Wed 19 June. Vang Vieng to Kasi Camping (in the hills). 80km.
We departed our lodgings in Vang Vieng at 6am with some trepidation about the route that lay ahead of us. There were big grey rain clouds in the sky and it was the start of what we guessed would a few tough days …although today was likely to be easy-ish, depending on how far we got.
Getting out of town we saw a few low-flying hot air balloons, which is not something you see every day. But we had to feel sorry for the poor punters that booked them, as I can’t imagine they saw very much with all the rain clouds.
A fairly easy ride with some hills for the early part of the day that took in some pretty stunning views….
….and with only some light drizzle we didn’t get too wet. Kasi was our planned destination as we knew there were a couple of guesthouses there, but when we arrived at 10.30am we decided to just have a food break and push on a bit further as it was a bit too early to call it a day. Nigel had spotted a cafe and campsite on Goggle 20km further on, and although it meant tackling a couple of big climbs, it would give us a bit of a head start for the tougher climbs that were ahead of us the next day. So off we went.
As we were now off the main road to Luang Prabang, there was less traffic but we were much more remote. What was amazing was all the children along the way. Without fail they would run to meet us, shouting greetings of Sai-bai-dee (“hello” in Laos) or “bye”, with huge smiles and waving madly, coming from both sides of the road, some of them naked, Even tiny babies being carried by their parents knew to smile and wave when they saw us….and like in Myanmar after a while our faces ached from smiling. It was a bit hard to wave at all of them while puffing up a hill, but we gave it a good shot!
Despite a few tough hills we arrived at the cafe/campsite quicker than anticipated, so I was starting to think that maybe our anxiety about this hills was a bit unfounded as we seem to manage just fine.
There didn’t look to be much of a campsite but when we asked the young girl working at the cafe about it she called a guy who spoke good English, and said we could camp under the grass-roofed pavilion. A group of locals were sitting there enjoying a few beers, but by the time we used the very basic facilities to have a cold bucket wash and ate some noodle soup, they had left, the tables and chairs were moved and we could set up camp. It actually wasn’t a bad location at all…we have definitely stayed in worse campsites and even hotels!
The down side is that we had a lot of time to kill before bedtime and we missed our afternoon snooze, but this little family kept us company…
Later on in the evening after a dinner of cold sausages, bread and sticky rice that we had picked up from a market stall we decided to have a very early night…to then realise that the local youths had decided to congregate at the cafe for beers and to listen to music, most of them arriving on scooters and motorbikes. They were quite considerate and every so often when someone would turn up the music a bit too loud, someone else would turn it down. And we both fell asleep at some point so they definitely didn’t keep us awake.
Thursday 20 June. Kasi to Xiang Nguen. 83km.
We woke to the deafening noise of hundreds of crickets chirping, and then fuelled up with more cold sausages, sticky rice and bread we set off at 6.30 to tackle “the beast” – the name I had given this mountain pass in my head. We were only out of the camp site and the first of the hills started, but they weren’t too bad so I started to relax a bit, thinking we had definitely over-estimated the serverity of the climbs. But I was wrong. After 3km it suddenly changed from undulating hills to a succession of 10% and 12% elevation climbs – and then a MASSIVE rock face loomed in front of us that we knew we just had to get over. Quite early on Nigel seemed to have a complete lack of energy, despite having slept reasonably well and he had to get off to walk for a while, though that is rarely the easier option. But he just didn’t have the energy in his legs. I powered on for a bit, but eventually had to get off to walk/push – not just because of the exertion required but also that it was just too steep to actually cycle. The signs said 12% elevation, which we have both managed before but it HAD to be more than that. And it just went on and on. We alternated between pushing and cycling, both of which were equally difficult. I find it difficult to get started on a hill so I had to find a part of the road that was wide enough to traverse to the wrong side to get on my bike and then I would cross back to the right side and keep going. This worked a lot of the time but a few times the padding on my shorts got caught on the bike seat as I was jumping on and I nearly fell off trying to get myself properly positioned. So then I would have to go back to pushing until I could build up the confidence to try again.
The road was also busy with loads of Chinese trucks working on the new Chinese Silk Road railway route, which runs through this area. Although the trucks were travelling really slowly the drivers were considerate as well as hugely encouraging in cheering us on, but it meant we had to be careful when traversing the road. And to give you an idea of how steep it really was, quite a few of them had smoke billowing from their overheated clutches or brakes, depending on which direction they were travelling. Just like this….
The worst section was a 20% incline (the numbers are based on an App we use for planning called Komoot). As well as ridiculously steep, the road was gravelly and muddy and we both struggled to push and/or keep upright in our sweaty ill-fitting sandals.
Considering I was feeling strong and had started the day feeling mentally positive, I was starting to despair, so how Nigel kept going I really do not know. But he did – and I was and still am so proud of him for it. At one stage we turnd a corner on the 20% incline and as Nigel was in front he lost sight of me for a while….so we had to keep shouting at each other to check on status.
At around 11am reached a viewing point – by which stage we had climbed 1330 metres (4,400ft) over 14.5 km (9 miles) and our average speed was 3.5 km per hour! And this was only the view we got…
It had taken us 4.5 hours to get his far but we still had 69km and 900 metres of climbing to go so we had to stay focused. All I can say was that both of us channeled some inner grit that we didn’t know we had! There were some quite steep downhill sections when we could enjoy the stunning views for a bit ….
….as well as have lunch of peanut butter and banana sandwiches when we found a wall to sit on.
But there was still more up than down, and it was both mentally and physically tough to turn another corner and see yet ANOTHER 12% gradient climb that seemed to be never-ending. At around the 40km mark we passed through a village where I saw a sign for guesthouse. I shouted to Nigel but he obviously didn’t hear me and kept cycling, so I assumed he had seen the same sign and had chosen to keep going, so I did too. It was only when we stopped to do a map check at a junction that we realised that he hadn’t heard me and would have stopped AND that our planned destination for the day was still 38km away, despite showing as 33km on a sign from much earlier. Totally soul-destroying and we even had a mild panic that if the hills continued we wouldn’t make it to the next town before dark…but we had little option but to keep going. And those hills still kept coming. Nigel was completely exhausted by now and I wasn’t too far behind him – but that’s when those amazing kids came into action again. Having come off the mountain we were on a numbered (A) road again so we passed through lots of villages with those happy smiley kids. It perked us both up and even though we didn’t necessarily feel like it, we would have felt mean to ignore their enthusiasm and not wave and shout back, so we did. And it’s started to make us feel so much better! The road gradually got easier and the last 15km was slightly downhill so we could get up some speed – the first miracle of the day!
We didn’t have accommodation booked but were heading in the direction of one we had seen on Google, but before we got that far we saw this sign…
Hoping that a “getshouse” was indeed a guesthouse we stopped to enquire – and it was….as well as a restaurant. Euphoria! After 10 hours of hell we had a home…an air-conditioned bungalow by a lake to be precise. Within an hour we were settled in and back to the restaurant for a monster dinner and few celebratory beers. Our most epic cycling day EVER …
Reflecting on it we also realised we had a lot of things to be grateful for as it could have been a lot lot worse.
- The weather – though it was humid, it didn’t rain and the sun wasn’t beating down on us, in fact it was cloudy for the most part. The temperature did reach mid-30s in the afternoon, but we were on the downhill by that point. If any of these had been different things would have seriously been a whole lot worse.
- The road – Apart from one small section (the steepest bit!) the general state of the road was good. We could NOT have done this if it had been a track road.
- Water – half way up the mountain we found a fresh water supply coming straight out of the mountain, so we could refill all our empty bottles to keep us going. Which it did until we got to our accommodation.
- Food – the lovely Hannah we met on the road a few days earlier had warned us that supplies would be scarce on the route so we had packed enough food to get us through an evening of camping and the day on the mountain. Definitely could not have done this journey without our peanut butter baguettes!
Friday 21 June. Xiang Nguen to Luang Prabang. 26km. And then the weekend off!
Despite our huge dinners from yeaterday, we woke up starving. We were also feeling slightly battered as we both had bruising from resting the bikes against us when taking breaks from pushing, as well as chaffing in places where we hadn’t had any before. But no time to feel sorry for ourselves, we set off at 7.30 for a short jaunt of 26km into Luang Prabang, where we would then have 2 full days off.
We had planned to have more of a lie-in but as we were wide awake at 6am we decided to leave as soon as we were ready – and a good job we did as it was already baking hot – a good reminder of how lucky we had been not to have had sunshine and heat on the mountain yesterday!
A very hot ride into Luang Prabang and needless to say there were a few hills to conquer. With our legs so tired we found them tough – but thankfully they weren’t too long. Arrived at destination at 10am and once settled and a very early snooze we set off to explore.
And what a reward after our last few days….we fell in love with Luang Prabang immediately! It’s a UNESCO-heritage, leafy city the sits between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers with lots of old French Colonial and newer colonial-style buildings – as well as lots of beautiful temples throughout.
The temples were definitely among the nicest that we have seen on our journey so far – and our first in Laos!
Although the town is touristy it’s not in a tacky way – and because we were off-season anyway it was quiet.
We had lots of meals by the river Mekong with Nigel eating 2 dinners on a couple of occasions to make up his calories deficit from our hills climbs…
The city also has a fantastic bamboo bridge that gets washed away in the rainy season every year and then gets rebuilt….but we obviously timed it right to get to see it!
We took a trip to visit most stunning waterfall (Tat Kuang Si) about 30km away….
…but most of the time we were just happy to just wander around the old town and take it easy. It really was perfect place to unwind and spend a few days resting, and we both agreed that it was probably one of the nicest places we have visited on our trip so far A just reward for the hellish ride to get here!