Three years ago, long-distance cycling, bike touring, bicycle touring, or whatever that you want to call it was not something I thought I could do at all. At 25 (albeit embarassingly late to learn how to ride a bike), I didn't have a clue.
I just picked it up after spending some time learning how to mountain bike and picking few lessons here and there from good samaritans. Unstable and not the very best on a two-wheeler, I had put it on hold and decided to experience the outdoors through a safe and slow activity like hiking.
Now, three years later, that safe and slow activity, was great of course but not fulfilling. Adventure became about the challenge. Pushing my body and mind, and finding a vessel that will help me see off-the-beaten paths, and at the same time, that path had to be equal parts beautiful and tough.
With 2017 coming to a close end, and December being the poorest time to travel anywhere to avoid tourists, overpriced hotels and packages, I and my partner decided to zero down on Laos.
I remember reading years ago that Laos is the most bombed country in the world per capita. From 1964 to 1973, the US dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580k bombing missions - equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years
Most of these bombs dropped did not explode. Only 2% of Laos territory has been cleared so far, leaving a deadly hazard for Laotians in the mountainsides. The real draw for us were the scenic landscapes, laidback life, interesting hilltribes and minimal traffic compared to Laos neighbours like Vietnam and Thailand.
We decided to start our journey from Luang Prabang to Vientiane (North to South), the total distance was about 445km. But you'll know later on in this post that we decided to cut our journey short and do away with Vientiane, simply because cycling in smog, dust and city roads was not what we fancied. This cut back our cycling trip and extended our time in Vang Vieng on bike instead which put the total distance to 265km.
When we touched down in the most well-preserved cities in all of Asia in Luang Prabang, it easily felt like we were transported back in time.
A slow stroll down the streets in the mid-afternoon heat was beautiful with the Mekong river on the other side, but the heat and smog killed us. We thought, hey, wasn't it suppose to be winter? where's the cool breeze? It was nice to see locals busy preparing for the night market, and we wanted to take it all in, but there was no time to waste, we needed to sort our bikes out first.
All the information we searched online for shops with supposedly good bikes were outdated. That old TripAdvisor post, 2012 Lonely Planet recommendations were not very helpful and we were left with one option, in fact our ONLY option in Luang Prabang: Tiger Trails. German-owned and super helpful, they had decent bicycle touring bikes with good brands like TREK with panniers and bags.
We decided to take it. Costs include bicycle rental for approx. 10USD per day + bags for approx 5USD per day per pax inclusive of tools like extra tubes, cleaning kit, a lock and everything that you need came with it. That was decent and the process was smooth. So on we began to cycle down Southern Laos!
Day 1: Luang Prabang - Khou Ki Cham (81 Km) - Grade: Hard
Breathe. Just Breathe. Steady. Just let go of the brakes and ride through. You got this. You know how to ride a bike!
We set out on our nervous and unsteady bikes in the peak of Laos morning traffic. We forgot that while we were on holiday, the rest of Laotians in Luang Prabang still had to get to work and that would mean traffic, SUVs, tour buses leaving very little space for a two-wheeler to pass at 8.00am.
Muddy paths and pothole trodden roads, we experienced the worst of city roads for the first few hundred metres. I wondered what did I get myself into. Dust stung my eyes and I only hope for these roads to quickly change, and they did. Almost immediately the roads changed and we were welcomed with a cool breeze, trees lined on each side and local villages along the way.
It was an easy climb for 8km that we almost didn't notice how easy it had become. So easy that we decided let's stop for a break to have some rice noodle soup 'Pho'. Delicious and soupy, with plenty of greens, we felt good and made our way back onto the saddle.
The next 9km or so was undulating, nothing too hard but nothing too easy as well. "Ha, if this was supposed to be 'hard', I am pretty sure I can conquer anything!" or so I thought to myself with confidence and kept pedalling.
At noon-ish, our first 12.5km climb was here. I steadied my nerves and tried to pedal through at gradients of almost 12%. My heart pounded and I took a deep breath and tried to keep my bike upright but it was a struggle.
I stopped, pedalled, stopped again, pedalled again. I looked around and thought how beautiful are these views. That kept me motivated.
Shades of green rushed in a blur as I picked up speed and stopped at our viewpoint. I finally caught up with my partner as well who was usually 15 - 20 minutes ahead of me.
After 39km, we arrived at the summit of our first pass. I stopped, turned round and round, whooping at the top of my voice, crazed at the sheer abundance of beauty. The next 15km was an incredible delight, downhill all the way. My tires kept rolling and my fingers sore from braking too hard.
As I thought it'll get easier, almost forgot that we had another mountain pass to get through. This was going to be hard: 20km, gradient of 12% or more and uphill all the way. It was 4.00pm, nearing dusk and we needed to make a decision. We could stop, ride, stop, ride and we would reach our base at 9pm which is dangerous because the roads are not lit. Or we could hitch a ride.
Not a vehicle in sight, exhausted and beaten, we kept pushing our bikes. We finally heard a truck passing through and hitched a ride with them. A small fee had to be paid and we shared space at the back of the truck with a bunch of chickens. It was definitely a sensational ending to our first ride!
Arrived at Kiu Ka Cham, there were only two guest houses as an option. We chose the one with a back view and it was the most scenic. Open balcony, postcard mountain views, we were thankful that we caught the sunset in time. This also allowed us time to spend with the locals.
Day 2: Khou Ki Cham - Phou Khoun (60Km) - Grade: Hard
The ride continues and onwards towards another hard day! I peered from the curtains and I could see that the mountains were awash with fallen clouds. It was magical and breathtakingly beautiful.
While the ride had far more steeper grades than the previous day, it was short and we had a lot of stops to take in the views. The ride begins with a rolling pattern for 14km and descends for about 7km, until we reach undulating roads.
Coming downhill required my full concentration, I felt sparks of creativity punched through my riding. The strength and confidence I felt building in my body with every passing turn allowed me to further enjoy the ride. Though at times, coming downhill was not entirely fun, my fingers could barely hold on to the brakes and they kept slipping at times which required stops along the way.
Riding through this otherworldly terrain, we came across two cyclists who were going in the opposite direction towards Luang Prabang. The first was an elderly German couple who were toughing it out with a massive climb as we were coming downhill and the second couple, were from Switzerland. We spent a good 15 minutes talking to Valentine and Christoph from Switzerland.
"That's all you're carrying?!?" said Valentine. She was rather shocked at how lightweight our bags were compared to theirs which they seemed to be carrying quite a bit. By quite a bit, I mean three bags each and add-ons here and there. It was her first time and I was amazed at her resilience. She and Christoph flew in with their bikes from Geneva, Switzerland and they will be cycling through Laos and Vietnam and flying off to India later for a volunteering project which you can follow their adventures on instagram @livetheloveadventure.
By the time we were on the last bit of our ride, I got off on my bike and hiked for a bit, defeated by the long procession of steep climbs. I found I could hike it up pretty fast and catch my breath. What if I continued to do this? My mind tricked me, but I knew I would never make it if I didn't keep pedalling.
Coming across the finish line, I was elated and my front wheel was rattling...until we didn't like how Phou Koun looked like, so we rode further in to find a guest house which we thought was decent but we were told by our Swiss newfound friends, "there'll be a bungalow, a beautiful one, you can't miss it, it's cheap and it has good, STRONG WiFi!" We needed the strong WiFi for me to do some work and for us to book our accomodations in Vang Vieng hence it was necessary. Thanks to my wonderful partner and his strong genetic makeup, he managed to pedal back and forth to find that bungalow and we moved in there calling it a day!
Day 3: Phou Khoun - Kasi (50Km) - Grade: Moderate
Morning came and I got super excited to conquer the day because I know that it will be somewhat easier and the most scenic after two days of brutal climbing. We had a day filled with multiple stops, and an elevation drop of close to 2,500 metres.
I can't tell you how elated I was as I became a competent downhiller. Villages and children passed me, and I passed children and villagers to a constant theme of "Saibadee (Hello's), You can do it" coupled with waves, claps and cheers from children.
The welcome camaraderie on the trail kept a smile on my dirt-covered hair and face, and made me finally feel that I've got this under control after knowing that I possessed the mechanical-know how of a noobster.
We came across a hot spring resort located in a beautiful setting between steep limestone karsts but we did not want to stay here because our aim was to reach our final destination and that was Kasi.
The last 10km to Kasi was easy and before we knew it we reached our destination. Cleaned, beautiful bed, basic housing and tasty fried rice with soy bean was all that we really needed. There was no self-imposed pressure to be elsewhere, no distractions, and that rare feeling of being perfectly content and present at the moment.
Day 4: Kasi - Vang Vieng (61Km) - Grade: Easy/Moderate
As we came closer to our last days, we took time to take more pictures. Savour every moment and just enjoy the ride. Mostly flat terrain, today's ride was a breeze zipping through the trails at 30-40 miles per hour.
There were smiles, laughter, simple curiosity and the desire to chat from locals. There were no shortage of SUVs and cars filled with Chinese and Korean tourists making their way to Vang Vieng, the party destination of Laos.
When I stopped to take a break, I became a tourist object when an Asian tourist decidedly thought it would be cool to sit on top of my pannier and take a picture with his selfie-stick. Startled, I decided "Uh OK, peace sign!" and done, I sped off quickly before more of his friends and family came.
The roads to Vang Vieng were stunningly gorgeous. I was awestruck when both of us looked around pointing and gasping at the roads. Closer to Vang Vieng, the heat was unbearable and traffic, smog, dust got in the way, the same as any other city.
Day 5: Vang Vieng - Grade: Easy
Until now, our trip had been on paved and relatively smooth dirt roads but it became apparent that once we reach commercial destinations, the traffic, people and dust are pointless for us to keep moving forward. The rest of the two days were spent hiking to the viewpoint, visiting the famed blue lagoon where thousands of tourists died many years ago because of tubing and drinking, which was what Vang Vieng had been known for.
Despite this, we stayed two days and didn't find drunken tourists but thought it had similar feels to Luang Prabang as a town. We cycled the backroads, crossed the bridge to the Blue Lagoon which was quite possibly the worst roads ever leading in to the second Blue Lagoon. We found hardly anyone at the Lagoon, as well, but oh well decided to just enjoy the ride and spend the day consuming nutella pancakes and fruit shakes.
The final moments of the cycling trip required us finding a bus, tying it to the roof and making our way back to Luang Prabang as regular travellers exploring on foot, which kind of dampened our mood.
You see the extraordinary on the road, and that's what we sorely missed. There was no training or preparation done for this trip, and yet we found ourselves quietly realising that we were capable of more. I was certainly struck by the impact this trip had on me, personally.