Spending four days in Chiang Mai catching up with my aunt having being on the road for nearly a year was a refreshing recovery. As expected, resting up after a particularly tough 3000km three-week ride, these days just flew by. Too soon it was time to say goodbye, bringing back the usual twinge of sadness whenever seeing off friends or family who are departing from the ‘road’. I don’t wish to be back in the UK right now, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss the familiarity of it all from time to time. Motion is the consistency in my life right now; what’s around the next corner is unknown but what’s clear is that I shall soon be finding out. This curiosity is what keeps me motivated, reaching Sydney is becoming just a rough direction for which corners to take. At first it may seem only minor, but this distinction is something I’ve only recently come to grips with. It’s something I want to focus a bit more on once I no longer have to cover large distances to make places ‘on time’.
Since I had hit my toughest scheduled location to date, I wasn’t ready to get back on the bike quite so soon after my aunt left. Booking myself into a quirky hostel for one night which quickly became three. Hanging out with a different type of traveller was good fun, with us all exploring the mountains on motorbikes before watching some Muai Thai fights over a few beers.
At first I wasn’t sure what I’d make of Thailand – it had got a bad rap from travellers met in slightly more ‘out there’ countries. The country is very well developed for tourism, with all your western amenities at your fingertips it often feels difficult to experience the genuine culture of the country. At this point in time however, I was very much enjoying the comforts surrounding me, knowing I would soon have my adventure fix exploring the remote mountains of northern Laos.
After spending the best part of a week in Chiang Mai I had really grown to like the place. Riding about town I had discovered buzzing districts away from the tourist drag full of quirky coffee shops and bars oozing arty vibes. I got into a habit of visiting this particularly cool place (any café that is built around a tree and has a front door covered in cycling stickers ticks the cool boxes in my books) and writing for a few hours whilst having my bike worked on, again… After that I’d head out with people from the hostel which would begin to heat up as evening drew near before heading out for the night.
As it came time to leave Chiang Mai I was still having problems with my bike shifting. On the first day I had taken apart the brakes, replaced one and fixed the other before fitting a new rear derailleur (after bending the other one falling through a bridge in Myanmar). I decided to get everything checked over as the chain was slipping from one particular chain ring which was bugging me. It turned out this bike shop hadn’t managed to fix this either but had replaced other items instead – the sign of a bad shop. With the bike now fully laden the chain was slipping from numerous rings and there was no way I would make it to Laos like this. I found a good shop out of the main area, spending the morning waiting for him to open up. I ended up swapping out my cassette and front chain rings, both of which I knew eventually needed doing. The guy was real nice, happily tuning out my gear problem for the most part meaning I could now be on my way.
By the time this was all taken care of it was mid-afternoon, so only a shorter ride would be on the cards before darkness fell. Shifting gears was a real joy now with the bike genuinely felt better than I could ever remember. I closed out the evening by rolling over the last section of a climb in the dark before pitching up inside this strange concrete pavilion I found in the forest by the road.
I love the freedom of camping off the bike. Pitching up these bizarre places wondering if you’re going to be caught and told off, then waking up the next day having got away with it. I feel like I’ve somewhat beat the system, a trivial personal triumph of ‘I slept great and didn’t have to pay a penny for that!’ Wheeeeey! The next night however I succumbed to the perils of pitching camp in the dark. I thought I had a spot nailed, under the cover of small trees and out of sight from the road it was looking good. What I didn’t realise however was I’d camped on top of an ant’s nest. To spice up my night a little more I opened the door to the tent inner during the night to try cool down. The result was a lot of bites and eventually turning the headtorch on to see a large part of the tent door was moving with ants.
Slightly disturbed by this ant-led horror show, I knew I wouldn’t be getting any more sleep that night. I decamped my stuff, carefully taking my time to try shake all the damn ants from my tent. I knew I would be finding them in my panniers for a few days to come, so didn’t fancy eating breakfast here and exacerbating the situation. Luckily for me I was in Thailand, home to thousands of 7eleven stores that are ironically open 24/7. Within an hour I’d ridden through a small town and picked myself up a couple of warm toasted sandwiches. Now I was closing in on the Laotian border. Country 29; I was looking forward to taking in the natural beauty I’d heard about from other cyclists, but still retained that little bit of apprehension you have when crossing into a new country for the first time.
After having to chuck my bike on a bus to cross the entirety of the 100m bridge that separated the two countries, I was now in Laos. The difference in wealth was immediately obvious but the people all smiled as I cycled past with young kids running to the road for hi fives. After Thailand I could tell it was going to be a bit of an adventure cycling here.
The main road for the whole region turned out to be a quiet country lane that lead me over a few nice climbs in the afternoon heat. There wasn’t much around other than beautiful views of the rolling jungle and collections of bamboo huts that constitute villages over here. It was one of these I ended up staying in that evening when I excitedly spotted two loaded touring bikes parked up in a school field. Behind the kids playing football was a lovely Spanish couple who were exploring Laos by bike. They had got permission to camp in the field that night and invited me to join them. It was the first time I had camped with anyone else in months and the first time the stove had been used since Pakistan! We had a lovely evening playing football with the kids before cooking dinner followed by a cuppa and bed. I realised I’d missed cooking on my trusty stove. That thing has rustled up some great meals for me from Turkey to Tajikistan. Judging by this afternoon, it looked like it would be rustling up a few more over the coming weeks here too.
Back on the road I was starting to meet more and more tourers. Being so few roads around this northern region, if someone is cycling in the area, you’ll almost certainly be on the same road. I bumped into an Aussie couple who introduced me to worrying world UXO’s. Unbeknownst to me, northern Laos is littered with a huge number of unexploded shells from the Vietnam war, known as UXO’s (unexploded ordinance). In the past few days riding they had found two such items poking out of the ground in the bush. Brilliant. A horrible consequence of the war is that the Americans heavily bombed this area as it was known to be a military route used by the Viet Kong. A lot of the shells remain unexploded in the ground and are often set off by animals or humans unwittingly stepping on them. Being someone with a tendency to run off into the forest in the dark to camp, I was damn glad to have heard this early on.
The next few days were mainly uneventful but good fun cycling. The atmosphere in Laos is lovely and I could just appreciate having the road to myself. Afternoons spent working my way up lovely winding mountain roads, riding the sunny ridgelines before descending on the surprisingly smooth tarmac. It wasn’t long before I had worked my way around the majority of the road to Luang Prabang. Amusing evenings were spent watching locals transfixed to my camping stove whilst I cooked dinner. The whole thing was complete wizardry to them. Leaving my spot in a petrol station complete with its stove-loving attendants, I summited what was to be my last climb of 2018. A beautiful view from the top closed out what had been many unforgettable summit skies from the year gone by. Despite the pain involved in climbing them, I love being in the mountains. If it’s sunny they can be beautifully calm and if not, well, you’re not going to be bored. I vowed to eek them out more so over the next year’s riding.
It’s quite amazing to think back at what a year it has been. Now only one day away from Luang Prabang, my final destination of 2018, I was already reminiscing. Here I had planned to leave the bike until returning in the New Year. I followed a beautiful riverside road between huge limestone outcrops before deciding to stop for dinner in a wooden diner by the river. The place had these small wooden sheds complete with straw roofs and wooden chairs and tables inside. You could sit there and eat your food with a view of the river, or, if you’re a cycle tourist, you could ask to sleep in one. It was already dark and the place was completely dead, so I didn’t feel bad asking if I could roll out my sleeping bag soon. The lady kindly agreed, making me excited to have a somewhat proper abode that night.
I was still finishing my dinner when a large group of locals entered the restaurant and excitedly fired up the karaoke… I was tired and not in the mood but I soon came round after being invited me to join them. It turned into a hilarious night in the bar with me being introduced to seemingly every local Laotian in the area and invited for breakfast the following day. We danced about this little place for hours to this strange local music they were singing along to – it was just one of those ‘pinch yourself, what is going on here’ moments. Eventually I retreated to my hut but even more people kept on arriving, keeping music coming until the wee hours of the morning. I didn’t care I couldn’t sleep, this was the real Laos, and I was now part of it.
The following morning I rode the 20 miles into Luang Prabang where I checked into my hostel. That was it, my last ride of 2018. Truthfully, I had been feeling ready for a couple of weeks off the bike for a while now. My parents were due to fly into Hanoi the following day where I was set to join them for the Christmas period. Until my flight however, I was feeling more than content to kick back with people in the hostel to see a bit of Luang Prabang. I explored the night market there with some new friends found at the hostel, gorging ourselves on a £1 all you can eat buffet of street food.
Luang Prabang is famous for it beautiful waterfalls, the most famous of which is the Kuang Si. Not one to sit about, I decided to rent out a motorbike, with my friend hopping on the back before we went rode off for a day of exploring. The waterfall was easily the most beautiful I’d ever seen and complete with natural pools for swimming and rope swings. After an obligatory swim and swing, we found a tucked away spot where four local lads were fishing with these homemade harpoon guns. An afternoon hanging out in this quiet oasis watching them rack up an impressive aquatic bounty was just perfect. The sun had burnt through the clouds by this point, making for a dreamy ride back to the hostel.
Riding along the small country lanes flanked by hedgerows reminded me very much of home. A home that had come to me in more ways than one as my flight left for Hanoi for that evening. Riding to the airport on the bike, I was getting excited. Entering the city in the dark, the streets were just teeming with life and crazy traffic – I was already warming to the place. Catching up with Mum and Dad over endless street food complemented with local beer made it even better. We spent Christmas on a boat in Ha long bay, kayaking between the huge limestone cliffs but will certainly be a family memory we’ll be talking about for years to come. It was a welcome world away from the bike.
Whilst in the city I got a message from an old school friend saying she had seen I was in Hanoi and had just flown in herself. It was crazy to catch up for the first time in years on the other side of the world here in Vietnam. Feeling spontaneous, I decided to book a cheap flight down the coast to Hoi An to spend New Year’s Eve with her and her group of friends. Already I could feel myself switching to backpacker mode – nowhere is too far and planes are really easy… It was soon time to say goodbye to Mum and Dad, we’d had one of our best family holidays exploring Hanoi and the surrounding islands. They were off home whilst I was heading down the coast, it was time to be a traveller. Some great people and good times awaited down there; a dodgy boat party where two people fell through the floor of the old wooden boat kicked off what would be a memorable new year’s. Fireworks over the river of the colonial French centre rained down on jubilant backpackers who wouldn’t emerge from until late the following day.
Exploring Hanoi and Hoi An had brought a welcome social side to my trip, but after five full on days I was ready to return back to the bike. I realised this was the first time on my travels I didn’t have a set date to be anywhere. I could go where I wanted to go, whenever I fancied being there – freedom. Waiting to board my propellered plane to Laos, I got a message from Luang Prabang asking if I fancied seeing in the Chinese New Year in Ho Chi Min…? Perhaps ‘freedom’ could wait for now.