Boats, bikes and border officers…

30 June 2019

The next part of our journey takes us north to the Vietnam border, which is about 5 days away all being well.

We have had many iterations of our plan for this part of our ride through Laos, as there are lots of different routes – most of which include some big hills.  After our epic ride a few days ago we are not necessarily avoiding hills – just trying to limit the number we have to do! The route we decided on involves a boat journey to avoid about 3 days of biggish hills,  but even that plan wasn’t set in stone as we were unsure whether the boat was still running since a dam was built on that stretch of the river.  But after extensive research and contact with the active long-distance cycling network we found out that the boat was still operating –  so we were good to go!

Monday 24 June 19 – Luang Prabang to Phonsavang – 104km

We were up and out early and the ride out of Luang Prabang was reasonably uneventful. The route north took the road along the Mekong and then along a tributary, the river Ou…

A week ago I would probably described it as craggy and spectacular, but I think we’ve grown used to it.  A little later we came across extensive oroadworks ……

….but we still made reasonable time.  We have already mentioned the international railway being built by the Chinese as well as the large number of Chinese tourists in Laos.  Today we noticed even more evidence of China’s influence here. A large dam is being built on the river Ou and we’ve heard of quite a few others in the region. It’s not difficult to recognise it as a Chinese construction as their writing is all over it…

We got to Pak Nga at midday, where we had planned to stay the night, and found that the guesthouse we’d earmarked on Google looked VERY closed – mind you it didn’t look particularly nice either! I’d done quite a bit of research on accommodation along this route and according to Google Maps there didn’t seem to be much available. But we have noticed that since Europe, Google Maps hasn’t been very accurate and today was a case in point.  On the earlier part of the route there were far more guesthouses than Google Maps had been showing. I often mistakenly assume that the information on Google Maps is up-to-date and forget that my GPS uses different maps (openstreetmaps.nl) and therefore has different information available. So when we found this guesthouse closed, I searched with my GPS and saw that more accommodation was available 25km up the road.  We had no idea if it was really there or not, but as it was in the right direction and we didn’t have much choice, off we went. And when we got there, not only were there at least 3 guesthouses, but there was actually a small town called Phonsavang – none of which had appeared on Google! I’ve also noticed that a few other things appear on the GPS that don’t appear on Google Maps, so lesson from today – I must remember to search both!

Pushing on the extra 25km did mean that we had a much longer day in the saddle than anticipated, but we both felt okay.

We’d heard about ‘Love Hotels’ in Thailand, which are rows of rooms that can be hired for couples to…um…”use”…since many young people live at home and therefore have no privacy in matters of “love”! We’d not seen any in Thailand itself, but when we arrived in Phonsavang we think that was what our accommodation was…

There was certainly nothing wrong with the room, but note how each one has a sort of garage to keep a car away from prying eyes!

Phonsavang didn’t have much going for it, but it certainly suited our needs as far as accommodation was concerned. However, when we tried to find lunch we couldn’t find anywhere so went back to our room and had some rather dry bread with peanut butter and bananas for what felt like a very sorry lunch – though we did laugh about it. After a snooze and a bit more research (using the GPS this time!) we found a decent restaurant not too far away for an early dinner, gorged ourselves on curry and rice and then retired suitably stuffed.

Tuesday 25 June 19 – Phonsavang to Nong Khiaw – 48km

As we didn’t have a big day in store we had a bit of an easy get-up and left our ‘love nest’ at 7:30. Today’s ride was along a very spectacular valley with the road hugging the river Ou, and thankfully no really big climbs. At about 10am we met three other long-distance cyclists – a Belgian and two Vietnamese guys. We stopped for about an hour to talk to them and realised that in that one meeting we had doubled the number of long-distance cyclists that we’ve seen since just north of Goa in January! The two Vietnamese guys were cycling all over South-East Asia and the Belgian (sorry guys we should have written your names down!) had already been on the road for over a year and had no set plan – he was very chilled about the future!

We made it to Nong Khiaw before midday and checked out some surprisingly expensive accommodation. It’s all relative though as the most expensive was the equivalent of about £14. This is about what we paid in Vientiane, which is the capital city, so to us it felt like it was over-priced. But we settled on a cheaper option next to the river, with lovely views…

…and after lunch we went in search of a boat ticket for the trip to Muang Khua the next day. We found the pier and the ticket office and were told to come back as the ticket officer wasn’t there. As the trip will be 7 hours long we stocked up on snacks for it, returned to the office, picked up tickets and were back in our room for 3pm for a snooze.

The long-distance cycling network is, as I said, pretty active and we had been in contact with Nicolas, a Belgian chap who has spent the last few months cycling around Vietnam with his girlfriend Lisa.  As this is our next country we had a lot of contact with him with various questions, and as it turned out he and Lisa were coming through Laos in the other direction along the same route. Nong Khiaw is where our paths met and we got the opportunity to meet for dinner. It was really nice to put faces to names and have a very chilled out evening where the conversation flowed freely – we had so much to talk about!

Wednesday 26 June 19. Nong Khiaw to Muang Khua

As our boat wasn’t due to depart Nong Khiaw until 10.30 we had a bit of a lazy get-up and on our way into the town centre for breakfast who should we see departing…??

At 10am we were at the pier and had carried our baggage down to the floating pontoon in anticipation of our boat trip…

Aeroplanes, trains, buses and boats make us very nervous – we have a lot of baggage and it would be very easy to lose something in the inevitable scramble to get on and off. In the past boarding boats has also been particularly nerve-wracking as it often means walking along a thin plank with a bike under one arm, which isn’t easy!

Today, however, things went much smoother than any of our previous trips. There was a load of other passengers who actually helped us, as well as the driver (which is a first on both counts) and we were soon onboard…

The boat trip itself was not as easy as perhaps it would have been in the past, as the Chinese (yup, them again!) have built another dam about halfway to Muang Khua – our destination. This meant that when we got to the dam we had to get off, unload everything, put it on a small truck, cycle behind the truck for about 2km above the dam and then get on another boat. Sounds like a bit of a bike and boat disaster waiting to happen, but a lovely young English couple (Cecelia and Dave) helped us with our luggage and we were on the second boat within 30 minutes. The ride was very scenic and we saw people fishing, kids swimming and locals generally going about their business…

 

 

 

The driver of our second boat stopped at one point to buy some dodgy looking mushrooms (red cap with white spots – aren’t they poisonous?) from another guy in a nearby boat. All very bizarre and quite comical to have him pull up alongside us, start weighing mushrooms on proper scales, lots of chat, bargaining and laughter, while we all looked on bemused while patiently waiting to get on the move again!

The downside to the journey was that it was 7 hours long and the seat was a hard plank on the boat floor, so it was very uncomfortable. Although the engine was at the back it was very noisy and made any conversation very difficult.  You can see the engine just behind our bikes and baggage in the picture below…

But the drivers on both boats were incredibly skilled as they had to negotiate rocks and rapids all along this stretch of water.

The upside to this boat journey was that it cut out 3 days of serious mountainous terrain, so the discomfort was worth it! We got to Muang Khua, booked into a guesthouse, scrubbed up, had dinner and an early night in preparation for an early start and more hills.

Thursday 27 June 19 – Muang Khua to Muang Mai – 38km

This leg of the journey was a stepping-stone to the border. Unfortunately the nearest town on the Vietnam side of the border is 104km away from Muang Khua and the route involves big hills, so we decided to stop in Muang Mai to break up the route and make the distances more manageable.

As ever we were up early and on the road for 5:30am to beat the heat. It had rained overnight so it was actually quite cool at that time of the morning, but humidity was still high so we still sweated going up the first hill. We climbed through a low layer of cloud which gave us some spectacular views of clouds down in the valleys.  You know you have climbed high when you can look down on clouds!

Somewhere quite near the top we heard a bus coming behind us and as it passed we could see Cecelia and Dave, who had been on the boat with us yesterday, waving from the front – also on their way to Vietnam.

We passed through numerous tribal villages where the women wore very distinctive traditional hats. I asked a couple if they’d mind if I took a photo and they said no, which was unfortunate. Martina later asked some kids if she could take their photos but they were all shy and ran away…either that or the sight of her scared them….!

Anyway, we made it to Muang Mai by 10am, booked into a guesthouse, had a shower and went back to bed like we’d never got up! This really was a one-horse town with nothing to do so it was a day of rest and little else.

Friday 28 June 19 – Muang Mai to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam – 66km

Another early start and out by 5:30 and once again it was relatively cool, which was a blessing. The early part of the road rather lured us into a false sense of security as it was relatively flat, but at about 12km the hills began. Toughish and they got progressively harder as the climb went on, but we were definitely both pretty strong and coped well.  The Loas border crossing point was perched at the very top.

We’d heard of people having to bribe the border officers at this crossing point to get their passports stamped, but thankfully we had no such issues – perhaps because we were leaving the country and not entering. Passports stamped we then had a rather spooky 5km ride through no-mans-land along the top of the mountains to get to the Vietnamese border…

The sense of spookiness was heightened by a few derelict buildings and some men with scooters just hanging around!

When we reached the Vietnamese border, the border officers there were really nice AND efficient – checked our visas, stamped our passports and we were on our way in no time. We had a quick snack break of bread and water (yes that’s what it’s come to!), a banana and a cake before setting off down the mountain the other side.

Remarkably the road on the Vietnam side was far worse than on the Lao side. We had to pass a quarry where trucks had broken up the road, which was very hard going, after that it was fine all the way down to the bottom of the valley. Though we’d coped well with the hills on the Lao side we were pretty pooped on the run into Dien Bien Phu. Martina, in particular and for once, was very tired when we reached base. We checked in to our homestay, showered and konked our for a couple of hours!

We wandered out very hungry in search of a meal and because it was alll new to us again we couldn’t understand the food options and had a lot of false starts. At one point we were told that the meat in one place where we had sat down was dog meat, so we declined and left, grateful that the staff at least let us know first! As it was, we ended up eating some rather strange, but not exactly unpleasant, street food…

A couple of early Vietnam observations…

  • Back to crazy driving and use of horns is back, but not quite as excessive as in India.
  • In Thailand the writing was a mix of Latin and local script, in Laos it was mainly local script and here it’s all Latin script. But this didn’t make ordering food any easier on our first night!

Final funny pictures from Laos….

Menu entry of the day award…what is fried buffalo’s gum we wonder??

 

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