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Cycling to Singapore: Vientiane to the Four-Thousand Islands and into Cambodia

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Sunset at Savannakhet. Happy Chinese New Year!
Sunset at Savannakhet. Happy Chinese New Year!

Editor's note: American Jesse Millett is cycling from Kunming to Singapore as part of a group led by explorer Jin Feibao that will deliver letters of friendship from Kunming Mayor Zhang Zulin to mayors around Southeast Asia. Millett will be sending us dispatches from the road to share with GoKunming readers as the cyclists make their way to Singapore. More of Jesse's writing about the journey is available on his personal blog, which requires a proxy or VPN connection to visit in China.

Day 21: Vientiane – Pakxan (150km, 7.5 hours of riding)

This was our longest day yet, and was sort of a test if we could do it. We completed it, but I'm pretty sure we won't try it again!

Leaving Vientiane we passed the enormous French-style gate (Patuxai) for a photo shoot. From here you can hop straight onto Highway 13 South and go northeast for about 12km, at which point you bear right to stay on 13 and begin to travel east. The road is all flat today: don't let the mountains to the northeast fool you, as the road stays in the Mekong Plain.

Now is the dry season and it's evident. Feibao even commented that the landscape resembles Africa as everything looks very dry except for the scattered larger trees. At kilometer 90 there is a small town called Tha Bok or Tha Pabat with some quality refreshments and ice cream. I didn't see any guest houses here, but if you ask around you might find something. There were some guest houses at kilometer 120 and 130 on the left, but we powered on to Pakxan where there were plenty of options. We stayed in a pretty nice hotel, but honestly I would have slept anywhere as I didn't have much energy for anything else!

Day 22: Pakxan – Vieng Kham (90km, 5 hours of riding)

Sabaidee!
Sabaidee!

Another nice and flat day following the Mekong east and then south – though only a few glimpses of the mighty, yet dwindling river. 90 kilometers felt like a breeze compared to yesterday and we took our time. At about 25 kilometers we stopped at a stand to buy some bananas and luckily enough the vendor was also making spring rolls so we ordered a dozen of those too to eat on the way.

40 kilometers from Pakxan is Pak Kading, a nice little town with plenty of restaurants. We had some awesome barbecued chicken and some grilled fish wrapped in banana leaves, as well as some traditional Lao food (sticky rice, a bitter green vegetable mushed with beef, and a bamboo mushroom stew). Another 50 kilometers from Pak Kading is the small town of Vieng Kham. If you take a left here you head towards Vietnam; we took a right at the same intersection down a dirt road for 1km to a guesthouse run by a Guangdong man who moved here 60 years ago when he was only six. He said at that time China and Laos were equally as poor, but in Laos the people were much warmer and would welcome a complete stranger in to share a meal. Now China is much wealthier than Laos, but the Lao people still have the most wealth in their spirit.

Day 23: Vieng Kham – Thakhek (102km, 5 hours of riding)

Today was a very fast day, with wonderful small rolling hills that you can really zip up and down. There are plenty of small towns along the way meaning there are plenty of places to stop and energize, as well as plenty of people to cheer you on making the day go by really fast.

We stayed in one of the best guest houses we've stayed at yet in Thakhek, the Travel Lodge. Dorm rooms are cheap and private rooms are excellent. Take a right from Highway 13 and descend into Thakhek. At the first circle, take a left and the Travel Lodge is on the left. Alternatively there are some places down closer to the river.

Day 24: Thakhek – Savannakhet (135km, 7 hours of riding)

A well-needed western breakfast and an early start gave us a great boost for the day, meaning more time during the day to enjoy the local life and scenery, but also an early arrival in Savannakhet. The road is quite flat and 102 kilometers of riding brings you to the town of Xeno (Seno). Once you arrive, take a right (leaving Highway 13) for a very quick 30 kilometer descent into the river valley and to Savannakhet.

The sunset over the Mekong never gets old, and we brought in the Chinese New Year here with some delicious Korean barbecue and a bottle of Pure Yunnan (地道云南) rice wine I had been carrying for way too long.

Day 25: Savannakhet – Phong Savan (125km, 6.5 hours of riding)

Another fast day, but the sun is starting to wear us down. If you take it slow and stay alert you may see a Thai Boxing training center, a futsal game, and a cockfighting ring: all definitely worth a stop and maybe you'll even want to participate.

It was a relief to finally see some water and some green rice fields once we were close to Pakse
It was a relief to finally see some water and some green rice fields once we were close to Pakse

From Savannakhet, take the main road in town south until it ends, then turn left. It's 35 kilometers from here to the town of Lak 35 (literally, "Kilometer 35"), where you get back on Highway 13 headed south towards Pakse. From here it's just over 200 kilometers to Pakse, and as if strategically placed, there is a nice little "resort" with cozy looking cabanas exactly half way between Savannakhet and Pakse, just after Phong Savan on the right hand side.

Day 26: Phong Savan – Pakse (126km, 6 hours of riding)

Another hot one and a headwind to slow us down, too. Nice and flat again, but still one of our team members decided to mingle with the locals most of the morning as she held on to a crowded tractor and was graciously towed.

Li Yuan energized after a nice "tractor pull"
Li Yuan energized after a nice "tractor pull"

Keep an eye out for ice water, ice tea and ice coffee stands along the way, as you're not the only one suffering from the heat. Ice cream is a bit harder to find, but we were lucky enough to find a shop about 30 kilometers from Pakse with life-saving ice water, and yes, ice-cream. In Pakse, after crossing the one-lane bridge, take a left to find some nice guest houses. It's recommended to call ahead.

Day 27: Pakse – 4000 Islands (140 km, 7 hours of riding)

Make sure to bring enough water and food for this ride as towns begin to get farther and farther apart with less and less to offer. We grabbed some sandwiches before leaving town, then started up the gradual climb out of the city. After ten kilometers, take a right towards Khong Island to stay on Highway 13. From here, its 120 kilometers to Khong Island (Don Khong) and the 4000 Islands.

The first 45 kilometers are a bit hilly but nothing to worry about. The town of Ban Thang Beng is a nice resting point at about 55 kilometers for the day, and there is even a World Heritage Monument nearby – a Khmer temple. From here the road is flat and straight and there seems to be nothing but dried rice paddies for miles.

Buying tuguo south of Pakse. It's a root like a carrot with a watery, sweet, earthy taste.
Buying tuguo south of Pakse. It's a root like a carrot with a watery, sweet, earthy taste.

After feeling like you've already melted into the pavement, arriving at the ferry station to Khong Island is more than refreshing. If you still have the energy, the ferry station to Don Det and Don Khon is 12 more kilometers farther down the road at Nakasong and worth the extra push. There is also a very nice hotel just 8 kilometers farther on the left, before you get to the turn-off to Don Det.

Xiao Feng enjoying the sunset near the 4000 Islands.
Xiao Feng enjoying the sunset near the 4000 Islands.

Day 28: 4000 Islands – Stung Treng, Cambodia (80 km, all day)

The islands are an amazing place to stop and rest for a little while. We stayed on Don Det, but personally it was too focused on backpacker culture and all Lao culture (except for the slowness of the service) was lost. Alternatively, across the bridge, Don Khon is a little bigger with a full on local culture and a lot more incredible natural features (waterfalls, forests, dolphins, etc.).

From here we will take another boat back to the mainland at Nakasong (15,000 Kip plus 5000 for the bike, about 15 yuan / US$2, per person). It is then only 22 kilometers to the border with Cambodia, on Highway 13. At about 15 kilometers the Mekong River crashes through Asia's largest waterfall, Khone Phapheng Waterfalls, which is definitely worth a visit. Make sure to leave plenty of time for the border, as it'll take an hour at least to get through, and carry plenty of water and food as it's another 57 kilometers before you see another town, Stung Treng in northern Cambodia.

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Comments

Thanks for the updating...

I'm jealous of these guys. Makes me want to get a bike and point it south...

I saw some bicycles with similar pannier covers when I was leaving the 4000 Islands a few days back. I wish I'd known it was the Jinfeibao expedition, it would've made my day.

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