs and touts made for relaxing exploring. The river frontage came alive after sunset and aromas of barbequed meat filled the air.
1-4 September – Vientiane
The following day, the bike shop was open and I bought a new hub which Ernest insisted on fitting. I preferred the bike shop to do it as it usually worked out less expensive. The chainring Ernest wanted needed to be ordered from Thailand and would take a few days, and I handed my bike in for a service.
From Vientiane, plans were to cycle toward China, and it was on to the Chinese consulate to apply for a visa. It all seemed far too easy as the only requirement was a simple application form, and instructions to come back in three days to pick up our visas. Amazingly, it appeared I had a visa for China, but I felt like the proverbial dog not quite sure what to do with it.
In the meantime, it was better to look for less expensive accommodation, as it appeared Vientiane was going to be home for at least three more days. While wandering around, I came upon the “Blue Banana” pub/restaurant, with air-con and Wi-Fi. There one could sit all day drinking cold beer (over ice… the strange things people do) and watch the world go by.
Vientiane must have been the world’s most laidback capital. In fact, it was so laidback there were quite a few Western bums around. Looking like old-time hippies, stuck in time and out of luck, bumming from travellers with sad stories of money stolen and late pension payments.
5 September - Vientiane – Hin Hoeup – 102 km
With bikes fixed and Chinese visas in our passports, it was time to leave Vientiane, which by then started to feel like home. The way north was scenic, albeit with a little taste of the hills to come.
I watched in horror while a traditional cockfight took place. Even though gambling was illegal in Laos, villagers regularly organised these fights. It was a bloody and messy affair as roosters fought to the death for cash prizes.
6 September - Hin Hoeup - Vang Vieng – 65 km
From Hin Hoeup to Vang Vieng was a short but rather hot and hilly ride. The scenery was; however, jaw-droppingly beautiful. Vang Vieng, known as “Chill Out Town” had the most scenic location any village could hope for. Situated on the banks of the Song River and surrounded by stunning limestone cliffs, it was no wonder it was such a popular backpackers hangout.
7-8 September - Vang Vien – Kasi – 60 km
The path climbed up over mountains and past numerous hill tribe villages. Stunning scenery continued, and Kasi was reached around 14h00, where it was decided to stay the night. Our early stop gave plenty of time to sort out the bikes (hopefully, once and for all) and go to the market. Ernest bought himself a decent-sized buffalo steak for a remarkably low price, while I stuck to my usual noodles to which was added tofu purchased at the market.
The large grapefruit bought proofed somewhat disappointing. It was hard as a rock and very, very dry. As with most of the fruit in the region, it was eaten sprinkled with a combination of salt and chilly.
9 September - Phou Khoun - Xiang Ngeun – 106 km
The day consisted of a slow, hard slog up many mountains. Hills were rather steep and long, and there were at least two long hills, one of 20 kilometres and one of 15 kilometres, which took forever on a loaded bike. Five kilometres an hour was about the average speed but, at least, where there’s an up there must be a down!
On reaching Xiang Ngeum, I couldn’t face cycling up yet another hill, and although Luang Prabang was just 25 kilometres away, I couldn’t be moved. The room was small, hot and windowless, but I took it anyhow as there were no other options in this tiny settlement.
10 September - Xiang Ngeun - Luang Prabang – 25 km
The following morning, we woke at 5.30 to the clucking of chickens and found the morning market in full swing right on our doorstep.
After a short 25-kilometre ride and only one hill, our path reached Luang Prabang. It looked a really nice place, but Ernest was concerned about reaching the border in time and didn’t want to linger.
11 September - Luang Prabang – Pak Mong – 115 km
The road followed a river for much of the morning, and although there were little steep ups and downs, there were no monster hills like the previous days. The scenery stayed inspiring as the route took us past many tribal villages where weaving and spinning yarn was the main business, and which villagers washed and dried by the roadside. I was more than happy to reach Pak Mong where one could bed down for the night.
12 September - Pak Mong – Oudom Xai – 85 km
It was an exhausting day on the road. Not only did the monster hills return, but it rained the entire day, making the path a muddy mess with huge potholes. It wasn’t only a problem for cyclists, but all vehicles found the going challenging; trucks got stuck, and motorbikes were slipping and sliding.
I was delighted to reach Oudom Xai and to have a warm shower and a bite to eat. It seems all I did was cycle and eat. At least on top of every hill was what Ernest called the “Welcome Committee”, hordes of children shouting “Saibaidee, falang” with great enthusiasm.
13 September - Oudom Xai – Botem – 100 km
From Oudom Xia, the path let straight up the mountain, and it was another hard day of cycling, hills, rain, road works, potholes and mud. It was a slow slog but still very scenic past rural villages and more friendly kids.
Fortunately, there was a guesthouse in Oudom Xai opposite the market where Ernest bought dried buffalo meat, the closest thing to biltong he was going to find in that part of the world. There were also two other cyclists staying at the same guesthouse. They were on their way south after spending two months in China. They weren’t feeling well, and were planning on taking a bus to Luang Prabang. It sounded a lot more sensible than pushing on while not feeling well.