Cycling Northern Laos: A Pedaler's Paradise
By Matthew Kadey
It’s been a long time since I’ve witness such a splendid mural painted by Mother Nature. As I descend towards the Nam Lik river valley, I let out an emphatic chorus of oohs, aahs and holy shit’s as I take in the mountain studded remote valley. Biking across Laos turned out to be spectacular!
Tabi smiles, her rising sunburnt cheeks show her excitement as she soaks in Laos’s most stunning peak – a towering chunk of rock that penetrates the late afternoon haze as it rises like a misplaced giant tooth from the soil below.
The sun is warm and glorious. Our guidebook recommends a window seat on the bus; we enjoy the uncluttered view.
Several brake-searing miles later, we arrive at our basic bungalow as the fire-red orb begins its descent to the unseen and shadows creep across the valley floor like a cheetah stalking its prey.
The hot spring out front helps soothe saddle sores, sapid Beer Lao quenches thirst and gazing up at laser sharp stars in the blackest of skies goes a long way in making us feel like the two luckiest damn farang alive. Indeed, Laos is revealing itself to be pedaler’s paradise.
Please Don’t Rush
That is a paradise not overrun by big, bland resorts, ubiquitous fast-food joints and locals clambering for a piece of your wallet.
The Laos People Democratic Republic (known in some parlance as ‘Laos Please Don’t Rush’) is a rather diminutive landlocked Asian nation with five sometimes meddlesome neighbors.
But largely as a side-effect of the xenophobic communist Pathet Lao government seizing power in 1975 and for two decades isolating the country from the west, it has its own unique demeanor.
While there were undeniably hardships for it denizens, isolation meant Laos was spared much of the unfavorable effects of unchecked modernization that befell some its more generic border buddies.
So for many with itchy feet, modern day Buddhist Laos represents an unparalleled opportunity to explore a corner of Asia largely unbent by tourism.
Here, we’re told, young impressionable saffron-robed monks desire to practice English with you, large tracts of jungle are a refuge to a legion of mammals and colorfully dressed hill tribes welcome you into their homes.
For the next however long it takes, my girlfriend, Tabitha Ferguson, and I will test these affirmations as we romp in the outdoors and pedal our loaded bikes through Laos’s rugged northern frontier.
Row, Row, Row Your Boat
Some would say that Laos’s lifeline is the powerful Mekong River which runs almost the entire eastern length of the country.
From the rather humdrum town of Huoayxai on the Thailand border we make the decision to ply its waters on a jalopy of a slow boat to Pakbeng where we will start our push north.
Since Pakbeng is a stop-over on the famed two day boat trip from Thailand to Louang Phabang, we can’t escape being harassed the nanosecond we disembark by those desperate for us to stay at their guesthouse.
“Geez, I really hope the rest of the country isn’t this bad,” a rather frustrated Tabi says as we try to gather our gear on the banks of the Mekong among the hoards of backpackers and overzealous locals as the sun races home from Asia.
Morning. A few pedal strokes in the clean, crisp air of a.m. and Tabi’s hopes are quickly brought to fruition. It’s just us, an undulating road devoid of traffic and impenetrable jungle. We feel safe. We feel free. We feel alive.
Each village seems to shower us with and even louder chorus of sabai di’s. In Thailand we felt ignored. In Laos we are embarrassingly welcomed.
Each settlement is adorned by wooden looms weaving striking textiles. Stray docile mutts lounge in the golden dust. Naked Hmong and Tai Leu village children race to be the first to greet us.
“Boy, girl, boy, girl,” Tabi kindly points out. In some ways we look as much out of place as beach balls on the moon.
As day considers letting night in the door, we decide the rather non-descript village Muang Houn is a good stop for the night. I do a second take when our host asks for only 35,000 kip or roughly three dollars 50 cents for a room. Parsimonious in nature, I’ve come to the right place for a dirt cheap tour.
A quick gambol around the village that was conceived in the mid-80s by the government to bring locals down from the hills hoping they would stop producing opium and we’re back at the guesthouse sharing Beer Lao’s with Mr. Boun Nhou.
He is a typical Laotian. A slight man with trusting eyes. Up from the capital, he is here to oversee the installment of a new sanitation system.
Over his shoulder, rising concrete pillars indicate that electricity is on its way. Indeed the denizens here seem to be moving up in the world.
Likely the only person around with a spot of English, we use this opportunity to improve our Laotian vocabulary and learn more about Laos’s tumultuous past.
Being the most bombed country per capita in the world and remaining one of it’s poorest, hard times have an continue to be witnessed.
“We have to work so very hard,” Mr. Boun Nhou increasingly repeats as the night wears on. Each time becoming more and mooore slurred as he orders one large ale after another. He is inebriated, I am very tipsy and Tabi is amused.
Up, Up and Away
Our first big physical challenge comes minutes after departing the rather cranky town of Oudomxai with a serious truck-stop aura as we climb relentlessly mile after mile passing cascading waterfalls and mountain villages populated by any number of the more than twenty different ethnic minorities that call Oudomxai province home.
Each pedal stroke is accompanied by another large lungful of unsullied air as our eyes soak in the languid vistas that abound.
Jerking my head swiftly side to side to take in this gorgeous day, I notice a weathered elderly man occupying the doorway to his modest wooden abode. His short gray hair, dark skin, and eyes clouded with age prompt me to stop for a photo. It’s clear he is the shy about being the subject of my fuss. I reckon not a lot of outsiders come his way.
Cresting the hill, I return a wave from a few colorfully dressed Hmong and then gear down for the long drop ahead. Halfway down the mountain, we are stopped by a rather shady man who would be more than happy to give us his large furry bamboo rat for a good price.
Since it won’t pack very well in our stuffed panniers, he instead unloads it to a passing truck driver and his wife. It will likely find a place on their dinner plate tonight. Unfortunately, too much of Laos’ diverse wildlife have become a part of the human food chain. Poaching has and continues to be a serious problem.
Nong Khiaw The Beautiful
Our hair-raising descent eventually peters out at Nong Khiaw. Immediately we are struck by its almost preternatural beauty. The sluggish Nam Ou river cuts through dramatic jagged limestone cliffs that are adorned by verdant jungle at it’s base.
It’s the kind of place where days go by uncalendered and journals become flush with the written word. Often we find ourselves simply stopping and staring.
We splurge for a ten-dollar riverside bungalow and decide to go for a pleasant walk in the surrounding countryside. As we tramp through this god-blessed land, our only company are a few grazing water buffalo, near vertical crags, a big, bold sky and a couple of village children wishing to inflict us with Lao-Lao: a potent clear rice whisky made from fermented sticky rice.
We decline and race back just in time to watch the setting sun turn Nong Khiaw on the banks of the Nam Ou a flattering crimson.
A Royal Welcome
A couple of days later, fifty miles of pedal strokes deposit us in Louang Phabang, as the bloated sun swings low over the surrounding crown of fecund and temple-studded mountains. Our first encounter with a Laos streetlight takes us by surprise.
Immediately we become smitten with this friendly and relaxed former royal city located at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers.
Phabang’s rich history and a myriad of temples led UNESCO to designate it a world heritage city in 1995, declaring it the best preserved traditional city in Southeast Asia.
Over the next several days, we spend our time gamboling between French colonial buildings and more than thirty atmospheric gilded temples with coconut palms swaying overhead and youthful monks sweeping leaves out front.
Our outings are often interrupted by a hearty sampling of a wide range of culinary delights from fiery papaya salads to baguettes to perfectly grilled Mekong fish. Tabi is often weighed down by inexpensive textiles woven with immaculate perfection.
Ubiquitous kaleidoscope tuk-tuks with their camera-wielding passengers zip by us and markets exude exotic aromas as we ride out along the Mekong on a quite road dotted with ethnic minority villages to the marvelous Kouang Si waterfall, a multi-level affair through lush vegetation that’s frankly outclassed by swimming-friendly deep-blue pools that stretch outwards from its base.
Prying ourselves away from this exceptional hamlet is difficult but after several days of sensual and historical overload it was time to gear up and move southwards.
A peak at my journal notes from that day illustrates a formidable undertaking:
Easy ride out of town squinting into morning sun. Passing rider from other direction says riding here is very difficult. Must be a newbie.
Bagged a ten-mile climb. Bit spent and sweaty. Quite the view of the sun-blasted expanse. We gorge on crackers in a charming village flanked by mountains.
Ripping 10-mile descent. Need new brakes or better travel insurance. Lots of kids. Don’t believe that the populace is only six million.
Descent followed almost immediately by another vertical. Nine miles gone. Can’t wait for downhill that’s coming.
Sun is fading. No downhill to be found. Still climbing. Passed two sullen Dutch cyclists.
15-miles of climbing and village is in sight. Tabi is cold and upset. Very hungry. Where is that bamboo rat?
Kioukacham. Top of mountain, not bottom.
Lots of rusty old bicycles. Bucket shower and mountains of rice. Only farang here are riders. Collapse like a brave fish scooped from the sea after a momentous battle with its captor. I love Laos!
The exceptional beauty of Laos confronted us at every bend of the road between Kioukacham and Van Viang. The remote wild and mountainous country re-energizes us as each pedal strokes seems more and more effortless.
There are few signs of human presence in the uninterrupted sleeping valley. Already on cloud nine, Tabi is awarded the royal treatment as a congregate of umbrella-wielding school girls moving along on rickety single speeds escort her out of Kasi.
I can see that she has been injected with a new will to ride. The only thing stopping her from leaving me in her dust is an irksome case of traveler’s you know what.
We find ourselves worrying very little that this stretch of tar has been notorious for disgruntled Hmong attacks in a misplaced show of anger for what has been harsh treatment from the ruling party. The day is just too perfect.
In need of a few days off the saddle and out of lycra, a basic bamboo bungalow in Van Viang with a mind-bending view of the imposing mountains of Phan Tang and Phatto Nokham is the chosen location. There’s a lot to love and hate this village for.
Nestled in a valley on the bank of the Nam Xong river, Viang is saturated with sawtoothed karst mountains, misty jungle, copious caves and plunging cascades. A popular spot for all things adventure from kayaking to caving to rock climbing.
Sadly, though, its popularity in many ways has also become its downfall. A once-sleepy village has now given way to internet cafes, westernized restaurants airing pirated episodes of Friends and visitors more interested in floating down the river, beer in hand than experiencing true Lao culture.
Unfortunately, our eagerness to explore all of the surrounding stunning nooks and crannies are stymied by one bad sinus cold and one equally troublesome bout of food poisoning.
Stranded among the hoards of flip-flops and “same, same” t-shirts. No matter: we’ve had our several days of beatitude.
Two non-spectacular days of riding bring us to the rather modest capital Vientiane and the end of our northern Laos tour.
Sitting back languidly on the shores of the Mekong as the sun drops behind Thailand across the way, I find myself looking around at what seems to be a rather large presence of foreigners, a testament to Laos fast becoming the darling of Southeast Asia.
A warm welcome, lonely roads, plentiful and cheap comestibles and world-class scenery make it particularly affable to a cyclist. A pedal where you often take notice of the world and its gifts.
Safe, quite roads makes Laos an idea spot for self-supported cycling as depicted in this article. However, if you would like more structure there are several companies that run cycling tours in Laos, including G.A.P Adventures, Exodus and Tiger Trail.
Green Discovery comes highly recommended. They provide English-speaking guides that run numerous adventure trips throughout the country.
30-day visas on arrival are available at Vientiane International Airport, Louang Phabang Airport and some border crossings (Chiang Khong/Houayxai being one of them). You can easily extend your visa in the capital Vientiane. You can also obtain a 60-day visa before arrival from the nearest embassy abroad.
All visitors to Laos require a passport valid for at least 6 months after arrival in Laos.
When to go
The rainy season generally runs from May to September. While this would wash the countryside and rice fields in a verdant green, it might not make riding overly pleasant. December to February are the driest months and ideal for cycling.
Matthew Kadey is a Canadian-based scribbler who suffers from chronic wanderlust. In addition to Ethiopia, he has taken his trusty two-wheeler to Ireland, Jordan, Laos, New Zealand, Belize and Portugal. His photography and writing can be seen at mattkadey.ca.
Registered Dietitian, Nutrition and Travel Writer, Professional Recipe Developer, Travel and Food Photographer, and Cookbook Author. Matthew Kadey has visited Ethiopia, Syria, Myanmar, Jordan, Ireland, New Zealand, Belize, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Mexico. Many of these trips have taken place by bicycle. Sure points A and B are interesting, but it is what’s between them that is really exciting.