In this article we describe the joys and practicalities of cycle touring in Laos – the perfect guide for anyone interested in doing the same! This page is split into three sections: Practicalities, Best Bits and Worst Bits (only a few of these!)
We’ve created Gearing Up to raise awareness of the work of social initiatives in Asia. In this article, we use the colour green to highlight opportunities for future visitors to Laos to interact with some of the social initiatives that we met. The links take you to a more detailed page where we describe what each social initiative does.
Total distance cycled: 1140 km (+85 km boat ride)
Total ascent gained: 7500 metres
Maximum altitude: 1,900 metres at Pho Kham (route 13 Southbound, Luang Prabang to Kasi)
Total cycling days: 14 days (average 81 km/day)
IN – From Vietnam to Laos, 23/11/16: Tay Trang (Vietnam) – Sop Hun (Laos) Border Crossing (Dien Bien Phu and Muang Khua)
This border crossing is well-travelled and well-known and posed no difficulties. The two-hour lunch break the staff were having when we arrived allowed us a decent break too.
OUT – From Laos back into Vietnam, 17/12/16: Na Phao (Laos) – Cha Lo (Vietnam) Border crossing route 8.
We had originally planned to cross back into Vietnam further north, at the Cau Treo – Nam Phao border crossing taking route 12, a classic cycling touring road. Not wanting to leave Laos so soon, coupled with a desire to visit the Nam Theun 2 Dam’s massive artificial lake, we cycled south from Lak Sao along route 1E and took the Na Phao – Cha Lo border crossing instead along route 8. The route 1E was paved in early 2016 and passes through the flooded plateau which now host an eerie tree graveyard which meant a bizarre, but interesting, ride.
The route 8 border crossing featured heavy traffic in both directions, almost exclusively large trucks. The 30 km preceding the Laos side of the border is a hill with terrible, terrible road quality – easily the dustiest we have experienced. Luckily the border crossing itself, thanks to the heavy industrial traffic, is huge and well organised on both sides. No issues at all for foreigners, but you must have already bought your visa for Vietnam by the time you arrive at this border as visas are not issued.
Just as in the rest of South-East Asia, guesthouses are widely available and wonderful value for money (60-80,000 kip – more expensive in Luang Prabang and Vientiane). They almost always have hot water, some have squat loos, and most have hygiene standards slightly above Vietnamese, although we still found ourselves using our own sleeping bag liners and bags the beds, just for peace of mind.
Having a tent does make planning where to spend the night more flexible, although that is not to say you can camp anywhere. WARNING: The Laos countryside, particularly in the areas that border Vietnam, are still littered with UXOs (un-exploded ordnance) from the USA’s bombing missions in Laos during the Vietnam War in a futile attempt to cut off supplies to the North Vietnamese communists. As a result, you must stick to well-trodden paths at all times. Do not assume that the threat is no longer at large; it absolutely is. If you are somewhere with a guesthouse nearby, asking any locals whether you can camp on their land will be met with puzzled expressions and hands waving in the direction of said nearby guesthouse. To learn more about the damage caused by the remaining UXO, COPE runs a fascinating visitor centre in Vientiane. COPE works to ensure people with physical disabilities (especially those caused by un-exploded ordnance) have local, free access to high-quality, nationally-managed rehabilitation services.
We did manage to camp a handful of times in Laos. We camped twice in empty, wooden schoolhouses weekends, but only having asked permission. Schools provide perfect camping territory: away from the road, usually with solid floor, roof and walls, and often an interested audience of local children. Once we asked a well-to-do looking couple if we could camp on their land: they showed us to a perfect wooden hut. We also camped in the middle of a village outside someone’s house, they brought out a mat on which to put our tent. Camping in villages can sometimes be met with hostility, so when no other option exists, perseverance, patience and friendly smiles are necessary.
The views from the roads are often completely breath-taking and must be the single best part of cycling in Laos. Right from crossing the border in the north, all the way to the bizarre limestone cask mountains as we left in the south, the country does not fail to delight. Lao children are a constant delight, often chasing us up hills for kilometres shouting: ‘Sabaidee!’. Their waving usually involves an entire body shake as their enthusiasm at seeing foreign cyclists cannot be contained. If you find yourself frustrated at struggling to communicate beyond the initial ‘Sabaidee’, do go to one of the daily English language drop-in sessions at Big Brother Mouse in Luang Prabang, a social initiative that is working hard to improve adult and child literacy in Laos. At their bookshop in Luang Prabang Lao people come to practice their English with visiting English speakers who are keen to use the opportunity to converse with locals.
Route 13 (Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng) was a highlight with its ethereal and other-worldly peaks stretching into the distant horizon. Despite climbing a total of 2,700m in one day from Luang Prabang to Pho Kham, we could not recommend this route more highly. Although route 4 might have a shorter overall climb, the single large climb it involves is much steeper than route 13 and doesn’t make you feel as though you are cycling through a scene of the Lord of the Rings.
Across the country, there is very little traffic, although you wouldn’t assume so with the staggering number of petrol stations being built. In fact, the super-abundance of petrol stations was an unexpected joy. Why should food-fuelled cyclists be interested in petrol stations, you might ask? These petrol stations conveniently offer all roadside necessities in one place: loos, free water, shade, cold coffee in tins and even chopsticks for lunch. If you are keen on coffee you will definitely enjoy a visit to Saffron Coffee in Luang Prabang, a social business that supports hill tribes and protects the environment whilst producing and selling specialty coffee. Their cafe is full of high-tech coffee gizmos that make a welcome and delicious change from the standard South-East Asian ‘Birdy’ instant coffee.
Laos’s regular food markets offer culinary experimentation fun, providing perfect cycle touring meals and snacks. Early risers should seek out local food markets (6am – 8am) which offer ideal breakfast, packed lunch and supper foods. Take a seat next to the school children having their early morning noodle soups (10-15,000 kip) and divulge in Laos’ most understated dish. They are much, much, better than any pho we have had in Vietnam. Next, wander amongst the stalls picking up goods (usually rice based or deep fried, 1-3,000 kip) to stuff into every nook and cranny of your pannier for snacks. Point at bowls of deceivingly flavoursome noodles, vegetables, bamboo, meats and banana leaf enclosed surprise dishes, all piled into plastic bags by the handful (3-10,000 kip/bag). A bag of sticky rice is a vital constituent of lunch (3,000 kip per person), and don’t forget exotic fruit too. Despite the sheer weight of food, we always took the opportunity to stock up in the morning to give flexibility for the day’s ride. A food experience we highly recommend is a visit to the restaurants Khaiphaen in Luang Prabang or Makphet in Vientiane, which as well as providing disadvantaged youths with training to develop career skills, also serve amongst the most delicious food we had, and certainly with the highest standard of service.
Pot holes! They are always there, out to get you: on blind corners of dreamy descents; in shaded spots where they are well camouflaged; sometimes grouped in such large masses that you are forced to come to a stop and work out your line.
Through our lengthy experience of Laos roads, we now feel able to make the assertion that Lao driving standards are shockingly poor. Watch out in Vientiane particularly: transport planners thoughtfully put in a thinner slow lane, but unfortunately this is often occupied by SUVs which pull out without indicating or looking.
If you have any questions please send us a message. Vietnam up next!