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Vientiane to Luang Prabang: A Bike Touring Route


laos-route2.jpgThis is a classic route and the perfect introduction to cycling in Laos.

You’ll have a relatively flat start out of Vientiane but as you approach Vang Vieng the hills start to roll and only get more dramatic, culminating in two very tough but incredibly scenic days to Luang Prabang.

The highlights along the route come from the beautiful mountains and the many remote villages you’ll pass through. The cheerful cries of ‘sabaydee’ from the kids will keep your motivation going as the next climb looms on the horizon.

Distance: 430km
Duration: 5-6 days riding, plus a possible rest day in Vang Vieng
Terrain: Starts out flat but the hills soon appear and will give you a workout all the way to Luang Prabang. Some stages easily fall into the ‘very challenging’ category.
Accomodation: Hotels all the way, every 50-100km.
Highlights: From Kasi to Kiukacham the scenery is stunning and the H’mong villages are fascinating.
Lowlights: Not always being able to find a nice, cold drink. Despite the regular accommodation, there aren’t many choices of where to stay.
Tips: Bring long trousers and a warm top for chilly mornings and evenings in the high towns of Phou Khoun and Kiukacham.

There are some great city maps for Southeast Asia on the web. For this route, you can check out maps of Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang from both Hobo Maps and Travelfish.

Section 1 – Vientiane to Thinkeo (Nam Ngum Reservoir) (92km)
Buddha statueThe Laotian capital is a relaxing place to spend a couple of days before moving north. Be prepared for higher prices here than in elsewhere in the country.

A good budget place to stay is Saysouly Guesthouse, 23 Manthatulath Road, just off the riverfront. They have clean, if slightly characterless, rooms from 50,000 kip for a single with shared bathroom up to 120,000 kip for a double with ensuite and all mod cons. You can keep your bike in your room or in a number of safe places around the hotel.

For a cheap breakfast, try peeking around the morning market off Lane Xang avenue. Despite its name and theoretical opening time of 6am, there isn’t much going on in the very early morning hours. There are, however, a few food sellers down a small alley near the northern most corner. You can get a couple fried eggs and bread for 6,000 kip and iced coffee for 5,000 kip. Elsewhere, a filled baguette runs about 15,000 kip and a coffee anywhere from 7,000 kip up to 25,000 kip for a European-style latte in the trendier cafes.

Closeup of the basket ladyThere are plenty of basic and inexpensive eateries doing the usual range of fried noodles and rice along the riverfront for lunchtime and evening meals. Count on 10,000-20,000 kip per dish. We liked the ones along the street better than those directly on the water but the waterside restaurants are good for a sunset beer before you eat.

Heading out of Vientiane is easy as pie. Just go along Lane Xang Avenue, straight through the roundabout with the triumphal arch and past the southern bus station (around 8km out). Continue on a few more kilometers until the road splits and take the left fork for Route 10 and the road to Ban Keun. There’s a market at the split with a good selection of fruit. On your way out of Vientiane you’ll also pass plenty of baguette sellers. You can easily put together a packed lunch but there are restaurants along the route as well.

The road is flat and surrounded by rice fields for most of the day. Ban Keun is the largest town and it makes a great rest stop, with scenic views over the Nam Lik river and plenty of shade to wait out the midday heat in. The road stays level until it veers away from the river after Pakkagnoung and then there are a few challenging climbs, including one that measures a good 2km.

A lone boat on the lakeYou reach a T-junction in Thinkeo, where the Thong Deng Guesthouse greets you. It’s brand new, cheap and cheerful at just 50,000 kip a night. You could also stay at a hotel near the reservoir but beware, there’s another killer climb into Nam Ngum so checking into Thong Deng, leaving your bags and then heading unloaded to the water isn’t a bad idea. Either way, it’s definitely worth a trip to the reservoir in the late afternoon for the fantastic views. All the restaurants around here are quite pricey but you do get waterfront seats. Cycling back to the main road isn’t half as strenuous as getting to the reservoir.

If you have a stove, why not picnic in front of the dam, before the killer climb into Nam Ngum, and make supper there? A few ladies sell cold drinks and some barbequed meat.

Section 2 – Thinkeo to Vang Vieng (102km)
From Thinkeo, it’s just a couple kilometers and two bridges to Tha Lat where there’s a large market, several shops and hotels. The majority of guesthouses are slightly out of the town centre. Turn left at the T-junction after the bridge and you’ll past at least six in the next three kilometers. With just over 20km on the clock you reach Phophong town and turn right to join the main Route 13.

Twisty road - fun coming down!Things are still pretty level as you come through Phophong but around 28km into your ride there’s a tough hill and the rolling up-and-down theme continues unrelentlessly for the next 45km or so. Keep lots of water on hand and stop often for cool drinks. Hinheup is one of the biggest towns you’ll pass – a good spot for a break or a guesthouse if you’re feeling faint – and there are plenty of other smaller villages selling refreshments and snacks.

It’s only when you reach the other end of the reservoir that the road flattens out again and happily the final 20km into Vang Vieng are quickly covered and free of hills.

Andrew on the bridgeAfter a day in relatively rural surroundings, Vang Vieng can come as a bit of a shock with its plethora of guesthouses, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and other backpacker attractions. You’ll either love it or hate it. There are some nice bike routes around the town, caves to explore and plenty of home comforts so while you may not want to drink yourself silly and watch Friends episodes on a DVD, it’s probably worth a day to explore the area.

Food and drink prices can seem absolutely outrageous if you’ve been cycling through untouristy areas, even compared to central Vientiane. “You want how much for that iced coffee?” we seemed to say a lot. Prices of 12,000-14,000 kip for an iced coffee weren’t uncommon, compared with 3,000-5,000 kip in rural Lao. If you explore off the main drag, there are some family-run sensibly priced options.

To get to the caves, cross the Namsong Bridge over the river, which will set you back 6,000 kip return. You can’t miss the sign for the bridge, on the road running closest to the river, just meters from the town centre. The Poukham Cave, about 8km from the town centre, costs 10,000 kip per person including access to the cave and a swimming hole. Bring sturdy shoes as the climb to the cave is very rough, long and slippery. The swimming is fantastic. There are at least six other caves on the way to Phoukham, all signed.

Section 3 – Vang Vieng to Kasi (59km)
The main road, covered in mud This isn’t too strenuous a stage. If you don’t want to spend a second night in Vang Vieng, see the caves in the morning and then head out to Kasi by early afternoon. The main reason for stopping in Kasi for the night is that the following 50km are very hard work and better attempted in the cool morning hours.

The road starts out reasonably flat, going through some small villages with the beautiful mountains rising up all around you and lush jungle and rice fields to both sides. There are a couple signs marking caves in the first 10km out of Vang Vieng, if you aren’t caved out by now. The hard work starts about 27km in with a steep climb for about the next 7km including a couple 10 percent grades. Once over the top, there’s at least 10km of downhill as you fly towards Kasi. The road flattens out just before you get to the town.

Temple in the mistKasi has just one guesthouse in the town itself, the Vanphisit Guesthouse. The fan-cooled rooms are large enough to keep your bike in and 50,000 kip buys you a clean place to sleep with ensuite hot shower. The family running the guesthouse are happy to change money if you’ve forgotten to do that in Vang Vieng. If it’s full, there’s another guesthouse with restaurant on the road north, about 1.5km from the town centre.

Kasi is a stopping point for buses so there’s no shortage of restaurants and snacks around. Predictably, they’re a bit overpriced because of the captive audience everytime a bus stops. You’ll get a much better deal if you walk 500 meters north from the town centre to the market on the left hand side of the road. There you’ll find basic noodle stands, cold drinks, fresh fruit and everything you want to cook your own food all at reasonable prices. We also found our cheapest iced coffee ever here, just 1,000 kip!

If you still have energy to spare when you reach Kasi, see the next section for a suggestion just a little further down the road.

Section 4 – Kasi to Kiukacham (97km)
Everything is for sale here This section isn’t for the faint hearted. The hills start shortly after you leave Kasi and there’s rarely a flat moment to relax. There are some significant downhill stretches but for most of the day it’s a battle between you and the mountains, with several grades at or close to 10 percent. We averaged just over 12km/hour over the course of the day (10km/hour on the first half to Phou Khoun) and used almost all the daylight to do the distance. The reward for your efforts is in the spectacular scenery and the fascinating and welcoming H’mong villages you pass through. This is a tough ride but one not to be missed.

There are two ways to make this stage easier. The Bor Num Oon Guesthouse and Restaurant in the village of Namxa Noy has opened 21km from Kasi. For the same price as a  room in Kasi (50,000 kip) you can have a simple bungalow complete with hot springs! It’s also far more scenic and tranquil than Kasi and you’ll likely meet other cyclists there.

The other option is to overnight in Phou Khoun’s only guesthouse.

Either way, the initial route out of Kasi rises gently before the hard work starts around 9km into the day, just past the village of Houamuang. After the village of Namxa Noy you descend steeply to a river and then it’s back up again for nearly the entire way to Phou Khoun. Finally you descend the last couple kilometers into Phou Khoun, where you’ll find the Saipavong Guest House, a few restaurants and plenty of stalls selling fruit and snack food. If you’re doing the whole route to Kiukacham, this is the best place to have lunch. Between Kasi and Phou Khoun you’ll find only the basics in the many small villages that line the road. You shouldn’t have any problem picking up bottled water and there are many communal water taps installed by World Vision Australia.

Last light on a slopeFrom Phou Khoun, the road starts with a climb for a couple kilometers and then a promising descent. Then it’s back up again. The up and down pattern continues throughout the afternoon as you pass through more H’mong villages. At one point you descend quite some distance down to a river but then it’s back up yet again and aside from a couple short downhill stretches it’s largely a climb all the way to Kiukacham at about 1,400 meters. The road is more desolate from Phou Khoun to Kiukacham than on the first half of the journey from Kasi so stock up on what you need in Phou Khoun.

There are several restaurants and two guesthouses in Kiukacham. One, the Dunagvichit, is a dive but happily the other guesthouse, the Kiokajam, is run by a lovely English-speaking woman and is in much better shape. Facilities are still basic but the rooms are clean and staff will provide you with hot water for the bucket shower. Check out the view over the mountains towards the back of the guesthouse. Amazing stuff. The attached restaurant turns out reasonably priced soups, fried rice and noodle dishes.

Section 5 – Kiukacham to Luang Prabang (80km)
Today you finally get to reap the rewards of all your hard climbing with a flying descent of over 20km from Kiukacham. That’s the good news. The bad news is you have to go back up again once you get to the Nam Ming river at the bottom. The climb is about 15km, followed by a double peak and then the final descent to Xiang Ngeun. Villages are widely spread but it is possible to pick up bananas and other snacks on the way.

With an early start, you should be able to get through the climbing before it’s too hot and reach Xiang Ngeun by lunchtime. A fine meal of som tam salad and sticky rice is easily found here. There’s a guesthouse in Xiang Ngeun if you arrive late. It’s signed on the main road, just before the turnoff to Sainyabouri (Xaignabouri).

From Xiang Ngeun, it’s about 25km to Luang Prabang. It starts broadly flat, then around 13km before Luang Prabang there’s a short, sharp climb and the final 10km are all downhill. As you come into the city, any left on a main road should take you to the Mekong, where the downtown core is. Congratulations on completing a tough ride!

We recommend the Vilay Guesthouse in Luang Prabang, with rooms from 50,000 kip and free internet access and wifi. You can see its location, along with many other hotels and sites in Luang Prabang, on this map from Hobo Maps. Look in the bottom left corner, near coordinates HI-163.

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18 Responses to “Vientiane to Luang Prabang: A Bike Touring Route”

  1. Malcolm says:

    Could you tell me if you flew out of Luang prabang with your bikes? I wanted to do this trip a few years ago on my bike but ended up bottling it. I still went on the same route as you but in a bus with a friend:-( I remember the planes (Lao Airlines) being very small.. any help with this would be appreciated.

    • alan says:

      i flew LP to chang mai, didnt even have to box up the bike. rode out to airport-easy. too simple.alan

    • Goo says:

      LP airport is friendly to bikes – I have flown out of there on Bangkok Airways to Bangkok. In fact, I am flying into LP in April to do a quick tour around northern Laos.

  2. shell says:

    when is the best time of year to go?

  3. Tay KC ( from a small town call MALACCA, Malaysia) says:

    What is the highest altitude one will encounter? 1,600 meter or even higher? Which section then?

    • If you are going from Vientiene to LP it’s not that bad. Kiu Katcham is 1500m, there is a gradual climb from Kasi to Kiu Katcham on a pretty good road. From Kiu Katcham it’s downhill all the way to 100-200m in altitude and thereafter a nice long climb to 1300m. The grade is no more then 6%. The road is good. The descent to LP is nice, the road is not bad.

      However, if you are going from LP to Kiu Katcham, then you are in for an ordeal ;) It’s two 1000m climbs you have to do and it’s usually quite hot on the second climb since they’ve burned all the forests on that mountain… We have started at 5:30am from LP and still got trapped by the heat on the second climb.

      • julia says:

        Tell me more about the inclines lp – vientien. 2000mt in one day! How many hrs did it take you each of the first two days to get over the hills? Im trying to plan my start and finish times for the first two killer days so i dont get stuck riding in the dark trying to find the towns.

  4. Update on the road situation in the area. The road from LP to Kiu Katcham is now sealed pretty well. They have done a lot of work on it recently.

    The road from Kasi to Vang Vieng is in a terrible condition. It is flat, but don’t expect to be a speedy gonzalez on it. It deteriorates even more when you leave Vang Vieng to go towards Vientiene.

    Also, in Vang Vieng they sell “kayaking” trips to Vientiene – beware, it’s a scam. You’ll be in a tuk tuk for 5 hours on a very bad road with a bunch of other ppl and 20 mins in a Kayak.

    Have fun ppl.

  5. lee xiong says:

    I’m lee xiong, I’m hmong people, I live in Samngek village, (Phou khoun). I’m feel glade after had see you picture about my village. if you have free time please come visit it again ok ?
    thank you
    Lee xiong
    bye

  6. hannah says:

    Hi,
    can anyone please tell me what the traffic on the roads is like for this trip Vientiane to Luang Prabang? Is the route on the busy highways? Are there many parts that are quite unsafe?
    thanks!
    Hannah

    • John says:

      Hi Hannah,

      Not sure if this is in time, but we rode the route in March and loved it – there is very little traffic, just the occasional car or bus. It’s beautiful though you’ve got to like hills.

  7. John says:

    We did this route in reverse in March and it was great, though hot. The first section from LP to Kiukacham has two serious hills – giving a total 2,500m of height gain. The second day we stayed at the small but lovely bungalows at Naxma Noy – great view, good food and a hot spring pool, a real luxury after another 2000m of climbing. A pretty easy ride followed to Vang Vieng.

    • Julia says:

      Im planning to do luang prabang to vientien also. Im abit worried about the hills on the first couple of days. Do you remember how many hours it took each day to get over them hills? And if i got off and pushed the bike up the steepest parts (taking longer…did you ever do that?) would i get to the town before dark? Im carrying about 12kg plus water and some food.

      So after the second day its easy?

    • julia says:

      Do you remember how long it took each day to get over the hills leaving luang prabang? If i got off and pushed the bike up the steepest parts ( taking longer…did you ever do that?) would i make it to the town before dark? Im carrying about 12kg of my stuff plus water and some food.

      I guess would really need an estimate of how many hours each day on the hills i would need – taking it pretty slow going up. Not sure yet how good my gears will be. Borrowing a friends bike that already went through china.

      So after first 2 days its easy?

    • julia says:

      Sorry for double post. bad connection

  8. Johnny says:

    Hi,

    I’m going to Vientianne in early October. I know it’s the wet season, but thought I’d might head out for a few days biking. Would it be possible (a good idea?) to do this run in early October or would I just go mud sloshing?

    Thanks
    Johnny

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