Two Years Too Late: Bikepacking Northern Laos

The Vitals

Dates: November 17, 2018 – December 4, 2018

Location: Mengla, China to Vientiane, Laos

Distance: 660 km

Photos by Brittany

Downloadable GPS track for this section is at the bottom of this post.

The Trip

Northern Laos

Riding every day really had me down for a while in November and it was exacerbated by too much internet connectivity. Staying in hotels every night meant too much time spent online. Lately we’ve tried to ramp up the camping again where the simple rhythm of setting up, cooking, sleeping, and tearing down gives more of a chance for quiet appreciation of being somewhere unusual.

Welcome to Laos

The title of this post, along with “four years too early”, is a good summary of northern Laos. A lot of what we read in blogs from five or more years ago lauded the lack of traffic in Laos and the quiet, high-quality dirt. More recent ones started to mention an uptick in traffic and car ownership, but the real bee in my bonnet is the high-speed train construction. It turns out the construction we’ve been following since China is a high-speed rail line. In Laos it is 70% funded by China and 30% funded by Laos and the evidence is in the explosion of Chinese signage in Laos. Road signs are bilingual Chinese and Laotian, and the construction sites make it feel like we never crossed a border. Supposedly finishing in the early 2020’s, many routes simply are not worth riding right now.

Border crossing just minutes before the photo above

The line runs from the Boten border crossing to the capital city of Vientiane. In the very north (especially the border town itself), the train follows the main paved road. This meant the first two days were spent next to trucks on a paved road off and on as we passed construction zone after construction zone. After 100 km, we said forget this, let’s find the smallest road on Google maps.

Catching the ferry with train bridge crossing the Mekong behind

We picked a 140 km route that took us to a tiny riverside village where we could take a two-hour ferry down the Mekong to the historic city and tourist destination of Luang Prabang. Huge mistake. This road was exactly the route of the train so now we found ourselves sharing space with convoys of vehicles on a dusty road that had been practically destroyed by the heavy trucks. With deep potholes, riding was uncomfortable and we tended to ride about the same speed as the trucks – meaning long stretches of choking on dust. It was miserable and frustrating that we couldn’t find the quiet roads we yearned for.

In Luang Prabang we checked the planned route of the train (learning from our mistakes) and were able to ride to Vang Vieng with very little overlap, including quite the tiring day on the 4C with 2500 meters of climbing (our most yet, more than any day in the Pamirs) at grades as high as 12%. This was paved and ticked some of the boxes, but where was the hardpacked dirt?

Kuang Si Waterfall

South of Vang Vieng

From Vang Vieng, the former party town best known for a peak in tourist deaths at 27 in 2011, we found bliss. Again selecting the smallest roads on the map, we left Vang Vieng on pavement shared with scooters and rental dune buggies until all of these disappeared within 10 km. Suddenly we were all alone, pushing our bikes up an absurdly steep hill in the silence and the heat. The limestone pinnacles that surround the plain on which Vang Vieng sits, rose around us and after 200 meters of hike-a-bike, we started our descent into the sparsely populated valley beyond.

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Soon into our descent the road got narrower and narrower until the double track turned to single track choked by waist-high grasses on both sides. Shortly, we reached a dilapidated old bridge over a small creek. It’s been a few years since this was a real road. Careful pushing across the rotten boards brought us to a small landslide that evidently was the reason the road had fallen into disuse. Beyond the landslide, the road gradually grew larger again until we began to pass small towns amongst the very short and very steep hills. By the end of the day we had come out to the main road again but my enthusiasm for riding had been refreshed.

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Forest Man

To cap off the great terrain of the day, we planned to camp next to the Nam Lik River. We found a path down to a nice stony riverbank with a bunch of fishermen’s longboats. We swam and lounged for a few hours before the fisherman came down in the evening to head out on the river. One spoke a bit of English and when he learned we meant to camp right there, told us we couldn’t. At this point he was out on his boat and he was saying something about the “forest man” as the reason we couldn’t stay. We waited a few hours for him to come back and explain before we decided to just risk running into the “forest man” anyway and pitched the tent.

Campsite on the Nam Lik River

Like the exhausted tourists we are (also both recovering from a shortlived illness) we were both asleep at 7:00 pm. At 8:00 we met the forest man, or men as it were. The tent was illuminated (sunset is at 5:30) by a flashlight and there were some calls from outside. I was primed for this, so I was awake and out of the tent in a few seconds. There was a blinding light on the head of a man who held out his hand. I shook it. Beside him was a second man with his hand held outstretched. I went to shake it as well but on the way, my finger briefly jammed against the metal tube of a gun barrel. The headlamp man looked away from me so I was no longer blinded and could see two men wearing no discernible uniform but carrying old rifles. They were also smiling and I neglected to say the initial calls from outside the tent were friendly hellos. They didn’t speak English but it was obvious from their mannerism that they were just interested in us and had no problem with us staying the night. I’m sure this was what we were warned against, but what these guys patrol for each night is still a mystery to me.

In the morning we got to start off the day to some kids building a fire and putting green bamboo on it. When the air in the bamboo segments heats up, it eventually explodes with a bang like a gunshot. After they got tired of scaring us, they left and I enjoyed a morning swim in the river on the 2nd of December.

Night with the Police

After another day of gradually flatter riding on improving road surface, we looked to repeat our camping experience. We found a likely candidate on the banks of the Mekong River, looking across at Thailand. The water was much dirtier than the Nam Lik but still okay for rinsing off the dust. We hung out in a pavillion for an hour watching some kids play kataw. Not all the kids were playing, mostly the older ones around 10 or 12. The younger kids (around 8) were busily engaged in drinking some mysterious clear liquor. It was supremely uncomfortable to watch children drinking but I wasn’t about to make it my business. Brittany felt even more pull to do something, but what can you? With this development and some increased pestering from the kids, we decided it wasn’t a place to camp after all.

Evening in Vientiane next to the Mekong

We got back on the road with our eyes peeled for a campsite. After a couple of kilometers we saw an empty lot next to a house and I decided I would just ask the man outside if we could set up there. We quickly learned the house was actually a police post where crews of a few men spend their 24-hour shifts. They had to ask the ranking officer, but we were allowed to set up and then welcomed to have a bucket shower and use their pit toilet in the back. We also were invited to dinner to eat “real Lao food”. As we ate fish from the Mekong cooked on a little charcoal BBQ, a scooter pulled up with 6 beers that they had evidently ordered. A little while later, the scooter was back with more sticky rice (eaten by rolling up a ball in your hands). One more visit from the scooter brought 6 more beers but shortly thereafter an accident just up the road ended the party and the police had to get to work.

Good morning Vientiane

We sweated through the night and got up early to ride the 35 km to the capital city where temperatures are currently hitting the mid-30s, about 5 degrees higher than average. Brittany insists we do nothing of the tourist variety here, so we are truly resting this time in the air conditioning of our hotel room.

The people in Laos seem to live their lives with two peaks of activity in the day, on either side of the hot afternoon. Brittany and I were out at the riverside at 6:00 this morning and people were exercising and gathering for group bike rides. By noon the baking shores are empty. At night, a market opens up and the streets are closed to traffic and are teeming with people shopping and eating. Afternoons are for staying indoors and napping in hammocks. Tomorrow we will try and catch a bus to Thakhek. Laos has turned out to be just too big to ride through on a 30-day visa and we need to cheat a little.

Anyone know an electrician?
A springy bamboo bridge that is rebuilt every dry season in Luang Prabang.

GPS Tracks

10 Days – 66 km/day

Some terrible riding south of Oudomxay, break for the ferry on the Mekong, big climbing day south of Luang Prabang, and flat bliss south of Vang Vieng.