As dusk fell on the tranquil Thai banks of the powerful Mekong, with the laughter of children playing in the gentle eddies below wafting across our balcony, the new moon lit up our next adventure – Laos, a very different world across the water.
We were expecting things to be a little tougher on the other side. A maze of huge hills to navigate, a less developed infrastructure and our first experience of a communist country. However, before we set off across the water we had one of those precious nights when you are travelling, where you meet people for a fleeting moment but leave as old friends. This would turn out to be a recurring theme in Laos. We left our South East Asian favourite Thailand, the land of smiles, on a high.
With no bridge across the water we had to put our trust in the local ‘ferry’. The ticket lady decided that Hooch, being a very long bicycle, warranted us buying two extra tickets to transport him on the wobbly longboat. It was still a bargain and a service with a smile and lots of laughs of course.
We managed to negotiate our way through the slow, ‘what’s the hurry’ immigration process and get our hands on our first million kip (the local currency). Our reward – a Beer Laos (the national brew) and our first baguette for months. Laos used to be a French colony and a few things like good bread remained after they became independent. Laos seems at first as the Thai might say – ‘same same but different’.
First day’s cycle
Our first day of cycling in Laos was hard; the hills were big and steep. We made it to the small village of Ban Den Chai which is the only village we knew of with a ‘guest house’. It had three basic rooms, but a lovely little river below it. It was nice to watch the world go by for a few hours. What struck us was that there was very little traffic. Not many people here have scooters or even bicycles – most people seem to be walking. Cows wander by too. Kids on their way back from school walk along the side of the road, laughing and goofing around, but for the first time in SE Asia I saw most of them don’t have shoes. Adults walk past, each with a shoulder bag and machete. Some carry firewood on their back supported by a strap across their forehead. This is rural Laos.
Hills, mountain villages and hills.
Many who arrive at the border town of Huay Xai take the slow boat for two days to Luang Prabang, the historic provincial capital. With our sometimes foolhardy commitment to cycle whenever we can, we declined this romantic sounding trip and opted for the single road into the mountains of the far north.
When I was here 13 years ago, route 3 was a dirt track. I hadn’t even tried to cycle the road as it was barely passable by truck. I remember wheels slipping in the mud with scary mountain slopes to the side. We were a little unsure of what to expect when we set off to cycle this road. This part of Laos remains remote and mountainous and the small communities that live here are still among the nations poorest, yet the dirt road is now gone. Thanks to the help of Laos’ mega neighbour, China, we found ourselves on probably the best quality road of our trip so far…
We had mixed feelings about this Chinese investment but we soon forgot about the ribbon of wealth beneath our wheels and immersed ourselves in the hard mountain climbs and the simplicity of village life. While there is clear hardship involved in living in these communities that pepper the hills of Laos, there is also a joy that radiates out from their humble existence.
A glimpse of village life.
As we travelled further into Laos, each day involved more hard hill climbing than the last. It seemed extraordinary to us that people lived up here. Some hills took us three or more hours to climb and snaked endlessly through an impossible labyrinth of contours and along razor-like ridges in between. To see strings of huts clinging to isolated stretches of road, bamboo stilts allowing some abodes to jut out over the valleys that dropped steeply many hundreds of metres below, was quite something.
It was fascinating to see how time was spent in these little communities. Sleeping and sitting appear to be the activities most engaged in but there is a hive of socialising, creativity and manufacturing as well. Still, everyone had time to shout ‘sa-bai-dee!’ (hello) and wave or high five us on our way.
We felt so lucky to be on a bike sweating our way slowly through these places. The odd air-conditioned mini bus would hurtle past us now and then but the envy would soon ebb away as we realised what we would be missing if we weren’t on two wheels.
As we passed through one village, with piglets and chickens running for cover, Kat said ‘If I lived here, I would just have loads of babies’. I thought I understood. ‘I know what you mean Kat. What with these hot lazy afternoons and nothing else to do…’
I can’t see Kat on the back of the bike but I know when she rolls her eyes. ‘No, it’s not the heat or the boredom. It’s because where ever you look, you are surrounded by new life.’
New life! Kat had cracked it for me. That is what makes these villages so vibrant. The terrified piglet that almost got made into sausages by our front wheel, scampering off past a veggie patch of week-old lettuce and lemon grass, over the leathery feet of a betel-chewing grandma swinging a baby in a hammock, through a ditch where a hen flaps in panic as little trotters threaten to squash one of her young learning to scratch in the dirt, past the half-naked kids splashing and scrubbing under the village tap, through a gap in a rickety bamboo fence, with one last squeal, chubby bottom and curly tail and out of sight.
Note to self: Monitor Kat’s exposure to new life, otherwise we could be flying home quicker than we planned…
Oudom Xai to Pak Mong
You have probably never heard of this stretch of road in Laos. If you have heard of it and you get a slight shudder through your body and small grin on your face, you are probably one of the other cyclists who have taken on this road. At Oudom Xai the Chinese have stopped building their roads so things start to get a bit rough. While it is only 80 kms, it took us 11 hours and we finished in the dark.
This really is a most terrible road. Potholes, rocks, broken slabs of tarmac. It has a total climb of over 1500 metres and going downhill is harder than going up! The trucks that use the route drive where ever they can to avoid holes and spray dust and stone in their wake. But this is the only road – so what are you going to do?
Well I have to say we ended up really enjoying the challenge. I think we have missed the ‘will we make it?’ days we experienced in Australia and New Zealand. Yes, there were tears – but we have come to learn that those are the days we look back on and say ‘we did good’. It put some adventure back in to the cycling, lots of slamming on of brakes, little skids and the triple bang – the sound of each of our three wheels bouncing over an obstacle. Bodies jarred to pieces.
Hooch finally had enough too, which we understood – only a puncture luckily. The first puncture since Bali which is amazing really. Some locals came to help which was fun. I gave them different things to hold and I pumped up the tyre on one of their scooters in return.
When we got to Pak Mong in the dark, we had a candle lit dinner (the town had a power cut). We treated ourselves to a plate of water buffalo. It was a huge portion of fried meat that tasted just like I expected – chewy beef.
A nice lady who spoke English had a room in her guesthouse.
‘Best room in town. Air-con, TV, electric shower.’ Proud.
‘Sounds great. Do you have power then?’ Confused.
‘No, no power in Pak Mong. We have candle.’ Proud.
So really it’s just a bed in a room. ‘Perfect, we’ll take it.’ Too tired…
The adventure is back on
We made it to Luang Prabang, which was pleasant, but we didn’t quite click with it. We did have a couple of cheeky western dishes there, a pizza and a burger as well as a few baguettes and beers by the river, but we were keen to carry on. We knew we had some exciting days ahead. We met so many cyclists in Luang Prabang that you might imagine everyone is cycling the world on a bike. The thing is they are so easy to spot, even with out a loaded cycle. They have silly tan lines in odd places, a terrible wardrobe and two empty plates of food in front of them…
We also bumped into our friend Jean-Claude in Luang Prabang, the French cycling chum we meet a couple of weeks before.
Jimmy and Janie, cyclists from America, also crossed our path again. We were put to shame when we bumped into Janie having a jog on her day off after we had just stuffed a couple of calorific baguettes.
As soon as we left town we were into the big hills again. The views were nothing less than stunning. This land was never designed for roads. Looking out over the peaks and valleys, we had no idea how we would emerge on the other side.
For a few days we crossed paths with a lovely couple from Austria. Flo and Klara were a bit quicker than us but it was nice to catch up with them at the end of each day. It was reassuring to compare aches and pains, and the sights we had seen on the road.
The accommodation continued to be limited. One day we arrived in the little town of Kiu Kachem, checked into their most ‘luxurious’ room after a relentless day in the saddle and settled in. There was the grottiest shared bathroom with a squat toilet and leeches in the water you use to flush and wash. Romantic. You can only imagine our disappointment when we found a small notice informing us we were prohibited from making sex movies in the room.
In the end the Laos hills spit you out and you look back wondering how you came through it. We had a couple of relaxing days in Vang Vieng.
And that was Laos
Before we knew it we were in Vientiene, the capital. We had six days waiting and hoping for our Chinese visa to come through. We were both elated to get that little sticker in our passport. While we still have a few months left in SE Asia, we can already feel the presence of China and we are looking forward to exploring this great unknown. We still don’t know what to make of the Chinese influence in Laos. As trade routes continue to develop through Laos and natural resources are tapped to supply China’s economic boom, fragile Laos is certainly at a pivotal point in its history. And in what way will this global power shift influence the isolated villages of the Laos hills? Perhaps the scene we saw repeated along the road will hold the answer:
A couple walk to a field on the dirt next to a new Chinese road with shoulder bag and machete. The bags sewn from a discarded cement sack and machetes off-cuts of concrete re-enforcing rods beaten and tempered in the charcoals from the hearth.
Thank you Laos!