Like a SE Asian Goa, Vang Vieng offers the constant debauchery that marks any infamous destination on the now well-worn backpacker/hippie/party-people trail. It just doesn't have a beach, nor, frankly, does it even need one. The famed attraction has become, incorrectly but perhaps appropriately, immortalized on t-shirts and tank tops as: "Tubing In The Vang Vieng Laos."
The laid-back charm of Laos is present wherever you travel in the country, but tourism has certainly developed at dramatically different rates. Both the Plain of Jars and Luang Prabang are internationally known historical sites, the key difference between the two is that the latter is a well-established World Heritage site, while the former is an unsolved archeological mystery scattered throughout several rural fields. Traveling by bicycle these two stops on the tourist trail fall within a few days travel of each other, but their differences could not be more apparent.
While a cycling trip through much of four countries can certainly be described as epic, the hill-filled journey from Hanoi to Sam Neua, Laos was undoubtedly the most arduous part. While numerous cyclists follow the main highway from Vientiane to Luang Prabang and back, few choose to enter Laos through its north-eastern back-door. Endless uncompromising mountains stand between the plains around Vietnam's capitol and the small provincial city of Sam Neua, hidden high in the clouds. Covering just under 400km, of which 350km are mountainous, it is a solid six-day ride: four on the Vietnamese side, and the final two in the wilds of Laos.
There's been plenty of discussion about the best way to explore Vietnam's famed Ha Long Bay, and Travel Fish's five-part series definitely examines the most common ways in excellent detail. However, if you're tired of pre-booked tours, cramped buses, and a stressful time-schedule, than travelling independently by bicycle is a truly relaxing way to experience the natural glory of Ha Long. Even still, surprises and mysterious conspiracies seem unavoidable, but being in control of your own destiny is very rewarding in and of itself.
After cycling, sweating, and occasionally slogging through over 1,600km of SE Asian roads, we've experienced more than a few epic rides. While consistently beautiful beaches, the stunning temples at Angkor, and a myriad of rural towns that we've cycled through were all certainly impressive and scenic, it's the challenging hill-climbs that remain the most memorable.
The Saigon sun blasted me awake mid-morning in Pham Ngu Lao, where it was iced coffee with a Laughing Cow omelette for breakfast. The micro-sized chairs looked far less tempting than standing, so a cheesy baguette-in-a-bag was juggled along with a lidless cup of ca phe sua da: easier than it sounds when everything tastes so delicious.
As we planned our ambitious cycling journey of SE Asia, we envisioned the bicycle being our primary, if not only, method of transportation, excluding the occasional ferry trip to an island. After all, the bicycle provides a liberating method of transportation, freeing us from the hassles and costs of trains and buses, allowing us to see rural countryside and bustling city alike at our own pace. Such bold optimism, as we learned even on our first day of riding, doesn't account for a myriad of unanticipated factors: time and visa constraints, weather, distance versus terrain, and even the unexpected kindness of locals.
Lonely Planet, as the centre of the guide industry, has the ability to make or break hotels and restaurants. Even a somewhat casual mention within its hallowed pages can reap untold profits for a business for at least half a decade or so. Publication is comparable to a name-drop within the Bible, so far as the budget travel industry in concerned. But can the LP also engineer tourist attractions, due to its tremendous sway over its captive audience? Three kilometres south of Battambang, Cambodia, lies a small swathe of railway track that encourages exactly that question.
Located along Thailand's east coast, the differences between the sands of Pattaya and Ko Samet are intriguing. Both are tourist destinations in their own right, packed with guesthouses and late-night bars, but it seems the clientele of each is reflected by the very beach itself. Oddly enough, to some capacity these two places of excess -- only 100km apart -- are virtually opposites.
Somehow I found myself on a street corner, eating some sort of ground-meat pseudo-sushi on-a-stick. At well past midnight, with the neon glow of 7-Eleven glaring over me, another glorious Thai day was coming to a close. But before all that can be explained, perhaps the day should be put in proper perspective.
Two opposite worlds exist within Thailand's capital, depending on the presence of the sun. Busy yet relaxed, this city is bustling at all hours. I didn't quite realise the extent of it until I spent 24 hours awake in a city that lacks the desire to sleep. The day began by cruising through the city in the modern, comfortable, affordable (40 baht), and delightfully air-conditioned Bangkok SkyTrain. Thanks to our guesthouse'send-of-the-line location, we were even guaranteed seats, a luxury no longer available at further stops.
My name's Anderson, and I'm about to bicycle across Southeast Asia with my wife and three friends. Over four months, we're going to roll across Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, with no schedule to interfere with the fun. No schedule that is except for my writing a story for Travelfish every Wednesday telling you all how the trip is going. Sounds exciting, exhilarating, and perhaps just a little bit crazy, right? Well, that's what I think, at least. But with a minimum of planning, a pretty tight budget (under US$5,000 per person), and the gumption to give it a go, we'll all be convening in Bangkok this week to begin our odyssey.
Feature story quicklinks
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- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
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