Funny, we spent over five hours on a bus heading to Vang Vieng and sitting only two rows back on the other side of the bus was the owner of the guesthouse we’d booked and we didn’t realise until we turned up at Pan’s Place and he checked us in, small world !!
The place had a nice feel to it, the rooms were basic but clean enough and cheap, the only grumble was the Wi Fi kept dying but bless the owner he was straight on the phone trying to get it sorted.
As for Vang Vieng, it did have a reputation for booze, drugs and adrenaline filled activities but a few untimely deaths due to excess of either, or all three have meant a slight change of policy. You can still drink fairly cheaply but drugs are now much more difficult to get hold of and the activities are much better governed with qualified instructors and quality safety kit !! All in all the place has a good vibe and you’ll meet lots of travellers here, some have been here a long time 😉 The town has a river that borders one side and an old American airstrip that borders the other side and in between are basically two parallel roads with a few joining roads that make up the main town. You can find western food done quite well in several of the pubs and bars and good Thai or Lao food just about anywhere, also I’ve been to quite a few countries now, but nowhere that’s as proud of its beer as Lao. BeerLao signs are everywhere and you can get it from almost every shop, I think the country runs on the stuff and at less than a pound a pint I’m happy to join in 😉
As for activities, they range from trekking to climb in to mountain biking or if you’d like it more sedate how about tubing. Take a large inner tube up river, sit in it and float back down. There are also scooters, quad bikes or buggys for hire, with or without guides or you could just hire a tuk tuk and go sight seeing There are numerous water falls, caves and villages to keep everyone happy but don’t forget to be back in the bar to watch the fabulous sunsets !!
Well that’s my tour guide bit done so what did we do ? First day we hired mountain bikes and a guide, cycled 35km, visited two villages, a huge cave and a very nice river where we swam while our guide fixed lunch. I think we broke our guide though, I don’t think he’s used to people who do so much cycling, we got back an hour and a half early !!
Day two was a much more leisurely day, we hired a tuk tuk to visit a waterfall, a bumpy ride on some pretty tough dirt roads ended with a huge hill up to the carpark, then we had an hour to go exploring. The falls themselves weren’t that impressive, one main fall with a 25m drop but the surrounding area was very lush and it was a beautiful walk up and down. We had enough time left to grab a drink and snack at the bottom, always nice to spread a little money about among the small stall holders. Other than these activities we ate well, drank a few cold beers, caught up on blogs, FB and email and generally relaxed….we were on holiday after all 😉
Now to get back to Vientiane we could have caught the bus but that would be easy, we’d booked a trip which included four hours of kayaking down the river and then a short transfer from the river into Vientiane. As I say that’s what we’d booked, the reality was unfortunately something completely different !!
We were picked up on time but our guide nor the driver introduced themselves, we were then driven to the start point on the river, a journey that lasted 1hr and 20mins. On the way we stopped for fuel but the truck wouldn’t start so I had to help push, the driver thought he was in a race and drove far to fast. The truck is a pick up truck with two very hard bench seats in the back, a very low roof and no seat belts !! The ride was so fast and bumpy that I managed to bang my head twice and we both felt physically sick when we arrived at the river.
Neither Naomi nor myself were to impressed so far but once we’d recovered a little we were ready to carry on. Our guide finally managed to introduce himself as Tonto and then gave some very perfunctory instructions ! We got in our kayak and set off, we managed to get ourselves through a few minor rapids unscathed and after an hour we were instructed to pull in for lunch. Tonto made a small BBQ and cooked some kebabs which he served with some rice he’d brought with him, a couple of bananas completed the meal, nothing special but it was enough. After lunch there were no rapids and after only 20 mins we were directed to pull in, our trip was finished !! Well, both Naomi and myself were not impressed and made bloody sure that Tonto and the driver were left with not doubt about how unhappy we were. He grudgingly got us back in the water for another 20 mins but that was it. Our trip was supposed to be for four hours !! Worse was to come, we were back in the truck for ten minutes until we came to a large road, from there our guide flagged down a local bus for the supposed one hour trip into Vientiane. The trip took two hours in a bus with no aircon, we were dripping, and then the bus stopped and we were then put in a tuk tuk that was so crowded with people I’m not sure how it moved, this trip lasted for twenty minutes and finally dropped us off in the middle of Vientiane !!
Now I’m no snob, I’ve used local buses on several occasions in India, Nepal and Africa but not when I’ve paid good money for what I thought would be a direct and personal transfer, we were livid !! We went straight to the tour operators office, before we’d even gone to our hotel, and fortunately for them, Naomi complained on our behalf. Green Discovery were apologetic and eventually with a little persuasion paid half our trip money back to us. I did threaten to stand outside the shop all day and tell people about our trip and report them to the tourist police, this seemed to work !!
Putting this terrible trip behind us was easy once we’d arrived back at the Villa Lao Hotel, there’s something about the place that oozes calm. I spent the whole of the next day writing blogs stopping only for refreshment and by the end of the day I’d finally caught up, I’ve been posting them ever since 😉
It was a bit of a wrench leaving this lovely hotel but it felt good to be back on my bike after more than a week away. The days ride would take us back towards the friendship bridge, we’d pass underneath it and continue on to the Buddha park about 8km past. The park is very similar to the sculpture park back in Nong Khai. Large sculptures of Buddhas made out of concrete and cement only this time there was a huge round pumpkin like sculpture that you could climb up and get a great view over the rest of the park.
Bit of an odd place but good fun fun for an hour…
We wandered about taking photos for a while before grabbing drinks and snacks, that done it was time to get back on the road. I say road, but it was in a bad way and certainly nowhere near as good as the roads we’d been on until now. It would continue for about 30km until we could finally turn off it and back onto route 13. About 3km from the turning we came across this lovely lady selling water mellon, they were delicious, we had one there but took another with us for later. Our route was flat all day and for the most part followed the Mekong river towards our destination.
By the time we reached our destination at Thabok we’d covered 110 km, not to bad. We quickly found a guesthouse and although we thought it was over priced it proved to be fairly clean. The restaurant over the road despite being unable to understand us managed to produce a very good bowl of noodles, stir fried veg and steamed rice, which was just what we wanted.
Food on these trips is always important, after all we work hard on the bikes all day so we need plenty of good food. On this trip the two basic staples have been rice and noodles, several different types of both but generally they come as either noodle soup, fried noodles or fried rice. Noodle soup is a basic stock, noodles, some veg, some chicken or pork and some herbs or spices. The rice is normally offered veg or non veg, we generally go non veg unless we’re confident about the meat. There are also side dishes which include stir fried veg, this is normally offered with oyster sauce and is one of our favourite dishes. In towns that have more tourists there is always some western food on offer, whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner and it’s always a disappointment. I’m a sucker for a pizza, pasta, scrambled eggs, toast or bacon but they never get it right and I always say I’ll never do it again, I’m a lier because I keep doing it ! Anyway, we’ve yet to go hungry and I doubt that we ever will 😉
We were underway early the next morning and in search of coffee and breakfast, we’d cycled about 20km when we came upon a small restaurant, we stopped and noted that the three ladies were already on the beer at 9.00am, they were very merry, giggling like little kids. It didn’t stop them making us a great breakfast of rice and vegetables and some strong, sweet coffee, I think they actually gave us there food, when we came to pay they’d only take money for the drinks, yet again we’d be shown genuine kindness and hospitality 😉
We were still following the Mekong and would do so all day, we passed lots of little villages along our route and most of then were selling fish, not a surprise really when you think about it! We had good weather, flat roads and lots of encouragement, just about everyone we passed would shout ‘sabidee’, its the one word greeting in Lao for all occasions. With all this on our side the 99km to Pak Kading was a fairly simple ride for us, simpler than finding a decent guesthouse !! The first one we saw wasn’t great and wanted 100,000 kip which we thought was to much, we tried three others, they were even worse so we ended up back at the first one !!
It’s funny, we checked the room, it was clean so we took it. We dumped our bags and headed off for a snack, when we got back to our room we realised there was no sink in the bathroom….how did we miss that ??
Not much to do in Pak Kading so we just chilled out and hit the sack early, we were expecting some climbs the following day !
We were up and away early, spurred on by the guidebooks information about Na Hin and the possibility of a bakery. We were also keen to get started on the big hills that we knew lay between us and the border with Vietnam. Today’s route would finally take us away from the Mekong and head left on route 8 and it all started in torrential rain !
The first few km were on good flat roads and despite the rain we were in good spirits, happy in fact to be making good progress. It was warm and although we were wet it didn’t matter to us, I think the people that passed us in buses cared more than we did in fact. We were encouraged as always from the roadside as we passed through villages, heartwarming stuff and ways appreciated.
We stopped at a roadside cafe just prior to our turn onto route 8 and produced some Nescafé coffee sachets, the owner bless him immediately produced a large thermos of hot water, two mugs and left us to it 😉 Revived, we again set off, it was still raining hard and the road was now begging to head up hill. The more it headed up, the better the scenery became and the more we revelled in it. We finally hit our first big climb just after lunch and although it was quite steep and had us in our granny gear, after an hour we reached the summit, took photos and got our breath back before heading down the other side. More great scenery, villages, bridges and roaming cattle were part of our afternoon ride, oh and of course the very persistent rain.
Na Hin was all the guide book said it was, lots of guest houses and yes, even a bakery !! We were tired, wet and hungry so first stop was the bakery, between us we devoured several sandwiches made with bread straight from the oven, a whole cake and several cups of hot sweet coffee,,,,,fantastic !
Our guesthouse was cheap, clean and thankfully warm, this was the first night since arriving in South East Asia that we were cold !
Lak São would be our next and final destination in Lao before crossing the border in Vietnam to continue our journey.
Our ride would be our favourite so far, a tough climb straight out of Na Hin rising about 500m, the eventual downhill into a stunning valley with paddy fields, cattle and fast flowing rivers and the weather hot and humid ! We were loving it, the grind up hill was punctuated with a stop at a lookout for pictures back down the hill into Na Hin. The subsequent valley looked like something from ” the land that time forgot ” and provided us with many beautiful pictures. We do of course realise that as we pass through these beautiful, peaceful places clicking away with our expensive digital cameras that the people we photograph are not stooges, they’re not there to make things look pretty. We’re always conscious that we are intruding and try to be respectful about that, we never try to photograph people up close without asking but if people are part of a wide shot and are not the main focus then we feel that’s ok.
The road continued to rise and fall for the remainder of the day, although never as dramatically as the first climb ! The weather and scenery remained constant as did our morale and well ahead of schedule we arrived in Lak São. It’s a fairly large town, not surprising really as it’s only 32km from Vietnam and is therefore an important trade and logistics route. We checked out a few hotels before settling on Hotel Souriya, the guy behind the desk spoke good English and was most accommodating about our bikes. We completed our usual ritual, shower, email, FB and food then chilled out for a few hours before heading out for dinner. There’s only one restaurant in Lak São or at least only one that they send tourists to and that’s where we ended up. A terrible meal with bad service and awful food at least the the food that arrived anyway, they hadn’t got what I ordered but neglected to tell me until they brought out Naomi’s !!
Morning came not a moment to soon, we were ready, we were excited about Vietnam and about the ride. We knew it would be mainly up hill to the border but it was only 32km so bring it on. We also knew that once over the border it would be a long decent towards Vinh, this would be our intended stop for the night.
We had breakfast in a local cafe, nothing special but certainly no worse than the night before and we got our Nescafé as well…always a good start to the day !! The road climbed steadily for about 25km, just gently, and passed through more peaceful villages, over raging rivers and though waterlogged fields. It became obvious that the weather here had hit fairly hard just recently and people were still counting the cost and tidying up, again we were respectful and chose not to take photos of other peoples misery !! After about 12km we rounded a corner and came face to face with excavators and bull dozers, there had been a series of fairly large landslides and for the next 10km we would be seeing a lot of machinery trying hard to keep the road open !! For the last 6 or 7 km the gradient got steeper, we changed gear and kept pedalling, all the while keeping our eyes on the waterlogged hills on our right. If anything decided to slide now we were toast, we’d never be able to get out of the way fast enough so until we were completely sure about our safety we just peddled !
Nearly there, one more kilometre, a few forms and then whoosh all the way to Vinh, it never happened !! We arrived at the border, handed in our departure forms and passports and waited. The immigration guy left his office with our passports, looked at our bikes, talked to a few colleagues, made a phone call and then handed our passports back and told us we couldn’t cross this border !! We were dumbstruck, why not we asked, is anything wrong with our documents ? Another guy flipped open his mobile phone and showed us a photo, it was a picture of the road on the other side of the border or rather a picture of a very large hole where there used to be a road. Apparently the rain had caused major problems with the road all the way down the other side and it was decided it was to dangerous for us to continue !! We had no option but to go back to Lak São and come up with a new plan.
The ride back down the hill although demoralising in one sense was also a good time to reflect and think and by the time we got back to our earlier hotel Naomi had a plan 😉 We were originally going to cycle to Vinh then pick up the night train to Hanoi, if we now jumped on a bus we could take it to Thadket, pick up the sleeper to Hanoi and still be there at the same time as the train ! So this is exactly what we did, we were at the bus station at 6.00am the following morning, arrived in Thadket at 12.00 noon, jumped on our bikes and cycled to the bigger bus terminal and climbed straight on the bus to Hanoi. We left at 1.00pm, passed through border control into Vietnam at about 7.00pm and arrived very weary at 5.30am, just shy of 24hours travel time and frankly not a lot of sleep.
We’d be in Hanoi for a few days so if you want to find out what we got up to, read the next blog 😉