Cycle Touring in Laos
Before going to Laos we heard that it was like stepping back in time, and in many ways that's true. Due to relative isolation and war, the country is largely unspoilt and the traditional mountain hill tribe way of life still exists without too much in the way of outside influence. That said the people are generally poor and the country lacks a decent infrastructure - roads, hospitals and schools. Corruption is rife and whilst the country has resources to export, the money rarely filters down to the people. It is very much a developing country!
Northern Laos is full of hills and mountains, making it both beautiful and slow to cycle through. The pace of life here is very relaxed and as you cycle through villages, people sit together with their children and animals, seemingly without a care in the world. As cyclists we found that despite feeling that you were in a very remote place, miles from anywhere, people would regularly pop out of a nearby bush or group of trees high up on the mountainside, carrying fruit, rice or bamboo. We’d always be slightly amazed, where have they come from, how did they get here? Funny thing is, they were looking at us wondering exactly the same thing!
As you cycle all you see for miles is green. Trees, plants, jungle, paddy fields that go as far as the eye can see. It is the one place where Chris was moved by the beauty of the landscape and struggled to put into words how it made him feel. All around you the place is buzzing with wildlife, birds, insects, butterflies and in the distance you can hear the cries of animals, we were hoping to see gibbons and elephants, however with such a vast area to roam, it was probably optimistic.
The Loa people are very gentle, good natured, friendly souls who welcome you, although they can be slightly reserved and shy at times, or quietly stoic. The children are so excited to see you and wave and run down the hills sides shouting "hello" and "Sabadee". In the rural mountain areas, people live a simple life with quite basic conditions. No electricity, no clean drinking water (like most of the developing world), no bathrooms - communal water pumps for washing and collecting water, fire to cook etc. The only real signs of development are the roads cutting through the villages, bringing with them huge dust clouds and big trucks on their way to China or Thailand.
Travelling through this beautiful country we learnt more about the lives of the people here. Laos has some challenges, many of them facing children, 30% of the population is illiterate; high child mortality rates mean that for 1000 live births, 61 will die before their 5th birthday (compared to 6 /1000 in the UK. Source: Unicef data on Laos from 2008). On a diet of rice, with limited vegetables, fruit or protein, many under 5s are malnourished, suffering from serious malnutrition and are severely underweight. The World Food Program (UN) delivers midday meals to 88,000 school children throughout Laos, for some this is the only proper meal they will get each day.
If that is not enough, the country also faces the problem of landmines. During the Vietnam war, the USA undertook a secret war and bombing campaign, despite Laos being a neutral country. Between 1964 and 1973 the US bombed Laos continuously, dropping over 260 million (!) munitions, making Laos one of the most heavily bombed countries in the world. The weapon of choice was the cluster bomb, which only have a 70% detonation rate, leaving the other 30% unexploded. These unexploded 'bombies' are scattered across rural Laos and continue to maim and kill people every day. A visit to COPE in Vientiane is a lesson about a war we never even knew of, shocking and humbling. COPE is also a rehabilitation and prosthetic centre, fitting artificial limbs and helping victims of the UXO (unexploded ordnance). Read more about COPE.
The French colonial past is still evident, mostly in Vientiane and Luang Prabang on our trip, with it's legacy of French cafes and bagettes! Fresh bagettes were a delight to find on the road and made lunchtimes very enjoyables. Sticky rice - Kow neo is also a national 'dish' and makes for a good snack on long journeys. Often wrapped as parcels in banana leaves, sticky rice is made from a soft, round grain that melts in your mouth.
The road conditions vary, but in general they are not great. Often they will be gravel roads, steep and dusty. In some places there is tarmac, particularly on transit routes for export/import. In other places the road is muddy and bumpy. There isn't much traffic in the north, where we cycled, and the vehicles you see most are small motorised farm vehicles, scooters and big trucks.
Accommodation: we camped in the mountains and stayed in newly built guesthouses that were very pleasant. Rooms are small with shared bathrooms or ensuites, but have nice furniture and are very clean. Many places in the towns and capital now have wifi and include breakfast. We paid around 80,000 a night for a double room, with wifi, breakfast and free cake and coffee in the afternoon, in Vientiane. The staff are usually very helpful and will break a big smile if you are kind and polite to them (we saw several backpackers being very rude and demanding to staff, I have one thing to say: yes we know you are tired from your long bus journey, but be nice and have some respect).
Laos is a great place to cycle tour and you will easily feel that you have 'got off the beaten track' in this lush, friendly country. You can goes several days without seeing other tourists and feel that you are having a unique experience, with only the birds and butterflies sharing your road, well, most of the time!
Northern Laos: Huay Xai - Viengpoukha - Luang Namtha - Boten
- Unspoilt, lush, green, endless countryside
- Lovely, friendly local people
- Excited happy kids, who run down the hills to wave and shout "Sabadee" to us
- Seeing people living a rural, traditional way of life, farming the land
- Travelling by bus - an experience
- Markets and temples in Luang Prabang
- Lantern festival and boat races in Vientiane
- French cafes, steaks, bagettes and wine in Vientane
- Amazing (and hard) mountains to ride up and down
- Sticky rice: 'Kow neo'
- Empty roads
- Visiting COPE in Vientiane
- Dust clouds from trucks on the roads
- Bad gravel or dirt roads
- Big, steep hills
- Basic accommodation and service - Laos is still a developing country
- Heat and humidity
- Landmines - see COPE article
Liz and Chris cycle touring in Northern Laos photos from November 2010.