We weren’t planning on spending any time in Sam Neua, but when our alarm went off at 6.30am the next morning (Monday) we looked at each other and decided to take a rest day – we were both tired from the ride from Hanoi, and we knew we had a hard few day’s ride ahead of us to get to Nongkhiaw, our next planned stop. After a lie-in and a hearty breakfast of 2 omelettes and toast each, washed down with strong Laos coffee served with condensed milk (probably our favourite type of coffee on trip so far) we were debating what to do when we got chatting to an Aussie couple who were travelling around in a pick-up they had rented in Vientiane (Laos’ capital). A great way to get off the beaten track as it is a lot more comfortable than a motorbike, but gets you to just about all the same places. It turned out there were some hot springs around 16km from Sam Neua, and as hot springs tend to be the perfect antidote to tired legs we jumped at the chance when the kind couple offered to drive us there and back. The springs were in the direction that we would be headed the next day, so we were able to get a preview of the road – maybe not a good thing as it was horribly hilly! They had just driven from Nongkhiaw and warned us the road was extremely windy and hilly – despite being only around 350km, it had taken them 2 days just to drive it.
It took us a while to locate the springs as they were 3km or so from the road, along a dirt track through a village. We then had to park and walk across a ride paddy field to get there. When we got there a wizened old man showed us round – much to our amusement and some disappointment, it turned out that the Laos idea of hot springs is rather different to the western one – in a region where hot water to wash with is a rare luxury (most people wash in streams or under a cold tap), hot water that is naturally available is viewed in a more practical sense than a fancy relaxing one – the locals use these springs primarily to wash themselves and their clothes, rather than to relax in. Reflecting this, a row of individual small rooms had been built and each fitted out with a bathtub, with the hot water piped in. Not quite the swanning around in a big hot pool that we expected – in fact we had just been driven 16km to have a hot bath – but welcome nonetheless! Overall our excursion to the countryside was a very enjoyable and interesting experience.
We spent the rest of the afternoon checking our emails (taking turns as there was only one internet cafe in town, and it contained just one networked computer!) and watching the Asian games which had just started and are being heavily televised in this part of the world. We plumped for Indian for dinner again before yet another early night.
The next morning – Tuesday – we were on the road by 8am, ready to tackle the big hills we knew lay ahead of us. Regarding the next few days of cycling, probably the less said the better, other than to say it was really really really hard – the hardest part of the trip so far. The problem is that although the overall altitudes are somewhat less than we have achieved before, the roads are punishingly steep, and they are relentless – I don’t think we saw any flat land until we got to Nongkhiaw. Another issue is that the majority of people in this area live in hilltop villages, so rather than running the road along valleys, as would normally be the case, the road runs up and down one hill, then the next and so on. So there really is no respite. It was certainly interesting though, and we had a real feeling of going to places that not many tourists make it to – the nature of the roads makes bus travel in this area a vomit-inducing, long experience. The villages we passed through were mostly Hmong, and we saw plenty of village life, including women weaving the lovely cloths and spreads that we were to see later on in the Hmong night market in Luang Prabang, and as always livestock running everywhere. In one village we passed through, we were surprised to find the entire village out on the main street dressed in their finest traditional clothes – quite a sight. Clearly they were waiting for something important (not our arrival apparently, as they were rather non-plussed by our presence!). An hour or two later a helicopter buzzed over us in that direction, presumably containing some important person on a visit to one of Laos’ further outposts. The accommodation en route was generally pretty basic, in particular our first night in the village of Phou Lao, 90km from Sam Neua, at the junction with the road that leads to Phonsavan. For the princely sum of 2 pounds we got a bed in a tiny room in a wooden cabin, with an outside bathroom (the shower was a cold tap with zero privacy!) and no electricity (there was no electricity in the whole village). Still, the relatively high altitude of this hilltop village meant the air was nice and cool and there was a fantastic view from the toilet and tap! It turned out there was no restaurant in town – as in all the Hmong villages we passed through, eating out, even very casually, does not seem to be a part of the culture at all, and so it is very hard to get a meal – during the day when we were cycling we relied mainly on bags of sticky rice and on baananas, which we could buy from the small village shops. We asked the woman who ran the guesthouse what we should do for dinner, and she indicated that instant noodles were the only option. Perfectly palatable, but not good for replacing the number of calories we had expended that day grinding up the hills. She seemed to think that one packet each would be plenty, and took some persuading to cook 3 packets each instead! The lack of electricity was actually quite nice in a way, because it meant we had dinner by the light of a brazier, but it was certainly a bit of a pain when visiting the toilet etc at night – thank goodness we have a torch! Over dinner the local English speaker in the village came and introduced himself and asked a bit about ourselves etc, which was nice. We asked him how many people lived in the village and after a moment’s thought responded with the very precise number of 117. A small enough place that the birth/death/departure of any individual will be known about – hard for us to comprehend after living in London!
Arriving into Nongkhiaw was almost a bit of a culture shock, going from what we just described to a village with lots of tourist-standard accommodation and a choice of restaurants serving western, Indian, Thai and Lao food – heaven! We found ourselves a cheap and basic but cute wooden bungalow with a balcony overlooking the river, complete with hammock – definitely more like it. Interestingly, when Christine visited this place 8 years ago it was a village not dissimlar to Phou Lao, with no electricity and not much to do other than swing in a hammock. The village has been developed quite a bit since then, but thankfully it doesn’t seem to have been too detrimental – it is still a small, quiet place surrounded by spectacular scenery. The next day we decided to go tubing (which involves floating down the river on a giant inner tube). It was just us wanting to go, but the owner of our guesthouse was happy to speed us upstream in a boat, before dropping off us and letting us float back. As it was just us (and the occasional water buffalo, fisherman or passing small boat), it was a very peaceful ride which we really enjoyed.
We arrived back just in time for a late lunch before setting off on our bikes for the short run to Pakmong, about 30km away – we wanted to get there so we were sure we would be able to get all the way to Luang Prabang the next day. While having lunch before leaving Nongkhiaw we had another slightly surreal experience; Christine was facing the road and suddenly noticed an elephant walking along the road towards us. ‘Pete’, she said, ‘there’s an elephant behind you’. Thinking she was having a laugh, Pete refused to turn round until he noticed the other tourists grabbing their cameras! Elephant trekking is an activity possible in the area so the elephant was just on its way to a trek, looking rather sorry for itself to be honest. Pakmong lies at the junction of highway 6 (which leads to Sam Neua) and the road to Oudomxay (and China) and is therefore a small but busy place with lots of bus traffic etc passing through. The ride to get there was just gently undulating, much to our relief, and so it only took us an hour and a half. While we were standing in the street trying to work out which of the two guesthouses to patronise, Pete got chatting to a woman who it turned out works for a charity called CARE in Vientiane. Remarkably she has lived and worked for this charity in Laos for 14 years, working largely on agricultural projects that help villagers move away from the endemic but harmful practices of both slash-and-burn agriculture (which is very bad for the environment and has contributed to significant deforestation of Laos) and opium growing (which results in opium addiction and abuse among villagers). Indeed, we had seen a number of signs outside villages proudly announcing that they were taking part in ‘weaving not opium’ projects, or that they had committed to stop slash-and-burn, etc. CARE is one of a number of charitable organisations that we came across in Laos, helping with everything from clearing the disgustingly high number of unexploded bombs (UXOs) that were dropped by the States during the so-called ‘Secret War’ during the Vietnam conflict, to improving healthcare and education, and helping victims of sex-trade trafficking. The UXOs are a particularly pernicious after-effect of the war because only a small fraction have been cleared so far, and thousands of Laotians have – and continue to be – killed or maimed by them. This threat also means that a large proportion of land is unusable until it is cleared.
We met another guy in Luang Prabang working for a different organisation that helps young girls escape from traffickers and either return to their villages or gain a trade so they can support themselves. It was disturbing to hear that it is common for girls as young as 12 to be trafficked all over SE Asia, often after being sold to the traffickers by their parents, who either don’t understand what they are doing or are very desperate for money. At the end of the day, despite the pretty facade that most visitors to Laos see when they visit places such as Luang Prabang and Vientiane, Laos is in the top 20 of the world’s poorest countries and the majority of citizens are highly unlikely to have the opportunity to do anything other than live in the same village, relying on subsistence farming for food, and hoping they don’t get ill or injured, for all of their lives. On the plus side, the economy does seem to be developing and the country does have a lot going for it in terms of natural resources, as well as tourism potential, and so hopefully in the future Laos’ citizens will have at least some of the same opportunities and freedoms enjoyed by most of its visitors.
Another positive aspect of our evening in Pakmong was that we bumped into 4 more cycle tourists, quite a lot for one evening! Laos is very popular for cycle touring, not just long-distance tourers like ourselves but people just on holiday or travelling around SE Asia. That said, one of the guys we met has been touring on and off for the last 4 years, covering some 60,000km in the process – that certainly put our 13,000km or so (so far) into perspective! It was nice to spend the evening chatting to them, exchanging stories etc.
The next morning we headed off pretty much at first light, as we wanted to get into Luang Prabang as early as possible, but had some 110km to cover first. The terrain was undulating but very manageable, and we got a good morning’s riding in, covering 80km in the first 4 hours. This good start was scuppered though when we stopped for an early lunch and ended up waiting 45 minutes for 2 omelettes to appear! Although it is nice that Laos is a very relaxed place, sometimes this can be frustrating! We were supposed to be getting some chips too (yes we know, egg and chips, not very authentic Laotian food but really rice can get boring!) but we got fed up of waiting and ate our omelettes with the sticky rice we were carrying before carrying on in a bit of a grump at the time wasted. The final 30km were surprisingly hard because the lunch break was very soporific, and the early start and fast ride suddenly caught us up and made us want to collapse and sleep. But we battled on, arriving into Luang Prabang in time for a second lunch. We had hoped to visit the Pak Ou caves en route – our map shows them as being just 3km or so off the main road, but actually it turned out they were 11km from the road, which would have resulted in a 22km diversion; the caves aren’t meant to be that great and frankly we couldn’t be bothered!
We got a bit lost coming into Luang Prabang but quickly got our bearings and found ourselves at a group of guesthouses by the river to choose from. 3 of the 4 were nice and cheap but really, a bit nasty – the fourth, at $35 a night was way over budget, but it was really nice and included a jacuzzi bath! Well, you have to treat yourselves once in a while, or so we told ourselves! Amusingly the hotel manager was clearly very proud with the jacuzzi bath set up (it even plays music to you if you want), offering to give us a demonstration of what all the different buttons did if we wanted….err no thanks! After settling in, and a quick nap, we headed out to view the town as the sun was setting. Luang Prabang really is the jewel in Laos’ crown, a beautiful little town full of amazing wats (temples) and lovely architecture, set in lovely scenery at the confluence of the Ou and Mekong rivers. We knew we were going to enjoy the day off that we had planned, but were already sorry not to be able to spend more time there.