195km Vientiane to Vang Vieng
After our marathon bus ride to Vientiane and a day of sightseeing, we decide to leave the capital city on Friday for our ride north to Luang Prabang. There’s no natural light in our hotel room but we still manage to wake up around 5am and after cooking breakfast outside on the patio we’re ready to go. These are the best hours for cycling, when the air is cool and refreshing.
Our initially promising early start is soon delayed when we stop at a motorbike shop to fix a very slow leak in Friedel’s front tire. It’s been losing air for about three months now and we’ve just topped it up once a week, being too lazy to find the hole in the tube. Today we decide we’ll sort it out so we stop by the shop to use their compressed air and start to pull the tube out. We instantly attract the attention of four underemployed mechanics and for a moment we wonder if we shouldn’t just get them to do this but then we remember a photo another cyclist showed us of a Lao repair to his tube that went wrong. The patch turned into a big bubble when the tire was inflated. Better to do it ourselves, we think. Unfortunately our five minute stop turns into a half hour job when we realise the new tube we’ve put in also has a hole and it’s a quick leak this time! Off comes the tire again, we patch the hole and eventually we’re on our way.
By now it’s the start of rush hour, if you can call it that. There are a lot of cars and motorbikes on the road but they’re all so laid back it’s not a stressful experience at all. Even when Friedel’s water bottle flies out of the bottle cage and into the middle of a lane everyone just goes around it and allows Andrew to retrieve it. Not a single person honks or gets upset by the disruption we’re causing. It would have been a death wish to try that in a city like Almaty. Two completely different worlds.
Only about 15km from Vientiane’s centre the traffic thins down to nothing and the rest of our day is taken up by rice paddies, gazing at water buffalos and regular stops for an icy drink we’ve discovered. It’s made by blending ice cubes together with sugar syrup and a powder, which undoubtedly has a number of artifical colours and goodness knows what else in it but we figure it can’t be worse than a can of pop. It’s certainly much cheaper than a can of pop and it’s so good when we’re burning up in the sun. We are usually found waiting for our drinks along with all the village children, who like us think this icy treat is the best thing ever.
After a killer hill late in the afternoon, we reach the edge of a reservoir and the power dam that provides much of Vientiane’s electricity. We find a cheap guesthouse but the main dishes in the restaurant are more than the room rate so we head out to try and find another option. We succeed in finding something a bit cheaper but pick up eggs to make our own breakfast.
It’s another early start the next day to try and beat the heat and we manage a good 40km before things really get sweltering. We’d copied some pages from an old cycling guidebook to the area, which assures us that today’s ride is ‘relatively flat and not overly taxing’. What then to make of the steady series of hills that come our way for nearly half the day’s distance, taking us steeply downhill and then back up again, only to repeat the process immediately afterwards? Just as we are pondering what universe the guidebook writer was living in, along come a Swiss couple who are also on a long journey by bicycle. We have a nice chat for a few minutes but we’re both sweating and there’s no shade so we can’t talk as much as we’d like. Still, we enjoyed the brief encounter and we were pleased they stopped. We’ve seen a few other cyclists but they’ve all breezed past, too busy counting down the kilometers to swap stories.
Finally the hills ease off and after being entertained by a karaoke singer, who pulls alongside us at a stream and starts to video himself lip syncing to a song by the water, and another of our icy drinks we cruise into Vang Vieng. The last few kilometers are in fact flat and we arrive in the town even with a bit of energy to spare. We’ll probably take a rest day here to explore some local caves and hang out by the river.