It would be easy to stretch this out to a week by spending an extra night in Oudomxay and a side trip to Muang Ngoi. In Pakbeng, you can pick up the slow boat for Huay Xai or, if you have lots of time to spare, skip Pakbeng and just keep heading north from Oudomxay.
Duration: 4 days riding
Terrain: Some hills but nothing as steep as between Vientiane and Luang Prabang.
Accomodation: Hotels in Pakmong, Oudomxay, Muang Beng, Muang Houn, Pakbeng and Huay Xai.
Highlights: The Suphailin Restaurant in Oudomxay!
Lowlights: Pakmong’s crummy hotels and expensive food.
Tips: Try to leave extra time for a side trip to Muang Ngoi and a day in Oudomxay. With 8-10 days to spare from Luang Prabang you could ride the whole way to Huay Xai, via Luang Namtha, and avoid the boat altogether.
Section 1 – Luang Prabang to Pakmong (112km)
This day is long but not too difficult. The traffic calms down not far out of Luang Prabang and the hills are mostly gentle, with each descent giving you momentum for the next climb. It’s a pleasant ride, along the Mekong at the start and then later next to the Nam Ou river. There are some villages around 17km, 26km and 31km out of Luang Prabang where you should be able to pick up drinks, snacks and maybe even a bowl of soup.
After that, things go a bit desolate until around 70km into the day, where you’ll find two restaurants – a good place for lunch! It’s just where Route 13 splits away from the Nam Ou river, in the village of Paknga. The Donengeun Restaurant with its outdoor terrace is famous for shrimp but they also do great bowls of soup, while a small bamboo shack next door serves up cheap and cheerful Pho. Just a couple kilometers further on is a third restaurant.
The rolling hills continue most of the way into Pakmong but things flatten out in the last 10km. There are a few hotels just before Pakmong and we breezed straight by them but after seeing the dire accommodation on offer in Pakmong we wished we’d checked out the earlier offerings. There is really nothing worth staying in Pakmong for and you’ll be lucky to find clean sheets. Rooms go for 30,000-50,000 kip in the town’s four guesthouses but we couldn’t recommend any of them.
A much nicer option, although perhaps too far for one day from Luang Prabang, is Muang Ngoi. It’s about 30km from the Pakmong junction, turning right and away from Oudomxay. If you have extra time, make the detour to hang out beside the Nam Ou river.
Section 2 – Pakmong to Oudomxay (83km)
You’d be wise to have some power food in your panniers before you leave Pakmong as villages are widespread and poorly stocked in general. Water shouldn’t be a problem, at least in the rainy season, as many bamboo poles have been placed in springs and streams by the side of the road. The only tiny market we noticed was in Namkouat.
The road starts uphill almost immediately out of Pakmong and keeps on climbing for most of the next 30km. Near the top, a small village has a lady who makes som tam with the unexpected twist of tamarind. It’s delicious and the only real food on the road for some time aside from basic snacks like cakes and cookies in small stores. Around the 30km mark the road dives down for about 15km, then back up again for another 10km or so before the final descent begins. Mercifully, it’s downhill almost all the way to Oudomxay. If you have the time and energy, you could stop at Lak 11 to see the waterfall.
Watch out for potholes on the downhills. Sometimes the road is quite rough in patches and you wouldn’t want to hit one of these holes at high speed!
There are guesthouses galore to choose from in Oudomxay. For 50,000-60,000 kip you should get a clean room with ensuite bathroom and a television. We stayed in Vilavong Guesthouse, on the left side of the main road as you enter town, beside a petrol station.
The restaurant you must not miss while you’re here is Suphailin. It’s near the end of the main drag as you exit towards Luang Namtha. Walk through town, over a bridge, up a hill and take the first side street on your right after the road to Pongsaly and before the AGL building (Assurance General du Laos). Positively the best food we’ve had in Laos with huge servings at reasonable prices – we don’t make recommendations like this lightly!
Oudomxay in general is not a touristy town although more and more visitors are trickling in on their way between Luang Prabang and Thailand or China and the town has a bonafide tourist office on the main street. They have a free map of the town that’s worth picking up. If you’re looking for a taste of the real Lao outside of the backpacker ghettos, Oudomxay might be a nice place to hang out in for a few days.
Section 3 – Oudomxay to Muang Houn (95km)
Today you reap the rewards of yesterday’s efforts. Retrace your steps out of Oudomxay and bear right at the roundabout about 5km out of town to hit Highway 2W to Pakbeng. The road is in very good condition. It starts out flat, then climbs gently a couple times before a long downhill starts around 25km into the day. The rest of the day is made up of gentle climbs, always followed soon after by a descent. There are always plenty of kids to keep you company!
Your lunch break will likely be noodle soup at Muang Beng, where you get your first chance to stop for the day if you like. There’s a basic guesthouse and restaurant here.
It’s easy riding for the remaining 30km though and no problem to make Muang Houn by early afternoon, where you’ll find at least three guesthouses to choose from. We stayed in Khounsangaun Guesthouse, the first on the left as you enter the town. A simple room with mosquito net and cold bucket shower goes for 30,000 kip. The family are friendly and the sons speak some English.
Section 4 – Muang Houn to Pakbeng (52km)
Get your breakfast of noodle soup in the Muang Houn market and then it’s time to tackle the rolling hills. There’s a steady string of them for the first 30km towards Pakbeng, including a few steep enough to warrant some out-of-the-saddle climbing. Things get easier for the final 20km into Pakbeng, with a couple long descents into the town.
Pakbeng is a bit of a one-trick town, which only gears up for the boats which arrive every evening from Luang Prabang and Huay Xai. Get there at midday and most of the restaurants are closed. You can get noodle soup, sticky rice and som tam salad at the restaurants around the bus station, just across from the first petrol station you meet a couple kilometers before the town. Prices here are very reasonable. Otherwise, there’s plenty more noodle soup and sweet treats on offer at the market, near the centre of Pakbeng. In the evening and for breakfast you’ll have Pakbeng restaurant owners fighting for your business. Dishes start at 10,000 kip. The quality of the takeaway meals really varies so try to get a look at what’s on offer before you order your sandwich.
There are two wats in Pakbeng, worth a look for their views over the Mekong if nothing else.
Rooms in Pakbeng cover a surprising range of prices. As a cyclist, you have the advantage of showing up before anyone else so you can take your pick. At the budget end, clean but very basic fan rooms with shared bathroom at Vatsana Guesthouse go for 30,000 kip and the owner will keep your bikes in her kitchen. English is spoken.
For the boat to Huay Xai, by all means go talk to the friendly young men running the tourist bureau (7:30am-4:30pm) but don’t buy your tickets from them. Despite their smooth patter, they are running a tour agency on the side and will only charge you 10,000 kip extra in fees on each ticket and probably a bit over the going rate for your bike too. Better to board the boat and buy from the captain. The fee should be 110,000 kip for each person and 30,000 kip per bicycle. The boat leaves at 8:30am but you should be near the dock by 8am to find out which of the dozens of boats around are going to Huay Xai.
Section 5 – Huay Xai and the border crossing
As border towns go, Huay Xai isn’t such a bad spot to spend the night. Unless you’ve paid up for a speedboat, your slow boat will arrive after the border closes (open 8am-6pm). There are plenty of guesthouses around, with cheap rooms from 30,000 kip. For 50,000 kip you can have comforts like ensuite bathroom and a hot shower. We liked the Pontethip Guesthouse, on the main road, next to the steep lane that leads down to Lao immigration and the dock where boats leave for Thailand.
Early risers should check out the Huay Xai morning market before heading for the border. It’s about 1km from the town centre, towards the speedboat landing pier and a couple blocks off the river. It’s a little hard to find so ask for directions or look for a string of motorbikes with baskets filled with produce coming from the market. It’s one of the best markets we saw in Lao and is a worthy place to spend your last kip on breakfast or snacks for the road.
When you’re ready to cross, roll your bike down the hill, get your passport stamped and buy a ticket for the boat. The fee for normal passengers is 40 baht or 10,000 kip. We paid 60 baht including our bikes for one final pleasure of squeezing into a narrow boat and holding our breath for the wobbly crossing. Happily it’s just a short ride across the Mekong and then you’re back in Thailand. It’s likely to take just over an hour altogether to leave Lao and enter Thailand.