Northern Laos; Tough but Scenic

We are in Boten at the Lao-Chinese border. It was a tough four-day ride from Luang Prabang. We didn’t realize just how tough it was going to be compared to the route we’d have taken if we hadn’t taken the boat trip, until AFTER we’d committed ourselves to this Luang Prabang route option. There were paybacks, though, in terms of scenery, remoteness, and seeing a very different culture.

There simply are no good road maps of Laos. In Luang Prabang, we bought a bad photocopy of a bad map. And Chris had his only-sometimes-accurate Garmin map on the GPS. The roads have been significantly rerouted in places, and the maps –such as they are– have not kept pace. Various tourist brochures in Luang Prabang warn of the lack of infrastructure and medical services as you head north.

Typical Steep Terrain View


As we headed away from Luang Prabang, however, we sensed that we were leaving a “Lonely Planet Corridor” which had become concentrated enough to feel stifling since our Mekong boat journey. Not that it isn’t a bit of a break to converse in English at times, but it’s just that you start to feel there are certain well worn routes followed, and a certain type of interaction with the locals develops along these.

The roads are steep, the potholes are huge, and sections of surface have been broken up or washed away. We crawled upwards in our lowest gears, and clutched the brakes till our arms ached on the way down. It was hot and humid. Sweat poured freely.

We rode:
From Luang Prabang to Village at Junction 10km
To OudomXai 94 km
To Na Mor 61 km
To Boten at Chinese Border 50 km

We travelled through countless hill tribe villages, but tried not to take intrusive photos. We saw women working endlessly at spinning, weaving, cross-stitch and more. We saw animist spirit gates. The Ethnographic Museum in Luang Prabang is not a museum in the sense of documenting things that no longer exist. They take pride in continuing their crafts and traditions, even if they also have satellite dishes and cell phones.

Lunch stop with Papaya, grown on premises … Friendly fellow

If there is one word we’ll remember in Lao it is sabbaidee, the standard greeting. The villagers’ houses are right along the road, so we almost feel we trespassing into their living rooms. But one child spots us, and cries “falang, falang” (foreigner), to alert the others, and within seconds children are calling out “Sabbaidee! Sabbaidee!! Sabbaidee!!!” and madly waving at us. Sometimes older ones want to high five us. Sometimes barely clothed little ones are so excited they are jumping up and down. Mothers hold up babies to wave at us. They also call out “bye bye.” There is an occasional cynical English “hello” from teenagers, but mostly the feeling is one of warmth.

We share the road locals walking, and on 125 cc motorbikes. Thousands of them. And agricultural vehicles. The odd tourist bus goes by, but we never saw anyone get out of one. A cavalcade of  Han Chinese tourists went by in shiny SUVs. Not far from Luang Prabang, some of them were at a roadside stand, and one of them snapped a photo of me at close range without asking. Rude buggers!  We saw an Italian (my guess) couple emerge briefly from an SUV which I think was driven by a chauffeur and they had a private guide. We saw a bus with sleeping accommodation called Rotel, but we didn’t see the occupants. There are cattle, goats, buffalo, pigs, chickens, and turkeys on the road. Dodging is sometimes required. I like buffalo. The babies are so ungainly and awkward that they’re very sweet.

Margo talking to (pregnant?) buffalo

Twice we met cyclists coming the other way, and stopped to chat and exchange useful information. On the first day, we met two very fit Chinese cyclists who had come from Jinhong, Yunnan. They were professional guides who sometimes work through Bike China Adventures, and I think they were scouting a new route.

Just today, we met an Australian woman travelling solo. She is known as Chocolate Girl on the “Crazy Guy on a Bike” web site. Cyclists are often quick to give away language books and maps no longer needed, and we were very happy to get a road atlas of of Yunnan from the Chinese fellows.

Women carrying branches back to village (to be used for brooms?)


The first evening we approached a small guest house and the woman waved us away. We looked hopefully around the corner to where three neat doors led to some kind of accommodation, and a helpful person brought Mrs. Grumpy over to help us. 40,000 kip, she said, scowling at me. I used the phrase book to ask to see the rooms. She gestured that she wanted payment first. I pointed to the phrase in the book, and again she demanded payment first, stamping her foot at me. We had yet to even attempt to bring a price down, and we were not about to (40,000 kip =approx $6), but it is standard to ask to see the room first. She was either angry at falangs or angry at the whole world.

We departed, and found another guest house a little further on, run by a pleasant man with a three month old baby in his arms. In Oudomxai, we stayed in a bigger hotel, and in Na Mor a very basic guest house, where we slept for the afternoon. We stopped early that day because my body was protesting, and upon reading In Lonely Planet Asia Health (pdf format) diagnosed my nausea and headaches as being due to dehydration. We’re now trying (Chris is allowed to nag) to train me to drink more, and have had some success.

Typical dwelling, note the writing and inscription on the right-hand gable

Breakfast at Cafe … we use our own chopskicks

Although we are still 1 km inside Laos, only Chinese Yuan are accepted here. This already feels like China, and everything seems to be run by Chinese. We have succeeded in changing some money, have found a sensible hotel, a huge smoky internet cafe, and we really need a good dinner.

M (photo captions by C)

2 responses to “Northern Laos; Tough but Scenic

  1. Rotel = Rolling Hotel or maybe something similar in German! Takes us back to 1972 when we saw one in Turkey. People sleep in fairly small alcoves and the back of the bus converts to a field kitchen.

  2. How good to hear from you. I had been vaguely worried about the relatively long period with a post. It is also nice to see the chopsticks I gave you are in use. 😉Good riding.

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