On Monday March 28th I reluctantly left the beautiful guesthouse in Chiang Khong, Thailand and headed for the border. My reluctance was partly because of the wonderful accommodations and friendly owners and also because I was leaving Thailand. The fact that I will be back to cycle the southern part of the country in about 6 weeks made the departure much easier and so I cycled the short distance to enter a new country.
The border crossing was straight forward and after obtaining my exit stamp from Thailand, boarded a small boat, loading my bike (no problem to take your bike) and made the 3 minute river crossing.
My first impression of Laos is that it is less organized than the Thai side of the border. It's not a dramatic difference because the north eastern part of Thailand is relatively poor compared to the more affluent towns coming north from Bangkok. Laos is one of the least developed countries in the world and it will be my first time in a Communist country. For years the people in the West were taught to fear the Communists so it will be nice to see for myself if that fear was justified. You know how much I trust that our governments have our best interests in mind.
The Laos currency is the Kip but it is not always easy to find an ATM so you have to stock up when in the tourist towns. I purchased a ticket for a 2-day boat ride down the Mekong River with an overnight stay in one of the small villages. I was going to bike around to Luang Prabang but was told that with all the upcoming damn projects, this boat cruise may be in jeopardy so now is the time to see this part of Laos not accessible by road. The river meandered past villages where it seems time has stood still for centuries and it really was a peaceful way to sit back and enjoy the scenery.
The first night's stop was Pak Beng and hordes of hustlers met the boat, all carrying posters of their guesthouse to entice the weary group. This is the kind of thing I really dislike and don't have to put up with often since I usually don't arrive at bus or train stations. I wrestled with all my bags and my bike and found a young lady that was not as pushy as most and followed her for a short ride. The room reminded me of some of the dodgy places in India and it looked absolutely nothing like the picture she had on her poster. I asked her where she got the picture that she showed the tourists and she said "out of a magazine." At least she was honest.
The next day we arrived in the beautiful river side town of Luang Prabang, It is the former royal capital and full of French influenced historic buildings and leafy side streets.
It is a quiet town with nice French cafes, good restaurants and a very pleasant place to walk around. One morning I got up early to watch Tak Bat or The Monks' Alms Procession. Daily at dawn, saffron clad monks walk barefoot through the streets while people from the town place tiny balls of sticky rice in their begging bowls. Monks demonstrate their vows of poverty and humility while lay Buddhists gain spiritual merit by the act of respectful giving. It is really nice and peaceful tradition.
It is meant as a quiet and meditative ceremony and tourists are warned constantly to respect the procedure and to avoid taking close up pictures. Of course there is always one and on this day, a man and women decided it was more important for them to have a video than to respect a centuries old tradition so she went right up to the monks and walked beside them with her camera. The Monks were clearly uncomfortable but being Monks, they didn't say anything. A number of tourists asked her to step back but she didn't listen. I often feel a sense of shame and guilt when tourists act like this because rightly or wrongly we are all put in the same basket as ignorant tourists.
I on the other hand, being a respectful tourist, was very careful not to make a big problem for my toilet in the guesthouse.
On Saturday April 2nd I ended up having the most physically difficult day of my trip. The road out of the city was gentle and wound slowly up at a gentle grade, with beautiful scenery.
The first mountain rose steadily for about 15 km and I had a short break at a nice lookout, a fantastic start to the day and one that I was thoroughly enjoying.
The roads were good but sometimes I had to check the road markers to see if I really was on the major north south highway.
Here are some of the typical small villages of Northern Laos. This tiny home had the requisite satellite dish.
In the last few months, cycling has been easy because every few kilometers I would run into a roadside stall selling drinks so carrying fluids was never a problem. The first 40 km's out of Luang Prabang was more of the same and I had no reason to think that would change. I was in the habit of stopping to get a bottle of water and then drinking half and carrying the remainder. No need to add weight by carrying 3 bottles of water if there is ample supply en route. After a long downhill I started what turned out to be a steady 25 km climb that took me almost 3 hours. The scenery was nothing short of spectacular and a great diversion from the steady climb. The grades were not that steep but there was no reprieve, no flat sections on the entire route.
As the climb continued the heat was beating down and I ran out of water. I struggled on and continually anticipated a road side stall at each bend but there was none. I reached a sign that showed 8 km to go and I thought it might as well be 800 km's and wondered how I was going to make it. I thought about setting up my tent but without water it would be out of the question. I got off my bike and walked for a while to give my legs a break but the daylight was fading and the only way to reach my guesthouse was to bike. I heard a car coming and waved my empty water bottle and miraculously they stopped and handed me 2 very small bottles which I drank quickly. I was feeling nauseous and was getting a cold sweat, sure signs of dehydration. It takes the body about 24 hours to recover from dehydration so I knew the water was just something to quench my thirst and would not make me feel much better. I had to continue going up. I finally made it to a very small town 1 km before my destination and stopped for a large bottle of water and a pepsi. The sugar would only give me a very short burst of energy, and then actually make things worse, but I only needed a few minutes to get to my stop for the night. Once in my guesthouse I sat on the bed for 30 minutes, drank a large bottle of water and berated myself for allowing this to happen. I am susceptible to dehydration and running out of energy because I tend to not eat or drink consistently while exercising, I just don't get hungry until I stop. I do know better so no need to send an e-mail and tell me to eat and drink.
I wanted to just go to sleep but knew that would be another mistake so to cut my losses, got up and went to get a shower. The room was occupied so the lady told me to use their family shower. I wandered through a dark corridor and at the end was a large smoke filled kitchen with a huge steel pot on an open wood fire used to cook rice. Then past a father and son stuffing the intestines of a goat into small bags with the goat head laying in my path, and through this Twilight- zone-like scenery, my only thought was to wonder if the water for my shower would be hot. It's funny how necessity seems to focus your attention. I ended up in the laundry/toilet/shower room and took a nice hot shower. I then walked back past the now empty spaces with only the goat head still on the floor in front of me, stepped over it and thought about dinner. Maybe I should try the goat, it is definitely fresh.
I ordered a plate of fried rice with vegetables and an egg for my main course and for my second main course had a bowl of noodle soup and pork. I had a large yoghurt drink another large bottle of water and went to bed. I had a few cramps during the night but will make sure I have a shorter day tomorrow as I continue in the mountains. It's too bad I had a bad last few hours, it was a special day.
On Sunday I continued my road south and again had great scenery.
The day was purposefully short and I found a guesthouse on the top of a ridge and enjoyed another nice sunset. I was still too tired to stand.
One of the joys of biking in Laos is the children that always greet you with a hearty wave and yelling "Sabaa Dee." One of the things I pay attention to as I go through different countries is who takes an interest in the foreigner on a bike. In Europe and the more developed countries the odd person may take an interest and ask you a few questions but for the most part people just get on with their lives and let you do the same. In Turkey and the Middle East, it was the young males that showed an interest and often waved greetings and offered encouragement. Women were not often out on the street so it was extremely rare to be greeted by a female. In India, a lot of younger girls walking on the road would say hello and the guys were almost fanatical in their response to a white foreigner on a bike. In Thailand, people are very friendly but aloof and in Laos, it is the young children, particularly the young girls who seem to get excited as I roll by, often giggling when I say hello. The very young are adorable and many of the school aged kids will stand at the side of the road and high five as I go by while the smallest ones, will stand and wave with wide toothless grins. They are so adorable you just want to scream. These 2 girls started waving at me long before I arrived and only stopped when I took out my camera. I took their photo and showed them the picture and their mother came over and they all had a good laugh.
I often see kids on bikes going to and from school and most will carry an umbrella with one hand to shade themselves from the sun. I keep thinking that wearing a wide hat would be a lot easier.
In the North of Laos, in addition to fighting the hills and heat, you get a lot of smoke. The farmers would slash and burn up and down the mountains. I would often see fires burning at night with no one around to watch, I assume they know what they are doing.
I was out of the mountains on Tuesday and stayed at a nice guesthouse, a short bike ride from Vientiane. I met up with a pair of cyclists from France on a bike holiday. They met a few years ago and every year pick a country somewhere in the world and take a 2 week cycle holiday while their wives golf. I managed to convince them to try Canada next year and suggested a route from Vancouver to Calgary with the coastal mountains of Whistler and the Rocky mountains including the ice-field parkway between Banff and Jasper. They were very excited as neither has been to the West coast. In the morning, I was up early to walk around the resort.
I have been very disturbed while cycling through these villages where the people are so kind and gentle that it almost breaks your heart. The disheartening part is that about 40 years ago, the U.S government began an air war over Laos by bombing the country in an attempt to halt the progress of Communism. The U.S dropped over 2 million tons of bombs. No one knows how many died but one-third of the population became refugees in their own country. This peace loving country became the most heavily bombed nation in world history. The effects of this carnage are still present with UXO's or unexploded ordinances. The U.S dropped cluster bombs whose torpedo-shaped outer casings were designed to split open in mid-air, scattering 670 tennis-ball-sized bomblets over a 5,000-square-meter area. These bomblets would only explode once disturbed and if they were disturbed, they would project about 30 steel pellets killing anyone within a 20 meter radius. In the last 40 years, roughly 1 person per day is still killed by these UXO's in Laos and tens of millions remain embedded in the land, causing a danger to children, farmers and other completely innocent people. One major tourist area is waiting to be designated a World Heritage Site until they ensure all the bombs have been cleared. The CIA still operates in Laos and I wonder why they are not out in the countryside trying to defuse some of the bombs they dropped. I keep hearing how we go to war in Iraq or Libya for humanitarian reasons yet these bombs were dropped knowing full well innocent civilians would be at killed. There may be many reasons for going to war but to say it is for humanitarian reasons is simply a politically correct lie. I find that there is usually a very strong correlation between the amount of humanitarian concern we have and the amount of oil they do.
History repeats itself. Muslims have replaced the Communists as the current day bad guys that have to be stopped and we find different reasons or excuses but the bottom line remains, war accomplishes nothing. Laos is still a Communist country. Maybe next year we will learn.
Finally, a reminder that there are more pictures on my Flickr page, which you can access through the link on the "Contact" page of this site.