Having led a Vietnam-Laos cycling tour on numerous occasions for my erstwhile employer, I often waxed lyrical to newly arrived guests about how fascinating I found the contrast between two neighbouring countries. Both buddhist, communist (in name at any rate) nations one could be forgiven for expecting them to be very much the same, but they are, as the briefest of visits will vividly display, remarkably different. The contrast between the culture, the people and the language, the written script, and even the importance of the buddhist philosophy of these two countries is remarkably different, as the tour we were to embark upon was to reveal.
Geographically next in line if the cyclist continues to pedal west is of course Thailand. Respectively modern, developed, and in many ways Western compared to its easterly neighbours, Thailand, I always though, should have been the final destination to this tour of contrasts that I so enjoyed. And so I long harboured the desire to create and run a tour from Vietnam, through Laos, and on into Thailand. But planning, exploring, promoting and running all of my tours personally means that time for exploring can be at a premium, and so it took some time to get around to putting this tour together.
September was my second visit to Lao last year. A Laotian friend and I decided to go over some ideas we had for new and interesting sections for a Lao tour. In the interest of time we took his van, and we saw much that we liked. We drove a loop through the northeast of the country (more of which soon), but after a week of driving I was itching to get back on my bike, and so, judging the amount of food I had with me and the distance to the next town along the remote jungle road, I was dropped off at the foot of a long climb to resume cycling after a two week layoff. I confess to struggling a tad to begin with, my legs were weak and weary, and my rear end was soft and soon felt as though a surgeon would be needed to remove me from my saddle. As I plodded up that hill enjoying the solitude and silence, save for the chorus of cicadas and hooting of birds from the forest, I reflected on a discussion we had had before I was dropped off. I had learned during that conversation of a border into Thailand’s Nan Province that opened, without my knowledge, a couple of years earlier. Not only does this border open a new route between two nations, it opens a wealth of possibilities for my imagination. As I rode on, huffing and puffing and grunting in a most ungainly manner I reflected on what we had seen over the past week, I thought of tours and rides I have done over the past 10 years both in Lao and in Vietnam, and I thought about my explorations of Northern Thailand over the past few years. And with much excitement a plan hit me, not for the two week Lao tour I was here to investigate, but for the tour I have desired for many years – Vietnam, Laos, Thailand. I was excited and keen as can be to find a guest house, to spread out a map to see if the route in my mind was feasible, and to quench the thirst that I was rapidly developing. The guesthouse I found had a balcony overlooking the muddy waters of the Nam Ou river, it was quite beautiful and a most apt spot to ponder my route over an ice cold Beer Lao – and as I pondered I excitedly realised that my route would work, I was elated, the tri-Nationed tour was born.