Boten (China / Laos border) to Luang Prabang

8th - 19th May 2004

After six months in China it was an exciting change to be in a new country. The border crossing was a bit stressful when the Lao officials tried to stamp fifteen days instead of thirty in our passport, but they corrected the mistake when it was pointed out. In many ways Laos is an easier country to travel in than China, with more English signs, more English spoken, more tourist facilities and more western products. The shops had deoderant (almost unobtainable in China) and we could go to a chemist and ask for drugs by the western names and be understood. The road was nothing like the dirt track we had been led to expect, apart from a few potholes it was well surfaced.

In our first Lao guesthouse we were welcomed by an enormous spider, and as night fell we discovered that it also had no power, swarms of flying ants and a tribe of rats living in the roofspace. Luckily there was a gecko in the toilet to eat some of the other inhabitants!

Udomxai was our first town in Laos. Here we spent a day finding our feet and exploring the Lao shopping possibilities. We had our first proper bread since Mongolia, and discovered the Lao word for methylated spirits (see Meths anywhere).

Then it was two days of sweaty pedalling eastwards to Pak Mong. We camped just out of sight of the road but were discovered a little before dusk by a young hunter sporting a big rifle. "Are you not afraid to sleep in the forest?", he asked. We admitted that we were a bit worried and he cheerfully told us that he would be very afraid to sleep in the forest. We asked him what he was afraid of and he said "Gangsters". Anyway we had an uneventful night and in the morning we met his brother. The pair of them lived in a small house they had just built themselves in a clearing near the road. They were growing mangoes and bananas, but much of their food was gathered from the forest. Amazingly they both spoke good English.

The road passed through many small villages where the houses were made entirely from bamboo and built on stilts, and we also saw large areas of untouched forest. Many village people derive much of their food from hunting or gathering.


In Pak Mong we left our bikes for a couple of days and went to visit Muang Ngoi Neua, a small village accessible only by boat that has become a popular hang out for western tourists. The village was delightful, quiet and unspoilt and we spent a very pleasant couple of days swimming in the river, watching butterflies and enjoying good company and conversation in the evenings.

Water buffaloes know how to spend a hot afternoon.

Village fishermen with a catfish that didn't get away.

Relaxing on the veranda of our hut.

We saw amazing numbers of butterflies.
From Pak Mong where we left our bikes to the village on the road where the boat sailed to Muang Ngoi Neua, we took a sawng-thaew (literally "two-rows"). This is a pickup truck converted to have row of seats down each side and a simple awning to keep off sun and rain. If it gets too hot inside you can hang off the back for a cooling blast, as demonstrated by Richard!

Our two days in Muang Ngoi Neua were over all too soon and it was back on the bikes to ride south to Luang Prabang. We were blessed with a day of heavy, cooling rain, and covered 80km to a village near the Pak Ou caves. Here we had a day off to visit the caves, where people have been leaving offerings of Buddha images for about 500 years. The caves are across the Mekong river and accessible only by boat.

On the way Ju was delighted to find a millipede 20cm long and thicker than a finger.

Next morning we saw a local cyclist abandon his bike and stare intently at something by the road. We stopped to see what he was looking at and saw that it was a big scorpion. The man deftly chopped off its sting and then used a loop of grass to capture it by a front pincer. He then hopped back on his bike and rode off with this tasty snack dangling from the handlebars, waving its legs in the air!

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