Laos' road less cycled

Laos is not a really a cycling country. It is more often a stopover for hordes of tourists to visit the party capital Vang Vieng or the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang for its colonial architecture. Only recently has bike touring become more common there.

The rest of the in-between towns like Khou Ki Cham, Phou Khon and Kasi are almost forgotten mysterious havens. Many adventure touring companies venture away from the tourist filled locations to allow the more intrepid travellers to revel and languish in the more laid back places in Laos, often known for its chilled-out, gentle pace.

From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions. Since then, the country’s history has hardly been peaceful, making it the most heavily bombed nation per capita in history.

While there’s a lot to learn about the suffering and calamities endured by the indigenous Hmong people who live on the plains, there’s also tranquility and a sense of charm in the most delightful villages and towns in the rural countryside, making Laos one of the best hidden finds in Southeast Asia.

Arranging for rental bikes for a self-supported tour proved to be challenging as Laos is not a developed bicycle touring destination. To get quality bikes, it is only possible if you join an adventure company which comes with a support vehicle.

This was not something I fancied doing though, and in Luang Prabang I found a German-owned shop called Tiger Trails that had a Trek bike with all the bicycle-touring specs with panniers ready.

The roads on our chosen route from Luang Prabang to Vientiane were 98 percent smooth tarmac with minimal traffic, with polite drivers who are accustomed to sharing roads with scooters, pedestrians and bicycles. However, we found out that crossing through the mountainous terrain heading south to the capital was quite a rollercoaster ride. The high elevations and deep valleys required extreme concentration, focus and courage, due to the steep climbs with gradients of around 12%.

Beyond that, it was the perfect way to stop and observe the Laotian way of life. The towns wake up very slowly to the noise of chickens pecking at corn husks and corn boiling over an open fire. Vegetables are often seen being laid out to dry in the open on weaved baskets.

Simple wooden houses can be seen along the way, with scores of children usually playing in a nearby field. Passing by on two wheels, you will be thrilled to hear the constant greeting of "Saibadee” or “Hello” in Laotian, coupled with waves, claps and cheers from the kids. The welcome camaraderie on the trail ensured a constant smile on my dirt-covered face.

Going “off the beaten path” also meant finding accommodation or guest houses built for only a stopover with basic housing, but equipped with comfortable beds, hot showers and stellar views. The delights of cycle touring in one of the world’s most underrated countries, were the small discoveries we made along the way, especially the beautiful scenic spots.

Among these include Phou Khoun, a tiny town that has a beautiful strawberry farm and was known for having good camping grounds. These offered the perfect spot to witness the mist roll over the green mountains while visiting the local villages to learn about their way of life.

Throughout our journey, it was a treat to see jagged karst peaks and rice fields, similar to the famous towering limestones of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. The unique and often stunning mountain scenery is characteristic of much of Laos. One of the highlights at the start of our journey was the Kuang Si waterfalls. There, a single large cascade tumbles from the jungle, feeding a series of falls and pools that formed perfect swimming holes.

Crossing central Laos, we also came across natural hot springs situated in the Kasi village, after riding 50km from Phou Khoun. The stretch included a nearly 2,500-metre descent, an easy, breezy ride and a great way to cool-off depending on what season you are cycling there. The crisp, cold mountain air and puffs of cotton-candied clouds were some of the best sunset views we got to relax with after a hard day on the bike.

Along these sights and serenely quiet surroundings, Laos surprised me on multiple levels as  not your usual bike touring destination. There were challenging inclines and steep drops combined with more laid back stretches, after which you can relax while nursing a Beerlao on the riverfront while watching the Hmong people go about their day. This destination definitely packs a punch.

Despite being a cyclist with more enthusiasm than experience, Laos was a treasure trove waiting to be discovered. It could easily rival the other destinations in South-east Asia like Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia and be an upcoming spot for charming, rustic bicycle rides among Laotian stilted houses that dot the countryside.

If Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Fairyland’ poem could be re-written, it would be right here in Laos, unchanged and spiritual.

 

Words and Pictures by Pashmina Binwani (www.thegonegoat.com)