Long Way Home

Chapter 15

After crossing the border into Laos one of the first things we notice is the number of children. Even the tiniest village of a few bamboo and thatch shacks has a big tribe of kids. They are hard to miss as they always spot us approaching and come running, squealing and waving to the road, where they leap up and down in a fever of excitement.

Older boys line the roadside to ‘high five’ us as we pass and we are often raced up the hills by kids cycling to and from school. It is the most fun I’ve had on the bike for ages.

Heading south we begin to meet other cyclists; incredibly we’ve met more cyclists in four weeks here than in the rest of our trip put together.
Arriving in Luang Prabang we were overwhelmed by the swarms of tourists. It seems that Laos, formerly known as the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’ could be more accurately renamed the ‘Land of a Million Tourists’. While the town is lovely, it got a bit much for us and we were happy to move on.

The road south involved several days of mammoth climbs in hot and sweaty conditions. The scenery is enticing though, and gets better and better with spectacular limestone formations dominating the landscape as we approach the town of Vang Vieng. Here the backpacker crowds seem to outnumber locals and the banks of the picturesque Nam Song River are lined with ramshackle bars. Despite the tourist tack the setting amongst the limestone peaks is magical and the trip floating down the river in a tractor tube is an essential way to de-stress after a hot day on the bike.We are now headed for the Vietnam border, planning to cross at the former Demilitarised Zone.

We’ve heard an astonishing amount of negative feedback on travel to Vietnam, especially from cyclists. Despite this we figure we need to go and see for ourselves …….

Newsletter 10

Approaching Vietnam …. Alert and Alarmed

Hi everyone,With our flights from Singapore to Darwin booked for the 25th April we are starting to contemplate the finish of what has sometimes felt like a never-ending journey. We are presently enjoying the wonders of the Temples of Angkor in Cambodia, and will soon be wandering on into Thailand.

We spent several days in the sleepy capital of Laos – Vientiane. It’s an attractive city alongside the Mekong River, with wide boulevards, decaying French colonial buildings and some ornate temples. This was also our last ‘visa haul’ and it was a dream run with the embassies all within easy cycling reach.Leaving Vientiane we had the flattest stretch of cycling we’d encountered for months. We decided to spice things up a bit by detouring to visit Kong Lo cave. The track in is initially good, but then deteriorates into a spine-realigning nightmare. Shrieks of excitement from the children follow us as we bounce through a series of dusty little villages before finally arriving at our destination.

Journey down the Mekong River
Journey down the Mekong River

Caked in dust and pouring sweat we are an uninviting sight but nonetheless are warmly welcomed into a charming bamboo and thatch lodge surrounded with gorgeous tropical flowers and overlooked by immense jagged limestone peaks. The next day we board a narrow ‘longboat’ for the trip upriver to the cave entrance. The boatman has us flying along, narrowly dodging logs, rocks and semi-submerged water buffalo. The boat trip through the 7km long cave itself is incredible – anywhere else this would be a world-class tourist site with the accompanying paraphrenalia. Here there are no walkways, no viewing platforms, no lights, ticket booths, or postcard sellers. It is fantastic.

Heading into Kong Lo cave by boat
Heading into Kong Lo cave by boat

Our ‘tour group’ consists of us, and a German couple (expats from Vientiane) in a second longboat. The cave tunnel is immense, and pitch black except for the torches of the guides. It is an awe-inspiring and surreal experience to float through the darkness, weaving past huge rocks and pausing to manhandle the boats over rocky shelves and shallow gravel banks.

Pedalling back out to the main road the bearing case in my bike’s bottom bracket collapses. When Ed pulls it apart the bearings are mush. Fortunately we are only 18km from a town and I propel myself onwards by walking the uphills, coasting down and scooting the bits in between. Ed does a bush-repair job which involves using a cable-tie and grease as the bearing surface and this does the trick to get us to Savannakhet where we buy the best quality crankset available (US$12) to last until replacement bearings arrive. Three days later we roll up at the border with Vietnam.