Sainyabuli (Xaignabouri) to Luang Prabang
- 4 hours riding (including breaks)
Side note: One thing to be aware of when travelling through Laos is the naming of towns. They will vary dramatically. Quite often there’s one name for road signs, one for local maps and a third for guide books (TripAdvisor) and things like Google Maps. Most of the time they were close enough that you would catch on but as with the case of Sainyabuli the name you see when planning the days ride the night before doesn’t even start with the same letter as the name you’ll see on the road signs along the way. If looking up places on your phone we also found Apple Maps to be far more detailed than Google Maps for both Laos and Cambodia.
It had bucketed down rain all night and was still looking miserable by the time we got up for breakfast the next morning. We wandered down the street in the rain looking for breakfast and debated the merits of riding for the day like the locals were with an umbrella in front of their face seemingly blind to what was in front of them.
It was over a breakfast of omelets and bananas that Jarrod uttered the words he would later regret “Don’t worry about it. Once you’re wet you’re wet” and you’ll dry in no time.
We hit the road shortly after and by this stage it was only very lightly raining. Less than 2km out of town I had to stop to get some photos of the rice fields with the cloud covered mountains in the background and you can tell the boys are impressed about stopping so soon.
We thought we had avoided the worst of the rain as it had certainly calmed down dramatically since we got up that morning but it wouldn’t last long. Soon enough it was coming down thick and fast, enough that you spent more time with your hands wiping your visor than on the handle bars. Eventually I relented and much to the disapproval of the boys, donned a very thin plastic poncho I had in my bag.
The first two hours of the ride were on reasonable bitumen roads but as we started to gain a bit of altitude the temperature dropped dramatically. Not only was it bucketing rain but with the wind ripping through our soaked riding gear it was absolutely freezing. My poncho stopped a little bit of the wind but I was still cold so I really felt for the boys.
Just over two hours into the ride Jarrod stopped unexpectedly so we turned around to find out what was going on. He was pulled over on the side of the road opposite what looked like a little dirt walking track heading into the bush. Turns out that was the road that we had programmed into the GPS for the day. Given how cold and wet we were, and knowing how slippery the clay tracks were going to be we decided to skip it and stick to the freeway.
As we continued to climb the roads went from bitumen to gravel and eventually to dirt (mud). I suspect the scenery would have been spectacular that day as we were riding up amongst limestone cliffs but we couldn’t see anything for the low-level cloud and I wasn’t game to bring the camera out while it was raining so heavily.
Much of the road was under construction however we did come across this very impressive new bridge that had only recently opened up. I couldn’t resist taking a few photos so I delicately balanced a waterproof dry pack over the top of the camera and tried to keep it out of the shot.
As we continued on past the bridge the roads got worse and worse and the dirt construction zones more frequent. You always had to be careful on the small patches of bitumen that were there as you’d just get up a little speed and then find mid corner that the road turned to lose gravel again.
At one point we came to a bank up of cars on a section of dirt road and assumed it was a one way section through a works zone and they were just waiting for cars to come the other way. How wrong we were. In fact a good 400m section of the road had been covered by a mud slide that had deposited mud about 2 foot deep across the whole road. One of the Hilux’s had tried to cross it only to find themselves well and truly stuck about 100m in. It was quite a site with 6 or 8 guys jumping on the back of the truck trying to give it some traction while the wheels continued to spin, spraying mud everywhere and only burying him deeper. Given we had off-road tires on the bikes unlike many of the scooter waiting in the line, we thought we’d give it a go.
The mud was so deep and so soft that it made for one hell of a ride. It was all about keeping the power down and not stopping no matter what. Once the bikes started to slide you just had to go with it and hope you’d find something solid to get traction on before hitting one of the embankments either side. I’d left the Bluetooth communications open with Shaun who was following behind me and boy was it a laugh listening to the grunting and occasional “oh sh!t” as he made his way up. Jarrod and I eventually made it to the top and out of the mud only to realise Shaun was nowhere to be seen. He’d stopped. Thankfully for him two of the locals who were trying to get the Hilux moving jumped off and gave him a push despite knowing they were going to wear a face full of mud once he put the power down. A few minutes later he joined us at the top and we’d made it. The only other vehicle that we saw make it through was one of the little tractor things I pointed out on the day 1 post. He just chugged along at about 5km/h and made it through no worries.
Not far past the mud slide and back on a newly laid bitumen section Jarrod had his closest near miss of the trip. I think possibly just relieved to be back on solid road he was standing on the pegs adjusting himself on an empty and wide open section of road and nearly ran into the only vehicle in site (a truck parked on the side of the road). Thankfully he must have seen something out of the corner of his eye and swerved at the last second.
After stopping to collect himself for a minute or two we set off again only to run into another mudslide about 20 minutes later. This time a truck had tried to make it through a steep and narrow section and buried itself, blocking the entire road to all but us on our dirt bikes. Even worse news was that the only bit of earth moving equipment in sight was on the uphill side of the truck when it needed to be on the other side if it stood any chance of dragging it out. This had caused a major bank up of traffic on both sides and we got a frustrated wave from a bunch of tourist who had chosen to get out in the rain over staying on their bus that clearly wasn’t going anywhere any time soon. Despite the small seats that weren’t made for long distance riding this was one day we all really appreciated having dirt bikes.
We filled up the bikes just short of town and made it into Luang Prabang about 2pm. Soaked, freezing and with puddles in our boots, but still in better shape than most who had attempted the road that day. We pulled into the edge of town and agreed to just find the first reasonably priced hotel and get out of our riding gear and into some dry clothes.
We pulled into the Luang Prabang Legend Hotel (probably a little up market for us but we didn’t care) and after a little haggling we got two rooms for US$65 each.
I felt a little bad checking into these rooms as everything was pristine and white and here we are covered head to toe in mud and with everything soaked. Thankfully they let us use their garden hose to wash off most of the mud before we stripped down and went inside. We hung our gear and boots outside and gave what could be washed to the staff for laundry to be ready the next morning.
Once thawed out and in a dry set of clothes we took off to explore the town.
First stop was one of the many fruit shake stands we you’ll see in Luang Prabang. While I went for the standard mix of fruits, Jarrod tried the banana and Oreo shake and I must admit it was so good I ordered one a little later on as well.
Next stop was food. We passed this tiny little noodle stall on the entrance to an alley and given its popularity figured it was worth a shot. For 10,000kip (~$1.40) we each got a big bowl of pork “Noodle Shoup” and it was delicious.
After filling up we wandered further into town to check out the temple we’d seen on the way in that was perched high above the middle of Luang Prabang. Taking one look at the 300 steps up to the top of Mount Phousi, Shaun decided he was waiting down the bottom while Jarrod and I paid the 20,000 kip entry fee and started the long trek up.
The view from the top looks over both the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers that border the town of Luang Prabang.
After taking a good 40 minutes to get up and down we met Shaun back at the entrance and decided it was time to find a beer. The main restaurant strip of Luang Prabang along Sisavangvong Road reminded me very much of Hoi An in Vietnam. There is a lot of character to the buildings that have all been tastefully renovated to incorporate a huge selection of bars and restaurants without making it look too commercial.
We wandered the length of the street looking for a good place for a beer and settled on Opera Bar which had a few tables out on the street so we could enjoy a cold Beer Lao and watch the world go by. By the time we finished our beers and finished getting stuck into Jarrod over his comment the night before that we didn’t need to worry about the rain, the street had turned into a busting night market. There wasn’t a square inch of road or footpath that wasn’t covered by one of the tents. All of them had steel cross bars at about 6 foot high which for a 6’6″ guy meant my head received quite a bruising that night.
Incredibly colourful and with just about any souvenir you can think of this is definitely the place to shop. Always after a spare singlet top or t-shirt to wear under the riding gear, I picked up a few singlets for 15,000 kip ($2.15) and a t-shirt for 20,000 kip ($2.90) which was about half the price of the Vientiane night markets.
As we reached the end of the markets we found a busy little laneway full of food stalls. It doesn’t seem to have a name but if you’re walking along Sisavangvong Road back towards Inthasome Rd it’s the second last laneway on the right. The colours and aromas of this little laneway were just incredible.
We ended up stopping at one of the all you can eat places you can see in the photo above. For 10,000 kip ($1.40) you could fill a dinner plate with as much as you wanted of any of the dishes above. The food all looked very fresh and given how many people were eating there it seemed relatively safe. I’m not going to say I loved every dish I tried that night but for 10,000 kip you can’t go wrong.
Shaun trying to figure out what 10,000 kip looks like.
After dinner we decided to check out the nightlife of Luang Prabang and went looking for a place to have a few cold beers and maybe play a bit of pool. We ended up on Phousi Road in the bar district and after a quick read on Trip Advisor found ourselves at Hive Bar and Restaurant. What a great choice it was. While it didn’t have a pool table, the beer garden out the back was a buzz with a mixed crowd of older tourists and younger backpackers. Every half an hour they have a show on the multiple stages and the night we were there it was some local break dancers. We got a table front and centre and with a tower of beer Lao and some wedges we settled in to watch a couple of shows.
Once the beer tower was empty we continued on in search of a pool table. Unfortunately every bar that had a pool table also seemed to have overpriced drinks so while we did find one or two we didn’t hang around for long. We did have a great foosball tournament with some of the staff at one of the bars (I can’t remember the name as we hit quite a few that night). We ended up at Lao Lao beer garden for a couple of cocktail buckets to end the night but once it started raining we decided it was time to head home.
All in all it was a great place to have a bit of fun and forget about the miserable days ride we had earlier. We were back at the hotel by 1am and ready for another early start the next day on the way up to Vieng Thong.