VIENTIANE, LAOS – By bicycle, one can see the real Laos everywhere. From a Lao wedding engagement party complete with super-loud music pumped from a way-too-big sound system, to a celebration that looked to me like the second line march in New Orleans with brass instruments, umbrella-carrying dancers and a few bottles that looked suspiciously like Beer Lao, everywhere we cycled, we saw real life happening.
Thirteen-year Vientiane resident Aline van der Meulen offers English-language city tours, rain or shine, every day of the year. In her own words, “Dutch people are born on bikes,” and what started off as a hobby has since become the successful enterprise known as Vientiane ByCycle.
A former art critic, travel agent and flight attendant, van der Meulen shares her personal insights, history and fun facts about life in Laos while cycling the city on one of 20 high-end mountain bikes available to riders.
“I started this business here out of a feeling of rebellion,” says van der Meulen. “Places like Luang Prabang get all the attention because they are lovely, but they are like open-air museums compared to the life-as-it-really-is beauty of Vientiane.”
Visits to various temples, markets and monuments can be found by anyone with a map and a bike, but what makes this experience unique are the people and flavors that only someone in the know can show. Taste sweet rice as it’s being made by a local family, meet a veteran cock fight trainer or a former general who collects Vietnam war era artifacts.
“I really like the variety and the perspective on local life,” says Anne-Marie Goudoever, a Dutch traveler who runs her own eco-bicycle tour company in Malaysia. “It’s a good mix with plenty of interesting background information.”
So far, most of Vientiane ByCycle’s clients are from Australia, England and the United States, but there are also groups of Japanese travelers and various Europeans who want something beyond the backpacker self-guided tour. Once registered, ByCycle’s clients receive an email suggesting clothes, sunblock and other useful tips. It is advised to follow the expertise of seasoned pros unless you want the most awesome farmer’s tan ever or don’t mind getting mud on your linen suit.
While traveling in Kazakhstan, van der Meulen met her husband, who today participates in the tours and makes sure that no one is left behind and can stop for photos or an unscheduled pit stop. Managing large groups can be difficult—the minimum number of riders for a tour is two and the cap is 20—which is why van der Meulen says that groups of around nine or 10 are the easiest and most flexible.
If you’re skeptical about traveling alone but also aren’t keen to join an expensive mainstream tour group, ByCyle is an excellent option. Cycling around the country’s capital is a great chance to get a real perspective of the city—and a full night’s sleep.
Vientiane ByCycle offers full-day and half-day tours. A Lao lunch, snacks and drinks are provided along with gloves and helmets for the safety-conscious. Reservations can be made via their website, www.vientianebycycle.com, or call 020-55812337 at least a day in advance.
Lead photo courtesy of Asian Trails.