Peace at last

Posted on 2020-02-24

While planning our route through Laos, we considered several options through the mountains of northern Laos. However, after much deliberation, we realised that we are quite exhausted from travelling and not really up for such mountainous, off-road, and off-grid adventures right now. Besides, Laos (or anywhere else in Southeast Asia for that matter) would be easy to return to when we are up for more adventure again. So we decided to take the flattest route we could find.

Heiko slowly cranking up the steep road just before Ban Nahin

Heiko slowly cranking up the steep road just before Ban Nahin

But even the flattest route through Laos still has mountains. We first had to complete a long climb up to the border from the Vietnamese side, before we entered Laos and rolled down into Lak Sao, the first town on the Lao side. The difference in driving styles was not immediately obvious, as Lao drivers also horn quite often on mountainous roads, in particular when approaching sharp turns and hairpin bends, to alert any possible oncoming vehicles of their approach. However, once we reached flatter and straighter roads, we noticed, with utter relief, that Lao drivers rarely horn - finally quiet traffic after 10 months of horns! In fact, the Lao people are extremely laid back, so drivers are generally not in a hurry and traffic is relatively slow. This, combined with the quiet friendliness of the people, was a stark (and very welcome) difference to the noisy traffic and/or people that seemed to populate all the countries we passed through since we left Europe. Another stark change was in the weather. While the Vietnamese coast was wet and cool, once we crossed the pass, everything was immediately drier and much, much hotter in the day - something we needed a few days to acclimatise to.

Finally an excellent Beerlao after arriving in Ban Nahin

Finally an excellent Beerlao after arriving in Ban Nahin

Lak Sao is one of the towns on "The Loop", a tourist route, usually done on motorbike, around Kammouane and Bolikhamxay provinces in central Laos. When Hannah was living in Laos (back in 2011-2013), The Loop was something you did only if you were a hardcore adventurer with a dirt bike (or an even more hardcore bicycle tourist), as some of the roads were really bad and involved, most likely, fording a couple of rivers. There was also little tourist infrastructure (restaurants, accommodation) along the way. Today, The Loop is managed by the Lao National Tourism Administration, and can be done on a rental motorbike (more like scooters than dirt bikes) following maps with restaurants, accommodation, and points of interest marked out.

Schoolchildren walking on the road, between Lak Sao and Ban Nahin

Schoolchildren walking on the road, between Lak Sao and Ban Nahin

Nam Theun river, between Lak Sao and Ban Nahin, with boats made from fuel tanks jettisoned by US aircraft during the Vietnam War. Laos is the world's most heavily bombed country relative to its population, and people craft the metal from (unexploded!) bombs and fuel tanks into all sorts of items.

Nam Theun river, between Lak Sao and Ban Nahin, with boats made from fuel tanks jettisoned by US aircraft during the Vietnam War. Laos is the world's most heavily bombed country relative to its population, and people craft the metal from (unexploded!) bombs and fuel tanks into all sorts of items.

We followed a section of The Loop from Lak Sao to Vieng Kham, along Route 8. Along the way, we spent two nights at Ban Nahin, from where we planned to make a day trip to the Konglor cave, an amazing 7km long cave where one can take a boat along the river running through it. We left our guesthouse at 10am to try to catch a songthaew (pick-up truck used as public transport) to Konglor, about 40km away. Unfortunately, we learnt that the last songthaew leaves Konglor at 1.30pm every day, so it was already too late to make it to the cave and back on the same day. Somewhat disappointed, we went for the next most interesting thing to do from Ban Nahin - a hike to the Nam Sanam waterfall. We paid an entry fee at the trailhead, cycled in along a dirt road until thea vegetation became too dense, started hiking along a small trail - and promptly got lost, despite trying to follow the few signs scattered in the forest. After too many wrong turns, we finally found the waterfall and it was well worth the hike! We took a dip and had a small picnic before heading back out, getting lost again on the way out...

The furthest we could get to were these small waterfalls, but the tall Nam Sanam waterfall can be seen in the background, near Ban Nahin

The furthest we could get to were these small waterfalls, but the tall Nam Sanam waterfall can be seen in the background, near Ban Nahin

From Ban Nahin heading towards Vieng Kham, the road begins with a steep climb up the Phou Pha Marn mountain, at the top of which one is rewarded with an amazing view of the surrounding karst landscape - quite different from other karst landscapes we have seen before. The area has been recently developed for tourism (opened in Dec 2019!), and apart from the viewpoint itself, where there is a tourist information and restaurant, it is also possible to zip-line and walk on a net suspended in between the karst formations. Not the adrenaline seeking type, we took a couple of photos and continued on.

View of the ragged karst landscape from "The Rock", a new touristic development between Ban Nahin and Vieng Kham, with a viewing platform, a zip line, and a net on which you can walk between the peaks

View of the ragged karst landscape from "The Rock", a new touristic development between Ban Nahin and Vieng Kham, with a viewing platform, a zip line, and a net on which you can walk between the peaks

At Vieng Kham, the Route 8 ends at the intersection with Route 13, the main road running through the country. On the map, we also saw a small road running along the Mekong river, more or less parallel to the Route 13 - and decided to take that, based on the recommendation from a cycling family we met in Ban Nahin that the road was not too bad. All things considered, this was true - it is now dry season so the dirt road was, well, dry, and fairly compact and smooth. About 25km before the road rejoined the Route 13 at Pakkading, it was even paved, though the surface was almost as rough as the dirt road before it. Nevertheless, it was a long way from Ban Nahin to Pakkading, and with the rough and undulating small road adding to the big climb in the morning, we arrived in Pakkading just before sunset and completely exhausted.

Karst landscape between Ban Nahin and Vieng Kham

Karst landscape between Ban Nahin and Vieng Kham

The road we took from Vieng Kham to avoid the busy Route 13 and to be closer to the Mekong river turned out to be unpaved, undulating, and very sandy

The road we took from Vieng Kham to avoid the busy Route 13 and to be closer to the Mekong river turned out to be unpaved, undulating, and very sandy

Evening on the Mekong river between Vieng Kham and Pakkading. Recent hydropower developments have caused the colour of the river to change from a very muddy brown to clear blue.

Evening on the Mekong river between Vieng Kham and Pakkading. Recent hydropower developments have caused the colour of the river to change from a very muddy brown to clear blue.

From Pakkading, it was another two long days to Vientiane, so we stuck to Route 13 and avoided any tempting off-road detours. The traffic, although busy, was not stressful, so we really didn't mind staying on the big road to enjoy the smooth asphalt. As one would expect, the traffic became busier as we approached Vientiane, so we were happy to turn off onto some smaller roads about 20km before Vientiane. This took us into the city via the "That Luang Lake Economic Zone", a massive residential and commercial complex driven by Chinese investment. The area looked just like the outskirts of a rapidly expanding Chinese city - with Chinese names on the road signs, a recently completed highrise residential and commercial complex, and construction everywhere - and nothing like the rest of Vientiane. Watching the video wall illustrating the full extent of planned development, we couldn't help but wonder - who are they expecting to buy into all of this?

Wat Phabat Phonsane temple between Thabok and Vientiane

Wat Phabat Phonsane temple between Thabok and Vientiane

Big video wall advertising for the new developments in the That Luang Lake Economic Zone, a massive residential and commercial complex being built by Chinese investors on the outskirts of Vientiane

Big video wall advertising for the new developments in the That Luang Lake Economic Zone, a massive residential and commercial complex being built by Chinese investors on the outskirts of Vientiane

In Vientiane, Hannah found an old cycling acquaintance on Warmshowers, and we stayed with her and her partner for a couple of days before continuing into Thailand. We'd both been in Vientiane before, so we used this time to catch up with some of Hannah's old friends and check out what has changed in the city. We found a few more commercial developments, all Chinese, sticking out like sore thumbs from the rest of Vientiane, which has remained more or less the same. The Mekong river, which used to flow right in front of the city centre, has receded so much, the promenade now faces a sandbank so wide you can barely see the river anymore. Water levels have been running critically low in recent years, partly due to climate change and more extreme droughts, and partly due to the hydropower dams that are being built (with more being planned) on the Mekong river's mainstream and tributaries in China and Laos. Just in the last few months, water levels have fallen so drastically that the river's normally muddy brown colour has turned blue, as sediment is trapped behind the dams and the river runs clear and depleted. The river's change in colour, although beautiful, is a warning sign indicating poor health in Southeast Asia’s most important waterway.

With our Warmshowers hosts Brieke and Jan in Vientiane. Hannah knows Brieke from a cycling event in 2012 when she was living in Vientiane, and our paths have diverged and crossed again, back in Vientiane.

With our Warmshowers hosts Brieke and Jan in Vientiane. Hannah knows Brieke from a cycling event in 2012 when she was living in Vientiane, and our paths have diverged and crossed again, back in Vientiane.

After a few days in Vientiane, it was time to say goodbye to Laos, a country that we both like, but is challenging to cycle. Maybe we'll be back again soon!