Hello Laos! Country #4 – A week cycle touring from Thailand to the Chinese Border

Day 94: Huay Xai to Nangam (Wild camping spot)

We were feeling fresh and full of energy after our good night’s sleep in the Guesthouse we found last night just passed the border. After hearing such positive reviews from fellow cycle tourists, we were brimming with excitement to begin the next stage of our cycling adventure: pedalling through country number four – Laos. 

Rather than making our own breakfast of porridge outside the Guesthouse, we decided to try to find somewhere to eat on the road. Although we hadn’t heard rave reviews about Laos food, we were looking forward to trying it. As we left our accommodation we called out to the locals working there the only word we know in Laotion so far, “Sabaidee!” (hello). 

It was a glorious day: the sun smiled down on us as, even though it was early in the day, the weather already started to heat up. Immediately the differences between Thailand and Laos became apparent. Laos is a much poorer country and, according to the NGO anti-corruption organisation, Transparency International, Laos remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world. This has prevented foreign investment and created major problems with the rule of law. Unfortunately, this has contributed to a third of the population of Laos currently living below the international poverty line, most people in Laos survive on less than £1 per day. 

Poorer living conditions were seen from the offset today: houses in the small villages we cycled past are made very simply – the majority of them constructed with wood or woven bamboo rather than brick and have been built directly onto the muddy, uneven ground. However, although the people of Laos living condition’s are clearly more primitive than Thailand (apparently, modern-day Laos is similar to how Thailand was 60 years ago), what they have in absolute abundance is joy and smiles. Local people are overwhelmingly friendly, especially the children. As we pedal down the road, men and women of all ages call out, “Sabaidee!” “Hello!” or even “Goodbye!” Adults encourage the younger children who may have never seen a Westerner cycling past before to smile, call out and wave. This is what they do. Our hearts melted as we cycled through each village, the children (who are mostly barefoot) running after us down the road, desperately calling out their joyful greetings. Happiness and joy are infectious; it’s safe to say our buckets were full to the brim after our day of cycling today.

There is so much life here. Surrounding the wooden hut villages are an array of different animals all living free-range: dogs, cats, cows, big fat pigs and their little piglets, chickens and their tiny chicks, ducks and their not-so-ugly ducklings. We didn’t see any free-roaming pigs in Thailand, but they are so many in the small villages here. I just love seeing the hairy black pigs trotting about or a litter of super cute piglets lazing on the grass next to the road. 

But back to the cycling! We followed one main road today (which we will follow for the next few days actually), which was tarmacked and in OK condition for the majority of the time. We only had to dodge a few potholes. The road we cycled on today is one of the main trade routes with China, resulting in huge trucks and colossal lorries screeching past us fairly frequently. Some of the lorries had Chinese or Thailand license plates. I soon got used to cycling on the right-hand side, although we have only cycled on one straight road – I haven’t had to tackle any turns or roundabouts yet! 

After our first hour of cycling this morning we didn’t see anywhere for food for breakfast, so we decided to pull up on a flat area of ground away from the road in the shade to make some porridge. We had previously bought some squeezy sauces from 7/11 in Thailand – one of condensed milk and one of chocolate sauce: these went down an absolute treat in our porridge! 

Being able to stop and cook our own food whenever we want is invaluable for us.

The first part of today’s cycle was mainly flat and through those aforementioned joyful, full of life villages. Another glorious positive about Laos is the breathtaking scenery – it’s just so green! Swathes and miles of seemingly untouched land stretch over rolling hills and mountains as far as the eye can see. Due to Laos being a poorer country, in this area of Northern Laos, it is much more remote (I can only speak about this little bit of the country we have seen so far!). Compared to Thailand, it is a lot less built up with fewer buildings and more jungle and forests between each town or village.

One thing Laos is renowned for is its hills. The landlocked country is notoriously mountainous, and that was clear today! The hills were tough. I would put it up almost on par with some of the hills we climbed on the Mae Hong Son loop in Thailand. So we have done tougher and steeper hills but today’s climb was still definitely challenging and seemed to go on for miles. To add to the mix, it was super hot. Sweat poured down every limb and drenched my face as my legs burned with the strain of pedalling up the arduous ascent with the extra weight we have accumulated. Adam being Adam bombed it up to the top of the hill, enjoying the climb as an opportunity to increase his fitness and push himself. Therefore, we didn’t see each other for a while as I can only go as fast as my legs can pedal. We each go at our own pace, so much so that halfway up the hill I stopped for a break, getting out my camping stool and enjoyed a rest in the shade with some water and an orange. (Carrying a little stool is a must on occasions like these!) 

Once I had reached the summit of the gigantic hill, Adam was waiting for me with the drone out. We stopped for a little while and enjoyed the magnificent views from the top before flying down the epic downhill together – we always try to keep in eyesight of each other on the downhills.

Finding shade a the top of a tough climb.

Climbing uphill is worth it for epic views like this.

At about 3pm we stopped for a late lunch. Again, we hadn’t seen a cafe as we had only cycled through remote villages that were too small to have anything like that, so we made some noodles. Having the ability to cook whenever we need to and want to is brilliant. As long as we have some petrol in our stove and some food we don’t need to get hangry. Especially on tough hill climb days, it’s vital to keep our energy up.

As we continued, the road remained hilly, but luckily it was manageable rolling hills, only one or two places of serious steepness. By 4.30pm, we were both running low on water and knew we would need to find somewhere to camp in the next hour or so. Luckily, the next village had a shop so we replenished our water and noodles supply. We also bought 6 eggs for breakfast the next morning. 

Now we had stocked up our water, the next task was to find a suitable camp spot, away from the road. After a few kilometres, we spotted a track leading away from the road. Adam followed it on foot to see where it went, and he confirmed that it proved to be a good little spot to camp. Just before a rubber tree plantation, there was almost like a river bed, with lots of green bushes around. We managed to load our belongings down a slope into the gully, and Adam set to erecting the tent whilst I made some more noodles for dinner, this time with the additions of a tin of tuna, a sachet of green curry powder and a small carton of coconut milk. A delicious dream of a meal after our strenuous day. 

Hoping it wouldn’t rain, we left the fly sheet off the tent, using it instead to cover the bikes and panniers. We were snug in the tent by 7pm, and I was already ready to sleep – today had been exhausting and amazing at the same time. We have both already fallen in love with Laos and we are even considering changing our route so we cycle more distance through this wonderful country. Tomorrow we are planning to cycle just under 60km to a small town. We are keeping our distances low due to the hills and also because there’s just no rush! It’s awesome to just take our time. 

Day 95: Nangam (Wild camp) to Vieng Phouka

We obviously didn’t ‘hope it won’t rain’ enough, as at 3am, low and behold, I wake up to the sound of the pitter-patter of rain. I woke Adam, and he heroically dashed out to cover the tent with the flysheet whilst I stayed nice and warm and dry in the tent. With no damage done, we both fell back to sleep quickly.

It was still raining when we woke up naturally at 7am. Luckily it was only a soft, gentle rain and we had some tree cover, so packing up the tent was hassle free. I cooked us fried eggs for the first time on our trip – they were delicious! I believe that on a bicycle tour, if you carry something and don’t use it you either need to use it, or get rid! So I was happy to use the frying pan this morning and will definitely be using it more often as we cook more for ourselves. It really is liberating being able to cook for yourself on the road. 

Fried eggs, a perfect way to start the day.

Off we pedalled into the calm rain as we were treated with a pleasant downhill to start the day. The downhill didn’t last for long, however, as most of today was a continuous uphill slog. Weaving around the side of the mountain, the road curved and bent conforming to the terrain of the Laos land. On the positive side, the weather was actually quite favourable to cycle in, as it cooled the previous day’s sizzling temperature. Cycling in the spitting rain was a refreshing change, luckily the downpour wasn’t too hard. It did make underfoot more slippery, however, so we were extra careful on the downhills. 

Again we were blown away with just how stunning the landscape is in this country. To add to the splendour, the white clouds shrouded the tops of the hills and mountains mysteriously. Stopping to admire the views was a great excuse for a breather as I slowly crawled up the steep hills! 

Halfway up the mountain, we stopped for lunch: another ‘homecooked’ noodles delight. Thankfully and just in time, the rain had stopped and out came the sun. Adam took the wet tent out to dry whilst I cooked, and we had a quick power nap lying down on the tent’s groundsheet. A day in the life of cycle tourist isn’t so bad!

Delightedly, there was much more downhill after lunch, and we soared gleefully down the hills admiring the magnificent views around us. How lucky are we to be here right now! We cycled through more delightful, rural villages – the children coming out to greet us excitedly and those little piggies and other animals making their appearances too. We both felt sincerely joyful today. 

We had heard that the road conditions would be really bad in Laos but so far it hasn’t been too bad.

Although there was more downhill this afternoon, we still had the odd cheeky steep uphill climb which I would have likely had to walk up had I attempted them at the beginning of our cycle tour. It’s really satisfying feeling your body and mind get stronger. We made good progress this afternoon and reached the village of Vieng Phouka by 3.30/4pm. Adam knew there were a few Guesthouses in this larger village. We managed to find a room for the bargain price of 60,000 Laos Kip, which is about £5. This is the cheapest accommodation we have found so far, and the most basic. But it’s absolutely fine (although I may sleep in my own sleeping bag tonight…!) 

After we had dried and attended to our chains from today’s wet cycle, showered off the last two days grime (especially after cycling in the rain, our legs were black with mud!) and hand washed some clothes we set out to find some dinner – we were both starving and were looking forward to trying some Laotian food for the first time. We didn’t wander far but decided to try the first cafe we found. Luckily, some words in Laos are the same as Thai, so we managed to order some rice and egg, unsure of how it would be served. But we were not disappointed. We were offered a huge mound of sticky rice and an omelette each. Simple food but it was delicious and much needed after another hard day on the bike. Apparently, another thing Laos is renowned for is for its sticky rice. Well, it went down a treat with two hungry cycle tourists, that’s for sure!

When we arrived back at our room, we noticed that a group of local Laotians were butchering a pig a few metres to the right of the building we were staying in. Adam, curious as always, headed over to take some photos and video whilst I retreated to my room, not too excited to see a dead pig being hacked up and also because I was just so exhausted I needed to lie down. A short while later, Adam came back with into the room with some gruesome photos alongside a fire in his belly from the local rice wine ‘Laolao’ he had been offered shots of! It’s safe to say I wasn’t sorry I missed out on that.

Tomorrow is another 60km day to the town of Luang Namtha. One of the larger towns in the north of Laos, we will probably rest our legs there for one day before continuing to explore this amazing country. 

Day 96: Vieng Phouka to Luang Namtha

We were up and off from our guesthouse by 9.30ish this morning. We knew we had a straightforward 60km day ahead with not too many hills. Luckily Adam didn’t have a hangover from his strong homebrewed Laotian rice wine shots from the previous evening! Similarly to yesterday, I cooked us some delicious fried eggs for breakfast outside our room, with the addition of a small bowl of porridge as well: the perfect balanced breakfast to fuel us for the day ahead. Food, for us, is very important! 

As we expected, we enjoyed another day of beautiful cycling in Laos. The lush, green wilderness continued to surround the road we pedalled along – ideal views for travelling slowly on our push bikes. White clouds lingered across the sky as they did yesterday, providing more consistent respite from the hot sun. Pearly, light mist continued to abide on the tops of the hills and mountains, prolonging that mysterious jungle atmosphere. 

Once more, we cycled through remote villages of hill tribes where the children continued to sprint barefoot out of their wooden homes, calling out their joyful greetings of hello with those everlasting beaming smiles.

The highlight of Laos so far has been the seeming smiles of all of the children we pass.

Luckily today wasn’t as hilly as yesterday, and we enjoyed many kilometres of flat cycling where the land stretched out containing farmers fields at the foot of the everpresent hills. We did, however, have one considerably cheeky and unexpected hill towards the end of the day, but my trusty legs and lungs are getting used to them by now so it wasn’t a big deal. I keep in mind that these hills are good for me! They build my strength, stamina and help me to lose those extra pounds from overeating on rest days (especially in Chiang Mai!). The hill roads in Lao are, so far, always through flourishing jungle, so there are stunning views to enjoy through the climbing burn! 

Lunch was the usual by the side of the road instant noodles and was our only stop of the day. Before we knew it, we arrived into the outskirts of Luang Namtha, 8km from the centre. It was apparent that we were approaching a big town, as we saw a big increase in buildings and traffic and the road became two lanes. Whereas before we had just cycled past homes and the odd small, rural shop, we now began cycling past other businesses such as hairdressers. Some of the buildings were in extreme contrast to the primitive dwellings of the small villages: impressive and often brightly coloured houses with ornate metal gates stood proudly along the roadside. Such a severe contrast compared to the humble, poor villages we cycled through only earlier that day. Corruption seemed to be the obvious answer to some of the colossal sized buildings which seemed so out of place. 

Arriving in Luang Namtha at about 4pm, we found a guesthouse in what appeared to be in the centre of this town with rooms for 60,000 Kip (approximately £5.50). The room is comfortable and the sheets and towels smell and feel clean and fresh which always makes me happy! As our room is on the third floor, we locked our bikes to the bannister of the stairs leading up to our room and felt confident that they would be safe there. As we arrived, we met an Australian man called Paul who enquired about our travels with our bikes. Paul is a teacher and lives in Thailand; he is currently motorcycling around Thailand and recently entered Laos. He actually remembers driving past us a few days ago! We got on immediately and after we chatted for several minutes, we arranged to meet later for a drink in the restaurant of our guesthouse. We’re quite good at making random friends in places it seems! 

After a much-needed shower and rest, we met a fellow bicycle tourist called Dirk for dinner. Scott Sharick, who we met and made good friends within Chiang Mai, is good friends with Dirk and put us in touch as we realised we would be in the same area of Laos at the same time. And we are so grateful to Scott for doing so as we had a brilliant evening with Dirk; he cycled across the world from Germany to Thailand 10 years ago and now spends half of the year every year cycling around SE Asia. In addition, he has recently cycled through China so we made the most of our time together, asking him many questions in preparation for our own cycle across the mammoth country in a few months time. Paul, who we met earlier, also joined us and the four of us discussed travelling and shared tips and many funny stories. 

We enjoyed some Laos food: so far we agree that it’s not as delicious as Thai food but it’s still tasty and much needed after a lunch of instant noodles. After hearing rave reviews, we also enjoyed our first Beer Lao. After several Beer Lao and many hours of entertaining conversations later, we fell into bed much too late but decidedly content. 

Day 97: Day off in Luang Namtha

After our late night and delightful Beerlaos, it quickly became apparent that we would not be cycling today. After four days of cycling across Laos, with some pretty cheeky hills, we both agreed that we would like a well-earnt rest today. We love being flexible and if the time on our visa allows, taking guiltfree rest days as and when we need it. 

We met Dirk and Paul for breakfast and enjoyed a plate of delicious scrambled egg with tomato and onion alongside a freshly baked bread roll (one of the positives from the French colonization in Laos). We chatted again for a few hours, sharing more stories and pouring over maps of China discussing routes and roads. This is one of the things we love about cycle touring: meeting interesting and inspiring people and sharing ideas and thoughts. 

We spent the rest of the day resting, video editing, writing this journal and napping. We met Dirk again for lunch – I enjoyed a tasty traditional Lao salad which was full of flavour: garlic, ginger and onion spiced it up SE Asian style! In the evening, we went to the night market opposite our guesthouse. Extremely different from night markets in Thailand (and Malaysia for that matter), it was fairly small with only a handful of stalls selling traditional Lao foods and meats. As could be expected, it was quite run down and there was lots of rubbish left behind. Laos people appear to be softly spoken, so we enjoyed our final evening with Dirk in the calm market. 

Sticky rice and lots of noodles with vegetables. It was great to spend time with Dirk. He speaks very highly of cycle touring in China which is really good to hear.

Tomorrow we continue east through Laos, into Vietnam and north towards the border with China.

Day 98: Luang Namtha to Boten

After an enjoyable final breakfast with Dirk and Paul at our guesthouse, we were all ready to hit the road but mostly in different directions. Dirk was heading towards the border with Thailand, cycling to meet our mutual friend Scott Sharick. Paul astride his motorbike was intending to go a similar way to us, so we intended to look out for him along the way!

From the left – Adam, Dirk, Paul and Lucia.

Once we had purchased some new stickers for our bikes from a shop Dirk had recommended, we were on the road. It didn’t take long to leave the town of Luang Namtha; after only a few minutes we were onto a more rural road.

Our route was a pleasant one this morning for the first two and a half hours as the road wound its way through a valley; the consistent jungle-lined hills stood proudly alongside the (mostly) flat road. As usual, we cycled past quaint, traditional Laos villages where the locals sat outside their wooden homes, entertaining themselves on this Saturday afternoon through socialising with their family and neighbours. 

Adam was feeling particularly tired today, so after our road-side lunch of leftover sticky rice from dinner the previous evening, he took a nice nap lying on the tent’s groundsheet. I napped briefly before getting my Kindle out to read my book. As I was enjoying my novel, a car pulled up on the opposite side of the road. Several men vacated the car and began looking in the ditch at the side of the road… I’m not sure what they were doing, but one of the men from the car spotted us and kindly brought us two small bottles of water. Thanking him in Laotian, the friendly man told us he was from China, so we thanked him again by saying, “Xie xie” (shay shay) – thank you in Chinese. 

This encounter, alongside the fact we were a mere 25km from the Chinese border, sparked Adam to initiate a long conversation regarding our onward route. It began with, “We could be in China tomorrow…”

A butterfly then landed on Adam’s head. He told me it whispered to him that we should go to China.

To cut this lengthy discussion short, we have decided to enter China from Laos instead of Vietnam! Although this means we will need to cycle an extra 300km in China compared to if we entered from Vietnam, we have calculated that in order to get to Leshan (where we plan to extend our visa for an additional 30 days) we will need to cycle an average of 60km per day. For our level of fitness now our cycle tour is well underway, this is absolutely manageable, even with hilly days. Every day we cycle more than 60km, those extra miles will add up so we can have any needed rest days. 

We are both excited and nervous about entering China tomorrow. The fact that we were just so close to the border and we had a Chinese visa each just sat waiting patiently to be used in our passports increased the temptation tenfold to cycle in earlier than planned. This does mean that we will miss Vietnam, but we are not concerned about this as we both want to come back to SE Asia in the future and cycle the length of Vietnam and into Cambodia (which we have also missed on this trip). This means we will really do those countries justice, rather than only cycling a tiny section of Vietnam this time around. 

So, not long after having this protracted discussion we set off again, this time with a change of route in our minds. We reached a t-junction: left would take us to the border with China, right would lead us to continue east through Laos towards Vietnam. We took the left turn: China is calling!

Almost immediately after taking this turn, the road was reduced to rubble. The closer we got to the border, the worse the road got. Huge trucks and lorries on their way to or from the border chugged away next to us, their noxious fumes clogging our airways. We had to stop to cover our mouths and noses in defence from the destructive smog. To make matters worse, there were just so many roadworks happening on both sides of the roads – the diggers massacred the beautiful landscape as the once green panorama was reduced to a muddy brown, barren vista. 

The slaughter of the beautiful Laos countryside continued for the next 20km – it was really horrible! One of the most unpleasant roads we have ever cycled along. The dust and mud from the roadworks were blasted into the air by the passing lorries. In places, water from somewhere flooded the road and reduced it to a filthy brown sludge. As we neared the border town, out of the rubble rose huge, sky-scraper like buildings. This was pretty astounding considering we hadn’t seen a building higher than two stories since arriving into Laos. 

Later we would come to learn that the Chinese government are building a super fast train line, running from China all the way down to Vientiane (the capital of Laos). In addition, it appears that they are also constructed what seems to be a small city here in Boten. Arriving into the border town, we were very surprised to find an extremely upmarket, swanky and flash ‘Duty-Free’ building, alongside modern buildings built on flat tarmac. This is so unlike any other areas of Laos we have seen (although we have only explored a very small section of this country). It was like arriving into China already – all the shops and restaurants had Chinese signs and Chinese policemen were seen wandering around this area. 

Our plan was to stay in a hotel this evening and cross the border in the morning – but the only hotel we could find was the most expensive and posh, colossal sized hotel. We had Laotian Kip to use up, so decided to throw money at the problem, and pay the equivalent of £35 for a room. Initially, they told Adam that they had no rooms available. The hotel is humongous so we think they just didn’t want to give a room to two stinky, sweaty cycle tourists rather than it being full. Either that or it was a communication error. 

The hotel staff were happy enough for us to take our bikes into the room so up we went to the 11th floor in the elevator.

It’s so nice to have a little bit of luxury though! It’s amazing what a powerful hot shower and plush, deluxe sheets can do to two tired and muddy bicycle tourists. We will just have to ensure we have enough camping nights to make up for this expensive room. 

We enjoyed a Chinese meal at a restaurant around the corner from the hotel; we can already tell that communicating to order food is going to be an interesting challenge in China! As it’s Sunday tomorrow, I don’t think we will be able to change our Laotian Kip as the bank is closed. A bit of bad timing on our part, but it’s too expensive to stay in this hotel another night to wait to change our money. So in the morning, we will enjoy our ritzy hotel breakfast before getting to the border early in an attempt to avoid the main bulk of traffic. We have a rough route planned up to Leshan, so as soon as we cross the border – the clock is ticking! Let our Chinese adventure commence! 

Day 99: Unexpected rest day in Boten

Adam here taking over writing duties for a day. 

We are not heading into China just yet. Lucia has been up all night with some sort of stomach illness.

At 6am my alarm went off as we were planning to get to the border as soon as it opened at 8am. Lucia turned to me and told me that she won’t be able to cycle today. She feels like its some food that has made her ill. Usually, it is me that has the stomach problems (as I tend to be a bit more reckless when it comes to eating dodgy food). We decided that we would stay for another day on the Laos/China border to allow Lucia to rest. It would also give us another day to do some planning for China, finish writing this journal and I would be able to edit some videos.

The 4* Chinese “Jing Land Hotel” we are staying at does not take card as payment. We don’t have any Chinese currency and we don’t have enough Laotian Kip to pay for a night so I had to head into the construction site also known as Boten in search of an ATM. As it is a Sunday, all of the banks are closed. I did manage to find one suspect ATM in the corner of the town. Faced with no other option, I got just enough Laotian Kip to pay for our hotel and some food for later. I’ve read elsewhere that we may need to pay ₭10,000 (£0.93) to the Laos border on exit so I will make sure we have that remaining.

At £35 a night, this hotel is well above what we would normally pay for a hotel but when Lucia is feeling as ill as she is and there are no other hotels in the town, we’re stuck with no other choice. It just means we will be living on instant noodles and camping for a few extra days in China.

We spent last night planning our first 30 days in China in rough detail. This is our current planned route to Leshan. We won’t be deviating all that much from our planned routes in China as our visa timelimit will mean that any extra kilometres will mean fewer rest days and more time cycling. This route is 1521km with a fair amount of climbing (73,302m). I used ridewithgps.com to plan this route which tends to over-estimate the elevation profile but either way, it’s going to be a challenging month ahead.

Our plan today is to stay holed up in a hotel room and I hope to get some work done. Hopefully, Lucia will be back to full fitness by tomorrow. 

Farewell Thailand! Our last week in 'The Land of Smiles'
An Eventful First Week In China

3 comments

A slight set back being ill, and I seriously hope you’re already much better Lucia, back to full fitness and heading off to China with a now clean shaven hubby!! Xxx

Hey guys! Well done on your Laotian leg! Boten looks a bit of a contrast but hopefully once your in amongst the cycle ways and smoother conditions you should eat up the kms!
It was great meeting up with you in Namtha and I look forward to following your adventures!!
Cheers for now,

Paul

Hey Paul! It was great to meet you! The Laotian leg was much shorter than we thought – I think we’ll definitely be back one day to cycle more of Laos! Hope you enjoyed the rest of your trip. Take care!

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