We left Vientiane early in the morning as we knew we had a longish day ahead. Getting out of Vientiane towards Highway 13 seemed to be pretty straightforward, and after 15km or so we ended up on a stretch of brand new road heading in broadly the right direction, that we assumed to be an upgraded version of Highway 13. However there was just about no traffic on it, which made us wonder if it was the right road, and after a few kilometres some road workers that we were able to ask confirmed our fears – we were on a new but incomplete road that as yet went nowhere! Fortunately there was a turn-off shortly after that we were able to use to rejoin the main highway, meaning the overall diversion was only 15kms or so. Still, the kilometre markers beside the road told us we still had 126kms to go before reaching Paksan, our intended destination for the night, so we knew we were in for a long day. The scenery was nice but somewhat uninspiring as we were now in the Mekong delta region so it was flat all around – still after the last few weeks we were not complaining about that! We had a really nice lunch in a small village, where we discovered the amazing drink that is iced Lao coffee, served with condensed milk – it costs next to nothing and is exceptionally cool and refreshing. The only downside is that it is quite strong coffee so you can’t have too many of them too quickly! The afternoon wore on as the kilometres slowly ticked down, and we eventually got into Paksan just as it was getting dark – good timing as a complete lack of street lighting in Laos means cycling in the dark is a rather dangerous and unnerving experience. We had been recommended a guesthouse down by the river but couldn’t find it so plumped for a cheap hotel that was surprisingly clean and comfortable, and even had the BBC on the TV. This area of Laos is close to both Vietnam and Thailand so we saw many signs in several languages, and ended up in a Vietnamese restaurant for dinner. Having cycled 167kms in one day, we were hungry enough that after one dinner we walked down the road and had a second one!
Despite an early night we were still a bit tired the next morning and didn’t get going nearly as early as we should have done, but fortunately we only had 100km to cover to get us to Viang Kham, from where we had a side-trip planned to the famous 7.5km long Kong-Lor cave. Because we were still on a bit of a tight schedule for getting down to Phuket to meet Christine’s parents for Christmas, and because we had no desire to cycle the same 100km of (hilly) road twice, we chose to do this side-trip by local bus. We took a bus up to the village of Ban Nahin, where we spent the night, and from where we had hoped to hire a moped for the final 50km to the cave and back the next day. However the locals didn’t appear to have cottoned on to the idea of moped rental yet, so the only option was a tuk-tuk, but that was fine by us. It took an hour and a half to reach the cave entrance, where we paid to be boated through the cave on a 3-person longtail boat. The cave was awesome, but rather spooky – as soon as the light recedes from the cave entrance it is pitch black aside from the light from the boat drivers’ torch (which was, fortunately, strong). We were a little annoyed that we had not hired our own torch – they were available, but nobody had suggested to us that it really would be a good idea as it is very dark in there! Instead we just had our bike torch which is too weak to be of much use. This was particularly problematic when we reached a shallow bit of water which required us to get out the boat and walk through knee-deep water flowing fast over rocks, in the pitch black! The boat was surprisingly fast when it got going, and we were very thankful that the driver seemed very experienced, so he knew exactly where all the protruding rocks etc were – it doesn’t bear thinking about what would happen if the small wooden boat were to hit a rock and splinter in the deep, fast water in the dark – that would not be fun! The boat was able to go all the way through the cave and out the other side, before returning the way it had come. All in all a spectacular experience that we highly recommend.
After a quick meal back at Ban Nahin we jumped on the first bus returning to the village at the junction with the main road, where we spent the night. The next few days were fairly uneventful and to be honest a little dull – although Highway 13 allows good fast cycling because it is flat, the scenery is fairly monotonous. From Viang Kham we cycled first to Thakhek, a pleasant riverside town where we spent the night. The next day we took a minor road, rather than Highway 13, which hugged the bank of the Mekong as far as Savannahaket. Despite being a minor road it was paved most of the way, and was much more fun than the highway as it passed through many small villages and was hence much more lively than the main road. After Savannahaket we continued on the same road, however unfortunately the tarmac ended for good and the road surface was very poor, and included sections of deep sand that are a nightmare to cycle through. After a frustratingly slow 50km we were delighted to rejoin the main highway, boring as it was. Because of the slow start, and a strong headwind that was with us for most of the day, we had to cycle almost until it was dark until we found a guesthouse. This was actually a ‘resort’ consisting of a bunch of bungalows just outside of a small village, kind of in the middle of nowhere. It was around 15km short of the big town that we had hoped to reach that night, but we had both had enough and were happy to stop. Much to our surprise we met another couple of cycle tourists there who had done the same as us – decided to stop as it was the first guesthouse they had seen for most of the day. It was nice to have some company for dinner, but we were all whacked so headed for bed nice and early.
The other couple – from Canada – had really been struggling with the heat (they were near the start of their trip so not as acclimatized as us) and the wind, so were up and cycling by 5am, when it is still pitch-black. Quite impressive as we found it hard enough to be in our saddles by 5.45am, when we prefer to set off as it gets light enough to see. We had a fast start as we didn’t have a headwind, and despite two punctures and a short trip back down the road to look for Pete’s wedding ring that had fallen off (sadly we didn’t find it), we covered the 125km to Pakse in time for a late lunch. In Pakse we were delighted to find an Indian restaurant, where we ate both lunch and dinner, as well as a hotel with air-con and cable TV…seeing as Pakse is a pretty sleepy place with not much to see or do, we were happy to have a lazy afternoon. Later on Pete ventured out to buy a new kettle element (ours had broken and we really need to be able to make coffee at that time of the morning!), which he found in the market, along with such other delicacies such as live frogs which were making vain but impressive attempts to escape the bowl they were in.
We knew the next day was going to be long – 155km – so we made a point of getting up very early so we were cycling out of Pakse before it got light. The road was rather undulating for the first 50km, but there was no wind and we were able to go fast, allowing us to cover 100km by 11am – our fastest start to a day on the whole trip. Around the 100km mark we stopped for a snack, and were able to buy some bananas that had been split, skewered on a stick, covered with sugar and toasted – perfect cycling food! The next 55km were somewhat slower as it got a lot hotter, and we had another puncture to deal with. Talking of which, I feel a small rant about Schwalbe tyres coming along. For those of you know who are not knowledgeable about tyres for cycle touring, it is pretty well accepted that the gold standard tyres you want are either the Schwalbe Marathon Plus (for on road riding) or the Marathon XR (for riding on rough roads or off road). Both these tyres have excellent reputations for durability and puncture resistance. Our plan was to rely primarily on the Marathon Plus, as we did not expect to be riding off-road much. However when we went to buy the tyres before we came away, we found out that Schwalbe had just discontinued the Marathon Plus in favour of the Marathon Supreme, a tyre that was touted as offering all the durability and puncture resistance as the Marathon Plus, but with a much lower weight – important when you are carrying 4 spares like we planned. They were super expensive at 50 quid each, but we figured it was worth investing in. We started the trip with the Marathon Pluses on Christine’s bike, and Armadillos on Pete’s bike (as these were the tyres already on the bikes), and carried the Supresmes as spares, swapping the first ones over in Istacnbul. Unfortunately, the Supremes have not lived up to their name. Yes they are light and easy to carry, but they are not very puncture resistant at all – we seem to average a puncture every 150-200km while using them (on tarmacced roads!). We got so fed up with them in Turkey that we replaced them with locally bought tyres (which were much better) and kept just a couple of Supremes as emergency spares. We had to put one of them on Christine’s bike in Pakse because the tyre she was using had split, and hey presto we are back to frequent punctures. We have relegated the Supreme to the front tyre (and even had a puncture on that, the first one of the trip for a front tyre) which is generally much less prone to punctures as it carries much less weight. All in all it seems Schwalbe have shot themselves in the foot – they need to bring back the Marathon Plus ASAP. If they don’t, in future we – and I imagine, other people – will buy tyres from another supplier other than Schwalbe.
Anyway after fixing yet another puncture – never much fun in the hot sun – we eventually reached the village of Ban Nakasang at around 3pm. From there it was just a short boat ride over to the island of Don Det, one of an archipelago of islands sitting on the Mekong river, known as the ‘four thousand islands’. We plumped to stay near the boat landing on Don Det as it was convenient and we didn’t see much benefit to staying further afield. The accommodation mostly consists of simple bungalows overlooking the river – we opted for Saksoun bungalows, as they had a nice bungalow right on the waterfront available. Pete did some good negotiating and got us a good price (40,000 kip, or about 3.75 pounds) as well as a couple of hammocks to hang up on our balcony – great! We spent the rest of that day, and the next two days, either chilling out on our hammock or pootering around the islands on our bikes. There are no roads on the islands, just dirt tracks, so it is good fun exploring. Over on Don Khon, a neighbouring island, there is a huge waterfall to admire, as well as decent beaches to relax on and dolphins to go and see. What is really nice is that the place is not too touristy – there are still plenty of small villages with no tourist infrastructure at all, so it is easy to feel like you are getting away from the crowds. On the second day we bumped into Frederic and Joelle again, which gave us a nice opportunity to catch up on what we had each been up to. The evenings were generally very quiet – not much in the way of nightlife – but watching the sun set over the Mekong was always a highlight, particularly when sat with a cocktail in in one of the nice ‘sunset’ bars!.
We were tempted to stay another day on Don Det as there was a dragon boat racing festival being held on the day we were leaving, which no doubt would have been fun to go to, but we knew we had to push on to keep to our timetable. So with some reluctance we treated ourselves to one last pineapple pancake before heading back to the mainland and down to the border. Knowing that we would be unlikely to be able to change our kip easily in Cambodia, we visited a couple of shops in Ban Nakasang to use up our remaining kip before heading back to the main road for the final 20km to the border. En route we stopped to admire a waterfall that just situated not far from the road – it is not a high waterfall, but it is very wide and as a consequence is the biggest waterfall (by volume) in SE Asia.
Then it was onto the border where we had to pay the obligatory $1 bribe to a Laos official to leave the country (an ‘overtime’ fee as it was a Sunday. I mean, come on!), and then $3 in bribes to get into Cambodia (incidentally it was absolutely no problem to get a visa on arrival. Cost was $23 each). While it is not much money so it is not worth getting upset about – there is absolutely nothing you can do about it – the principle makes us sick. Both Laos and Cambodia are very poor countries with many people facing real hardship on a daily basis, so to see these officials so blatantly on the take to line their own pockets is disgusting. These borders see a fair few travellers so they must make a whole heap of money doing this job – much more than the average citizen of either country will ever be able to earn. I guess life is just not fair!