One guidebook says that upon entering the most relaxed country in SE Asia, “travelers utter a distinct “aaah”.” This was exactly my reaction when I crossed the border into Laos, particularly since I’d just spent four months in what is notoriously the most aggressive country in the region.
At first it was difficult to pinpoint exactly what was to be attributed to this slow-paced, light, socially-warm and relaxed feeling, until I realized that it was everything. It was the lack of traffic on the roads and the fact that that which was there were inclined to use their brakes before their horn. It was the sight of children, dogs, chickens, pigs, etc. occupying and playing in the streets without the fear of being struck down by an almighty truck. It was the sound of nothing but my breathing, my chain running over the cogs and an array of birds and insects as I cycled. Above all however, it was the people.
Like in Thailand, the Lao people take much pride in their national greeting. Everywhere I went I was received with warm shouts of “sabaydee!,” a very welcome change from the “hellos.” It is a word that, as one fellow traveller described, is impossible to say without a smile on your face. I assured her that having climbed a whopping mountain for the last 20kms, it is possible to say wearing something more like a grimace, but for the most part, she was spot on. Invariably it was delivered with a distinct Lao shyness that is accompanied by a beaming grin.
My first stop in this new frontier was a small town that heralds itself as being the “Birthplace of the Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic).” Vieng Xay is in the middle of a beautiful landscape of limestone peaks, a fact that played a major role in its becoming an important part of Lao, and some would even say world, history.
In the 1960s, when the US was in the midst of tackling the threat of communism, they viewed Laos as being a crucial domino in the political future of the region. So they did what the US military do best; bombed the shit out of it.
In the nine years between 1964 and 1973, two million tonnes of bombs were dropped making Laos the most heavily bombed nation per capita in history. A whopping 30% of these failed to detonate, leaving the country riddled with what is known as unexploded ordnance (UXO), which continue to kill and maim (mostly children) and prevent cultivation of land to this day.
Soon after the bombing began the Lao communist movement, the Pathet Lao, relocated to Vieng Xay. In amongst the impenetrable limestone caves they created a ‘hidden city’ that supported a population of 20,000 people. This surprisingly extensive and sophisticated network of caves was a fascinating insight into how these people were forced to live for the best part of a decade. All agricultural work and transportation of supplies had to be undertaken at night. Between the hours of 7am and 6pm, the almost constant bombardment forced the people to take shelter in the caves, which were fitted out as schools, hospitals, sewing factories, bakeries, a radio station and a performance stage, complete with tiered seating and an orchestra pit.
In 1973, having failed to seize control of Northern Vietnam and bowing to public pressure back home, the US declared a ceasefire. Two years later the US-backed Royal Lao Government fell and it was from Vieng Xay that the Pathet Lao declared the Lao PDR before moving the capital to Vientiane.
Not far from Vieng Xay is the unassuming town of Xam Neua, which is where I ran into Luke and his new travel companion; a clunky, old, discoloured, obscenely-loud Russian Minsk motorbike whom he named the Red Devil……..or the Red Dragon, Red Scorpion, Red Lion, Red Bandicoot, Red Giraffe……….truth be told, it only really deserved the name I gave it, which was the Red Hunk o’ Junk.
The following day the King Brown and the Red Rabbit hit the road together for the first time. However, their difference in muscle soon became apparent and the ‘togetherness’ did not last long, only to the first hill in fact. After a couple of failed attempts at catching a free ride using a rope tied to the back of the Red Buffalo, Luke waved me away and said, “I’ll see you at the top.” 60kms later and I spotted the Red Cobra parked in the middle of a dusty little village consisting of no more than 30 huts, packed together on either side of the roadway. This was in fact the ‘town’ that Luke and I had arranged to meet at that my map classified as having <10,000 inhabitants. Well they were certainly right about that since the population would have been lucky to reach 100.
I hadn’t been stopped for more than 10 seconds before I had 40 pairs of eyes fixed on me. It seems that Luke too had discovered what it is like to be on the Western end of two-way tourism in the 3rd world because he had holed up in what was to be our room for the night, which was in fact the ‘living room’ of a local family.
Absolutely ravenous from the day’s ride I was directed into the ‘dining room’ where I was given a wicker basket full of sticky rice and a bowl of meat. Luke assured me it was chicken and why I believed him as I cracked the tiny ribs and picked off the scarce pieces of meat is beyond me. It was only after I’d had my fill that he pointed out the source of my lunch, which was roasting over the fire. In the darkened room I had to squint, but once focused the sight was unmistakable; a long skewer of rats lined up head to tail.
A sunset stroll around the village offered a very interesting insight into the local way of life. Teenage girls used large foot-powered hammers to pound rice and remove the husks, young boys chased tyres down the road or played with model cars made from old water bottles and scrap pieces of wood, women gossiped around the local tap either washing clothes or implementing the art of bathing without bearing any skin and men gathered in darkened huts getting drunk on freshly made lao hai (rice beer), which is consumed communally through one of several bamboo straws protruding from a large ceramic jug.
Luke and I were invited into a couple of these drinking sessions where we suckled on the warm nectar in the top of which floated clumps of barley and hops while a man regularly topped it up with cups of water. Once we’d had our fill of the un-carbonated, unfermented-tasting beer, we realised that the best way to satisfy the locals’ desire to have us drink ever more was to suck on the straw without actually swallowing. In any case, they were too drunk to notice.
As with all Lao villages, the number of human inhabitants was far surpassed by that of the livestock who mingle and go about their business as any other local resident. Chickens scratch about looking for any grain they can get their beak on, dogs forage for bigger pieces of food while intermittently getting into wild gang fights with all of their neighbours, roosters frantically chase the hens looking for some action and huge, black, mother pigs try desperately to catch a break from the hoards of piglets who relentlessly fight to find a teat to suckle on. Invariably though, her efforts prove futile and she is forced to lie down and submit. Luke and I mused over the fact that every one of them was going to eventually end up as food.
As night fell, soft candlelight lit up pockets of the village and our guesthouse owner approached us. Having spent the best part of the afternoon at the pub/beer hut, he swayed slightly, pointed to one of the chickens clucking about, gestured that he could turn it into our dinner and named his price to which we eagerly agreed. Not long after, we were licking our lips at the thought of some freshly killed poultry as we entered the dining room only to find him sliding rat after rat from the skewer, using his thumbs to rip them apart with loud cracks and dropping all of the various pieces, legs and tail included, into a bowl. Much like with the lao hai, when urged to dig in Luke and I found the best approach was to pretend we were loving our rat meat by dipping our fingers in occasionally while covertly filling up on sticky rice.
Our village stay was an eye-opening experience that caused me to redefine my concept of luxury. Luxury isn’t a car worth six figures, a house worth seven or an airplane seat that converts to a bed, that’s excess. Luxury is access to electricity, clean running water, health care, a steady income and three square meals a day for a man and his family, things that we in the developed world take for granted and that we should be striving to provide every one of our global neighbours with.
While a fair word to describe travelling Laos is ‘relaxing,’ a more apt word for cycling it would be ‘relentless,’ something I discovered over the following three very tough days.
Having all but run out of money and being no where near one of the country’s few ATMs, Luke and the Red Caterpillar were sent on an emergency mission while I was left to tackle this hostile terrain where the rolling hills simply do not quit. Unlike in Vietnam, there are not many monster mountains that offer that ‘top of the world’ feeling where the only way is down. In Laos, I was forced to constantly alternate between up, down, up, down in short though tiring bursts. That is, until I would reach a mountain that seemingly grew beneath me as I pedaled where the top was always “just one more corner” away.
On one particularly miserable, grey day I found myself climbing through some dense, moist forest when I saw a sign that read, “We are proud to have tigers here” above which was a picture of a ferocious, bicycle tourist-eating tiger. Having climbed continuously for the last 25kms and with no other person in sight, I thought that I must have looked like a wounded animal lost in the wilderness and an easy meal for a hungry predator. Fortunately, I managed to remain un-devoured for three more kms at which point I reached the mountain pass in what was an amazing moment. It was as though I had travelled in time to a new day and what a day to travel to; the sun was burning brightly, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, the birds were singing, my destination was only 17kms away and it was all downhill.
While physically demanding, this northeastern route was highly rewarding due to the absolute remoteness of the area. In an entire day I would be lucky to encounter twenty scooters and five cars. Similarly, the number of villages I passed was very few, so as one can imagine I often received somewhat of a reception. Considering that half of them sat on an uphill where I struggled to go much beyond walking pace, upon my arrival the entire village had time to line the road forming a guard of honour through which I panted and sweated. Some shouted “sabaydee,” some smiled and waved, but most just stared.
The other half of course sat on a steep downhill where I didn’t have the chance to acknowledge the locals, for all of my focus was on not running down their livestock as they randomly scattered before me, something I found out later, Luke the puppy killer was not so successful with.
While very attractive, the scenery I passed during those three days was uniform and at times barren and I wondered what it was going to take to enable my ultimate destination of Nong Khiaw to live up to its reputation of being scenically stunning. Enter the Nam Ou.
Sourced in Southern China, the Ou River is a major watercourse that flows swiftly beneath enormous limestone cliffs and beside a diverse range of green vegetation. It wasn’t long after arriving that Luke and I, having been reunited once more, were enjoying a cold Beer Lao while overlooking this awesome sight. So awesome was it in fact, that we hung around for the best part of two weeks. Most of this time was spent 20km upstream in the highly popular thought amazingly relaxing village of Muang Ngoi. Relatively cut off from civilisation and dependant upon the river, the only way to reach Muang Ngoi is by long, wooden ferry boats. As our captain sat up in the bow gripping his big black steering wheel, looking out through the rectangular viewing hole, barking instructions at his wife who was manning the motor in the rear, I could not stop picturing him as a city bus driver with the most amazing view in the world.
Only a few years ago Muang Ngoi would have been much like any other small Lao village. These days however, bamboo-thatched bungalows line the river, each with a hammock strung up on the balcony waiting for white folk to climb in and lose themselves in the beauty of the scene laid out before them. Fortunately, despite development the place retains its village charm, its ridiculously slow pace, its rustic feel and other remnants of its recent past. The main, and basically only, road is a dirt strip on which there is not a motor to be seen and nothing travels faster than a hen escaping harassment by a horny rooster.
However, while the tourists are able to embrace this remoteness and the peace it provides, they are generally unaware of the cost at which it comes to the local Lao people who lack basic services such as health care. Luke was told a story by a Swedish expat of a young boy in a village upstream who had recently cut his leg on a rock in the river. The wound was improperly cleaned and stitched up and a month later the poor kid is faced with a severe infection that could result in the loss of his leg.
Following a short search, Luke and I ended up in a small group of bungalows owned by a woman with a hearty laugh named Mama and a man who was obviously named Papa. They had a cute little daughter named Noi who seemed pretty happy spending her days helping Mama with a few chores, swinging in a hammock, swimming in the river and shyly mingling with the farang. Luke and I took our cue from her and did much the same in what was undoubtedly the most relaxing and peaceful week of the tour.
However, one could bet on that peace being broken in the early hours of every morning by what is surely the devils bird; the rooster. Anyone who has travelled through Laos will tell you about “those f#*king roosters” and Luke and I would regularly have a semi-conscious conversation at 1 or 2am, something along the lines of;
“Roosters are only meant to be good at two things, right? Waking up at dawn and crowing.”
“Yeah and they suck at both.”
It was really difficult to find a decent crow. Most either sounded like their head had been cut off half way through the crow, or like a pimply-faced teen nervously chatting up a girl while his voice breaks with every second word or an 80-year old man who has been smoking a pack a day since he was 15.
Invariably the conversation would end with Luke saying, “I just really wish I had a shotgun.”
One night in which I did sleep soundly was preceded by a bonfire with a group of fellow travellers on a sand bar in the river. Under the brightness of the full moon, we passed a bottle of the famous lao lao (home-made rice whisky) around the fire, shared stories and took in the immensity of our silhouetted surrounds. Eventually, the usual evening fog slowly crept into the valley where it would remain until mid-morning before drifting out again leaving nothing but blue skies and sunshine in its wake.
It was going to be difficult to leave this place.