A Bike Trip Through the Hill Tribes of Northern Laos
The road unfurled like a silky black ribbon meandering among the hill tribe villages and the patchwork of rice paddies in Northern Laos. With few potholes and even less traffic, the road was in perfect condition for bikers. The three-day, cross-country bike route, mapped by Mika Itavaara, managing director of Finland-based Mandala Travel, offered long stretches of luxurious downhill cruising far more frequently than the uphill climbs. Gliding downhill made it possible to overtake motorbikes that carried entire families – a mother, father, two children, and a tiny baby tucked in the crooked arm of the driver.
On the first day, Itavaara and I biked 49 miles from Pak Beng to Muang Beng and passed a small road crew heating asphalt over a fire and spreading the black, oleaginous material over potholes. Children ran out to greet us, yelling, “Sabaidee!” and sticking out their tiny hands for a high five. They chased, shouted, and laughed gleefully as we biked away. Along the road, young girls walked under rose, pink, and purple umbrellas producing the illusion of giant flower petals flowing down the highway. Women wearing conical hats and printed skirts worked the fields in the heat of the day. A monk on a bicycle rode by wearing a beautiful orange knitted cap that matched his robes, and he shouted to us in English, “Hello! Where are you from?” The constant motion on the road diverted our attention – kids in navy and white school uniforms, hairy pigs rooting in the dirt, dogs lounging in puddles, and skinny cats roaming the villages in search of scraps.
The second day of biking, from Muang Beng to Oudomxai, was peaceful and a comparatively short 40 miles that allowed more time to stop and share a few bottles of Beer Lao with locals along the route. Perhaps in our honor, our new friends asked the owners of the restaurant to play an English song; when it turned out to be Garth Brooks, they wanted us to sing along. Most of the small villages had one tiny thatched hut that sold beer, soft drinks, cookies, and chips, although, unfortunately, sometimes no water. The limited selection meant we had to carry water and high protein snacks like peanuts, cashews, and dried fruit. Although larger villages occasionally boasted a restaurant or noodle stand near the street, we often found ourselves eating a lunch of mixed nuts supplemented by sweets like “Odes”, Chinese imitation Oreos, which we found at roadside huts. Unfortunately, “Odes” shared little in common with Oreos except appearance; the chocolate cookies were dry and tasteless. The unforgiving sun caused us to sweat so much that our shirts were stained with long, white-crusted waves, and we had to stop frequently to replenish lost salt.
As we continued our bike trip, we passed men roasting large pigs over an open fire, women beading or weaving on hand looms, and little girls wearing beaded necklaces. Occasionally a bus full of Chinese tourists or a motorbike laden with woven baskets full of chickens passed us by. Being able to speak a bit of Lao in the rural villages was imperative to negotiate food and water or converse a bit with villagers. My guide, Itavaara, spoke a fair amount of Thai, which is quite similar to Lao. In addition, it was his sixth trip through the region, so he easily bonded with locals thorough his knowledge of the geography of the area. Lao is a language that few tourists try to learn so locals are full of praise and generosity for those who make the effort. In part due to the rural nature of the area, few foreigners traveled these roads and even fewer did so via bike.
The third and last day of our trip from Oudomxai to Nong Kiau was a rough 70-mile stretch with tough inclines through lush mountain forests. The trip to Nong Kiau took around eleven hours because road conditions worsened. Frequent sections of dirt road caused the waterproof bags that protected our few items of clothing and cameras to slide loose from the bungee cords that attached them to the back of the bikes. Fortunately, the cooler temperatures of the forest lessened the difficulty of biking uphill for half of the day. However, due to the nature of the long stretches of uphill, Itavaara explained, “For my clients I hire a truck to follow us just in case anyone gets too tired or there is a medical emergency.” Near the top of the mountain, children adorned in multiple bracelets, anklets, and metal necklaces decorated with rusted old keys and coins greeted us. Old women walked around with up to two babies tied to their bodies with fabric artfully folded like origami.
The last few miles leading to Nong Kiau were marked with views of unusual mountain formations reminiscent of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Arriving at dusk, the clouds were a royal purple and the forest a deep blue-green. The town, located on the fat, shimmering Nam Ou River, was nestled between two steep mountains. A long bridge traversed the muddy brown waters that cut the town in half: on one side was the bus station and market vendors selling rambutans, mangosteens, and bottled water; on the other side was the nicest place to stay in town, the Nong Kiau River Side Resort and Restaurant. At the resort restaurant, a young woman sat at a table overlooking the river, and worked on her computer. Nong Kiau seemed like the perfect peaceful spot for a writer to finish a book and spend long, relaxed days drinking iced coffee and peeling open the burnt red skin of mangosteens to reach the sweet, white flesh within.
After our brief passage through Laos, three days in which we did not see any foreigners along the bike route, we took a bus to Luang Prabang. We were suddenly surrounded by dreadlocked, tattooed, and pierced throngs of backpackers. The shock was easily mitigated at Yongkhoune Restaurant by a bowl of coconut sticky rice with slices of fleshy mango and a lemon mint smoothie. After 159 miles of biking, we walked the streets to indulge in the simple pleasures of local food: green papaya salad, durian smoothies made with condensed milk, and crusty, fresh-baked baguettes. Luang Prabang, which has its own airport, is only a three-hour bus or boat ride from Nong Kiau. It is a tourist Mecca where tired travelers can gorge on everything from pesto pasta at Daofa Bistro to laap, a traditional beef salad made with fresh lemon grass, mint, and coriander, sold by street vendors. Travelers can also indulge in a much needed foot or body massage at Lotus du Laos or a handful of other massage parlors for $4 an hour.