At this point, both bikes were still strapped to the roof of the small bus that had taken us over the border. We got back on the bus expecting it to take us round the corner and then drop everyone off. 10 minutes later we were still onboard and it didn't seem like it was stopping any time soon.
We thought the bus was simply taking us to the border, so asked the driver where it was going - the answer was a random town we hadn't heard of. It then took a right turn and headed down a different road - which meant we weren't even on the road that we needed ...the one that would lead us to the capital - Vientiane...the finish.
45 minutes after leaving the border, we stopped. Finally we could get the bikes off the roof, but we'd travelled 40km in the wrong direction, which meant we'd have to cycle back the same way we'd just come. It was early evening by this point, so we got the bikes down, loaded up the panniers and went to find a cheap guest-house for the night.
£3.70 for the two of us, with en-suite and wifi, seemed like a very good deal.
While finding the guest-house, it appeared that our attempt of making my bike into a single-speed (which worked fine through the last part of China), was starting to play up. The chain seemed to be slipping if I put any amount of pressure on it - if I just casually let my legs spin round, without pushing too hard, then it seemed fine. That could wait till the next day though, first things first was to go find some decent food.
The next morning was a slow start. We were in no rush as wanted to enjoy the good food the town had to offer, the free wifi and also wanted to try and fix my bicycle a little better.
We ate bacon baguettes in a nice little cafe while catching up on emails. All was good until out of nowhere I felt something land on my back and then sting or bite me. I instantly tried swatting it but it flew off, and I couldn't see where it had gone. As soon as I turned round again, it landed on the other side of my back and stung me again, and again I tried but missed for the second time.
The stings weren't too painful but I was baffled as to what was after me. 10 seconds later it landed on my arm and stung me properly this time, I whacked it and it fell to the floor. It was a bee..... I looked at my arm and saw the stinger was still in, so I pulled it out, confused as to why this bee had a personal vendetta against me.
Hours later we were still doing nothing other than sitting around eating, it was time to try and fix my bike. The entire next hour we thought we were doing a great job, until I rode it and it was as bad as ever. We spent another hour or two, on the street outside a shop trying to fix it. By the time it was dark we'd given up. I could cycle along the flat as long as I didn't go too quickly but any hill would mean I'd have to get off and push. Not ideal as Laos is very hilly, but we were out of ideas. In Kazakhstan the single-speed job we'd done worked perfectly, but for some reason, even though we thought we'd done the exact same thing here, it just wasn't working properly.
The sensible thing to do now, as it was pitch dark, would've been to return to the guest-house for the night and leave in the morning. However, we both knew how bad we are at leaving a town with luxuries, early. So not wanting to get stuck there for another day, sat in cafes using the wifi, we decided we'd leave there & then, and as soon as we were out of the town, look for somewhere to camp...but not before going for another whole roasted duck from the night market, of course.
After the duck we headed out of town. 10 minutes later we were on the hunt for somewhere to camp. Not such an easy task in Laos as pretty much all of the land is farmed leaving nowhere to pitch a tent. Half an hour later we were struggling, especially in the darkness. We spotted a petrol station up ahead that looked closed for the night. Upon entering, we noticed a door open with a light on, in the building alongside the garage shop. There was a young lad sat in the doorway. We approached to ask if we could pitch our tent somewhere. All we succeeded in doing though was scare the poor boy and he ran inside and closed the door behind him.
Well we weren't prepared to carry on, this was our best chance for a place to sleep for the night. So we had a look around and decided to pitch the tent on the side of the garage forecourt and hope nobody minded too much.
The problem of the chain slipping whenever I pushed hard on the pedals, meant that every time I hit a hill, I'd have to get off and push. By lunchtime we'd done 35km, which meant we were now back at the junction and on the right road.
The road then stayed flat for much of the next 30km which meant I was able to plod along slowly without having to get off and push much. I was very frustrated with the situation though, it just seemed that my bicycle was hardly ever working and here I was in the final country, still with more problems.
Keeping my spirits up though were the Laotian children, with their constant waves and shouts of "Hello", "thank you" or "Sai-ba-dee (hello)". Laos in general had a great feeling to it though. I'd been here 5 years previously, but remembered little of it other than I really liked it. It reminded me a lot of many parts of Africa, very laid back and slow - as a Cornishman...just how I like it.
Thankfully Laos has it spot on with the shops and bars. In some places we've been through - Kazakhstan for example, there might have been only one shop for a fairly large village and finding it would be very difficult, and when you did find it, it probably wouldn't be open. The area of China we cycled through had plenty of shops, but had nothing worth buying inside, except fizzy drinks which almost would never be in a fridge.
Laos however, knew what it was doing. Almost every hut/building in every village would be a small shop, stocked with plenty of tasty biscuits, crisps, ice-creams, fresh fruit and ice cold fizzy drinks. The bars sold tasty, cheap food and cold Beer Lao's - the best beer of the trip so far. Which meant that passing a village without stopping was quite a challenge ... and there was a village every 5km.
Cycling in Laos was also the safest of the whole trip, with very little traffic on the roads other than a few 4x4's and mopeds. This was first nationality since the Turkish, who actually see a cyclist and wait until there is a safe place to overtake before doing so. It made a very nice change.
The next morning we had another go at fixing my bike. Lunchtime came round pretty fast though and we hadn't made any progress, so we set off again.
Rain had been our worst enemy in the first 3 months of the trip, being wet and cold aren't a good combination. The following 6 months we saw very little rain at all, almost none. Here was different though - it was rainy season in South East Asia, which according to Dan meant "occasionally it rains slightly". Not the case. After the first few days, it started pouring down. It was the heaviest rain I've ever been in, but it felt amazing. Sweat pouring down our bodies and then suddenly huge drops of rain would start pounding us, cleaning and cooling us down. Each day I was hoping for a downpour.
Another big climb appeared in-front of us, which meant it was time to say goodbye to Dan for a few hours. Fueled by chocolate biscuits and the occasional coke pit-stop, I wandered up. A couple of hours later I reached the top where it flattened out, just as another huge downpour began. I got back on the bike and was able to slowly pedal, while keeping an eye out for Dan. I found him tucking into a chicken baguette at a bus stop restaurant - just what I was after.
No need for sleeping bags in Laos, it was roasting at night also. Then, as usual it would be time for a movie. Which, after watching more movies than ever before, we've both come to the conclusion that a genuine decent movie is few and far between now, but most aren't bad either, all just seem average.
Regularly sited along the roads were fruit & vegetable stalls or even meat stalls. All of them had roofs, because of the daily downpours. Opposite one set of stalls was a lay-by which looked perfect to camp in, except that it was in the middle of a village. We asked the fruit stall owners if it was ok to pitch our tent in the lay-by and instead they offered for us to camp where their stall was. One guy spoke perfect English and said they were packing up for the day in 10 minutes and then the place was ours...
My feet were slowly becoming covered in blisters the more I walked. Fortunately, there was more riding than walking to Luang Prabang. We had lunch in a nice restaurant that over looked the famous Mekong river. I finished first so left Dan still eating - it meant there would be less waiting for me whenever I had to walk.
The road was following the Mekong downhill all the way to the town and just when I started to wonder if Dan would catch me up, my chain came apart. It only took 5 minutes to put it back together and by that time Dan was next to me. Together we slowly cycled towards town, unsure where the cheap accommodation was. The Australian guy then reappeared, to show us the way to exactly what we wanted to know. A huge downpour began, still with the sun shinning brightly and soon the three of us were drenched - all loving it. He showed us to a cheap guest-house in the middle of town and we headed inside to dry off and change clothes. After a big feast of delicious street food and a couple of beers it was time for bed.
The following morning we were off early. The next town of notable size was Vang Vieng, another big backpackers destination and the one that I'd been to 5 years ago. It was about 190km away. After doing the maths, it meant that if we averaged around 50km for the next 7 days we'd reach the finish - Vientiane, at a perfect time. It would give us a day to then catch the bus over the border into Thailand and then arrive in Bangkok the same day our friends would be flying in. Meaning we wouldn't miss the start of our holiday.
That was all good, but with the heat and all the walking, we were really in need of a day off. So we decided to try and do the 190km in 3 days, to give us a day off in Vang Vieng. The first day we made very good progress. Other than the first 20km, much of it was downhill. Half way through the day, we decided Dan might as well cycle on ahead and I could meet him later on. We chose a specific town for him to stop at and he'd chain his bike up outside whichever guest-house he chose to stay at, so I could see it.
The next village I went through was only on a very gradual slope. Just as I was reaching the end of the village, one dog ran out from the side and towards me from behind, barking and snarling. I grabbed a stone and randomly threw it behind me towards the dog, nothing happened, it was still gaining on me. I threw another, again nothing happened. It was right behind me now, surely I couldn't miss the 3rd time. I threw it and this time it was followed by a little yelp and the dog backed off. As a dog person, I'm not a fan of throwing stones at them, but I'm less of a fan of getting rabies.
At 9pm, after doing 80km - half of it walking, I spotted Dan's bike, chained to a post, outside a guest-house. The front door was open and there was no reception, so I walked inside with my bike, shouting "DANIEL MARSHALL", until he poked his head out of one of the rooms.
80km was a good start, leaving 110km to do in two days. The next morning I set off early before Dan, around 8am.
Other than one big climb it was much of the same again, small rolling hills and then flat. Dan caught me up quite early on and as we were now just 100km away, it was decided that Dan would either do the same as the previous night, or just keep riding all the way to Vang Vieng and I would meet him there the following day.
I kept an eye out for Dan's bike towards the end of the day, which then turned to night. I walked through the night for a few hours, assuming Dan must have rode on to the town, before spotting another lay-by to camp in. I'd done around 65km that day, leaving me 45km to Vang-Vieng. I set up the tent and then dived inside and quickly tried zipping the inner tent up. Panic ensued though, as the zip came apart and wouldn't do up. We had this problem many times in the last month, but this time it was different, I couldn't get an inch of it to zip up. Not only was I afraid of getting eaten alive by mosquito's but we'd also seen about 5 dead snakes each day on the roads and I'd noticed quite a few small flattened scorpions and Dan said he'd seen one as big as his foot.
I frantically tried zipping the door up, while trying to hold my sleeping bag over it to stop the mozzies getting in. After 20 minutes I had to give up. Instead, I opened up my sleeping bag and tied it across the door as taut as I could. It seemed to work, so after killing a few mosquitoes, I lay down and was asleep as soon as my head touched my camping mat.
We spent two nights there (Dan three), and had a much needed rest day doing nothing. Vang Vieng was very different to how I remembered. When I was last there it was one of the most popular party destinations in South East Asia. 'Tubing', where you would float down the river on an inflatable tube, going from bar to bar used to be the main attraction. Each bar would have swings, slides or zip-lines and everyone doing it would be very drunk while doing so. As much fun as it was, it was a recipe for disaster and after 27 deaths from travellers drowning or falling onto rocks in just 1 year, the government shut it down.
The town was still as popular as ever it seemed, but kayaking, climbing & mountain-biking were the things to do now. I avoided all of these things, as all I was after was a nice place to relax.
After using a whole roll of tape, we had managed to alter something. I gave it a go and it seemed that I was now able to cycle very slowly along the flat. We set off again, with the same plan of Dan to cycle ahead, leave his bike outside and I would meet him later - there was no point making him cycle at my pace, he may as well use the time to chill out at a guest-house. So off Dan went again.
All seemed fine until my chain slipped off the front chain-wheel. Not a problem, only takes 10 seconds to put it back on. 2 minutes later the same happened though. This carried on constantly all throughout the day. As massively annoying as it was, cycling for 5 minutes and then having to put the chain back on was much faster than walking.
By around the 70th time my chain came off, I lost it and did some strange punch on my handle bars in anger. A shop owner saw me and came and gave me a bottle of ice-cold water. I didn't have far to go, so put the chain back on and 10 minutes later I'd found Dan and his bike. 55km done that day, leaving less than 100km until the finish of the entire trip.
The next day was similar, except I decided to keep count of how many times I had to put my chain back on for some reason. 88 was the winning number. The only thing stopping me from getting off, removing my pannier bags and then launching my bike into the jungle was that we were in touching distance to the end. Dan had cycled on and later in the day I found him again at a guest-house. It was a bigger day, having done 65km. Which meant that the following day - 14th of August, was our final day, with only 30km to do.
Obviously we chose to cycle together for the final day. In keeping with our stupidity and consistent lack of preparation throughout this trip, we still didn't really know where we would actually be finishing. The capital - Vientiane, was the end, but where would we actually be cycling to in Vientiane? Another thing to confuse the situation was that we had just read online the previous night, that rather than get a bus from the Capital to Bangkok, it was actually much quicker and much cheaper if we cycled over the border of Laos/Thailand ourselves(only 15km past Vientiane), and then got the bus on the other side, in Thailand. So maybe Vientiane wouldn't be the finish ... a random bus station 5km inside Thailand might be the grand finale for us.
We had quite a late start but after a breakfast of a fresh pineapple each we were ready to go. The traffic became much busier the closer we got to the city but still the cars preferred to get closer to the on-coming traffic than us. The chain was still coming off regularly and then it was starting to also slip again. By 2pm we were almost in the city. We stopped at a cafe with wifi for lunch and checked the situation about getting a bus to Bangkok. It was confirmed - "Cornwall to a random bus stop in a small town in Thailand...by bicycle"
We left the cafe at about 3pm. Somehow though, while having lunch, my bicycle had deteriorated even more and for all the pedalling I was doing I was barely moving. It was hopeless, walking was faster. We stopped next to a shop to try and fix it and two people came out to give me a hand. They gave me a fresh roll of tape for free and together we tried making it ride-able.
We were low on ideas and then one popped into my head. "I just wanna try something Dan" I said. Un-hopefully, I removed one end of one of Dan's bungee cords from the back of his bike and then did the same to one on the front of mine and then hooked them together. I expected that me sat on my big bike would be too heavy for Dan to tow but anything was worth a try by this point. We sat back on our bikes and then Dan pulled away and started cycling. Immediately I got yanked along and within the first 10 seconds, we were going along at a normal speed and it was obvious that this would actually work. I sat there on my bike, not pedalling, and soon we were speeding along!
Possibly the oddest finish to a 20,000km cycle journey - and getting towed in, was very fitting with the whole trip. Two Cornish idiots for sure, but we'd done it.
We loaded our bikes on to the bus and we were soon on our way to our reward - a two week holiday in Thailand with our best mates. A few days later, everyone had arrived and we were all relaxing (sort of) on a Thai island together...
We almost set a field alight trying to cook a tin of beans. We spent a whole day going forwards (we thought) only to end up back in the same town that we'd left 5 hours previous. We've raced small Turkish kids on bikes ... and lost. We got drunk with the Kazakh Police. We've fallen off our bikes. Been chased by mad dogs. Made friends with an Army Major. Made friends with a Tibetan Monk. And got deported from a country.
Now I've explained how bad we are at everything to do with cycling from Cornwall to a bus station in Thailand, I will try and explain what this trip has taught us or done for us.
Before setting off on this trip I didn't really know what to expect of the places I was planning on going through. But from my past experience of cycling Africa, I did know to just completely rid myself of whatever assumptions I had about each place before going there. I had an image of what Africa was going to be like before I left on that trip - which had been forced upon me, without noticing, by any newspaper article, news story or movie that I'd ever seen about the continent...all with the same theme - negativity. In reality it was a completely different story - those stories, the positive ones, don't sell newspapers though.
So what I tried to do on this trip, was go into each country with a blank page and let the country and it's people help me decide how I felt about the place. We didn't love everywhere - Turkey was one of our favourite countries of the whole trip, however the east of the country is a different story altogether. Some people might love it there, but for myself & Dan, it wasn't a friendly place.
Other than that though, I can honestly say that 99% of the people we met in the whole trip, were unbelievably kind and generous. The sight of two scruffy Western cyclists was like a beacon to awesome people. Sometimes it was just odd how kind people were. Like when we were bought a panini each by a guy in Turkey - He couldn't stop to talk though because he was in a rush, so just handed them to us, smiled and walked off - he wanted nothing from us, not even our time.
Sometimes it would be just little things, like an old Iranian lady buying us a bag of oranges. Other times it would be someone paying $60 for us to stay in a hotel for the night. Or a guy closing his shop to spend his whole afternoon helping us get passport photos and forms printed off from internet cafes, after meeting us for only 10 seconds and without being able to speak any English.
We had a tea-a-day bought for us in Turkey. We were invited into complete strangers homes for the night in Iran. Free food given to us in Turkmenistan. Free nights in two hotels in Kazakhstan. The list goes on and on ... However big or small the help was, all were equally important to us.
War has been on this planet for a long, long time, that's unlikely to change any time soon. It definitely isn't as bad as the days of holocausts and nuclear bombs being dropped on entire cities though. Also, there will always, always be a minority of bad people on the planet.
Whether we focus each day on how terrible that minority is or whether we focus on how awesome the world is and how amazing the majority of the people from every country, race or religion are, is a personal choice for everybody.
This trip has been an eye-opener for two stupid Cornish boys. The over-riding lesson to take away from what we have learnt though, is this - We are on an incredible planet. We are here just once - for a short time only. There are no rules as to how you choose to live your own life. Don't hate for the sake of hating. We get one go at this to get it right. Get out there and take control of what you want. Dream big & often. Worry little & less. Laugh loudly. Live proudly, and have an awesome time!
To be continued...