Greetings from Luang Prabang - Northern Laos

Guten Tag zusammen,

Yeah I know it’s only been ten days since my last email but I’ve left Thailand and I always like to do a bit of summing up so here goes.

My last email was written from the town of Lampang in Northern Thailand. On our last day in town we rented a motorbike and headed out to the Elephant Conservation Centre which is on the road between Lampang and Chiang Mai. I’ve never ridden a motorcycle but I assumed I’d get one with automatic gears so it’d be no different to riding a motorised Bessie. My assumption turned out to be wide of the mark but once the helpful Thai lady gave me a 2 second summary on how the gears worked I hoped I could figure the rest out for myself. She neglected to mention the whole clutch thing to me which made for an interesting couple of hours but it’s a rented bike so I wasn’t too concerned. The elephant place was pretty cool. We just went for the elephant shows which is a couple of hours with the elephants doing tricks like playing musical instruments and painting pictures. Afterwards we fed them sugar cane which they go mental for. The place also did elephant rides but it was just an amble round the park and I figured I’d rather do it as a trek.

We left Lampang the next day with big plans to do 150kms but things didn’t quite turn out that way. By 10 pm I reckon it was easily 40C and getting hotter. To add to the fun we also hit some serious hills. The minute you’re going up hills you lose speed so bang goes that bit of wind that makes cycling in 40C heat bearable. We dragged ourselves over the hills for 80kms and then stopped in a road side minimart to ask if there was any accommodation up ahead. The guy working in the minimart said he had a bungalow for rent just next door and we could come check it out when we’d finished eating. We said sure and off he dashed. I could see the place from the minimart and I was watching this guy doing what looked like cleaning things up. We went round to have a look and the bungalow was fantastic but I reckon it was actually his house and I kind of felt bad about turfing him out for the night even if we were paying money. It really was great though with a verandah over a pond he’d built although he seemed to think we needed a romantic setting so he kept playing rubbish music by Phil Collins. Still we had a great time and the guy was a fantastic host.

Next day we headed for the town of Phayao. It’d rained for the whole morning which made for a much cooler ride. The town of Phayao is located on a lake of the same name. We cycled along the lake and were looked forward to finding a great place to stay lakeside. Amazingly although the town is built around the lake there isn’t any accommodation actually near the lake. Ironically we ended up in this strange guesthouse in he middle of town were the beds were surrounded by curtains just like you get in hospital wards. As a bonus we got our own pet cockroaches for the night and cockroaches are one of the few things in the world I’m scared of so a fun night was had.

After Phayao we headed for Chiang Rai. On the way I saw one of the more amazing Wats I’ve seen so far. In a country with thousands of temples it takes something special to stop you in your tracks. I’d try to describe it but it’s one of those things you just have to see so you’ll have to wait for the photos. We arrived in Chiang Rai in the late afternoon with plans for a day off but the previous days hadn’t been too taxing so we skipped the day off and headed for the Laos border which is two days ride from Chiang Rai.

The ride to the border is pretty sweet as you’re cycling large parts along the Mekong River. It’d be a lot sweeter if it wasn’t for the steep hills for the last 20kms or so. They really were nasty hills probably as steep as any of the passes I climbed in Kiwiland but obviously the heat just destroys you. We eventually arrived in the town of Chiang Kong which is the border town on the Thailand side. From there you catch a boat over to Houei Xay in Laos. We were stamped out of Thailand and then made our way over the river. Once on the other side we noticed there were a fair few people waiting for the boat to take them over to Thailand but what worried me was that it was the same people who’d just left Thailand before us. Turned out the immigration officer and stamped the wrong date in our passports so we either had to get it changed or spend a night on the pier. I headed back to Thailand and the immigration guy was very apologetic and so after some quick changes on my passport it was back to Laos for the second time that day.

I enjoyed my second time in Thailand although maybe not as much as the first but that’s because the place isn’t new and exciting anymore. It’s still one of the countries I’d recommend first to anybody wanting to get into cycle touring although the ride down the south coast is more enjoyable then the ride north simply because of the great beaches and the islands. Anyway I’ll be back in Thailand in about a month and a half for the ride from Cambodia to Bangkok so more time to continue the love affair.

Corinne and I had decided to catch a slow boat down the Mekong to the town of Luang Prabang and then head south from there on the bikes. It’s a two day boat ride with an over night stop in the small town of Pak Beng. We were told to be down at the pier at 9 in the morning to secure decent seating but as we found out time is a flexible concept here in Laos. The boat eventually left at 11:30 but it’s the third world so you expect these things. There were a fair few fellow tourists on the boat and it was interesting to see how the English managed to conform to their national stereotype and were hammered by the afternoon and playing drinking games by 5. A few of the older passengers were annoyed but they weren’t doing any harm so I didn’t see the big deal.

The next day was pretty interesting as the English tourists had obviously been up till late partying and were far more subdued for the rest of the journey as they nursed hangovers and concentrated on not throwing up. To add to the general discomfort the ferry company had pulled a fast one on us and used a different boat for the second day with half the space but the same amount of people. Honesty appears to be another flexible concept in Laos.

The boat journey itself was great. I know everyone is always trying to avoid their fellow tourists and look for the quiet spots but Corinne and I get that anyway because cycling means you tend to spend more time in the bits that other people just pass through on the bus. It was actually fun to spend some time with people and we met some interesting people and everyone had a good story to tell. I even got to do my round the world cyclist dance that I hadn’t done in ages as there was a dutch guy who’d done a fair bit of cycling so we passed the time comparing notes. Corinne sometimes takes the mickey out of me because I’ll go off to find some information we need about a place and then she has to come find me because I’ve gotten talking to someone and I’m chatting about cycling instead of finding us a place to stay.

We arrived in Luang Prabang yesterday late afternoon. The boat journey down the Mekong was a great experience and one of those must do experiences even if it does mean two days sitting on a wooden bench with zero space. Luang Prabang is a beautiful city, one of the best looking cities I’ve seen so far in SE Asia. It’s small enough that we keep on meeting people from the boat which is amazing considering it’s one of the bigger towns in Laos. Our original plan was to head off south pretty much straight away but we kind of fell in love with the place so will stay an extra two days. We’ve also booked ourselves on a two day Mahout Course which is a day and a half learning how to ride and care for Elephants with a couple of treks through the jungle and then half a day kayaking back down to river to Luang Prabang.

So far Laos is more touristy than I expected. I’d heard some stories about Laos being a difficult place the last time I was in SE Asia but I’ve seen more tourists here than anywhere in Thailand outside of Bangkok. Maybe that’s because there’s really only a few decent sized towns so everyone ends up in the same place. I’ve enjoyed it so far but you have to be more careful when dealing with the locals here as they seem more inclined to try and rip you off. I’ve been in a few situations where a coupe of thousand kip has appeared on the bill and the mistakes are always in their favour so I’ve discounted bad math. Also you’re dealing with multiple currencies and if you ask them to convert to a new currency it’s best to work out what you’re getting beforehand and then make sure you count it. It’s also important to check any transport you’re getting as that luxury boat they show you a picture of suffers from the fast food picture syndrome when you turn up and it’s actually a rust bucket. Another downside is that the Americans left enough unexploded bombs lying around for a couple of world wars so you have to stay on the beaten track when you’re doing any exploring but that shouldn’t effect our cycling. For it’s these quirks it’s still an exciting place though and I’m looking forward to getting into the countryside on the bikes and seeing things outside the main population areas.

Anyway it’s time for bed as I have to get up in the morning and learn how to ride an elephant which is one of those sentences I won’t type very often in my lifetime.

Lots of love as always,

Craig. XXX

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