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:

4c in the lead!

With a title like this, one would expect a bad climbing article. In the lead? 4c? Usually this rating is synonymous with first experience of rock climbing rather than exploit. But in Laos, road 4c from Kasi to Pong-Dong is not equipped with spits or ropes. Rather asphalt, a lot of gravels and as climbers pick-up trucks, white minivans of tourists, overloaded trucks and… two bicycles!

23rd of August 2019, in good mood and playful by the incredible environment of the region, we decide to tackle the road bis. No, no, not Highway 13 supposed to allow the drivers most in a hurry to reach Louang Prabang without a hitch. The other, 4c. Yan and Brieke, our wonderful Dutch Warmshowers hosts from Vientiane, had advised us, for its wonderful pass, so let’s go!

Rice fields, at the foot of the mountains

We start smoothly, in the middle of green rice fields and crossing two or three peaceful villages. In the distance, the future Vientiane-Kunming highway (understand: the local pharaonic Chinese construction site) escapes into the heart of the mountain. Its tunnels are barely dug and workers are numerous on the edge of its roadway under construction. On our side, we begin to meander to the village of Ban Thong Muead. Curves are rare and our 15 kilos of luggage combined with a slope close to 10% require us to create laces. We laugh, we keep our spirits up and we climb like snails. The rain, at first just a fog, begins to fall massively. The day before, we had met a fellow Spanish cyclist who, clumsily, asked us: “And you? Are you
in holidays?” Hell no, cycling isn’t just a vacation 😉

Waterfall and fog

It took us 4 hours to overcome the 20km and 1500m elevation. It’s so far from the stratospheric speeds of carbon bikes on alpine roads. But no matter the records, it’s a completely different accomplishment to reach the pass with our “shell”, so far from home and together!

Holy view at the pass!

We make a break for lunch : noodles and soda (for want of better) at the pass and start a magnificent descent, punctuated by some impromptu hills that end up consuming our thighs. The valley reopens, the sky too and we reach Namuang Gnai at 4pm, the brakes warm and head full of landscapes! The Guesthouse is simple but green and welcoming, tomorrow we still have 65km of falling bumps to arrive in Luang Prabang.

Laotian mountain snake

Tired but happy, I reread these lines of Paul Fournel (“Besoin de vélo”, Seuil, 2001): “There is an animal relationship on the bike to the world: the mountains that we see are to climb, the valleys are to be descended, the shadows are made to hide and to rest. To be in the landscape, in its heat, in its rain, in its wind, is to see it with other eyes, it is to permeate it in itself in an instinctive and profound way. The mountain that stands before me is not a mountain, it is first of all a hill to climb, an ordeal, a doubt, a worry, sometimes. At the top, it is a conquest, a lightness.”

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

Resources

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

A journey in Don Khone

Here we are in Laos:) To acclimatize, we decide to go for a little trip on the 4000 islands, an archipelago that evolves according to the level of the Mekong. We stop in Don Khone for three days. Here are some shots!

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 Khmers lands

At the entrance of Cambodia on July 26, we had only a blurry picture of our bike route in the country and of the shape that would take this part of the trip. The ugly border of Poipet passed, we reach Sisophon on a dusty road and then Svay Chek further north. The landscapes are arid, almost desert, it is far from the cliché of shimmering rice fields during the monsoon season. There, like an oasis, stands proudly the Farm OrganiKH and its hectare of permacultural greenery, held by a Franco-Cambodian couple Olivier and Darin for already 6 years.

One of the many plots of OrganiKH Farm

We put our bags there for a nice week of volunteering, punctuated by the collection of butterfly flowers each morning, weeding, transplanting, watering plants such as lemongrass or roselle during the day, other various tasks (compost, construction of brick plots of land, etc.) and evenings in the large and atypical common room. We meet beautiful people (3 French agrology students in internship here for several weeks, 2 Anglo-Saxon HelpX volunteers and a slew of Scouts), enjoy Darin’s exquisite mets and a healthy and pleasant setting to recharge, meditate and “work.”

Epilogue to a new beautiful week HelpX

On August 3rd we head back to the big town of Siem Reap, a few kilometres from Angkor. In a (sporty!) day of bike-visits, we tour the thousand-year-old temples, banners of the past power of the Khmers, slalom between drops and tourists and especially appreciate the anarchic vegetation that sublimates architectural ruins. Unesco obliges, the place is expensive and very busy (at least Angkor Wat) but still worth it.

Ta Nei, our favourite among the temples of Angkor
Birdsongs at Ta Phrom Temple

The urban comfort of Siem Reap is a trap that we want to avoid, so we are moving back to the east quite quickly, on the “rive” north of Lake Tonle Sap that we will unfortunately not see given the exceptional drought. We reach Kampong Thom after 150km. From there, we make the decision not to go down to the capital Phnom Phen and to spend more time in the North. So we’re on our way to Kratié, the sky is pouring a few capricious rains and the rice fields are starting to look great, the heart of the country seems more irrigated than the North East. The proximity of the houses also allows us to glimpse the local life, quiet and rural, between dogs, chickens, pigs and oxen. “Hello! Suo sadai!” are chanted as we pass by the countless children.

Atmosphere on our bikes!

It’s heartwarming, we try to answer every time and cross children gazes.

Sunset on the Mekong, the local children also enjoy!

On August 8th we arrive on the banks of the majestic Mekong. Between him and us, we will have to learn to live together for more than a month until Yunnan in China! We explore on foot the small island of Koh Trong, mainly populated by grapefruit, and then head back to Laos, 250km from Kratie.

In the ferry to Koh Trong

Attracted by the banks of the river, we take the road not carossable thinking to arrive slowly but surely to Stung Treng, 150km further. But our GPS and our Maps.me maps play us a trick and we end up getting lost in the dense and wet weather… cycling the muddy terrain quickly becomes terrific.

Lost?

Fortunately we turn back before night and manage to explain our “dismay” to the teacher of the nearest village who offers us to stay overnight in his home. He also tells us the way forward the next day. We accept and end up neither one nor two to share a chicken rice (freshly killed …) with our host, his wife, his parents, children and all the local pet shop. It’s great to live the daily life of a Khmer family for an evening!

The next day we finally reach Stung Treng after multiple river crossings and some showers…

Is the rain coming? Don’t panic, we’re taking refuge in a shop!

Finally, on August 12, we connect the remaining 62km to the Laos border. Ready for 4000 islands!