Central Laos

Published on 10 March 2019 at 08:00

Giving to others  as an act of virtue is essential in Buddhism and brings happiness. Giving alms to a monk yields his blessing. Also in Laos the monks walk around in the morning to gather food from the people in the vicinity of the monasteries; a ritual that we encounter every day since India. Here in Luang Prabang, almsgiving seems to happen in a different ritual then what we are used to so far. Just before dawn the monks walk behind each other in a row a fixed route through the old town and local people kneel humble aside the route and offer food to the monks. It would really be an attraction. At half past five in the morning the alarm goes, but unfortunately we are a bit late. The procession of a dozen monks receives just the last offerings and the series of low stools, meant for tourists, are already being piled up by vendors who still try to sell sticky rice for the monks. It is still dark when we walk back to our guesthouse laughingly. Let's just say that our expectations were somewhat higher. We tick an imaginary checkbox behind this 'must see' in Luang Prabang.


In the evening we can tick two more checkboxes. We had a drink at Utopia, a popular lounge spot on the riverside and we visit the night market where many souvenirs are for sale. Unfortunately they are are not selling flip flops. Those of Roelie have recently been passed away after years of loyal service. We decide to stay an extra day in Luang Prabang to get new flip flops and to relax. It appears to be quite difficult with her program of requirements for the slippers: lightweight, sturdy sole because of the cartels on the pedals and size 40. Especially the latter is a problem because Laotian ladies with size 40 simply do not exist. But we eventually find them at a hairdressing salon cum shoe store.


We notice that we are developing a special love-hate relationship for tourist hotspots such as Luang Prabang. Someday somewhere someone tells you about it and you include it in your route because you do not want to miss it. The closer we get, the more we hear and read about it, and then we end up don't want to go anymore. It is difficult to explain where that comes from; we do not see ourselves as tourists, but as travelers. The fact is that we do visit the tourist hotspots eventually and that in the end we do not usually find it disgusting at all, but even quite pleasant. In a popular tourist place you manage to be 'invisible' as a traveler and that is nice. Tourist places have a number of pleasant facilities: a guesthouse has a normal toilet, a sink and towels; there are supermarkets with a wide range; here and there the locals speak a word of English; and the restaurants offer something different than rice or noodles. In Luang Prabang for example we get ourselves a freshly baked baguette with cheese and salami !! Our palate is ruined but yummy! To be honest, it will even take some effort to continue traveling after a few days of being tourists. 'Get out there again'.


About 30 kilometers south of Luang Prabang are the Khuang Si waterfalls situated. The waterfalls supposed to be the most beautiful in Southeast Asia. Of course we cannot skip visiting it. We heard we can camp there and from there can continue to cycle south along the Mekong, although the road will turn in to an unpaved cart track. The waterfalls will therefore not be just a day trip from Luang Prabang for us. We check out and pack the bikes again. On the way to the waterfalls we are overtaken by many chic white vans, open pick-up buses, motorbikes and scooters, all filled with tourists. Every time one person passes by, we become a little more grumpy. We thought by leaving early we would have the falls to ourselves. Tours for tourists depart from Luang Prabang only in the afternoon, right? More people probably thought that and all are already on the road and ahead of us.


This creates a flaw in our stress-free lives. What will we do now? Roelie accepts the new image of many tourists and after a short visit she thinks about cycling the cart track. Maybe we will reach the village after 50 kilometers of dusty sand and otherwise we will wildcamp on our way up. Harry would like to either cycle straight ahead on the dirt road or camp near the waterfalls and visit the waterfall at the end of the afternoon or very early the next morning. The phase of negotiation can begin, a game that we both know well and like to play. We discuss options and come to a simple compromise: we go to the falls and then camp in the area. If it is really beautiful, but also too busy, then we can go again at the end of the afternoon or the next morning.


In the parking lot a guy of a nearby butterfly garden (set up by a Dutch couple) speaks to us. He advises us to climb to the top where you can swim and have lunch and he also tips about a camping spot at the Keo waterfall about 500 meters downstream. We already feel like it and join in the queue to buy entrance tickets. The falls are indeed beautiful and because there are many different levels, it is not that busy at all. We quickly change in to bathing suits and jump into the water. Wow we have entered paradise!


At the higher waterfalls, at the seventh level, it seems or feels like we have come to the end of paradise. We ask a couple who is just comes down the stairs next to the waterfall if it's worth climbing up. They advise not to go, but they went up on the right side and only for the view. With the tip of the butterfly guy in our mind, we decide to climb up on the left and get to the swimsuit and restaurant there. Once upstairs, it is still a three kilometers walk on a bit boring road through the jungle. We only meet a handful of tourists. We are curious enough to walk through but with every step we feel that we will be disappointed after those wonderful waterfalls below. But again the place where we end up surprises us. First we see a man with a hippie blouse, who is balancing over a tree trunk above the water with a bottle of beer on his head. Along the waterfront there are scattered some tables. There are a few hammocks and only ten people at most. The water is crystal clear. It is the source of the waterfalls that we have just seen. We dive into the water, swing like Tarzan and Jane on a rope and try to balance over the tree trunk much worse than the hippie. How perfect can life be? This is the ultimate life.


When we descend hours later we see that the waterfalls have become a lot busier and that the share of Asian (probably Chinese) tourists has increased considerably. We try to avoid the many selfie sticks and look for that other tip from the butterfly guy: the camp spot. We first cycle past that place because it has a brand-new wooden gate when we were told that the gate would be in disrepair. When we stop a hundred meters after the gate and ask locals they point out the new wooden gate. It is the entrance to a banana forest and eventually to a restaurant near a waterfall and there are indeed tents. Again a beautiful place! We can pitch our tent there and while Roelie does that, Harry cycles up again for a few groceries. We divide the tasks because there is literally a dark cloud hanging over paradise and when the tent just up and Harry just returns, the rain burst. While a tropical shower ravages our tent, we are almost dry under the roof of the restaurant. It takes a long time before the storm stops. The grilled sausages bought by Harry do not end in our own cooking pot with noodles but between a sandwich.


At night it does not rain anymore, but when in the morning everything is still wet and the tent is covered with mud spatters. We do not expect much good from cycling on the unpaved cart track. A dirt road on tropical soil quickly becomes 'impassable when wet', we know from experience. Cycling back to Luang Prabang and then taking the main road in the direction of Vang Vieng does not feel right either. There is another option that seems very attractive: stay another day! There is only one reason not to stay and that is that we have only a little money left. Harry raises himself as a mega hero by cycling the 29 km back and forth to Luang Prabang to an ATM. After 2 climbs and after having done 6 ATMs before one presents money, he is soaked in sweat in time for lunch. 'Good exercise,' he says, before jumping in the fresh water of the pool near the waterfall. The fact that occasionally a water snake uses this delicious cool water, does not bother us from swimming in the blue-green lagoon. The Keo waterfall seems to be a well-kept secret. In the evening, the owner, a former furniture maker from Hong Kong, tells us that he and his Laotian wife only started this place three months ago and have plans to build bungalows.


The next day we are almost ready for departure when we decide to stay another day. The tent is drying while the mist is slowly being driven away by the sun. Air mattresses, sleeping bags, pillows are all packed on the bike but today feels too early to leave the oasis. As a sportive counterpart to enjoy the whole afternoon lazy, we first go shopping in that distant Luang Prabang, at 29 kilometers. This time we go together.


After the third night and with pain in our hearts, we say goodbye to owners, Lee and his wife, and leave the oasis. Traveling is meeting and saying goodbye all the time; sometimes we have a bit more trouble saying goodbye because it is not being neutralized by a prospect of a welcoming new place. About 2,5 days after Roelie started cycling, we turn left on the sandy path to the south along the Mekong.


When we get on the dirt road  we notice that everyone is waving at us again, shouts (sabaidee !!), smiles at us, looks up and stares at us. As soon as we left the asphalted tourist road to the waterfalls, our 'status' changed from 'everyday image' to 'special attraction'; and that therefore already within a distance of 100 meters. Yes, we are travelers again!
The road is fortunately almost completely dried up after the rain two days ago and good to cycle, at least if you have a MTB without luggage. After a few relatively easy kilometers, the road becomes more challenging than we had thought and that initially yields two pairs of sour faces. Okay, this is different than expected, we do not enjoy ... just take a break, just accept it, talk for a while and continue to get on the pedals again and climb the steep parts and concentrate on getting down safe on the cart track with an adjusted expectation.


After 50 kilometers we leave the bank of the Mekong, which we only saw sporadically. The eyes are focused on the road to avoid the pits and stones and the Mekong is often not seen from the winding road. At the end of the road we cycle through a gigantic banana plantation. As far as the eye can see and as far as agricultural possible banana trees are planned up against the hills. Between the levels in a bunch of bananas white sheets of polystyrene are pressed and around the bunch they tie large blue plastic bags. Kilometers we drive through the plantation. After the bananas fresh green grows rice and then finally we return to asphalt in a bigger village than we have seen in the last 50 kilometers. How happy can you get from asphalt? Well, very happy!


Because of this motivation boost we decide to cycle another 19 kilometers with quite some height meters in it. Not so far but quite hard: the first 400 ascend pops up by no less than 14% and later ascends by 10% and meanwhile it is hot: more than 35 degrees and with the little tailwind and no shadow it is or feels even hotter. We go slowly, especially Roelie who suffers more from the heat and when climbing uses more suppleness and less muscle strength and the latter is necessary on these slopes. By 6 o'clock we arrive at a guesthouse as indicated by maps.me. It exists, it is open and has a room for two stinking, wet, dusty, weary Dutch cyclists who have torn themselves away from paradise this morning.


The next day there is another heavy stage on the program. Our goal is to reach the town of Kasi, 67 kilometers away. Not that far, but two mountaintops must be conquered along the way. We start early with the first climb that will take us from 480 to 1,700 meters altitude. More than 1,200 meters up within 10 km predicts little good. Indeed the rate of increase continues to fluctuate between 10 and 12% throughout the climb. We have no problem if during a climb the rise exceeds 10 or even 12%, but the whole climb ... it is hard again! Along the side of the road signs warn us about sharp turns and ask to please slow down. Harry looks at his bike computer and sees that we are crawling up 3.5 km per hour. Taking back speed is not an option. Then we fall over. We keep our spirits up and with our thoughts on today's goal, we regularly sing uphill with our own version of the hit of Dutch pride Jody Bernal: Kasi !! Ka no !! Lala-lala-lalaaala ... !!


After this climb we can descend 200 meters, cross a windy plateau, and then climb to the second summit at 1,920 m altitude. And then start a wonderful 12 km long descent. We turn the first hairpin bend on. Oeps, the road is gone. Due to a landslide, there is a whole piece of mountain gone where again a path has been drawn that consists of a thick layer of red sand. Not nice to descend steeply. Next to it is a sign with 'very dangerous road next 7 km' so we fear that the whole descent is unpaved, but fortunately soon asphalt returns. The descent continues uninterrupted by about 12% down. It's no fun, we get cramp in the fingers and letting go of the brakes is not a good idea, because everywhere (and especially after every bend) treacherous potholes appear. We even stop once to let the brakes cool down.


Kasi, the village where we spend the night, seems to be a Chinese 'vestibule'. The advertising texts are in Chinese, the restaurants are Chinese, many people are Chinese. Perhaps the construction of the high-speed railway has to do with it; we see again - before entering the village - the large-scale construction activities aimed at the construction of this railway line from the Chinese border to the capital Vientiane.


Regarding the route from Kasi to Vang Vieng, our expectations are high. This should be the most beautiful part and that appears to be the case. We cross some of the spectacular karst mountains and then cycle alongside a river along this special rocky landscape: the slopes shoot straight out of the ground and show both rolling and erratic peaks.


Vang Vieng is another tourist hotspot and until a few years ago it was a backpackers destination to float down the river in a tube and get drinks at bars along the way. After several accidents, it has been prohibited to drink during 'tubing'. The popularity of Vang Vieng has declined after that, is what's said. When we enter the towns center we see serried restaurants, guesthouses and travel agencies, but it is extremely quiet on the streets. That has nothing to do with the decreased popularity. It is blisteringly hot and even 'white-noses' understand that this is not the right time to stroll through streets. To cool off we look for a hotel with a swimming pool. There seems to be an official campsite but according to the photos there is no shadow at all. We check in at Jasmine hotel, just two months open right in the center of the village and dive into the pool.


In the evening Roelie finds on the internet a Laotian bike tour that is offered by a Vietnamese travel agency. The itinerary describes doing part of the route that is ahead of us by boat. A drop off at the dam means we could cycle on the old main road  nr 10 to the capital instead of the busy 13. Between Vang Vieng and the capital Vientiane there is a gigantic reservoir. It should be nice to go by boat temperature-wise, the lake also seems to be really beautiful and worth a visit. Much more information can not be found. There are no ferry services, but boat trips can be booked from Vang Vieng to the lake, often with a lunch with fresh fish from the lake. The hotel owner advises us to ask around and on the spot if a fisherman would offer some sort of ferry services.


We immediately get lucky. A restaurant owner at the lake shows us a boat that is moored below the restaurant and gives a price: 150,000 kip. Nice, deal! On gestures of the man we bring our bikes along the muddy, slippery slope down to the boat. He gestures to bring everything on board. We put the bags in the front of the terribly wobbly boat with big effort. It is so small, so we cross the bikes a bit. Roelie has a moderately good feeling about it. The boat is shaky and if we do not want our most loyal and beloved titanium companions end up at the bottom of a Laotian reservoir. The restaurant owner helps fate a bit. If everything is ready for departure and the skipper arrives (doubtfully) with the outboard motor, he also throws the man the calculator. Instead of the 150,000 kip, the boy now shows the amount of 500,000 kip (about € 50) as is said to him by the managers. What a terrible 'lulhannes'. If he thought we would not back out, he is wrong. We unload the boat and saddle our bikes again. Harry wants to tell the manager what he thinks of him in Dutch (lulhannes) and English, but the best man is nowhere to be seen.


We switch to plan B and that means that we do not try to 'talk' with the locals ourselves, but inform at the resorts near the lake. The prices they mention are even higher than € 50. We give up and after an already late lunch in the village (and after yet another very last try to get a boat and until then the most expensive price is given) we, pretty disappointed and frustrated, head to Vientiane on the main road number 13.


Let's not waste too many words on this road 13. At this moment (2019) the road is mainly used as a construction road for the aforementioned high-speed railway project. Trucks with concrete, stones, rubble, soil, you name it, drive up and down the often unpaved, broken open main road to the capital (!?); your eyes are blinded, your nose becomes full and the rest of your body is covered with a dust layer: behind watering trucks splashes mud (and fun to let our cyclists not pass dry!). You also get wet from the dirty cooling water that spills off the brake discs of the trucks. Blue-black diesel - is it diesel? - vapors, especially vomited by the smaller local vans and trucks, stimulate your mucous membranes. You try to hold your breath, but of course you do not keep that up during an ascent. The environment was nice, but the Chinese high-speed line runs almost parallel to this road. For the benefit of the mega-project, the environment is marred by excavations, debris deposits and temporary ugly residential buildings, construction companies and concrete factories. Nothing seems to be spared in an attempt to meet the in our eyes impossible deadline of completion in 2021 (just a few project management details: start construction November 2018, distance railway: 415 km, 170 bridges and 72 tunnels - a mega building project in giga short time frame). The affected landscape feels depressing, but as said, we are not in our best moment of our adventure. We look at each other and nominate (or better curse) this road No. 13 to the most terrible road of Laos (of this moment). Fortunately, the last 10 km to Phone Hong the road seems a bit better, flatter and further from the new railway.


The last 70 kilometers on the nr 13 to Vientiane we do the next day in the morning hours. The construction traffic seems less, the road a bit better, and it is a flat, boring and busy. We are happy when we arrive at a hotel in the heart of Vientiane before noon with a nice swimming pool and a nice spacious room. We are here to apply for a tourist visa for Thailand and an extension of the visa for Laos. We expect it wil take a few days.


The tourist visa for Thailand would have been easy, if applied for it before February 1st. The Thai consulate in Vientiane who handles the visa applications was daily inundated with tourists who apply for a new visa for Thailand from Thailand in one or two days. Every day it would be about 500 applications. No wonder they wanted to regulate that a bit more so they introduced an appointment system. But yes, as always, introducing a new system comes with hiccups.


The first step, the creation of an account, did not work the days before and later when we had an account it was not possible to log in and when we could log in, the appointment module did not work properly. In the meantime we are already in Vientiane and still without an appointment. Our intended appointment day of 8 March seems to be a public holiday in Thailand and the consulate is closed and since March 8 is a Friday, Monday 11 March would be the first option. Googling teaches us that applicants queued up as fake account have been used by traders and offer appointments for sale, If we could get trough the system the first date to get an appointment would be 20 March at the earliest. Aha, so the easy Vientiane procedure is not available at the moment. We will not buy an appointment at a trader and we will not wait until 20 March. We can give it another try in Phnom Penh (Cambodia), or we get back to a Thailand on a visa exemption and extend it. We'll be fine!


On March 8 we cycle early to the Immigration Office to extend our visa for Laos. It ends on March 19th. Our original plan was to go to Vietnam before that date but Southern Laos still has too many beautiful things to offer and we have already been in Vietnam once. It should to be easy to extend the visa for Laos, but the counter is closed. The men sitting opposite the counter tell us that March 8 is 'Womens Day' and that the employees of the counter 'visa extention' are ladies and therefore are a day off. Harry asks the men if there is also a 'Mens day' and if they are off then. The men reply charmingly that every other day of the year is already 'Mens day'. So we will have to stay in Vientiane at least until Monday and the ladies of the 'visa extention' get back to work again. It gives us the time to de-dust the bikes, swim, write the blog, swim, eat a French baguette, swim, visit the night market, swim, drink a Belgian beer in a Belgian cafe, swim, enjoy an afternoon long chat with cool people from Denmark and Switzerland, swim, eat a Turkish kebab and swim a bit. Pfff, such hard work a trip around the world is ;-)