The Mekong Delta of Laos (April 7th - April 20th)
(Vientiane - Tha Bok - Pak Kading - Hinboun - Thakhek - Xeno - Phoung Savan - Pakse)
Distance biked so far: (10,659 km)
I spent just under a week in Vientiane, a small laid back city on the Mekong River. It has the conveniences of a Capital but is small and relatively quiet. One of the highlights for me was a visit to the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) visitor center. This center is the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos and the center offers a variety of multimedia exhibits about unexploded ordinances (UXO). Several powerful documentaries are shown outlining the extent of the cluster bombs still in Laos. One of the displays showed a torpedo shaped cluster bomb designed to split open in mid-air releasing 670 tennis ball-size bombies over a 5,000 square meter area. Once disturbed, a single bombie would explode projecting around 30 steel pellets like bullets killing anyone within a 20 meter radius. The most disturbing thing about this particular bomb is that it is designed solely to kill people. Some bombs are dropped to destroy bridges or infrastructure but these are used to kill and since 1975, after the war ended, they have done their job exceedingly well. In the last 30 years or so, over 20,000 innocent Laos people, mainly farmers and children, have been killed by these bombs. With a population of only 5 million, that would be the per capital equivalent of 1.2 million people being killed in the U.S. during the same time frame. I wonder if there would be such a slow movement to ban cluster bombs if that many American lives were lost due simply to no one cleaning them up. Here is the display on the cluster bomb exploding.
Vientiane is a nice quiet city. Here is a view of the Patuxai (Gate) in the Capital with the flag of Laos and the Communist Party and then a view from on top of the arches.
One thing I have noticed in a lot of the cities around the world is that it's not always easy to walk on the sidewalks. In the Middle East and India, the shops on the side encroached on the roads making it almost impossible to walk and stay clear of the traffic. In Vientiane, this sidewalk was made difficult when they decided to build it around existing trees. It is nice to keep the trees but maybe a sidewalk wasn't the best use of land.
Vientiane is one of the few places in Laos where I have seen a loaf of bread as the people here, at least outside of the main cities, do not eat it. The influence of the French is obvious with the baguettes and these stalls had the loaves that came in bags labelled "Foreigner Baguette." As I cycled through the villages, I didn't see another loaf in all of Laos.
The stretch of road from Vientiane south is not the most scenic but it was a memorable ride for a number of other reasons. The main highway runs right through numerous small villages where tourists speed by on a bus getting to some of the more familiar places. In the seven days I cycled from Vientiane to Pakse, I did not see a single tourist. That's too bad because it is the village life that really represents Laos. The main cities are becoming just like any other city in the world, a melting pot of people, food and cultures where people tend to stick to the familiar and you can find all the conveniences of home.
The Laos New Year is celebrated from April 14 - 16th and it is the most important holiday of the year. One of the customs during the days off is to throw water on people as they pass and as a foreigner on a bike, I was apparently deemed a prized target. As you approach a small village people would be lined up on either side of the road with their buckets of water dousing passing cars, buses and motorcycles. They are very polite about it by wishing you a Happy New Year before they soak you and since it is the hottest month of the year, it is quite refreshing. I approached my first small town on Thursday April 14th and wasn't quite sure what to expect. As I rounded a corner I heard a number of people yelling and crossing to my side of the road, clearly arming themselves for the assault. I was hit by buckets full of water, water guns, hoses etc., and completely drenched by the time I cycled the few hundred meters. I was defenseless and thought there has to be something I can do. I remember reading The Art of War a number of years ago and in the book it says that if you are in battle and are cornered, you have to go on the offensive. Make no mistake, this was war.
Prior to arriving at the next village I stopped and filled my 2 water bottles with water from a tap and unscrewed the top. I cycled forward and sure enough a few teenage girls were waiting with full buckets of water, anticipating their next victory. I slowly reached down to my bottle and just as they were about to throw, I picked up my water and threw it at both of them. They shrieked and hesitated for a few seconds, just enough time for me to be out of reach. I turned and raised my hands and a number of people on the sides started cheering me on with the girls giving me a shake of their fists. Just as I turned around and looked forward a couple of young guys reached back and pelted me with full buckets and the crowd erupted in laughter. I was beaten and took my punishment with my head shaking and hanging low, much to the amusement of the locals. There are just too many, they keep coming and coming. Near the end of the village a really cute young girl who looked to be about 2 years old walked to the side of the road with her little water pistol. She missed me but I slowed down and pretended to have something wrong with my bike to give her a second chance. Her mother pointed to her to hit me again so she walked up with a toothless grin, stealthily eyeing her target while I held my arms up in surrender, pleading for her not to shoot. The little terror simply pulled the trigger and let me have it. She showed no mercy and hit me right in the chest and I pretended they were bullets and fell to my knees. The natural born killer kept on shooting until I went flat on the ground and then she started laughing and jumping up and down with excitement. I struggled up and got on my bike and the locals all waved and laughed as I rode off. The little girl was beaming and had her arms raised in the air in victory. Shouldn't these kids be inside playing on the computer or something?
I would normally get a reprieve between towns and the heat of the day would quickly dry my clothes but in the middle of two villages I heard a motorcycle come up beside me. Two young girls were on the bike and they both smiled sweetly and said hello. I of course melted and was off guard as the rider in the back reached out and threw a small bucket of iced water down my back. I was fooled again by the deceptive smile of a pretty girl.
In a number of places I stopped for a drink and would be offered a glass of beer. The people are off for a few days and everyone is outside with their families and enjoying life. I have never seen so many people out and having such joyful fun. The children are full of laughter, the teenagers are dancing to loud music and the parents are sitting back enjoying the company of friends and family while sharing a meal or a few drinks. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world and it proves once again money is definitely not the source of happiness. I am on a long extended vacation seeing the world yet find myself struggling with being envious of their simple and happy lives. Here are some of the kids.
In mid-afternoon on Friday I was approaching the small village of Hinboun and saw the familiar yellow Beerlao sign for a guesthouse. Beerlao is the state owned beer company and they have a practical monopoly on beer sales. Almost every single home and certainly every store has the yellow crates that hold a dozen large bottles. They also sponsor the yellow signs for restaurants and guesthouses making it very easy for travellers to know where to stop. I checked in and realized there was no restaurant so took my bags off my bike and cycled the few kilometers into the very small village. I sat down in a roadside stall and asked for some food and since the only thing available was noodle soup it made the choice easy. I was eating the delicious meal and a group of about 15 people started coming towards me, with the owner of the shop saying something in Lao. I recognized the word Farang so knew they were talking about me. Shades of India appeared where I thought I would be surrounded by people staring at the funny white guy. One man with a big smile sat right beside me, patted me on the shoulder and then picked up a spoon and started eating my soup. I wasn't sure what to do, I've never had someone sit beside me in a restaurant and start eating my food but he seemed okay with it. A few men then sat across from me and poured a glass of Lao beer and another poured a small amount of rice alcohol that tastes like paint thinner. These guys were getting ready for a good night and it appeared I was invited.
There were soon a dozen people sitting around a large table with some of the women dancing and loud music playing while a few of the young ladies poured the obligatory cup of water down my back to deafening applause. I just shook my head and laughed as it felt good in the heat and was something I was getting used to. One of the ladies then poured baby powder over me and I was told to put some in my hand and then on the face of everyone at the table. I got up and went around and covered the faces of all the ladies with baby powder. I didn't do it to the men, not that there's anything wrong with that. It was noticed that I skipped all the men and one of them blurted out, "at least we know he likes women and not men" and all the ladies cheered. The men then kept pouring drinks, raising their glasses in cheer and yelling Happy New Year. It was about 5 pm at this point and the drinking, dancing and music continued until well past midnight. We all then moved to one of the ladies homes and continued with kids shooting their water pistols, people dancing and of course drinking more beer. We were now in the center of the village and I was in a home that was almost completely without furniture. There were mats on the floor upstairs for beds but nothing else. The homes were extremely simple and all built very close together. The people were very close, far closer than most families back home. The nice thing about not having a lot of possessions is that you don't have to go to such extremes to protect what you own. No locked doors, security systems, gated walls to keep people out. If I told them that some people keep handguns at home to protect their belongings, I think they would think I am making it up.
Saturday morning came very quickly and after only a few hours' sleep I managed to get up and go back to the same restaurant for, you guessed it, noodle soup. It is delicious but not really good nutrition for long bike rides in 100 degree heat and high humidity, and it does get repetitive.
At one place I stayed I met a young man at the reception and later we spent a few hours together talking in English. His story is pretty typical of many young guys here with his family in the village and him working to help. He goes to school to study law and on weekends tries to study English so he really appreciated the few hours I helped him with some conversation. One of the things I do to help the young people here is provide good tips to those who give good service. In many of the non-touristy places I stay they are excited to see foreigners and very eager to provide anything you want. I give a large tip if I learn that they are helping their families or working towards getting a good education. I told him to keep studying English as that will be very valuable down the road. In the morning I give him a tip and said it is to help with his studies or for his family. I know the money will be used for a good purpose by giving it directly to the local people instead of an administratively heavy organization. Here is a picture of him proudly holding up a piece of paper on which I wrote my website and e-mail address. So many of the young people here are exceptionally polite and hard-working and it is a privilege to assist them.
I went into the town and for the third time today had noodle soup.
This is a typical kitchen in the roadside stalls where they boil a large pot of water on an open flame.
They then take a handful of noodles and put it in a basket attached to a wooden handle and submerse it in the boiling water for a few minutes and place them in a bowl. Then they take a small amount of meat from the freezer and do the same by placing it in the boiling mixture and add some fish paste and sauce. They take a few large ladles of water and presto, noodle soup. On the table they have small boxes with 6 different condiments including different fish and hot sauces. The locals typically add a small amount of each of the condiments but I only add a few, they have quite a kick. You also get a small amount of lettuce and some mint leaves which you dip in a fish paste. That is breakfast, lunch and dinner.
On Monday I was having a hard time finding accommodations late in the afternoon so was looking for a place to set up my tent. I biked by a family and asked them if they knew of a guesthouse and they were trying their best to communicate when a young man came walking up to us and they all pointed at him proudly. He was holding his head high because he was the local English teacher and was there to help. He told me there was a guesthouse 5 km down the road on the right hand side and everyone smiled broadly as he spoke. One man came over and held up a finger and said that young man is the number 1 person in the village, having been to University. I told him his English is excellent and he repeated that to the growing group gathered and they all applauded. It was wonderful to see how proud they were of the local boy who did well. As I left everyone gathered around him and shook his hand or patted him on the back and he was glowing in the attention.
I found the guesthouse despite there being no sign and if it wasn't for the English speaker I would have missed it completely. I went into the room and the first thing to be done was to make sure this bug was indeed dead.
I then went into the bathroom and noticed that there was no shower, just a large pail of water. The large tub was full and you are provided a small pail to rinse yourself off. I soaped myself up and doused a few pails of water over my head and it felt so good that I climbed into the pail and completely submerged myself. I know it is not designed for that but I was very hot and couldn't resist.
The hotel has everything including running water and glass in the windows but is missing lots of bugs, a giant pail of water, hard beds and pillows and bare concrete floors. I'll have to make due. The Hotel was originally built as a palace and I love the old large verandas that wrap around the entire building. There are comfortable sitting areas in leafy gardens and it's a great place to recover from a few tough days on the road. Right across the road they have Delta Coffee, a restaurant serving some of the best coffee in town from their plantation on the Bolaven Plateau. The owners of the restaurant raise money to build schools for the children of the plantation workers. It is excellent Arabica coffee and I should be there for most of my time in Pakse.
I am quickly running out of time on my Laos visa. It is hard to believe I have been here for 3 weeks as Laos has been an amazing experience. I will never forget the sounds of high-pitched kid's voices yelling Sabaai-Dee. Nor will I forget the kids that come up to my knees running out to the roadside and waving or mothers holding their infants and smiling while they wave their child's hand in greeting. I remember all the times I stopped in villages to eat some noodle soup while little children shyly peered from behind pillars to see the Farang and then breaking out into a smile once I wave to them. I remember a group of children bravely yelling hello only to run for their lives when I stopped my bike to talk with them. Eventually they came back and allowed me to take their picture while the young girls giggled and the boys acted cool. It is like being here back before tourism became popular in Laos and a place I could feel like a local eating their food, sleeping in Spartan accommodations and enjoying the simple life that we usually only see in pictures.
I wasn't the only one feeling the heat.
I arrived in Pakse in Southern Laos on Tuesday April 19th and will spend a few days here at the beautiful Champasak Palace Hotel.