The Great Green North

Ride in one of the last wild and won­der­ful fron­tiers of South­east Asia

Canadian Cycling Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Steve Thomas

In Laos, ride one of the last wild and won­der­ful fron­tiers of South­east Asia

The rice fields and dis­tant rip­pled moun­tains of the re­motest cor­ner of north­ern Laos were be­fore me. There was lit­tle more than the odd stretched-out trac­tor to dent the scene. The an­nual rainy sea­son was in mid-flow, when it could get hard to string to­gether enough dry hours in a day to make rid­ing fun.

My choice of sea­son had, in part, been out of prac­ti­cal­ity, but more so be­cause it’s by far the best time to see the true colours and beauty of this place. It is of­ten dubbed the “green tri­an­gle,” due to its vaguely tri­an­gu­lar-shaped bor­ders with the deep east­ern fringes of Myan­mar and China’s south­east­ern Yun­nan prov­ince. Plus, parts of it over­lap with the opium-pro­duc­ing Golden Tri­an­gle.

Luang Namtha is the ma­jor town in the re­gion: a small, charm­ing and sleepy place that sits just a few hours off the main Mekong River slow-boat tourist trail to Luang Pra­bang. This re­mote but ac­ces­si­ble lo­ca­tion means that the area re­ceives just a hand­ful of more ad­ven­tur­ous tourists. It’s a wild and down-to-earth place.

I was run­ning on rel­a­tively lim­ited time, just a week all in, and had de­cided to con­cen­trate my rid­ing and ex­plo­ration to the far north of the area rather than rid­ing the whole hog from the Thai bor­der and then on to Luang Pra­bang. This fo­cused ap­proach al­lowed me to move fast and light, and ride off-road a whole lot more, which is the best thing about this area. You can hit the maze of dirt roads that link to­gether the many eth­nic tribal com­mu­ni­ties.

I saw bare­foot chil­dren with cat­a­pults and makeshift fish­ing poles. There were women clothed in deep blue with banded an­kles and ba­bies strapped to their backs. They weaved cloth and car­ried large bun­dles of fire­wood on their heads. There can’t be that many places left in the world where you can find such things and yet be so close to a com­fort­able bed and Wifi.

Not be­ing at the peak of my con­di­tion, I had bounced a psy­cho­log­i­cal ten­nis ball around in my head for a few days be­fore fi­nally de­cid­ing to brave the 60-km ride from Luang Namtha north­west to the small vil­lage of Muang Sing. Now, 60 km doesn’t sound like much, but hav­ing rid­den this rough and twisted road be­fore, I can tell you that it feels more like dou­ble that dis­tance, and with your

brakes on – and in both di­rec­tions. On my pre­vi­ous visit, I’d tack­led it in the op­po­site di­rec­tion – the slightly eas­ier north-south op­tion – although that still in­cludes around 30 km of con­tin­u­ous climb­ing.

The scenery is amaz­ing. When you’re grov­el­ling up­hill for 30 km you do get plenty of chances to take it all in, too. Your mind tends to wan­der as you strug­gle through re­mote vil­lages where old ladies and small chil­dren smoke pipes. Some chil­dren jumped from the bushes to try to sell me their freshly trapped squir­rels and other rodents.

You should ride the dirt in north­ern Laos. With the moun­tains on ei­ther side of you, it’s easy to keep a sense of di­rec­tion. Also, you’ll never be more than a 40-minute ride from town. When to ride The prime sea­son for rid­ing i n north­ern Laos is from late Septem­ber to early Fe­bru­ary – the dry winter sea­son. It can get cold dur­ing the nights in Jan­uary, but it rarely rains.

It’s best to avoid mid-fe­bru­ary to mid May, the an­nual burn­ing sea­son. The air qual­ity is abysmal.

Rainy sea­son is between June and Septem­ber. At this time the colours are at their most vi­brant, but the rid­ing can be hit and miss. Bud­get on hav­ing a cou­ple of days rained out. Still, the rid­ing you will do will be worth it.

Routes and rides This re­gion is just made for light­weight bikepacking ad­ven­tures. Most over­land trav­ellers and cy­clists tend to hop the slow boat down the Mekong River from Huay Xai to Luang Pra­bang, and then con­tinue on to Vi­en­tiane. As pleasant as this may be, they re­ally do miss out on the best of Laos.

Re­cently, there have been ban­ditre­lated in­ci­dents on the road between Luang Pra­bang and Vang Vieng, so that re­ally is best done by bus, or even avoided all to­gether.

The road from Huay Xai to Luang Namtha is one tough and amaz­ing 175-km ride. The best way to break it up is with an overnight or two in Vieng Phou Kha, 120 km from Huay Xai. There are a cou­ple of ba­sic re­sorts

here, and some nice dirt roads to ex­plore, too. From Luang Namtha and Muang Sing, there are some in­ter­est­ing road and dirt op­tions, for cir­cu­lar and pointto-point rides. Route 13 from Luang Namtha to Muang Xai is a log­i­cal step on a road tour (117 km), fol­lowed by a very moun­tain­ous and rough ride over to Pak Mong (82 km). where there is ba­sic ac­com­mo­da­tion. You can take a diver­sion up to Nong Khiaw (30 km from Pak Mong) for good ac­com­mo­da­tion and great scenery. From there, it’s a long day ride (142 km) to Luang Pra­bang.

Lo­gis­tics There are sev­eral di­rect flights to Vi­en­tiane. Also, Lao Air­lines has connections to Luang Namtha, which is not the best op­tion when trav­el­ling with a bike. It’s ex­pen­sive and baggage is lim­ited. A wise op­tion is to fly to Chi­ang Rai in Thai­land via Bangkok, and then take a lo­cal bus to the Friend­ship Bridge at the Thai/lao­tian bor­der at Chi­ang Khong/huay Xai. If you are trav­el­ling fully by bike, sim­ply start rid­ing here. Other­wise take a tuk-tuk to the lo­cal bus sta­tion and then on to Luang Namtha. If you do not want to carry lug­gage, it can be sent on mini-vans or lo­cal busses between bus sta­tions. In Laos, bus sta­tions are usu­ally about 5 km out­side of towns. The same trans­port sys­tem can be ap­plied right through to Luang Pra­bang. From Luang Pra­bang, there are rea­son­able air connections to Bangkok and else­where. Al­ter­na­tively, take the two-day slow-boat trip back up river to Huay Xai to com­plete the loop.

Visas, money and health care Most na­tion­al­i­ties can ob­tain visas upon ar­rival in Laos (and in Thai­land). In Laos, these cost around us$30–$35. You will need a pass­port photo. It is wise to carry U.S. dol­lars to avoid ex­or­bi­tant ex­change charges.

atms are found all over Laos, but not all work with for­eign cards. With­drawals are lim­ited to small amounts, so have some cash to hand.

In the coun­try, costs are com­par­a­tively low, but around 20 per cent more than in Thai­land. A rea­son­able but ba­sic en­suite room will cost C$12–$30.

Hos­pi­tals and med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties are very ba­sic in Laos. Be sure to have travel in­sur­ance and carry any pre­scrip­tion med­i­ca­tion you may need.

Bikes Roads and sur­faces can vary a lot with the sea­sons. Pot­holes are reg­u­lar fare. Road bikes with 25- to 28-mm tires are fine, but if you have a cy­clocross or gravel bike, then it would be bet­ter for the rough stuff. A moun­tain bike would also be a good op­tion. Be sure to carry spare tubes, a tire and tools. There are no de­cent bike shops in the area.

Luang Namtha Chi­ang Rai Luang Pra­bang Vi­en­tiane

Bangkok

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