Whether you are planning to be in the capitol for a year or a day there’s a great new way to become acquainted with city life and see the sights. So, leave the guidebook behind and saddle up for an insider’s view of Vientiane.
Vientiane ByCycle, a company founded by Aline van der Meulen, a 13-year resident of Vientiane, 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 become a successful enterprise.
Aline, a former art critic, travel agent, and flight attendant shares her personal insights, history, and fun facts about all aspects of life in Laos while cycling the city on one of 20 high-end mountain bikes available to riders. The full day tour is the most popular, but half day tours are also available. A Lao lunch, snacks, and drinks are provided along with gloves and helmets for the safety conscious.
“The bicycles are in good shape and pedal well,” says Jane Phillips, a Houston native who is traveling with her friends in Laos and Cambodia. “I’m not normally athletic, but using this bike has been fun and easy.”
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.”
Everywhere we went we saw real life happening. 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, dancers carrying umbrellas, and a few bottles that looked suspiciously like Beer Lao. I’m told that the red shirt with white flowers is in anticipation of the Lao new year.
So far most of the clients are from Australia, England, and the United States, but there are also groups of Japanese travelers and some Europeans who want something beyond the backpacker self-guided tour. Sites like Trip Advisor give favorable reviews and help spread the word in the English speaking world. Getting the word out to non-native English speakers has proven to be more difficult thus far.
“Trip Advisor is a major tool,” says Aline. “Of course there is always a danger that copycat companies will sandbag the results with false reviews, but we haven’t seen anything like that yet.”
These kinds of personalized tours are on the rise, but there is no substitute for a high service high quality experience like the one given by Vientiane ByCycle. Good luck to any copy cat company trying to break into this market. It would be tough to compete with such a professional operation.
“I started this business here out of a feeling of rebellion,” says Aline. “Places like Luang Prubang 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.”
Once registered, clients receive an email suggesting clothes, sunblock, and other useful tips. It is well-advised to follow the expertise of seasoned pros unless you want the most awesome farmer’s tan ever made or don’t mind getting mud on your linen suit.
Aline’s husband, whom she met while they were both traveling in Kazakhstan, participates in the tours and makes sure that no one is left behind and can stop for photos or an unscheduled pit stop.
The couple enjoys working together, and both are participants in the cycling club, Team Dai, which starts pedaling before the the Dalai Lama starts his day. ‘Dai,’ which means ‘can do’ in Lao and literally ‘die’ in English is a group of hard core cyclists who recently raised 7,000 USD for children through the Phean Mit Project.
The minimum number of riders for a tour is two and the cap is 20, but Aline prefers to take out a group of eight to ten for greater ease and flexibility.
I can highly recommend this service to any tourist or families looking for a nice day out. If you have someone visiting you here, send them on the tour and then go back and spend more time in the favorite places later. For me, it was a chance to get a great perspective of the city – and a full night of sleep.
Reservations can be made on the website, www.vientianebycycle.com or call 020 55812337, at least a day in advance.
By Greg Dolezal, writing for J&C Expat Services