Travelers Memories
ACROSS LAOS
ON A CHINESE BICYCLE

Author : Kirk MacManus
kirkmacmanus@hotmail.com
# Left Canada 1991 for a one year trip and still haven't come home to settle
# Travelled, lived in over 75 countries in Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe and Australia.
Worked in a variety of jobs, everything from a carnival worker in Australia, to working for a UNITED Nations subcontractor in Cambodia and Somalia.
# Currently residing in Washington DC area doing my pilots license
# I'm happy to hear from anybody with questions, comments or who would just like to share experiences.

Travel Essentials:

VISAS The closest Lao consulate in China is in Kunming. Visas are issued for two weeks only unless the extra fee for a one month visa if paid. Costs vary depending on nationality.

FOOD Food is very basic all along the route except for in the towns of Udomxai and Luang Prabang where many restaurants now cater to the backpacker. Along the rest of the route noodle soup with some vegetables and chicken, if desired, is common. Markets usually have a reasonable to good selection of fresh fruit. Many treats like local donuts and ice cream can be bought very cheap. Bottled water is available at any village along the route for about 15cents a liter. Also Pepsi and Mirinda and sevenup are widely available. If travelling by bike food and water is not availabel between villages so carry supplies as villages are a long way apart. Good basic meals can be had for under a dollar.

ACCOMMODATION Aside from Udomxai and Luang Prabang, where accommodation ranges from basic to luxurious, accommodation is very basic. Just be glad to have a roof to keep the rain off of your head.
Prices of basic accomodation range from roughly one to three dollars.

MONEY US dollars cash are the easiest to change. Preferably have lots of tens and twenties to change otherwise you will carry huge bricks of Lao Kip around with you. 50 and 100 US bills do get a slightly better rate though. Change money in the markets, as the official bank rate is only a fraction of what you can get there. Shop around for your rate, as some will offer you a very low rate if they think you don't know the price.

TELEPHONE, FAX AND INTERNET Phone and fax are available only in the post offices of Luang Prabang and Udomxai and expensive hotels. Luang Prabang did have a couple internet cafe's but they were probematic. Vientienne has reliable ones at he big hotels, but at US$12/hour. Unless it's urgent wait until you're in china or thailand where it's much cheaper.

TRANSPORTATION
In the north up to China it's best to negotiate a price for a ride on a truck or pay to be sandwiched into the back of a tiny Suzuki pickup with many locals with shorter legs than yours. There are no comfortable public buses. There's not much traffic anywhere, so start early.

CLIMATE In the north it is quite elevated so it is not nearly as hot as Vientienne. Daytime temperatures are t-shirt and shorts and nights, even in the winter aren't so cold that a blanket or two shouldn't be enough. I wore shorts even at night in January

SAFETY Generally speaking Laos is a very safe country but they still do have their outlawed political groups. People in the north generally are not used to tourists and are fairly honest, however still take normal precautions with valuables. As of early 1999 the road from Mohan China all the way to Vientienne was safe for travelers, but the security of an area can change quickly. It is recommended you contact your embassy for updates before any trip to the area.


ATTENTION
CYCLISTS !!!

ROAD CONDITION
The road from the Chinese border all the way to Nambak was paved once upon a time, and a good layer of asphalt still exists over a lot of the road. If on a bicycle you should be able to avoid all the potholes, but on public transport it might be a little bumpier.

Traffic from the Chinese border to Udomxai almost non existant, except for the odd logging truck and from Udomxai to Nambak sparse.

Hills from the border to Na Naw are smaller, but from Na Maw all the way to Nambak they are hard going.

The road from Luang Prabang is excellent brand new two lane sealed road. Traffic is still very light by standards of most countries, but does increase a little more closer Luang Prabang. From Nambak all the way to Luang Prabang the road generally follows the gentle downward slope of the river. It is generally level riding.


Kirk Gallery

Across Laos
on a Chinese Bicycle


Visiting Angkor Wat

MOHAN, CHINA
January 30, 1999

I didn't sleep very well my last night in China. I guess I was trying to decide whether I should buy a bicycle and travel Laos that way, or just travel by public transport. I knew that there were many mountains I would have to pedal over, but I also realized that my most difficult trips had always been my most memorable ones. Having my own transportation gave me the freedom to stop where and when I wanted to, giving me more exposure to people and their cultures than taking a bus from town to town.

January 31, 1999
The next morning I went into the town. Although it was 7:30 am, it was still pitch dark as all of China only has one time zone. Just to make sure nobody overslept though, Chinese music was blasted through tinny loudspeakers all over the town. I wouldn't miss this tiny border town, especially the toilets. My hotel didn't have any so the staff directed me to the public toilets at the sports field. Like many places in China there were no doors on the toilet stalls and the dividers were only about one meter tall. I guess that's why they call them public toilets. I was hoping Laos with their French colonial influence might be a little more civilized.

With me was a British girl, Vicki, whom I had met a few days previous at the Lao embassy in Kunming, China. She was also going into Laos in the same direction as I was. That morning I had decided that I would try to do the trip by bicycle and she decided to join me. We had no idea how big the mountains were going to be, or even if we could get the bikes past Lao customs, but we decided to give it a shot. In the worst case scenario we could abandon the bikes and take public transport and we would lose less than $50 each.

As soon as the shops opened we went to the bike shop to look over some bikes. Before agreeing to buy them we had to make the salesman understand that we would only buy them on the condition that he accompany us to the Lao side of the border to ensure no extra duties would be charged.
Earlier, I spoke to a Chinese customs official regarding duties. He said I shouldn't buy a Chinese bike and take it to Laos. When I asked if there was some big duty to be paid, he replied there wasn't, but after a month I'd need a new bike. I was soon to realize he spoke words of wisdom.

After agreeing to buy 2 bikes, locks, tools, etc, all for about $89, we left for the border, about 100 meters up the road. We had our packs and all our gear strapped to the racks on the back, but we couldn't ride them because we didn't have registration numbers. We also were supposed to walk them through the 2 km no mans land. After being out of sight of Chinese customs we began to ride. Within 20 feet I had one pedal fall off, and Vicki's handlebars went sideways. We tried to fix them but we had to go back to the Chinese customs while our salesman ran into town to get the tools we didn't have. He returned with his boss, and once bike repairs were done, we all walked out of sight of Chinese customs and began to ride. Within a few feet my bike pedal come off again. The boss ran back to town for a new pedal pin and we set off again. At the Lao border everything went OK, so we paid our salesman and he returned to China. That effectively ended the warranty period on our new bicycles.

Once through customs we changed money, got some bananas and then headed to the next town that we were told was 10 km away. Over the next hours, Vicki's brakes gave out, gear selectors stopped working, chain came off several times and pedal come almost off twice. I guess the "Made in China" mark says it all.

After hours of seeing no settlements, eventually we came upon a village. We stopped at a shanty selling only some drink they put in used beer bottles, but we passed on that. They did offer, and we accepted, hot water right out of the kettle. It doesn't sound very refreshing, but we were very thirsty, and at least we knew that it had to be clean.

Soon we came upon a crossroads with plenty of shanty shops. They had soft drinks, water, drinking yogurt and all kinds of good things. We didn't have breakfast so my lunch of an apple and deep fried potato fritters was very welcome. It was almost 3 p.m. China time. Vicki was keen to head on, although we didn't know how far the next town was. We guessed anywhere between 20 and 35 km. I heard there was almost nothing there so I didn't know where we might stay. I was thinking perhaps at some village along the way.

Soon after setting out I was beginning to have second thoughts. My legs had already had enough for one day in the 18 km from the border to the last settlement. I had on old upright Chinese bike, so I had no gears to tackle the hills. After a while Vicki was feeling it too. At one point she had to stop and sit in the road because the leg cramps were so bad. By this time she was walking up most of the hills as well.
I was looking at the sun being very low in the sky thinking we'd be driving at night. I'd just commented to Vicki how at least there was a clear sky and a full moon so it wouldn't be completely dark when I spotted a temple in the distance. I was feeling better knowing that in Buddhist countries you can always stay at temples if you are stuck for a place to stay.

NA MAW, LAOS
As we approached the temple, I saw the village of Na Maw just beyond. We passed people cooking on fires by the side of the road, others bathing and fishing in the river, and turkeys walking around the village, all of which only added to the rustic atmosphere. My last bottle of water had fallen off the bike previously, so as soon as we arrived I bought another one and drank thirstily.

Upon entering the village I saw many shops and restaurants in shanties. I was thinking a town this size would have somewhere to sleep. Once we had passed through most of the town Vicki motioned to a local woman for a place to sleep and we were pointed back to the center. After asking a couple more locals, we spotted a white man walking down the stairs of a house wearing a sarong. We asked him, and it turned out to be the guesthouse. I was very surprised to see any foreigners. He and his friend, both Dutch cyclists, told us that the road from Luang Prabang to Vientiane was now safe from rebel attacks. That's good news. The bad news is that it was hillier than what we had done already.

Before all the twilight was gone I went for a walk around the town. Everywhere were young girls in very elaborate traditional costumes consisting of big dark blue bell bottom style pants that went half way down the shin, black jackets and headgear decorated in bright yellow, pinks and blues, all finished off with wide pinks scarves tied around the waist. It was nice to see not everyone in the world had adopted baseball hats and t-shirts. As I was walking the back streets of the village, many of the children followed me. Like in many places I've been where foreigners are almost never seen, the smallest children screamed and cried at the sight of me. I also met a young soldier boy. I don't think he could have been 14 years old, but in these countries kids grow up fast.

The guesthouse was quite good. It had a balcony and clean but basic rooms and only 3000 kip (60 cents) per night, and electricity from 6 to 9 p.m. There was no water in the "showers" (a bucket and ladle) but I was told maybe there would be the next day. My bed was eight inches shorter than I am, but I was happy because I had thought earlier that I'd go hungry without any place to stay.

February 1, 1999
After a good night's rest and a good breakfast of noodle soup, we bought plenty of bottled water and were on our way. We were only a few km out, if that, when we hit our first hill. My legs were in bad shape from the day before, so I could only pedal uphill a short distance. We then started pushing the bikes uphill. We kept pushing and pushing expecting to come to the crest at every curve. We pushed for over an hour, maybe two, when after believing we'd never get there, we finally reached the peak. The view was spectacular. There was a small settlement of traditional A-frame houses on stilts covered with grass roofs. Pigs and chickens ran freely around the village. Life doesn't have to be complicated.

We stopped and took a few photos, and thought at least we had earned a long free ride down. We coasted for a couple of minutes and soon we were peddling along the flat stretches. They didn't last long, because soon the hill began to climb ever so slightly. I figured that if we could just get to the end of this hill we'd have a free ride down. It seemed like it was taking forever. I guess we shouldn't have complained though, as we would often see old women and young girls carrying big loads of firewood on their backs up these mountain roads with no sign of strain.

Over four hours into the day's trip we still hadn't reached the actual top, and we had half jokingly discussed rolling all the way back down the hill and catching a ride on a truck the next day. Suddenly I saw a white guy on a moped coming down the hill. I stopped him and asked him how much further to the top and to town. He said only around the next bend to the top and 25 km to town. This was good news. Because it meant we had already done 29 km. He also said it was downhill all the way to town and in the next village, which was a km or further, we could buy water and drinks. That sounded great because we had used up all our water halfway through the day. The moped rider's name was Gwain. He was a Danish South African and he gave us a biscuit each to eat. All the good news put us in good spirits because we were both thirsty, tired, and I was having my doubts about whether we could make it to the next town that day.

After a 20 or 30 minute break with Gwain we crested the top of the hill and coasted to the first village. We asked about buying water, but an old shirtless man only had water in a dirty plastic container to offer. I politely declined. Shortly, we passed a second village, which had a little shack to buy water and drinks. I also bought some bananas at a shanty across the road. There were plenty of locals in colorful costumes so I managed a few photos. They even brought out tiny chairs for us to sit on while we ate our bananas and enjoyed the spectacular mountain views.

On the long ride down mountain one of the people we saw was a hunter carrying a primitive rifle that looked longer that I am tall. We stopped and he showed us how his rifle worked. He seemed as interested in us as we were in him.
We headed on making good time, although I did feel I needed to adjust my brakes coming down hills - I couldn't stop. I also noticed the ride was a lot rougher. I looked at my back wheel but it didn't seem to be flat. After coming upon fields and coming down from the mountains I heard a noise and stopped. After closer inspection I realized that the tyre must have been flat for much of the trip down the mountain since I was feeling every bump and pothole.

I took it apart and repaired the tube but couldn't manage to get the tyre back on the rim. A local youth stopped to help and we got it on together. We didn't manage a terrific job of it as the tire was mounted to one side but I though it could get us to town. I began to put it all together when the chain broke.
I asked the locals how much further, and they told me it was 14 km to the town of Udomaxi. I figured that if I drove Vicki's bike and pulled her on mine on the flats and coasted down the hills we would make it with the sunlight left. I looked down and saw the tyre was flat as a pancake again, so that was that idea gone. Although we didn't manage to fix the wheel we did entertain a crowd of curious onlookers for a while.

Vicki biked to the village within sight to see if we could stay there. As I waited I managed to flag a big truck down and got a lift to town. Vicki was still in the village so I was concerned I wouldn't spot her and we would drive by her. I did see her, so we loaded her bike too and she rode in the cab while I rode in the back. By the time we got there I was completely red with road dust.

UDOMXAI
After arriving we saw one of the Dutch cyclists. He said he and his friend had a bet on whether we would make it or not. There was doubt as to whether we'd get past those long climbs. We found a decent place to stay, food and a much needed shower after 3 days, and decided to forget about repairing the bikes until morning.

February 2, 1999
I spent the morning sorting out repairing the bikes and exploring the markets. Like most countries I've seen, the market is the hub of activity of the town. In this one I found unusual baked sweet goods and blocks of locally made ice cream on sticks, all for about two cents each. Finding the bicycle parts needed was a bit of a chore, but eventually I managed it and found a repair shop to do all the labor. They charged me about 60 cents for all the work.

Once everything was repaired we rode around the area for a while in the afternoon. After dark we drove up to a restaurant at the top of town. As we arrived I noticed my back wheel suddenly became very tight. There was one spot on the bike frame that I couldn't move the wheel past. Suddenly I heard a big bang. The rear wheel had exploded. I thought we had gone through this already. Made in China quality strikes again. I hoped we'd do the next leg the next day if we ddidn't have too many more mechanical problems.

February 3, 1999
After a late start, which was due to having to fix the tire again, we stocked up on drinks and food before leaving town. We had hoped to get going earlier to benefit from the cool foggy morning, but the sun had already come out in force by the time we were ready. It wasn't long until we were pushing up hills again - less than a few km out of town. Although we had our share of minor breakdowns on the way, it still seemed as if we were pushing forever. Finally we came to the waterfalls we had been told marked 11 km of travel. That was discouraging because we'd been going such a long time I thought we would be further by then.

I walked up to the falls and found two locals cooking some thick green slime on an open fire. They also had some barbecued carcasses of some animals. My guess was that they were a dog and some mice. They didn't ask me to stay for lunch and that suited me fine. When Vicki caught up, we went back to the bikes. I removed her rear mudguard because I needed the bolts to reattach the luggage rack, which was about to fall off.

We were on our way again. It seemed like it was almost all uphill. I felt like I had a load of bricks on the back of my bike. Even when I was on the straight stretches it still felt that way. After pushing to the top of a hill we decided to break for lunch and I would look at my bike. I took the whole back wheel apart trying to figure why there was so much resistance. When I opened it up I realized that some ball bearings were missing. In addition a couple of others were starting to wear and the wheel was full of metal filings. I put it together again and we decided to press on.

As it happened we were just uphill from a village. I stopped at a shop and bought water and drinking yogurt and thought I'd ask him how far to Nambak. He put 18 into the calculator. I thought we were almost there, then he put 90 and subtracted 18 from it. What he was saying was Nambak was still 72 km more and we had only done 18 km all day. It was almost 3 in the afternoon and I still had a bad wheel with 72 km to go.
At this point I talked to Vicki about catching a truck. She could see the sense, so we sat down on the side of the road in the village and played cards and waited. The whole time we were quite an attraction for all the village children. About a dozen stood around staring and saying "Sabadee" (Are you OK?) which is the local greeting. The girls and boys clustered separately. One girl who was about 10 had a baby strapped to her back. It seems very common for very young girls to be completely trusted with baby brothers and sisters. The boys played a game where they all start sitting back to back in the road and end up pushing each other around with their heads while on their hands and knees.

After a couple of hours a pickup truck came by. Vicki jumped out in front of and stopped it, arranging a lift for us and our bikes. It was a very bumpy ride sitting in the open back and very uncomfortable, as there was no place to sit except on the bikes themselves. While passing all the villages the children, as usual, would all be screaming Sawadee. I guess they don't see many foreigners, so when they do, especially two travelling slowly by on bicycles, it's cause for excitement. The sun was getting lower in the sky. I was already freezing and worried we'd still be riding after dark. I had a jacket in my pack but I didn't dare try to get it out, as I had to use my hands to hold on just to keep from being bounced out of the truck. Fortunately, they stopped for a moment and I put it on.

NAMBAK
Nambak was little more than a village at a crossroads. It had two basic restaurants. We couldn't find a hotel. There wasn't any place to stay except in the back of the restaurant or in a shed across the road that the other restaurant owned. It was very basic. The walls were bedsheets and the mattresses were on the dirty wooden floor. It was at least a place to sleep, even if there were ducks living under the floorboards.

February 4, 1999
I awoke at dawn to the sound of the roosters crowing, but we didn't get off until 10 am again due to our mechanical problems. I found ball bearings at the market, which was little more than a collection of 5 or 6 tables full of goods across the street. I went looking for grease, which I finally found at the pharmacy. They also had ball bearings. I re-assembled the bicycle several times until it was working a little better.
Finally we were on our way. I noticed we had road markers every km and 113 km to go to Luang Prabang. I didn't mind the distance though because we were making excellent time. The first 10 km flew by and we didn't have to stop for anything, except re-bolting Vicki's luggage rack. The next 12 km went almost as smoothly. The road was excellent sealed road with no potholes and I was feeling very optimistic. The Dutch guys told me it was all downhill from Nambak.
We had lunch at about 1:30 at a "truck stop" halfway up a steep hill. It was good to be able to buy food and water enroute, unlike the first few days. Later my pedal fell apart. To fix it I had to scavenge a nut from my front brakes rendering them useless. Those bikes were like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

PAK OU
We came upon the village of Pak Ou and asked, by pointing to the word "guesthouse" in my English-Lao dictionary, where we could find someplace to stay. Nobody knew of anyplace. While asking different people there must have been a crowd of forty children gathered to watch. Eventually a pickup stopped. The driver said to follow him down the dirt side road through the traditional village.

He led us to the home of a very friendly man and his family who put us up for the night for about three dollars. He insisted that to wash we had to go to the river, which we did. When we arrived back his family was already preparing dinner for everybody. We joined the family for sticky rice, which is picked up with the hands, rolled into balls and dipped in a very spicy brown sauce with vegetables and possibly meat in it. Dinner was by candlelight, because the electricity didn't come on until later.

February 5, 1999
After a complimentary breakfast of sticky rice, soup with chopped chicken parts and leafy green things, we had an early start. I rolled through the village downhill, ringing my bell and sending children scurrying because I had no brakes. The day before I had to use the brake bolt to hold the pedal together. We only had 33 km to go, which would be our shortest goal yet. We still had to work doing the uphill stretches, but I definitely felt that I was in better shape compared to a few days before.

LUANG PRABANG
By ten o'clock we had arrived in the town of Luang Prabang, where we had considered getting rid of the bicycles as we didn't want to deal with the breakdowns any more. Within a few minutes of arriving Vicki found a woman that wanted to buy the bikes. She wanted to know how much we wanted for them. I told her $100 knowing bicycles were very much in demand here. She asked for a lower price so I said $80 in order to see what she would counter offer. Her mother ran off to check something and then returned saying she'd buy them. We thought that she accepted the price too easily in a land where everything is bargained for, so we knew they were worth at least that. Besides, we still wanted to keep them a couple days to use around town, so that's we told her we weren't ready to sell yet.

February 6, 1999
We spent some time exploring Luang Prabang, a beautiful French colonial town on the banks of the Mekong River. The town is known for it's numerous ancient golden temples, colonial French architecture as well as its' quaint atmosphere. The Royal Palace, which was built by the French for the King in 1904, was just one of the not to be missed attractions this small town had to offer. Watching the sun setting peacefully over the Mekong River was a real pleasure, which finished what was to be the final day of our bicycle tour off very nicely.

February 7, 1999
After a couple of days in Luang Prabang we had to make a decision about the bicycles. Either we would keep them, as we were getting used to the idea of the independence of our own wheels, or we sell them and take the bus. We had considered putting them on the roof of the bus through the mountains and riding the flat stretches to Thailand. Either way, I had to do all the repairs on the bikes first. While working on Vicki's bike I found even more bolts that had worked their way loose and gone missing. After only a week from new, the thing was falling apart. The decision was made - sell now before anything else fell apart.

After getting a few offers on the bikes from different bicycle shops and guesthouses we went back to our guesthouse. I told the girl, who had also asked if we would sell them, that we were about to sell them now and asked if she was still interested. She offered $80 as she had before. I said it wasn't enough, especially since we were throwing locks, tools, etc. She asked how much we wanted and I said $90. She went back to her family and came back with $85. I said that it wasn't enough so she offered $85 saying that we could split the difference. I said we wanted $100 and we divided at $90. She said she could only afford $85 so I said to Vicki "let's go to sell at the other guesthouses" and got on the bike. Suddenly she agreed to $90. I was quite pleased considering we paid $89 for everything, used them hard, made them look worn and out, and sold everything for a dollar profit!

ONWARD THROUGH LAOS
We traveled for about a week more in Laos, but on buses with other tourists. We did enjoy the rest of the journey, but it wasn't the same as when we had the freedom of the bicycles. Although we were glad to have been rid of our problematic bicycles, in a way it was those breakdowns that provided us with many of the interactions that we had with the locals. During those numerous stops for repairs we had the opportunity to meet many people that were as curious about us as we were about them. After all is said and done, I still believe that the more you have to work on your journey, the more memorable and satisfying it will be in the end. I'm glad we did it the hard way.

COPYRIGHT 1999

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