Vietnam heaves with 88 million, Thailand bustles with 66 million and in the middle lies Laos with just 6.5 million people to lay claim to a country similar in size to the UK. It’s quiet, relaxed and there’s space to breathe – the perfect antidote to China.
For the last month I’ve been tying together a seemingly endless string of dirt roads to cross this forgotten little corner of south east Asia. It’s a secretive place which has only recently gained the attention it deserves. It was the site of the biggest clandestine bombing campaign in history and the CIA’s largest paramilitary operation. And ever since the American retreat from Vietnam Laos has been in the hands of an autocratic one party communist government, one of the five last remaining. But you wouldn’t know much about all of that cycling through because the people are some of the most laid back, friendly and often just the downright loveliest you could hope to come across.
The Laoitian road network is in the process of being improved, but unlike either of its communist neighbours Laos doesn’t have the resources to make a quick job of it. So for now, beyond the handful of sealed roads which tie the country together, there are plenty of dirt roads to tickle our fancy.
Up and down the country hammers and sickles adorn buildings,
cock fighting is practiced casually,
and it’s so laid back even the dogs can’t be bothered to get up and give chase.
Battling through the morning rush hour I made my way onwards and upwards into the northern Laoitian mountains.
Cyclists not too far ahead it appears. Hang on, don’t I know somebody with those tyres…
Just up the road I bumped into Daniel, who I cycled through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with, and Stephane, a French cyclist who I repeatedly bumped into through Central Asia. We all beamed with smiles at the chance encounter and at camp shared our weird and wonderful stories from China between mouthfuls of rice.
Reunited we headed off to Luang Prabang and our smiles soon faded into grimaces. This is one of the most strenuous roads any of us have cycled. Laoitian roads do not switch back, so if there is a hill you can guarantee the road will go straight up the side of it. 25% climbs lead us up to 1600m and 25% descents lead us back down. It’s full on mountain biking terrain. Buckets of sweat poured out of us and our clothes spent most of their time sodden – the perfect adhesive for dust and grime.
But we’ve all been at this racket for so long now though that we know the pain is only temporary and the rewards of travelling on roads such as these are plentiful. Rickety bridges,
river crossings to wash in,
and in between all the pushing and sweating we enjoy brief stretches of flat.
Enjoy it while it lasts
before the next outrageously steep hill makes us wish we had taken the tourist boat
and were sitting with our feet up sipping on a cool BeerLao.
Road conditions vary from good to awful
and it’s not long before we all sport tell tale signs of tumbles on the loose descents.
Finally we arrive in Luang Prabang; a UNESCO World Heritage site and veritable tourist haunt. A ramshackle trio with knees oozing lymph and faces smeared with sweat and dust we stand in the centre entirely befuzzled. In the centre tourists outnumber locals, bars and guesthouses occupy every other building and we fail to see the attraction. So we sneak off to find a cheap backpacker eat, sleep, wash and then move swiftly on.
Back where we belong the dirt road leads us through hill tribe villages populated by Hmong, an ethnic minority within Laos some of whom are still persecuted for their co-operation with the CIA during the Vietnam war.
The villages are utterly fascinating. Buildings are entirely made from natural resources and people live mostly from what they can forage. The people are some of the wildest I have come across and for the first time on this journey I feel as though I have strayed somewhere which might be best left alone.
Electricity is still a year away from these hill tops and who knows if tarmac will ever make it.
Daniel enjoys a well earned view over dusty landscape. The dry season is holding and rain is still yet to fall.
Passing through Houay King the local teacher invited us to join a game of petanque, one of the lasting legacies from the French occupation.
After being thoroughly beaten we spent the night with his family and hoards of curious children came to poke their head round the door.
Once the single solar powered light bulb had emitted its last ray our world became candle lit.
Brief stretches of tarmac link up all the dirt roads.
Mostly quiet and smooth enough to make Laos open to pretty much any cyclist who can stand the heat.
But this is what we are here for.
Dirty, bumpy, fast, slow
and all ridden to the soundtrack of jungle noises and the odd put put of a scooter.
*cough* Here come the loggers leaving us and our lungs plastered with dust. *cough*
The dirt road takes its toll
so each evening we hunt for a place to call home for the night
and then retreat tired and a little more orange than usual to rest, eat and sweat in our tents until it becomes cool enough to sleep.
To be continued…
UPDATE – I’ve finally got round to updating the route map. So if you’re interested in seeing the roads I’ve taken since Kyrgyzstan head over to the route page.