2hr 32min, 34.9km (including about 4km looking for accommodation), av. 13.7km/hr, max. 42.7km/hr

Due largely to taking two bus journeys each covering distances that might have taken two or three days by bike, we have wound up in NE Laos with time to spare, since our Vietnam visa doesn’t start until 5 February. It’s always going to be hard to plan these things precisely;  even more so when it’s your first trip and you have no idea of your own capabilities, the terrain or how long you’ll want to stay in each place before moving on.

We’re pretty relaxed about it though, and there are certainly worse places to kill time. We spend a day checking out the local markets (eye-opening to say the least… dead rat, anyone?), looking for better evening food options (there are none), chilling out by the river and even cleaning the bikes.

We spend the following day cycling around town, looking for vantage points on the surrounding hills to get a good view of the colourful buildings that make up this slightly odd place. The guidebook is right, there isn’t a whole lot to see or do in this town, but sometimes that’s OK too.

Next day though, we’re definitely ready to move on. Under cloudy skies we leave dusty SN, with its wide, empty roads and nagging sense of unfulfilled grandeur, out past the airport (no flights today!) and on the road to Vieng Xai.

Very soon, we’re in those clouds as the road begins a gradual ascent. On the other side of the hills, inside Viang Xai district, the landscape changes dramatically, with a flattish plain from which rise the dramatic limestone karsks that we’ve read so much about. It’s pretty stunning.

Apart from a few gravelly bits on the hill descent, the road is good, and we speed through several villages, only pausing for a roadside pre-prepared baguette lunch – the first time we’ve done this, largely due to the unfortunate scarcity of baguette sellers in Laos!

We’re quickly in Vieng Xai and, even under cool and cloudy skies, it’s a stunning, slightly surreal place. Everywhere you look, dramatic limestone karsks pierce the view, with small lakes dotted around only adding to the effect.

Our first choice guesthouse, Naxay II, is full, and we don’t manage to find Naxay I, so, after checking out some uninspiring rooms elsewhere we end up in a small cabin-style room in a wooden building on stilts over the lake. I was going to say ‘cosy’ cabin-style room, but it’s not cosy at all, it’s bloody freezing! This isn’t what we signed up for!!

Our decision is influenced by the friendly English-speaking guy who wants to have a go on our bikes but is only tall enough to ride Rach’s! He is also the only person to say he has wifi – this later turns out to be courtesy of his own personal phone which acts as a wifi transmitter, under the name ‘LOVE KONE’ (Kone, he later confesses, is the girl who broke his heart). It’s on pay as you go, which makes me feel bad as my Twitter app needlessly updates itself, eating up a few more of his precious mega-bytes.

While looking for accommodation we come across a couple from the Lake District who we first met on the minivan to SN (the guy made a quip about witnessing the moment the yellow jersey wearer – me – cheated and got a lift in the bus.) They inform us that the only Indian restaurant in town is closing TONIGHT for a one month break while the owners visit home, so if we want Indian food we should go tonight. Of course we want Indian food (duh!), so that’s where we spend the evening. Although the two main courses arrive about 20 minutes apart – something we’ve had to get used to in Laos – they  are both very tasty indeed.

The next morning, there’s a change of plan as Rach (who has asthma) has spent a fair proportion of the night up coughing and wheezing. It seems the dust of Sam Neua has caught up with her lungs, and maybe sleeping over a lake when it’s cold and damp wasn’t the wisest move…

On our cycle around the town yesterday we noticed a hospital so, after a tasty noodle soup brunch, we check it out. We are pleased to report that the healthcare received is outstanding. A friendly pharmacist who speaks some English listens patiently, and refers Rachel to a doctor. Within minutes the doctor has carried out a stethoscope test and, with the help of the pharmacist and an ‘English for Doctors’ manual, prescribed drugs for asthma, chest infection and cough, which end up costing less than 2 UKP in total. We are in and out in less than 30 minutes, and that even includes time for a blood pressure test!

We spend the rest of daylight hours exploring the town on foot, and visiting the Caves Information Centre. We’re too late to do the tour today, but we have two more days here.

After a second chilly night spent on the lake (which includes a short, impromptu visit to the local temple with the guesthouse guy, where some kind of celebration is taking place) we decide to transfer to somewhere a bit warmer – there’s a bungalow cottage going at Naxay I, hurrah!

We then head over to join the 1pm Caves Tour. After a slightly unsure start, as we struggle to understand where to go and on what mode of transport (we cycle between caves, everyone else are on scooters), the tour impresses and informs in equal measure. The audio-guide is eloquent and moving, the caves themselves impressive in their scale and what they represent, and the overall experience is hugely educational and recommended. The narrative ends, rightly, by highlighting the US’ refusal to sign up to an international treaty banning the use of cluster bombs – the two Americans on the tour take this parting shot with good grace. Although the audio guide is perhaps a little biased in its representation of events and the Pathet Lao leadership in particular, it is very powerful.

What else to say about Vieng Xai? It’s a beautiful place and appears relatively happy and prosperous. Food options are limited (the Indian restaurant’s closure reduces cuisine options by 50%), but the tiny market does a good selection of savoury donuts. You can get a Beerlao almost anywhere, but most people are indoors by about 8pm. Unless you’re at a wedding party, there is no nightlife.

On our final ‘day to kill’ we head to Tham Nok Ann caves, where we’ve read that you can kayak your way through a huge cave which has a river running right through it, from one side of the hill to the other. This is partly true. Although the poster gives the impression that you  can paddle your own way through, the reality is that a guide does the job for you, while you sit and wobble around on a little stool in a tiny 3 man boat taking photos and trying not to fall in. It’s a magical experience though, as you glide silently beneath dripping, glistening rock formations millions of years old. For 55,000 kip it’s a great little adventure and we can now say we have paddled through a mountain!

Less successful are our attempts to find the Tat Nam Neua waterfall, which is supposed to be 5km from Vieng Xai and boasts falls 80m high. Alas, we can’t find the turning anywhere, so admit defeat, figuring there will most definitely be other waterfalls…

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