My initiation to bicycle touring in Northern Laos

1st August 2015

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

I’d been toying with the idea of swapping my backpacking life for bike touring since becoming single. Life had put so many cyclists on my path after the breakup that I took it as a sign for me to “convert” and begin a new journey, figuratively and literally. So when my friend Jochen asked if I’d like to tag along to cycle a few hundred kilometers with him in Laos, a country I absolutely love, I jumped on the opportunity to test the water under the safe wing of a well-seasoned cyclist and see for myself if this way of traveling was for me.

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

Flying from KL to Vientiane was a breeze and the minibus from the Northern bus terminal to Vang Vieng surprisingly just as easy. I rented a mountain bike that seemed in decent shape, loaded up my stuff on the back on Jochen’s bike (we couldn’t find a rental with a rear rack) and, after a few restful days kicking back in beautiful Vang Vieng, set off for the hilly and sweaty road leading to Luang Prabang a few hundred kilometers ahead. I kept a diary of my first hand impressions as I went. Here are a few extracts. Enter a lot of sticky rice, sweat and crotch pain.

DAY 1

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

We left Vang Vieng at around 2pm after a delicious lunch at my favorite dig, Veggie Tables. The first 15 km was a relatively flat gobsmackingly beautiful start to traveling on two wheels. The first climb of the journey came around and, since I was so bloody braced for it, didn’t seem all that bad. It lasted about 5 or 6 km and ended with an exhilarating 5 km downhill. As the sun was setting and the sky becoming increasingly cloudy, we took refuge under the large terrace of a partially constructed/semi-abandoned restaurant where we decided to pitch the tent for the night. All we could find in the town’s only shop were sticky rice and garlic, which we mixed with peanuts, herbes de Provence and a splash of water and, with this very humble but filling meal, all my worries about cycling the backcountry as a vegan left me. It was interesting to observe how the more we got away from touristy Vang Vieng, the more excited and interactive the local kids got. Screams of “I love you!” and “Sabaidee!” and rallies of high fives became the norm. What an amazing energy. I have no idea where we are. The feeling of going forth with no destination and no need to turn back around is just exhilarating.

DAY 2

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

We got up at the crack of dawn for meditation and yoga, then snacked on mangoes, bananas and dates. Pictures can’t do justice to how amazing the scenery is. We cycled 10km and stopped at a market to stock up on more fruit and eat a big bowl of boiled greens and sticky rice before hitting the road again. The dreaded climb I’d read about finally came shortly thereafter and did not stop for the next 40km save for a few short-lived descents. Today I got the lot: blazing sun, 40+ degrees Celcius humid heat, lots of walking and pushing the bike up, sunburns, dehydration and bad saddle-induced cystitis. Villages and screaming kids gave ways to surreal mountainous landscapes as we got higher and higher. We finally hit a belvedere at around 6pm and since the sky was looking menacing again, decided to call it a day. I took advantage of the top notch sanitary facilities after Jochen introduced me to showering with a bum hose. Who the hell have I become to consider this pretty much the epitome of luxury? On top of the royal showering treatment, we got to stay in a room from the staff house for free, which was incredible. There was a mattress! We snacked on instant noodles and peanuts as we watched some amazing lightning over the mountains.

DAY 3

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

Meditation, yoga, sunrise, mountains, fruits, beautiful scenery. More hills today first hand as we hit the road. We had a rather oily snack of garlic noodles and banana fritters at the first market we encountered. My energy level wasn’t exactly great as we tackled the mountains again, walking up a lot of the way. We stopped at a temple and had a long nap in the shade on a cold marble floor which was heaven. We reached a small village at around 6pm and decided to camp on the school grounds. All we had was sticky rice, garlic, ginger, rancid peanuts and some chives and cherry tomatoes we had foraged, which we boiled in water and made a soup that would have been delicious had the peanuts not been rancid. I did enjoy the camping cooking however. Feels wild.

DAY 4

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

Al Fresco Shower

Meditation and yoga. Mangoes and bananas. We met our first and only cyclist of the journey about 5km into our day and stopped for a chat with him which turned out to be a stoner monologue on his part. I wondered if cycling did that to him and if the same awaits me when I start cycling on my own?! We climbed some more before getting to a viewpoint where we ate a bowl of boiled greens with garlic, some rice and a vegetable baguette. We had a hard time finding shelter on the hot hours of the day for napping and ended up laying the yoga mats under a tree right by the road side. Shortly after we took off again came an exhilarating 20 km downhill followed by another seemingly endless climb and finally another long downhill. During a walking stretch, we passed an odd looking boy armed with a sling shot. He took advantage of Jochen being several metres ahead to grope me very inappropriately. This really upset me and massively shook my confidence for doing this solo cycling thing. It got me so angry about the limitations that still come with being a woman – no matter how liberated we feel most of the time, we still face inevitable troubles. Will this ever change? How safe will I be as a solo female cyclist in South East Asia? This happening on my first ever bike tour whilst accompanied by a man is some serious food for thought…

Bought a bunch of veggies from a market and had an al fresco shower outside a gas station before setting camp in a corn field and eating a delicious salad in the bright moonlight. Brilliant.

DAY 5

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

Skipped yoga to have an early start and catch the morning market in Luang Prabang. The last 20km were unfortunately not that picturesque with quarries on either side of the road (which has grown increasingly flat) most of the way. And before I knew it, we’d reached Luang Prabang. I did it! We ate little banana leaf parcels of red sticky rice with coconut at the market before setting out to find an actual bed in an actual guesthouse with an actual shower, the well-deserved luxurious reward to a gruesome 4 days of cycling that’s left both my mind and my heart full and had me wanting more.

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

Sure cycling in Northern Laos wasn’t easy. There were definitely some ups and downs (pun intended), but it was so rewarding. I’ve learned that becoming a cyclist can be scary at times – especially when it comes to feeling safe as a woman – but these were valuable lessons to learn. Mostly, what I appreciated was the cycling – not as a mean of getting from a to b – and it not being about the speed or destination, but rather about the journey. I feel that in a way I got a glimpse of the South East Asia I’d hoped to find all those years ago, out of the main touristy and jaded path. Bicycle touring: we have a date.

For more Laos itinerary ideas, check out my friend Lotte’s guide!

Bicycle touring between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, Northern Laos

14 thoughts on “My initiation to bicycle touring in Northern Laos

  1. Joe

    After solo backpacking for the last ten months, I have decided to switch to bicycle touring. For me, the decision comes from a desire for even further freedom. Without a tent, sleeping bag, or mode of transportation, this trip has been limited to where I can sleep indoors and where buses or friendly motorists will take me. I’m actually rather anxious about the coming days! But that will pass the moment this new journey begins.

    Part of my trip was through Laos in February. The journey from Vang Vieng to Laung Prabang was much more uneventful than yours. Attempting to sleep on a nightbus, completely unaware of the natural beauty around me in those gorgeous mountains.

    The way things worked out, I returned to Vang Vieng. By van this time, and in the middle of the day. That was one of the only drivers that I can remember across my whole trip who had a smile on his face, and it complimented the beauty of the area that you just passed through. I’ve always loved mountains, those were no exception.

    When I left Asia after four months of exploring, it had been enough for me. I wanted out, and so carried on traveling. This time through mainland Europe where my visa had eventually and inevitably expired. Pushed into new visa territory, I’m in Scotland now. It was in the Highlands where I was inspired to take up bicycle touring. The gorgeous mountains, and the lovely people.

    There’s no overwhelming envy for the summer heat of Southeast Asia, but your article does inspire a twinkle in my eye of my memories there. And sticky rice with some street food. 🙂

    Reply
    1. Amélie Post author

      Haha! I don’t know how badass I really am with my pink unicorn bicycle honestly 😉
      I’m cycling from KL to Bangkok as soon as my flippin saddle shows up in the mail, then I’m planning to fly from Bangkok to Istanbul and cycle to Berlin from there. 😀

      Reply
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  3. Danik

    Oh wow, cycling in Laos looks totally awesome and would love to do this. Would love to keep stoping for some rice from the street vendors whilst doing the ride to keep carbing up 🙂

    Reply
  4. Chrysoula

    Such an amazing journey I really admire you for doing that as it isn’t an easy journey at all but the landscapes around you and the feeling you made it must be a great reward.

    Reply
  5. Megan Jerrard

    So impressed by this journey – I’ve always fantasized about what it would be like to take a bike trip like this – you’re right, it’s not about getting from place a to be, it’s about seeing and experiencing the things you don’t see when you fly between cities and miss the inbetween 🙂 That said as much as I would love to I don’t know if I would hold up physically!! 2 hour bike ride and I’m usually beat!

    Reply
  6. Drew

    Wow, what an adventure. The scenery looks amazing and love that you got to experience the countryside of Laos and see the daily lives of the Laotian people. I’m sure the sticky rice and mangoes tasted nice after a 40km uphill ride. That’s an impressive climb! I’m sure it was crazy tiring, but cycling through Laos is something that most people are not able to do, so you should feel quite accomplished for experiencing such a journey!

    Reply
  7. Debra Schroeder

    That’s an impressive ride. LOL, the part about your luxury hose shower. Sorry, you had to encounter the horrible side of human nature. That’s one disadvantage of traveling solo. Hopefully, it doesn’t stop you from continuing on.

    Reply
  8. Siddhartha Joshi

    First of all I love your pictures guys, all of them! Each one tells a story and it’s nice to see you guys in them as well 🙂

    I haven’t cycled much during travels, but it’s something I would like to change. Maybe Laos is the place to start 🙂

    Reply
  9. Vicki Louise

    Very Impressive! I’d driven on the road between LP and Vang Vieng, and it’s sooo hilly, twisty and turn-ey. Such an accomplishment to do it on a bike! And the sticky rice and mago would have been very welcome after a long ride!

    Reply

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