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Old 02-15-08, 09:56 PM   #1
axolotl
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Laos tour - a brief trip report

In January, I went on a 3-week solo tour to Laos and a bit of Thailand. I rode my folding Bike
Friday New World Tourist. I flew to Bangkok and left the empty suitcase for my bike at a guest house there, and took the night train to Nong Khai, Thailand, near the "Friendship Bridge" crossing into Laos.
There was no problem taking the bike on the Thai train (in a baggage car), and contrary to what I had read, I had no problem biking across the bridge. I rode from the sleepy capital Vientiane north through Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang, then continued north to Pakmong near the Chinese border. I took a bus west to Luang Namtha (on a bumpy paved road), then biked to Muang Sing in northwestern Laos (also on a bumpy road), then back through Luang Namtha to Houay Xai, where I took a boat across the
Mekong to return to Thailand. I had toured in northern Thailand 5 years ago (a wonderful trip), so this time, I took a bus down to north-central Thailand and biked in the Sukhothai area for a few days
before returning by train to Bangkok.

Overall, it was a great but occasionally exhausting ride in Laos. Most of the roads were quite
good, but there was generally very little traffic except in the immediate vicinity of the 2 largest
cities. The population density is low, and there is a lot of forest remaining, especially in
the far north. Everywhere I went, I passed through lots of small villages, some of them
populated by very traditional ethnic minorities. In a few isolated mountain villages, I saw folks
opening smoking opium.

The ride from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang is a classic route. It's an extremely scenic and
fairly difficult 3-day ride through the mountains. There were several climbs greater than 20 km
long. The road in northwestern Laos between Vieng Phouka and Houay Xai was also quite difficult,
with many shorter climbs, but often with steeper hills.

There was a strange dichotomy between the 4 largest towns and everywhere else. In the larger
towns, most modern amenities are available. The villages are fairly primitive in comparison. As soon as you leave the largest towns, you could set your watch back a century. Everywhere I went,
everyone in this Buddhist country, especially the kids, were extremely friendly. Kids would run
out to wave frantically to cyclists yelling the greeting "sabadee".

I went alone, but it was very easy to meet other cyclists. In Laos, I met about 30 touring cyclists. Half of them were Dutch! I also met several American, Canadian, Australian, and Italian cyclists. I even met 4 other cyclists riding Bike Fridays. I rode with several of the cyclists I met. It seemed like as many cyclists were going north to south as south to north. Cyclists going in the other direction were a great source of information about roads and guest houses. For example, 3 different cyclists told me to stay in the 2nd guest house on the left in Kieu Kha Cham, not the first, which was apparently a dump.

Accommodations were in "guest houses" and "bungalows" (cabins). Prices are higher in Vientiane
and Luang Prabang, but elsewhere, a room or bungalow usually cost between US$3 and $5. For $5 you typically got a private bathroom with hot water. In smaller villages, there would often be only a cold
water shower or bucket shower available.

In smaller villages, there wasn't much choice besides noodle soup for meals, but it was tasty
and cheap (less than $1). The larger towns had many more choices, including some great Indian
restaurants. The larger towns even had French-style baguettes for sale from street vendors. Beer Lao, the national brew, is available everywhere and is tasty and cheap.

The best time to go is from December to February, as temperatures in northern Laos and northern
Thailand are markedly cooler and more comfortable than the rest of the year, though it was still hot during the afternoon. It's also the dry season in the north.

Though Laos had been a French colony, road signs these days are bilingual Lao-English,
not Lao-French. A Lao phrasebook was quite helpful, though guest house operators usually spoke
basic English.

The best map available for Laos seems to be one published in Germany called "Reise Know-How", at 1:600,000 with some elevation contour lines. I managed to get this map before I started my trip, and other cyclists hadn't seen it before and were often envious.

Overall, Laos is a very rewarding place to tour.
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Old 02-15-08, 10:08 PM   #2
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Great news! Thanks for the trip report.

Did you bring US dollars and exchange them in Thailand or in Laos?

Did you do any camping?

Cheers
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Old 02-15-08, 10:24 PM   #3
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No camping. Very few cyclists camp in SE Asia. Accommodations are cheap, and the climate isn't the greatest for camping.

I exchanged US dollars in both Laos & Thailand. In Vientiane & Luang Prabang, guest houses & hotels are more expensive and priced in US$ and you could pay in $. In Houay Xai along the border with Thailand, guest houses were priced in Thai Baht and you could pay in baht or Lao Kip. Everywhere else I paid in local currency. I didn't see a single coin in Laos. There are, at present, about 9,250 kip to US$1. I got bills ranging for 500 kip to 50,000 kip. Supposedly a few years ago, the largest bill was 1,000 kip, which meant you got an enormous stack of paper money when you exchanged, say, $100. Even with the larger bills now, when I exchanged $100, I couldn't put it all in my wallet (about 925,000 kip).

Thailand has ATMs everywhere. Laos has very few, and I only saw them in the 3 or 4 largest towns I was in. I brought US$ cash and US$ travelers checks.
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Old 02-15-08, 10:43 PM   #4
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Thanks for the info, axolotl!

Going there in a few weeks myself. Your info will be very handy. Much appreciated. Cheers!
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Old 02-16-08, 05:05 AM   #5
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A very useful trip report for anyone thinking of travelling there.
Thanks
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Old 02-16-08, 09:08 AM   #6
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Very nice... So did you stick to the major route to and from LP?

Also, I know that a few years ago there were some security issues along that route. Has that calmed down? Or were people still mentioning any issues?
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Old 02-16-08, 09:51 AM   #7
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I haven't heard of any problems along that road in quite a few years. I felt completely safe everywhere I went, and I didn't hear a single report from any other cyclist having any problems anywhere in the country. At one spot high in the mountains I came across 4 young government soldiers walking along the road, and they smiled and waved to me like everyone else I encountered.

Tourism has hit Luang Prabang (a UNESCO World Heritage town) in a big way. There are hundreds of tourists and dozens of guest houses. There are restaurants all around town, and especially along the terrace next to the Mekong. Still, it's a wonderful town to visit, and if you get off the road and walk along the quiet footpaths, you can get a feel for how it probably was just a few years ago.

The other town most strongly affected by tourism is Vang Vieng. The backdrop of mountains rising sharply from across the river is stunning, and there are lots of so-called adventure activities possible in the area. But the town itself is utterly bizarre. It's a major stop on the backpacker trail and the scene along the main street has to be seen and heard to be believed. As soon as you leave the town and return to the villages, however, you're back in the real world of Laos.
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Old 02-16-08, 10:37 AM   #8
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Vang Vieng... But the town itself is utterly bizarre. It's a major stop on the backpacker trail and the scene along the main street has to be seen and heard to be believed.
Well, come on, don't leave us hanging
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Old 02-16-08, 11:09 AM   #9
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There are a couple of places in the middle of Vang Vieng which are open to the street, filled with lounge chairs, and which are full of stoned-looking young tourists watching old television reruns of "Friends", with audio blasting loud enough to be heard a block or two away. These places reportedly serve "happy shakes" and pizza with your topping of choice, and I'm not talking pepperoni. There are also some young tourists wandering around town in bathing suits, which is very non-Lao behavior. And then you look out over the river and see the most spectacular karst mountains rising sharply just beyond the river.
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Old 02-16-08, 02:14 PM   #10
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The guest houses sound not to be missed, what about camping opportunities, would that be possible, is it safe to leave the road, where you in areas with large amounts of un-exploded ordinance?
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Old 02-16-08, 05:02 PM   #11
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As far as I know, I wasn't in any areas with unexploded ordinance. I know that's a problem in parts of Cambodia. The northern part of Laos is heavily forested and population density is low. However, I also heard distance gunshots in the forest several times, almost certainly from hunters. It's a fairly poor country, and I've heard that folks will eat anything that moves. (one menu included the following items: "large lizard" and "mole"). Personally, with guest houses and food so cheap, I wouldn't want to bother with camping gear. Also, for most of the year, it's hot and humid in the north, and in the south, it's hot and humid year-round. I didn't meet a single cyclist who was camping in Laos, but I met a 2 cyclists in Thailand who were planning on doing it in Laos. They told me that every time they asked someone in a Thai village where they could camp, the answer was always "here". Since they hadn't been to Laos yet, I don't know if they got the same reaction there. I met a couple of cyclists who had crossed central Asia by bike, and although they had camping gear with them, they weren't using it in SE Asia.
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Old 02-16-08, 08:41 PM   #12
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Thanks for the insights, axolotl!

You have any pics?

I've never bicycle camped in SE Asia either. Several times on someone's hammocks under the stars. But, I've camped on beaches and islands. That's nice, but there are fewer and fewer locations over the years as tourism have grown tremendously in the region.

How cold was it when you were there?
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Old 02-17-08, 08:36 PM   #13
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How cold was it when you were there?
Not very cold. There were a couple of mornings in the mountains when I wore a windbreaker until about 8:30am. The afternoon was always hot, though not nearly as hot as in central Thailand. In the shade, it was actually pretty comfortable. I met a cyclist in Thailand who had been riding in the mountains from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang a couple of weeks before me, and she said it was quite chilly in the morning when she was there. I guess things must have warmed up some. After I continued north from Luang Prabang, it felt a bit cooler and much more comfortable.
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Old 03-08-08, 02:45 PM   #14
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I am going to Laos on March 20th on a Bike Friday NWT.
Since I only have 2 weeks, I am only cycling from LP to Vientiane (and then probably a bit in thailand).

Now that you have been there, do you agree with other posts that I found, that cycling from LP to Vientiane is more popular that from Vientiane to LP ?

What would you recommend ?

Regards,

Eric
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Old 03-08-08, 09:54 PM   #15
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Now that you have been there, do you agree with other posts that I found, that cycling from LP to Vientiane is more popular that from Vientiane to LP ?

What would you recommend ?
http://www.dramaix.com
The route from Luang Prabang to Vientiane is more down hill than the reverse... but either way would be fine. That said, we cheated on the first day out of LP and hitched a ride to the top of the hill. Below is one of the postcard collages we sent from that route through Laos.

A great two week trip would be to fly into Chiang Mai (or overnight train from Bangkok to CM) then cycle up to the border with Laos at Houei Xai. Catch the two day boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. Cycle south to Vientiane. Cross the border to Nong Khai. Catch the overnight train from Nong Khai back to Bangkok.

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Old 03-09-08, 08:58 AM   #16
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I am going to Laos on March 20th on a Bike Friday NWT.
Since I only have 2 weeks, I am only cycling from LP to Vientiane (and then probably a bit in thailand).

Now that you have been there, do you agree with other posts that I found, that cycling from LP to Vientiane is more popular that from Vientiane to LP ?

What would you recommend ?

Regards,

Eric
http://www.dramaix.com
I honestly don't think it makes much of a difference which direction you ride between LP & Vientiane. Also, the altitude difference is negligible, since both towns are along the Mekong which doesn't drop that much. I have no idea which is more popular, since you tend to mostly meet folks cycling in the other direction, regardless of where you start.

Most cyclists seem to do the LP-V ride in 5 days of riding. If you begin in LP, your first day will be the hardest. You'll have 2 very long climbs. Starting in Vientiane, the first 2 days to Vang Vieng will be easy. The 3rd day will have a bit of a climb at the end to get to the bungalows by the hot springs. The 4th day will be the killer, with 2 long climbs. In Kiou Ka Cham--the village you end up in after the most difficult day regardless of your direction, if you're coming from the south, stay in the 2nd guest house on the left. Coming from LP, stay in the 1st guest house on the right. The other guest house in the town is even more basic. The better one will heat some water for you for a decent bucket bath and provide you a towel. (Accommodations everywhere else were better)

If you do go to northern Thailand as Losligato suggests, I would recommend that you ride along the Burmese & Lao borders. From Chiang Mai, north thru Fang, Tha Ton, Mae Salong, Chiang Saen, Chiang Khong. It was a wonderful route. I've met quite a few cyclists who rode directly from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and Chiang Khong, and they didn't seem to like that ride nearly as much as the route I took. Regardless of your route, I would urge you to take a bus to get some distance out of Chiang Mai, as the traffic is quite bad getting out of, or into that city.

Be aware that in late March, it will likely be quite hot compared to when I was there in January.
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Old 03-10-08, 11:52 AM   #17
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Tx for all your answers.

Since I've already bought a flight ticket from BKK to Udon, it is now too late to consider starting in Chiang Rai but I think that would have been the best choice....Too bad.

Because now, since I am not going to cycle both ways, I can only choose between a 8-10 hours bus ride to LP OR a 8-10 hours ride from LP....
I will probably decide when I am in Vientiane.

Eric
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Old 03-10-08, 06:34 PM   #18
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Sounds like a great ride, thanks. Could you post a list of what you took and what would be needed? I am bicycling in Indonesia all of next January and maybe could do your trip in Feb. Also what was the cheapwst way to get there?
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Old 03-10-08, 07:45 PM   #19
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Sounds like a great ride, thanks. Could you post a list of what you took and what would be needed? I am bicycling in Indonesia all of next January and maybe could do your trip in Feb. Also what was the cheapwst way to get there?
I don't mean to sound flippant, but you'll probably need the same things for Laos that you'll need for Indonesia, except a different guide book, map, and phrase book. I think if you do a search, there are threads about what to take on a trip. The only unusual thing I decided to take was a self-standing mosquito netting tent. Though I was there in the dry season and there weren't many mosquitoes, there were some mosquitoes, especially in the relatively flat area from Vientiane to Vang Vieng. North of Vang Vieng, virtually none. (south of Vientiane, mosquitoes are a bigger problem, I'm sure, though I wasn't there) I suspected I wouldn't use the mosquito tent, but in fact, I used it on 2 nights and was glad I brought it. Mosquito netting seems to be much more commonplace in guest houses in Thailand than Laos. Even cheap rooms usually had ceiling fans, but it would get cool enough at night in January that I really didn't want to run it since there usually weren't heavy blankets. Remember, I was there in the dry season and "winter", when there are fewer mosquitoes than the rest of the year. If you have more specific questions about what to bring, I'll be happy to answer them.

One interesting trend I noticed was that banks and money changers in both Laos and Thailand gave a slightly better rate for larger US$ bills than smaller bills. Typically $50 & $100 notes got you a few more kip and baht than $20 and less. ATMs are everywhere in Thailand. They are not everywhere in Laos. I took both US$ cash and travellers checks, plus an ATM card I didn't use. Outside of Vientiane and Luang Prabang, it was difficult to spend more than $15/day.

As for the cheapest way to get there, that would depend where you're coming from! I was flying from the US, and from the US, it's much cheaper to buy a ticket to Bangkok than Vientiane or Luang Prabang. From Bangkok, you can take a night train with your bike to Nong Khai (that's what I did), which is right on the border with Laos, only about 25 km from Vientiane, and just 3 km from the Friendship Bridge into Laos. The train is cheap. You can also fly to the Thai city of Udon Thani for much less than it costs to fly to Vientiane. I think it's only about 50 or 60 km from Vientiane. Or you could fly to Chiang Rai, a day's ride from the Laos border at Houay Xai. Or fly or take a train to Chiang Mai from Bangkok.
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Old 03-10-08, 08:36 PM   #20
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Whats with difficult camping in SE Asia?
I slept in a hotel my first night in SE Asia after crossing China Vietnam border at Mong Cai just coz I felt like it.

Never used another hotel and I'm 15km from the Malaysian border.

Shacks, beaches, wats, temples, ask people, petrol stations, the list is endless.

We(jibi and I) got man boob grabbed by a monk in a temple and had to deal with a druggie, but crazy religious people and drugs are all over the world. Just another day of cycling thats all.



Whats with hardly no people/oppurtunity for camping in SE Asia?

Oh and never used me bike lock once too.
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Old 03-11-08, 07:57 AM   #21
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Whats with hardly no people/oppurtunity for camping in SE Asia?
Hey, if you like camping in SE Asia, that's great. Enjoy! While I didn't meet a single cyclist in Laos who was camping, I met 2 women in Thailand who told me they were camping most of the time. It sounded like they had some wonderful interactions with Thai villagers as a result. They also said that when they would ask someone in a Thai village where they could set up their tent, the answer was invariably "here". Being women, I don't believe they had the option of staying in a temple.

For those of us who choose not to camp, there are a whole bunch of different reasons, such as: Not wishing to carry camping gear; very cheap prices for rooms in SE Asia; sleeping better on a bed (even a rock-hard Lao bed) than on the ground; worried about unexploded bombs and landmines in parts of Laos & Cambodia; find sleeping in a tent in a mostly hot & humid climate uncomfortable; the desire for a (usually) hot shower and a (usually) proper bathroom.
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