Wed 19 Dec 07 - Wed 2 Jan 08: Laos
To Luang Prabang, Laos, 907 km.
From Nong Khai (Thailand) to Luang Prabang (Laos), 907 km. This is my sixth cycling expedition since I started serious cycling in 2002. It is also the country furthest north I've ever cycled in to date: Laos.
In my previous expeditions, chilling things happened. In 2003, violence rocks my destination days after my ride. In 2004, a tsunami misses me during the ride. In 2005, floods wreak havoc days before my ride begins, causing deaths of some and evacuation of thousands. In 2006, bombs go off hours after I leave Thailand. In 2007, what's chilling is the cold mountain weather and the expected close calls from traffic in the wrong lane around blind corners on mountain roads.
Out of tickets
Day 1: Wed 19 Dec, Singapore - Bangkok, non-cycling day (such days are indicated in this colour). As there are no direct flights from Singapore to Laos, D and I board Thai Air Asia to Bangkok, then buy tickets for the overnight train ride to Nong Khai (the furthest destination north by scheduled train service). We spend six hours waiting for the train to leave since tickets for earlier departures are sold out - which means we have less daylight to cycle in when we reach Laos. On the train we are given a toilet roll with 4-colour cartoons printed on it. The train makes a nice cradle, rocking us to sleep.
Out of water
Day 2: Thu 20 Dec, Nong Khai - Vientiane, 38 km. I sadly bid goodbye to my bicycle box and styrofoam (I see no "left luggage" room, but later find out I could've left the box at the station to collect on the return leg). My hand hurts from hundreds of strokes needed to pump up my deflated tyres. It is a known unknown (given the complexity of this trip, there are many of these) whether cyclists are allowed on the Friendship Bridge. The answer is "yes" (Another known unknown: whether train tickets are available. The answer is "yes', but not for the day or class we want. So we pay for first class.) An unknown unknown was the delay to clear immigration on both sides of the bridge, with buses disgorging passengers and queue jumpers (to deal with the unknowns, I build in several buffer days in the itinerary). There isn't enough daylight left to safely venture beyond Vientiane. We have used up one buffer day. The hotel runs out of water for hours; we're told the entire street is affected.
"Follow the wheel"
Day 3: Fri 21 Dec, Vientiane - Na Nam, 92 km. The road is in the same direction as the map. The towns ahead of us match those on the map. But map says 'toll bridge". Where's the bridge? Where's the tarred road? "Follow the wheel," says D and we cycle on. For the next 20 km, we bounce along the dual-carriageway dirt road after crossing by ferry. The road is so rough, a water bottle flies off. Twice, my bicycle decelerates and slides suddenly as the front wheel hits soft sand and gravel. This is mountain biking, where I have to pick lines carefully. The road suddenly becomes tarred - it's not like a side road that joins the main road at an angle; it's as if we enter a parallel universe that's directionally right but so badly wrong. Though the distance covered matches closely what is on the map, we have taken too long. We use up another buffer day. At Na Nam, we meet a couple from Switzerland. They've cycled from there, 15,000 km ...
Creak, creak, crack?
Day 4: Sat 22 Dec, Na Nam - Vang Vieng, 110 km. Swiss Miss asks if my bicycle is rented. Good thing my bike doesn't understand English. Swiss Gent looks at my bag and asks, "is that it?" I reply, "My ride is short, just 1,000 km, not like yours." My seat post creaks alarmingly and I wonder if it will crack. Also worrying is the black dog that darts out like a heat-seeking missle, a kid who fires a toy gun at me, two guys in uniform who saunter past with rifles pointed at my face, and vehicles overtaking at blind corners and hurtling towards me.
Dining under Mao's gaze
Day 5: Sun 23 Dec, Vang Vieng - Phou Khoun, 107 km. Our routine of breakfast at 6 am is a non-starter. No cooked food seems available. I stuff myself with bananas and hit the road. I know why the description "stupid as a cow" exists: they stand on the road, oblivious. Five dogs fight; I cycle to the other side of the road to avoid collateral damage. I also avoid a "fllght" of kamikazi pigs. Lunch is at a joint set up by Chinese. We dine under a poster of Chairman Mao. After lunch is a "hard" climb of 14.9 km. My mind starts to waver. I focus on breathing and pedalling in good form, because it's too tiring to think about anything else on a road that keeps going uphill. I'm happy to cover in one day what Lonely Planet suggests should be done in two. The happiness is short-lived. There are only two (unclean) guest houses. There is no sink and I resort to desperate measures to remove my contact lenses. There are creepy crawlies, and cocks crow and pigs squeal at night. At least, no bed bugs. What a day. The sun heats up the inside of my bag by day; at night, the temperature plunges to below 20 degrees C.
Race against the sun
Day 6: Mon 24 Dec, Phou Khoun - Luang Prabang, 132 km. It is cold. My made-for-European weather jersey finally feels useful at this 1,400m elevation. It is colder as I hurtle over 40 km/h downhill. There is gravel and many blind corners. Once, I go into a shuddering turn. Seconds before disaster, a car in the wrong lane swerves. This part of the mountains is more barren; there seems to be more cyclists (including a family with two kids) and riflemen than there are villages. It is hard going uphill. D hitches a ride. I cycle on alone; we've been meeting only for meals anyway as we ride at our own pace. Kids run up to greet me with "sabaidee" and high fives. I almost give up, no thanks to a small hill near Luang Prabang. Sometimes, defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory, or vice versa. I cover 132 km in 10 hours (including waiting for 45 minutes and meal times), just winning the race against the sun. I'd hate to cycle in the dark.
10 hours sleep for 10 hours on the road
Day 7: Tue 25 Dec, Luang Prabang, non-cycling day. Clean room, clean sheets. And 10 hours' sleep for 10 hours' ride yesterday. I check out my bicycle. The rear hub is loose, which rattles me. I wander about town ("active rest"), checking out the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and soaking in the ambience of this UNESCO World Heritage site.
Legend of a prince
Day 8: Wed 26 Dec, Luang Prabang, non-cycling day. At the Royal Palace Museum (formerly home of the king, who died with his family in mysterious circumstances), I read about the legend of a prince. He gives away his kids (after being warned by his wife to look after the kids), then gives away his wife. Yet, he becomes king. I also visit several non-profit organisations, eg Big Brother Mouse (it publishes books for Laotian kids) and UXO Laos (it clears land of UneXploded Ordnance, so that people can walk on - and work on - land without getting blown up. At night, I watch free comedies screened by a Frenchman (Cinema Itinerant Autare du Mekong). The audience, mostly kids, laughs loudly but only one kid laughs when one of the scenes involves a guy being blown up.
M150 and other hazards
Day 9: Thu 27 Dec, Luang Prabang - Kiew Ka Cham, 80 km. Today's ride is the toughest. At 6 am, the street vendors are barely out. Breakfast: bananas. We stop at the last village at the foot of the mountains and eat at the best restaurant: the one with chairs (not stools), music and free flow of tea (which another customer serves me!). In the mountains, most kids are friendly, but one aims his catapult at me. Another (playfully) goes through the motion of slashing my bag with his knife as I pass. That is too much for me and I sprint. Going from north to south up this mountain is harder; there's 20 km of uphill to go (compared to 15 going the other way) and the gradient is steeper too. Glass shards from discarded M150 bottles litter the road. It takes me 7 hours 15 minutes to cover 80 km. The last few km are the hardest. I break out my secret weapon: PowerGel. It's not the energy as such; it is the taste and the treat that keeps me going. Eight cyclists end up in this Kiokajam Guesthouse, none in the other guest house. I'm the only Asian; the rest are mostly European. For bathing, hot water comes from a wood fire. At night, happy Laotian singing resounds in the night.
So we meet again
Day 10: Fri 28 Dec, Kiew Ka Cham - Vang Vieng, 159 km. As we head south, we meet H, a Taiwanese we first met in Vientiane. He'd cycled from Singapore and was on his way to China. He'd spent the night by the road and breakfast for him was peanuts. We also meet T, who was supposed to be with us but had delayed her departure. Someone I didn't see, but who was surely present, was my guardian angel. As I speed down a 10% gradient at up to 61.9 km/h, I narrowly miss a pothole. A lens from my sunglasses also pop out on the road; good thing nothing runs over it - or me as I retrieve it. My eyes start playing tricks; what looks like downhill is actually uphill. Dogs, pigs and people start getting in the way. There are a few close calls on the winding road, with traffic (including me) cutting corners and in the wrong lane. As we lose the race against the sun, insects start colliding against us. Cycling in the night on unlit roads is no fun. But I'm glad we don't stop at Kasi, finally sticking to the original plan to spend daylight in Vientiane.
Harder than it looks
Day 11: Sat 29 Dec, Vang Vieng - Vientiane, 161 km. The landscape starts looking Malaysian, with rolling hills instead of interminable slopes. The ride to Vientiane is harder than it looks. Though the trend is downhill, it is hot and the Route 13 is rough (unlike Route 10 which we took northward). Traffic gets heavier as we near Capital City. I draft whatever I can keep up with, which excludes a lady on a motorbike with two kids clutching bananas instead of her. She's going at over 30 km/h. My head hurts, my toe hurts and other parts in between too, like neck and butt. I have beef for dinner, may have something to do with the cows which scarily got in my way.
Day 12: Sun 30 Dec, Vientiane, non-cycling day. Khoua Din Morning Market is an old-style market, with squirming and still (dead) produce, muck and smells. Next stop: Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE), which is housed in the National Rehabilitation Centre, which houses facilities for the physically disabled and deaf, and the Association for Aid and Relief Japan. A Japanese man greets me; he says today is a holiday (but he's working). I see a blind girl cross the road, and an amputee. The Lao National Tourism Association writes that over 2m tonnes of ordnance was dropped on Laos - more than was was dropped on Europe during World War 2. That's a plane load of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. Why this happens: Lao National Museum gives an account of it.
Day 13: Mon 31 Dec, Vientiane - Nong Khai, 28 km. My mission for the morning: spend thousands of kip. Some people say a fee is payable to leave the country, but no one asks us to pay anything. In Nong Khai, I pay Baht 200 (which is the going rate even in Bangkok) for a box with several holes and tears. One tuk tuk takes us to the train station (in Singapore, we'd have to take a taxi each to transport us and our bicycles). We travel first class with our bicycles in the cabin. As we manhandle the boxes ourselves, we save hundreds of baht - baht which I hadn't "baht-getted" for.
Day 14: Tue 1 Jan, Bangkok, non-cycling day. On new year's day, I sit in Kalawar Church (established 1786) and face the Chao Phraya river. The choir sings Christmas carols in Thai. I thank God for journey mercies. I'm glad that unlike a year ago, there is no news of bombing in the city.
Parting the waters
Day 15: Wed 2 Jan, Bangkok - Singapore, non-cycling day. Airport security is tight. Some liquids get confiscated, but mine are safe after I repack them when I saw the scrutiny going on.
In the prologue, I wrote that nothing happened to me during the ride. That's not so. When I returned, people say I've changed. And I realise, how can I not change, when I've seen families gathering grass by the road to eke out a living as trucks and buses rumble by. When children play with heavy carts and with dirt. When UXO Laos lays off hundreds of people because it cannot afford to pay them, despite the work they do.
© 2007 Kevin Lee. All rights reserved.