Travelling Into The Unknown: Bicycle Touring in Laos For The First Time
The imagery of overcrowded buses and the hassle of finding the next tuk-tuk to explore a new country sounded like a dread. How many times do I need to rely on my feet and other tourist-filled vehicles to explore the beauty of new places? What about those in-between roads? I spent hours debating in my room what I really wanted in a trip. The idea of exploring a country by bike had been ruminating in my mind for quite some time, but I was too afraid to commit. Questioning my ability that perhaps bicycle touring was left for the fittest and strongest.
I scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed and came across an acquaintance I had met on one of my travels. He was travelling around the world on a bicycle and there was a picture of him cycling in Laos recently where he rode above the clouds with the highest peaks in Laos behind him. Awed and captivated, I quickly googled Laos and found it was the kind of place with spectacular scenery, beautiful paved roads, interesting hilltribes and minimal traffic compared to its neighbours such as Thailand and Vietnam.
Marked as an ‘adventure route’ and a haven for cyclists that was largely unexplored, I knew I had to give Laos a try. A quick discussion with my partner who was a keen cyclist and in minutes, we were game! It didn’t matter whether I was physically prepared for this trip, I knew I could rely on my mental prowess.
What little information I accumulated prior to my departure was picked from blogs and forums. There was was truly no way to tell if there were bicycle shops that provided bicycle touring-specific bikes for our own self-guided tours. Most posts and trip reports found online were often from cyclists who were traversing the globe from one country to another and they had their own bikes. I had marked few shops on Google maps and followed closely when I arrived in the sleepy town of Luang Prabang. After visiting two shops, some non-existent or had ceased operations, we had only one option, a German owned shop called Tiger Trails which had TREK branded bicycle touring-ready specs with panniers designed to fit us like a glove.
Stung with such unbridled glee and fearlessness, I was thrilled to finally be seated on a bicycle made for touring packed with all my belongings. I could hardly believe that this was finally happening. We quickly got down to specifics and laid down our route for the next few days starting our journey from Luang Prabang to Vientiane (North to South) with a total distance of 445km.
Day 1: Luang Prabang – Khou Ki Cham (81 Km) – Grade: Hard
We set out on our nervous and unsteady bikes in the peak of Laos morning traffic. We forgot that while we were on holiday, the rest of Laotians in Luang Prabang still had to get to work and that would mean traffic, SUVs, tour buses leaving very little space for a two-wheeler to pass at 8.00am.
Change was soon in the horizon and we slowly found ourselves picking speed as quaint villages and lush greens surrounded us. A welcome relief for a jittery newbie cyclist.
The first 9km made it easy for us to casually warm our legs when at about noon-time, we hit our first 12.5km climb. I steadied my nerves and tried to pedal through at gradients of almost 12%. My heart pounded and I took a deep breath and tried to keep my bike upright but it was a struggle. This clearly seemed like a crash-course in bicycle touring.
Shades of green rushed in a blur as I picked up speed and stopped at our viewpoint. It seems like, it’s all about climbs in Laos and this is exactly what we came for: the ride. We had dreamed of rolling hills and swabs of cotton-candied clouds and finally we are in the middle of all of it.
Day 2: Khou Ki Cham – Phou Khoun (60Km) – Grade: Hard
While the ride had far more steeper grades than the previous day, it was short and we had a lot of stops to take in the views. The ride begins with a rolling pattern for 14km and descends for about 7km, until we reach undulating roads.
Coming downhill required my full concentration, I felt sparks of creativity punched through my riding. The strength and confidence I felt building in my body with every passing turn allowed me to further enjoy the ride. Though at times, coming downhill was not entirely fun, my fingers could barely hold on to the brakes and they kept slipping at times which required stops along the way.
Riding through this otherworldly terrain, we came across two cyclists who were going in the opposite direction towards Luang Prabang.
“That’s all you’re carrying?!?” said Valentine. She was rather shocked at how lightweight our bags were compared to theirs which they seemed to be carrying quite a bit. By quite a bit, I mean three bags each and add-ons here and there. It was her first time and I was amazed at her resilience. She and Christoph flew in with their bikes from Geneva, Switzerland and they will be cycling through Laos and Vietnam.
By the time we were on the last bit of our ride, I got off on my bike and hiked for a bit, defeated by the long procession of steep climbs. I found I could hike it up pretty fast and catch my breath. What if I continued to do this? My mind tricked me, but I knew I would never make it if I didn’t keep pedaling.
Day 3: Phou Khoun – Kasi (50Km) – Grade: Moderate
Morning came and I got super excited to conquer the day because I know that it will be somewhat easier and the most scenic after two days of brutal climbing. We had a day filled with multiple stops, and an elevation drop of close to 2,500 metres.
I can’t tell you how elated I was as I became a competent downhiller. Villages and children passed me, and I passed children and villagers to a constant theme of “Saibadee (Hello’s), You can do it” coupled with waves, claps and cheers from children.
The welcome camaraderie on the trail kept a smile on my dirt-covered hair and face, and made me finally feel that I’ve got this under control.
The last 10km to Kasi was easy and before we knew it we reached our destination. Cleaned, beautiful bed, basic housing and tasty fried rice with soy bean was all that we really needed. There was no self-imposed pressure to be elsewhere, no distractions, and that rare feeling of being perfectly content and present at the moment.
Day 4: Kasi – Vang Vieng (61Km) – Grade: Easy/Moderate
As we came closer to our last days, we took time to take more pictures. Savour every moment and just enjoy the ride. The delights in one of the world’s most secluded countries are the small discoveries made along the way.
The roads to Vang Vieng were stunningly gorgeous. I was awestruck when both of us looked around pointing and gasping at the roads. Closer to Vang Vieng, the heat was unbearable and traffic, smog, dust got in the way, the same as any other city.
Day 5: Vang Vieng – Grade: Easy
Our trip had been on paved and relatively smooth dirt roads but it became apparent that once we reached commercial destinations, the traffic, people and dust was a hazard. The mystic atmosphere and silence high up in the mountains was something that we secretly yearned for.
As a cyclist with more enthusiasm than experience, it made sense to us to cut our touring and focused on gorging on some city pleasures by regaining our calories with nutella pancakes and fruit shakes.
The final moments of the cycling trip required us finding a bus, tying it to the roof and making our way back to Luang Prabang as regular travellers exploring on foot, leaving our cycling journey tragically far behind. The newly gained perspective and freedom to stop wherever we liked, and to hit the road whenever it suited us, was liberating.