We overnight in Chiang Khong in a basic but cheap (299 bhat) attic room overlooking the Mekong. There can be few better incentives to get up early than to watch the sun rise over the Mekong while breakfasting in the company of monks; we are on the bikes by 7.45 and at the border crossing Friendship Bridge IV, 10km south of the town, by 8.30am.
Disappointingly, you’re not allowed to cross the bridge on your bike. No one is able to tell us why (we hear that it’s to stop suicidal Thai pedestrians from jumping off after losing everything at Laos casinos) so we have to put the bikes on the bus (for an extra 100 bhat) for the 5 minute drive across – during which the driver switches from the left to the right side of the road. It all seems a little ridiculous, but at least with bikes we can avoid the tuk-tuk fares for the 10km to and from the bridge on both the Laos and Thai side. The bridge’s location may not be tourist friendly but apparently this is because in the future it’s expected that there will be lots of road freight using it, and they don’t want HGV’s clogging up the town centres.
Getting through the border controls on the Laos side isn’t too time consuming (about 45 minutes) and we pay our visa fees in US dollars. We then speed-cycle to Houay Say (Houayxa) in a mad dash to get to the slow boat launch for 10.30am. A word of advice here: don’t rush. In ‘Laos time’ nothing leaves on time. We buy our tickets, buy food and beer (our first Beer Lao), take photos and still the boat doesn’t leave til after midday. Before we leave they try and squeeze an extra 20 or more people onto the boat. This is something we’ve read about in the guidebook, and it seems others have too as a spontaneous protest erupts; “Get another boat” people start shouting, and eventually the group are ordered onto a second boat, to cheers all round.
The two day trip is pretty mesmerising. The scenery doesn’t change much, but it doesn’t have to. Mile upon mile of lush mountain vegetation, and occasional tiny riverside communities, as the huge, powerful Mekong surges beneath your feet. A word of warning though: wrap up warm (in January at least). It may be a slow boat but you’ll feel the wind, especially in the morning on day two.
The time flies by, aided by Beer Lao, reading and card games. The seats are comfy too – not the hard benches we’d read about, but old car seats! We overnight in Pak Beng, a strange one-street town which is invaded each evening by the slow boat arrivals, all in search of food and a place to sleep. We resist booking in advance on the boat (for 115,000 kip) and find a decent room towards the top of the hill for a more reasonable 80,000 kip.
Day two is more of the same. We’re told to arrive at the boat at 8am but we don’t leave until well after 9. It’s a long journey but a great way to travel. The only surprise is that when we arrive in Luang Prubang we don’t actually arrive. The boat stops about 10km from town and a fleet of tuk-tuks await. This isn’t mentioned in the guidebooks so appears to be a recent development/scam. As we’re on the bikes we’re not affected (although we do arrive in LP at dusk, and after the tuk-tuks, meaning the best guesthouses are already full). We also have to pay extra for taking the bikes on the roof of the boat. They want 100 bhat per bike, per day, but we argue this down to 50 bhat per bike per day – still too much for what is basically luggage.
We stay in two guesthouses close to the Mekong and National Museum, for 120,000 and then 100,000 kip per night (at the very relaxed and friendly Nok Noy). This appears to be the going rate, many places are full, and attempts to haggle are met with polite refusals. LP is a lovely place to wander, the food is great (we ate at an all you can eat veggie buffet at the night market for 10,000 kip – the long tables are a great place to chat to fellow travellers), there are bars (we quite liked hanging at Utopia) and there are some great day trips. We hear about the waterfalls at Kuang Si, a 30km ride away, and decide to check them out the next day. It’s a fantastic ride out (overtaken by countless tuk-tuks, minivans and scooters, but we don’t mind) and the waterfalls do not disappoint – they are spectacular and the swimming is great too. We spend a little too long here in fact, and only just make it back to LP before dusk.
Before we leave LP we try and find a bike mechanic for one final check up before we start riding in Laos. Considering the amount of kids on bikes cycling to school, you’d think this would be easy, but when we enquire we’re met with confusion and the explanation that “people fix their own bikes”. We eventually find an American guy, Noah, who runs a bike hire shop and workshop , and he gives both our bikes a check over, and trues our wheels, for a reasonable 70,000 kip.
Finally, we’re good to go and on Saturday afternoon we start #cycletouring in Laos, taking Route 13 south to Xiang Ngeun, an easy 25km which we do in 1hr 37, averaging 15.5km/hr. We stop in the first guesthouse we see, by the bridge, which is fine, but if you’re doing this route there is a second guesthouse next door to the Khankham Restaurant (‘Coffee in Love’) through the town and up the hill, which has stunning views and looks much nicer.