Vientiane to Luang Prabang: A Bike Touring Route
This 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.
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.
Section 1 – Vientiane to Thinkeo (Nam Ngum Reservoir) (92km)
The 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.
There 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.
You 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.
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.
After 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)
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.
Kasi 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)
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.
From 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.