Right on Time: Bikepacking Southern Laos

The Vitals

Dates: December 5 – 17, 2018

Location: Vientiane to Thakhek (bus) then to Don Det (bicycle)

Distance: 543 km cycled

Photos by Brittany

Total Route

The Trip

We’ve ridden 80 days since leaving Almaty on August 12 but without the benefit of rail, steamer, or hot air balloon, we have yet to circumnavigate the globe. If we were doing a cross-Canada tour, we would have scarcely reached Welland. But we’re not touring Canada and today I write this from about 5 km north of the Cambodian border after crossing Laos from the very north to the very south.

Visa expiration was a primary motivator to take a bus from Vientiane to Thakhek to cut about 330 km from the route. This section is all on the main highway since no parallel routes last for very long and, while roughly following the Mekong, has scant views. In the dead flat south with little wind we’ve started being able to put down some big mileage days including a new trip record of 118 km (and a record for shortest day at 4.97 km). Without hills to contend with, our only adversary is the heat with daytime highs regularly reaching the mid-30s. We’ve abandoned clocks in favour of the sun so routinely awake around 5:00 a.m. and try to get the bulk of our riding done by 11:00 a.m. when the mercury starts to rise by the minute.

Day time high high highs

We’ve had lots of luck in the past two weeks with regards to timing. On the day we left from Vientiane, we rode about 13 km to the bus terminal, arriving at 10:12 a.m. without knowing the schedule. Fifteen minutes later, our bikes were tied to the roof of a bus and we were ensconced in a sleeping cubby hole with no usable window ready for a 10:30 departure. Right on Time. The next 8 hours in the sensory deprivation nook dragged on and on as the temperature in the bus rose. We reached Thakhek just as the sun went down and looked forward to stretching our legs on the bikes the next day.

Went to Pha That Luang by accident on our way to the bus station
Unloading the bikes in Thakhek

We vowed to camp more in the south, so by mid-afternoon our first riding day out of Thakhek we had found a shaded bit of dirt overlooking the river and Thailand. We passed the rest of the afternoon swimming and reading, waiting to set up the tent until after the sun slipped below the Thai horizon.

Sunset over Thailand

While the temperature comes down at night, it’s not really comfortable until well after midnight. In order to have any airflow we leave off the fly and leave the doors unzipped since even the mesh is too much insulation in the still air. This means we choose ant and mosquito bites over (even more) sweat.

Above the houses in Savannakhet. This city had a bit of a post-colonial vibe à la Havana.

The second morning we only had 24 km to ride to the city of Savannakhet where we were installed in a guesthouse by 9:00 a.m. Since it was before 10:00, breakfast was still on so we sat down for a second helping. Right on Time. As we ate, guests started to filter out to the terrace for their own breakfasts. We had packed up camp, cooked our first breakfast, ridden 24 km, and eaten a second breakfast before these other guests had even gotten out of bed. It was just a bit of a funny thought, but when I’m asleep at 8:30 p.m. I’m sure they are making up for lost time.

Typical camping meal. Back to instant noodles.

The least interesting riding in the south was between Savannakhet and Pakse where no road seems to have a varied landscape and the only benefit of getting off the highway was a bit of reduced traffic. We took a day off in Pakse for Brittany’s birthday which dawned bright and clear. We scootered 40 km out of town and up 1000 meters to the Bolaven Plateau where a different climate allows for coffee production. Around noon, a bit of rain started so we returned to Pakse where it “never rains in December” in time for a substantial mid-afternoon thunderstorm that continued off and on all evening. The rooftop bar we went to for a birthday drink had only a small awning leaving the patrons outnumbered by the staff. We were thankful we hadn’t been riding or camping. Right on Time.

A few small mountains still loom along the road to Pakse
Waterfall swimming on our rest day.

From Pakse to our ultimate goal of the 4000 Islands in the very south of the country, we had the dreamy dirt-road touring we longed to find in Laos. In Pakse you cross the Mekong which no longer forms the border with Thailand, and follow a paved road to the town of Champasak and the UNESCO site of Wat Phu while highway 13 remains on the other side. Past Wat Phu, the road quickly turns to dirt and remains that way as it hugs the side of the river passing through endless small towns that don’t see nearly as many tourists. Sometimes the road turns to just trail where no car can pass. One of these places is a small tributary with a tiny cable ferry which helps keep country life quiet.

Iced coffees in our Nalgenes is basically free – if you aren’t in the city.
Cable ferry to connect two roads

Eventually we reached a passenger ferry (as opposed to the car ferry) to the largest of the 4000 Islands: Don Khong, where a bridge link to Don San eventually yielded a campsite on the bank after a few dead ends. That night I couldn’t sleep but I was treated to fantastic stargazing through the roof of the tent. For stretches at a time there were multiple shooting stars streaking across the sky every minute. I’ve now learned of the annual Geminid meteor shower which peaked the night in question (December 13-14). What a night for insomnia! Right on Time.

First stop on the islands for a Pepsi
Pretty darn hot.

Since we were now on the west bank of the Mekong, stunning sunsets were replaced by spectacular sunrises. I was up before 5:00 a.m. to make breakfast and tea and watch the sun come up since I couldn’t sleep anyway. We were treated to brilliant orange against blue as the last of the stars faded from the sky over the next hour and a half.

Don San camp next to fishing boats
River in the morning

From Don San it was back to Don Khong via the short bridge, a quick ride down the east side of the island to Muang Khong for lunch and some grocery shopping, then onwards to the ferry to Don Som – an island with no roads whatsoever. We had to wait about 20 minutes to make our ferry crossing because a Beer Lao delivery boat was taking up the dock but we got to watch a father and two sons balance the load on the typical long and narrow river boat before heading downriver.

Common sight everywhere on the river at any time of day or night.

On Don Som we rode the trail along the west side of the island shared by pedestrians and a few scooters before pulling off at a beautiful white sand beach where we spent the afternoon swimming in the river and being an object of curiosity to the kids who materialized out of the bushes soon after we arrived. We also got to watch the fishermen with a kind of purse net that they toss while standing in their boats. A chain around the edge of the net quickly sinks to the bottom and then the whole works is drawn up with a rope as the bottom cinches tight. There were also younger boys with masks and spears in the river and an old man on the shore with a huge air gun hunting something in the trees. All night fishermen were passing by our tent and searching for a catch by flashlight.

Don Det has more than just marijuana

On our last morning we only had 3.5 km to ride until the ferry to Don Det – a party island with bungalows and hammocks and where any fruit shake can be made “happy” with the addition of marijuana. A few days spent lounging in the heat and we’re feeling refreshed. Tomorrow we leave Laos on the 30th day of a 30-day visa. Right on Time.

White sand beach camp

GPS Tracks

8 Days

Flat and hot and flat.