A Cycling Tour Along the Mekong River

Cycling along the Mekong

On its 4,500-kilometer journey from Tibet to the South China Sea, the Mekong River touches the shores of China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Halfway through this passage, it forms the border between Laos and Thailand for nearly 1,000 kilometers. Cycling along quiet back roads that follow the river's course through the rugged northeast of Thailand, one can savor the serene power of this legendary waterway. The surroundings vary from dense jungle to rich agricultural land, punctuated by peaceful villages, long-established towns and bustling provincial capitals, all of which owe their existence the river. At the end of a long day's pedaling, one can be assured of simple but pleasant accommodation in small hotels and bungalows found in the towns that seem to have been magically placed a day's ride apart. Add to that an evening meal of superb local cuisine, and you have a uniquely Thai version of a Loire Valley cycling tour.

The Mekong forms a natural geographical division between Laos and Thailand. At times, it has formed the entire boundary between the two countries, but at present Lao territory extends to both sides of the river in the northwest and the south of Laos. This deviation from the logical geographical barrier dates from the early 20th century when the Thai King Chulalongkorn, also known as Rama V, was forced by the French to surrender a large chunk of Thai territory on the left bank of the Mekong to French-ruled Laos. Wisely choosing to bend rather than break, he made this concession, and kept Thailand as the only Southeast Asian country to remain independent in the age of European colonization. The territory ceded to France in the north is now the Lao province of Sayabouri. After a short run forming the border from the Golden Triangle where Thailand, Laos, and Burma meet, the Mekong re-enters Lao territory before emerging into Thai view once again near the town of Tha Li in the Northeastern Thai province of Loei.

I undertook this trip independently, accompanied by a good friend and cycling partner, but I had previously done this and other rides with the guidance and logistical support of Asia Biking, a Chiang Mai based company which specializes in adventure tours. Asia Biking can arrange this itinerary, and many others, upon request.

We begin our cycling adventure in the provincial capital of Muang Loei. About 50 kilometers south of the Mekong, it is an agreeable starting point far from any manifestations of modern day globalized life in Thailand. Not a Big Mac or mega-mall in sight. To warm up for our impending ride, we decide to sample the riding potential in the hills around Loei. A short distance outside of town we discover a trail along the Loei River where bananas, chili peppers, and papaya are growing, and then loop back towards town over a ridge of hills covered with tamarind orchards. Dinner is the local specialty of laap, a dish made from minced meat flavored with a mixture of spices and served with a salad of mint, cabbage, and green beans. Low fat, high-powered food for the saddle time to begin the next day...

In the cool morning mist, we attach our panniers (as cyclists call the bags attached to a rack above the rear wheel which carry our gear) and pedal north towards the river. This ride will last over a week, so we need some extra clothing and other supplies, but, as in backpacking, keeping the load light is paramount. We are riding mountain bikes, not the larger-wheeled touring bikes Europeans use for long rides. While a bit slower, they are more suited to Thai road conditions, especially when an unpaved side trail beckons. Spare parts for this type of bicycle are more readily available in the event of, say, an exploded tire. For a long ride like the one we are starting, cycling gloves, a helmet or good sun hat, and cycling shorts with a posterior pad are all good ideas.

A few kilometers north of Loei, we turn right towards the town of Tha Li, following a sign reading "Luang Prabang, 418 kilometers." A new bridge has just been completed near Tha Li, which crosses the Hueng River into Laos. All vestiges of a morning rush hour disappear as we negotiate the small hills leading towards the Mekong. A mixture of orchards and forest growth line the road. Although our climb is not steep, we are surrounded by the mountains of Laos to the north, and in Phu Rua National Park to the west. Loei is a mountainous province, but even the flat areas are cool this time of year, one reason it is home to Chateau de Loei, Thailand's premier winery.

After a final climb, we descend into a deforested and dusty valley to Tha Li. Long known as an unofficial port of entry for goods from Laos, it makes Loei seem cosmopolitan. The new bridge into Laos seems likely to increase the traffic through Tha Li, but as we pedal past lumberyards and tawdry bars, it appears that for the moment the bridge is largely a conduit for Lao wood entering Thailand. A visit to the Thai Immigration Office located in an air-conditioned trailer parked in deserted field informs us that it is possible for foreigners to cross into Laos here, provided they hold a valid Lao visa. No foreign motor vehicles can enter here--yet another advantage of remaining un-motorized. A chat with a Lao truck driver reveals a driving time of 12 hours to cover the 363 kilometers to Luang Prabang on an unpaved road. We have no Lao visa and other plans for this trip, so we head east along the Hueng River to the nearby village of Pak Huay. The sun is setting over the river as the villagers head to Kaeng Ton, some gentle rapids and pools surrounded by boulders. Kids frolic, and parents enjoy a cool bath in the clear waters of the Hueng. Our first day of full time riding has covered 75 kilometers and we sleep peacefully in our riverside guesthouse.

Morning comes quickly and we prepare for our ride into Chiang Khan. First stop is the local market to purchase what will become our standard lunch to be consumed en route, barbequed chicken Isaan style, a ball of sticky rice, and fruit in season. It is filling, easy to transport, and delicious. We make a stop at a nearby border crossing over the Hueng River. Both Thai and Lao citizens can cross for the day after paying a 50 Baht fee and completing the forms for a border pass. No logging trucks here, just villagers crossing on small boats to trade agricultural products and Lao folks buying Thai products such as kitchen utensils and cosmetics. We continue along the Hueng through spectacular scenery. The first rule of cycling is "avoid the noise, fumes, and potential danger of motor vehicles," so we have chosen a small road that follows the river closely. Often a canopy of trees nearly covers the road, creating an eerie tunnel-like passage. Mountains loom on both sides of the river. We break for lunch and are joined by curious and friendly farmers en route to their fields. After having been asked for the hundredth time why we are riding bicycles, we are ready with the answer guaranteed to amuse the audience: "We don't have the money to buy a carÂ…"

Our maps show the Mekong re-emerging into Thai territory at the village of Baan Mi Tha Dee (literally, "the village with a good port"), where the Hueng flows into the Mekong. We make a detour in the hope of finding this confluence, but give up after a few kilometers, when a local informs us that it is only visible from the top of a nearby large hill. No way. Somewhat discouraged, we rejoin the main road to Chiang Khan but after a kilometer or so, the Mekong appears on our left, thick, fast and churning, a powerful presence compared to the gentle flow of the Hueng. The road follows the Mekong into Chiang Khan, a town of mainly wooden construction hugging the river. Its well-established port caters to large cargo vessels carrying agricultural products from Laos. We stay in a guesthouse that was once a sumptuous riverside colonial-style villa. A pleasant Thai couple and their three young children greet us. Something about arriving by bicycle puts people at ease. We notice abstract art works of unmistakable quality on the walls; later we learn that our host is Somboon Homtientong, a Thai artist of international renown, who has forsaken his native Bangkok to find peace and inspiration along the Mekong.

The morning finds us once again loading the bikes for the day's ride. This is day three and we now start feeling more like bike riders than desk riders. Just outside of Chiang Khan, we stop at the well-known Kaeng Kut rapids. It must be an evening venue since we are the sole visitors at a huge complex of restaurants and souvenir shops. The local specialty is kung ten, literally "dancing shrimp." Live shrimp from the Mekong are placed in a covered glass bowl with a spicy marinade. After they have finished "dancing," it means they are dead and you can eat them. Not this early in the morning, thanks.

Our destination today is the village of Pak Chom, a short 40 kilometer ride from Chiang Khan. En route, we pass villages that have taken advantage of their position next to the river to engage in a unique cottage industry--most houses have a large collection of beautiful stones of varying hues and shapes formed by the river. The villagers sell the naturally sculpted stones to passersby who use them in gardens and other home decorations. Pak Chom became famous some twenty years ago when Baan Vinai, a huge camp housing Hmong refugees from Laos was built outside of town. The Hmong, who were recruited to help the Americans in the not so secret war there, have largely been resettled in the United States.

The road from Pak Chom to Sangkhom, our destination on day four, is spectacular. Switchback curves though dense jungle alternate with open straight-aways along the wide Mekong studded with huge boulders. The mountains seem to run right to the river, and gushing streams roar down steep valleys to join the Mekong. Shortly before arriving in Sangkhom, we detour to Nam Tok Than Thip, a three-tiered waterfall.

In Sangkhom, we find accommodation at a unique guesthouse located on a small island in the Mekong. Access is by bamboo bridge. Individual bungalows made from rough-hewn teak and thatch, with balconies on the Mekong go for 100 Baht per day. Some guests become mesmerized and remain for months on end. After a good day's ride of almost 60 kilometers, we are ready for showers and a quiet moment with a book on our balcony. Morning comes all too soon and while loading our bicycles we cast wistful eyes at the hammocks on the balcony next to the river.

Today's ride will take us to the town of Sri Chiang Mai. Located directly across the Mekong from the Lao capital of Vientiane, it has a large Vietnamese population, and is known as major production center for spring roll wrappers, which are made from rice flour, and can be seen drying on bamboo racks in back yards throughout the city. A wide esplanade parallels the river, and dining al fresco, looking across the river at the lights of Vientiane is a perfect way to relax before retiring.

The next morning's ride through the tobacco fields of Tha Bo takes us into the provincial capital of Nong Khai. Nong Khai is the Thai terminus of the Friendship Bridge into Laos. Like most border towns, it has a transitory, hurried atmosphere. After a few days in rural environments, it seems intolerably noisy, so we are lucky to find some small bungalows outside of town. The road we have been following for the last 300 kilometers along the Mekong continues on past Nong Khai for another 800 kilometers, reaching the town of Khong Chiam in Ubon province, where the Mekong once again disappears into Lao territory. However, our itinerary this time takes us back to our starting point in Loei.

In a small shop in Nong Khai, I spot a dusty bottle of Chateau de Loei's well-reputed Pinot Noir red wine. At the mid-point of a long and eventful ride, what better way to celebrate our Thai version of a Loire Valley cycling tour?

Copyright © Peter Holmshaw, 2005.

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