Northern Laos has been fantastic. The mountain scenery is spectacular. The people friendly and welcoming. The children alongside the road vociferous with their calls of "Sabaidee". I had spent longer here than anticipated though and decided to save a day and take a bus over the last few mountains that would take me to the southern plain.
Everything was arranged by Tom the hotel owner, who told me the bus left at 7am and that I should be in the reception ready to go at 6.30. A tuktuk would be ready to take the bike and myself to the bus station that was 4kms away.
We must have been about half way there when the driver started frantically waving and sounding his horn. Apparently my bus had just passed us going the other way at 6.35am ! Luckily he pulled over and after a quick exchange between the two drivers we loaded my bike onto the roof rack. I was the only one on the bus. Being somewhat skeptical about the number of passengers and his unscheduled time of departure I asked repeatedly Paksan ? Paksan ? The driver kept nodding in agreement then pulled up at the market. The morning markets are alway busy and this one was no exception. And standing in front of the entrance were a group of people loaded down with everything from bags of rice to live chickens in baskets. As well as pretty much everything else in between.
Being the first one aboard I got the best seat, and waited patiently until everyone else was aboard. The bus was full to bursting. Then we waited for the driver to come back. An waited some more. We were there for over an hour and left at 8am.  All part of the Asian experience I told myself.
Tom had told me the bus journey would be 8 hours. After hearing all the tales of bus journeys taking up to twice as long as promised I had stocked up on provisions for the journey and settled in for the duration. Lunch was a quick stop on the road at a noodle shop and then off we went again. We seemed to be making good time and I was beginning to think that 8 hours would be quite accurate . Then we took a short cut that would promise to be quite eventful.
This shortcut started with an 18% climb up a narrow road. After cresting the rise we found a string of vehicles parked up with everyone wandering around or taking shelter from the sun under the trees. I joined the curious crowd and walked to the front of the queue, experience having told me to take my camera. As you can see from the pictures a flat bed truck had somehow slewed across the road and lost its load - a caterpillar digger ! No-one was going anywhere until one 4X4 driver decided to flatten some bamboo and drive around the truck, quickly followed by a few others. Our driver, obviously thinking about his timetable (if so he is probably the only driver in Asia that does)
OK. Off we set once more. The chatter in the bus was starting to die down again when we came across another hold up. This time it was a 4X4 and a truck that came into contact with eachother. Once again I joined the throng on the side of the road, and wondered how the two vehicles could possibly have hit eachother. There were gaps on both side of the vehicles through which another 4X4 decided to pass the accident. With that much room to spare it should have been easy to avoid eachother. Once we had passed it was all plain sailing into Paksan. The bus driver and conductress then tried the time honoured shake-down for an after journey payment for the bike. The conductress held my bike and showed me a note, whereupon I told her it would take more than that to buy my bike. In the end she gave up when a translator appeared and told her what I was saying. It was worth a try on her part I suppose. Just another part of the Asian experience. I later spotted a small note referring to this short cut on the map of Laos. It read 'seek advice before using this section of road'. If only I had known.
I was just trying to decide whether to stay in town that evening or ride southwards when I got flagged down by a couple of cyclists heading the other way. Mandy and Jacques are two well traveled South Africans more recently based in London who were on their first cycle tour. (Their travels can be seen here We had a chat and a laugh before deciding to find somewhere to sleep and then going for a meal. They told me about their travels and we swapped a few details of our experiences along the road before agreeing to meet up in the morning for our goodbyes. I had spent a lot of time wondering how to reduce the amount of luggage I would need and everyone is amazed by how little I am carrying. We took a few pictures of the three of us in the morning and Mandy then took one of my bike as a reminder of how little is needed on the road. A quick scan of the market for some breakfast and we went our separate ways. A pleasant encounter with two really nice people.
OK then. Highway 13. Straight south. And I do mean straight. Time to get my head down and grind out some kilometres. It's about 750 kms to the Cambodian border with not much to see on this road. The mountain range to my left looked magnificent but there are only about 6 roads into it for the full length to the border. After a 6.30 start I had made about 90 kilometres by lunch time when I stopped and began talking with a tuktuk driver who convinced me to take a look at the Konglor cave. It's labelled as one of Laos' amazing spectacles. However it's a one road in and out journey of 89 kilometres each way and a hard climb in each direction. Why not I thought. It was then that I discovered the enhanced colour button on my camera. The scenery up and over the mountain was spectacular with Karst pinnacles and lush jungle. The journey took me until 6pm for a total of 179 kilometres. And after the heat and the distance I am quite happy to admit that I was hanging. The cave was enormous. Luckily I teamed up with a German/Austrian couple and the three of us took the first canoe of the day. We had only gone about 5 minutes into the journey when we pulled onto a beach inside the cave and clambered ashore. We assumed that this was one of the places where the water was too shallow for a laden boat but it was instead a section of stalagmites and stalactites. Amazing shapes and configurations that unfortunately my camera was not able to do justice to.
The cave, or to be more exact the tunnel, is about 7.5 kms long and up to 100 metres wide and high. Quite spectacular. I decided that as this was an unexpected and previously unscheduled side trip I was allowed to take a bus back to the main road where I had met the tuktuk driver. I would still have to ride the 50 kilometres to where the buses were though. Two stops for ice-cream and I made it in time to catch a minibus with air-con. Result. Five young Brits all on their way back to ThaKhek from the cave. No sooner had we said our hello's and we pulled up at the bottom of the climb behind a line of buses, trucks and cars. Time to take a walk with the camera again. Every vehicle driver was out scavenging for the biggest rocks they could carry to place under the rear wheels and stop their vehicle sliding downhill. Some drivers must have thought there was still room to get through and decided to drivge up on the other side of the road. When that queue was complete they even parked in between the two rows. If the hold-up ahead ever got cleared I wasn't sure there would be room for anyone to move again.
As I rounded a corner I saw an artic jack-knifed across the road with one of its drive wheels over the ditch. I was trying to figure out what happened and assumed that it had lost traction and had started to slide. With one drive wheel over a ditch it would be difficult to get any traction again. I then walked passed the truck and saw the reason for its lack of progress. Another artic had had a mechanical and the driver was in the process of removing a part of the drive shaft ! Most people were taking shade under the trees with a few even cooking dinner on fires they built on the road with sticks from the surrounding bushes. Obviously we were settling in for the long haul. Yes, you've guessed it - all part of the Asian experience.
After a brief discussion with the others in the minibus we decided that the driver would be better off turning around and going the long way back to Thakhek but as it was a dirt road and would take so long and drink the fuel he preferred to wait and see what happened with the trucks. As I had only traveled about 3 kilometres with him the driver agreed to cancel my fare and we took the bike off the roof and I started pedaling. A number of people were cheering and giving me waves and it felt like riding the Tour de France as I climbed the hill and wound my way through the crowd that was turning to see what was happening. Once through the jam it was another long hot ride. The jam eventually cleared and the minibus passed me again about half way back to the main road. I eventually got there at about 5.30 and quickly tucked into a large omelette before settling into the middle of a Dutch contingent playing cards. They were all riding scooters around 'The Loop', a tour of some of the sights and places along the back roads (such as Konglor cave) including the dirt road that the minibus driver had refused to take. I would meet them all again along the road south to Thakhek the next morning.
But for those that remember the Tales of the Riverbank - "that's another story".

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