Asia | South East Asia | Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos) – Water, Water, Water everywhere
Crossing the border into Laos was yet another culture shock. A change in the pace of life that was so acute it was surreal. Gone were the ever-productive paddy fields of the morning, gone where the ever-busy Vietnamese people bustling to work, three on a bike. This was a mountainous land, which has been untouched by the western world for many years, and it showed. Whereas the Vietnamese seem to squeeze every ounce of value from everything, whether that be the harsh land or the unwary tourist they do it with a unique energy. My first impression of the Lao people was one of comparative relaxation and peace.
Bordering on Backwards
The road winding down from the high border crossing passed through tiny villages, all a jumble of straw roofed stilted huts. The local populous seemed to be leisurely playing in the rivers and streams. There was little traffic and with the long early evening shadows it felt like rural England on a summer Sunday afternoon.
I was pretty tired. I had biked 100km and 1,000metres in altitude that morning and it was still 40km to the next town. The Dutch cyclist I had fleetingly talked to at the border said it was a continued descent. It was not as downhill as I had hoped for, there were occasional climbs and I had to pedal a lot more than I wanted too! I stopped and finished off my final packet of Vietnamese biscuits. Eager to get off the bike I pull over at the first gathering of structures that could arguably be labeled a town. After a quick Coke-stop I asked the barman whether they was any accommodation in the town, he said no and intimated that a town further down the road had rooms. I was eager not to have a repeat of my Cambodia to Vietnam debacle where I cycled over 150km in search of a bed ultimately ending in a night of exhaustion and vomiting. I took stock of the situation and predicting the next town to be a good few kilometers away searched my bags for my emergency energy rations.
Artificial New York Energy
When my local bike shop owner carried out the final service on my machine prior to my triumphant departure from the big apple Mr. C (for that is Carls name) thrust upon me an endless supply of liquid gel energy products. A foil packet of goo containing a cocktail of caffeine, sugar, carbohydrates and other legally turbocharged substances.
Ten years prior on my last big cycling adventure we did run out of food in the remote high altitude deserts of Bolivia. After a depressing night arguing over who got the 11 piece of our last orange we walked with our bikes, too exhausted to cycle until we came across a mining town the following lunchtime. There, we gorged ourselves on Nestle condensed milk! A painful experience and one I did not want to ever happen again.
Although the energy gel is predominantly aimed at road racers I bought a couple with me as a mental last resort. If things got as bad as the Bolivian Alti-plano I would survive! I hadnt taken one yet but with the agonizing memory of my ride into Saigon fresh in my mind I ripped open and sucked down a Power Bar peanut butter and tangerine double caffeine pus!
Raring to go, a fresh pair of legs attached to my torso (I really felt a difference) I set off prepared for another hour or two of riding before I found a place to stay. I was therefore a little shocked when only 300 meters from where I started was the town proper and the local guesthouse was a few meters along a dirt track! After checking-in, charged to the hilt I immediately showered, washed all my clothes, serviced my bike then lay for an hour on my bed, pupils as big saucers waiting for my energy high to subside!
A Quiet and Empty Land
Laos for the uninitiated, of which I was one till pretty recently, is a land locked country, hemmed in by Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, China and Burma. Predominantly mountainous it was closed to tourists till 1979. It is sparsely populated; as a comparison to neighboring Vietnam the population density is 23 per sq. km, compared to 237 in Vietnam. During the Vietnam War the Ho Chi Minh Trail crossed through Eastern Laos and was bombed by US planes continuously. This has earned Laos the reputation as the most bombed nation on the planet.
The whole country is very low tech, there are hardly any cars, and motorbikes are a luxury. Oddly the main roads are of excellent quality, Laos receives a lot of aid nowadays and the Japanese government built them these quality roads (my theory is so they can sell more Hondas!). it is a beautiful place to cycle and many travellers rate this country in there top three. Sometimes you feel like you are stepping back to medieval Europe, it is amazing. The major economy is farming but unlike other countries it is of the slash and burn type. Scorching the land, burning the trees and shrubs to naturally fertilize the land. This however also burns other organic material in the soil and after 2 fires the field has to be discarded. Wild hunting is also popular; men with slingshots and rifles are a common sight.
My route took me from the eastern border up and down hilly and deserted roads until I met the main highway that runs along the Mekong River from the far south up as far as Luang Prabang in the North. When I intersected with this highway I was surprised to find an equally quiet road. Nothing going on. I stayed at a scummy guesthouse; I washed using only a small bucket of cold water and the power was out by 8pm.
The Rain in Lao stays Mainly in the Plain
It was about 250km along this highway to Vientiane, the capital. I had given myself 2 days to complete the route and was very pleased to find the road to be flat and windless. The surrounding scenery was not as inspiring as the hilly ride from the border. The people though were super-friendly and it was nice after a couple of hard days to bowl along on a flat road, a self-created breeze cooling down the hot day. A long lunch followed by a snooze on the banks of the Mekong had me still cycling at around 5pm. With 20km to my target town I passed another cyclist. Rich was from Derby in England and after teaching English in China for a year had flown to Thailand. Feeling too old for the standard backpacker thing had purchased a bike in Chang Mai and had spent the last few weeks coming down through Laos. He was on a super tight budget and I agreed to camp with him that night forfeiting a good bed for good company.
Off the road we pitched our tents in a flat field, made a fire, cooked some noodles and relaxed in the silence of the Lao countryside. Rich was one of the those guys who was a perpetual traveller, he had done odd jobs all over the world, earning enough money to pay for his next trip; construction in Germany, teaching in China, career counseling in Derby and unbelievably, oil exploration in Austria!
About 2am I was woken by a bright flash of light and in the distance I could hear the rumble of thunder. As it got closer I zipped up my outer tent door and dozed back to sleep. This was short lived, with the wind suddenly blowing a gale around us the storm was directly overhead. The rain came down in buckets. Never before have I heard such loud thunder. Despite my pessimistic expectations my tent stayed upright. I had only employed 2 pegs to hold it down, thankfully I had used a rock to knock them in rather than the usual half-hearted foot stamp. The rain kept coming down and after what felt like an hour Rich called to me to say that his tent was swamped and he had to find somewhere else to sleep. My tent was fine, but uneager to venture out of my dry domain I opened my door to realize that we had camped in a barren paddy field that was now six inches deep in water. Another inch and the water was going to overflow and come in through my mesh door. My shoes and bag that had been stowed outside had floated off and could be seen bobbing away in the distance!
Rich has long gone by this stage, his tent bowing with the weight of water, a soggy mess next to mine. I quickly moved my tent onto higher ground before looking for Richard. He was nowhere to be seen and with nothing else to do I went back to bed. At dawn I was woken by conversations outside. Rich had returned having slept on the deck of a nearby house, giving the residents an early morning surprise. We spent a while retrieving all our possessions that had floated away before packing up our wet and soggy equipment and heading off on our separate ways. A unique and crazy night in Laos!
That Friday night afternoon feeling
I made it to Vientiane for a late lunch. Checking into a hotel in the center of the tiny capital I washed all my equipment and hung out all wet camping gear across the room to dry. My goal here was to get everything ready for the next part of the trip. Updating my diary was a big goal, conscious that sporadic Internet connections will limit my updates heading forward (the lateness of this one is a knock-on testament to this!)
Vientiane was a very unassuming city that was in wind down mode. Like the last working day before Christmas in London or New York, Laos was preparing for Songkran; the regional New Years Celebration. The entire country closes down for a week. In town traditional concerts were being performed for the locals. This I realized was the innocent start of a crazy celebration.
Happy Happy New Year!
Cycling out of the city a few days later I realized what Songkran really means to the Lao people. Everybody takes to the streets and huge water fights take place. Everything from supercharged water pistols wielded by teenage gangs to metal bowls owned by naked toddlers was used. Every village and town I cycled through for the next four days saw me get drenched from head to foot. Being a slow moving orange bike I was an easy target. Everybody was in a great mood, trucks chock-a-block with people were leaving one town to the next going home to see their families. Each vehicle loaded down with colored water bombs, endless buckets of water and bags of flour! The ultra white socks I have managed to maintain since the start of the trip were no more; the blue and red dyed water dripping off my torso through my socks and out of my boots!
While the kids where soaking the masses the hardened men and women (particularly women it seemed) were in the local hangouts consuming rice wine and plenty of BeerLao. It was hard to avoid, entire villages would be dancing in the street comatose at 8am, forcing me to stop, be doused in water, coated in flour then down a shot or two of the local liquor. A few times my bike was hijacked and I was obliged to join what appeared to be an impromptu pub-crawl with the partying locals. The whole country was involved, it was a crazy fun time. These people work so hard all year when they have the opportunity to let their hair down they do it!
After spending a night at a hotel looking out on a massive reservoir I stopped off in the small town of Vang Vieng. Equidistant from Vientiane and Luang Prabang it has become a major stopping off point for the backpacker community. The main street of this village is now full of cafes serving up western food and western music, everybody hangs out here for a day or two. The countryside around the town is beautiful, crossing the river on a makeshift reed footbridge I cycled out through limestone crags to visit ancient caves and cool rivers.
I bumped into a couple of young Brits I met in Vietnam, they were enjoying Songkran, a massive East vs. West water fight was in play, everybody in the town totally drenched for a day! After a great Indian Curry I was back on my way heading towards Luang Prabang, a hilly two-day, two hundred kilometer ride ahead.
Up and Down
The road was amazing, with fewer towns there was less water being thrown, traffic was even quieter than before as everybody was back in their villages. The road meandered around all morning before it headed up. It climbed and climbed passing through tiny hamlets, the hillsides a patchwork of green forest and blackened smoldering wasteland. As I gained altitude the air became cooler and the final ascent of the first day was a 30km slog up to a chilly village oddly comprising of straw houses and massive satellite TV dishes.
My final day to Luang Prabang was a very hilly undulating day, all the altitude gained, quickly lost, then gained again, it was hot and I was thankful for the occasional waterfall by the roadside to shower under and cool down. At a rest stop I met a group of 3 Thai mountain bikers who were doing the route in reverse, they assured me it was nearly all down hill. A beautifully fast 35km descent led to a cool river for a swim before a final climb then a grand final descent into to the river plain that lead to Luang Prabang; the ancient city and World Heritage Site.