Continuing on from the last post here’s the next episode from Laos.
Daniel and I waved goodbye to Stephane in Vientiane where he crossed over to Thailand chasing a deadline in Java. We renewed our visas and then continued along the scenic route snaking this and way that and enjoying taking the time to cherry pick some of the best roads in the country. Even if they do take us out of our way and demand a little more puff they are (nearly) always worth it. Revealing parts of Laos which just cannot be seen from tarmac.
As a special treat I’m including some sounds with this post courtesy of Daniel. Laos has a very funky music scene which is a refreshing change from the usual globalised pop rubbish we hear blaring by the roadside. So to soothe your ears as you peruse this next instalment click play below.
In the mornings we top off our fuel tanks with a caffeine and sugar injection before hitting the road.
Other than the odd splutter
the going is good.
Southerly progress continues on peaceful backroads. Traffic mostly non-existant and all our ears absorb are the sounds of chirping crickets and our tyres ploughing through sand and grit. Life doesn’t get much more care free than this.
During a cold drink pit stop we strummed up conversation with Kheo, a teacher come builder, and this soon lead to an invitation to climb the hill near his village. So once again we were off following a stranger down the back roads.
Once across the river
we arrived in his village. These Laoitian villages are beautiful. Unlike much of the world where life is lived behind closed doors and in private here all of life (and death) is open and public.
People live among their roaming animals and watching the dramas which play out between them is better than any television.
It’s a way of life that is rarely seen in the UK and even more rarely celebrated. Venetia Dearden’s work Somerset Stories, Fivepenny Dreams and Alessendra Sanguinetti’s work in Argentina On The Sixth Day are two of few exceptions. The small insights I’ve had into these little communities make me want to lob my smartphone off a cliff, my laptop into a river and find a small piece of land to call my own. And with the help of a good woman build a life where worries vary from keeping the animals from eating the vegetables to what the weather’s doing this afternoon and what’s for dinner. Of course it’s a little more complicated than that, but the calmness and perpetual good spiritedness of these people make it seem so blissfully simple.
We spent the evening jamming with Kheo, his guitar and Casio keyboard before squeezing on to his bamboo bed and slumbering just about well enough for a morning scramble up the hill.
When it’s time to leave we endure the moment of sadness which always clouds the end of these encounters as everybody realises that in all likeliness we will never see each other again. It’s at these times this transient life of fleeting encounters can feel soulless and sometimes I struggle to see the purpose of the incessant moving about.
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
Jack Kerouac, On The Road.
Kheo sent us off on an alternative to the main drag which soon had us pestering every passing local for directions.
“Erm… are we sure this is the right way?”
“Well that bloke in the last village seemed pretty confident.”
After hours of following our noses we finally emerge back on the road grinning triumphantly and mosey on to Phin
where we chat with some monks intrigued by our bicycles and filthy appearance.
Temples and their brightly coloured residents are a big feature of Laos. Mostly decorated and maintained by the monks themselves the temples are always worth a wander.
The end of the road. The bridge south of Phin was bombed during the Indo-China War so we made use of the ferry which comes complete with tractor service to drag those travelling with four wheels up the steep sand banks.
All aboard I spotted a bulge in my tyre – the sidewall of my newest Schwalbe Marathon Mondial (10,000km of service) had ruptured and was spewing its guts of inner tube. With the thread I carry being too thick we resorted to Daniel’s tooth floss to stitch up the tyre and butchered a cosmetic tube to boot it. Finally we laid some inner tube between the floss and the rim to stop it wearing through and 500km of dirt roads later the repair’s still going strong – job’s a good un’.
Lucky too because our road soon deteriorates into a labyrinth of sandy scrawls.
50km of blissfully quiet track followed winding us through forest and jungle.
The road felt remote and unforgiving, but every hour or so we stumbled across people hunting, collecting wood and going about their business in the forest.
They point us in the right direction and on we grind. 40mm tyres prove fairly useless for this terrain, cutting into the sand and ensuring our bikes never travel in the direction we point them.
Food is never forthcoming on roads like these and as midday temperatures peak above 40C thoughts of cold drinks and tasty morsels never stray too far from our minds. Plain rice and eggs washed down with warm water does little to quell the cravings, but at least it keeps the legs turning.
With the first glimpse of a house the road comes to an end in Toumlan. Women with their boobs out wave their babies’ arms, gawping faces emerge in windows, half naked children flee in blind fear whilst others smile and wave and then everyone gathers round to watch us drink a warm coke from the shop.
Weary from the road neither Daniel or I knew what to make of the encounter…
“That was a bit mad.”
“Err, yeah. It was a bit.”
… best leave the thinking for later.
and then dirt… really, really steep dirt.
A big thank you to Alex and Stephen, two miners looking for bauxite, who found us out of our way, pointed us back and then fed us a hearty serving of chicken and chips the likes of which I have not tasted since goodness knows when.
As we leave Alex asks us whether we’ve ridden the Bolivian death road. “No” I replied. “Well the condition of the road ahead is a bit like that except there are cluster bombs too. Best stay on the road.”
Laos is littered with unexploded ordinance (UXO) which makes camping here a little precarious to say the least. We live by the rule of never going into the jungle and stick to well trodden footpaths and access roads. No excuses.
Back across the Mekong, with us tourists doing what we know best,
and to Champasak where we stray into the realm of Angkor.
Originating from the 11th to 13th Century here’s Wat Phu…
Makes you wonder who used to walk these corridors.
On our way back and in complete contrast we happened across a concert and fair ground setup in the grounds of a Buddhist monastery. The music blasted until dawn (literally) and toy guns, gambling and dancing girls were the big attraction.
Just another unpredictable end to another day “on the road”.