Story and photos by Mark Greiz.
Four months into an 11,000 kilometer extreme cycling journey from Irkutsk, Siberia to Yangon, Myanmar, I found myself in Luang Namtha province, Northern Laos just having crossed the border from Mengla, Yunnan province, China. Laos in one of the poorest countries in Asia, but due to it’s laid back vibe, friendly people, temperate climate and inexpensive amenities it has evolved from a less-traveled Asian backwater to a major destination on the backpacker Banana Pancake Circuit. Hordes of Westerners can be seen cavorting in one of several backpacker mecca’s such as Vang Vieng or Luang Prabang drinking beer Lao and swapping tales of guided hill tribe treks. But for those with a little more derring-do there are still areas that are far off the tourist trail due to their relative inaccessibility, inhospitable terrain and poor road conditions.
My next destination after Laos was Thailand and I planned to cycle to Huay Xai, and then take a five-minute boat ride across the Mekong River to the Thai border town of Chiang Kong.
The logical and fastest method to enter Thailand from Northern Laos would be to cycle the newly paved super road, Highway 3 from the city of Luang Namtha to the border (marked in blue on the map.) This is what most cyclists do and it offers a fast and superlative ride. But as usual, I opted for a less logical route. My plan was to cycle from Luang Namtha north to the town of Muang Sing, then follow the dirt road seventy-five kilometers to Xieng Kok where the road terminates (marked in Orange). Xieng Kok lies on the edge of the Mekong River and the only road in and out of that town is the one to Muang Sing.
To get to Huay Xai and then on to Thailand one must take a boat down the Mekong. The only other option is a 35-kilometer track through dense jungle (marked in red), which connects to the village of Xieng Dao where another dirt road continues onto Muang Mueng and then Poung where it finally connects to Highway 3 continuing onto the Thai border. But almost no one, not even locals venture on this route.
I was very curious about this jungle track and since there is no record of anyone else cycling it I was determined to be the first. Resting in Luang Namtha town for a day I met two young European cyclists who rode in from Thailand. Their original plan was to cycle that route in the opposite direction but once Lao officials informed them that the jungle track was impassable they did not even try, opting instead for the paved road.
A couple of days later, I was also informed by other Lao officials, that not only would it be an arduous undertaking in the dry season but since it was still the monsoon season it would be impossible. Likewise, they mentioned very few people venture into the jungle there except opium smugglers who ply their trade up and down the Mekong. I was warned not to go. But it was too late, I was already in Muang Sing and did not want to back track to Luang Namtha.
Having cycled all day along a muddy dirt road passing Hmong villages, the town of Long and endless banana plantations I finally arrived to Xieng Kok at night in the rain. There is one guesthouse outside the village on the bank of the Mekong managed by Chinese. Since I speak Chinese I was able to inquire about the jungle path to Xieng Dao. The guesthouse owner knew of the path and told me where I could find it, but he never traveled it and urged me not to either. He recommended I go down to the bank in the morning and wait for a boat heading to Huay Xai. I heeded his advice and decided to wait until the morning to decide. If it was raining I would opt for the boat and if it wasn’t, I would give the jungle track a try.
I woke up in the morning with a sigh of relief. It was pouring rain, windy and foggy-a great excuse to take a boat. It would have offered an honorable justification for me opting out of the jungle track. As I stood in the rain on the path leading down to the boat landing a sense of dejection started to grip me. My philosophy on all my bike tours has always been if there is a way to travel by land I must try. How would I live with myself if I did not even give it a go? Is it really as harsh as I have been told? Is it truly impassable? Are the dangers over exaggerated? Too many unanswered questions. It wasn’t too hard to convince myself to cycle the several kilometers to the edge of the jungle path and at least have a look. The downpour turned into a light drizzle and the fog was clearing a little… it was a good omen… how bad could it be anyway?
I cycled the dirt road through Xieng Kok village to a turn off. As I was told, I spotted the first river crossing I would need to pass, then on into the jungle. As I approached the river I noticed its intensity, the monsoon rains made the river angry and foreboding. It was about fifty feet across. Carrying my bike across running rivers was not new to me as I had done it numerous times in Mongolia, but the monsoon rains, fast current and deep water offered new hazards.As I made it half way across I was already nearly up to my waist in water and the currents much stronger than I anticipated. The last thing I needed was to lose my footing then be swept out to the Mekong bike in tow.
I stood in the river for a moment pondering my predicament and using all my energy to keep myself up. Do I turn back or continue forward? What challenges lay ahead on the opposite side of the crossing? I knew if I made it across there would be no turning back. It did not take long for me to make that decision. With a renewed sense of determination, I made it safely across and stood on the opposite bank; I stood for a moment gazing where the dirt track was leading-deep into the jungle. I turned my head around and looked across the river from whence I came, there was no turning back now, only the uncertainty of what lay ahead. I remember an euphoric grin crept up on my face, I knew I was where I wanted to be…it was already past 9 a.m., no time to waste, must move on.
The initial part of the path was not bad, muddy, yet rideable. As I followed it further and further the track just got narrower and narrower. Much of the path was no more than several inches wide, the jungle bush slapping me as I rode by, thorny bushes pricking and scratching my skin, various bugs and vegetation leaching themselves on me.
The path just kept on getting worse, fallen trees, bamboo and vegetation obscured the track, landslides, mud swamps, bugs of all sorts, spiders and snakes added to the misery. Much of the 35 kilometers was not rideable as I found myself often struggling to push my bicycle through knee-deep mud. There were occasions when I felt sheer exhaustion as I struggled to free my gear-laden bicycle and myself from the confines of these muddy traps. The mud sucked my bike and myself firmly in place and it took all my energy to break free from its unyielding clutch.
My feet were cut up from all the objects, rocks and gravel caught in my sport sandals and I started to wonder if I made the right choice. Every now and then there would be some clearing where I could see the majestic Mekong peeking through the dense jungle foliage. I would stand mesmerized at such a magnificent site, but knew if I loitered too long it would impede my progress. I must move on, can’t stop. On occasion, I could see small vessels going up and down the river thinking that I could have been on one of them, relaxing on a scenic ride, arriving that evening for a hearty meal and a couple of cold beer Laos at the bustling port town and backpacker transit point of Huay Xai. But that was not to be.
It was raining on and off throughout the day and most of it was spent pushing my bicycle through the mud, carrying my bicycle over obstacles, cleaning the bottom of my feet from debris and wading carefully through other fast moving water crossings. The hours slowly past, day was turning to dusk, my exhaustion grew and I hadn’t eaten all day. There was only about an hour left of daylight and nighttime comes quick in the jungle.
I decided to push on and if I did not make it to Xieng Dao within the hour start to look for shelter in this muddy swamp. After eight hours of struggling through the jungle, finally the path opened a little offering a better opportunity to ride and soon after I saw a golden pagoda rise through the jungle canopy! It must be Xieng Dao, I thought to myself. I reached the temple and noticed it lead into a small village. It was indeed Xieng Dao! I knew I had more mud and rain over the next couple of days but I made it through the jungle. They told me it was not crossable by bicycle, they were right but I crossed it anyway!