Asia | South East Asia | Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) – Leaving Laos
The tensions of passing through military checkpoints, ethereal silent wanderings through the Plain of Jars’, gluttonous days spent in bustling markets and backpacker havens, cycling within a weird vehicular emptiness along northern Laos highways, and so much energy given and received in a hundred thousand Sabbai Dees in every village and town are gone now. But I remember…
I remember the stillness in the evening heat. I remember that at nightfall, fireflies dance through the air, toads bellow their greetings to each other in sporadic bursts of unity, and chirping cricket sounds ease as the breeze picks up and thunder again booms in the distance. A few drops of rain begin falling, increasing gradually to a constant shower. By morning, low clouds drift mystically between spires of limestone surrounded by lush tropical jungle and a river gurgles its way through the valley below.
Its an easy place to relax and forget about time, whiling away the hours and days floating with the current in an inner tube drinking Beer Lao after swinging, jumping, or leaping into the Naam Song River. Along the way there are caves to explore where Lao fighters hid from the Americans during the Vietnam War. The climbs to some are steep and treacherous, while others have modern footbridges and concrete stairways that replace bamboo ladders of former times. Pouring out from the infamous Poukham cave is a turquoise stream swimming with small fish protected by law from consumption. An invitation to go for a cooling dip is signed in English beside a changing area. Splashing through the mud and grinding through knee-deep rivers, I make my way back to the Riverside Bungalows in Vang Vieng on my sturdy mountain bike in the center of northern Laos – South East Asias emerging adventure playground! A cool shower washes off the mud sticking to the back of my head and caked up and down my legs.
My visa started expiring a week ago – or at least I sensed that the days were more numbered. I felt I had to start moving again in this wonderful country and see what I could with the remaining days. So I got back on the bike and headed out from Nong Khiew making my way east.
The relatively well-paved road from Nong Khiaw to Vieng Khom begins with some undulating hills through spectacular limestone karsts that press up against the side of the road and contain some more of the caves where the Pathet Lao lived during the War. After about 5 km, it begins a steady and steep uphill climb for about 25 km before descending to the village of Vieng Khom. Perhaps two or three trucks and maybe a dozen motorbikes pass me on the road in the span of six hours. It is hot and other than the intermittent buzz of the jungle, it is quiet and peaceful between villages. Passing through the villages, parents usher their children forward and urge them to shout Sabai Dii (hello) to the passing foreigner on a bicycle. Dodging water buffalo, cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, and sleeping dogs between the potholes on the road, I wave and smile saying Sabai dii” countless times to people of all ages in various states of undress. Pausing where I see a shop, I ask Mii Naam Deum Baw” (do you have drinking water?). Baw Mii”(no have) is the reply. The answer is the same for the rest of the day. On arriving at the top of the mountain pass, running low on water, I buy a type of juice drink while a man taunts a civet cat trapped inside a carrying container made of bamboo.
There is a golden rule that what goes up must come down’ and I enjoy the cool and swift 15 km descent to Vieng Khom, a big village with one or two very basic guesthouses and one kind gentleman who runs a restaurant for the few foreigners who stop there. Sitting by the riverside on his bamboo deck, we speak some English that he has been teaching himself. At the guesthouse, I am pestered by the owners children who crowd into my room wanting to watch everything that I do. The eldest son wants me to go his school and teach English, but I am much too tired after so much uphill cycling in the forty-degree heat.
After a morning omelet and some delicious Lao coffee, I am off again for a 55 km ride that is again a long steady and steep climb for the morning and part of the afternoon. The road winds up and up and around the mountaintops. I am tempted to try and hail a passing truck after about 40 km of uphill riding, but it seems there are no vehicles traveling this road today. Eating lunch just outside of a village, hawks circle above and a group of school children coming home pass me by giggling and staring. This part of Laos does not see many tourists. I get back on the bike and, as usual, I am only a few kilometers from the beginning of the downhill. Soon enough, I am in a very small village with one guesthouse that offers a room next to where the young family is sleeping. The bathroom of the guesthouse is a simple open hut just down the hill from the house on the main road. Two doors down, a family runs a restaurant. As far as I can tell, no one in this village speaks any English, not even hello’ so my Laos goes through some practical improvement. Children play a game of sandal throwing, and an older sister amuses her brother with one of the village chickens. Water buffalo wander by the bedroom on their way to their sleeping quarters next to the gas station/shack across the road. Some teenage boys take more than a passing interest in my bicycle and the guesthouse owner wants to put it inside his store for the evening – something that makes me feel grateful.
Onward to Vieng Tong at 7:30 a.m., I put on the CD player for the first 45 minutes, as I know I have three very steep and long hills to go this morning. The ride is eerily quiet and I wonder if this is the road that my government has warned travelers to avoid. In and near one village, the people all run inside their houses and into the jungle in a panic when they see me approach. It is one world, but there are still many differences and some misunderstandings. Stopping for lunch, I spot the leeches as they climb up my shoes, and flick or burn them off before they reach my skin while flies, wasps, bees, and other unknown bugs bang into and buzz around me. I decide my bike is too heavy and start making a list of more things to ship home to Canada when I get back to Bangkok.
Vieng Tong is a transit town and the next morning, having had enough of endless hills in the burdensome heat, I put my bike on the bus thinking I might go to Phonsavan. It turns out that it was a very good choice to get on a bus. The road out of Vien Tong is pure rubble – steep uphill rubble. After just over two hours of steady driving, the bus has managed to put just under 30 kms behind us. At the junction leading to Phonsavan, I decide to stay on the bus and go to Sam Neua in the far northeast of Laos, and it turns out to be one of those spontaneous decisions leading to a magical moment or two, and my first experience of mid-jungle military checkpoints and inspections.
Sam Neua itself, is a fairly non-descript bustling provincial capital with a busy marketplace that sells everything Chinese. I stayed in one of the best Laos guesthouses (one that included fresh towels, mineral water, hot tea, and even toothpaste), but what made the trip especially memorable and magical was the drive out and up from the town. At the hillside military checkpoint, one young man obviously had the wrong answers and paperwork for the military and was yanked off the bus. Soon after, the other five civilians plus the four soldiers on the bus and I were awestruck by the views enfolding below and around us. We rise through to miniature vertical mountaintops with wispy clouds winding through the endless valleys. Except for the sound of our bus, all is silent and still. Dawn keeps trying to break through the cloud in vain. For the first time, as Murphys Law would have it, and against my instincts of the night before, I have left both my rain jacket, rain poncho, and fleece pullover in the bags tied securely on the roof – and of course, the rains come. We are high in the mountains and the chill sets in. The driver pulls over and pulls the tarp down on the side of the bus. This does nothing to alleviate the passenger sitting across from me, exhaust fumes drifting in, as he continues to hang his head outside, spitting, heaving, and trying to breathe,
After about six hours, we begin the descent to Phonsavan, home of the UNESCO World Heritage Site called the Plain of Jars. The Jars are one of our worlds mysteries. Although they are thought to be made between the 6th and 14th centuries, archeologists still do not have a definitive answer as to why they were made, how they got where they are, or what they were used for. Some speculate that they were used for water storage; others speculate that they were used for burial, and others believe that they are a spiritual offering medium.
On arrival, I charter a jeep for some of the lesser-known sites documented by UNESCO. There are a total of sixty sites and we visit six of them during a morning that starts at just before seven, finishing at site one, home of the largest jar measuring just over two meters by two meters. Children sing while we walk among the ruins, bells of the water buffalo ring as they work the rice fields, and I take numerous photographs and video.
Phonsavan has a great Indian restaurant, and I have many meals at the Nisha, while staying across the street at Muang Phuane Hotels spacious garden suite for $4.3 each night. I buy a bomb for ten dollars. Right next-door at the guesthouse preferred by lonely planet guidebook devotees, they sell bombs. Used bombs.
Its a very weird feeling buying a bomb, even if it is not a bomb that is going to kill someone. How do I know that it didnt already do that? I think I will put it on my desk in my office one day as a penholder or at least as something that is conspicuous. Im not sure why, but I think that if I do, Ill make someone think three times about whether its more valuable and economically viable to make friends or help those in need than to tackle them with violence. Perhaps that is deluded thinking, but I looked at the map of bombsites near Phonsavan and came to the conclusion that it was such a colossal waste of money to blow up so much of the country. How much did my bomb cost new?
After a few days in Phonsavan, I move on to Vang Vieng, which you already know about. After another few days hanging out in Vang Vieng, its an easy one day pancake flat ride to Vientiane. 50 kms outside the city, the traffic becomes heavier, the Sabbai diis become bye byes”, then hellos”, then nothing in the emptiness of urbanity. I stay at the Inter Hotel in one of the cheaper rooms, doing some sightseeing before leaving Laos.
As a cyclist, you occasionally get to do some things that few others get to do. Crossing the Friendship Bridge to Thailand is one of them. To quote a fellow traveler …you get to feel the country as it passes beneath your feet”. There are highs that come with the lows of cycling – and I am not just talking about hills and valleys. Most foreigners zip through the villages and are but fleeting glimpses for the local people so sheltered from modern society. As a cyclist, you are an ambassador of sorts, setting the tone, and it’s almost obligatory to smile and say hello, even when you are low, exhausted from the heat, in need of food, or water. How can the small children, old women, or the young farmers and teenagers hoping to live in a better world know how you feel? They only see your face and your actions.
They are wary, but want to welcome you, and know nothing of the hundreds upon hundreds of times you have already said hello, practiced English, stopped at one particular shop, or allowed people to stare and touch you to see if you’re real. It’s not easy to cycle and you do not go from one place that has pizza and baguettes to another, but it is magical. And it’s super real.
Miss you Lots Laos!