SADDLES, SAFFRON & SINGHAS
The Vietnamese plant the rice…
The Cambodians watch it grow…
The Laotians listen to it growing.’
So went a saying (allegedly) among the colonials when these countries were French Indochina.
Independence, a dreadful war and a cautious opening up for travel followed the departure of the French, but Laos is still the sleepy backwater of Southeast Asia.
I first went there in 1994 not long after it first nervously opened its doors to foreign travellers. Vientiane, the capital was like a big village, with hardly any buildings above one storey and it was almost an event when a car passed by. Things have caught up rapidly over the last 17 years, with many areas as urbanised as their neighbours, Thailand and Vietnam. However, the northeast is still caught in a delightful tardis-like state.
This adventure in Laos and Northern Vietnam completes the triangle of Exodus’ Indochina cycling holidays. But it is a world away from the other two trips in terms of the rugged and remote country it passes through.
It started in seething Hanoi: the population is exploding, but no one is so poor as to need a bike for transport. The only cyclists we saw were expats (why do they cycle when they can afford a car?). Rising at dawn one day we had a ride around the city well before the masses kick-started their Hondas.
In spite of Vietnam’s huge population there’s still plenty of undeveloped country, as we found out on the rides of the first couple of days, which took us to a beautiful National Park at Cuc Phuong. The next day was a long one on the support bus. We crossed the Ho Chi Minh trail, now itself a main road, and headed into the mountains which separate Vietnam and Laos.
The crossing at the lonely border post of Na Meo and the drive to Vieng Xai rewarded us with hardly another vehicle on the road. This really felt like one of the ends of the Earth, jagged limestone karsts in every direction, and a hotel which could only manage water on the ground floor. After a morning exploring the caves where the communist Pathet Lao leadership hid from American air raids, we had a hard but very satisfying ride over the hills to Sam Neua.
Next was Phonsavanh and the Plain of Jars. The jars are mysterious stone carvings, some weighing several tons, scattered over several sites. Burial urns? Storage for the local hooch? Nobody knows, but the Lao brewing tradition is still going strong and we enjoyed many a bottle of their excellent brew.
The Plain of Jars is the foremost historic site in Laos, and yet we shared it with no more than a couple of other travellers. We rode further into the countryside and came to the sad little town of Muang Khoum, flattened by US air raids, with just a ramshackle Buddha standing in the shell of the old temple. Our appetite for lunch was compromised slightly by the surrounding cases of unexploded (but now defused) bombs.
For three nights in seductive Luang Prabang, a bike is the perfect way to explore. On one day we rode out to a local beauty spot, Kwangsi Waterfalls, and had sumptuous picnic between dips in the pools at the foot of the falls. On another we pedalled north alongside the Mekong to Pak Ou, site of a remarkable cave full of hundreds of Buddha statues, placed there by local people over centuries. The bikes went back on the support truck and we drifted downriver on one of the local ferryboats, calling at a weavers’ village on the way.
Back in town, the Luang Prabang atmosphere seeps over you – mooching along the avenues, slipping into the cafes, trying the street food, wandering into a Wat to hear monks chanting, and yet more shopping in the excellent market. Saffron-robed monks still parade along the main street at dawn, collecting alms.
Another mix of driving and cycling followed as we turned south to Vang Vieng – a few short climbs but mostly memorable for the exhilarating 20 mile descent. Even here, on one of the main roads in Laos, there was very little traffic, and we encountered many friendly greetings along the way.
We cycled into Vientiane for our final night in Laos and then pedalled out of town across the Mekong on the Friendship Bridge and right into Thailand (remembering to switch sides of the road in the middle of the bridge – they sensibly ride on the left in Thailand). An overnight train ride was made very merry with plenty of Singha Beer, and we rolled into gigantic frenetic Bangkok the following morning – the contrast couldn’t have been greater.
Written by Exodus' Brochure Production Manager Phil Normington.