Soundscapes of Laos and Vietnam

Update – 18 September 2019

In the mazes of the colonial alleys of Luang Prabang hide primary schools where children give themselves to heart 🙂

It’s recess at Luang Prabang School

In Luang Prabang always, it’s a day of celebration! Not everyone is interested in boat racing, some prefer to share a meal with friends or family.

Neighbours’ Day Version Laos

In the evening it is a completely different melody that one hears as you listen to the temples.

Buddhist prayers at nightfall in Luang Prabang

Music accompanies us everywhere on our bike ride. Sometimes in karaoke or just in the background of restaurants, but always kitsch!

Big sound in a roadside restaurant

As we approach the villages, we slow down and enjoy the scenes of life under the bewildered eyes of the locals.

A village crossing on Highway 1c

On September 7, we arrive in Vieng Xai. 45 years ago, the town was the stronghold of the Pathet Lao, a communist paramilitary organization fighting the Americans alongside the Viet Minh from 1964 to 1973. The city is surrounded by multiple cellars where the inhabitants took refuge during the bombings. During the visit to the cellar of Mr Kaysone Phomvihane (Secretary-General of the Party, who later became President), our guide recounts:

“In here, special, we have “air tight bomb shelter room” … So this room was used sometimes when the Americans used to[drop bombs] onto Vieng Xai. Mr Kaysone with his family came to stay here, crossing the door but he can’t open it. He used this air pump to [bring the air inside and this filter for dust and chemical]…”

Explanations of the guide in an anti-bombing cellar of Vieng Xai

Arriving in Vietnam, in Mai Chau, we discover the festival of mid-Autumn and its parades of dragons in the schools and shops of the city. Every year, it coincides with the end of the rice harvest.

Dragon dance on mai Chau’s main street

Finally, further north in Moc Chau, we visit huge tea fields. Here, dozens of women hand-pick the precious leaves while chatting!

Tea picking at Moc Chau

Nung, Song, Sat…

For this last article about Laos, we wanted to present some numbers that have marked us or symbolize our passage:

0 like…

… the number of punctures on roads that do not have a good reputation. If potholes are a real permanent danger (we warn each other when they approach), we were pleasantly surprised by the condition of the existing bitumen. And/or the quality of our 4 new Schwalbe tires!

29 as…

… years since the country was officially opened to tourism. Yes, it was not until 1990 that the Democratic People’s Republic of Laos opened its doors to foreigners, after more than 50 years of French protectorate, a Japanese invasion, 9 years of secret war with the United States (1964-1973) and 15 years of strict communism. So inevitably, Laos has kept an authenticity, a raw and spontaneous character that made us fall under its charm. By bicycle, we crossed dozens of traditional villages, with raised wooden houses so atypical open on the main street, looms curled in a recess and countless gallinaceans. All of this devoid of frills for foreign visitors (supermarkets, distributors, bars…), it is rare and appreciable in 2019.

Traditional bamboo house

44 as…

… the number of rowers per boat at the Luang Prabang Boat Festival. We had the chance to attend: this race takes place every year at the end of the monsoon. Each village on the Nam Kha River, a tributary of the Mekong River, participates in the competition. The boats are made during 1 year in Buddhist monasteries, if possible from a single tree. It is above all a great popular festival where beer Lao flows afloat!

120 like…

… the longest distance travelled in one day by bike, from Luang Prabang to Muang Nambak. Let’s be honest, it was a nice buse, especially since China is building in this area a huge hydroelectric dam synonymous with many trucks on the road. But it is sometimes the “game” by cyclo-hiking to find a nice village-stage for the night, join a beautiful road (the fabulous 1c that we highly recommend) or avoid bad weather.

Chinese dam under construction

365 as…

… the number of Laotians who die per year still today as a result of the explosion of a cluster bomb. These bombs, dropped in complete dysproportion by the United States during the Vietnam War, are sought and demined daily by various associations such as Humanity-Inclusion (formerly Handicap International). COPE works to ensure a future for the many injured and amputees.

Bomb crater in Vieng Xai

660 as…

… the kilometres of buses travelled at night between Paksé and the capital Vientiane. With a little apprehension for our frames in the hold, the ride finally went very well for them as for us.

800 like…

… our budget on the spot in euros for 1 month and for two.

1000 and 1 like…

… the amount of “Sabaidee” (Hello) chanted with smiles by the children on the road. In a country with a tormented recent history, it is a real joy to see the new generation so curious!

Generations of Lao women

1100 as…

… the total of the kilometers cycled on the territory, in the province of Champassak to the south, from Vientiane to Louang Prabang (the famous Route 4c), then to the northeast towards Vietnam. Vertiginous roads that allowed us to fully appreciate the local landscapes. Terrace rice fields, banana groves and above all bamboo forests have followed one another, all in extraordinary shades of green characteristic of the rainy season.

Tiered rice fields along Highway 1c

About bamboo, we discovered its importance in local life and the multiplicity of uses of the plant: baskets, clons and braided walls of houses, tube for cooking with the egg,breathing tube, musical instrument, food… That’s crazy! We recommend this short video of the French Development Agency whose action we discovered in Vientiane and which works precisely in the region of Houaphan on the sustainability of bamboo forests:

Border lines

Borders are an inexhaustible topic of discussion for all long-haul travellers. Before we left and since we were in Southeast Asia, we read and re-read dozens of tips, tricks, warnings about this or that change of country. So here, after more than two months on the bike, in the chronological sense, our humble experience on the subject. Scoop in the key!

Singapore🇸🇬-Malaysia🇱🇷: Easy busy!

  • Place of passage: Johor Bahru
  • Date: June 18, 2019
  • Visa cost: €0
  • Duration: 30 days

The approach route is quite simple, we double dozens of trucks at a standstill and then we put in line with scooters and motorcycles. It rolls at pace to emigration and then all of a sudden everyone accelerates on the huge bridge 2-4 lanes, we do not make the smarts by bike. Malay immigration is quick and simple. A little intimidating as a bike trip but you get away with it.

Malaysia🇱🇷 Thailand🇹🇭: Quiet Emile 🙂

  • Place of passage: Sungai Kolok
  • Date: June 30, 2019
  • Visa cost: €0
  • Duration: 30 days

Despite its reputation, this border was a banality for us. We park the bikes, make the exit of Malaysia in a first building and then the entrance in a second a few meters further. Nothing sorcerer and no incident related to religious tensions or our means of transport.

Thailand🇹🇭-Cambodia🇰🇭: The Wild West

  • Place of passage: Poipet
  • Date: July 26, 2019
  • Visa cost: $30
  • Duration: 30 days
  • To provide: 1 photo

In Poipet, the “trouble” begins. We are asked to pay US$30 to enter Cambodia except that we do not have any, that no bank offers directly back and that we have Bahts to sell. We therefore choose to try the option of paying in Thai currency with the rate of the day: $30 equivalent to 900 THB. But when we arrived at the visa office, the official did not lose sight of it: it was 1
200 THB, no less. We insist on 900 and then wait 1/4 of an hour before the official comes to ask us 100 thB more for his pocket probably … In the end we paid 1000 THB per person while we were asked 1200 when we arrived. It’s always $5 saved but a small victory for corruption.

Cambodia🇰🇭-Laos🇱🇦: The tenacious bakchich

  • Place of passage: Nongnokkhiene
  • Date: 12 August 2019
  • Visa cost: $30
  • Duration: 30 days
  • To provide: 1 photo

At the first counter, which looks serious, we fill out the form and pay $30 official and posted. At the second wicket, two officials announce dagy: “$2 each for stamp”. We categorically refuse, Cléa pretends to call the Embassy and then explains to them with composure that no, we will not pay their bakchich. We wait (no luck for them, it rains and we are in no hurry) and the youngest of the soldiers finally gives in after 15min: visas stamped in pocket, and this time without concession!

Laos🇱🇦-China🇨🇳: Game over

  • Place of application: Ventiane then Luang Prabang
  • Date: 19 and 26 August 2019
  • Visa cost: $30 (from Laos)
  • Duration: 30 days
  • To provide: scanned passport, current visa scanned, 1 photo, detailed itinerary, hotel reservation, A/R plane tickets, 3 latest bank statements, proof of insurance…

Before we even left, we were not reassured by the Chinese visa… Many friends have been denied their applications in third countries (from Iran for example) for obscure geopolitical reasons.

In Vientiane, we make a first attempt: in the hustle and bustle of the Embassy, the official examines our file and coldly announces “you don’t work in Laos, no visa for China“. We ask him when this measure was “2 months.” Disgruntled (we were not aware of this condition, mentioned on any official website), we leave empty-handed and ask the French embassy who refuses to help us. We are trying to call the Chinese Embassy to find out more: to no avail.

In Luang Prabang, 1 week later, we retry and arrive in front of closed doors and a terse statement: the Consulate is exceptionally closed this Monday, August 26. Having no assurance that it will reopen the next day, and knowing that the application is processed in 3 working days minimum with a local festival interspersed, we finally abandon this project to enter Yunnan in September.

We finally chose to head northeast, to the Houaphan region and then Vietnam. Recently, it is possible to apply for an e-visa for land borders, in this case Na Meo. In 48 hours, we received a positive response! Fingers crossed to make sure everything goes smoothly at the border and we can’t wait to discover this new country with a thousand and one facets by bike!

Laos🇱🇦 Vietnam🇻🇳: J-10!

  • Place of request: Online
  • Date: 09 September 2019
  • Visa cost: $25 (e-visa)
  • Duration: 30 days
  • To provide: scanned passport, 1 photo scanned

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Eating time (but without plastics)

During the trip, we balance between cooking by our own means and small roadside restaurants.

On a daily basis

In general: tea, oatmeal (or biscuit if you can’t find it) and bananas for breakfasts. Sylvain loves these little red fruit-scented milk bricks to go with it all. Lunch and dinner in local “boui boui” are cheaper than shopping in supermarkets. Almost everything is cooked there the same day and sometimes directly in front of our eyes. Furthermore, we discover flavors and tolerances that we didn’t know each other.

Taro doughnut after a local soup

We sometimes trust “guides” or websites (like TripAdvisor), with some nice finds!

Spring rolls in Siem Reap in a restaurant supporting local projects

Another solution is to use our gas stove. Not easy for preparing dishes with local ingredients (and not having the utensils for), we find ourselves buying ingredients known in Europe, which is more expensive, not local and has a bad carbon impact. We therefore reserve these meals for exceptional situations and mainly for pasta dishes. On the other hand, we find local vegetables at the markets, because in small towns and villages they are unaccustomed to selling vegetables and fruit outside the production season. It’s pretty convenient and it avoids having to hang around the market with our seasonal fruit and vegetable calendar 😉

Market vegetables

The third solution is the on-the-go meal in the market. The problem of meals in night markets and floating markets is plastic. Everything is pre-packaged and then over-packaged (plastic bags), often individually. It is difficult to make the seller understand that you do not want to be served in disposable packaging. Their reflexes are very fast, more than ours at first.
So we get into the habit of watching every move to avoid ending up with a useless plastic bag.

Dried fish and packaged spices, Vientiane market

Zero waste solutions

Buy bulk, bring our containers (in plastic for a bicycle weight issue).
But in the markets, few stalls still sell in bulk. And there are almost no bulk stores except in the shopping malls of the capitals crossed, which does not allow us to make regular “refills” but just a one-time purchase of a reasonable weight.

Drinks issue

We no longer buy plastic bottles and fill our bottles at the water fountains available in some guesthouses or at the tap after passing through our filter pump. It’s tedious (2 minutes per bottle) but it seems to us the best alternative, much better even than hygienic solutions like Micropur. We stop from time to time to drink an iced tea served in a large plastic glass of course….

Iced green tea, ready for a bike ride!

So I insist that we take care of them in order to reuse them almost infinitely. My glass has already crossed two countries and we have acquired bamboo straws!

However, even when we drink iced tea in a real restaurant, we are sometimes served in plastic glasses again.
Never let your guard down!!

Plastic Lobby 1 – Cycloclock 0

Hard to convince

I defend my point of view on the drastic reduction of our plastic consumption with maximum reuse of containers or utensils collected inadvertently. It is important to clearly separate your needs and desires throughout the trip to determine what margin of error we are willing to accept in our waste production.
My arguments sometimes seem futile because plastic packaging is embedded in the daily lives of the inhabitants looking for everything practical, ready, all consumable. But I think it’s important to be vigilant about our consumption of plastic, cans and glass bottles and pay attention to our wastes. In particular, we try not to throw anythinh in the garbage cans of isolated areas, but in more crowded areas where the garbage will be picked up by trucks and transported, we hope, to a collection centre or even sorting.

Wall painting promoting waste collection in Vientiane

On bicycles, but not only!

Our bicycles experiment great adventures in Asian transports. We wanted to tell you a little bit about our multi-modal experiences 🙂

Train

The cost of the train in Thailand is 100 baht (equivalent to 3 euros) per bicycle regardless of the journey.
An hour before the train departure, we have to check our bikes at the baggage counter.
The bicycles are then loaded into the specific car at the end of the train. The teams on board in charge of baggage management at each station must therefore be trusted. Bikes cannot be attached because they sometimes have to be moved when loading new packages.

At every small station, we check that the bicycles are not unloaded by mistake!

In Malaysia, Cambodia, and Laos, we did not take the train because these countries unfortunately have (almost) no railways or they have been under renovation for several years.

Fun story: For our night train to Bangkok, we arrived 2 hours before departure, then waited another 1 hour due to a technical problem. When we got on the train, we were told “full full” and someone showed a phone on which Google translation displayed “bicycle later?” There was no question of separating us from our bicycles, so after a few short minutes of talks, we tool a look in the luggage car and saw space available between a few packages and 2 scooters.
Let’s go! We put the bicycles in the train, and quickly look for our place so as not to delay the departure of the train any longer.
Hell yeah, our faithful destrier are with us! This overbooking of luggage was weird…

Boat / ferry

To cross rivers, we sometimes use small boats to avoid bridges that are often unsuitable for cyclists and very busy. Those are often accepted for 5 to 10 baht (about 30 euro cents).
In Bangkok or Ayutthaya for example, the crossing with a bicycle is very simple, there are loading ramps and the crossing takes only a few minutes.

Express River Crossing in Ayutthaya

We have not transported our bicycles on island ferries, but it is also possible to load them on board for a few euros in order to reach islands off the coast of some countries (Malaysia, Thailand).
In Laos, we went to the island of Don Khone in the middle of the Mekong on a small boat planned for 4/6 people. Our bicycles were boarded without too much difficulty because the boat is empty. And indeed, we pay for the whole boat which is still accessible (5/6).

Bus

We have not yet tested the bike buses in Asia, this should happen soon in Laos to reach Vientiane.

Bike-free journey

Bicycles and saddlebags may seem cumbersome, but we find deposit solutions either for a few hours in hotels, or at local contacts or through knowledge. This allows us to explore other areas in “backpack” for a few days.
Bike-free breaks are beneficial because they allow us to rest our legs and travel in another way, often walking to explore cities or lush jungles.

Stop in a shopping mall bicycle park in Bangkok

On the way to Mekong

Would you like a new Cycloclock video or do you prefer a good old summerday Fort Boyard at the TV :)? In this episode shot between Bangkok, Khao Yai, Angkor and the Cambodian shores of the Mekong, you will get a glimpse of our HelpX volunteering hours, our discoveries of ancestral temples and Khao Yai Park and some beautiful children’s cycling encounters in Cambodia!

On our bikes there are…

Since the beginning of the bike trip, all our equipment is hyper functional except… our crutches. 
Sylvain’s bike under the pedal does not allow you to maintain the bike without any other support. The bag at the front of the bike carries the handlebars inwards and knocks it over. In short, the anchor is too far back… A few height adjustments can compensate a little for the imbalance. Another trick found over the water: block the rotation of the handlebars by clipping the helmet between the wheel and the frame! Nevertheless a double crutch or a front luggage carrier would have been appreciable to use, despite being overweight … 

The crutch that teams Matcha, The Bike of Clea (yes it has a small name) requires a regular tightening every two days or so in the absence of a counter nut. Nothing serious but the risk of losing it in the middle of a path on a day of travel too hectic.

Our bikes were in good condition at the beginning, so we had few repairs to do during the first two months. Only regular maintenance, tire re-inflating, cleaning and mechanical oiling are required. Until then the brakes hold up well and use normally (the V-breaks gum is reduced and The Clea’s discs take the rust slightly). 

In terms of weight, we left with about 30kg each. 
Between 13 and 15kg for each bike and 15kg of luggage
per cyclist. Sometimes we have a larger load because of the food we sometimes carry. We avoid stocking too much anyway! The
combination of Cléa’s front and rear bags is more balanced, so the races of the day often end up on the sides of Matcha. For Sylvain, the handlebar bag has to compensate a little for the load of the rear luggage rack, the tools are stored there while some rather light but bulky elements occupy the rear bags (tent, pharmacy, camera, backpack, etc. ).

Here is a snapshot of our bikes with the general distribution of the material:

It is also an opportunity to thank Cyclable stores for their sponsorship through the supply of 2 pretty red Ortlieb rear bags. Thank you again!

Below is a Boris Vian-like list of carried away items:

  • Bicycle accessories:

2 helmets

2 pairs of mudguards (easily removable)

Carriers (adapted to the frame structure)

2 simple crutches

2 anti-theft (1 U light, 1 foldable and 1 reinforced cable)

2 mirrors (not forgetting to change sides: to the right of the handlebars to Thailand, left from Cambodia)

2 doorbells and 1 compressed air horn

  • Toolkit:

2 Flexible Replacement Tires 700x35c

2 Air Chambers (1 per valve type: Schrader and Presta)

1 anti-cracking kit

1 Multi tool with chain drift included

2 English Keys

1 Key

1 Small hand pump

2 Brake cables

2 Speed cables

1 Disc brake

2 pads

2 V-brake brake pads

Oil and cleaning toothbrush

1 Chatterton

2 roll tendors (already 1 misplaced!)

  • Camping equipment:

1 Gas burner (no hose)

1 Threaded valve gas cartridge (purchased in Bangkok)

1 Ultra-light PVC-free tent (cons: non-freestanding)

1 Compact inflatable mattress

2 independent seats

2 silk sheets

2 downs 3 seasons

1 Mosquito net double

1 Popote / 2 folding plates

Cove red / eco cup

1 glasses

Hammac two seats

2 Gourdes per person

1 filter water pump

1 waterproof bag

  • Clothing per person:

1 Short

1 bike short (used only by Sylvain)

2 Tee shirts (1 synthetic and 1 me
rino)

1 Light fabric pants (in case of m
osquito alert)

Socks /under clothing Sandals (daily, pretty tan)

Low shoes Closed Walking

1 Shawl (used by Cléa for some temple visits)

Cap

1 pair of emergency bezel

K way and waterproof pants (little used at the moment)

Doudoune and cap (used at altitude in Indonesia)

Tote bags (for clothing and food shopping, useful for fighting plastic bags)

Bags compartments  

  • Toilet Kit :

Dentifrice Toothbrushes,

Soda bicarbonate (to brush teeth)

Coconut oil (for skin hydration, sunburn and hair untangling)

Homemade Solid Shampoo

Soap Homemade (thanks Lu) and those of the hostels occasionally

For laundry, ditto (we probably should have brought a Marseille soap)

Oriculis

Coupe nail

BrushHair

Sunscreen

Anti-mosquito (organic but suddenly without DEET)

Travel and rescue pharmacy

  • Other accessories:

2 watches

2 phone holders

2 smartphones

1 compass

2 headlamps (1 usb and 1 batt
ery)

1 hybrid camera

1 Go-Pro
2 e-readers

1 solar external battery

Chargers and cables micro-mini-
usb

1 electrical socket adapter ( used only in Thailand at the moment) 

Well done you’ve come to the end 🙂

2562 frames/seconds

A video to retrace our first two weeks of July 2562 in Southern Thailand, between the east coast and the Sea of Andaman. You’ll watch cycling under the heat of course but also instants of freshness in the forest and in the seabed. And always beautiful animal encounters!

*The solar calendar is used in Thailand, 2019 corresponds to the year 2562 🙂