Category Archives: Uncategorized

Day 32:  Sunday 5 February :  Luang Prabang to Nasiengdy : 98km and 980m of climbing

I am typing this as the sun is setting above a small lake, next to the main A13 road.  We are just less than 100km north of Luang Prabang, and well on our way to our next destination, Nong Khiaw, which we should reach tomorrow.  It has been an easy day to navigate – we joined the A13 in Luang Prabang and stayed on the same road all day.  This is the same road we took on the bus to get to Luang Prabang 3 days ago, but we travelled in the dark across all of this section and so the scenery was all new to us.

The road out of the city of Luang Prabang was typical for this part of the world – ribbon development along the road and loads of sheds occupied by car parts dealers, shops selling beds, light fittings, ornaments and and just about anything else you might want to buy.  Loads of motorbikes and poor air quality.

It all improved as we left the city and the road took us north roughly following the banks of the Mekong, but frustratingly we were rarely able to see the mighty and beautiful river as it was always a few hundred metres away (or more).  

After about 20km the road diverted away from the Mekong and followed the Nam Ou River, a substantial river itself which feeds into the Mekong (as appears to be the case with all rivers in Laos). 

The Nam Ou river

The Nam Oh was recently dammed (very impressive engineering and more Chinese investment), so the road followed a lake about half a mile wide for the next 20km.  There are a series of dams up the Nam Ou, all generating substantial amounts of hydroelectric power for Laos.  The dams are hugely controversial as they displace people living in land that is flooded, prevent the river being navigable and change the eco-systems so that fish cannot swim up the rivers and there is species change from a river to a lake environment.  However, the “clean” energy and tourism benefits are also substantial. 

Our only comment was that, given the huge cost of the railway and the dams, it seems a shame that the road is still in such a poor condition – but to be fair, there were not as many mega pot holes or sections without tarmac as the road from Luang Nampha (which killed off my derailleur of course).

The river is still used for clothes washing

As the heat of the day developed, we noticed that it was hotter and far more humid than we had experienced to date.  The road was also undulating and, whilst we did not do any mega climbs, we clocked up nearly 1000m of climbing across the day.  All that in the heat and humidity was a real trial and, by midday, we were pretty desperate to find somewhere to hide from the sun.  Village after village appeared to have nowhere with food on offer, but we heard some music and stopped – but it was coming from a temple.   However, as we were stopped, a young chap on a motorbike, Ya, stopped and chatted to us in pretty good English.  He proudly told us he learned English whilst he was a buddhist monk and, after leaving, had worked at the “international airport” at Luang Prabang for the last 4 years.  It is correct that this is an “international” airport (flights to Thailand) but it is not quite Heathrow.  I would wager that there are no flights to Europe from Luang Prabang.  

He was on the way back to his home village and told us about a restaurant 8km further on – but said it could be 10km or might be 6km.  Useful if slightly frustrating information.  However about 1km further on he flagged us down and said that a building with no sign was, in fact, a new restaurant.  We were relieved and even better he negotiated a meal (and a price) for us!  So we had lovely green vegetables, a mixed stew, glass noodles (you will have to look them up) and sticky rice, all for less than £5.

Children playing in the river near our lunch stop

Fortified by that we resumed in the heat and gradually climbed out of the river valley.  The scenery was fantastic and the road mostly quiet and not too potholed.  We ambled along, enjoying the scenery, the villages and the interaction with a constant line of children who wanted to wave and call out to us.  I should record that, contrary to the experience of some travellers, no child has ever asked us for money – they are just excited to see foreigners (at least in our experience foreigners on trikes) and want to call out to them.  The boys are more forward than the girls of course but our experience is that Lao children and adults are all so welcoming.

What could be more fun on a hot day?

We were pretty tired by the time we got to the basic guest house we had identified on googlemaps.  This is a “hit and miss” affair but this one was basic but clean, and had hot water.  We don’t need much more, although we did chuckle at the contrast with our lovely hotel last night. But that’s one of the aspects we like – being content with basic but also enjoying the odd bit of luxury!

Day 31:  4 February:  Day off to explore Luang Prabang.

After the anxiety of the last couple of days we decided we deserved a little pampering.  So we checked out of our basic guesthouse and checked into Villa Ouis, one of the gorgeous wooden French colonial era houses in the old town, a spur of land at the confluence of the Nam Kham (River Kham) and Mekong River.  Our villa looked over the Nam Kham, a sultry green at this time of year, with mountains in the background.

We packed up early and went back to TTT where we picked up a spare derailleur on the basis that lightning could strike twice.  We then cycled across town and left all our stuff at the hotel until our room was ready.  We wandered along the old town streets and had a lovely breakfast at an amazing French style bakery.  We strolled further on to the palace museum, only to find it was past 11 so it was closed to visitors until after 1.30pm.  We therefore climbed the numerous steps up Phousi hill, the sacred mount in the middle of the town.  It was a hot and humid day but we sat in the shade and looked out at the very hazy view of the river and hills beyond.

Prayers offered at the hill top shrine

There are no clear views at this time of the year.  At this stage of the dry season the dust, pollution and the result of agricultural burning lies heavy in the air so everything looks shrouded in a hazy mist.  Apparently this builds up so that by March/April the air is really tainted and unpleasant (the same was said in Chiang Mai) until the April rains finally clear the air. 

We climbed down the other side of the hill past Buddhist temple buildings and Buddha statues.  Buddhism is far less in evidence compared to Thailand but in Luang Prabang we had seen lots of boy monks in their distinctive orange garb.  They look about 10 to me but I guess could be  up to 15. 

At the bottom of the hill we wobbled across a bamboo bridge over the river.  There are two of these bridges, which only stand for 6 months of the year.  Once the rainy season comes, the current is too strong and the bridges are dismantled.  It certainly did not feel very sturdy.

By the time we ambled back to the hotel, our room was ready and we were ready to retreat from the heat and humidity. The very pleasant and helpful Vietnamese man (manager?) even said it was a hot day! We knew we needed time to apply for our Vietnamese e-visa, which required us to state which border crossing we were going to use.  So we did some route planning to make our final decision then had a frustrating time filling in the e-visa form and working out how to upload photos of ourselves and passports so that the file sizes were not too big (easy when you know how!).  After several attempts (across an hour and a half) David had it cracked and had paid for his;and so when he did mine it only took about 10 minutes!

We then sat on the balcony watching the world go by and the view of the river while we read. So laid back we were literally almost horizontal!

Finally we stirred ourselves to set out for dinner. One of the people in our Gibbon Experience group had highly recommended the restaurant Manda de Laos saying that it was a really special place with the best food in Laos.  As this was our pampering day we booked a table.  We had linked up with Damien and Adrien again, who were also in Luang Prabang. They were in the other Gibbon Experience group and had got engaged while in their tree house. We really enjoyed their company before  so we invited them along to have a celebratory meal – for us getting our trike fixed but much more importantly for their engagement.

The restaurant lived up to the recommendation.  The tables are set up around some beautiful lily ponds, which are now protected. The lighting and the setting was beautiful, the food fabulous and the company delightful. A special evening to finish our time in LB.  Tomorrow we are back on the road, staying in basic guest houses or camping and eating one-pan meals.  But for tonight we looked out over this magical city which has been sympathetically restored and, due to the presence of the new trainline, will no doubt change under greater Chinese tourist influence going forward, but now was a mixture of Loa residents, Lao visitors, all manner of europeans (but fewer gap year students than the rest of Laos due to the cost) and some Chinese (many of whom seem to be in camper vans).  

Day 30 : Trike mending in Luang Prabang

This is not a murder mystery blog so news up top – we are back in business thanks to the wonderful bike guys at Tiger Trail Travel.  There were no bike shops as such in Luang Prabang but TTT offered bike repair services as well as hiring out bikes for their travels.  So we pushed the trikes the 1.7km to their offices and asked for their help.

We could not recommend these guys too highly – please look them up if you are in Luang Prabang.

We were introduced to “Mr Mee” who was the lovely bike mechanic and clearly a bike person.  He had never seen a trike before but loved the idea of our travels in his country and was determined to get us back on the road so we could continue.  A short inspection confirmed his technical assessment of the derailleur – it needed replacement.  Fortunately (and purposefully) I had not damaged the derailleur hanger – the bit which is particular to the trike.  Getting that replaced would involve a part from Europe – but the derailleur itself is a standard bit of kit.

He asked us to come back later and said he would do his best.  We then spent an anxious day mooching around whilst we waited for the outcome.  However, as we ambled into the town, we met Tabitha and her partner (sorry – senior moment and name eludes me) who we met in Huay Xai.  We chatted and then joined them for breakfast at a lovely cafe, along with Matthais from Austria.  Tabitha and her partner are both from Germany but are studying in Holland – with all psychology teaching in English.  Matthias is from Austria.  They have all taken a break from studies or work to travel across this part of the world.  Like quite a few young people we have met, they are taking time out after university because (and this is my formulation) they know they will be working for decades ahead and so have worked hard, saved and then taken time out of working life to travel and experience the world rather than just remaining on the treadmill of work at home. 

Just for amusement – flying triffids??

Lovely chatting to them – and of course they wanted to try to understand the idiocy of Brexit.  They just could not understand how people in the UK had lost their collective minds by voting to leave the EU and hence lose all the benefits for citizens of EU membership.  Like so many young people we have met here, those benefits included citizens from one EU country living and working freely in another EU country.

We struggled to try to explain what was going on in the UK but broadly shared their perspectives – after all we have an EU flag on our trikes.  But also trying to explain the complex mood in the UK in the aftermath of the financial crash, the feelings of those left out by economic progress and the painting of the EU as the cause of some of their problems (wrong in our view but lodged in the minds of so many in the UK).  It’s all post-Empire heart not head we tried to say, but it is the whole country that is left with the cost of the heart based decision.

Later we ambled around the old town, walked along the banks of the Mekong and waited for trike news.  We had a nice lunch overlooking the Mekong and managed to relax a bit but still glanced at the phone from time to time to see if there were any messages.

At about 3pm we went nervously back to TTT and found the derailleur fixed thanks to a new part sourced from somewhere that is not in any google directory.  Not the same part as before but doing the same job.  Mr Mee wanted to replace the cables and clean chains so we left it another hour or so, collecting the trikes at 5.30 when they were better than before.  Such a relief.  The cost of the new part was just $30 so we ordered a second one (just in case) and then chatted bike stuff and other things with Mr Mee and his colleagues (he spoke more than enough English), met his daughter and felt so much gratitude.

Mr Mee, his assistant and us with functioning trikes

We then cycled into town and had a celebratory drink in a rooftop bar where we met Chris, a just retired banker from Austria who is travelling with is wife (just retired from the UN) in slightly more comfort than us across South East Asia.  Great chats, lots of exchange of local knowledge as the sun went down.

Finally, we went to the night market and had something to eat – sharing a table with a couple of Swedish students who are real “gap year” travellers, much more akin to the way our children travelled. Then back to our nice but slightly dodgy hotel near the bus station on our now fully functioning trikes.  Huge relief and, after a very international day, we can now enjoy Luang Prabang before the next stage of our travels.

Day 29.  2nd February.  Luang Namtha to almost Nateuy 32km and then …..  

We had planned a shortish day with a leisurely start but we both work early after a really good sleep and were feeling good and up for a more strenuous day.  So we packed up and were on the road about 7.30am.  But of course, as this is cycle touring, anything can happen – and it did.

Again the morning was misty- clearly a feature of the early mornings in these mountains. As soon as we were out of the town, we were in rural countryside and after about 10km rejoined highway 3 again. The road followed a lush deepsided valley with a pretty river below.  It felt magical as the mist swirled around.  We passed through a series of villages and saw zip wires stretched across the river.  This was the original use of wires –  to transport across wood and other goods presumably.  No humans seen hurtling along them!

Sitting in teh morning sunshine – with no idea about what is about to happen

About 9.30 the sun burnt off the mist just as we started a 100m climb.  The road was in poor condition and we bumped and bounced along. Just as we were nearing the top there was a steep section with a long and particularly bumpy stony section.  I reached the top and saw that David had ground to a halt. I freewheeled back the short distance and found that he had a significant problem with his deraillier.

Pop up bike repair shop – before realising it was unable to be repaired

Parked up by the side of the road with vehicles and lorries chucking up dust from the gravelly section David set about repairing it.  He took the whole thing apart and put it back together again.  Initially it seemed to look more aligned but it still wasn’t working. He then realised a small bit of metal and a bolt had sheered off.  This wasn’t something mendable and he declared the deraillier well and truly f**c**d. 

We both felt devastated. Surely not another trip with bad luck.  We told ourselves of the travails of travel and that everything was solvable with time (and money). But I could see from David’s face how upset he was. The good side was that we were only 3km from the town of Nateuy and we had heard from other travellers that there was a train station there heading south towards the city of Luang Prabang where there was a (small) chance of getting a new derailleur. This Chinese funded high speed railway link runs from China across the border to Laos and all the way down to the Laos capital, Vientiane, which is on the Thailand border. Since opening just over a year ago it has transported over 2 million tons of goods.  The railway is planned to extend through into Thailand to Bankok, and once that leg is completed it will be a cultural highway extending China’s influence into South East Asia.  Luckily, David derailleur broke only 3km away from the railway – or so we thought.  We quickly decided that the only chance of getting a replacement deraillier was in a substantial city so decided to try and get the train to Luang Prabang. 

Efforts to flag down a pick up truck to take us the 3km were unsuccessful.  Only one person stopped but the back of the truck as already too full for all our stuff.  So we trudged the 3km in the heat of the day, freewheeling down the down hills and pushing the trikes as we trudged uphill. This included a googlemaps special that took us down a steep hill to the wrong side of the railway tracks for the passenger station and into a huge lorry unloading area.  This was solely for large crates being craned onto cargo trains but not passengers – but Google did not know that.  Back up the hill we trudged and took the long way round to the train passenger station.

We seemed to be in luck as there was a train in 50 minutes to Luang Prabang. We showed them our trikes and there was a lot of head scratching and calling of more people – each more senior than the last – to take a look.  We showed them how they fold up, tape measures were brought out, they thought it was still too wide. We could take the wheels off we explained but then the crunch point came – the trikes would have to be in a box or we could not take them on the train. This point became insurmoutable. The main guy who spoke reasonable English kept saying he wanted to help us (and I believe he did) but this was the rule – and being Chinese this was a rules based society.  We could send them cargo and they would turn up in 3 days time (if at all).

We cut our losses and said we would try the bus.  The same guy helped us with the taxi/bus man who confirmed there would be a bus at 4pm.  He could take us  in his minibus taxi to the place to buy bus tickets for what seemed an extortionate about in money but was only £2.50 and hey it was only 2 minutes but a) he knew where it was and we didn’t and b) David didn’t have to push his trike any more. 

We piled up our 2 trikes and 6 panniers into his small mini van, and he took us to the “bus station” where we bought the bus tickets.  No eyelids were batted at the mountain of our luggage – and no extra fee to take it with us.  It was very vague abou what sort of bus it was, how long the journey would take, where we would arrive in the town or at what time but by then we just went with the flow. It was now 3pm and we hadn’t eaten since our porridge at 6.30 that morning so we brewed up our own version of noodle soup with instant noodles, packet sauce, boiled eggs and tomatoes.  It was surprisingly tasty and again no eyelids were batted at 2 falang cooking their lunch in the forecourt of the bus station!

Lashing the trikes securely to the top of the bus

4pm arrived and pronto, the “bus” arrived.  It was a small yellow bus which already looked pretty ful and perhaps would be used for a short trip in the UK but here it was a form of travel across the country. Our bikes and panniers were hauled onto the roof and firmly tied down as we nervously looked on, but the driver looked as if he had done this hundreds of times before and brushed aside our vain efforts to help. Finally we clambered onto the bus.  That was a slight error – no proper seats were left but a row of padded stools were set out in the aisle between the seats and that’s where the rest of us were to sit. A fellow passenger confirmed that the journey time would be about 9 hours – so we would arrive at 2 or 3am.  We pushed to the back of our minds what we would do when we arrived and settled ourselves between the seats. We initially consoled ourselves that we would be able to get some seats at the next town when people got off.

We set off with our jolly driver and soon we were winding up the mountain passes, down again and up the next one.  He was a great driver and although the road was narrow and windy we felt very safe, even when overtaking lorries round the tight bends. There seemed to be a sort of dancing etiquette about how this was done, and unlike some other parts of the world, the roadside was not scattered with memorial crosses to those who met their end over the side on a blind bend.  Maybe in Laos they just don’t mark these events!  The scenery got more spectacular with a beautiful red setting sun over the mountains and we mourned that we were not cycling the route. 

By the time we were over the other side of this mountain range it was dark, my back was aching but we consoled ourselves with the thought that soon we would be at the next major town, but we bypassd that town and it became clear that the bus was not stopping.  Everyone was on for the duration including the irritating middle-aged (and overweight) Chinese man who was constantly on his phone or striking up conversations with all around him – the equivalent of the village bore in the pub stuck with us in a bus and irritating fellow passsengers.  As it turned out most of the passengers were on the bus for longer than us, as we were the lone 2 passengers dropped off in Luang Prabang at 3am. 

I did not know how I would survive 10 hours wedged between the seats with David perched in front and someone elses knees in my back? Somehow we just managed it, as one always does of course.   Like on a long plane journey, we entered a sort of zombie state and the hours ticked by.  I managed to dose on and off and for the last couple of hours I did have a seat, although David was perched on his stool for the whole time.  At least we weren’t on an unpadded upturned box like some others.

Finally we rolled into Luang Prabang at about 3am. Everyone patiently waited while all our stuff was unloaded from the roof unscathed and we were left in the cold and dark in this unknown city by the roadside with no one around as the bus drove off.

We decided to start pushing our trikes towards the centre of town to see if we could find a guest house that would open it’s doors at that time of night.  Luckily only a few minutes away we found just such a guest house – we shook the boy asleep on a camp bed on the porch and indicated we wanted a room. As we walked up a young woman in a short skirt left the guest house and drove off with a truck driver – a rather strange time to be leaving I thought and I feared we were entering a den of ill repute. However a woman appeared, showed us a pleasant room for a reasonable price and soon we were lying horizontal at last. Other commercial transactions of ill repute may well have been going on around us, but we were oblivious and although still feeling pretty gutted, were pleased and grateful that we had got so far.

It remained to be seen whether we could get the trike mended in Luang Prabang or whether we would have to get another bus to the capital (another 8 hours at least) to access the specalist skills needed to mend the trike.

Day 28:  1 February :  Vieng Phou Kha to Luang Namtha :  60km and 550m of climbing

Today was a shortish cycling day – not too far and not too much climbing, and thus a chance to spend the afternoon exploring a town in Northern Laos, Luang Nampha.

We were on the road by about 7.15 and the day dawned with a thick mist – covering the road and surrouding areas.  It made cyling tricky as it easier to hear oncoming lorries than see them.  The mist was much thicker than on previous days and stayed around until about 10.30 –  far longer than previous morning mists.  It meant we did not see much of the valley that we were cycling through – just the mist and occasional steep slopes with rubber trees.  There are extensive rubber tree plantations in Laos and many new trees have been planted in the last 20 years, feeding the former seemingly insatiable demand from industrial China for rubber.  It used to be known as “white gold” but there was a crash in the rubber price in 2011, when the price fell from $4.82 per kilo and is now as low as $1.20 per kilo in late 2022, recovering a little to $1.44 at the moment.  I think that is becasue synthetic alternatives are now preferred to rubber, and they can no doubt be produced at a fraction of the price.  I mention this because, once the trees are planted, the farmers in these remote communities have little practical choice apart from tapping rubber and selling it on, but they are at the mercy of a hugely fluctuating world price.  

We were moving from an area where there appear to be virtually no tourists (or Western travellers) and into an area where the economy is partly funded by tourism.  That did mean we saw our first proper coffee shop for several days and it was too tempting to pass by – and the coffee was very good indeed.

The enthusiasm shown to greet us as we pass did not seem to be affected by whether we were in a tourist area or not.  Westerners – collectively “falang” – have a reputation here for being somewhat miserable (or so we are told).  The Lao people are naturally exuberant and this comes out when they see us as we cycle by – and I think they expect us to be just as exuberant back to them.  But here is the rub – they do it once when we pass their village but we experience this hundreds of times a day.  The cries of “sabaydee” (a form of greeting), “hello” or even “goodbye” ring in our ears as we pass through every village – because we are pretty unusual for them.  There are not too many falang on trikes along this road!  We can feel a bit overwhelmed by needing to respond every time but, to some extent, we have chosen to do this and have to live up to the choices.  That means calling out in return, waving and being as enthusiastic as we can in the brief seconds before we move on – partly out of respect and partly so as to scotch the miserable foreigner tag.

The AR3 road – the only road – was good in places. At times the tarmac was fine but there were fairly long stretches with no tarmac at all – just stones and dirt.  We did two major climbs and were making good progress but then hit a section of about 10km with bits of tarmac and bits without.  This is one of the few major roads in Northern Laos, and is a major through route for lorries going from China to Thailand, so the lorries have the same challenge but they ride over the rough stuff better than us.  Sometimes we were struggling to pick our way through the dirt sections enveloped by dust from a lorry that had passed the other way.  But they never lasted that long and the joy of smooth tarmac (with potholes of course) soon returned.

Despite the quality of the surface, the ride was fantastic through a valley which was beautiful with steep sided mountains coming down to a lovely river which wound its way through a cultivated valley floor.  

We arrived at the town of Luang Nampha for a late lunch.  We checked into our guest house – spurning the “VIP room” at 250,000 kip and settling for the standard room at 150,000 kip (i.e. £7.50 for both of us).  Perspectives change and the extra £5 for the higher quality room did not seem a good deal – ridiculous really in any objective sense. Then to the market for “pho” – soup with loads of fresh vegetables; and then picking up provisions for the next few days when we may have to camp.

Anyone fanch chicken for supper?

Luang Nampha is the largest town we have seen in Laos.  We passed huge motorbike sales pitches with hundreds of bikes for sale (it would not be right to call them showrooms) and also places to buy agricultural machinery – tractors, JCB equivalents (all Chinese of course) and implements for doing all manner of things to soil.  This seems a fairly thriving area, with a bit of eco-tourism on top – trekking, rafting and the like.  It is very different from the subsistance farming villages we have been passing through for the past few days.

Day 27.  31st January.  Baan Donchai to Vieng Phou Kha.  50km. 1000m climbing

We left our funny little £5 a night guest house while the mist was still hugging the road.  Although the bed was rock hard I found that if I put my camping mat on top, I was perfectly comfortable. We passed numerous school children walking to school with a few cycling and a privileged few on motorbikes. We knew we had a big climb ahead so were slightly concerned to have enough food.  We stopped at a shop and brought eggs and, rather than risk them breaking, we sat outside the shop, lit our stove and hardboiled them.  This caused great amusement but was by far the most practicable way to deal with things. 

Chidren walking to school in the morning mist

By the time we had finished the hard boiling (David tried to insist on a full 10 minutes but we compromised at 8 on the basis the eggs would continue to cook in their shells), the sun had risen and some of the mist had burned off.   Within a few kms we started our first climb of the day which we knew from Kamoot was about 400m of climbing. We were feeling surprisingly good after yesterday’s long day and soon we were into the familiar territory of bottom gear and plodding slowly up, meters climbed being much more important than distance covered.  Most of the climb was 8/9% so tough but not excruciating.  We felt our fitness now coming to the fore and could keep going without too many rest stops.  The scenery was lovely and the road was quiet – a vehicle every 5 minutes or so at that time of the morning. On the lower part of the climb a lot of the hillsides were cleared for agriculture. They seemed impossibly steep to grow anything and were bare at this time of year, but no doubt spring into life when the rains come.  As we got higher, the jungle took over again and views back down the valley appeared.

A view from near the top of the climb

The first summit was at about 960m, our highest point on the trip to date.  The road then took us along a beautiful ridge with views into the valley on both sides.  We needed to ‘refuel’ and found a perfect stop for ‘second breakfast’, looking out over the mountains as we brewed coffee and ate boiled eggs and biscuits. A man on a motorbike stopped, quizzed us in Lao about our journey and we confessed we could not understand.  However, “can I have a selfie with you” is a universal language and, of course, we obliged.

There were a few undulations then a longer downhill before the next 250m climb, which took us  up to over 1000m.  Although shorter and no steeper, the climb felt somewhat harder.  The tiredness in our legs began to tell, but we just went slower and took our time. This is much easier to do on the trikes compared to a bike there is a critical point of slowness on two wheels when you just fall off!  That is not a problem on 3 wheels!

There was a sizeable village at the top of the second climb, with wooden houses strung along the road.  This was the mountain top and there was a ‘scenic view point’, but (in our view) the outlook was less scenic than many of the views we had seen over the past couple of hours! It was nearly midday by now and we had only done 25km but had climbed over 800m.

The “viewpoint” view
A village meeting

Then we got our reward –  a glorious descent.  We were really getting to grips with handling the trikes, leaning hard into the bends so braking less (although brakes and breaks were still needed) and weaving round bend after bend. Great fun.

The road then followed a river and the valley opened out into an agricultural landscape with fields of vegetables and lettuces, no doubt irrigated by the river. This valley had a very different feel.  Much more prosperous, larger villages/small towns with houses of mainly concrete construction, more restaurants and shops, smarter cars and even some mobile phones in evidence. 

There was only 15km to go to our proposed stopping point for the day, the village of Vieng Phou Kha (or possibly spelt Vieng Phouka).  There is no consistency as to how Loatian names are spelt using European lettering, and huge differences between the anglacised names of the same place on different maps and on signs.  All adds to fun and confusion.  We had mainly chosen Vieng Phou Kha as an end point for the day because it had several guest houses and we figured we might be tired by then after all the steep climbing. We were not wrong!

We pressed on as we wanted to get to the village but that was a mistake.  The concept of “running on empty” is very well known to cyclists, and we should have rested and eaten.  The road was quite undulating; nothing large but our legs got more and more tired as yet another 50m climb presented itself.  How can 5% be so tough when we did 11% with some ease a few hours before?  Eventually we rolled into town and booked into the first guesthouse we saw – which happened to have large cool airy rooms, good showers and was still less than £10 a night.

We showered and finally went out to eat properly with a noodle soup that comes high up the rankings. When we were in Vietnam a few years ago we came to worship a good Pho – and this was from the same stable.  Loads of fresh herbs and it came with a huge bowl of crisp fresh lettuce, no doubt from the valley we passed through. Our limbs were exhausted though and we could finally rest back at the guest house and spent some time planning out the next couple of weeks.  We already seem to be running out of time!

In the evening we ventured out again to a chinese restaurant. There was no menu and even with google translate we had some difficulty but David ended up pointing at someone else’s dishes and we ended up with a simple but delicious meal of stir fried pork rice and vegetables.  

This place had a feel of China about it.  There was a family celebration going on, multiple dishes and beer was drunk, and there was a Chinese action movie on the large screen (which my sister Kate would not like as people seemed to be shot in every scene).  While we were there, several lorries arrived and parked up outside.  All the lorries we have seen have been Chinese (we are near the Chinese border here) so it seems this is a favorite stopping point.  The lorry drivers seemed to know each other so they probably ply this route regularly and on into Thailand.  We have tuned our ears into the sound of the Lao language and this was not Lao, so it must have been Chinese. 

Day 26:  30 January :  Huay Xai to Baan Donchai :  73km and 1200m of climbing

Today was back on the trikes, a day involving 50% more climbing than any other day on the trip so far and our first significant “loss” – namely the top of Bernie’s flag which must have bounced off at some point on the bumpy Laos roads.  We retraced our steps for a few km after I discovered it was missing, but it must have come off some time earlier.  So someone in Laos has become the proud owner of a plastic flag pole with a Union Jack and an EU flag.  We will have to replace it when we get to the next major town, which will probably be Luang Nampha.

This is my bit of road – and I am not moving for anyone!

The day started with us failing to get going quickly, despite waking early.  I have no idea why some mornings we bounce out of bed and are on the road in no time and on other mornings we raise faffing around to an art form as we delay getting on our bikes. Today was a faffing morning but we were still on the road soon after 7.30am. 

Our route took us through the town and then along Highway 3, going North East into Laos.  There was development along the road for miles and miles, and it must have been 20km before we were really in the countryside. Planning rules would prevent this in the UK and Europe, but things might be different here.  

The road climbed into the countryside, as we knew because we had been driven along it 2 days previously to get to the start of the Gibbon Experience trek.  After 32km we reached a village that signified the start of the first major climb of the day – about 400m upwards.  It was marked as over 12% on our maps but actually was between 9% and 10% most of the way up and was not too bad.  The views at the top were hazy, as we looked over a mixture of jungle and parched farmed land.  The fields are only used intensively in the rainy season and look a bit sorry for themselves for the rest of the year.  

There is deep jungle to the North of the road and some agriculture to the south.  The jungle goes more or less all the way to the Chinese border, with most of it being a national park.  The battle between creating enough farmland to produce food for a growing population and maintaining the virgin forests is a perpetual battle.  We are not sure who is winning overall, but the intrusions into the forest do not appear significant in this area and tourism, which depends on the maintenance of the forests, is a big industry.

We swooped down from the top of the first climb and had an early lunch which we cooked up at the Gibbon Experience roadside shack – noodles, chopped tomatoes, boiled eggs and sticky rice.  We were warned that getting fresh food in Laos is difficult – with noodles and eggs being mainstays of the diet.  Our dinner might be remarkably similar.  

Bernie and the helpful chap at the Gibbon Experience Shack

We were soon off and into new territory, with the road winding through verdant forests.  No one appears to have told the road engineers that it was OK to have a flat section – it seemed always to be going up or down and we were clocking up the climbing metres.  The road was quiet with only the very occasional Chinese registered lorry.  They gave us a wide berth, and often the co-driver was hanging out of the window with his mobile phone to video the strange vehicles that they were passing. 

We passed through small villages which mainly consisted of small shacks with rattan walls with the occasional concrete house. Here we generated vast numbers of smiles, waves, “very good”s and thumbs up.  In one slightly bigger village with a primary school we could hear voices ringing out ‘Falang, falang’ – the universal word for a white foreigner in most of SE Asia. Children sprinted along to get a good look at us. We must have seemed very odd to them (as indeed we appear very odd even in the UK!)

We did not see another long distance cyclist all day, despite this being the only road.  So we are intrepid or foolish – maybe both.  The scenery continued to be delightful all afternoon.

A few more significant climbs and then we reached the village of Baan Donchai where there was reputed to be a “guest house”.  We confidently expected to be the only guests and were not disappointed.  It was very basic and the room had the hardest bed that we have encountered – and there is quite a competition for that accolade. However the room was huge so we could park the bikes inside, there was electric light and even a shower with hot water……at least Bernie had hot water, it ran out half way through David’s shower.  One of life’s unfairnesses!

As soon as we arrived we were surrounded by small, grubby and happy children who, on discovering the astonishing fact that we could not speak Lao, started to tell us words!  They were fascinated by everything about us and everything we did, and had no concept of interpersonal space at all.  Hence Bernie had 3 children draped around her as she tried to catch up with messages from friends at home on her phone.  This was delightful and frustrating in equal measures but we certainly don’t need to go on a trek to see Loatian village life – it is here and up close and personal.  

Our teachers

Overall we were pretty pleased with our efforts today.  We climbed over 1200m, much of it steep (but not punishingly so like the other day) and started to experience rural Laos – basic and poor but not starving.  A good day even though we are both tired now and wonder how our 60+ year old bodies will react in the morning.

Day 26:  30 January :  Huay Xai to Baan Donchai :  73km and 1200m of climbing

Today was back on the trikes, a day involving 50% more climbing than any other day on the trip so far and our first significant “loss” – namely the top of Bernie’s flag which must have bounced off at some point on the bumpy Laos roads.  We retraced our steps for a few km after I discovered it was missing, but it must have come off some time earlier.  So someone in Laos has become the proud owner of a plastic flag pole with a Union Jack and an EU flag.  We will have to replace it when we get to the next major town, which will probably be Luang Nampha.

This is my bit of road – and I am not moving for anyone!

The day started with us failing to get going quickly, despite waking early.  I have no idea why some mornings we bounce out of bed and are on the road in no time and on other mornings we raise faffing around to an art form as we delay getting on our bikes. Today was a faffing morning but we were still on the road soon after 7.30am. 

Our route took us through the town and then along Highway 3, going North East into Laos.  There was development along the road for miles and miles, and it must have been 20km before we were really in the countryside. Planning rules would prevent this in the UK and Europe, but things might be different here.  

The road climbed into the countryside, as we knew because we had been driven along it 2 days previously to get to the start of the Gibbon Experience trek.  After 32km we reached a village that signified the start of the first major climb of the day – about 400m upwards.  It was marked as over 12% on our maps but actually was between 9% and 10% most of the way up and was not too bad.  The views at the top were hazy, as we looked over a mixture of jungle and parched farmed land.  The fields are only used intensively in the rainy season and look a bit sorry for themselves for the rest of the year.  

There is deep jungle to the North of the road and some agriculture to the south.  The jungle goes more or less all the way to the Chinese border, with most of it being a national park.  The battle between creating enough farmland to produce food for a growing population and maintaining the virgin forests is a perpetual battle.  We are not sure who is winning overall, but the intrusions into the forest do not appear significant in this area and tourism, which depends on the maintenance of the forests, is a big industry.

We swooped down from the top of the first climb and had an early lunch which we cooked up at the Gibbon Experience roadside shack – noodles, chopped tomatoes, boiled eggs and sticky rice.  We were warned that getting fresh food in Laos is difficult – with noodles and eggs being mainstays of the diet.  Our dinner might be remarkably similar.  

Bernie and the helpful chap at the Gibbon Experience Shack

We were soon off and into new territory, with the road winding through verdant forests.  No one appears to have told the road engineers that it was OK to have a flat section – it seemed always to be going up or down and we were clocking up the climbing metres.  The road was quiet with only the very occasional Chinese registered lorry.  They gave us a wide berth, and often the co-driver was hanging out of the window with his mobile phone to video the strange vehicles that they were passing. 

We passed through small villages which mainly consisted of small shacks with rattan walls with the occasional concrete house. Here we generated vast numbers of smiles, waves, “very good”s and thumbs up.  In one slightly bigger village with a primary school we could hear voices ringing out ‘Falang, falang’ – the universal word for a white foreigner in most of SE Asia. Children sprinted along to get a good look at us. We must have seemed very odd to them (as indeed we appear very odd even in the UK!)

We did not see another long distance cyclist all day, despite this being the only road.  So we are intrepid or foolish – maybe both.  The scenery continued to be delightful all afternoon.

A few more significant climbs and then we reached the village of Baan Donchai where there was reputed to be a “guest house”.  We confidently expected to be the only guests and were not disappointed.  It was very basic and the room had the hardest bed that we have encountered – and there is quite a competition for that accolade. However the room was huge so we could park the bikes inside, there was electric light and even a shower with hot water……at least Bernie had hot water, it ran out half way through David’s shower.  One of life’s unfairnesses!

As soon as we arrived we were surrounded by small, grubby and happy children who, on discovering the astonishing fact that we could not speak Lao, started to tell us words!  They were fascinated by everything about us and everything we did, and had no concept of interpersonal space at all.  Hence Bernie had 3 children draped around her as she tried to catch up with messages from friends at home on her phone.  This was delightful and frustrating in equal measures but we certainly don’t need to go on a trek to see Loatian village life – it is here and up close and personal.  

Our teachers

Overall we were pretty pleased with our efforts today.  We climbed over 1200m, much of it steep (but not punishingly so like the other day) and started to experience rural Laos – basic and poor but not starving.  A good day even though we are both tired now and wonder how our 60+ year old bodies will react in the morning.

Day 26:  30 January :  Huay Xai to Baan Donchai :  73km and 1200m of climbing

Today was back on the trikes, a day involving 50% more climbing than any other day on the trip so far and our first significant “loss” – namely the top of Bernie’s flag which must have bounced off at some point on the bumpy Laos roads.  We retraced our steps for a few km after I discovered it was missing, but it must have come off some time earlier.  So someone in Laos has become the proud owner of a plastic flag pole with a Union Jack and an EU flag.  We will have to replace it when we get to the next major town, which will probably be Luang Nampha.

This is my bit of road – and I am not moving for anyone!

The day started with us failing to get going quickly, despite waking early.  I have no idea why some mornings we bounce out of bed and are on the road in no time and on other mornings we raise faffing around to an art form as we delay getting on our bikes. Today was a faffing morning but we were still on the road soon after 7.30am. 

Our route took us through the town and then along Highway 3, going North East into Laos.  There was development along the road for miles and miles, and it must have been 20km before we were really in the countryside. Planning rules would prevent this in the UK and Europe, but things might be different here.  

The road climbed into the countryside, as we knew because we had been driven along it 2 days previously to get to the start of the Gibbon Experience trek.  After 32km we reached a village that signified the start of the first major climb of the day – about 400m upwards.  It was marked as over 12% on our maps but actually was between 9% and 10% most of the way up and was not too bad.  The views at the top were hazy, as we looked over a mixture of jungle and parched farmed land.  The fields are only used intensively in the rainy season and look a bit sorry for themselves for the rest of the year.  

There is deep jungle to the North of the road and some agriculture to the south.  The jungle goes more or less all the way to the Chinese border, with most of it being a national park.  The battle between creating enough farmland to produce food for a growing population and maintaining the virgin forests is a perpetual battle.  We are not sure who is winning overall, but the intrusions into the forest do not appear significant in this area and tourism, which depends on the maintenance of the forests, is a big industry.

We swooped down from the top of the first climb and had an early lunch which we cooked up at the Gibbon Experience roadside shack – noodles, chopped tomatoes, boiled eggs and sticky rice.  We were warned that getting fresh food in Laos is difficult – with noodles and eggs being mainstays of the diet.  Our dinner might be remarkably similar.  

Bernie and the helpful chap at the Gibbon Experience Shack

We were soon off and into new territory, with the road winding through verdant forests.  No one appears to have told the road engineers that it was OK to have a flat section – it seemed always to be going up or down and we were clocking up the climbing metres.  The road was quiet with only the very occasional Chinese registered lorry.  They gave us a wide berth, and often the co-driver was hanging out of the window with his mobile phone to video the strange vehicles that they were passing. 

We passed through small villages which mainly consisted of small shacks with rattan walls with the occasional concrete house. Here we generated vast numbers of smiles, waves, “very good”s and thumbs up.  In one slightly bigger village with a primary school we could hear voices ringing out ‘Falang, falang’ – the universal word for a white foreigner in most of SE Asia. Children sprinted along to get a good look at us. We must have seemed very odd to them (as indeed we appear very odd even in the UK!)

We did not see another long distance cyclist all day, despite this being the only road.  So we are intrepid or foolish – maybe both.  The scenery continued to be delightful all afternoon.

A few more significant climbs and then we reached the village of Baan Donchai where there was reputed to be a “guest house”.  We confidently expected to be the only guests and were not disappointed.  It was very basic and the room had the hardest bed that we have encountered – and there is quite a competition for that accolade. However the room was huge so we could park the bikes inside, there was electric light and even a shower with hot water……at least Bernie had hot water, it ran out half way through David’s shower.  One of life’s unfairnesses!

As soon as we arrived we were surrounded by small, grubby and happy children who, on discovering the astonishing fact that we could not speak Lao, started to tell us words!  They were fascinated by everything about us and everything we did, and had no concept of interpersonal space at all.  Hence Bernie had 3 children draped around her as she tried to catch up with messages from friends at home on her phone.  This was delightful and frustrating in equal measures but we certainly don’t need to go on a trek to see Loatian village life – it is here and up close and personal.  

Our teachers

Overall we were pretty pleased with our efforts today.  We climbed over 1200m, much of it steep (but not punishingly so like the other day) and started to experience rural Laos – basic and poor but not starving.  A good day even though we are both tired now and wonder how our 60+ year old bodies will react in the morning.

Day 24 and 25: 28th/29th January: The Gibbon Experience

 Apologies in advance that this is a long read – there is so much to record after a brilliant couple of days.

We woke early, checked out and by 8am we had arrived at the Gibbon Experience office. The Gibbon Experience is described as the best experience in Laos and, as we (jointly) write this after our return from the jungle, it certainly ranks as one of the most amazing couple of days we have had. What is it?  All we really knew in advance was that it was an eco-tourism project that funded conservation of massive areas of jungle, preserving wild areas for gibbons and other animals, by providing jungle experiences for tourists.  We knew the “experience” involved some trekking, a lot of zip wires and staying in a very high tree house in the middle of the Nam Kan national park. As far as we could see this is ecotourism at its best. It is quite an expensive trip but the organisation employs 130 local people on good wages, including park rangers to protect the park, supports local schools in the national park and does a lot of conservation and biodiversity work.

So back to 8am and arriving at the office in the town of Huay Xai.  We saw the slightly scary “safety video” then piled into a small truck where we met the rest of our group – 2 French (one living in Berlin), 1 Italian (living in France), 3 Germans and a German of Lao/Vietnamese family heritage who was born in Germany and considers himself German (except when he is Laos when he is a bit more Lao). Lucky for us the common language was English. We had our first view of the Lao roads and villages that we would be exploring by bike in a few days time. It had a very different feel to Thailand, not least because there were very few private cars and only a handful of lorries.

After an hour and a half on the back of a truck we were dropped off at a roadside shack, and we met our guides.  We were then handed our zip wire harnesses, which would become a permanent fixture on our bodies until the end of the day. We had a lesson on the safe use of the zip wire with a short hop over the river. No one fell into the river off the zip wire and we were all slightly relieved that sitting in a harness going along a zipwire seemed a manageable skill.  Then it was about an hour and a half trek, mostly uphill into the jungle. The path was easy to follow as we tramped along in single file, gently chatting and getting to know each other.  

Then we reached the first proper zip wire. There was anxious laughter as we looked at the wire stretching 400m across the valley, way above the trees and hundreds of feet about the ground.  This was a completely different level to the zipwire over the stream, albeit the same technique.  The lead guide launched himself off as we all watched nervously then lined up for our turn. Our hearts were pounding as our turns came, everything on the harness was checked.  We had seen several people reaching the other side without plunging into the abyss so there was nothing for it but to let the harness take the weight and suddenly we found ourselves going along the wire at a terrifying speed, with astonishing views on each side as we sped above the trees.  Bernie’s eyes were fixed on the platform ahead without daring to look to the side, let along down then before she knew it she was safely on terra firma and then realised how tense her body had been!

David tried to lie back in the harness as instructed and looked around, only to find his whole body starting to go round in circles below the wire.  At this point he could not recall the instructions as to how to correct the twist and ended up facing backwards, and thus came to a premature stop about 15m from the end of the wire.  At that point he was able to pull himself hand over hand along the last 10m or so until he was ignominiously pulled in by one of the guides.  Later David got the hang of the technique and ended up being one of those who approached the landing zone too fast and had to brake.  The “brake” was a piece of bicycle tyre at the back of the rollers from which the harness (and safety line) were attached.  It was a simple, brilliant system.

There were a total of 9 of these zip wires that day and after the first couple we were able to relax, improve our technique and look in wonder at the forest canopy that we were flying over. The guides explained that each 30 or 40 second zip wire saved a 2 hour trek down into the valley and up the other side.  We were therefore able to get deeper and deeper into the jungle….and have great fun too.

Eventually at about 3.30pm we arrived at the last zipwire which took us directly into the treehouse – our residence for the night.  Each treehouse is made of wood from fallen trees and none of the parts are brought in by helicopter as this would disturb the animal life that they want to preserve.  It takes a full year to build a treehouse – which is on 3 levels.  It is basic, but water is pumped up from a nearby stream and there is the most spectacular toilet and shower (cold water) imaginable.

About 10 minutes up the path there is a small settlement with a cook house and accommodation for the staff who support the treehouses, do conservation work, maintain the ziplines and do routine patrols to dissuade poachers or people who want to burn forest to create more agricultural land (which seemed to be a problem in the past). 

We had a lovely afternoon and evening, looking out over the forest (very still – lots of bird calls, fewer birds but no gibbons). The views were simply awe inspiring as day turned to dusk and the sun sank into the hills. The food was delicious and the company was excellent – albeit we were probably 30 years older than anyone else in the group.  They did not seem to mind having a couple of (almost) pensioners as part of the group and Bernie’s medical skills were put to good use (paradoxically for the benefit of a German doctor – one of two other docs in the group).  It would be an exaggeration to say that we inspired them by our cycling exploits but they were slightly fascinated by the trikes, and also by the fact that people of our age (which probably means people more of their parents’ ages) still had the motivation and energy to travel by bike and experience new things.  One of them, Ed (the delightful German/Lao/Vietnamese – and the other doctor) had completed a 5 month cycle trip from home to the Middle East as the start of his year traveling.  He had never cycled before and hilariously described learning to mend a puncture from a Youtube video when, after 3000km, he finally got a flat.  Later he sat on David’s trike and declared himself an instant convert.

As elder stateman and stateswoman (or probably more as the only people prepared to admit to being occasional snorers) we were given the smaller upper floor to sleep on, on our own.  So we had the treehouse penthouse suite for the night – and both had an excellent night.

We were woken about 6.30 by the familiar ‘zip’ of the zip wire as one of the guides went off to the kitchen to get a huge kettle of hot water, also brought back over the zip wire, for early morning tea/coffee as it began to get lighter. The forest was astonishingly quiet all night and in the early morning – there was a bit of a dawn chorus but not the raucous forest noise we had seen on TV.  Perhaps we were too high in the canopy.

Then there was a trip out to see the kitchen area. It was amazing to see that the food produced was cooked on a couple of log fires.  We saw how ‘sticky rice’ is steamed in a rattan basket over a huge pot and there was a little herb garden.  Then on to a circuit of 4 zip wires as the sun came up over the mountains. This was just to help us gain an appetite for a veritable feast of a breakfast back at the tree house with a vast array of delicious Lao dishes – no doubt toned down in chilli content!

With full stomachs we had to bid goodbye to the magical tree house.  Then it was a combination of hiking mostly down hill and 7 zip wires to take us down into a valley where we finally stopped next to a river where we could swim in deliciously cool water. Yet more food for lunch – this time a simpler rice dish – before we piled back into the truck for the journey home.  This was the most terrifying part of the whole trip as we bounced along a very bumpy track for 45 minutes hanging on to the sides for dear life to prevent being thrown out of the back! At one point we saw a large snake slithering across the road.  At last onto smooth tarmac for the last hour back.  The end of an experience of a lifetime. 

Day 23:  Friday 27 January :  Chiang Khong to Huay Xai : 30km

We are sitting on a rooptop, looking over the Mekong and about 400m from where we stayed last night – but on the other side of the river.  The key difference is that the international boundary goes along the river bed and we are now in Laos – or to give it its full title “The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos”.  We met someone earlier today from the former People’s Democratic Republic of Germany who had his own views on the form of government here  – but that is another story which you will have to read to the end of the blog to discover – but here we are in the PDRL.  

It is to state the obvious to say that Thailand and Laos are different, but we cycled down pristine highways in Thailand, passing buildings in a good state of repair (there is money in running a customs business) and reached the border.  At this point we hit our first administrative hiccup of the day.  Thing is, the vehicles drive on the left in Thailand (so we are feeling comfortable with that) but on the right in Laos (like the rest of the world – so most people are comfortable with that).  Thus the “Friendship Bridge No 4” (not 100% sure where numbers 1 to 3 are but recall we crossed one about 100km south in 2019) has to have a peculiar road system so you start on the left and end on the right.  Bicycles are not allowed to cross the friendship bridge for “safety reasons” and bikes are stowed in buses instead.  That has the “wholly unexpected” benefit for the bus operators that they have a monopoly over foot passengers and charge everyone 130 baht for using the bus, plus an extra fee for carrying the bike in the bus.  

Looking back across Thailand in the evening
Maybe not ….

But the administrative rock hit the hard place of reality in our case – what to do with 3 wheeled bikes.  Did we have an engine?  No only our legs.  We did not disclose that we could dismantle the trikes and so they scratched their heads and decided (a) we were not a bicycle so we could cycle across the bridge but (b) we were enough of a bicycle that we still needed a bus ticket, and should follow the bus for “safety reasons”.  We resisted a smile and went along with this farce, and duly followed the bus along the 4km route.  It was fine except on the steep uphill parts of the bridge where we did our best to keep up with the bus and the driver could not believe he needed to go at 10kph!  Going down the other side we hit 40kph and almost collided with the rear of the bus.  

We then reached the Laos border and went through the complex process of getting visas – first we had to get our passports checked (unofficial additional fee of 20 baht – just handed over as who were we to take the point), then the formal border checkpoint (finger printed as usual) and finally $40 handed over for the visa.  All took less than an hour – which was astonishing in the circumstances.  

Riding away from the border post we instantly noted the differences – many more pot holes, far fewer modern buildings and a generally deplapided feel compared to Thailand – but happy, enthusiastic and loud people.  This is going to be an interesting time! We booked into the Gibbon Experience office, found a guest house, bought a sim card, got local currency (the kip – 20,000 to the £!) and generally relaxed.  One of the features of this trip is my ability to be satisfied with mooching as opposed to being driven to complete 80+km per day.  My “moochability” quotient has definitely increased with age, retirement and possibly self-reflection.  Friends will read this with astonishment but, despite everything, it feels as if David is winding down.

We ambled up to the wat – a lovely “ordinary” temple with lovely artwork.  The pictures tell the story.  Then we ambled down to the river and met Damien and Adrian, a lovely nurse/midwife couple (we assume) from France who have lived all over the world for the last few years (including in New Caledonia) and are now travelling whilst they work out what to do next.  They suggested we might like to come to the “Reading Elephant Laos” project to speak with children who were learing English.  We were delighted to do so and spent a stimulating hour with Jackson, aged 16, whose English was better than his confidence allowed.  This is a project that seeks to enhance children’s reading skills in both Lao and English.  We met the organisers and were impressed with the commitment to giving children better reading skills.  Our words – as natural English speakers – were particularly welcome and we probably did more to assist the pronunciaion of the teachers than assist Jackson.

Back to the guest house where we sat on the terrace and watched the sun go down over the Mekong and then out for a delightful evening meal with Damien and Adrian.  Laos feels like our sort of place.

Day 22:  Thursday 26th January. Chiang Rei to Chiang Khong:  101km and 300m climbing.

Today we geared ourselves up for what we hope will be our last day in Thailand before crossing into Laos. We had our usual early start but Chiang Rei also seemed to be an early starter so there was some weaving through traffic until we cleared the city limits.  Luckily that did not take too long (memories of the half day it took to clear the Phoenix suburbs in the US last year).  

A half completed building that looked out of place in the Thai countryside – possibly a mosque?

As soon as we were in open country the morning was glorious and we had a day of varying landscapes.  We were following the Kok river for the first part.  The river was irrigating huge swathes of paddy fields, glinting in the early morning sun. 

We then turned away from the river and took a road following a line of hills.  Little ups and downs and numerous ordinary everyday villages and towns. We try not to be too much of a tourist snob but one of the huge benefits of cycling is seeing these out of the way places where tour buses and trains don’t go.  We brought fruit from a local market in one town, causing a mild stir of amusement amongst the market stall holders – laughing at our means of transport we think.  After about 50km we stopped at a tiny coffee shop almost buried in a shrubbery where we had one of our best cups of coffee so far! 

The road then turned into the hills and the landscape changed again. It wound up hill in a slow climb through lush trees and vegetation.  There were still patches of cultivation in narrow patches by the side of the road – oranges, bananas, rubber trees, were the ones we could identify. Although we had built ourselves up for the climb it was an easy one and after an initial steepish bit down the other side on a rubbish road surface, it was an easy run down too.

We were then into a different type of landscape with much drier soil.  There was no irrigation here so it showed the effects of the dry season on the parched soil. We saw a large cassava factory at one point.  Cassava is not a staple food of Thailand but it has an important economic role.  Cassava can grow in dry, low nutrient soils and the roots can be stored in the ground for up to 24 months. The cassava is chopped up and spread out on the ground to dry out.  When it is ground up it is called Tapioca – rather gastly memories of school lunch puddings but it is used as a ‘native starch’ mainly as a thickening agent and stabiliser.

We were now into the hot afternoon (although overall the weather had been cooler today).  The landscape was dusty and rather tedious, and the cycling getting metronomic.  The route turned us off the ‘main road’ for a while and we stopped at a village shop for cold drinks and some donuts.  There was a gaggle of women chatting and no doubt we gave them plenty more to talk about.  None of course spoke English and our Thai remains derisory but the universal signs of waving and smiling go a long way.

The mighty Meking

At 100km we came rolling in to Chiang Khong, a trading town on the banks of the mightly Mekong river; and a few kms from the border crossing into Laos.  We know from experience that border crossings can be variable – from a few mintues to several hours so this was something to tackle tomorrow and not in the late afternoon.  We therefore booked into a pretty wooden guest house on the Thai side, strolled up and down the banks of the Mekong looking over at the town where we will stay tomorrow and had a lovely last meal Thai meal.  This place has all the feelings of frontier town, built on trade coming from the river and with merchants marking their success with wonderful wooden (teak) houses – many of which now have even more charm as they are slighty delapidated.  

It’s exactly 3 weeks since we arrived in Thailand and we are about 1300km into the trip. Our Thailand phase has been amazing as we have learnt the benefits and the quirks of the trikes – but overall we love our new way of seeing the world.  Laos will be similar but also very different; we are both looking forward to a new phase of the trip, starting tomorrow.

Day 21:  Wednesday 25 January 2023:  Mae Chan to Chiang Mai:  30km 

We woke after a deep sleep and had a leisurely breakfast at the guest house.  Then we were on our way, knowing it was only a couple of hours to the major city of Chiang Rei.  We were back on our old friend, the “1” road, but this time going South.  We were doing a little bit of a triangle because we wanted to see Chaing Rei and could not be in Laos until Friday because we were booked into the “Gibbon Experience” (maximum recommended age 50) on Saturday. The road to Chiang Rei was a dual carriageway with a hard shoulder, and was slightly downhill and slightly with the wind in our favour – so we averaged about 20kph.  We arrived at our guest house in Chiang Rei too early to check in, so we left our panniers and ambled the 4km across to the Mae Fah Luang cultural park.  Before doing so we had an extended conversation with a couple who are about 10 years older than us and come from the UK.  

They were travelling by car around the north of Thailand and described how they took 2 months here to get away from the UK in the winter, fuel prices and generally how they felt our country was going downhill.  We could agree – up to a point – but I hope we are mainly driven by positive reasons to be here rather than negative reasons for not wanting to be in the UK.  I accept that I have to keep my natural tendencies to be a curmudgeon in check (glorious as it can be to occupy that space) but others may not see the need for that discipline.

The Mae Fah Luang cultural park was one of the highlights of the trip so far.  It was only created between 1984 and 1990 and is a gift from the people of Chiang Reii to the Queen Mother,  Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra to mark her 84th birthday in 1984.  The late Queen Mother (who died in 1995 at the age of 95) was the mother of King Bhumibol (who reigned until 2016 and was the world’s longest serving monarch until overtaken by HM Queen Elizabeth II of GB).  She must have been the grandmother to the present King.  The Royal family hold a special place in Thai culture and saying anything bad about them is a criminal offence – so I will not to do so.  

The cultural park was a place of solace and beauty.  32 ancient teak houses in the city had been dismantled to create a wonderful pavilion which displayed words of art from throughout the Lanna tribal region, which stretches across Northern Thailand and well into Myanmar.  The pavilion had openings to allow cool air to circulate and it was surrounded by lakes, all covered in water lillies.  The photos will not do justice to its sense of calm.

This is a carving of a mother holding her child aloft.

There were also beautiful grounds to wander around (almost deserted of visitors today) and a teak exhibition showing this versatile wood in everyday uses as well as for art and construction.  There was also a modern art exhibition which – as with all modern art – we find hit and miss but this was more hit (in an impressionist style) than miss.

After that we did some shopping, read, I got beaten at scrabble and we did numerous jobs before leaving the last major Thai city of this trip.  In contrast to the Mae Fah Luang cultural park, the city was teaming with tourists this evening – even though there is not a great deal to see here.  It is not Chiang Mai, but maybe some got confused between the two places and intended to come to Chiang Mai and ended up in the industrial city of Chiang Rei instead!  We had an indifferent meal (curmudgeon tendencies coming back) and went back to the guest house to prepare for a 100km day tomorrow.

Day 20: Tuesday 24 January:  Fang Hot springs to Mae Chan: 95km and 800m climbing

Today was one of ‘those’ cycling days. Although only a little more climbing than yesterday, we went much further but more importantly the climb was steep – very steep – and we cycled 50km before the main climb started so only started it at midday (mad dogs and Englishmen etc…)  But I have jumped ahead, back to first thing this morning.

The main difference between camping in South East Asia and Europe is the amount of light we have.  Essentially we have 12 hour days here – it is dark at 6.30pm and does not start to get light until 6.30am.  We had therefore cooked and eaten before 6pm and were tucked up in our sleeping bags by 8.30pm. A bit of reading before our eyes droop then sleep. We are therefore awake early but can’t really get up until 6.15pm.  We dopily put on the first brew with head torches then hey presto it’s light and we can start packing up.

Steam coming into the air at Fang Hot Springs

We were on the road about 7.30 – steam from the geysers lit up in the early morning sun.  The first 10km was a gradual slide back down the hill to Fang – a town that seems to extend on for about 15km.  The cycling app Kamoot had plotted a great route cross country for the first 40km. Through familiar rural countryside but with the looming hills getting closer and closer. We crossed the bridge over the Kok river and joined the main highway heading east over the hills. 

Kok River – looking upstream to the hills

We met a charming young French couple who were cycling in the opposite direction, having come from Laos.  Useful intelligence but it is clear they are roughing it far more than suits us – but then they are 30 years younger! A few kms on we passed a great coffee shop that did good coffee and omelettes; to set us up for the climbing ahead. Another 10km of slightly uppy/downy road and the climb proper started. 

By now it was mid day and it was hot. Yesterday’s climb was shady but here was no shade. And then the steep sections started – and I mean STEEP! We had about 300m of climbing (1000ft in old money) where the gradient was frequently over 10% and often hitting short stretches up to 18%.  After that our Wahoos (our navigation devices – brilliant by the way) stopped counting and gave up saying 0% but we reckon at times it must have over 20% in places.  It was tough – pushing the pedals as hard as we could, one at a time, aiming for the next corner, stopping in every small patch of shade. There were few trucks and those that did the climb were not moving much faster than we were.  The scenery developed as we climbed – with hazy views of the mountains forward and back.  The ground was dry but there was some cultivation right the way up.

But we were doing it, our gearing is really good and we could just about keep pedaling without having to get off and push. We were sure that if we were on our touring bikes we would have got off and walked our heavily packed bikes up the ramps. Unlike a bike you can’t use your weight to push the pedals round but with a trike you push against the back of the seat, which seems more effective when it is mega steep.

We inched our way up at sail’s pace. About three quarters of the way up, when we were having a one of our frequent rests, we were passed by a British guy on a motorbike.  To say he was impressed is an under-statement.  He was more than impressed!! Well we felt pretty impressed with ourselves – and felt better when we put our heads under a hosepipe that was gushing water (sorry not photos of that as our minds were not quite working logically at that point). At last we made the top and swooped down hill….only to have another (admittedly shorter) climb to do.  We refueled ourselves with boiled egg and cheese sandwiches, telling ourselves that at least this one would not be so steep.  Wrong!  Another steep climb but only of about 100m or so of climbing and then we were into the descent proper.

This descent definitely makes it into our annals of ‘top cycling descents we have done’.  The road surface was good, the scenery fantastic and the road alternated between straight bits, where we reached rather terrifying speeds (or at least I was terrified…..but I always had the option of braking harder!) and winding bends that were fun to go around.  The trikes handled amazingly well.  One of the other advantages of the trikes is that the braking system is so good that you don’t get the terrible hand ache that you can get on a long descent on the bike when you are having to brake almost continuously.

After the main descent the road continued down the valley – still mostly gradually down hill but now with more small undulations.  Our legs were pretty spent so these undulations felt really painful, so we decided to start looking for a hotel.  The first hotel did not seem to exist (or at least not where marked on googlemaps). The second hotel was clearly not really open but they could open up a rather dingy bungalow style room for us but there was no where to eat and nowhere to buy food. So we decided we would have to continue another 10km down to the end of the road where there was a town and the junction with highway1 (which we had followed in parallel earlier in our trip). Luckily the undulations stopped and it was a more or less gradual down hill most of the way.

Into the town and the first guest house we tried had locked gates and no-one around. At our 4th attempt at finding some where we hit gold with a lovely little hotel with nice rooms, hot water and even a kettle in the lobby so we could make tea. We collapsed, more tired than we had been this trip, but both pleased and slightly surprised with what we had done and with how the trikes had handled up and down.

We both independently dreamed of pizza and our second stroke of luck was a great pizza place 10 minutes walk away.  We polished off 2 large pizzas and began to feel human again. Luckily only a short day planned tomorrow. 

Day 19:  Monday 23 January:  Marlee’s Nature Lovers Bungalows, Chiang Dao to Fang Hot Springs:  89km and 760m of climbing

There are uncertainties when traveling anywhere by bike.  The obvious ones are punctures, mechanicals or unexpected things along the way that make life more difficult than expected.  There are extra uncertainties when traveling in a country where we cannot speak the language, do not know the terrain and where hotels, guest houses and restaurants may have moved, closed down or, despite being on google (with reviews) never existed in the first place.  

Then again, there are certainties.  Hills are one of them.  So we started today knowing it was a bigger climbing day than we had ever done on the trikes (powered or under Shanks’ pony) and that we have over 80km to cover.  Fortunately, the majority of the climbing was due to face us in the morning rather than in the heat of the day.  Nonetheless this type of certainty – added to the uncertainties can be slightly daunting.

We woke as it got light and packed up our tent.  On the way out at about 7.30, the lovely and eponoymous Marlee came to greet us with a bags of sweets she insisted we would need – and we took them with gratitude.

A wat along the way

The first part was down and then across to the main road.  It was misty in the valley, a mixture of smoke from fires and low lying cloud.  We climbed out of that through a village where we seemed to have about 15 dogs barking at us at once, and yet none approached.  Then our route took us onto the main “107” road, which we would follow for the next 75km.  It was moderately busy but had good shoulders.  It wound its way up and down, gradually gaining height and then, after about 25km, we went through the last village before starting the big climb of the day.  Luckily, this village had a cafe by a lake which did excellent coffee and omelets.  “Second breakfast” is usually the best meal of the day on a cycling trip – but we have not indulged much in this delight to date.  Today was the exception – we needed rocket fuel to get us up the hill and it was there on offer.

View from second breakfast cafe

When we left the cafe I thought Bernie was on fire – nothing I could do meant I could keep up with her.  I then discovered I had not fully taken my back brake off and so was making life harder for myself than needed! Feeling like an idiot, I got back into the rhythm of the day.  

The big climb was only about 250m and was never more than 10%.  It was tough but entirely doable and we need not have built ourselves up so much.  There were long gaps in the traffic, followed by a lorry leading a stream of 20 or 30 cars since there were very few overtaking places.  The lorries tended to see us late because of the tight bends so we pulled fully into the sides on occasions.  But it was soon over and we were steaming down the other side.

At the bottom the road became far more crowded.  We stopped for an early lunch at a roadside cafe and had chicken “soup”, complete with chicken feet in the soup!  It was delicious and great value, but we left some parts untasted. 

The afternoon passed in a fairly tedious blur.  The road was straight, dusty, busy and passed through a constant stream of towns, and was built up between the towns.  There are sections like this on any route, but they pass.  We turned off just South of Fang, to start the climb up to the famous Fang Hot Springs.  It was well worth the extra 100m climb to come into a delightful park with columns of steam coming from the boiling water emerging from the rocks.  We got sorted, found a place to camp and then went to explore the hot springs.  

Apologies for including this one!

I will forever associate the smell of “rotten eggs” with O Level chemistry classes – the smell of burning sulphur.  To say it is unpleasant is an underestimate but this is the smell of the hot water as it comes out of the ground.  We could more than put up with the smell to sit in the hot mineral waters as we rested limbs after our endeavours.  This is a favourite place both locals and visitors and the gardens have a Japanese feel to them.  It was  lovely place to end the day.