This section from Huay Xai to Vieng Phu Kha is the forty-second instalment of my bicycle loop through South-East Asia from Yunnan – if all goes according to plan. Titled “Slap the Belgian!”, it is simultaneously published on Crazyguyonabike.com, where you’ll find a map with the itinerary and many other bicycle diaries by me and others. I hope you’ll enjoy.

 With over 120 km and steep hills ahead of me, I deem it a good idea to get up at 6.30. Yesterday’s Beerlao is still in my system but I roll out of bed anyway, pack my bags, and sneak out the door of the empty hotel. The air is pleasantly cool and the sun has just begun peeking over the horizon, giving it a nice purple shade.

Sunrise over Huay Xai
Sunrise over Huay Xai

I get a surprisingly good noodle soup from the little restaurant across from my hotel. It’s only 10,000 kip (€ 0,09) and tastes pretty much exactly like the Pho I had in Vietnam. I’m pleasantly surprised, because I can only remember tasteless and overpriced soups on my last trip to Lao. I also load up on supplies for the day as I have no idea how many shopping opportunities I will encounter on my way. A bar of KitKat, a bottle of coke, a pack of Oreos, four Lactasoys and a little M-150 energy drink.

Thailand's already lit up
Thailand’s already lit up

This is my first real energy drink since the beginning of my trip two months ago. Being injured, I’ve been worried that if I had too much energy, I wouldn’t feel that I’m making it worse. But the problem seems largely gone now, even though I occasionally still feel the tendon playing up when I’m walking stairs.

The first part is relatively easy and slightly undulating. I enjoy the fresh morning air and watch the thick cloud sea that covers the areas around the Mekong evaporate. I’m a bit surprised that I get mostly hellos from the kids, and not the Sabaidees I expect. Luckily this changes as I get further and further away from Huay Xai. People greeting in their own language is always a sign of more self-respect – or more ignorance, but I like it.

A thick cloud sea covers this side of the river
A thick cloud sea covers this side of the river

After 30 km or so, I get to a junction where there’s a tempting road going north to Meung and Xieng Dao on the Mekong river. I’ve been eyeing that option for a while, as I think it’s possible to catch a boat from Xieng Dao to Xieng Kok, which is just 70 km north of Luang Namtha. It would make riding quieter, more interesting and simply more adventurous. But as I have no idea whether there’s a place to sleep and I’m also not sure that there is, in fact, a boat, I decide to go straight and re-visit with a tent some time. For the record, the road to Meung looks good and sealed as far as I can see it.

And a part of Thailand, apparently
And a part of Thailand, apparently

After the junction, it gets more mountainous. A first hill saps my energy and reminds me that I could use a proper day of flats. As a Songthaew full of foreigners speeds by, however, the adrenaline in my body makes me perform for my newfound audience. Somewhere among them, I spot the Dutch couple that has been on my trail since Chiang Khong.

Good about this road is that it’s virtually empty. The only private cars I see are either pickups or, every now and then, a wave of Chinese tourists coming in. Their number plates are from ever remoter regions, I even spotted a Beijing plate. The highlight of my day is when a ?K mianbaoche (bread-loaf car, an ubiquitous and cheap type of van named after its striking resemblance to the food, many struggle to reach 100 km/h even on a downhill) full of country bumpkins shambles past me. Through an open window, a retarded ‘hulloo’ is shouted in my direction. Apparently, travelling is now also hot with the less well-off. I sympathise a lot more with them than with the SUV crowd.

First Chinese sign in Laos immediately refers to the planting of rubber trees.
First Chinese sign in Laos immediately refers to the planting of rubber trees.

Empty, wide roads with good road surface mean that you can fly down at insane speeds. I hit 70 at one point, totally worth the climb! I do have to mess around with my disc brake, though. I hear an annoying chirping coming from my back wheel, and even though it doesn’t slow me down that much, I hate noises. The only one I want to hear when I’m riding is the sound of my knobby tyres howling on the tarmac.

When I finally manage to fix the brake, a spoke in my back wheel pops. This time I decide to go on, the wobble is manageable and I’ll try to replace the spoke myself in Luang Namtha tomorrow night. At least there’s a chance there’s a bike shop around that will be able to assist if I screw up.

Some Yunnan TBZ's (土包子, or country bumpkins) I met on the road. These are Roger and his girl Abbey who live in Kunming.
Some Yunnan TBZ’s (土包子, or country bumpkins) I met on the road. These are Roger and his girl Abbey who live in Kunming.

I spot a lonely Kunming car, parked by the roadside and the driver is just getting something from his trunk. I’m tempted to shout something in Chinese but then realise it’s a foreigner! It is indeed Roger Greenlee, theatre pal from Kunming, and his daughter and wife, returning from the Gibbon experience. Such coincidence! We chat a bit and then I leave them to their lunch. They promise to honk when they spot me.

I’m approaching today’s big climb, which will take me up to 1050m in the seething hot afternoon sun. Another cyclist, a Swedish military engineer, is struggling with the same hills as I am, but obviously hasn’t got 2600 km in his legs like me. I wait at the top for a chat and then go ahead alone.

Views from the 1050 m pass
Views from the 1050 m pass

The ride is in fact very pleasant. I had worse experiences with Laos before. Always overlooking mountain tops and being surrounded by lush forest, only sparsely interspersed by small villages in which the houses are made of woven bamboo mats, I’m really enjoying today’s ride.

I aim at getting in before 4pm, which is going to take a little effort. I miss my target by a minute by stopping for a drink (the only one in the fridge) at a shop where the baby instantly bursts out in tears. I must look really rough.

Views from the 1050 m pass
Views from the 1050 m pass

In Vieng Phou Kha, I ride to the end of town to map all possible guesthouses in my head, as well as to find traces of the Belgians that are supposedly coming this way from Luang Namtha. Haven’t seen them on the road so I figure they must be in this village. Not being able to find them, I just quietly sip on a celebratory can of Beerlao and a bottle of water (which, incidentally, has won a golden medal in Brussels) before returning to a guesthouse.

After paying an exuberant 60,000 kip, I realise the water isn’t hot and the pressure more or less non-existent. They say it’ll be better after 6pm, but I want a shower now. Also, I’ve already drenched my clothes so I’m just writing this while I wait for water. Let me go check!

There’s water now, but no hot water. The pressure is not enough for the heater to kick in, so I spend some time clearing the holes in the shower head so it would allow enough water to flow. When I clear the last hole, the heater finally starts, as long as I keep the shower head beneath my chest. What follows is a painstakingly long shower/washing session.

I’m hungry and go to the restaurant across the street, called Welcome Home. It’s patronised by the Swedish cyclist I met earlier and two other travellers. You apparently have to order at 4 pm to eat at 6 pm so my choice is severely limited: fried meat balls and fried noodles are all I can get. It’s only just enough to fill my stomach, so I knock back a huge Beerlao. It’s what everyone seems to do against hunger here.

Beerlao controls this country. Every establishment that is open to the public has a standardised Beerlao sign. It’s the only beer that has signs. Bottled water is produced by the Lao Beer Company, which makes Beerlao. Beerlao is drunk at every occasion and its bright yellow cases are stacked high in every village. It comes in bottles of 640 ml to ensure that whoever drinks, stays hooked forever. It’s not even that good of a beer, it starts feeling more and more like a means to control the Laotians.

The tab is 45,000 kip (€ 4), almost as much as my rather uncomfortable guesthouse. For € 5, you can get an awesome meal in China that will fill you to the brim. I already know – Laos is expensive and I shouldn’t rant about it. But I don’t fully understand why. I order breakfast take another Beerlao to quell the surging hunger. After today’s unexpectedly pleasant ride, I still don’t like Laos.

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