From Laos to Thailand

After awaiting the eventual stop of the unending rain in Vang Vieng for three days, we could finally continue our journey through Laos and set off for our last stage goal, Vientiane. Once one of the main hubs in French Indochina and nowadays Laos’ capital. Due to the increased traffic and the pretty plane landscape (a couple of month ago I would have never Imagined myself saying that we actually prefer mountainous terrain), the last 150km in Laos were less appealing than the north.

Bamboo WorkBut nevertheless we encountered another side of Laos’ broad culture when we – in absence of any alternative – shyly asked at a Buddhist temple to pitch our tent in the spacious garden. The master of the monks immediately agreed with a big smile to host two sweaty and smelly travelers, as long as we would obey the strict “no touching in the tent” rule 🙂 Spending the evening and the following morning with the monks, offered us a great opportunity to experience a firsthand insight into the daily rituals and everyday life of the monks  –  especially as the novices were bluntly answering all our cautious questions, sharing their dreams about studying, getting rich and having a family after their religious life over a glass of Coke.

DCIM101GOPRORich in new impressions, we left the next morning just to stumble across another piece of unexpected Laos lifestyle. A giant wooden panel was pointing us the way to a Traditional Lao Sauna. Despite the blistering heat, our curiosity led us down the stony path and when we found ourselves half an hour later in a ramshackle little hut filled with sweltering steam and the fragrance of aromatic herbs, we surely didn’t regret to once again play a hunch.

World Peace GongAfter all, in spite of the busy road, we enjoyed our last days on the road in Laos, before arriving in Vientiane, a proliferation of French bakeries, luxury spas and Indo-chic restaurants blooming at every corner. For us, Vientiane simply served as a gateway to Thailand, where we wanted to apply for a Thai visa because we heard rumors that Austrians only get a 15 days visa when entering Thailand via a land border crossing. As things turned out, our odyssey through town where we nearly got roasted alive, was to no avail since the Thai embassy as well as the consulate (both buildings kilometers apart) were closed due to the one-week birthday celebrations of His Majesty the King of Thailand. Astonishing that none of both institutions knew that in advance…

Bike for Dad

Therefore, we set out for the Thai border with quite some misgiving, where our concerns were realized as the immigration officer was deaf to our begging and stamped a 15 days visa, valid right until the 25th December, in Martina’s passport. Luckily a less tight-lipped officer could give us the information that we can immediately extend our visa at the immigration office, only one kilometer from here. Phew… our Christmas plans were saved!

Departure B4DThe next good news we got at the immigration office – besides the hefty visa extension fee and some free pizza slices – was that in celebration of His Majesty’s birthday, who is obviously a big cycling enthusiast, huge cyclist gatherings are organized right at this day in selected cities all over Thailand. And this little border town happened to be one of them! No question that we had to be part of this big event and although there was not enough time to get the proper Bike for Dad t-shirt, we were lining up with thousands of other fellow cyclists for a “little” 30km tour around the area. It was our first cycle gathering and a unique and truly awesome experience!

Northern Laos

For the remaining few hundred kilometers in China we were cycling through a mostly uninhabited mountainous region with dense forests and occasional banana plantations spanning over several hills. From day to day we were feeling that we were coming closer to tropical latitudes and roadside stalls selling coconuts and pineapples were more and more frequent.

Tunnel Nightmare - 5km No Light, No Ventilation Chinese road planners tried to oppose the hilly terrain with massive tunnel constructions which saved us some altitude meters but therefore meant that we sometime had to cross 15 tunnels a day, none of them with lights or ventilation! A very frightening experience when 60 tonners are thundering/vibrating past you while you are trying to avoid the many half-flooded potholes that you can hardly spot in the darkness.  The longest of this every cyclist’s nightmare was 5km long and Martina was close to pass out at the end due to the lack of oxygen. Fortunately we got cockered up afterwards by some friendly firefighters who shared their solid lunch with us 🙂

Night at the Office

The closer we got to Laos, the more often we experienced a different side of the Chinese than we had seen so far. The people were more open and welcoming and on one of the endless climbs we got invited by a construction crew to pitch up our tent in their office. They even celebrated a traditional tea ceremony with us between concrete mixers and rusty rolls of steel trellis, handling all communication via Skype with one of the worker’s daughter who was studying English.

With mixed feelings we eventually turned our back to China, a very contradictory country between flourishing modernization and conservative values, between Disneyland tourism and breathtaking landscapes, where people are constantly talking in one of their three smartphones but take a shit in a “toilet” that is not much more than a row of 10 holes in the ground, a country that showed us a truly different way of life on the other side of our continent.

Border Crossing

The border crossing into Laos was pretty straight forward, the staff was friendly, the customs officers completely ignored our heavy loaded bikes and it was the first country since a long time where visas are issued on arrival, a procedure we heavily appreciate in spite the fact that for no obvious reason Austrians are obliged to pay 5$ more than all our European friends 🙂

Prost in Laos

As expected the border town in Laos was a deterring accumulation of dilapidated luxury hotels and after refreshing our provisions, we were fleeing into the jungle to find a cozy hidden spot for our tent. The deep elephant footprints in the fertile red soil and giant fresh droppings made us a little worried about a nightly elephant herd trampling down our tent but these concerns didn’t spoil the taste of our first Beerlao Dark Lager at sunset. The next morning we got woken up by some oddly heavy footsteps and indeed, there was an elephant passing our tent only a stone throw away! Welcome to Lan Xang, the “Land of a Million Elephants”!

RemotenessAs we were heading further south Laos was oozing its magic. Thanks to its vast mountainous terrain, Northern Laos is one of the least altered environments in Southeast Asia. Unmanaged vegetation covers 85% of the country and provides habitat for to a rich biodiversity and we haven’t seen much of the relentless logging and slash-and-burn farming that is common in neighboring countries like Vietnam or Thailand.

Where do you come from?

Although it’s one of the world’s 20 poorest nations, this landlocked country is home to incredible genuine people. And as we were cycling through remote rural areas along perfectly sealed roads (thanks to China who is improving Laos’ infrastructure network in return for gaining more and more land ownership and influence) we were passing by lovely ethnic villages of plaited bamboo mat stilt houses where people were smilingly waving and bunches of children were running after our bikes greeting us with a friendly “Sabaidee”!

Gibbon Experience

Loi Krathong

In contrast, the first bigger city we encountered in Laos was a big disappointment.  Udomxai is not much more than a booming Laos-China trade hub and the absence of any traveller vibe, not to mention the deterring cast of Chinese truck drivers, prostitutes and ugly Soviet style buildings, really put us off. From here we were setting off by bus to Huay Xai in Laos’ Northwest, separated only by the cocoa-brown Mekong from Thailand, it was our first taste of Thai cuisine and a chance to celebrate the Loi Krathong festival with a big monk procession at the temple and locals donating flowers, candles, incense and dozens of paper lanterns lighting up the night sky.

Ready to Zipline!

But the reason why we were willing to undergo the more than unpleasant 7h bus ride up to here, was the headquarter of the fabled Gibbon Experience: A decade ago, poaching was threatening the extinction of the eponymous black-crested gibbon. A conservation based tour operator convinced the hunters of the Bokeo Nature Reserve to become forest’s guardians instead and they built a series of navigable ziplines criss-crossing the canopy of some Laos’ most pristine forests.

THE Treehouse

For two days we were following this network of up to 500m long ziplines through the jungle, enjoying the adrenaline kick and the bird-like feeling when flying 60m above the ground over treetops and the realm of tigers, clouded leopards and black-crested gibbons (which we without doubts frighten off by our Tarzan yelling).  It was an incredible Superhero experience culminating in a night in an awesome tree house – rainwater shower with panorama view, sunset 30m over the canopy and sweet dreams accompanied by thousands of cicadas included 🙂

Luang Prabang

Karst Formations

Back on our bikes we tackled the remaining mountain ranges on our way to Luang Prabang. An extremely mountainous road that made us gasping for breath more than once, was leading us through remote and peaceful rural areas. Although the increasing temperatures made reaching our daily cycling workload, we really enjoyed the scenery characterized by forested green hills and rugged Karst formations.

Wat Ho Pha Bang

Two sweaty days later we reached Luang Prabang, a hollowed peninsula housing an UNESCO protected gem of 33 Buddhist temples mixed with Indo-Chinese colonial mansions, where the stamp of France lives on as freshly baked croissants send out their aromas from chic boutique cafés and delicious chocolate banana crêpes are sold at the night market. Although this mix of chic refinement and ancient charm looks quite nice at first glance, Gui was quite shocked about the profound changes in the last 10 years since his last visit. Masses of tourists have turned this once placid little village into an agglomeration of souvenir shops, overpriced bars and enervated tuk-tuk drivers. Anyway, we took the chance to take some days off from cruel climbs and scorching temperatures and chill by Mekong’s riverbank with a mango shake or a fresh coconut 🙂

Mhhhh...

But all good things eventually come to an end and after two layabout days we were setting off to our next stage goal – Vang Vieng, a town crouching low over the Song River with a backdrop of serene cliffs and a tapestry of vivid green fields. It was once famous for crowds of drunken teenagers tubing down the river and watching re-runs of US sitcoms in pillow-filled “TV Bars” that has now turned into a base for outdoor activities. On the way there we found Martina’s personal most favorite spot, a natural hot spring cascading into small basins, home to hundreds of colorful dragonflies and surrounded by blooming bougainvillea bushes and imposing Karst rocks, and the best part about it – far from any tourist crowds!