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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!