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Cycling the ‘Tour de Laos’

I drop a few gears as we start to climb. My heart is pumping, my thighs are burning, and the sun is punishing. Here begins the internal battle, ‘I can’t do it. Yes, you can. I can’t. You can.’ I take a quick breather on the side of the road, then grit my teeth, and peddle like my life depends on it. As I turn the corner, I catch my first glimpse in some time, of the others up ahead. And more importantly, the top of this seemingly never ending hill.

Nikki in Laos

Thankfully, we’ve opted for a fully supported trip, so not only do we have a guide, but also our man with a van, Han, who transports our gear and supplies. He arrives just in the nick of time, armed with Oreos, lemon cake and bright, green fizzy pop to top up my rapidly depleting energy levels. We’ve got just over 90kms to cover today, so there’s not that much time for stopping and admiring the view. I barely catch my breath, before I’m back on the bike and off to conquer the next climb. It’s at this stage that I start to question my sanity. My own bike, back in London, is lucky if it’s ridden twice a year. What was I thinking when I agreed to do this?

The tourism industry in Laos has been growing rapidly over recent years, but the infrastructure hasn’t kept up. When I first researched the options for getting around, they seemed to be hours on a packed tourist bus, or fly and admire the view from 30,000ft. Neither particularly appealing. My husband, and companion on this trip, assured me that cycling was the perfect solution. We could cycle the 375kms from Vientiane to Luang Prabang, whilst getting a behind the scenes view of real Laos life.

We set off from Vientiane this morning, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It wasn’t long before we left the city traffic behind us, and were surrounded by lush, green paddy fields. To my relief, the route started out fairly flat. I had had images of days spent dodging pot holes on a rickety, old push bikes, but the roads are in surprisingly good condition, and we’ve got them pretty much to ourselves. Our bikes, Trek 1400s, are only a year old, and have been fully serviced. We’re also reassuringly given state of the art helmets, which are compulsory to wear. Most the day is spent cycling through villages to cry’s of Sabadii (hello) from the children and high fives.

Our guide, Sangvien, has been doing this for over 10 years. He has seen it all from the group of competitive men so desperate to out sprint each other that even he couldn’t keep up, to the underprepared couple who barely made it out of the hotel before giving up on the bikes and taking the van. As we set off, he hangs back, allowing us to set the pace and give him an idea of our levels. I must confess to peddling a little faster than was comfortable each time he glanced my way, eager to please, and quietly cursing myself for not putting in that extra training.

As the day progresses, the landscape starts to change, and we find ourselves up in the hills. After several hours of ups and downs, in more ways than one, we eventually arrive at the backpackers paradise that is Vang Vieng. I hadn’t given much thought to the type of accommodation we would be staying in during the trip, but had set my expectations fairly low. You can image my delight when we pull into the boutique Hotel Elephant crossing, a wooden masterpiece, on the banks of the Nam Song river. The view from our balcony is nothing short of spectacular. We watch the sun set, behind the dramatic limestone peaks, before having a well earned shower, and beer.

Vang Vieng is one of those love it or hate it places, undeniably beautiful, but overrun with westerners and all that brings with it. I like it. But that said, we manage to avoid the heaving main drag completely. Safe in the knowledge that my days of drinking until dawn are well and truly behind me, especially when I’ve got 60kms to cycle the following day, we opt for dinner at the hotel instead. The only noise we have to contend with is the sound of the river and the insects. As I drift off to sleep later that night, Sangvien’s parting words go through my mind, “Today was a good start, but it’s about to get a whole lot harder.”

Body parts for sale

First stop this morning is the local market to pick up some supplies. Yesterday’s hills have taken their toll, and my legs seem to have completed seized up. Sensing my perhaps obvious discomfort, the owner of the closest stall approaches me with a small jar of red paste. Based on his demonstration, I gather that it’s to rub on aching muscles. It smells reassuringly like deep heat, but is made from animal parts. I didn’t dare ask which, as they’re also selling a deer head and goats testicles in the same place. But beggars can’t be choosers. I take three jars.

We cross over a bridge to find a big group gathered on the side of the road, all looking skyward. As we pull over to see what’s going on, several pairs of sunglasses are thrust into my hands. We have arrived just in time to see a partial solar eclipse. It’s the first time I’ve seen one, and to be sharing it with all these locals, makes it all the more special. I can’t stop smiling as we head on our way.

I’m starting to feel a little hungry, a common theme during this trip, so we stop at a small bamboo hut on the side of the road, serving up pork rolls and dragon fruit. Shortly after, two buses arrive in tandem for a pit stop. Dozens of tourists pour off, demanding food, toilets and refreshments. The peace and quiet quickly shattered by the constant chatter. I couldn’t wait to get away. This is the only road linking Vientiane to Luang Prabang, so we’ve seen several buses, full to the rafters, burning past. I can honestly say, that even at my lowest point, I wouldn’t swap places with them for any amount of money.

Home tonight is a small guest house, in the village of Kasi, which has a population of about 200. Thailand are playing Singapore in a friendly football game, so we spend the evening watching the match on a small black & white screen in the corner. Given that this is one of the only televisions in the area, it’s not long before the whole village has gathered round to watch.

The owner lives here with five generations of his family. He is a typical Laotian, slight, with a kind face, and gentle eyes. He tells us that Laos remains one of the world’s poorest nations. And that little of the wealth accumulated in the main commercial centres of Vientiane and Luang Prabang reaches those who really need it. His children run around half naked. Only the oldest will go to school, as he can’t afford to buy them clothes let alone books. He is a road builder by trade, and makes a bit of extra money by renting out rooms, and selling anything he can hunt. Today’s catch is a vole, which he’s offering for a mere15,000 Kip. I gracefully decline, but leave a generous tip for the outstanding hospitality.

I don’t know if it’s down to my chilli beef and sticky rice for breakfast or that I’m just getting used to the pain, but I click off today’s first 30kms with consummate ease. Today’s route takes us to our highest point, in the northern mountains. Protracted, steep hills are followed by long, hair raising descents. Sangvien stops me on the side of the road and points to a spec in the distance. That is where we are headed. All that stands between me and a much needed lie down is a 20km hill. “You can do it,” he tells me, “just take your time.”

Now those are mountains

I let the boys go on ahead, having learnt yesterday not to try and keep up. I keep my head down, and using every ounce of determination, I slowly make my way up. I arrive at the top, hot, sweaty and rather rouge, just over two hours later. To be fair, once I eventually catch my breath and look around, I’m blown away. We’re at about 1500m, with a 360 degree view. Huge peaks, tower above us and birds of prey gracefully sweep across the horizon. We stand and stare, for what could’ve been hours.

The good news is that the hardest part is now well and truly behind us, for today at least. We literally freewheel all the way down to Kiew Ka Cham. Now this is my kind of cycling! Tonight we are an authentic local home, the most basic accommodation yet, but also the most special. As we arrive, there are children, chickens and goats all running amok. I can smell the khem grass just collected to make brooms, and almost taste the barbequed chicken being prepared for the evening meal.

The pleasure of waking up in a Hmong village where you’re the only westerner is not to be underestimated. By 6:30am the cockerels are in full song and music is blasting out. Everyone busy, making the most of the coolest part of the day. Whilst life here is far from easy, I can’t help but be slightly envious of the simplicity and sense of purpose these people have. Everyone has a vital role to play, as they all strive to make life in the village as comfortable as possible.

As we set off this morning, I am well aware that this is our last day. We still have 78kms to cover, but I am determined to enjoy every minute of it. We spend much of the day cycling through lush forest, which provides a welcome break from the heat of the sun. After a final hill, thrown in for good measure, we eventually turn into the Luang Prabang valley. I have mixed feelings. Obviously I’m delighted, if not a little surprised, that I’ve made it, and a day out of lycra certainly won’t go amiss, but I feel a little overwhelmed by the amount of people coming and going as we join the main highway.

Once I’m over the initial shock of rejoining civilisation, I soon discover that Luang Prabang is actually a charming city. Still in the routine of waking up at dawn, I take an early stroll just in time to see dozens of monks adorned in bright orange robes walking the streets. This picture postcard scene is the traditional alms collection, which takes place every day at first light. Not one to miss the chance of some good karma, I buy some rice from a nearby shop and am soon on my knees making an offering. Feeling suitably cleansed I head off to one of the many boulangeries to pick up some fresh bread for breakfast.

The time inevitably comes when we have to say goodbye to Sangvien and Han. We decide to mark the occasion with a night on the town. Beer Laos flows freely and we celebrate the end of the Tour in fine style. We have become quite a family, and it is with heavy hearts that we eventually bid them farewell. And it is not just them that I’m going to miss, I never thought I’d hear myself say it, but I’ve grown quite accustomed to life on two wheels. The great thing about cycling is that you really feel part of every day life, be it buying supplies or just stopping for a chat. And then there’s the fresh air, and sense of achievement in arriving at your destination each night. In fact, we don’t actually need to take the bikes back until tomorrow morning. Maybe I can fit in one last spin.

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