Cycling in Northern Laos

17th June 2015
Northern Laos

Above: The mountains of Northern Laos.

[See the account of the trip below]

 

          

Starting out with a tour of (the old capital) Luang Prabang.  

The wheelchairs encountered many obstacles making accessible travel difficult.  

     One of the temple gates.

Typical countryside and hills to climb in northern Laos.

     

Trucks were are constant problem often spilling out filthy fumes into our faces.

 The hand cycles could always beat us down the steep hills.   

And many of the hills went down (and up) for kilometres.

Not much evidence of accicdents but if you went over these hills it was a long way to the bottom.

A room with a view. This was a (rare) toilet catering for disabled people. And what a view.

     

Typical countryside in northern Laos.

The view from our hotel in the tourist town of Vang Vieng.

Cycling across the tarmac of the former airport of Vang Vieng on our way south,

CyclePower is an initiative of the Victorian non-for-profit Disability Sport & Recreation.

This Lao trip was supported by the Uniting Journeys Foundation.

Most of the group including the local support staff. I'm standing between the two orange flags.

Riding down one of the nicer, tree-lined stretches of road.

     

We pulled into a petrol station for a toilet break. Lao people enjoy a good practical joke.

Riding along the banks of the Mekong into Vientiane. Thailand is to the right across the river.

Riding into the heart of Vientiane, the Lao capital (as they were keen to remind us). 

 

Cycling through the mountains of Northern Laos – June 2015

I've just returned from a cycle trip through the mountains of Northern Laos with a group called Disability Sport and Recreation (DSR). As the name suggests, there were a number of disabled athletes (four) on hand-powered trikes as part of the total group of twelve. Riding with the group was a great experience, a source of inspiration and real education into the additional trials faced by disabled travellers.

DSR is a non-for-profit organisation based in Fitzroy, Melbourne. As part of their fund raising activities they organise overseas rides under the name of CyclePower which aims “to provide a positive example of the benefits of sport and recreation on the social determinants of health for all people of all abilities”. Previous cycle  trips have included Vietnam (2011), Cambodia (2012), Fiji (2013) and Thailand (2014).

This year’s ride to Northern Laos was supported – amongst other organisations – by the Uniting Journeys Foundation. Uniting Journeys working in conjunction with Jetaway Travel contributed financially and by raising the questions and having the conversations about what it means to travel in a responsible manner, particularly to poorer, developing countries. I’m one the volunteers with the Uniting Journeys program and (fortunately) ‘drew the short straw’ to travel with this group to Laos.

The hand-powered trikes, along with other gear – wheelchairs, portable toilets, etc – had to be freighted to and from Laos. For the able-bodied riders eight bikes were hired in Laos helping to provide income for the local economy. A number of sports wheelchairs and other sports equipment, at the request of the Lao Disabled Sports Association, was also sent over and presented at a ceremony at the end of our trip. Part of the DSR CyclePower ethos is to work in conjunction with, and in support of, local groups within the countries visited.

Laos lives up to the promotion of the guide books: the countryside we saw was beautiful, the mountain ranges stunning, the people friendly and ever so helpful, the food subtle and delicious. Text book stuff. Laos seemed to have less litter – particularly plastic bags – than neighbouring countries, the roads were in reasonable shape, there was a sense of optimism, industry and organisation. Most of the locals, though not exhibiting excessive material wealth seemed to retain a level of contentment. And I might add here that the Lao people enjoy a good practical joke.

However in Laos I noticed a lack of any rail-based modes of transport and examples of good urban design and planning. As the country is clearly expanding, being dependent on (presumably) imported oil does not bode well for the balance of trade or in fact for the health and well-being of the citizens. The trucks spurting toxic fumes into the villages is one problem but I also noted the number of new, shiny grey SUVs – status symbols of newly acquired wealth rather than perhaps a necessity – in towns and villages that soon won’t be able to cope with such congestion. Already the ‘car is king’ and drivers pay scant regard to the other road users. In the capital city where some footpaths exist these are typically completely blocked by parked SUVs – bad enough for able-bodied pedestrian’s, particularly trying for those in wheelchairs or otherwise unable to negotiate the obstacles.

It was not surprising, in a country subject to heavy rainfall, to see buildings raised above the ground, but what was surprising was that in the recently constructed buildings (for example hotels) the effort that designers had gone to with the provision of stairs without a thought to appropriate accessibility. This was just the beginning of my education because the additional trials that had to be faced by the disabled athletes soon became clear. Could they negotiate the makeshift (and steep) ramps? Could they get through the door to their room and once inside could they turn their wheelchairs in the space available? Could they access the bathrooms and how do you use a squat toilet without fully functioning legs? How do you do all this in a hurry if you need to use the toilet quickly. I must say our travelling partners survived with a high degree of resilience, fortitude and general good cheer.

Our team of twelve helped and encouraged each other but I would very much like to acknowledge our Lao support team: two guides who cycled all the way with us and our support mini-bus and truck crews who were immediate with water and snacks and in particular with help for those needing to get in and out of the vehicles. This is their employed work but it was carried out with enthusiasm and dedication.

The weather in Laos in June was particularly hot and humid although we were fortunate enough to start with few slightly cooler days. The distance from the old capital Luang Prabang to the new capital Vientiane was just under 500 kms. I estimate I rode around 430 kms avoiding some steep end-of-day hills and abandoning one afternoon ride because of heat exhaustion and lack of water. Overall it was a really enjoyable journey and a great pleasure to travel with my fellow cyclists, to visit the wonderful country that is Laos and meet some of the Lao people. Hopefully our trip was as much benefit to Laos as it was to us as travellers.

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