Lab Rat Run Laos
An Exploration of Northern Lao
Despite pockets of the country seeing much economic development over the last two decades, Laos remains a country somewhat lost in time. It is a mountainous and tranquil land, where for much of the time the only sound heard by travellers is that of bird song.
This cycling tour is an adventurous loop through the north of the nation, passing through ancient jungle where tigers roam, agricultural land that is home to minority groups, past mysterious prehistoric archaeological sites, and the craters and bombshells of a more modern era that bring home the stark horrors of war.
The byways on which we ride are quiet, winding, hilly, and tranquil, and the towns at which we stay vary from the back of beyond to tourist comfort.
At a Glance
Total Days: 15
Cycling Days: 10
Daily Average: 95km
Max. Alt.: 1600m
The classic cycling tour of Laos was for many years a brilliant ride. From Vientiane north on highway 13, which, despite being the nation's main north/south artery was always blissfully quiet, the ride took in stunning scenery and some great stops along the way. Alas, the ravages of development have seen this route go from wonderfully peaceful, deserted, and friendly, to a busier nosier affair where passing cyclists are no longer the novelty they once were.
Time to move on
And so the time came to look for a route that harks back to a bygone time when roads were bereft of traffic, the air was clean, and peace hung over the valleys and hills of the stunning scenery through which we pass.
From Vientiane, we now transfer east for a couple of hours before being our cycling adventure north. The roads are quiet and mountainous, and the land we pass through varies from rural to preserved jungle - this is Laos off the beaten track. However, we also visit several of Laos' tourist attractions, including the Plain of Jars at Phonsavan, the laidback riverside resort town of Nong Kiaw, and, via a Mekong River cruise, we end in one of Southeast Asia's most characterful towns, Luang Prabang.
Highlights include the nation’s capital Vientiane, The Plain of Jars at Phonsavan, laidback Nong Kiaw, a river cruise on the Mekong, and the wonderful World Heritage town of Luang Prabang. But above all of this is the challenging cycling through a region that modernity has mostly passed by. Some long days in the saddle and long challenging climbs are rewarded with long descents and ever-friendly greetings from the local people of Laos - all as we cycle through some of Asia's most glorious scenery.
We have 10 days of cycling and an average daily distance of 95 kilometres. There are three days in excess of 100 kilometres, with the longest day being 145 kilometres. We have 8 cycling days before our rest day (although three of those days will see us finished by lunchtime (35KMS, 55KMS, & 50KMS), and there are numerous long climbs. The roads are generally sealed, but the maintenance is far from Western standards with the result that surfaces can range from pristine billiard-table tarmac to gravel, to potholed, to possibly (but hopefully not) mud.
In Vientiane and Luang Prabang we use comfortable characterful resorts. Elsewhere we use the best hotel in town. This ranges from a fine riverside resort for our rest day in Nong Kiaw, to more basic, simple accommodation in small towns along the way. All accommodation has AC and WiFi (at lease in theory) but, at the time or research, one or two places had squat toilets and cold showers.
The tour begins in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. On arrival, you will be met at Vientiane's Wattay International Airport (code: VTE) and transferred to our joining hotel in the city where you will be greeted by your tour leader.
Departure is from Luang Prabang International Airport (code: LPQ). Most flights will come via Bangkok, either Suvarnabhumi (code: BKK) for long-haul, or Don Muang (code: DMK) from where more local budget flights operate.
You will need a visa to enter Lao, for most nationalities this is available on arrival, if you are in any doubt please be sure to check in advance.
Included in this tour
All accommodation, Western tour leader, local guide, support vehicle, meals on cycling days, snacks during cycling days, drinking water whilst cycling.
Not Included: International flights, visas, bicycle (rental bicycle available), food and drinks on non-cycling days, alcohol, food and drink away from the group activities.
At PaintedRoads, we hold firmly to the opinion that using your own bike, the bike on which you feel at home and comfortable is the finest way to enjoy a cycling adventure.
Most kinds of bicycle, except light-weight racing bikes, are suitable for this ride: touring bikes, mountain bikes, hybrids, gravel, or cyclocross bikes are all fine. The roads on this tour are predominantly sealed, but the surface quality is in a state of constant flux to the stage where a previously well-sealed road may now be potholed, gravel, or even mud. Tyres from 35mm in width upwards will be fine, but we recommend 40mm minimum. There are plenty of long climbs (in excess or 15KMS) and the temperatures are often in the 30s, so please be sure that your bicycle has sensible gearing - this is not the Tour de France, this is an adventure. If in doubt please ask for advice.
Southeast Asia is generally a warm place so the ability to carry one or two water bottles is essential (either on your bike or in a backpack). Our back-up vehicle carries tools, but for those competent with repairs bringing your own pump, puncture kit, and multi-tool is recommended as it would speed up repairs and minor adjustments. If bringing your own bike please bring along a couple of spare inner tubes, puncture repair kit, spare brake pads, and a few spare spokes that fit your wheels (please note that different wheels have different size spokes). If in doubt please ask at your local bike shop.
A means of carrying your camera, sunblock etc is also useful – either an on-bike bag, handlebar or saddlebag for example or a lightweight day-pack.
•Recommendation: Although our hire bikes come equipped with a saddle if you have a saddle you use and are happy with it is strongly recommended that you use it on tour. If you use SPD type shoes please bring your own matching pedals. We are happy to fit these for you. You may also like to bring bar ends if you use them at home.
Suitable Bicycle: MTB, Touring Bike, Cyclocross/Gravel Bike, Road Bike
ESSENTIAL! Please be sure that your bicycle is in perfect condition before you leave home. Again, if in doubt please consult your local bike shop.
If you do wish to hire a bicycle we can arrange for the hire of good quality cycles from our in-country agent. Typically these bikes are hard-tail aluminium mountain bikes.
Day 1 Arrive Vientiane
You will be met at Vientiane’s Wattay International Airport (airport code VTE) by a driver and transfer to our city centre going hotel where your tour leader will be waiting to greet you.
Day 2 Vientiane to Paksan - Transfer.
Following a long flight, many people will be happy to have a lazy start today. With a three hour transfer ahead of us, we have time for a leisurely breakfast before making sure that all is well with our bicycles. After lunch, we can board our support vehicle and make our way to the small town of Paksan, the starting point of our ride.
Day 3 Paksan to Thasi
A gentle introduction to hills of Lao awaits us as we saddle up after breakfast. Although no single hill presents more than 100 meters of climbing, by the time finish for the day we will have climbed nearly 800 verticals meters though stunning rural Laotian scenery - a great introduction to what lays ahead.
Day 4 Thasi to Muang Khoun
We begin the day following the beautiful Nam Xan river valley, a peaceful and gently undulating ride. At 78 kilometres we reach the base of the first challenging climb of the tour as we gain 1000 metres during a fairly gentle 22-kilometre climb.
Day 5. Muang Khoun to Phonsavan via Plain of Jars.
An altogether gentler day today as we take a short flat ride to the tourist town of Phonsavan. Along the way, we visit the Plain of Jars, an area covered in huge stone jars, carved by hand, the origins of which to this day remain a mystery. We are also passing through one of the most heavily bombed regions in the history of warfare with the result of badly cratered land all around, and some wonderfully creative recycling of American bombshells.
Day 6. Phonsavan to Muang Kham
With pine trees and giant hardwoods vying for space amidst bamboo, all set to a backdrop of verdant ride fields today's scene could perhaps be summed up as topical low alpine. We are now riding at 1100 meters which helps to keep a cycling friendly climate, which, combined with just 55 kilometres of riding including a 20 kilometres descent means another relaxing day on the bikes.
Day 7. Muang Kham to Namneaun
A pleasant few kilometres warm up across a wide fertile valley lead us to today's longest climb which sees us gain 1100 metres over 18 kilometres. Now at 1500 metres above sea level, we are treated to stunning views, as for 50 kilometres we undulate along a ridge. Our day ends with a winding twenty-kilometre descent to the valley floor and our resting place for the night.
Day 8. Namneaun to Vieng Thong.
A cheeky little six-kilometre climb will warm you up for today's major event in the form of a 1000 metre altitude gain over a distance of 25KMS. All of this on a road all but bereft of motorcars as we wind our jungle vegetation and agricultural land. The villages we pass through along the way consist of the simple homes of the Kms people, and after 45 kilometres we enter a protected area where the jungle becomes much deeper and thicker. The day draws to an end with a 15 kilometre downhill to our guest house.
Day 9: Vieng Thong to Vieng Kham
Undoubtedly one of the toughest days of the tour our ride today is also one of the most rewarding. The road is so light of traffic that seeing a car is a noteworthy event, and the jungle is now so dense it is one of the few places in SE Asia where tigers still roam wild. The meandering valley of the Nam Seng river leads us to the final climb of the day, before descending for 20kms to our night’s lodgings.
Day 10: Vieng Kham to Nong Kiaw
Following yesterday’s somewhat challenging day in the saddle, today’s shorter distance will undoubtedly come as a relief as a gentle climb followed by a descent towards Nong Kiaw will see you in our riverside resort in time for lunch.
Day 11: Nong Kiaw - Rest Day.
A pleasant, small village on the banks of the Nam Ou River Nong Kiaw has built up around the needs of back-packers and has just the sort of laid back vibe a weary cyclist needs on a well-earned rest day. And by now a rest is much needed, and where better than chilling at our riverside resort, or wandering around this convivial little village.
Day 12: Nong Kiaw to Oudomxai
A flat 35 kilometres takes us to our first break for the day. Straight afterwards we embark on the first of the day's two notable climbs as a perfectly surfaced, Chinese built roads twists ever upward to lunch. The afternoon features a sweeping descent and another, shorter climb through beautiful Laotian scenery before the final 18 kilometres downhill leads us to the town of Oudomxai with its industrious Chinese influence.
Day 13: Oudomxai to Pak Beng
Fortunately, with 145 kilometres ahead of us today, by the time we have our first break the lions share of the climbing will be behind us. The rest of the day gently undulates downward through an area of agricultural land and rubber plantations as we make our way towards the Mekong River.
Day 14: Pak Beng to Luang Prabang - River Cruise
With the cycling now behind us we can relax and enjoy a classic river trip aboard our private charter riverboat. Read a book, enjoy a beer, and relax and watch the jungles of Lao drift by as we make our way slowly towards one of the gems of Southeast Asia, the delightful town of Luang Prabang.
Day 15. Tour Ends.
The tour officially ends after breakfast today. For those leaving straight away, we will, of course, provide a transfer to the nearby international airport. However, Luang Prabang is not a town for leaving in a hurry, it is a town to remain at, form lingering, wandering amongst the temples and colonial architecture, and relaxing at wonderful little cafés. We are of course more than happy to arrange any extra nights you require.
Markers below are clickable as are the markers on the map itself.
We're sorry we don't have any future dates for this trip in the calendar yet. Do please get in touch if you'd like to ask about some dates or a custom trip.