Category Archives: Laos

East through Laos to Vietnam.

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The last couple of days have been a change – pretty much flat, though I have had a relentless headwind. I can tell I am getting closer to Vietnam – the trucks are honking their horns quite a bit more. Also, there are significantly fewer stray dogs – today I saw something which made me feel a bit sick. I had read about it last night, so quoting the Lonely Planet guide for Laos –

Dog truck which overtook me.

Dog truck which overtook me.

The dog trade begins in north eastern Thailand, where stray dogs are caught on a daily basis by what locals and journalists consider a local mafia. The vast majority of Thais actually eschew the idea of eating dog meat, but contribute to the trade nonetheless, alerting dog catchers of stray dogs in exchange for cash or plastic buckets. The trade is technically illegal, but local police choose to look the other way, claiming that stopping the drug trade or illegal immigration is a better use of their resources.

A typical truck can hold as many as 1000 dogs, with five or more crammed into each cage. The dogs aren’t fed or given water during the trip, and many die along the way. We encountered one of these trucks during our research and the sight of dead dogs and the smell of fur and excrement coupled with the constant howling and fighting was disturbing.

Arriving in Vietnam, the dogs can be worth 10 times the price for which they were obtained in Thailand, making the trade highly lucrative. It’s estimated that this particular trade in dog meat is worth US$3.6 million a year.”

It was one thing reading about it, but seeing/smelling/hearing it is quite another. I think I’d better learn the Vietnamese for “No dog meat”!!

Like normal I have been getting up early to start riding in the cool of the morning, though thankfully the days are not as hot as the last few weeks. Early mornings in Laos are a lot quieter than in Thailand and as a result it is harder to get some food, even after 2 hours of pedalling at 8 am.

The most common method of transport in Laos.  Doubles as a rotovator.

The most common method of transport in Laos. Doubles as a rotovator.

It has been interesting seeing the significant amount of development along route 13, though almost all of it is Chinese (the Chinese script is totally different from Lao). This is obviously benefiting the local economy, but I can’t help thinking China is exploiting the developing country that is Laos. The big news in S.E. Asia in the past few days has been that newly issued Chinese passports include a map of China’s territory, which includes disputed waters off the coast of Vietnam and the Philippines. As a result, both countries are refusing to stamp these new style passports, instead issuing visas on separate pieces of paper.

I stayed a night in one of Laos’s hydro-electric boom towns – Khoun Kham which seems to have a ridiculous number of guesthouses, as well as several ‘work camp’ settlements which popped up for the hydro workers. I got chatting to a couple of locals outside their shop (where a glass of Beer Lao was thrust in my hand for the third time that day) who were civil engineers on the hydro project. After a while chatting about the local area and Laos’s plans to turn itself into a hydro electric nation powering S.E. Asia, I got accused of being an NGO which I found quite quite amusing.. “You are not like other tourists…” I think that’s a compliment. I’ll take it as such anyway!

Petrol Station

Petrol Station


The next day was nothing short of spectacular scenery passing between two high jagged ridges. The whole area however was full of fenced off sections of land – pretty much everywhere that wasn’t road or a village. Unexploded bombs has basically made the entire area a no go area. It certainly made stopping at the side of the road for a pee a bit more of an adventure than normal….

Most likely the last night I am spending in Laos is in a town called Lak Xao (direct translation 20km, which is rather confusing as it’s not 20km from anything significant). It’s another dust bowl town with a thriving market and something not seen for several days – a roundabout. By the way it is navigated though, it looks like most people have never seen one in their life…

"Bomb boats"  These are actually old aircraft fuel tanks left over from the war which have been turned into boats.

“Bomb boats” These are actually old aircraft fuel tanks left over from the war which have been turned into boats.

For dinner I opted for the tried and tested method of going to somewhere that looks busy. Getting my phrase book out resulted in much confusion until I realised everyone was Vietnamese, not Lao. Showing an interest in the dish that was on one of the tables, the family of at least 8 insisted I joined them (I have a feeling it was dog meat – It certaily didn’t taste of any red meat I’ve had before). Much frustrated communication and laughing followed and at the end they refused to take any kind of payment. I bought a bottle of water and refused any kind of change. Another random night with fantastic people. They were very different from the Lao people – more forward and direct, but still friendly with it.

The next morning I headed up to the Lao border with Vietnam where I was pretty much the first one through, as everyone else had to get their vehicles checked. Amazingly, I managed to get through without forking out any bribes. I think they must have cleaned up their act following the slating the border crossing gets in the Laos Lonely Planet.

First impressions of Vietnam are good – friendly people, not getting ripped off like I expected (perhaps that’s just the touristy places). I can’t seem to exchange my Laos money (kip) for Vietnam money (dong) though.

Vientiene's trying to mimic the arc de triomphe?  It was built using concrete donated by the USA which was intended for building a new airport runway after the Vietnam war.

Vientiene’s trying to mimic the arc de triomphe? It was built using concrete donated by the USA which was intended for building a new airport runway after the Vietnam war.

I can buy it using over 10 currencies, but can’t sell anywhere! So if anyone know’s what I should do with half a million Lao kip, let me know.

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Vang Vieng – Friends, and more Friends!!

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So, a quick word about Vang Vieng. As a town, it is well established on the tourist trail, though mainly with teenagers and people in their early 20s. The guide books warn of all sorts drug issues the westerners have brought into the town, along with the fancy coffee shops and over priced hotel rooms. (Lonely planet says I should stay clear of the ‘happy shakes’ – fruit shakes laced with marijuana or anphetamines) No happy shakes for me, though I did see something ever so strange that made me wonder if my drink had been spiked… There must have been at least THIRTY bars in Vang Vieng which were ALL showing re-runs of the US sitcom ‘Friends’. And I don’t just mean for a short while – I mean ALL DAY, at full volume. I cannot stress enough how strange this was, especially given that half an hour before, I had been cycling through a village where the houses were made out of bamboo and people were working the land hard just to scrape by.

One of the MANY 'Friends' bars.

One of the MANY ‘Friends’ bars.

There was obviously one popular bar a while back which started this, but somehow it has become part of regular bar culture in the town. I did see one bar which had taken the brave step of showing ‘Family Guy’ cartoons instead, but it didn’t look to popular. I can’t imagine what the locals think of westerners!! $$$ I guess!

Luang Probang > Kasi > Vang Vieng

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Another huge day, to be honest I’m quite happy about it as I’ve not been pedalling for a few days now. Starting in a foggy Luang Probang, I set off down pretty much the only road that head south and into a couple of huge climbs, the first 15km long, the second 25km long. They weren’t as brutal as the others I’ve done in Thailand, but still big enough to take me above the height of the highest mountain in Scotland with over 2000m of climbing in total. I passed a Swiss couple who were travelling a bit slower as they were stacked with kit, having cycled all the way from Europe (they are cycling to Singapore). The many, many children on the roadside all shouting out “Sabadee!!” (hello), and doing a high five as I passed, made the ride much more enjoyable. It was only the young kids who would say hello strangely, often actively encouraged by their parents. Every village had it’s own bustling primary school, though the abandoned looking hospital I saw in the afternoon (which had obviously been built by a well meaning charity) didn’t look up to much. Nobody qualified in medicine?

Later in the afternoon, I followed a ridge, along which were scattered several villages. Often, the only water source in the area was a hive of activity, with people bathing, washing dishes, and collecting water. I have noticed that women seem to do much of the hard graft in Laos (often while looking after a baby), while men seem to sit under trees admiring the view. What can I say, Laos is a bit behind the times!!

Thankfully after 110km (mostly up) and 8 hours in the saddle, I stumbled upon a brand new guesthouse on the ridge top with an awesome view, as well as brand new mattresses, sheets and pillows. The seasoned travellers among you will appreciate how much this means!!

The view for much of the morning...

The view for much of the morning…

The next day should have taken me to Vang Vieng, though the huge day yesterday must have taken it out of me, so I stopped late morning in Kasi which is a bit of a dust bowl what with all the big trucks thundering through. Later on, the Swiss couple I had met previously stopped for the night at the same guesthouse, so we had a bit of a blether about each other’s trips.
Limestone cliffs

Limestone cliffs

It was only another 55km to Vang Vieng the next day, with very little climbing. This morning I seemed to attract the attention of some of the older kids, who had obviously been learning English at school – “Where are you from?” (which must have been asked 20 times as I cycled along). “Scotland!” being the default answer tended to get blank looks, though rather worryingly when I associated it with whisky, one particular lad in his early teens got all excited and seemed to understand…
I am staying in a hotel right next to Vang Vieng’s abandoned airport landing strip – deliberately away from the center of town as I have heard it can get a bit crazy with westerners later at night (though if I am honest, I’m appreciating the western food which is good for cycling energy). I’ll happy to move on from here tomorrow though, as it is a bit of an over priced tourist trap full of people who want to get off their heads then float down the river in an old inner-tube.
Cracking view I had at about 7 this morning.

Cracking view I had at about 7 this morning.

Luang Probang

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I have not seen much else of Laos so for, but I have a feeling it is not all like Luang Probang. The French influence is so alive that there are dozens of modern hotels attracting throngs of rich middle aged westerners lapping up the western cafe culture on offer (I like to think I am still not quite middle aged, so got a room in a backstreet guesthouse for a fiver a night – very cheap by Luang Probang standards).

Croissants to die for...

Croissants to die for…

The Food is amazing, the weather is blazing hot and the architecture is packed full of ornate wood detailing – you could easily mistake it for the south of France. That is until someone gently steps out in front of you and says “Tuk-tuk?”. That, as well as the saffron clad monks walking the streets between the numerous temples.
Anyone would think I'm turning Buddhist given the number of temples I've been into.

Anyone would think I’m turning Buddhist given the number of temples I’ve been into.


I was knocked down with another bug just as I was recovering from the last one, so took the opportunity to stay put here in Luang Probang and also get a Vietnam visa while I was waiting. Though several hundred miles from Vietnam, I have seen for the first time the corruption that goes on in the country – I had to go to one window and pay $5 to one man simply to get the application form, then another $45 to someone else at a different window who gave me a receipt for $45. Both men insisted this was the normal process, though the amount of gold they were wearing told me otherwise…
Crops growing on the banks of the Mekong.

Crops growing on the banks of the Mekong.

Like I said - just a tad busy.

Like I said – just a tad busy.

Down the Mekong in a sardine tin.

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I had to stay in Chiang Khong an extra night due to an upset stomach (to put it very mildly). To allow myself to recover somewhat I took the ferry down to Luang Probang. I had read that this 2 day ferry from Huay Xai (with a night in Pak Beng) had a habit of getting pretty overcrowded, so I was expecting a pretty hectic day. The chatter on the internet was that if they try and load more than 70 people on one of the long boats, then you should kick off insisting on a second boat service be put on. Well, the operators of the ferry are experts at ensuring they don’t do that (after all, they do it every day, the westerners only once). As a result, they managed to squash about 140 people on board! Lets just say it was a tight fit. If anyone wants to take this ferry, I would strongly advise against it unless you can somehow ensure you are not on an overcrowded boat. In the other direction however (Luang Probang to Huay Xai) the boats were empty – with the exception of one or two smug looking tourists pleased they had chosen the westerly direction!

They even put some plastic chairs in the center aisle for some of those who didn’t have seats! Still, at least the sides were open in the event it capsized. That was until it started tipping it down and tarpaulins were released from the roof to box us in!! I have worked on ships for about 14 years and though no expert, I know a little about boat/ship stability – I was more concerned than I have been previously, in force 11 winds in the South Atlantic with a big ship violently rolling enough to throw you out of bed. Lets just say I had a keen eye on my exit route!!

It wasn’t all doom and gloom however. When it was calm enough that the boat wasn’t rocking, I truly appreciated the magic of this area and why travelers have come here for decades. Sitting watching farmers tend their crops on the sand banks of the Mekong with the jungle as a backdrop while listening to the water flow past the hull really was mesmerising.