Goodbye Laos (April 21st - April 25th)
(Pakse - Champasak - Don Khong)
Distance biked so far: (10,829 km)
I stayed an extra day at the beautiful Champasak Palace in Pakse partially because it was so nice but also due to some problems with my back. I have been plagued with back problems over the years and have been blessed to have remained pain free on my trip to date. The problems are not due to a muscle or a disc so the typical remedies of stretching or massage are of no value rather I am troubled by stiffness and often have difficulty standing. The only remedy is to sleep on my side in the fatal position and take the pressure off muscles in spasm. I can bike with the problem but walking is difficult and it will take a week or so to get back to normal.
On one of the nights I was fortunate enough to have a large tour group of tourists from Thailand join me in the hotel. They come to Laos to shop and on this night partook of another passion common to many in SE Asia, Karaoke. Yes, Karaoke is still alive here and quite popular. There is nothing wrong with being a bad singer, I am one myself but with Karaoke, you typically get the worst feature of many bad singers, they think they are good. There was one female singer that stood up and sang for a half hour and I gather no one had the heart to yank her off the stage. Mercifully, the bar closed at 11:30 pm.
I also watched some television while trying to recover and that was also unfortunate. There are two main programs on the television, music videos and sitcoms. The music videos are all exactly the same and involve one of two scenarios. If it is a young male singer, the video will be about him meeting a girl with both of them laughing and enjoying things like smelling a flower together or walking hand in hand on a railway track. The utopian scene is disrupted however when he soon realizes she has a boyfriend and just as a fight is ready to break out, she jumps in, sides with her old boyfriend and the singer is left walking with his head down as the sun sets on a beach. If the singer happens to be female, she meets a handsome boy and all is well until he has a few too many drinks one night and meets another girl. The singer is then heartbroken and often tragedy strikes as she will get hit by a car or die in an accident as the song ends. It's all quite dramatic and emotional.
The other programs are the horrible sitcoms. They almost always involve men dressing up as women wearing wigs, high heels and speaking in exaggerated high pitched voices that women really don't have but is supposed to sound funny. They also have the irritating canned laugh tracks and as a special bonus you get sound effects to remind you when to laugh. For example, a young male will be dressed up with a huge wig, high heels, way too much make up and be engaged in a dialog with a group of young women. It gets even funnier when he says something that is followed by a boing sound and the required laugh track. It actually hurt me to watch the show and so instead of just a back pain, I was nauseous. I lived the last 3 years in Bermuda without a television because of the poor programs but it is even worse here. I think my I.Q dropped 10 points watching television for a half hour.
I spent a day in Champasak to explore the World Heritage site of Wat Phu Champasak. The Khmer Temple or Wat was built in the 5th Century and is a special place of worship for people all over Laos. Here is a view of the site from the top of the stairs leading up to the main temple.
I left the next day and crossed the Mekong on one of their ferries. They join 2 little boats with a platform and presto, a ferry capable of carrying motorcycles and bicycles. It's not fancy but it works.
On Sunday April 24th I stopped at a roadside stall for something to drink and two cyclists joined me. Julien and Marion are from France and are headed to New Zealand to watch the World Cup of Rugby. They have followed a similar route to me but went to Iran while I was in the Middle East and we are now both headed south to Singapore. We started biking together and Julien told me that they have had seven flat tires in Laos and I replied that I have been very fortunate with my last flat tire coming in India. I then added that I shouldn't say that as it tends to be bad luck and literally, as I was speaking, got a flat tire. How does it always work that way, it makes no sense but I stopped to change it and we agreed to meet up ahead at the ferry to the island of Don Khong, our destination for the night.
We met up about an hour later and took the ferry across the Mekong.
We went out to dinner and had a few drinks sitting on the deck overlooking the river. Julien and Marion are biking for a charity raising awareness for blood donations and both have taken a year off work, with Marion a physiotherapist and Julien a writer.
I went ahead the next day and crossed the border into Cambodia.
I have mixed feelings about border crossings. In one sense it is always exciting to be entering a new country but on another, I am not a big fan of the bureaucracy that often waits. I have not had a major problem crossing borders but always feel a sense of nervousness as I approach. I'm not sure why, I'm not doing anything illegal but I usually just want to get through and continue on.
It looked like a few new buildings were in the process of construction and based on what I have seen here, it will likely be a few more years until they are completed. There were a lot of hammocks around and occupied by the construction workers when I rolled through. You had to take a bit of a diversion on a dirt path.
It was an easy border to navigate but it didn't take long to get a taste of the corruption for which Cambodia is becoming famous. After you get your Lao exit stamp you have to go to the quarantine booth for what qualifies as a medical check-up. You sit down and they point a gun like instrument at your forehead that supposedly takes your temperature. They did it to me and said the reading was very high, not the most detailed or insightful prognosis considering I was biking in 100 degree heat. I was then given a pamphlet and told, that if I did get a disease in Cambodia, to not hesitate and call the number provided. I asked them how they know for sure that I don't already have one of those diseases and he laughed at my ignorance and said that of course they would know my temperature would be high. I reminded him that a few seconds ago he had to retake the test because I recorded such a high temperature and he just smiled and shook his head at my obvious lack of serious medical training. He did manage to remind me that the fee for their service was $1 U.S. A small price to pay for the peace of mind that comes from knowing that their little laser gun proved beyond doubt that I am healthy.
After that thorough medical exam I went to obtain my Cambodian visa and paid $23 for 30 days, a fairly typical fee. Prior to leaving the border area I had to stop at passport control where they dutifully checked that I had a visa and then said there was a $1 U.S. fee. I asked what that fee was for and they said it was a processing fee. I pointed out that I already paid for the visa and it included all processing fees as was noted at the prior check and that they did not process anything, they simply opened my passport to confirm I had a visa. He held my passport and it was clear if I wanted it back I had to pay another bribe. The amounts are not a lot but there are hundreds of people crossing a day and the money simply go directly into their pockets. When many people in Laos and Cambodia live on $2 per day, it is an exorbitant amount and one that is giving Cambodia a bad name with travellers. No one would mind paying the money if it went to those who need it but these guys do nothing but sit in their air-conditioned office and collect illegal fees, after being appointed to their positions by providing bribes of their own or through friends or relatives.
I spent a full month in Laos and it was a wonderful experience. I recognize that a month is not long enough to get to know a country or its people. I am passing through and do not have to live and work with those I come into contact with. Travelling through is a holiday for me and I don't have to struggle with the day to day life issues facing the people. Laos is extremely poor with subsistence agriculture providing 80% of the employment. The people in the lowlands of Laos are not particularly hard-working and I fear that the amount of foreign aid they receive is creating a dependency and welfare state that will hurt them in the long run. It will be interesting to see how things proceed with China making large investments here and time will tell what price Laos will pay for that support.
For now, you don't have to go far off the tourist path to see a country that is largely unchanged from Centuries past. It is not always easy travelling without the comforts that a modern infrastructure can provide but it is rewarding to see people live and work in areas largely untouched by the modern world. There are places where children still play outside and amuse themselves with simple games and activities and the parents don't have to fear for their safety. There are many villages where people do not have front doors to lock or possessions to protect with alarm systems or guns and their times is spent talking to their neighbours or sharing a meal. It is refreshing to see and a good reminder of what little we need to make us happy.