Episode XX – Laos, languid and lovely, 8 Oct-7 Nov

 

Laos – the land so laid-back even the cats and dogs can’t be bothered to fight, preferring to survey the world in languorous lassitude, lounging together in the lazy shade of a banyan tree.

Somehow, when we crossed the border, breathing felt a little easier. While we were far from tense in China – especially in Yunnan province, which is very chilled out compared to the densely populated east or the politically troubled north-west – something in the air was different. Could simply knowing that we could access gmail, read the BBC and Guardian websites unhindered, or log into Facebook (itself an exquisitely-crafted tool of oppression, censorship and invasion of privacy) be the cause? Laos is hardly a paragon of political freedom, but at least our interactions with the wider world weren’t officially outlawed. But we didn’t even have a local SIM card yet, so life beyond the Great Firewall was still academic. And there were plenty of reasons rooted in the world, immediate and real, around us. The reversion to jungly chaos after the mono-scenery of rubber trees marching in unrelenting diagonals across entire mountain ranges. The relaxed and friendly faces and the enthusiastic greetings of “Sabaideeeeeee!” and “Goodbyeeeee!” from everyone we passed (Laos being one of those curious countries where people tend to call out “goodbye” instead of “hello”). The groups of laughing children running around barefoot, playing games and singing songs. The well-kempt villages of cool, shady stilt houses built of wood, raffia and thatch, clustered in communal spaces with grass and dirt footpaths between them, no fences or walls to separate one family’s property from the next.

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Traditional building

(Sadly, we didn’t get any satisfactory pictures of northern Laos villages, but fellow cycle-tourist bloggers Esther and Warren have kindly allowed us to use a couple of theirs):

A Laos Village, II.

Village life.

Having made it through the curious border town of Boten – a former duty free gambling haven that briefly boomed when Laos relaxed gambling laws to attract Chinese tourists, and then bust when the government changed its mind – we entered Laos proper…

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…where we were greeted by a couple of elephants

Rather than plot a straight route south to the capital Vientiane via the fabled old capital, Luang Prabang, we took the advice of an old acquaintance of mine in Japan called Chris Twemlow, whose lyrical article ‘Take the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang’ had left me longing to do just that for the last 15 years. So, we struck out southwest towards Huay Xai (a town whose name I’m still not sure how to pronounce even having been there) to rejoin the mighty Mekong. We first encountered this great regional jugular back in Yunnan Province, since when we and the river had been meandering in our own circuitous ways southwards towards the Gulf of Thailand, crossing paths from time to time as we went.

As it turned out, this was a lucky detour: we found out from other cyclists we met en route that the road to Luang Prabang was being upgraded, and we would have faced many dusty, bumpy miles of temporary surface. Weaving instead through the immaculately tarmaced mountains of northern Laos, we soon settled into the chilled pace of life.

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Roadside shrine

Our first camp was by a stream running through the paddy fields. As night fell, the peace of the place crept over us: the only sounds – apart from a very occasional passing car – were insects and frogs and the burbling stream, the only light was starlight. There are so few places left on the planet where the sky glow of some settlement or the rumble of a motorway doesn’t intrude – this little valley was one of them.

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As with every other night camping at height since we entered the tropics back in Yunnan, it was a damp start. Every evening would start out clear, then around midnight dense fog banks would roll in, drenching everything, until the sun finally burned them off around 9 or 10 am. Along with an escalation of wee beastie activity – in this case little leeches in the grass thence ‘tween the tootsies – camping was gradually becoming more and more of a challenge.

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Rice paddies and siesta shelters nestled in the hills

There was a growing sense of having finally entered the cultural region – Southeast Asia – of our destination, Indonesia. Sarongs were now commonplace for women (if not men); lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and tamarind were appearing in the cuisine; evening ablutions were a universal ritual. I came to love the late afternoons, as the sun softened and villagers would make their way to the communal spring, pool or river bathing spot bearing shampoo and soap. Men and women bathed together, wearing sarongs (women) or underwear (men) for modesty. Children splashed around in the water, everyone would be happy and relaxed, the busi-ness of the day now for the most part done. Smiles and greetings flowed freely.

Handmade waterworks helpfully channelling passing streams along split bamboo gutters made it easy for us to cool off in the daytime, get clean in the evenings, and even do a bit of roadside laundry:

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Cheap roadside shacks offered simple but tasty food with an impressive selection of sauces…

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Steaming sticky rice

…and sugar addicts were well catered for: purveyors of pops and powders such as this flourished outside schools, leaving one pondering the absence of a Laotian obesity epidemic and how come everyone still seems to have their teeth.

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Within a few days we reached Huay Xai. The Mekong, of course, had gotten there first.

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We stayed in a wooden stilt hut in Daauw Homestay, a women’s refuge, which was idyllic apart from the lack of pegs to hang towels over the earnest and perplexingly punctuated inspirational messages…

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Yes, yes, very noble, but what the hell is that comma doing there?

Meanwhile, the frescoes on a local temple depicting scenes from hell offered a rather different exhortation to be good (or else):

The slow boat takes two days to reach Luang Prabang, with an overnight stopover in the town of Pak Beng. Although it was once a major local transportation route around the country, most locals now go by road, so the boat was mainly packed with tourists, with just a small group of locals who passed the time playing poker (for cash), drinking whiskey and generally having a laugh. The foreigners were more subdued, perhaps due to the eye-watering price of beer on board, or, more likely, because everyone had the personal distraction of their mobile phone (I confess to spending a fair bit of the journey reading the Lonely Planet Laos book on my phone. [“I most certainly didn’t!” adds John]).

The Mekong proved a turbulent and treacherous mistress, with many rapids and whirlpools; we were glad the crew seemed to know the ins and outs of their patch very well. The slow boat was, in fact, pretty fast – forested banks, rocky outcrops, the occasional village flew past, while we put our feet up and enjoyed the experience of covering so many miles without cycling.

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The stopover in Pak Beng was a bit of a disaster. Having heard the town was full of places to stay, we didn’t book in advance. As it turned out, the town was pretty close to full. The landing was chaotic, faced as we were with the not insignificant challenge of manhandling our bikes and 12 pieces of luggage off the boat, along a crowded narrow jetty past nearly a hundred other tourists each trying to extract their own backpack from a precarious mountain of luggage) and up a very steep slippery bank populated by hotel hustlers waving pictures of the rooms they had to offer. We were also worried about getting a room, and were trying to negotiate a space whilst extracting and guarding luggage and bikes and also dealing with the bleatings of some girl who’d lost her backpack and seemed to think we could help. This final distraction proved too much: we lost track of a carrier bag containing our 10 litre water tub, most of our bike bottles and, most traumatically, our very long bike lock. Whether it was stolen or just mistakenly loaded into a taxi with someone else’s luggage remained a mystery – we were never to see it again: someone’s now the lucky owner of an expensive lock with no key. Meanwhile, bored of waiting for us to finish searching for our lost bag, the hotel rep we’d struck a deal with jumped on her scooter and rode away without telling us the name of her hotel.

After a fruitless attempt to find a room near the jetty, a local guy offered to take us to his friend’s new hotel, which wasn’t officially open yet, but was pretty luxurious, with AC and a big telly. It was, however, right over the other side of town, making for an early start the next morning to get back for the second boat.

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The Mekong from Luang Prabang

The stress of the stopover soon melted away when we reached Luang Prabang, the old capital of Laos and a spiritual centre for the Theravada Buddhism common throughout Laos. Thanks to both tourism and local vehicle ownership having burgeoned, the city was perhaps not quite the laidback haven described by Chris and fabled among backpackers in the nineties,  but for sheer visual lavishness, this UNESCO World Heritage site was unsurpassed, and has retained its genteel atmosphere despite the many thousands of foreigners passing through every day. And it gets a big thumbs up for banning motor traffic in the historic centre – something that would benefit our home town of York immensely.

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What’s scarier than a dragon with seven heads?

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A dragon with seven heads coming out of his mouth!

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Though personally I found this freaky cat scarier

In the evenings, the hilltop temple is a popular spot for sunset viewing:

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Vietnam war-era gun (despite its support for the US, over 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on Laos making it the most bombed per capita country in the world)

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Sunset views…

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…and sunset viewers.

And as dusk deepens, the night market springs into life…

…while early risers can watch – or participate in – the monks’ morning rice-collecting rounds, receiving offerings from the faithful.

Food and drink were another highlight – although the riverfront tourist traps were mindbogglingly overpriced compared to the roadside noodle shacks we’d become accustomed to, there was no shortage of street vendors and pavement cafes serving quick-cooked dishes at local prices. Sticky rice came in little wicker pots, and the ubiquitous Beer Lao was thankfully much better than the 2% beer-flavoured gassy water China had to offer.  A combination of local rum and the long-awaited appearance of green coconuts (the second reason, after music, I keep coming back to Asia) made for some great DIY cocktail opportunities – this one also includes freshly squeezed pineapple juice:

 

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Noodles with duck blood jelly (black pudding for the tropics), raw baby aubergine (never really did get the taste for those), deep-fried battered garlic, and some kind of super-sour relation of the mango.

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Luang Prabang’s most famous speciality dish – baguettes being one of the more innocuous colonial legacies

Finding ourselves stuck, however pleasantly, in Luang Prabang, waiting for some delayed but urgent work from a client to come in, we decided to take a day trip, flying off on unencumbered bikes to Kuang Si waterfalls. Although they had the cheek to charge us to park our bikes, the park was fantastic, with a spacious jungle refuge for rescued bears, butterflies galore, a spectacular 60 meter cascade with bathing pools below, and a Buddha cave with a very cold chalky blue spring that was deep enough to swim in further up the mountain.

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But eventually, it was time to move on. Up into the mountains again…

IMAG3394…where a shy mum with a very inquisitive kid let us camp on the only flat grassy bit of land in a 20km radius…IMAG3379

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…we awoke to find ourselves above a sea of clouds:

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The march of progress: just a generation ago, chillies and bats(!) would have been dried in a wickerwork basket

Freshwater crabs, rat-on-a-stick and dried grubs (no photo of these I’m afraid) were just some of the tempting offerings to be found at market…

…whilst local hunters used slingshots to catch lizards for dinner:

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We came across a natural hot spring – in fact, we almost missed it. About 20km north of a town called Kasi, we stopped at a truck wash to get some tap water prior to finding a camp spot. A girl came over from the restaurant to chat, and when she heard we wanted the water for bathing, she diverted us across the road to a pool catching the warm waters springing from the hillside a dozen or so meters up; no tickets, no fuss, locals and tourists alike making free use of nature’s bounty. They had a few little bungalows for rent, and, although we were only a few days out from Luang Prabang, the riding had been tough, so we decided to stop for a couple of nights and enjoy the free spa.

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Local kids take a bath

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But in school hours we had it to ourselves

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View from the restaurant

But there were still many miles and mountains between us and Vientiane, and we needed to allow time to sort out an extended Thai visa so on we rode.

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As we gradually dropped down from the mountains – and by gradually I mean we were descending overall, but there were still an awful lot of ups to go with the downs – things got hotter, siesta-time lengthened, and we made grateful use of the beautifully-constructed roadside shelters:

We were heartened to see the bicycle still a central aspect of Laotian life, especially for the school run. Running the gauntlet of enthusiastic waves and greetings from our young fellow cyclists every afternoon when school let out became a familiar feature of the day, and the parpy horn on my bike continued to generate hilarity.

Cycling by the scenic route
to Java going rather slow,
Ginevra and her two-tone hooter
raise a smile where e’er they blow.

JEJ

The last stop before Vientiane was Vang Vieng – a once-elegant town situated in the midst of spectacular karst limestone scenery on the Nam Song river.

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Nam Song north of Vang Vieng

Until recently, Vang Vieng had a pretty dirty reputation as an all-night party town where ‘farang’ (foreigners) went to get drunk, take drugs and float downriver in inflated inner tubes, a practice known as ‘tubing’: a combination of indulgences that had proved lethal for more than a few fun-seekers over the last decade. A recent crackdown has seen bars closing before midnight and a much less tolerant attitude towards drugs; however, we opted to steer clear of the town, staying instead in the delightful Mulberry Organic Farm just outside.

Some more work had come in, and it was John’s turn to do it, so I went off alone, hunting for the Blue Lagoon cave, which apparently had a swimmable lake fed from the spring outside. I knew it was a popular place on the Vang Vieng itinerary, but I was surprised by the racket as I rolled up. There were about a hundred tourists there, including at least one coachload of atypically noisy, life-jacketed Korean holiday-makers who were cheering each other on as they took it in turns to jump from a tree into the lake. Zip-wires and a helter-skelter waterslide provided further entertainment options. But as I clambered up to the cave entrance, the sounds soon dropped away, and the cave itself was still and peaceful enough for a Buddha to doze in (cave photos courtesy of Marius Lewicki):

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Though most visitors didn’t make it far past the Buddha, the intrepid, armed with sensible footwear and torches, could scramble on and explore a couple of hundred meters further in. The cave formed a natural cathedral. High ‘windows’ in the roof admitted faint shafts of diffuse blue light that were lost to the vast space long before they illuminated the ground below.  Water droplets, as if recreating a dim and distant collective dream of a fan-vaulted church once seen, dribbled convoluted columns of limestone from ceiling to floor, while in the black depths a still pool glinted and the turbulent rock coyly flashed its quartzite bling.

Fan vault

Fan vault

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Vaulting fans

Emerging from the silent depths of the cave, the rumpus at the lake asserted its presence once again, but it was all good-natured fun, and a cool dip in the fresh milky water was just the thing to finish off with.

And then that was it for the mountains. Hurtling down the sudden and decisive end of the highlands, with some fairly heavy local traffic to spoil our fun, we were now in the plains surrounding Vientiane, though even this much more intensively farmed and inhabited area had pretty scenery to offer.

As we approached the city, the government – which we had been barely conscious of beyond the traces of state support for the sustainable development of northern villages – was asserting its ideology more strongly:

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The state is your friend.

As capital cities go, Vientiane has to be one of the least capital-like in the world. The size of a backwater provincial town in China, and considerably more laid-back, it nevertheless had all the amenities we needed, most especially a fantastic array of convincing Italian, French and Japanese restaurants (among others). As everyone who knows us knows well, we’re keen consumers of all kinds of Asian dishes – rat-on-a-stick excepted – and are more likely to be found cooking curry or fried rice than meat ‘n’ two veg. But there comes a time in any traveller’s journey when you’ve been on the road so long that suddenly the thought of a well-constructed carbonara brings tears of longing to your eyes. Since my birthday was coming up, and John’s 40th  had been spent enjoyably but unceremoniously squatting a derelict house in southern China,  I proposed an 8-course dinner cooked by Alfredo Russo, a visiting Michelin starred chef, at the posh Italian restaurant across the road from our hostel. As well as selected wines to match every course, it came with trendy presentation, such as this dry-ice cooled sashimi tower:

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Smokin’! (Well, sublimatin’ actually.)

And while we were in Vientiane, our ever-dedicated friend Rich Lane got in touch with another present. Thanks to the lack of GPS metadata on our Chinese photos  (I’m afraid we’ve been switching GPS off to preserve our aging phone battery – sorry folks) robbing him of the mammoth task of uploading all our pictures onto the Google Map mashup, he had instead dedicated himself to multi-tracking John’s Frere Jacques reboot – composed on the saddle in Xinjiang (Episode XVIII) – into its intended 16-part format. As Richard puts it, “it works, but it’s a bit mental!”:

In such delightful ways we whiled away our time whilst wrangling 60 day visas from the Thai Embassy, until finally, having spent every last one of the 30 days permitted us in Laos, it was time for the next border.

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Goofy-toothed guardian

GH

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