Northern Laos and the Death of a Bicycle

Trip Start Jul 01, 2010
Trip End Aug 08, 2011

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  , Louangphabang,
Friday, April 8, 2011

The rain as I cycled out of Vientiane was welcome, the overcast sky giving some respite from the usual heat. Taking highway 10, within an hour traffic had dropped away to almost nothing and I was back in agrarian surroundings. The lack of signage at crucial junctions was a slight hindrance, but luck was apparently on my side in the ways I chose.

Directions from a village man led me through a remote subsistence farming area for five kms or so, by a narrow dirt road that seemed to have never suffered a car. By the end of the day I'd traversed most of the plains north of Vientiane and had rejoined the nation's main highway, no. 13.

The morning was damp and misty. Scores of students cycled to their respective schools in bunches large and small, most waving and greeting me with "Sa bai dee" or hello. Even boys and girls walking or cycling alone would smilingly greet this unkempt, bearded cyclist as he passed, in stark contrast to the behaviour of children back home.

The road began to climb and wind as the terrain became more interesting. The porridge I'd breakfasted on served me well, and though the climbs were many, none were of long duration.

Villages straddled the highway ever kilometre or two. I found amusing the satellite TV dishes that accompanied most of the flimsy wooden huts, where the morning chores were underway. Everywhere I was greeted with smiles, waves and sa bai dees.

Traffic was very light, perhaps 5-10 vehicles passing me each minute, which for the country's principal highway is remarkably few!

Around noon, the otherworldly limestone Karst mountains of Vang Vieng loomed into view, and I pulled into the town to take a look-see, still intending to ride all afternoon.

I was hailed by a European man lunching at a food stall on the outskirts. Fréderic suggested I stop for the night as the going was about to get tougher. He had cycled around the world and had done the same route I was on many years earlier. His very dated copy of Lonely Planet gave that there was a hotel for US$2, which was enough to entice my frugal self (in fact it cost the typical 50,000 kip, or a little over $5).

I walked to the riverside, watched a herd of water buffalo crossing under supervision of their stone-throwing herdsmen, and then traversed myself via the rickety wooden bridge. I easily found the trail I'd read of on WikiTravel, which led towards the jungle and ultimately a limestone cave. After a good half hour's walk I found the cave to be closed for the day, so I stayed a while and chatted with a group of friendly and slightly stoned fellow tourists I'd passed on my way there. Returning together through the fields by dark, the villagers searching with torches at first had us perplexed, but presumably it was small wild animals or insects they sought.

I think it could be said that the town of Vang Vieng goes a little too far in accommodating western tourists; I walked past half a dozen cafes where old episodes of Friends, American Dad, or whatever else passes for television comedy these days played constantly before rows of forward-facing chairs. Eateries selling pizza, burgers and other Western food greatly outnumbered those of local cuisine. Everywhere the signage was in English. Hedonic pleasures seemed to be the main pull for visitors. Overall, Vang Vieng felt a little too much a "home away from home" to me, but the younger travellers seemed to enjoy it.

Leaving by morning, for the first hour I was compelled to stop and photograph the Karsts repeatedly as I rode between they and the steep side of the valley opposing. A hilly stretch of the highway coincided with the hottest part of the day, and no less than 4 flat tyres where my repair patches kept popping off by some combination of poor adhesion and high pressure. The road flattened again for a good stretch, and only towards the end of the day did the serious climbing return as some quite extraordinary geographical forms rose before me.

At Bor Nam Oon, I found the chalet accommodation with hot springs I'd read of in other cyclists' blogs, and had been anticipating all afternoon. The spring was tepid at best, but in Laotian heat that's no bad thing. Across the deep valley an enormous Karst dominated, behind which the sun went down.

Early morning began with a steep descent, followed by a grinding climb lasting several hours. For the first time, I began to notice a disconcerting flexing that oughtn't to have been there, when standing on the pedals. Seeing a Laotian man hammering away outside his house, I stopped and asked if he'd hammer the chainrings a little, and then we tightened the Allen bolt. The flexing persisted, so I tried to stay seated and figured I was going to be in need of a new bottom bracket soon - not terribly convenient when in northern Laos, but that would be another day's problem (or so I thought).

Still climbing, I passed through Phou Koun before a prolonged descent began several kilometres past. When it was not possible for the road to go down any further, up it went again. With just 19 km remaining to my day's destination, I rose to stand on the pedals again, when I heard a cracking sound and felt the pedals go all spongy on me. Dismounting at once, I saw that both the bike's down tube and seat tube had clean broken away from the crank-case, rendering my bike rather, well, dead.

I tried to flag down several pick-up trucks with varied hand gestures, but all I got was smiles and waves in return. It being around 2 pm, I still had time to push the bike to Kiewkacham, and I decided that was the best bet. I continued trying to hitch as I walked but to no avail, so at a steady 5 km/h I pushed up the hill, grateful for the magic of the wheel for making it at all possible to shunt the 50 odd kilos of bike and luggage uphill in this way. After three hot hours I'd reached the top and was starting to descend when a small truck stopped and the woman passenger offered me a lift the last 5 km for a small fee.

Before I'd even unloaded my wounded steed I was greeted by Phonsavan, who ran one of the guest houses. I'd read about her and her super-helpful attitude, and true to reputation she changed money for me, helped me find dinner and the next day helped me negotiate transport the remaining 80 km to Luang Prabang with the somewhat reluctant driver.

And so I climbed onto the rear platform of the truck, which I shared with some adolescent girls, some older women and their bags of grains. In spite of the setback, I was excited about Luang Prabang. There I would take it very easy, replenish my body's energy reserves and see what my options might be for continuing.
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Vlad M. on

P.S. I remember reading somewhere that there is a bus service from Laos (presumably, Vientiane) to Kunming (the capital of Yunnan Province), and some buses probably stop in Luang Prabang. Kunming being a major city, I'd imagine that it's as good place to buy a new bike (or a new frame, to combine with the existing wheels etc.?) as any place in China.

The one time I bought a bike in China (in Wuhan in 2008) I paid Y300 (less than $50) for a typical Chinese one-speed street bike (new); a more advanced kind, the way you need, would of course cost more, but probably still cheaper than in Europe.

Terry on

Wow! - that must have been very challenging when your frame cracked & your bike "died" !!
We are really impressed with your adaptability and resilience!
Go Ash!
God bless and enjoy your journeys.

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