Once we had relaxed into our nice hotel room in Luang Prabang we set off into town to explore. The sun was just setting so we started with a visit to Wat Chomsi, which sits on the top of a hill in the middle of the town and is definitely the best place to admire the sunset from. After climbing lots of steps and briefly admiring the (in our opinion rather naff) supposed imprint of Buddha’s foot (all we can say is if it is genuine, he sure had big and odd shaped feet!), we joined the masses at the viewpoint madly clicking away at the sunset. The setting was magical, with the hills surrounding Luang Prabang, as well as the Mekong and Ou rivers in view. Very nice. After that we descended into the old part of the town, stopping en route to watch some young monks work together to retrieve coconuts from a tree next to their wat (temple). One brave lad had shinnied up the tall tree and was hitting the coconuts with a stick until they fell off into the hands of those waiting below. There was no safety harness involved and we shuddered to think of the consequences if he were to slip, but he seemed pretty confident in what he was doing.
Luang Prabang is a great place for monk-watching as there are over 20 wats in the town, which recruit and train monks from all over the country. Unlike monks in Christian societies, the monks in Laos tend not to be monks for all of their lives – instead it is expected that, as part of their education, just about every man will spend at least a few months being a monk when they are young. So there are lots of monks in Laos, most of them young. They are very colouful with their orange robes and it certainly really adds to the atmosphere of a town like Luang Prabang to see them everywhere. It does make us laugh though when you see them reach into their robes to pull out a mobile phone etc – they clearly don’t take the idea of renouncing all worldly goods quite as seriously as you might expect.
We had dinner on the main street running through the old town, which was uber-touristy and contained lots of good restaurants. Our meal was very good but we were surprised when we got the bill to see that it was more than we expected. A quick perusal of the menu revealed some ‘mistakes’ on the bill (i.e., things being priced higher than on the menu). At the time we passed this off as a genuine mistake but we quickly learnt on subsequent occasions that this seems to be a common practice in the more touristy parts of Laos – the prices on the menu are relatively low, but at almost every meal we had in Luang Prabang and Vientiane the bill was higher than it should have been. We quickly learnt to check the bill carefully! Pretty sharp practice if you ask us.
After dinner we treated ourselves to chocolate and banana crepes from a stand on the street, before perusing the night market. This market is one of the biggest souvenir markets in Laos, and is a great place to pick up some nice items to take home. Most of the items are made by women in the hilltop Hmong villages that we had just spent a week or so cycling through, and included many woven materials that we had actually seen being made as we passed through. It was really pleasant spending a couple of hours looking around the market, which is huge, and we came away with a couple of good gifts for people back at home. We also managed to pick up a load of stickers from countries in SE Asia for our bikes, which was great as we hadn’t been able to find stickers to add to the collection for ages before that. We were pretty tired from the day’s early start and relatively long bike ride so we called it a night early on.
The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast overlooking the river before strolling into town and spending a bit of time admiring the well-maintained and beautiful buildings and wats in the centre, before enjoying a very pleasant lunch, also by the river. In the afternoon Christine headed off for a traditional Lao massage – good, but not as vigorous as Chinese massage, which is the best we have found so far for ironing out sore muscles – while Pete had a beer with another long-distance cycle tourist who had cycled from Holland, and who we had got talking to the day before. Over dinner that night we debated whether to spend another day in Luang Prabang, or to move on as per our schedule. We really would have liked to spend another day there – for one thing, there are some great waterfalls nearby that would have made for a very pleasant day-trip – but we were well aware that the countdown to meeting Dean for Christmas (and for meeting Pete’s sister Sarah shortly afterwards) was well and truly on, and we really had to get back on the road. So with a little bit of sadness we decided to leave the next day to push on down the road towards Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
We knew we had some big hills to get over in between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, which was 3 days’ ride away, so we set off early and it has to be said somewhat unenthusiastically. As things turned out though, our hasty departure was not really warranted – some way out of Luang Prabang while climbing a big hill, Pete tried to shift down into his lowest rear gear, only to have the chain pop off into the wheel and take out 3 spokes. This happened to Christine near the start of the trip, in Bulgaria, and since then we have been careful to check the limit screws (which should prevent this from happening) regularly. Not regularly enough though, clearly, as one of the screws must have loosened slightly for this to happen. It is a very annoying thing to happen, because the broken spokes are on the cassette side, and we are not carrying a cassette-removal tool with us (incidentally, if we ever do a similar trip in future, such a tool is definitely something we would add to our kit list), so are reliant on a visit to a bike shop. Not a disaster in this part of the world where lots of people ride bikes, many of them with gears and hence a cassette, but it turned out that was not our only problem. Normally we carry spare spokes tucked safely down the back of one of our panniers, but as luck would have it we discovered at this point that they were in one of the panniers that we had sent home from China with our camping gear, doh! So we also needed to get hold of some spokes big enough for a 28″ wheel – a problem when most bikes in Laos have 26″ wheels. Having established that we needed to get to a sizable town to fix the problem, we stuck out our thumbs and as luck would have it the first vehicle was an empty pick-up that stopped and agreed to take us to Phoukoun, a town not far away. It was an interesting ride as the guy first had to visit his home village to pick something up. Our arrival in the village in the back of this man’s truck was certainly an event of some excitement to the villagers!
We were soon off and got to Phoukoun in pretty quick time. Buses use this town as a rest-stop and so there were lots of people around, including lots of tourists who seemed quite amused to see us walking around, broken wheel in hand, looking for the local bike shop. We quickly established that there was no hope of getting the wheel fixed in Phoukoun as it was a smaller town than the map suggested, and so we jumped onto a bus heading to Kasi, another town 50km down the road. We were really gutted to be missing this part of the cycling as the scenery was just spectacular, and it just isn’t the same from a bus window! We had no luck with the bike shop in Kasi either, but we had some fun playing with the local kids while we waited for a lift to Vang Vieng, the next big town. We got a ride in a sangthaew (pick-up converted to take passengers, which acts as a local bus) soon enough, and had a nice but eventful ride for the 50km to Vang Vieng, as dusk was falling. First of all a family got on with a sick child (who proceeded to vomit all over his poor mother). It certainly reinforced to us the poverty of this country – the child probably only had an infection or something, and we gathered that his parents had just taken him to the doctor in Kasi from their village 20km or so away, but it is easy to imagine access to medical care being far harder in the more remote areas of Laos. Shortly after the family got off at their village, we were driving along when there was a dog lying in the middle of the road (pretty common occurrence round here, as dogs are plentiful and the roads are quiet). We think the sangthaew’s horn was not working as the driver did not beep at it, but tried to steer round it instead. Unfortunately the dog panicked and ran right into the sangthaew’s path – even with the driver braking sharply, it was inevitable that the dog was hit, with a rather sickening thud. No doubt it would have been best for the dog if it had been killed outright – doctors are scarce enough round here, never mind vets – as it was it was left squealing in pain in the road. The driver didn’t stop – to be fair there was probably nothing the driver could do for the dog – bu it still felt rather heartless driving off. Not a very pleasant event to witness.
Anyway, we got to Vang Vieng soon enough. Now this is an interesting place, definitely an either love-it or hate-it type of place. When Christine was last here 8 years ago, it was pretty quiet, with people coming to enjoy the activities on offer in the stunning surrounding scenery, such as tubing down the river or exploring the many local caves. Now it has morphed into some sort of mini-Ibiza, with an unappealing main street containing loads of bars with neon signs pumping out loud music and advertising cheap beer and shots, along with restaurants serving everything from pad thai to spaghetti carbonara to – believe it or not, a full Sunday roast (which not surprisingly was expensive and looked a bit rubbish). The town is a favourite with young backpackers who come here to drink lots and get stoned, and otherwise behave as if there were in a Spanish beach resort. On the plus side everything is cheap and there is some nice accommodation, particularly along the river front. After a little bit of investigation we discovered a place called ‘the Cocoon’, a quiet resort consisting of slightly posh bungalows set on a plush lawn by the river, with a nice pool in the middle. It was a little more expensive than the alternatives, but an awful lot nicer (the cheaper bungalows we looked at didn’t even have beds, just grotty mattresses on the floor. We’re not usually fussy but sometimes it really is worth it to pay a little more than rock-bottom). We checked in and had a quick swim before heading out for some food. Again although the main street is unappealing, there are some nice enough restaurants and the one we plumped for served some pretty good food at a good price – can’t complain about that. We met Kevin and Shane, a couple of guys from east of London who were exploring Laos as a holiday, but who had done a fair bit of cycling in their time (including doing the end-to-end twice!) and were quite interested in our trip, so all in all we had a nice evening.
We also established, however, that we couldn’t get Pete’s bike fixed in Vang Vieng – the bike shops were surprisingly basic considering that there are a lot of outfits hiring rental bikes around – but the owners of the bike shops we tried seemed pretty confident we would be able to get it fixed in Vientiane – 150km away – without a problem. So we decided to relax and spend a day enjoying ourselves in Vang Vieng while we were there, before bussing it down to Vientiane. Annoying but not the end of the world as the cycling between Vang Vieng and Vientiane looked set to be quite dull and flat anyway. The next day we had a leisurely breakfast before heading off to hire some tubes and float down the river. Tubing is the thing to do here, and involves getting a tuk-tuk with your tube a few kilometres upstream, then floating downstream. As mentioned above, that is all there used to be to it. How things have changed! The first kilometre of river bank after the tuk-tuk drop-off point is now lined with bars playing loud music and serving cheap cheap drinks as well as ‘happy brownies’. People spend hours lounging around getting drunk and stoned in the sun before tubing back to Vang Vieng. As long as you can suspend disbelief about where you are for a while, it is actually pretty good fun.
Many of the bars also have a variety of rope swings and slides, some of them quite high and fast, that can be used to launch yourself into the river. The downside to all this is that four people have drowned in this year alone – one of them just two weeks before we were there (and it turned out he died after going headfirst down a slide that is now rather grimly called the ‘death slide’ but which is still operating – Christine went down it before finding this out!). Ultimately, combining large quantities of alcohol and dope with high swings and relatively fast-flowing water, in a holiday atmosphere, is never going to be safe. The swings themselves also looked pretty dodgy to us – you have to make sure you let go at the right point or you risk smashing into some rocks, or perhaps onto someone tubing below (this happened on the day we were there). It is also easy to bellyflop and hurt yourself that way – the swings are a couple of storeys high so you have to land right. In fact while we were there, Kevin, one of the guys we had met the night before, went on a swing and landed in the water awkwardly – the result was two cracked ribs and a trapped ulna nerve, i.e., it ruined the rest of his holiday. It could have been worse though. Needless to say we both decided to abstain from the swings and just have a couple of beers before doing the tubing. The tubing wasn’t actually that great, pleasant enough and quite fast in places, but overall we enjoyed it more in Nongkhiaw.
When going out for dinner that night we saw lots of people returning from the tubing, walking through town out of their heads and wearing just their swimwear. Considering a) they are in a country where it is frowned upon for men not to wear a shirt, never mind for women to walk around in their bikinis and b) there are posters up everywhere actually reminding people not to walk around in their swimwear, it is kind of cringeworthy to see this. But at the end of the day you can’t criticise the people behaving in this way without also criticising the locals that run the bars and heavily encourage people to drink lots and take lots of dope. If they don’t like the consequences, it would be easy to stop it, simply by closing some of the bars or imposing a minimum price on alcohol. Something else that we disagreed with is that dope smoking is openly tolerated and encouraged, but that plain-clothes police officers frequently arrest people for doing just this, and then demand a 2 million kip (around 400 pounds) bribe to let you go free. Yes it is very stupid and wrong for tourists to smoke dope in bars when it is illegal, but it is also wrong for the police to use this as a money-making scheme for themselves.
That evening, while out for dinner, we were investigating transport options for getting to Vientiane when we saw a trip advertised where you kayak downriver for half the day in the direction of Vientiane, before being transferred onto a bus for the rest of the trip. This sounded like much more fun than sitting on a bus for five hours, so we inquired, and were pleased to establish that they could transport our bikes the whole way to Vientiane, allowing us to kayak part of the journey – paddling rather than pedalling! We decided to do that and had a very enjoyable day. The only downside was that we had to pass through some grade 2 rapids, which are actually pretty rough, particularly for novices such as most of the group was. Once again it appears to be an example of safety being pushed to one side slightly in favour of getting more people to do the trip – if they said you needed experience to do it, far fewer people would sign up. The guides warned us that people had drowned in these rapids in the past, which didn’t reassure us! Fortunately everybody got through ok, although half the group, including ourselves, capsized in the process. The rest of the day was much more gentle, and we arrived into Vientiane by bus in the early evening.
Somewhat to our surprise we found it difficult to get a room as many places were full – this had been a rare occurrence on our trip so far. Because Pete’s spokes were still broken he couldn’t ride his bike, so our only option was to wheel our bikes around. Thankfully downtown Vientiane is pretty small and it didn’t take too long to find a suitably cheap but grotty room. At dinner that night we were pleased to bump into Frederic and Joelle again, the French-Canadian couple we last saw in Kunming. We had a pleasant meal together catching up on what we had all been up to. We certainly felt quite pleased with ourselves that we had kept up with a couple travelling by bus, even though we had actually covered more ground than them (they didn’t travel to Vietnam like we did).
The next morning Pete headed off to investigate a couple of bike shops we had been told about, leaving Christine to brave the hairdressers (for the first time on this trip – definitely needed a good trim!) before spending the afternoon at the local outdoor pool. The hairdressers was fine as they spoke perfectly good English, and the pool was great, costing just a pittance to enter and being nice and quiet, with plenty of sunloungers round the edge. Definitely a nice place to relax in a hot city. Pete was able to find a shop with the right size spokes, and a cassette removal tool, ok, but the mechanic there claimed he was too busy to do any work before the next morning (in fact he was busy playing solitaire…), meaning Pete had to do the repair job himself. A pain when he hadn’t done it before, but after a hot and sweaty couple of hours he succeeded, which was a relief to us both, and meant we could leave town the next morning for the long charge south to Cambodia.