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
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.