We left Vietnam shortly after 7 a.m. and cycled through no mans land to the Laos border post. It was so inconspicuously placed in a bend that it would have been easy to miss it. But of course, we needed the entry stamp, which allowed us a visa-free stay of 15 days.

Briefly, we refused to pay the “vehicle fee”, but quickly realized that it actually had to be paid. The prices are declared on an official sign, but this does not rule out the possibility of the fee disappearing into their own pockets.

Aktiviere Karte Deaktiviere Karte

A rapid descent brought us to the first village and our first noodle soup, which was to become our main diet in Laos. The overgrown mountains still looked the same, but something had changed… everything was much calmer and more relaxed than in Vietnam. Especially on the road, there was no more annoying honking. We were happy with that, and we cruised comfortably up and down towards our destination for the day Muang Khua. We were very pleased to discover that the standard of the guesthouses in Laos was better than in Vietnam. We slept wonderfully in a clean bed until we took the boat to Nong Khiao the next morning.

During the boat tour on the Ou River, we stopped a few times so that more and more adults and children from the small river villages could get on board. Apart from four tourists (an Argentinian couple and us), the small boat had room for 16 adults, 5 children, 2 scooters, 2 bicycles, 2 dogs and lots of luggage😊.
At a dam, we had to pedal to the lower water and change to another boat. The locals continued by land. In the tourist village of Muang Ngoy, not only the Argentinians got off, but also the captain! We were told by a lady who spoke some English that the boat was not going any further… too few passengers. We should take accommodation here and take the regular boat tomorrow (and of course buy new tickets). We persisted and calmly negotiated our onward journey. After an hour-long discussion, a small transport boat took us privately to Nong Khiao for an acceptable extra charge😀.

The last section of the journey on the river was particularly scenic, as it took us through rapids, past apparently intact rainforest and impressive karst formations. The touristy Nong Khiao with its chic cafés was a bit of a culture shock. We only spent one night in this town, after which the 8-day tour through remote mountainous areas towards Luang Prabang started.

The road gave us no respite and immediately began to climb. As expected, it was in poor condition, but this was no problem on a bicycle as the potholes were easy to avoid. For us, and even more so for the villagers on the roadside, the dust was the bigger problem. Especially on the 20 km section where there was no road surface, the whole area, including the people, was covered in a thick layer of dust.

The region is very poor and lacks many things: education, medical care, clean water, food (apart from sticky rice and sweet cookies), clothing and opportunities. The incredible number of children played on the dusty road because there was often no school even in the small villages along the “main road”.
Despite the difficult living conditions, we always received an enthusiastic welcome in the villages. Adults drew their children’s attention to the arriving “falang” (meaning long-noses or white foreigners), whereupon they happily shouted “bye bye falang”, “hello” or “thank you” and waved at us with a smile. Although development aid is omnipresent and we encountered other (bicycle) tourists practically every day, we were never begged. The people simply seemed to be happy about the little distraction. What’s more, the Lao always found a reason to celebrate with loud music, karaoke and lots of alcohol (there is plenty of schnapps and beer).

Even if poverty, dust, bad roads and a limited range of food consisting of noodle soup and sweet snacks do not speak in our favor, we really enjoyed being in Laos and especially in the remote mountain villages. It was probably the smiling children, the serenity and the pleasant guesthouses that we liked so much. Because we were not overly captivated by the landscape. The view of the more or less wooded or cleared hills was mostly clouded by smog and we rarely had a clear view as the next mountain or pass stood in the way😊. We found the habit of many people to cough up phlegm from deep in their throats and then spit it out unmistakably really disgusting. Even when our noodle soup was being prepared at the same time… Disgusting, no matter whether it was dusty air and different customs or not😉.

In Phonsavan, we reached the only town on our route. It is home to a very interesting information center run by the non-governmental organization MAG (Mines Advisory Group). The organization is working to free the country of around 81 million unexploded cluster munitions from the Vietnam War. The visit to the small exhibition with informative film material added another dimension to our perspective on poverty… (more on this in the info box at the end of the article).

The hilly and dusty road to Luang Prabang remained unchanged. Where the road became the main traffic axis, there were more trucks again. They were not unpleasant for us (apart from the cloud of dust) as they usually drove slower than us due to the potholes😉.

The last night before Luang Prabang we once again spent in a tent. In a small hamlet in the valley between two passes, the villagers were used to stranded cyclists. We were routinely directed to camp on the school playground. Children opened the corrugated iron gate for us and showed us in. Camping was wonderful until the weavers launched an invasion at dusk. At least 20 of them sat on our bags and cooking utensils. Ugh!!!! … doubts arose about my resistance to camping in tropical countries! Only after David had killed the most intrusive eight-legged friends (sorry!!! 🙈) were we able to focus on the food.

Luang Prabang is “the” destination in northern Laos and attracts Western visitors in swarm. In the tourist bubble, it’s easy to forget how poor and modest life is outside. We Westerners also treated ourselves to three relaxing days in the city, visiting temples, enjoying the atmosphere over coffee by the Mekong and visiting the picturesque Kuang Si waterfall early in the morning.

Our visa-free status gave us three more days to get to Thailand. The most direct route was via a new asphalt road, which is obviously mountainous. As we are not afraid of altitude, we took this route and crossed the Mekong by ferry. The road was practically traffic-free, which should come as no surprise to anyone with gradients of 12-15% throughout(!) and 3000 meters of altitude over 70 km. At 34°C, we sweated and cursed a lot on the steep slopes. How and who “planned” this road is a mystery to us.

As intended, we crossed the border into Thailand in the late afternoon shortly before the end of our stay. Here we were allowed to camp for the first night in front of the police station in Chaloem Prakiat. An inspector brought us mandarins to sweeten the evening while we wrote our blog and planned our time in northern Thailand. A successful start!

Speaking of sweetening: It’s not a statistical error and we are not on a diet… our chocolate consumption has been reduced to 0.0kg because there was no chocolate in Laos and Vietnam…

The legacy of the Vietnam War

Although Laos was never officially involved in the Vietnam War, it is the most bombed country in the world in terms of population. During the Vietnam War, North Vietnam supplied the Vietcong in South Vietnam via the camouflaged Ho Chi Minh Trail. This led largely through Laotian territory. In addition, around 40,000 North Vietnamese soldiers were hidden in Laos and also supported the Laotian partisans in the guerrilla war against the former kingdom.

The United States had a secret airbase in Laos for the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and North Vietnam. In total, they dropped 4 million large bombs and 270 million cluster bombs (bombies), more than in the entire Second World War! About 30% of the cluster bombs did not explode (Unexploded ordnance, UXO).

Today, the bombies lie up to 30 cm below the surface, making agriculture life-threatening. After 30 years of clearance work, not even 1% of the UXO have been cleared. Every year, 11 people still die from UXO and countless others are injured and mutilated.

The following NGOs contribute to mine clearance in Laos:

We found one example particularly impressive: during an inspection of a school, MAG found 11 unexploded cluster bombs on the premises. These are the same size and shape as a ball from the popular game of petanque…