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Landing in Luang Prabang

We arrived in Luang Prabang just as the sun was rising.

The many delays on our bus ride had unexpectedly worked in our favor, delaying the journey long enough to put us in right at sunrise, rather than at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. Once again, we were the last off the bus, taking a bit of time to rustle ourselves. By this point, the cycles and our bags were laying on the dusty earth, under the careful guard of the driver, who was chain-smoking cigarettes nearby.

We collected our things and retired to a small cafe about 20 meters away, across the gravel floor of the bus station. We sent Stew a text message. I knew that the fellow was not much for sleeping, but at 6:00 am,  everyone deserves the common courtesy of SMS. In the meantime, we procured a couple cups of Lao-style coffees and a baguette sandwich, filled with omelet.

Thanking the French again for their delightful cultural additions to Lao, we scarfed these down and climbed on the cycles.

Stewart, we knew, had a hotel in mind. He had a fair amount of Guanxi with a local place by the name of View Khem Khong, so rather than check in at a guest house, we decided to nest for a bit in an Internet cafe and wait for him to get back to us. We reached one just as they were finishing breakfast and starting up the computers. No sooner had we sent word to our loved ones that arrival in Lao had been successful, than Stew called my Lao number.

He was awake and, it seems, even on a cycle already. We paid for our Internet and headed off to rendezvous. It was not long before I saw Stew’s telltale shoulder-length hair blowing in the wind.

He was wearing a Lao style hat that could easily have been confused for a Rastafarian cap, and wore a beard. He rode a rental bicycle, with a large basket on the front, huge somewhat mangled fenders, and an intermittent squeaking problem.

Once warm regards had been exchanged, we made our way to the View Khem Khong. The owner was a roly-poly woman, just gushing with friendly smiles and eagerness to make our stay more comfortable. With the Lao New Year, what they call “Pi Mai Lao” impending, the prices for rooms were on a schedule to sky rocket in this city. Thanks to Stewart’s good relationships, we managed to lock in a relatively low price for the next few days. With our things safely stashed in the room, we retired to the restaurant across the street from the View Khem Khong.

The restaurant was perched on a kind of balcony deck looking out over the Mekong river. Even with this 50-year record drought, the river was still quite impressive, and if only the billowing smoke that filled the air would clear, we could have seen majestic jungled hills and a village across the water. Here, as they had been in the north of Thailand, the farmers were burning their fields in preparation for the next planting. However, in Luang Prabong, I believe the smoke was even thicker, because just over the hills that we could periodically make out through the smoke across the river, they were also burning the jungle to create new farmland.

We were finishing coffee with Stew when he informed us that his professional obligations were about to kick in, and he would need to leave us. You see, dear reader, Stewart was not in Luang Prabang strictly on AsiaWheeling business, he was also helping to conduct an internship program for his other current employer, Where There be Dragons, or as he refers to it, “Dragons.”

So with Motta gone on other business, it was time to explore the general region in the best way we know: wheeling.

First we took a general look at the center of Luang Prabang. There appeared to be plenty of tourists here, and with the number of hotels and restaurants that could support themselves, it was likely a year-round state of affairs. Even with preparations for the New Year celebration underway, the city felt sleepy and quiet.

And it only got sleepier and quieter as we wheeled out of town and into the countryside.

Soon all dissolved into agricultural fields and swaths of jungle. We could just barely make out through the dense smoke that we were riding amidst a great many steep hills.

The landscape continued to awe us, offering incredible biodiversity interspersed with agricultural land.  In the lower right-hand corner of the image below, you can see two water buffalo in the river.

From time to time as we rode, children would run up to us from a farmhouse and splash us with water, or a farm woman would spray us with a hose.

The New Year was still some days off, but people were already getting into the spirit, and two silly looking foreigners on strange bicycles were the perfect excuse to kick things off a little early. We attempted to follow signs to a waterfall, but when the road became very poor, we began to tire of being rattled. Although the Speed TRs appeared to be loving it, we were fearing a bit for their ceaseless vibration as well.

Back in town, we stopped at a collection of shops overlooking a giant goods market and what looked like a country fair below.

We ordered two iced coffees, which were made in the same way we had seen in Thailand with espresso as the base and plenty of sweetened condensed milk. We sipped them while we surveyed the various goods for sale.

Not long ago, Scott had lost his cell phone charger… perhaps in the cozy confines of Steve’s room (may that man’s beard grow ever longer). So when we found a group of Chinese merchants selling the same kind of universal battery chargers we had seen during our wheel across the Chao Phraya, we decided to enter into negotiations.

After purchasing the charger, it was time to make friends. Once Scott disclosed to these men that he spoke Chinese and presented them with AsiaWheeling business cards, we became quite popular with most of the Chinese goods sellers in the market. We even allowed one of the more senior fellows to take the Speed TR out for a spin.

He got off the cycle and pointed at the rear derailleur, explaining that this was the secret to the bicycle, the reason why it goes so fast. The other fellows in the group sagely nodded. With that done, it seemed it was time to get back on the cycles, and so we did, bidding our new Chinese friends goodbye and heading back into town.

That evening Motta took us to a rather fancy Lao restaurant, owned by a French Canadian woman. The restaurant was across a river from our guest house – not the Mekong, but a smaller tributary. Each year the locals build a bamboo bridge across the river, and each year during the rainy season the bridge is destroyed by the rushing water.

We were to wheel to the bridge and lock our bikes there. Night was falling, and we were quite hungry. We met up with Stew, and climbed on our cycles. Not long into the ride, while I was riding anti-bishop, a small Lao boy appeared out of nowhere and dumped a bucket of water onto Motta and Scott. This caused a mild loss of control that ended up intertwining their two handlebars. Helplessly tangled, the two knights fell, bikes clattering and bodies rolling into the street.

There was no traffic and so no real danger of them being hit by cars. Both rose to their feet again. Scott was essentially unharmed; Motta bore a few scratches on his arms. Scott’s bike, on the other hand, appeared to have suffered a minor misalignment of the front wheel. No problem here, though;  truing a wheel should not be a huge issue in this part of the world, so we planned to do it tomorrow. In the meantime, we disengaged Scott’s front wheel giving the rim room to wobble without slowing us down, and headed to dinner.


  1. BB | May 4th, 2010 | 10:52 am

    Wow! It’s Stew! Keep up the interesting posts!

  2. Woody | May 4th, 2010 | 9:53 pm

    @ BB
    The one and only… Thanks for reading BB!

  3. Mark/Dad | May 8th, 2010 | 2:14 pm

    Nice to see Mr. Motta again. In these days of global climate change concerns, the omnipresent smoke from burning jungle (and perhaps fields too) is disconcerting.

  4. Woody | May 8th, 2010 | 8:51 pm

    @ Mark/Dad
    Burning agricultural waste from the fields is also a big part of the smoke issue, as well. I am sorry if I did not make that clear. We did see plenty of burning jungles at night though. Haunting stuff. I wonder how ok with it all the locals are?

    Sure does make a good ambient diffuse light for photography, though.

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