Tag Archives: Laos

Racing through Northern Laos and Thailand

December 2016

Coming back to Laos and Thailand was really beautiful. This time around the temperatures were much better than last year in April and May and so we thoroughly enjoyed our cycle through the hills of Northern Laos.

We would have loved to spend more time if only to enjoy nice guest houses like this one. But we had a date for New Year’s with my newly wedded sister and her husband in Myanmar that we didn’t want to miss. So we ate some more noodle soup, enjoyed the night market in Luang Namtha and then hitched a lift for about 200k to the Thai border.

We weren’t allowed to cycle over the friendship bridge and instead had to take a bus. Save for the waste of money it was all easy enough though and we soon cycled into Chiang Khong and the cycling paradise that is Thailand.

I will always cherish Thailand as one of the most convenient places for cycle touring. Everything is just so easy somehow: Nice small roads with not much traffic, the availability of good food almost everywhere, iced coffee stands and for everything else you’ve got your 7-11. Oh and the night markets, what a beautiful thing! After the sun has gone down and the air gets cooler, everyone gathers at the market area and the focus lies on all the delicacies you can imagine.

We soaked all that up once more, especially on Christmas Eve in Chiang Rai where we had one of the most relaxing and beautiful guest houses. Once more we would have loved to stay just a little longer but there was only one week left to get to the beach in Myanmar. Not a bad thing to hurry for.

Laos: Into the mountains or The ever growing comfort zone

June 2016

Cycling into the mountains seemed like the only reasonable thing to do after months in the plains. Since about two months ago it was freaking hot. Not to forget the humidity which made every attempt to sleep in our tent feel like a sauna. To battle the temperatures we took refuge under a waterfall by the side of the road…

…which made the following climbing a lot easier. After Thakek the road 12 winds its way up through rich green valleys.

The climb itself wasn’t too exhausting but the heat took its toll. After looking around for a bit in Nakai we found a simple bamboo bungalow and decided to stay for two nights. The fresh mountain air and the cooler nights appealed a lot to us.

I was still torn between enjoying my beautiful surroundings and being overwhelmed by it all. But over the coming days I also noticed something else.

Since starting cycle touring in Bali about 10 month ago I had come a long way in terms of feeling comfortable even without understanding what was happening around me. Whether it being languages, other customs or sign languages I couldn’t interpret at first. It didn’t bother me much. I didn’t feel the need to understand everything around me. I really trusted that I would understand the things I needed to.

This ability is crucial to survive and enjoy long term travel I think. But maybe also for life. When I think back to life in Germany I remember conversations with people who mention being next to a group of people talking to each other in a language which was not German or English. (And probably neither French, Italian, …). And often people would report feeling uneasy or even scared about that. I never really shared that feeling. But being out of my comfort zone a lot in the past two years I really noticed it growing. I feel comfortable in more situations and places than ever: tiny villages where every one knows that we are not local, situations where I need to make a fool out of myself to get across whatever I want to say, with people I don’t share a language / experiences / cultural background with. And so on and so on…

Getting through all of that works best with a lot of smiles, staying calm and not taking yourself too seriously. You are gonna make mistakes, you are gonna make a fool out of yourself more times than you can count. But with listening closely, with opening yourself up to other ways of communicating and doing things, there lie new worlds waiting to be experienced.

From Nakai we cycled north until Phonsavan. The road had just been tarred and was stunningly beautiful to ride on.

A big part of the area had been flooded in order to build a dam which created some interesting scenery.

While it was usually just very hot and humid we also noticed signs that rainy season was getting closer. Big clouds started appearing on the sky and threatened rain in the distance.

Every once in a while we saw signs like these:

Looking back on these pictures I still think that this was one of the most beautiful areas we have ever ridden through. Not much traffic, nice roads, craggy mountains on the side and lots of green scenery to soothe our souls.

In the villages we saw lots of women with hand made skirts which are made on these:

Before Lak Sao the rain caught up with us. It wasn’t too big a change from the ever present humidity though. We were wet all the time anyways.

We loved these little shelters for a break from the sun. People usually have them in farming areas for exactly that purpose I guess.

In Lak Sao we were close to a Vietnamese border and thus had our first Vietnamese coffee – yum!

More rain… And it did actually get a little bit colder this time. So we decided to wait it out.

All that climbing takes its toll…

Lots of wool for weaving…

Some repairs on the road:

We were almost in Phonsavan and ready for a bit of a break.

We found some coffee on the market…

… and cycled to the Plain of Jars.

There are some theories on what the huge jars were used for but their purpose is still not totally clear.

We really enjoyed the area though. After cycling through mountain valleys all the time it was nice to be in wide open fields like these.

Before getting ready for the last push to Vietnam, we visited a small museum on the ever present threat of UXOs (Unexploded Ordinance) in Laos. It is mindboggling to me how a comparatively short war can still influence people’s lives after all that time. People still loose limbs or die from UXOs until today and will continue to do so for a long time. And of course it’s mostly people who don’t have a choice. Farmers who need to farm the land in order to survive and cannot wait for years and years to have it cleared.

Here is some information boards from the museum:

Lot of the clearing of UXOs is done with international aid. And I do think the international community should feel responsible for removing some of the damage inflicted on Laos and its people.

We loved our guesthouse in Phonsavan. But unfortunately we had to leave for Visa reasons.

And so we followed this very green road towards Nam Can in Vietnam.

More on that chapter next time!

Along the Mekong: Laos – Lots of beauty and some travel fatigue

June 2016

After a very nice and polite 20 minute long discussion at the border to Laos whether we should pay the Special Service Fee they agreed to wave it just this one time. Funny experience in a way though. Everyone was nice enough and so we talked about the big elephant in the room without ever naming it.

Generally we really try to avoid paying bribes. Even if it might not be a lot of money for me, in local currency it often is. And in my opinion it rather adds to the local wealth gap and benefits only some people that already have power and quite a bit of money.

So we usually just take our time, stay patient and try to do some research before. Often it is only a case of knowing what currency to bring to pay for the Visa On Arrival, otherwise you might get ripped off. Or in this case, we had to stay patient and talk for about 20 minutes. When I told them that we might have to camp at the border as it was already getting dark, they didn’t think it was the best of ideas and let us go.

We made it just in time to catch a boat to Don Dhet, one of the 4000 Islands (Si Phan Don) in the Mekong River. Planning to stay for a few days we ended up staying for almost a week. It was rather touristy but with rainy season upon us still quiet enough.

Tiny little trails invited to explore along the island and with no cars or roads around it was just beautiful!

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the rain storms which happened almost every day…

Most of the time we just hung around, not doing much. How can you not with that view from your bungalow?

The beauty of our surroundings weren’t the only reason for us to slow down though. Lately I had been feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all. Physically I was fine, I could cope with cycling a lot and also mostly with the ongoing heat. But mentally it was just all a bit too much. I am writing this almost seven month later and that’s good in a way. Now it is easy to look back and identify the emotions from back then.

We had been cycling for about a year and traveling for about two. In the past 12 months we hadn’t stopped for more than 2 weeks at a time. And I just couldn’t seem to catch up with the continuous stream of new impressions, new people, new food, new languages. It wasn’t constant, I still had my happy moments, I still enjoyed cycling per se and the downhills especially but I grew annoyed way quicker at tiny disturbances than before. I wasn’t really keen on learning new languages anymore and planning our future cycling route gave me a major headache. It became more and more clear that I needed a break. Not just a few days but a longer one.

So Torsten and I talked and talked and decided to take it slow. As it happened we were planning on taking a break anyway due to my little sister getting married in Germany in September. We were planning on cycling until China, leaving the bicycles with a trustworthy person and continue going home with busses and trains. So for the next 2 months we still had some cycling to do. I wasn’t entirely convinced that I could make it but I didn’t really want to miss the mountains of Laos either. So for now we kept going.

And oh boy, we had one of the most beautiful days of our cycling journey ahead of us! From Don Dhet we cycled northbound over some of the islands, taking four ferries in one day!

Don Dhet has been a beautiful if rather touristy escape, but the following islands were just stunning to cycle.

We even stumbled upon a local festival with home made fireworks. Some of them went up in the sky as they were supposed to, others not so much. Which made for some rather hasty escapes by the people around.

We loved the small roads and were happy that it didn’t rain like back then.

Leaving the 4000 islands after Don Khong we kept cycling northbound. We would still follow the Mekong up until Thakek where we wanted to pedal up into the mountains towards Vietnam.

With a peak at some mountains ahead we continued on our flat roads. For now. Cycling into Pakse I got serious pangs of homesickness thinking of my sister and her now husband who would be married today. You see, in the religious parts of Germany people often get married twice. One is the state ceremony and the other the church wedding. Where I come from, the second one is usually bigger and more important. That would also be the one we were going to attend in September but I still missed being there for the state ceremony today.

Cycling on these roads was some consolidation though. The light, the colors and good asphalt made for a few easy but beautiful days which was fine by me. The big mountains would come soon enough.

We loved those little shelters for some escape from the sun and heat:

About 40k before Savannakhet we met Edi, the first cyclist who was going in the same direction as us! We enjoyed cycling into town together and getting to know him over dinner and beers later. Sadly I completely forgot to take a picture.

In Savannakhet we also said Goodbye to the Mekong. Since Phnom Penh we had followed that mighty river and now it was time to take a turn towards the mountains. More on that next time!

Now for a few rest days and sampling lots of local coffee!