A table summary of 3,700km around Thailand with distances, times and accommodation.
Day 51 Li to Thoren
50km. 2.5hrs. Up over bit of a hill but steady climb and very little traffic. Then down hill through jungle. Beautiful couple of hours cycling. Thinking of it if I had been coming the other way it would have been hell up a large never ending hill through humid jungle. All depends on the angle one sees things.
As going south should be all down hill now which will be nice.
Day started as many with me debating over breakfast whether to go or stay. Today especially as bit sore after the ride yesterday. But us cyclists do not give up easily so after rice porridge and coffee I set of at 10am and at 10.10 was sitting chatting to Sugar in the coffee shop she works in. 10.45 I eventually left expecting a hard slog up a mountain. Instead had enough of a climb to hurt a bit but nothing special and a beautiful down hill to Thoren. Just after leaving Sugar (great name) I nearly had an incident with a dog but luckily saw it lining me up with speed and direction for a lunge and mitigated it with a stone from my pocket. There is the occasional truck coming the other way and the odd scattering of unexpected pot holes so not a good time to relax and blow ones nose. I had a bit of a nasty accident in London once trying to blow my nose riding over a speed bump. They don’t mention dangers like this in the cycle proficiency course.
Thoren is pleasant enough especially the rice and fatty pork with a vaguely edible source seller who after seeing me go the wrong direction to the hotel she had directed me got her motor bike and led me there. One has to go through the town, cross the A1 and it is then slightly to the right (500B). There is another place 2km before town but I always like to cycle around town to get orientated or lost first and entertain the locals.
Heavy rain at 16.00. It’s sneaky. It rains a while and then stops until one goes out and then pours it down again. Rained almost constantly from 4 to 7. Rainy season has arrived.
Had a hair cut. I said, ‘Nit noy’ (a little bit) and she laughingly said, ‘Nit noy’ as she sliced chunks off. Still only cost 60B ($2). As it got a bit cold I decided to have hot lemon and honey. I asked a cafe if they had it and they said, ‘yes but no lemon’.
Big busy uninteresting road full of trucks.
Don’t sleep in wooden houses. Look at then, take photos and leave. They look great but a blank of wood between rooms offers no sound proofing. It’s like sleeping in a drum.
Pain in the palms of my hands. The gardening gloves do not seem to be helping except to prevent sun burn.
Contemplated the sad lot of truck drivers as they thundered past. It can’t be easy sitting all day on a boring road. Even when they get to a destination they do not see the nice areas but some dirty back street and a warehouse. Then they have to chain smoke and eat greasy high cholesterol food in dingy transport cafes. They are not allowed to do any exercise and have to drink excessively when not working. They also kill a lot of butterflies which can’t be too good fro their karma.
I saw a lot of Lampun on arrival looking for accommodation. A small town with about 5 places to stay. Either too expensive or grotty with no AC. Eventually found Thanthong Hotel (650B) for large room near the river and a particularly stupid unpleasant cow on reception. We didn’t become friends. In fact if she had understood what I said to her when I was forced to empty my panniers on the reception floor to find a copy of my passport her family would have done me some permanent damage. I miss the small friendly places on the Mekong.
In contrast ate in a small family restaurant with very friendly family to chat to and good food.
Like Lampun. Population of only about 15,000, beautiful wats, good night market, cafes and river. Watched the popular dance aerobics that most towns seem to have at dusk in a central place. They are all very similar. A fit girl on a stage dancing energetically facing a group of women of various shapes and sizes but generally large moving slowly and erratically out of time in with weak perplexed smiles. The dancer on the stage seems unaware that her class are hardly moving and no idea of what they are doing.
Thought this might be of interest. That one was more difficult and wild but some similarities. The unpredictability and relying on locals for example but no AC resorts at the end of the day.
North to Phongsali
by Paul Greening
Unfit, unprepared, poorly equipped, lacking information, flagging enthusiasm, and giardia: a typical start to one of my trips. As far as I knew, no one had ever cycled from Luang Phabang in Northern Laos to Phongsali up near the Chinese border — probably because there are no roads.
Before I left Laos’ capital city, Vientiane, I got lots of advice from the Australian doctor treating me for the amoeba who had been enjoying the hospitality of my intestines. “Don’t go! There’s no law and order up there… it’s wild country… there are bandits… there’s no medical care.” Paranoia? Unfortunately not. Bandit attacks are common and rumour says they have rocket launchers. I could already hear them sniggering and drawing straws as I wobbled into view.
The 15 minutes to Vientiane airport was the easiest part of the trip, so that on arrival in Luang Phabang I felt quite pleased with myself. I tinkered with the bike for a few days to delay departure but eventually left, heading north. Well, actually west. But I thought it was north.
I cycled powerfully through the town to impress the locals, and rested on the outskirts. Ten minutes further on, my left pedal fell off — a fortunate twist of fate, as it happened, as it meant that I met a helpful passing local.
“Hello,” he said. “Where are you going?”
“North to Phongsali.”
“No you’re not: you’re going west to the airport.”
Back en route, the road soon deteriorated into a dirt track. The potholes grew larger, the dust thicker, my back wheel spun and, dripping in sweat, I pushed the bike up hills and struggled through surprised grasshouse villages.
By sunset, when I could have been sitting with a cold beer overlooking the Mekong River in Luang Phabang, I was hot, caked in dust and exhausted somewhere in Northern Laos with only biscuits to eat. Almost every nut was loose on the bike and every muscle hurt. In my tent the cold kept me awake… I had decided that a sleeping bag was excess weight.
Cold, stiff and tired, I rose and left at dawn. I passed saffron-robed monks smiling and waving. Villagers either grinned and pointed or stared open-mouthed. I fell off frequently and a branch sprang up to spear me between the toes, adding an infected wound to my bruises.
With relief I arrived in Nambak, a town constructed of grass and bamboo with the odd tin roof. There was also a hotel, a large wooden building overlooking the town. Surprisingly it had buckets of cold water, a toilet, mosquito nets and not too many rats. That evening, at a salubrious wooden bench in one of Nambak’s three noodle shops, I consumed three bowls of rice noodles with dubious meat and raw vegetables.
The town died at six. The cockerels did not. Anticipating dawn by three hours, they woke me at 3am. Later that morning I set off on a Chinese-built road. (People say the Chinese built their roads in Laos strong enough for tanks just in case.) There was a tribal village on every hill. Most were Hmong, famous as big opium producers and for aggression and banditry.
Because it was the time of the opium harvest, I had been warned they would be particularly hostile. Just what I needed. As I battle dup hills, hordes would charge out and surround me. But rather than attacking, some stared, young girls giggled, boys ran beside my bike laughing, old women in black turbans chuckled and men smiled, gesturing for me to stop and rest. I stopped occasionally to chat to hunters carrying long-barrelled home-made guns. Their gunpowder is also home-made: saltpetre, chilli, and sticky rice are some FO the ingredients. Missing eyes are common.
Bends at the bottom of hills concealed potholes, herds of water buffalo and children, of which I hit only the potholes. However, I was careering down one hill when a child did not move. My brakes failed. I swerved and the child moved the same way. Parents screeched. My heart sank. I missed him: one moment he was under my wheel and next he was over my shoulder, with his mother shouting and smacking him in relief.
Muang Xai, a provincial capital, has one dusty street and no architecture of note. However, it has a large Chinese population — meaning good food and a market. I spent a few days not eating noodle soup, watching tribal people watching me in the market and making excuses not to leave. One of my better excuses was not knowing the way to Phongsali. The only road is through China and I did not have a visa. A man in the market told me of another road: “Well, not really a road. There will be a road in two years, I think. They are starting to build it.”
The first 60km were not bad, in that mud in the potholes cushioned my falls. I asked locals the way to Phongsali: eventually, a man, shaking his head and frowning, pointed to a dirt track heading north beside a stream.
I took it. The stream dribbled past, hills rolled north in the heat haze and the track was a joke. I was investigating a burnt-out shelter in a poppy field when voices from over the next ridge startled me. Afraid I might be taken for CIA, I quickly cycled on. At the top of the ridge I came face-to-face with five military-looking men with semiautomatic weapons and suspicious packages wrapped in banana leaves. No warmth: their eyes showed surprise quickly changing to hostility. I shouted “Sabadee, sabadee, sabadee” (“Pleased to meet you,” sort of) and shot down the ridge before they could decide what to do.
In contrast, shy tribal women stood at a safe distance until I passed. Striped Hmong (hill people who wear mainly striped clothing), with baskets on their backs stacked with vegetables or wood, stared or turned their backs until I passed. I noticed the characteristic head-dresses of the Akha people, another hill group. Teenage boys spotted me and came down to the track to wait to see me. Once, about 30 people just stared in silence as I drew near and younger children ran way. I greeted them in Lao and smiled a great deal while thinking only of food and a warm place to sleep.
A tall likely lad with a raucous laugh came down to talk to me. Displaying a ridiculous lack of subtlety, I asked if I could stay in the next village. “Stay here,” was the reply I had hoped for. With lots of excited kids pushing my bike I climbed up to the village. Then my friend disappeared and I found myself standing in the middle of the village with most of the tribe watching. I asked a man, “Where can I sleep?”
“Here,” he replied without hesitation, and led me to his house. He gave me water to drink and wash, put my bike securely in the corner of his one-roomed bamboo house and shared his food with me.
People returning from their fields came to observe me. “Where are you from?” they asked. “England,” I replied.
“Are you Thai?” was their next question. Luckily the chief, a sickly, intelligent man, arrived and saved me from a difficult geography lesson.
He invited me to a wedding ceremony in his house. I sat next to him with the elders on a platform. Rice spirit was plentiful and disgusting and as a guest I was plied with the best food: large chunks of pig fat and bowls of fresh, spiced, congealed pig blood, which was surprisingly good. We ate and drank late into the night until the rice whisky became almost palatable. Then the opium came out. Refusing, I watched a couple of old men smoke before retiring to a warm, dirty bed.
In the morning I was awakened by a group of children watching me from the end of the bed. After finding a quiet place just outside the village to relieve myself, and supply a couple of dogs and a pig with a late breakfast, I sat and watched the village in the early morning mist. Sacred gates elaborately decorated with charms to ward off evil spirits guarded each end of the village. From one gate a dog’s head snarled at evil spirits. Human sexuality also frightens spirits, so next to the gates were statues of small males and large females with exaggerated genitals, copulating. The famous giant Akha swing, quiet and mysterious in the half light, dominated the village. So, with some rice and chilli wrapped in banana leaf, I sadly left.
A muddy churned-up track followed heavy road-building machinery. Chinese road crews speaking neither English nor Lao waved and even cheered when I dragged the bike over particularly large mounds of earth. Lines of Akha women wearing silver head-dresses were carrying baskets cautiously past yellow bulldozers. Nine hours of mud and sweat brought dust but no village. I stopped at Chinese road camps but everyone was already drunk.
It was dark, and I and my head torch were both fading, when I finally found a more welcoming camp. A Chinese man shrugged and gestured for me to sit. A pint of tea in a jam jar arrived. Then to my delight he rubbed his stomach and pointed to his mouth.
From nowhere came soup, rice, vegetables and meat dishes with some strong white spirit to aid digestion. I could have cried. Using the few words of English one man spoke, I found they had heard of England and a few Western countries but had never met a Westerner. Eventually he said, “You bed,” pointing to an open bamboo platform. I shared their communal bed under a thick quilt.
In the cold of early morning he said, “Goodbye, my England friend.”
“Goodbye, my China friend,” I replied, shaking a young calloused hand.
Another day of mud and I joined the road from China. The junction was not exactly a hub of trade and industry, but the town did boast a few wooden shops and of course a noodle shop. It was dark as I struggled into Phongsali, capital of the most northern province of Laos. I shuffled into the hotel, dirty and exhausted. The owner did not even look up from her dinner. I asked for a room three times before she sighed impatiently and nodded for a girl to show me a dirty room of unwashed sheets and rat droppings. I bathed outside with cold water from a tank in the dark and ate an unpleasant meal. As usual, I was left grasping memories in the anticlimax of arrival. I wished myself back with the Akha.
© Paul Greening
Cycling & Mountain Biking Today, April 1996
103 km. 6.5 hours. 50c
First time done over 100km. Twisting and undulating following Mekong. Pretty with small sleepy villages. Some had ice cream. Plenty of accommodation/resorts with two nice looking ones 8km before Pak Cham. One with camping. Few resorts 2km before Pak Chom for locals to pop out to if the need arises.
Stopped at the first place selling BBQ chicken in Pak Chom and drank a couple of litres of water. My thermometer is from the UK so not made for these temperatures. It only goes up to 50c and had not expected to get much past 30c. Refueled after lunch I felt like a the need of a hammock rather than a bike for another 45km. After 103km arrived in Chiang Khom. Nice enough but discovered by Thai tourists meaning that the accommodation is not such good value for the price. 400B with AC but shared bathroom. Town is mostly wooden. ‘I love Green’ restaurant back on the 211 has great food at low prices and good service.
Got number of a Dutch tour leader living in Chiang Khon and asked him advice of best route to Nan in the north. He gave me a route but on checking it is 116 to 135 km a day over bloody mountains. I will try 116 tomorrow with the mountains and see how I get on with the hope that there is accommodation a long the way. The pain between my shoulder blades and general tiredness from today does not ode well.
ay 22. 23/04/13
They are of course not all the same but there is the herd instinct and they do tend to dress very similar, go to the same places and talk about the same things. Costs and how to save money is a popular topic usually over a few expensive beers in bars that Thais don’t go to. Tattoes, a few peicings, shorts, singlets or T shirts and carrying a bottle of water. Some get carried away with the peicings and also go for dreadlocks and walk bare foot. That is really cool. They quickly set up little communities based around certain guest houses or hostels. They do some organised trips with others in the hostel and sit around a lot talking about the prices of things in places they have been before. The hostel becomes the home. If it has any dogs or cats they learn the name of them and treat them like their own bringing them snacks and saying what great animals they are. They are willing to venture our into the country outside the hostel especially if in couples but prefer to go out in a group. ‘Hey we are all going out to the Tex bar tonight. Are you coming?’ Inevitably it is a place where there is very little risk of meeting locals and where one can feel at home while complaining about the price of things and drinking overprised beer. There seems to be very little interest in the culture, language or politics of the country.
Then one has the really strange like Yusuf. Dreadlocks, hat, scruffy and drunk. He had already upset all other guests at the Mut Tee garden before I arrived to use their wifi. He joined me and was great company. He was Morrocan who also had a Japanese passport and wife. He had a problem having walked through Thai immigration without a stamp in his passport or rather that was his story. He now wanted to leave Thailand and wanted advice. I suggested as the Mekong was low he could easily get back to Laos and then be illegal in two countries at the same time. More seriously I suggested he go to the immigration office and explan what had happened. Not a very difficult idea to come up with but he was very impressed and based upon this and the fact that I was the only person who had talked to him for more than 5 minutes without getting upset and leaving he asked me to represent him at immigration. I said of course no. He was disappointed and wanted to know why. I explained that the idea of going with him drunk to immigration and interceding on his behalf was not my idea of a restful afternoon. Then a small woman came in to the garden shouting in Japanese at him. He gave me his beer and said, ‘It’s yours isnt it?’ ‘No it’s yours’ I replied deciding that this was not a fight I wanted to be in the middle off. He answered her in Japanese with the tone of a naughty boy. She hit him around the head a couple of time and then dragged him away by the arm and that was the end of the Moroccan.
Still in Nong Khai but not a bad place to be.
- how to impress Thais? Eat raw chillies. They will love you and believe you to be Thai with a falang body
- for the gradient of your trip try the site bikeroutetoaster.com. It’s a bit depressing and does not tell you how to avoid the hills.
- how to eat noodles? Sit close to the table to avoid half of the bowel on your trousers. Don’t suck them up too quickly especially if you have used a lot of chilli. The ends are prone to flick up in ones eye.
Met a young girl serving in a restaurant whose father died and now has a Swedish father who adopted her. He is apparently very calm but her mother is, ‘an angry woman’ . Her father is going to take her to live in Sweden and study in university there. Interesting how something good can come out of personal tragedy.