It was a different Luang Prabang to the one I’d left just over two weeks ago. Then I’d driven to the airport on a motorbike with my friend, Angelique, riding pillion before waving goodbye as I boarded a flight to see my parents for Christmas in Hanoi. Having cycled seriously hard over the preceding weeks to make it here on time, this adventurous side trip felt all the sweeter. The same skies looked a little less blue now though, a consequence of the constant emotional ebb and flow of solo travel that I have come to know well.
Back at the same hostel as before, now full of new faces occupying familiar spaces on the cushioned decking floor. I took my spot, mulling over how nice the past two weeks had been. A proper detox from the constant state of flux associated with the bike, yet a ‘retox’ of beer and fatty foods I had been craving for many weeks. I could sit back all day and reminisce, but this trip has taught me to always look forward and live in the present. Get on up and talk to some new people.
Over the next few days I had the pleasure of meeting some amazing people out on that cushioned decking. A space I rarely moved from over the following three days. Not yet out of my mental slumber, I didn’t fancy anymore exploring, instead opting for some writing and kicking off my new year’s resolution of taking better care of my bike.
The day before I was due to leave, I found out that to cross the Vietnamese border I would need a full 30-day Vietnamese visa in my passport as opposed to the acceptance letter I had previously thought. This entailed a trip to the embassy and subsequent wait for the visa to be processed. After my initial concern that I would never leave Luang Prabang – growing ever older on those comfy cushions with lofty future ambitions of becoming part of the hostel furniture there – it turned out they were able to do next day visa turnarounds. The only hitch was they were closed today. Well that was that, another day here, a night market full of great street food, another long evening chatting around firepits over a few cold ones – I could hardly complain.
I felt ready to hit the road the following morning however. First up, a quick drop by the embassy to pick up my passport before getting on my way. It felt good to be back on the bike. No messing about with taxis, no walking around for hours, just me and the road again. The wind now in my both my hair and figurative sails, I was ready for a few days in the mountains – or so I thought. My lungs soon began burning after the first hour of climbing with my legs no longer feeling their usual elastic selves. Two lead weights pumping the cranks were the result of three weeks eating away from the bike. I closed out the day a few miles off the summit of the second climb, opting to camp on what little land there was next to the roadside. Just after rustling up the Laos special of egg fried instant noodles, a storm quickly rolled in. I pegged the tent down as the first drops of what would be a fairly miserable two days of rain began to patter down. Packing up a wet tent to start riding into the deluge is never an exciting prospect, but 23 years of living in the UK had prepared me well for such an event.
There was no rest bite from the weather all day, so I was happy to find an empty wooden hut just before darkness fell. Atop a small hill raised away from the prying eyes of drivers, it may as well have been a 5-start hotel. Protected from the storm outside, I hung out my wet belongings and snuggled up in my sleeping bag feeling quite content with how things had worked out.
When sleeping in an ‘abandoned’ building there is always a slight feeling of trepidation that you will be discovered. Every car that stopped below the hut would cause me to wake, thinking, this must be the owner. As the trip has progressed, I’ve grown more calm about this, after all, a poor hut owner would probably be terrified to wander into their hut to find a torch beam in their face from a strange smelly cyclist sleeping in there. That night however, I was slightly more on edge than usual. After the initial edginess had subsided, I was able to get some kip before I woke to the sound of screaming. A blood curdling scream. It sounded like a woman was just outside the door. Immediately iages of the woman from the ring being illuminated by a flash of lightening rushed through my head. In a moment of pure terror I switched on my headtorch and pocketed my pen knife before creeping toward the open door frame. Before I reached it, an engine fired up along with more screaming. The whole thing had come from truck full of pigs that had decided to stop for the driver to have a wee! Bloody pigs frightened the life out of me!
The following the morning felt fresh. The rain had subsided and a break in the clouds revealed a dramatic shark-tooth mountain ridgeline. Happy not be rained on, I spent the morning riding over the remaining lumps and bumps to Vang Vieng on the valley floor. The place is a small riverside town with a jaded history as an infamous backpacker party hotspot. Hordes of travellers float down the river on tractor inner tubes everyday, stopping off at various bars as they meander on down. At its peak there were 50 bars on route serving everything from beer to opium to magic mushroom shakes. The authorities ended up shutting down 47 of those bars after 20 Aussies died in the river over a period of 12 months.
After arriving in my hostel I had a pleasant surprise to find most of the people I had been hanging out with in Luang Prabang were there. Also, that they were all tubing down the river the next day – although the set up has changed to 3 bars strictly serving alcohol only. The following day we all geared up to hit the river. Jumping on to red tubes with a beer in hand, this relaxing yet boozy journey took us about 6 hours in total with the bar stops and turned out to be a real good laugh. Health and safety is definitely not a thing in Laos and it was easy to see how it all went wrong before. People were ripping their swimming trunks on hidden rocks and smashing into rusty metal bridge supports. That afternoon though, we all made it through relatively unscathed. I made some more good friends, forgot all about cycling and started to feel more like a backpacker for the first time.
As far as I can make out, the backpacker life consists of drinking, excruciatingly long bus journeys, bartering with tuk-tuk drivers and some more drinking. It’s far too social for me. Knowing this, I can be sure I wouldn’t have been able to backpack for as long as I have cycled. Besides spending far more money when not on the saddle, I love that gritty challenge of hauling a ridiculously heavy bike over high mountains. The sheer inconvenience of it all, the smile of local lady farmer as she watches you puffing and panting over the brow of a hill. It’s a look of understanding that transcends all language barriers. That look gets you eating around the family dinner table that evening or sleeping in the guest room. It all derives from seeing you’re a bit of a plonker who’s masochistic tendencies have led them to seek an escapade of great discomfort. After a year of this on the road, I’ve recently found I understand a lot more about myself, why I think the way I do and what led me to undertake this trip. I don’t know why it took me so long to reach this point of clarity, but it felt significant. One significant by product of all this rambling is that I know I can only keep up the true backpacker façade for a few days before I long for the road again.
A few days of exploring caves, bars and rivers from the vantage of a tractor inner tube, I was feeling the need to get moving again. The problem with all this was that I couldn’t move. My left elbow and knee had completely seized up, causing me excruciating pain just to get out of bed in the morning. The product of a particularly jarring pothole experienced driving back from tubing meant I was having to add more days to my stay, acting like 90 year old for those days. Staying in a party hostel when you are unable to dance or get about is a prison like experience. Besides my daily walk to the river, I would end up spending most of my time glued to a boxy dorm bunk bed with revellers constantly coming and going from the room. I had become the weird guy who stays in when every night is a night out. Essentially I had been found out, the façade now a translucent veil of its former self.
Maybe it was what I needed, no more excuses. I had a chilled evening out with all the friends I’d gathered over the past week in Laos and even making plans to meet new ones in months to come. It felt like a nice send off, he was heading back to Australia the following day and I would be properly starting the big cycle to Saigon.
On what was my third ‘final night’ at the hostel, a big Aussie lad burst through the door to my room beaming from ear to ear. It was Oscar. We had met just after New Year’s in Hoi An before getting a flight to Hanoi together where we became close friends over the span of just a few days. It was such a surprise to see him that I even managed to move from my bed to give him a hug. Word had got round that there was a mad British guy who had cycled from the UK to here and he knew that it had to be me. My excuses of bad joints fell of deaf ears when explaining why I wasn’t at the bar – he would carry me if he had to.
The next morning my joints still hurt but unlike the two previous days, I got on the bike all the same and cycled out of town. No matter how strong my intentions were to leave, the pain of cycling nearly made me turn back immediately. The vibrations through the bike when riding the mud sections of the road hurt so much that I could only make it across my riding one handed. I looked ridiculous and felt stupid that I was likely causing myself more damage. To make things a bit more interesting, one of my chain links decided to seize up, meaning I was constantly slipping gears. I tried all the usual tricks, even resorting to reading my cycle maintenance book at the side of the road to work out what to do. After breaking the chain and removing the link with my one hand I was able to ride the rest of the 100 miles to Vientiane.
Arriving in the capital I noticed that I had been riding with both hands for the last couple of hours. A quick stretch revealed the horrible seizing pain had miraculously subsided. Completely counterintuitively I was now free to do things like a normal human being.
That night I decided to check into the same hostel as Oscar so I could turn the table on his little appearing act the previous night. After him taking a five-hour bus to get here, the cripple riding a bike was the last thing he was expecting to walk through his door. He loved it and we went out for a chilled meal to celebrate his actual last night of holiday and me being able to move my arm again.
Slightly buoyed that things seemed to picking up after my more than sluggish start to the year, I rode the main road out of town after seeing Oscar off. The next two days were pretty much carbon copies that involved cycling into a nasty headwind. After a particularly draining day I decided to treat myself by checking into a little guesthouse for the night. Whilst cooking up my usual egg and noodles outside my front door I began to suspect something odd was going on next door. Two women had turned up on a motorbike and were soon joined by a man. The age difference combined with an unfamiliarity obvious from their body language showed none of them were together. They were awkwardly waiting at the open door, unsure whether to go inside together with me sitting there. It started to become incredibly obvious what was going on here, they were prostitutes. I hurriedly polished off my noodles before packing up my stove so they could get on with it – brilliant. Headphones now firmly in, I noticed the man leave before another arrived. Oh bloody hell, it turned out I’d ended up lodging next to a flippin’ brothel!
After that amusing escapade, I unsurprisingly I opted to camp for the remainder of my nights in Laos. The roads began wind around the mountainside again, making for fun riding between the protruding limestone cliffs that make up the ‘limestone forest’. Over the next days I found beautiful rock pools to swim in and even introduced some locals to the joys of Kendal mint cake. Quickly I felt back in my element again. Cycling and camping – the new peas and carrots.
Soon I summitted my final climb of sunny Laos to enter into cloudy Vietnam. This was a big moment, my 30thcountry of the trip (I don’t count my Christmas detour!). 30 countries I’ve cycled through since leaving home, it just sounds crazy! Despite the weather I was a very happy chappy after successfully crossing the border, which entailed starting my descent into the valley. Rolling around one hairpin I heard a huge rumble overhead. The rumble continued on and on – much longer than thunder. It was a rockfall. As I rounded the corner I saw huge boulders coming to a standstill across the road in front of me. A man in a car just a few meters from the fall slowly opened his door before locking his wide eyes with mine. After a few seconds he began screaming and manically dancing around the road like he’d won the lottery – I guess in a morbid way really had.
Some of the rocks themselves were the size of a small car. They easily smashed the concrete barrier to pieces, pushing what remained of it into the valley below. Any bike, car or lorry would have been toast. I watched for any more falling rocks until I decided to cross the debris before the road would be shut down. Taking my bags off the bike I could work my way over the rocks to the other side. After two runs, literal runs, I had got my bike and everything across. Whilst I was loading my panniers back onto my bike a load more rocks peppered the road where I’d just been. Shit, I was so lucky. By now some Vietnamese army personnel had turned up, no one was getting through here until it was clear. Judging by the size of the rocks, that might not be until late that night. Counting my lucky stars, I bombed downhill to cheap guesthouse where I lay down just taking everything in.
My 30thcountry, the rockfall, the friends I had made in Laos and the fact that tomorrow would be my one-year anniversary on the road. A whole year since I cycled out of my garage into the January morning’s rain. I will never forget that day, the whole world awaiting me on the road ahead, yet I couldn’t even make it 30 miles into London before my bike fell apart. Here I was, literally on the other side of the world. I checked the map, if I cycled 100 miles the next day I would be on the coast, the coast that led straight onto the Pacific Ocean. That coast signalled no more land to the east, I would have reached the edge of the Eurasia landmass. That just felt right – I had to do it. Cycling 100 miles took me from mountains to forests to stunning rice paddies broken up by protruding limestone cliffs. As darkness fell, I had done it, at the end of the street was the sea. The first ‘real’ sea (I’m not counting the Black or Caspian seas!) since leaving the UK.
There was something magical, cyclical and unreal about riding along the coastline the following morning. I had opted for a monster ride to kick off my second year on the road. 130 miles to the city of Hue. Luckily, I had a tailwind gently pushing me southwards over the smooth tarmac. Unfortunately, it began to rain, hard. Seven hours of constant downpour and two punctures later (twice the number I had the whole of last year) I was still five miles away from my hostel. Pushing my bike through large puddles with a flat tyre between the manic traffic I was seriously fed up. Completely soaked I got out my pump to try and limp the bike the last few miles. I took a wrong turning down a one-way bridge, finding myself now further away from my hostel. At this point I could feel the tyre deflating in tune with my morale.
I eked the last out of the remaining air before resorting to pushing once again. Streets of packed bars provided an unwanted audience for my public misery. I couldn’t find the place, my phone was wet so I struggled to use the screen whilst everyone watched me walk back and forth up the road in a desperate search for shelter. Thinking back, this reminded me of a particularly miserable day cycling from London to Kent at the start of this trip. Actually, that day was exactly one year ago – clearly this misery was meant to be. Eventually I found the hostel which was located down a small side street, only to find they were fully booked. It was okay though, the lady said the Ibiza Guesthouse had one free bed… At this point I would have paid any money for a private room at an expensive hotel, I was completely done with cycling. The thought of being in another party hostel, surely the Ibiza guesthouse was one of those, did not appeal.
It turned out to be right next door, a lovely old lady at the front desk took one look at me whilst shaking her head at the miserable sight I must’ve looked. Her lovely cosy hostel turned out to be world away from any Balearic raves I was imagining just minutes before. A warm shower, dry clothes and a bit of food later and I was laughing about the whole thing. This bike touring thing is great, right…