Now online: the second part of our China pictures, cycling from Chengdu to the Lao border.
Landing in Laos
Five days we are in Laos. We cycled for two days and took a day off in Oudomxai to settle into the Lao rhythm. China is only 100km and at the same time already very far away. Cyril explained it well: it’s like going from the USA to Colombia. Having spent two and a half months in rapidly developing China it’s a pleasure to arrive in chilled out Laos.
We both have good memories of a previous visit so we are looking forward to rediscovering this sweet little country by bicycle. This is a land where the pace of life slows right down to a leisurely stroll. The border formalities are laid back and uncomplicated and we are on our way into our 15th country of this trip well before noon.
The first day is a bit depressing, despite the bright sunlight. We pass dusty villages where the only job opportunities seem to consist of offering cheap food, beer and women to the Chinese truck drivers passing through. We spend the first night in a guesthouse that is also a restaurant and a brothel, but luckily there are no customers for the ‘waitresses’ so we have a peaceful night. We must be strange guests for them as well; if only they knew of the things that bicycle tourers get up to in hotel rooms. Hanging the tent out to dry, hogging the wifi with film downloads, making coffee and cooking breakfast on our stove, cleaning panniers in the shower, doing our laundry and the dishes in the sink, exploding half of our stuff out of the bags and around the room in about zero seconds after arrival.
What was a small road in China is one of the highways of Laos: The N13. There is little traffic apart from Chinese trucks and pick-ups and local mopeds. We plan to follow the N13 all the way from the border to the capital Vientiane, from where we will cross the Friendship Bridge into Thailand.
The road becomes more beautiful and friendly as we head further away from the border. It is hilly but the gradients are fine, the tarmac is perfect and the mornings are foggy and cool. Before noon it gets hot: from now on it’s shorts and t-shirts weather all the way.
Families are sitting outside their bamboo huts in the small villages we ride through. The women mostly wear the sinh, the traditional Lao sarong, and are often weaving or embroidering. The kids wave and yell sabaideeeee at the top of their voice when we roll by. Lovely traditional molam music wafts from small shops and restaurants, adding to the relaxed tropical vibe. We don’t see large banana and rubber plantations anymore, mostly small-scale subsistence farming.
There is plenty of small wildlife around: we see snakes and lizards on the road, we hear rustling sounds in the foliage by the roadside and there are huge spiders in the trees. One lady carries a bunch of big fat rats by their tails to a small roadside market. Later on we see all kinds of small bushmeat being sold by the side of the road; rats, squirrels, something that looks like a sloth. Sometimes only one or two little animals, still alive, being sold by a lady who dangles them temptingly in front of approaching cars. Speaking of food, this is also immediately and decidedly different from China. We have our first taste of Lao laab salad and sticky rice. Gone is the Sichuan spice, enter the fresh and tangy tastes of lime and coriander.
Laos: the people greet eachother with a wai, we take our shoes off before we enter a house. Little things that are different from the last two and half months in China. It is only a mild culture shock but still, we decide to take a day off in Oudomxai to gather our bearings and get into the Lao vibe. Oudomxai is nothing special, a sleepy town with a nice wat.
There are a few guesthouses and some tourists. We even meet four other bike travelers, from Quebec and New Zealand. On our first night in Oudomxai we climb up to the wat to take in the sunset. The sun sinks beautifully behind the hazy mountains in the distance, throwing its last rays of the day around a tall gilded statue of a standing Buddha. Slowly it is dawning on us: we are now in South East Asia.
On our rest day in Oudomxai we get into a cleaning frenzy. It is Christmas but this mostly passes us by, as Laos is too tropical, too communist and too Buddhist to get any kind of Christmas vibe going. Still, nearing the end of this special year and entering a whole new region tells us we should do something to mark this. We rinse the thick red mud from Chinese road works off our Ortliebs. The bikes get cleaned thoroughly by the side of the road outside our guesthouse. We do some laundry. After rinsing and scrubbing all of our stuff it is our turn to get clean, and we head to the local sauna. Laos has a great bathing culture, with herbal steam rooms in a lot of villages, and a massage practice that is similar to the well-known Thai massage. The sauna of Oudomxai is run by the Red Cross which aims to provide locals with a steady job by teaching them massage. We both get a thorough massage by two expert lady masseurs. We are never uncomfortable on the bicycle but still, little tensions and pains that we didn’t even know we had disappear under their strong hands. Then it’s time for the sauna. Some locals are in the cabins and we zone out to the quiet sing song of their Lao chit chat. The herbal steam is delicious and we cool down with a tea on the verandah. Just like the bicycles we are as good as new and ready to start a new year on the bicycle.
From a million elephants to a million tourists
A few more days of cycling get us to Luang Prabang, one of the old capitals of Lan Xang Hom Khao. The Kingdom of a Million Elephants Under a White Parasol, as Laos was once known. We discover what is meant by the white parasol as we climb above the clouds. Every morning we start in a thick fog. The sun eventually evaporates the clouds from the steaming jungle, a beautiful sight. We are eagerly scouting the jungle for one of the million elephants. We do a lot of climbing and spend one night in a Hmong village guesthouse at 1300m.
When we reach the Mekong river after a long 120km day on the bicycle we spend the night camping on the sandy bank, by the village of Pak Ou. Early in the morning we cross the river with a narrow boat, to visit the buddha caves on the opposite bank.
I turn around to look at our camping spot on the other side and see three elephants bathing in the river. The night before we heard guitar music and singing close by until 2am, turns out it was the mahouts from the local elephant training camp. When we visit the elephants the mahouts are still red eyed and very hungover. If we hadn’t been so tired from the cycling we would have joined them at their party.
From Pak Ou it’s a short ride into Luang Prabang, and this is where another culture shock hits us. We ride into town and all of a sudden we are surrounded by tourists. We see white people everywhere. They are shuffling along the main drag, which has been completely taken over by businesses catering to foreigners. We both remember this town as a beautiful sleepy town with historical highlights on every corner. Now busloads of tourists have discovered this too, and the place is overrun with guesthouses, restaurants, massage places, bars and souvenir shops. We haven’t seen a place this touristy since Amsterdam. It is a bit much after weeks and weeks of quiet countryside and we miss the small but spontaneous interactions with the people we meet on the road. In Luang Prabang we feel like our only job is to spend money. We know Laos is very poor. But, even understanding this does not mean that we like being regarded as a money spending machine instead of a human being.
Laos then and now
Laos was the most powerful kingdom of South East Asia between the 14th and 18th century, until it fell apart into three separate kingdoms which became united again under French colonial rule, from 1893 until 1953. There are different hill tribes living in the country, divided mostly by altitude lines. The Lao are the majority and the people of the lowlands. The Hmong are the people who live on the highest mountain tops.
The current communist party came into power in 1975, after a long and devastating civil war. During the war, which played out parallel to the conflict in Vietnam, the USA fought out it’s own ideological battle in Laos by supporting the royalists against the communist Pathet Lao. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country in history. The CIA funded Hmong hill tribe fighters to defend the royalist side, resulting in a lasting conflict between the Hmong and the Lao government. Tens of thousands of Hmong fled to Thailand and were eventually resettled in the USA. Today there are still Hmong in refugee camps in Thailand, unwilling to go back to Laos and face persecution by the Lao government who still see them as traitors. Laos, apart from being laid-back and lovely, is a poor and conflicted country. It relies heavily on foreign aid and investment. We see a huge Chinese dam being built: Laos exports a lot of hydroelectric energy to China, Thailand and Vietnam. Tropical hardwood disappears to the same neighbouring countries.
Tourism is another important economic sector, with the number of foreign visitors growing from 80.000 in 1990 to a whopping 4,1 million in 2014. This brings a lot of money into the country which is great. Unfortunately for us this comes at a price: a transaction is often expected, killing the spontaneity we know from non-touristy places. There are efforts to brand the country as an ecotourism destination and curb the impact of tourism on local culture. We are a little bit conflicted as know very well we are part of the ‘problem’ of overrunning a small country with a foreign invasion. So here’s the solution to saving Laos’ laid-back loveliness: only admit bicycle travelers from now on. We spend ten thousands of kip on food in the local village shops. We only have one beer and then we fall asleep. We high five with the kids who run along with our bikes when we roll through their village. And most of all, we do try to fully appreciate the never-ending ups and downs of Laos, in altitude and in attitude.
And to end on a sweet note: here’s a compilation of the Lao/Thai molam music we hear everywhere around us. Enjoy!