Archive for November, 2010

Challenging China – Boten – Mohan, Mengla & Jinghong

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

Our journey to the Chinese border was quite eventful, with 8km to go my gears decided to stop working completely. On closer inspection it appeared that the gear cable had snapped, so with our limited bike mechanic knowledge ( i.e. we’ve never done this before) we set about replacing the cable. An hour later and the cable was replaced but the gears where still not working properly. So, as it was getting late we cycled on, with my bike in a very high gear.

At the customs border we met a group of German travellers coming from China and got chatting to them about their time in Mongolia and China. Turns out one of them was good with bikes and he had a look at my gears. In no time at all he had them working again. Danke Schon!!2010-11-08 007

We cycled the last few ks to the border and after all the messing about, we only had 9 mins until the Chinese border closed (China is also an hour ahead of Laos).  First we had to check out of Laos. Due to the rush we wheeled and stood our bikes next to the window and gave them our passports, however some rather pedantic chap in a uniform decided that no, we had to put our bikes around the corner before we could check out. So we did this and came back. Rather stupidly we managed to overstay on our visa by one day, somehow we miss counted the 30 days ( I think we forgot to include the first day because we arrived so late in Laos.). So we were charged $10 US each, probably a completely made up price (judging by the grin on the guys face) and we could have paid less, but with no time to spare, we paid and got going. The official from earlier told us that we couldn’t cycle, but after 10 metres we hopped back on the bikes and rode to the Chinese arrival area, it was too far to walk in the time we had!

At the border we couldn’t work out where to go, no one seemed to be able to direct us, so we started to wheel our bikes inside the building, until someone stopped us. We left the bikes against a wall and went to the passport control area. Several men in uniform appeared and one led us to a desk where we filled in arrival cards. Whilst I was doing this, the man started going through my bar bag, rummaging around. It was quite funny really cos I use it a bit like a handbag, so there is everything in there… a used handkerchief, bike tools, empty sweet wrappers and sweets, biscuits, a fake wallet, sweaty gloves, bits of tissue, loo roll, you name it. Not entirely sure what he was hoping to find, but he soon closed it and smiled, waiting for us to complete the paperwork.  After lots of examination of our passports and visas, we were allowed to enter without any problems. High five!

We cycled down into the town, both hungry and tired by now. The town looks a little bit like a deserted film set as you arrive, but once you reach the restaurants and the people it’s quite nice. After asking around for a cheap hotel we kept being pointed in the same direction. However this hotel looked v. expensive and grand. Perhaps being foreigners they assumed that we have lots of money?? The sign said 180 Yuen per night, but on asking they said 120. It was way more than we wanted to pay (10 Yuen is equal to £1 roughly), but keen to shower, eat and sleep we decided to stay there anyway. People rushed to help carry our bags and on arrival at our room we discovered that it was like a palace… Fluffy duvets, a kettle and tea set, movie channels, soft lighting, hot shower, shampoo sets… luxury!!


It was nice to be in China at last. The buildings and the structure felt familiar, more like home, with pavements, brick buildings, 2 or 3 storeys high, bins and landscaped grass areas. We had some nice food – to order you go to the kitchen area to a open refrigerated cabinet and choose the meat you want, plus the vegetables and then sit down. They will cook up something based on that, all served with a massive bowl of rice. You are also served Chinese tea which is very nice and there seems to be an unlimited supply. We started asking the staff to write down in Chinese the names of the dishes that we like, so that we can order them again. Luckily we can both use chop sticks quite well already, but people seemed surprised that we could eat like them and stared or laughed at us eating, quite amusing. We quickly learnt our favourite phrase ‘Doe sow chen?’ How much? very useful to be able to ask this before ordering food and in shops.

2010-11-10 006 We left Mohan and headed to a town called Mengla which we believed to be either 75km or 60km away, map and guidebook had differing opinions. A new highway has been built since both the book and the map were printed so the road sign said 45km, excellent!

The road was so smooth and flat, a dream to cycle on, and we were delighted to see friendly road signs advising you to ‘buckle up’ and ‘take a rest’ with the cartoon elephant who we called Alberta. We cycled fast and were coasting along quite happily. Instead of going up hills, the Chinese simply build tunnels through them, so we passed through 4 tunnels along the way, which were ok, but the roar of approaching traffic was a little daunting; a small car sounds like a jumbo jet coming up behind you!

2010-11-10 008 We reached Mengla and found place to stay for 50 Y. The owners were friendly and pleased to see us. The next day we wanted to get online to check email and see what we could connect to on the web. The first internet cafe we found they shook their heads and pointed to a Chinese ID card – foreigners can’t use the internet. Hmmn. The young guy at the hotel let us use his computer and we were able to see our email, but only briefly. So we decided to keep looking and see if we could buy a dongle.

As a web designer I am able to work on the road and have been doing some work in Thailand. More work came though and I was really keen to get internet access (wifi) using our laptop. Chris tried various shops whilst I stayed with the bikes. They all had usb pen drives but no dongles. We know that China manufactures dongles for most of the companies out there, so it was slightly ironic that we couldn’t buy one anywhere. 

2010-11-11 001 We found a leaflet for a fast food joint Dicos, with chicken burgers and wifi, so we went there and I settled down to email and work while Chris continued looking.

He returned later with funny tales of giggling girls hiding behind sales counters, unable to serve him or provide much information, after saying ‘how can I help you’. But they had dongles, it was just a question now of working out the data packages and asking if the dongle and sim card will work in all provinces of China. If this sounds dull to you, well it is really, but try figuring it all out in another language, where no one speaks any English and where they don’t really understand gesture. Well not our gestures anyway – it’s like the bloody Krypton Factor! Feeling a bit frustrated and demoralised we stayed in dicos until they closed that night and did as much as we could.

We stayed the night in a really cheap place for 30 Y, which is quite possibly the horriblest place we have stayed on our entire trip. It was how I would imagine a room in a prison hospital in a poor country to be. The smell from the bathroom was pretty gross and filled the room. The man who showed us the room said it was ‘cheap but not clean’, don’t know about you, but I can’t ever imagine running a guest house where I’d want the description of it to be ‘it’s cheap but not clean’! Charming.

After a night of little sleep – people staying in the guesthouse were shouting and fighting in the middle of night, I decided to try the ATMs to withdraw some cash for the next leg of our journey. I tried every ATM in town, but no, none of them would let me withdraw money. Great. I went inside the bank that was supposed to allow foreigners to withdraw cash, but when I showed her my debit/credit card and passport, the lady shook her head and said ‘Jinghong, go to Jinghong’. Blimey, this was turning into a nightmare, no internet, no sleep, no cash, I was starting to have a sense of humour failure. To top it all off Chris had a nasty angry large spot at the top of his leg, just below his bottom which decided to burst whilst we were out and about.

2010-11-12 002Part of our reason for staying at the cheap, but not clean hotel was that we had cycled around town trying to find Forest Cafe where a guy speaking English runs a place with free wifi. We found it and wanted to stay nearby.

Peter Lee is a really lovely guy and we were so pleased to see him, he was a ray of light in what was otherwise a fairly frustrating time.

We chatted, learned some Chinese, watch the opening of the Asian Commonwealth games on his TV, he cooked us delicious fried rice and provided unlimited tea, and let us use the wifi for hours. So we were feeling a bit happier and it was great to meet Peter!


2010-11-13 001With 50 Y left and Chris’s spot cleaned and dressed, we set off for Jinghong, 120km away. We hoped to get there the same day or early the next day.

As we reach the highway turning we immediately saw a sign saying no bicycles. We asked some local people and they said it would be ok, but after cycling 1km we came to sign saying 3km Tunnel and decided to turn back. Being in a tunnel on a bike for 3 km didn’t appeal to either of us and could be quite dangerous.

So we picked up the 213, the old highway, which was empty and more like an English country lane.

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happy to be on the road again we cycled off. It was a tough afternoon’s ride as we climbed hills and scaled  a mountain, seeing the highway snaking it’s way through the hills a few hundred metres below us. Dogs here are quite big and like to chase bikes, so I got a bit of a fright when I cycled past a house and two dogs came tearing after me. Despite knowing that they would chase if I sped up, my instinct took over and I cycled really fast away from them. Luckily an old man on the road saw them and me and raised his stick to them. They stopped after that, but i picked up a stick to carry and some stones for future incidences.

It was slow going, but beautiful – we were cycling through the Xishuangbanna Nature Reserve -  with only 40km done and we were starting to lose the light. After whizzing down hill for a few kms, seeing a silver snake crossing the road, we stopped to camp by a river. The temperature soon dropped and for the first time in about a year I wore my beanie hat, socks, 3 layers of clothing and was looking forward to snuggling into my sleeping bag. We ate some noodles, had coffee and Chris washed up in the river, under the watchful eye of a huge spider!

2010-11-14 007Next day we cycled down to the next village where we had a big bowl of noodle soup for 3 Y each, excellent value! Chris made friends with the old men there by offering everyone cigarettes. This is a strong custom and we see it everywhere. It works extremely well as an icebreaker and in minutes everyone is smiling and friendly.

I managed to buy some bananas and giant satsumas, as well as wafer snacks and peanut bars. That should keep us going.

After yesterday we knew that it was going to be a day of more climbing, but we were stunned when we reached the top of this huge hill and looked down across the valley to see this amazing view. Terraced hills with rubber trees in rows and rows. We could see the road far below wiggling it’s way along the valley floor, and that’s where we were going which meant we had a brilliant bit of downhill to come. A road sign with an arrow pointing down, confirmed this for us!

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We whizzed down for about 10km and it was spectacular. We stopped for lunch and spent our last 30 Y on  a wonderful meal of chicken with ginger and spring onion, heaps of rice and pork spare ribs, with two lovely guys who made us very welcome.

We cycled on for another 30km before finding a place to camp. With an audience of very friendly teenagers we cooked and ate noodles, drank coffee and got changed. They were keen to see our tent and two of the guys helped us set up the tent. Then they all left saying goodnight. We sat and pumped 5 ltrs of river water, boiled it and then filled out water bottles for the next day, before settling down to watch an episode of the inbetweeners (which we’ve just discovered and love, bit like a teenage version of the peep show).

With about 60km to go to Jinghong, we got up, ate bananas and wafer biscuits, and hit the road. We were pleasantly surprised by the 25km of downhill which was glorious and the road ran alongside the banana plantations that cover this whole area. We stopped for yet more noodles by the side of the road and met a rather friendly puppy who was keen to share lunch with us. Not much luck there mate, with two hungry cyclists, you’re not gonna get much in the way of leftovers!

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After that we followed the river all the way to Jinghong, up and down, along a bumpy road. It was quite pleasant but the road quality deteriorated towards the end as we cycled through big clouds of dust. We arrived in Jinghong, a pretty city, with a layer of dust on everything.

2010-11-15 013

First stop: Bank of China. Second stop: a shop selling cold coca cola!

Hurrah we made it and once again have money and sweet sugary pop drinks.  Next stop: find our couch surfing host Ryan and relax for the day.

ter that

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“We don’t need no education!”

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

As we’ve cycled through these mountain villages in Laos we’ve seen children dressed in dirty, ripped, ragged clothes and no shoes. Babies with just a holey to-shirt on, crawling around in the dirt, or naked. The villagers live right next to the dusty road, and although there isn’t much traffic, whenever a truck comes through a big cloud of dust is blown up into the air, not to mention the exhaust fumes. None of the kids were in school and we couldn’t see any school-like buildings. Yet the children all seemed very happy, running around with their friends, free to play wherever they like, alongside chickens, piglets, puppies and kittens. With make-shift toys, sticks, tyres and elastic stings to jump in and out of.

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My initial concerns are that they are all so scrawny, dirty and not in school, but it’s warm here in Laos and kids not wearing clothes isn’t necessarily an issue. As they live amongst the red dirt of the mountains and hand wash all their clothes, I guess they can only get them so clean. Nappies are not used here (from what we can see) so maybe it’s easier to let the little ones go naked and then just wash them down.

Most of the families are rice farmers, living off the land, with no ‘income’. We see them walking home from their land in the later afternoon, back again at 6 or 7am. Many have their children with, accompanying them for a days work in the fields. The children learn from a young age, with skills being passed own to each generation. There are many children and people seem to have quite large families. All the women we see have a baby strapped to them, with a traditional cloth sling. Girls as young as 17 seem to have babies, but so do older women, who look old enough to be grandmothers (maybe they are?). It’s hard to gauge the age of the women here, the young girls are very beautiful, with pure looks and long black hair, but quickly this hard lifestyle takes it’s toll and older women have many lines on their faces, making it hard to guess how old they might really be.

The sense of community and shared responsibility in these villages is evident, as they gather in groups with children and babies around them. Everyone takes care of the babies, who are happy to go to anyone and seemed to be loved by all. Older children are expected to take care of their younger siblings and it’s common to see a toddler being carried on the back of an older (although not much) child.

The women wear traditional sarongs and the men, baggy trousers and a mix of khaki, army style jackets, all brightly coloured and neat. Everyone wears a wide brimmed pointed hat to protect themselves from the heat. It’s also common to see people wearing full balaclavas and neck coverings,which at first can seem quite intimidating. Everyone carried a machete style knife, usually strung around the waist, vital for chopping bamboo, wood, trees, plants, bananas… before this trip the word machete conjured up horrific images of Rwanda, genocide, mutilated bodies and violence, in short a weapon. Now I can see that for many people in the world it is first and foremost, a tool. As we’ve cycled in SE Asia for some time now, we are used to seeing trucks go by packed with balaclava’d, machete’d people sat in the back of the pick-up. If you didn’t know any better you’d think the countryside was full of bandits! They are simply protecting themselves from the sun, dirt, dust and fumes, carrying their tools.

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The houses here are basic, wooden structures built on stilts. This provides some escape from the dirt and heavy rain (flooding the ground). Windows simply have wooden shutters and most villages have no electricity, although they use generators to provide some. They sleep when it gets dark and rise when it’s light.  Everyone cooks over open fire, with big blackened pots and sticky rice is the staple food here. Washing areas are communal, with water pumps at the front of the houses, where you see girls and women wrapped in sarongs washing their hair and themselves at the end of each day. The little children running through the spray and laughing in the cold water. Clothes are also washed here. We also see people washing in the rivers.

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To us their lives seem slow, traditional, remote, simple, hard and repetitive, yet rewarding, honest, uncomplicated, stress-free and family based, with none of the trappings of western life. They farm to grow food to eat, they live and watch their children grow, pass on their knowledge and grow old. The people seem very stoic and we wonder what do they do for fun? How do they relax? What does entertainment look like in these villages? Is the idea of entertainment a western idea anyway? They don’t earn money to buy things, they don’t appear to aspire to have belongings and material possessions like we do. The desire to keep improving things and make them straight, nice, pretty,  and ornate doesn’t see to exist, life in these villages is much more practical.

So the killer question for us is where do literacy, education and modern ideas fit in with this way of life? Should the kids be in school, learning to read and write, is education relevant to them? On the one hand if the children continue to work and live of the land as rice farmers, staying up in the mountain villages, how will reading and writing help them? There is a strong desire amongst people to preserve this traditional way of life.


However it is very easy for us to romantise their lives and ignore the low literacy levels (30% of the population is illiterate) and high child mortality stats (out of 1000 live births, 61 will die before their 5th birthday, compared to 6 /1000 in the UK. Source: Unicef data on Laos from 2008). Other challenges include kids suffering from serious malnutrition and being severely underweight. On a diet of rice, with no vegetables, fruit or protein, many under 5s are malnourished. The World Food Program (UN) delivers midday meals to 88,000 schoolchildren throughout Laos, for some this is the only meal there will get each day. Along side lack of immunisations for preventable diseases, too many mothers dying in childbirth, lack of blood and oxygen at the hospitals… it’s a fairly depressing description.

Thing change, cultures are always evolving. Now in 2010, when these villages are no longer isolated; there are regular buses to the main towns, with traffic tearing through their once peaceful villages, children today know that there are possibilities and opportunities outside of village life. Thai TV, fashion and music is having a strong influence on it’s poorer neighbour and many young people in Laos aspire to be like their Thai peers. If this current generation of children choose to leave their villages and look for paid work elsewhere, they will need an education, however basic to help them on their way.

I think these villages need schools with decent teachers and facilities. Some kids may choose to stay in the villages, others may leave to find work, either way all of these children are entitled to have that choice. Without some education their choices are greatly reduced.  I also believe that school lets you find out what you are good at, lets you try new things, things you never even knew you could do! School can also opens your mind to the world outside, to new ideas and widen your perspective.

The other factor is healthcare. Yes there are traditional, natural medicines and herbs used for treating illnesses, but the number of babies and children dying before their 5th birthday is too high. Preventable illnesses and minor conditions that if left untreated become more serious, are all too common in remote villages. On one short bus journey, from the mountains to the town I saw a young girl with a horrible eye infection, with her eyes all gungy and streaming, a baby coughing, very congested, and breathing in a laboured way, and adults with chesty coughs and eye infections too. Many of them got off at the hospital once we reached the town.

Access to education and healthcare will have an impact on this traditional lifestyle, yet I hope that it can be introduced and embraced without eroding the traditions and quality of this mountain village way of life.

Unfortunately for Laos, the government invest little in schools and hospitals, it is an underdeveloped third world country, dependent on aid and foreign investment, and corruption is rife. The work that Child’s Dream are doing in Laos, means that schools are being built in rural, remote areas where children would otherwise have no access to education. It costs approx £20,000 to build and equip a school for 200+ children, allowing children from the surrounding villages to attend and get an education.

chris with village kids We are cycling to raise funds for Child’s Dream and now having seen them, we really want to build a school for these kids more than ever. These village children could have the same opportunities as other children around the world.

Please help us to raise the money to build a school here in Laos: £5 buys 110 bricks…

To find out more about the situation in Laos visit Child’s Dream’s website:

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China here we come!

Sunday, November 7th, 2010

Us with our new chinese visaHaving successfully got the visas we need for China, we are now ready to go…

Today we are cycling to Boten, our last stop in Southeast Asia. We will cross into China at the Boten/Mohan border and cycle north for 800km to Kunming.

We are hoping Margo and Ben will cycle some of the journey with us, which will be nice for us all. The temperature has also begun to drop and camping should once again, be a fun and cheaper option, as the tent will no longer resemble a sauna!

Me studying the slightly bonkers, gigantic 1:4 million scale map of China

Our plans after that change. I will return to the UK for 2 months and Chris will continue to cycle north via Chengdu, Xi’an, Beijing. I will then join him in Beijing in Feb 2011. Chris is looking forward to, in fact I’d say relishing the idea, of cycling solo and seeing how far he can push himself. I meanwhile will be working to top up our funds and promoting/fundraising for our charity, as well as seeing much missed family and friends.

We hope to continue blogging (wordpress), tweeting and facebooking (is that actually a verb??) once we get into China, however we know that there may be some restrictions in accessing these websites, so we shall see… watch this space!

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A lasting legacy for Laotians – American’s Secret War

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

We visited the COPE visitor centre in Vientiane, Laos and this is what we learned…

Between 1964 and 1973 the US bombed Laos continuously, despite Laos being a peaceful, neutral country and despite the US never openly declaring war on Laos. Even the American people didn’t know it was happening. This was of course the time of the Vietnam war and the threat of communism spreading in SE Asia caused great fear in America. The Ho Chi Min Trail ran through southern Laos and was a supply line for the Vietnamese, as a result this was the original target in Laos. However the whole of the eastern border ended up being bombed, as well as the northern area of Laos where many north Vietnamese were believed to be hiding. Every red dot on this map represents a bombing mission:

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The weapon of choice was the cluster bomb. These are fired and then the casing opens releasing many small sub-munitions, known locally as bombies (a name that sounds far too affectionate for my liking). The bombies are scattered indiscriminately across a wide area and the estimated number dropped during those 9 years, is in excess of 260 million!

2010-10-25 2010-10-25 001 005 The problem with bombies, apart from their indiscriminate use and lack of target, is that there’s a 30% chance they won’t explode on impact, a 30% known failure rate.  That’s 78 million unexploded bombies just left lying around Laos. Whatever the politics of the time, the fact is that now in 2010 pretty much all of that unexploded ordnance (UXO) still litters much of the Laos countryside. To date the number of sub-munitions painstakingly cleared and destroyed to date is 387,645 or 0.49%.

Laos is a poor, rural country where the majority of the people are subsistence rice farmers. Most people live in small villages, in wooden houses and farm the fields. As the bombing campaign against Laos was secret, the US did not adhere to the Geneva Convention which states that civilian areas can not be bombed. Many people lost their lives during those 9 years. However it is the lasting legacy that is an even greater problem for the people of Laos. These UXO are everywhere…. you may be ploughing your rice field and hit a bombie, walking in the forest looking for fruit and a child picks up a yellow bombie that looks like fruit, kids find a bombie and think it’s a ball and start throwing it to each other. Other stories include a woman cooking over a fire (as is the norm here) and heating the ground below her, causing a bomb buried below to heat up and explode.

Many deaths and severe injuries, leading to amputation and blindness, happen each year and have done since 1973. Some of these injuries are as a result of handling UXO (trying to move them or unearth them, or transport them to sell as scrap metal!?!) and many are involuntary (a farmer hitting one in his field). 50% of deaths and injuries are to children, who despite more widespread education on the subject, still pick them up and don’t see the danger. % of deaths cause by:

1.Handling of UXO (24%)
2.Farming (22%)
3.Forest products collection (14%)
4.Lighting fires/cooking and other domestic activities (12%)
5.Playing with UXO (11%).

santaroperation copy COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and they provide prosthetics and mobility devices for those people who require them, free of charge if they cannot afford to pay for them.

COPE is the only provider of prosthetic, orthotic and rehabilitation services in Laos. Established by POWER International in 1997, COPE is a joint venture between the Ministry of Health and a number of NGOs (Non-government organisations). 

COPE not only provide help to UXO victims but also to those who have lost limbs through accidents (like Santar left), and they work with parents whose babies and children suffer from the condition known as club foot.

The visitor centre is well worth a visit and they screen a number of films on the subject, including ‘Bomb Harvest’, fantastic and shocking film showing the work that MAG (Mines Advisory Group) are doing to clear bombies and what they call big bombs, as well as the training programme they run to teach local people the skills need to clear bombs. Another is ‘Bombies’, with stories from survivors and old villagers who remember the bombing campaign.

The work that COPE do is amazing and gives hope to many people who would otherwise be forgotten and left unable to provide for their families. Their outreach programme allows them to identify people in remote areas, giving those people chance to access the services and support COPE have to offer.

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Whilst their work is very positive, I still left the centre feeling very shocked and angry really. How come I didn’t know about this before? Sure everyone knows about Vietnam, but hardly anyone (my age) knows about Laos being the most heavily bombed country in the world or this terrible UXO legacy. And angry because Laos is so under developed that it doesn’t have the infrastructure or resources to deal with the casualties… A little boy goes with two classmates to play in the woods near their village, one finds a bombie and picks it up, it explodes, the two classmates are killed outright, this little boy was further back so was injured but alive. His parents have to find someone with a vehicle to take him to hospital. Several hours later they arrive at hospital, but the hospital has no blood or oxygen and can not help him. They go to the next hospital, but they have no blood or oxygen either. So with no other help available, they take their little boy back home and a few hours later, he dies.

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1 August 2010, the Convention on Cluster Munitions came into force, banning the production, use and stockpiling of cluster bombs. As of Nov 1 2010, the UK enters into this legally binding law (thank goodness!). 108 countries have signed the convention, however many countries have still not signed up, including the US, Russia and China, and work continues to stigmatise the use of cluster bombs as a weapon. Read more here

Also see: 

lao-female-deminers-size-2 UXO Laos all-female clearance team. Laos will host the First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Nov. 2010. Photo credit: Stanislas Fradelizi/CMC.

Visit the COPE website:


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Travelling by bus in Laos – 4 experiences

Friday, November 5th, 2010

And it really is an experience! Good Luck!

Bus 1 -  Vieng Phoukha to Laoung NamTha.

Local bus 1.5 hr 20,000 kip (plus 20,000 for the bike and panniers)

After our long hard ride through the mountains in northern Laos,  and feeling sick again, I took a local minivan the final 60km. It’s a 10 seater minivan, however by the time we collected the last passenger I counted 20 people, including 2 babies, a toddler and a little girl. This is the only transport available to most people between villages and towns. It was a squash, but ok for an hour or two. There are no seatbelts, but Laos isn’t too hot on health and safety to be honest. The driver put my bike and panniers on the roof and strapped it all down well. It was a good journey all in all.

20102010374 Bus 2 – Laoung NamTha to Vientiane.

Local bus 22 hrs ( advertised as 17hrs) 160,000 kip 8.30am – 6.30am following day.

We paid for a VIP bus and the guesthouse arranged a tuk tuk to take us the bus station. The bus stations are always about 10km out of town for some reason (we reckon to keep the tuk tuk drivers in business). When we arrived our bus had already left! Great. So the tuk tuk driver chased after it and we caught up to where it had stopped to wait. Bus driver not very impressed! It turns out that it was the local/regular bus not the VIP. Oh well. We got on and there was plenty of room. We sat near the back. Seats are fairly generous and comfy. The windows open so it’s cool, although very rattley. We manage to buy 3 baguettes, some sticky rice and pork before we left, plus some bottled water.

The route is  Laoung NamTha -  OudomXai – Pakmong – Laoung PraBang – Vang Vieng – Vientiane

The road between Laoung NamTha and OudomXai goes through the mountains and is a very bad quality road, no tarmac just gravel, corrugated in places (it looks as though it has been skimmed to allow for re-surfacing but no visible signs of road works anywhere). It is also very bendy with many twists and turns. The driver goes as fast as he can despite the road. It’s ok though, but local people around us were quite travel sick, vomiting out of the windows. The driver stops every couple of hours or so on the road, for a toilet and smoke break. There aren’t toilets, unless you stop in a town, so you just go on the road or behind a bush.

Around 3pm we stopped at Pakmong. Here the driver takes a proper break to eat. The bus station has several food stalls and cafes to eat in. The driver doesn’t really communicate or tell you what’s happening. The other breaks that day had been short, 5 mins max, so we hurried to buy food to take away. Turns out we were stopping for an hour and half, so plenty of time to eat.

Most of the toilets charge 1000 kip, so have some change.

The bus is really full by now and everyone has lots of luggage, sacks or rice, bedding you name it, so the isle if full of bags, an interesting assault course to navigate in the middle of the night to go for a wee. From here it was about 2.5hrs to Laoung Prabang where we stopped for another half hour. Then onto Vang Vieng, arriving at around 2am! Not sure how you find a guesthouse at that time…

We finally pulled up in Vientiane around 6.30am having managed a few hours sleep. It’s 10,000 kip tuk tuk ride to the centre of town from the bus station. The driver doesn’t swap with anyone although he does have another guy who help with the passengers, luggage, tickets etc. So not sure how safe it is to drive 22 hrs straight through with only a  few breaks, but that’s what happens.

Bus 3 – Vientiane to Laoung Prabang

Express Bus 10 hrs 90,000 kip 6.30am – 4.30pm

Well we got to the bus station the night before at 8pm having paid 50,000 kip for a tuk tuk. But there was no bus, we had been given the wrong information, there was no 8.30pm bus. Luckily there were rooms available at the bus station, 60,000 kip, slightly dungeon like (no windows) but comfy bed. We got up early, had sticky rice and pork for breakfast at the bus station and board the 6.30am express bus. A step up from the local bus, less rattling but still bouncy with interesting suspension.

Most of this journey is a blur I think we slept, listen to our ipods and generally relaxed. The road wasn’t too bad and there was plenty of chance to stop and go to the loo.

The last two hours dragged on though and the road was very windy and bendy, making me feel slightly nauseous. The driver was obviously keen to get there too as he drove really fast through the towns and villages beeping at everything in his path. As Chris said, probably best not to look! By 4.30 pm we arrived and got a tuk tuk for 10,000 each to the town centre.

Bus 4 – Laoung Prabang to Laoung NamTha.

VIP Bus 10 hrs 120,000 kip 7pm – 5am

We paid for a VIP bus as it has a toilet on board. Having just had an upset stomach I was anxious about the toilet situation, so paid to have the VIP. However when we got to the bus station and checked with the driver he said ‘no toilet’! No point getting cross though, that’s just how things are here.

It was pretty cramped and we had less room than the other buses we had taken. We did get a free bottle of water each though and blankets.

Driver was nice and stopped plenty of times for loo breaks, still drove very fast and I was a bit motion sick to begin with, but gradually lolled off to sleep. And the bus has suspension.

Bus broke down in the mountains. No information but it was the middle of the night and most people were sleeping, or trying too. No idea what the problem was but after about an hour we got going again. Bus was very cold, due to the outside temperature and I wore socks, a fleece with my hood up and had a blanket and was still cold. At 5 am we arrived at Luang NamTha, it was dark, misty and cold. After a 10km tuk tuk ride to the town we then waited 2 hours for a room in a guesthouse (the one we chose and had left the bikes at was full). All I can say is take warm clothes with you!

Tips for travelling bus in Laos

  • buses always take longer than advertised
  • they are likely to breakdown
  • the roads are bad and the drivers go fast
  • have 1000 kip notes for toilets
  • take plenty of food and water with you
  • take toilet roll and anti-bacterial hand gel
  • take a pillow or bag of clothes to use as a pillow
  • take a warm top (hoodie or fleece) and socks
  • take an ipod or mp3 player
  • er… cycle instead??

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