As briefly indicated in a previous post, we indeed, tried to escape from the haze of smoke in Northern Thailand. We were just longing for a view further then just a couple of hundred meters and hoped Laos to be less affected.
Thus, we took two buses, a ride of about 6 hours to Laos’ border in Thailand’s Northeast (Chiang Khong – Hua Xai). To our disappointment, however, the situation wasn’t any better there. Especially Jela was longing so much for better air and view that the lack of improvement made her sad and she badly wished to be somewhere else on our first day in Laos, as she confessed with some tears in her eyes. Well, the extreme dusty and rough dirt road might have contributed to her low mood as well. A dirt road we spent our first 3 days in Laos on turned out being a considerable ordeal, especially for myself. On the contrary also permitted some interesting insights into Laos’ rural life.
But step by step. Lets go back to the border crossing into Laos. The entry was relatively straightforward and the ‘visa on arrival’ quickly obtained. To get to the Laos’ side of the border itself, however, was quite a nuisence: we weren’t permitted to cycle the 2 kilometers through the no-man’s-land over the Mekong and had to take the bus. Not only that, while it cost 20 Baht per person, we had to pay 100 Baht per bicycle additionally, for a stretch, we actually didn’t want nor didn’t need to take a bus. Anyway, with some leftover-Baht and surplus dollars we scraped together and finally paid.
When we first hit the road in Laos we were quite surprised (for not being very well-informed) finding a roundabout to be driven anti-clockwise. Yes, thanks to the French, in Laos people drive on the right-hand side. Quite a change after cycling for 6 month on the left-hand side. But in the end we didn’t care much during our first days since on the dirt road we simply stayed on the less terrible side of the track.
2 p.m. Relentless sun and heat. Our second day on that dirt track. After a lift for few kilometers by one of the very rare pickup trucks – if at all only scooters or motorbikes are on their way – and another extensive rest we decided to continue again, pushing our bikes up the next steep ascent. But no chance, just an hour later, with very little gain in altitude and kilometers, my legs began to cramp up again and I was too exhausted to go any further. In the middle of another dusty village – basic wood or bamboo huts with chickens and pigs…, I couldn’t help and had to settle down for a rest in the shadow. The villagers curiously gathering around us – a lot of children, some naked, old woman with (presumably) an opium pipe dangling from her mouth, friendly younger women, few men. They noticed my mal-condition and after a while offered a little bamboos hut for me to lay down.
I accepted the offer hesitantly meanwhile Jela – who felt much better than I did that day – took photos, entertained the villagers etc. Two hours later my appetite returned and we decided to cook in the hut. What a spectacle! Every movement even was supervised by some dozens of curious eyes, sneaking through the little doors. Some even got hold of a ‘box seat’ and watched us eating directly sitting in front of us. All friendly, actually quite cute, unfortunately there was no possibility to communicate much. After our meal, however, I felt strong enough again to continue a bit. Not only was the attention we felt like getting a bit too much for us but also did we want to add at least a bit more kilometers to the embarrassingly few kilometers we cycled so far that day.
When we finally pitched our tent for the second time along that track about 34 km were still left to get back to a paved road. Doesn’t sound much, still it took us about another 7 hours on the third day – crappy track quality and steep ascents finally leading up to 1,500 m prevented any speeding. Fortunately I felt much better. The temperatures were moderate now and I paid more attention to not getting as dehydrated as the previous day, what most likely had been the reason for my severe exhaustion.
After a couple of more basic villages with many shouted ‘sabeidee’s or ‘byebye’s, two working elephants, more steep accents, and awfully bad descents (the heating up of our rims made me worry) we happily reached the paved road and shortly afterwards the touristic town Pakbeng at the Mekong river. What a trip! Before we settled down in our guesthouse and had a well-earned dinner, we spent about two hours of cleaning our panniers and bikes.
The little town of Pakbeng is actually quite secluded. Still, it’s very touristic because countless foreigners spend one night here during the popular two-day trip from the Thai border (Hua Xai) to Luang Prabang with a ‘slowboat’ on the Mekong. Whereas during the day almost no tourist can be spotted on the street there is a daily procession of backpackers in the afternoon from the boats into town and back again the next morning.
And, as usual, for some impressions please checkout Jela’s website.