17/12 Sabaydee! We are (back) in Laos. Getting off the ferry ramp requires a little speed, as there is a short drop and a bit of water at the end. You also have to choose your jump-off point carefully, as the ramp is badly buckled. In most places it's more than a short drop... We stop to buy insurance for our bikes, then we head into town to the passenger dock to get our passports stamped. Yes, you could ride off into Laos without any formalities, but it's not recommended. We don't see customs and they don't see us, so no bike paperwork. We book ourselves into a hotel and explore the Meong River road a little.
(Picture above) The old and the new boat fuel station in Huay Xay. Looks like this is where old (Chinese?) tanker barges spend their last days.
18/12 Two years ago Lars travelled this Highway No. 3 from Houay Xay to Luang Namtha and he battled mud.
Then the Chinese came and built a super highway, smooth as a baby
bottom with rollercoaster bends - a biker's dream road, 180 km long.
This is what I was looking forward to today and I'm not disappointed.
However, like everything Chinese made it's shiny on the outside and
rubbish underneath: large sections of this beautiful road are already
breaking up and we have to ride slalom around the holes and broken
sections. No maintenance to be seen anywhere, except in the middle,
where there are major roadworks. Su almost has an accident, when a
woman in a village very slowly starts to cross the road without
looking. I think she may have heard my bike, riding behind Su, and so
she is shocked to discover Su very close. Su was counting on the woman
continuing and aiming to pass behind her, but the woman acts like a
chicken and turns back - right into the path of Su's bike. Breaking and
a quick manoeuvre by Su avoid an accident. We don't need to look for a
room in Luang Namtha, nor do we need to look at
the room of Zuela Guesthouse: this is where I stayed almost exactly one
year ago with the other three and I have good memories of this place.
When the owner comes back from work in the bank in the evening she even
recognises me. I have come full circle.
On the outsikrts of Luang Namtha.
24/12 We decide to move to Luang Prabang. Su wants to give the rest of Northern Laos a miss, as it's too cold for her. The road to Udomxai is quite bad in many places, so progress is slow. At the entrance to the town we stop to chat with a bunch of riders from Malaysia. They are on a quick tour of Laos, as usual: they don't get many holidays, so can't travel slowly. At lunch in Udomxai we meet another biker, Horst from Mainz, who works in Vientiane. I can't believe my eyes: his bike is from Bad Kreuznach! While talking with him I spot a Swedish-registered BMW sail past, but the rider can't see us. Horst says it's 4 hours to Luang Prabang, so we decide to stay right here and reserve a room ahead. Both these decisions turn out to be wise ones: the road ahead is still not that good and accommodation in LP is filling up fast. Arrived in LP we check out a few of the sights, but we both can't warm much to them. The place is packed with tourists. At least that means lots of good food.
We explore the surroundings a little. There is an excellent road to a waterfall, but arrived there the tourism is overwhelming, so we turn around quickly. All other roads in this region are dirt, but most roads indicated on my GPS maps simply don't exist at all. Today is Xmas eve, but it really doesn't mean much to either of us. We explore a dirt road along the Mekong SW, which is a little challenging for us novice dirt riders, with several streams to cross and some interesting bridges. It's a pleasure to watch Su doing so well and we are both having fun. The middle section of the road only sees a very few bikes and dokdoks and stray farm animals. Short grass covers the entire width of the track, which is quite narrow and rough in places.
Eventually, we have an enforced lunch stop: a truck is stuck in a slightly tricky section of dirt. But he has got more problems: his battery is flat, so he can't start the engine. The ground lead is attached with vice grips, which have worked the pole loose in the battery. This could be the root of the problem. The driver eventually clears some vegetation away, we remove all bags from my bike and lift both bikes past the truck.
Finally we arrive at Muang Nan. There is a much bigger river here and a
bridge is under construction, with a detour in place. My heart sinks
when I see the big ford, but the locals quickly point us to the bike
bridge. We are saved. After lunch in a dirty shack, but with lounge
chairs and a big solid-wood coffee table(!) we hit the main "road"
back. On most maps this is highway 4, but there are no signs or
milestones at all to indicate numbers or directions. It's a wide,
well-graded dirt road. Unfortunately, this permits the many cars and
trucks using it to go fast and to stir up huge dust clouds, completely
obscuring the road at times. We get VERY dusty. I pity all the locals
who live along the side of this road in the many villages. Absolutely
everything is caked in thick layers of dust. I guess one day this road
will be sealed and the dust will be gone, to be replaced by speeding
trucks and buses, barrelling through the villages. Such is progress.
25/12 We ride to Vang Vieng, a route that I took last year. Visibility is good, as is the road - until we get into the plains just before the town, First, there are big potholes, then road works for miles. We even get to ride on liquid tar. I'm happy that here at least they are maintaining the road. Further North they don't seem to HAVE a maintenance budget. Accommodation is no problem, we go straight to the same guest house I stayed in last time. The old lady running it even remembers me.
31/12 We stay a couple of days in Vang Vieng. Apart from climbing up the same rock I climbed last year we want to kayak down the river. However, it is rather cold and overcast, so we decide to postpone that. The next day is the same, except in the evening it starts raining. Water and cold don't mix for us, so we decide to give it a miss.
We then move to Vientiane. For most of the way we have to follow the main highway 13, but just after riding around the Nam Ngum Reservoir we leave the main road to explore another one, which I haven't been on yet. To our surprise this road lands us at a small ferry crossing the Nam Ngum river. When we finally get back to the reservoir, this time from the South, the view is stunning. At the end of the road I discover a car ferry, but I have no idea where this might go.
At the lunch stop we meet Harry, a cycling Dutchman. He tells us stories from his travels in Indonesia and which way to go South to Vientiane. After looping over the river again we pass the same ferry and are surprised again, when the same road drops us at another ferry across the same river (in the same direction!).
The ferry staff keep the BBQ running while they work.
The next day, Monday, we are at the Thai Embassy bright and early and there are already several hundred people queueing outside.The number swells to about a thousand during the morning and I spend about 3 hours standing around and queueing for all of about 2 minutes of processing. It seems that the rule change forces a lot of people to apply for visas now. As the processing takes 1 1/2 days this is the only day I can get my passport back the next day, as Wednesday and Thursday are new years holidays. Everybody else knew that... The next morning there is hardly anybody there. Small surprise, they will have to wait 3 1/2 days for their visas. In a restaurant we bump into four bikers from Malaysia and Singapore. One of them, Abu Bakar, invites us to stay with him in Kuala Lumpur. They are a nice bunch of people, but like all Malaysians they are on short leave, so travel fairly fast. We also meet two couples in 4x4 cars, from Holland and GB. They have some disturbing news: they have met several travellers whose vehicles were refused entry into Cambodia from Laos, no reason given. If this happens to us then we will have to decide whether to make a detour through Thailand, to use another border crossing, or skip Cambodia. I manage to buy a new speedo cable in a bike shop, to my great amazement. We are eager to leave this expensive city (not much to see here, either).
New Year's Eve finds us staying in Pak Kading. This is a one-guesthouse village, but a nice one it is. The only problem: the neighbours noisily celebrate New Year until early and the roosters right outside our window wake me up before sunrise. "Happy New Year!" they seem to be calling (if you can imagine that...).