Based on the information in our guide books, we had been under the impression that people go to Laos to have fun. It’s all about eating mango and sticky rice, floating down rivers in tubes beer in hand and lazing around in hammocks. This is the land that backpackers flock to to party by night and drink fruit shakes by day. So we were quite excited as we said goodbye to the Middle Kingdom and set our sights on South East Asia. The home straight, as we had come to think of it, was going to be our reward for the all the hard miles done to date and we were looking forward to it! We were therefore somewhat taken aback when Laos turned out to be the country where we had our biggest climbing days of the trip so far. That’s right, forget the 4,600m passes in Tajikistan or the rolling mountains of Yunnan. Laos’ where it’s at if you want to get your big guns out!
We entered Laos via the border crossing at Boten and the change from China was dramatic. As we passed through small villages everyone waved and smiled. Houses varied from big brightly coloured colonial style brick and mortar to little thatched bamboo dwellings. Puppies, piglets, chicks and ducklings all ran wild through the street and this haphazard approach to growing things extended to the fields too which were a ramshackle affair compared to the immaculate order of China.
Now we must confess that during our stay in China we did get out of the habit of camping every night. Accommodation only cost a few dollars and though it was basic, we really did enjoy having a shower at the end of the day and a bed to sleep in. Steggy (our tent) has also had a broken zip for some time now which means we can’t keep out the local wildlife and given the numbers and size of the snakes we had been seeing on the road, well… I’m sure most people would understand. Laos has a lot more jungle than China too. In fact something like eighty percent of the land is still forested which is good, but surely means even more creepy crawlies. Our other main concern (excuse) in reaching Laos was that we didn’t know how serious the unexploded ordnance situation is. Whatever the case, we were happy to discover that guest house accommodation was common and still affordable.
Our second day took us through our first mountain range. The climbing here wasn’t too bad for us but seemed to be a nightmare for the locals! The road was a windy one and the higher we got the more cars we saw pulling over with people leaping out of the back seats for a spew. As we started descending the traffic became very heavy which seemed strange for such a remote part of the country, but on entering the regional capital of Oudomxay, we discovered from the nice guy who made us our first salad baguette since Turkey, that the national olympics were starting today and people were travelling in from all over the country to spectate or compete. We decided to stay and watch for the rest of the day but after trying a lot of guesthouses soon realised that the town was a full house and so we had to move on. With that many people around it wouldn’t be safe to leave the Trolls anywhere but a locked room.
The first part of the day may not have been a nightmare for us, but the second part was getting that way. A cycle tourist I met in Kunming had warned me we would have to cross a really horrible section of road in northern Laos but I hadn’t paid much attention until we reached it and it really was bad. It was another mountain pass and I guess the road had been washed away in the wet season and all that was left was a very rough dirt road which still carried heavy traffic. We got covered head to foot in dirt from passing vehicles as we struggled our way up into the mountains for the second time that day. As we passed the equally dusty tiny minority villages we began to wonder where we would find to stay that night. We often get that edgy feeling at the end of the day if we don’t have food with us and don’t know when we’ll come across another village. It all becomes a race against time to find somewhere before dark. As the sun was setting we were still high up in the mountains and hadn’t seen a village selling food let alone accommodation since leaving Oudomxay at lunchtime. We decided to try flagging down one of the passing trucks and would you believe the first one we waved down stopped for us. Two guys jumped out and helped us get the Trolls into the tray back where we joined them for a seriously bumpy 18km. There wasn’t much we could do about the bumps other than try to spread the impact evenly across our rear ends as we landed. The driver was a wonderful guy though and after dropping off his friends he drove us all the way to a guesthouse in a small mountain top village just past his own and refused any payment for the lift. There was no shower at the guesthouse so we did our best with wet wipes and then went in search of food.
The market had closed for the day but there were a couple of shops still open. We bought our new favourite drink, soy milk with black sesame and sinan rice, it’s awesome, but couldn’t find much in the way of food. One lady had barbecued rats on sticks out on a table, their spiny little teeth grinning out of blackened mouths, and what was that I wondered as I walked to the other end of the table for a closer look. Oh, half a puppy. The rear half. Still with silky soft fur and its little tail poking up in the air. We settled for noodles and cauliflower greens and went back to the guesthouse to cook them.
The diet of the Laoations can really be attributed to their ranking as one of the poorest countries in SE Asia and one of the least-developed countries in the world. Being poor and also landlocked means they make the most of the food they do have. The markets are full of unfamiliar fruit and vegetables, roots, leaves and weeds that have been collected from the forests, river banks and rivers themselves along with the produce they are able to grow. Despite being a predominantly Buddhist country, they eat meat three times a day but unlike us in the west there is no cutting off the best bits of meat and throwing the rest of the carcass away. No, they use everything from the bile which is used to tenderise meat, blood which is allowed to set into cubes for use in soupy dishes all the way through to the organs which I found chopped up in what I thought was a bamboo salad to the skin which makes a good salty beer snack to chew on apparently. And clearly they don’t just stick to your traditional farm animals. Basically this meant that we had all kinds of surprises when we attempted to buy food. Particularly while we were in the tourist free north of the country we would usually have trouble making ourselves understood so resorted to just buying stuff and hoping for the best. Sometimes we would strike it lucky and open a banana leaf package to find sticky rice inside, other times it would be something more sinister and unidentifiable. They do have some good takes on western food though. Chris was delighted when he came across a stall in a small village selling condensed milk filled baguettes. He usually adds a banana and it’s his new favourite energy food. And whilst we are on the subject of energy foods, listen up iced coffee lovers because this is good!
How to make a Laos iced coffee: Fill a large plastic sandwich bag with small ice cubes, make up a large cup of strongly brewed black coffee and stir in a good dollop of condensed milk. Pour over the ice and follow with most of the rest of the can of condensed milk. Seal the bag, give it a good shake, poke a straw through the top and voila, you have an iced coffee guaranteed to get you 100km on your bike!
The following day on emerging with substantial relief from our sojourn through the dusty mountains, we decided to take a detour further north to the riverside town of Nong Khiaw. It’s a picturesque little town surrounded by karst scenery and it was here that we joined the tourist trail. It’s one of those situations. We have been so excited about getting to SE Asia because of the tourism and everything that goes with it. Cool accommodation, yummy, familiar english written menus, happy hours, markets full of handicrafts and loads of touristy stuff to do if you can be bothered. The down side is that we’ve been travelling through countries where we’ve gotten used to struggling along, trying to make ourselves understood by learning a few useful words combined with charades and it’s so much more satisfying when it all works and you get a cracking meal or against all odds find somewhere safe or beautiful to stay just because you asked the right person. Joining the tourist trail meant that prices sky rocketed. Where we knew that we could get a Beer Lao for about 25 cents, suddenly they were $1.50 and ice-cream appeared everywhere but was beyond our budget. More frustrating was that most of the people we had to deal with just saw us as a source of income and all special little connections stopped.
Luckily, most of the tourist towns, Nong Khiaw, Luang Prabang, Vang Vien and Vientiane are about 200km or more apart from each other so we had a nice mix of “real Laos” and “tourist Laos” for the remainder of our time there. This translates as a couple of days of cheap beer and anything can happen meals staying in basic guest house accommodation interspersed with a touristy day of sight seeing, pricey fruit shakes and cheese baguettes and checking into novelty accommodation such as a bamboo hut complete with plumbing and hammocks.
The aforementioned mega 2,000m plus climbing day which included many sections of character testing gradients, occurred between Luang Prabang and Vang Vien. It was a tough day but with mountain scenery at its best and a “real Laos” fabulous guesthouse at the summit. The descent into more karst landscape was spectacular and honestly, I don’t think we would have been surprised had we needed to give way to a real Stegosaurus crossing the road. The terrain got lumpy again towards the bottom but after a few sections steep enough to cause tears we came to a hot spring. We had seen it on the map but assumed it would be off the road and we’d have to pay to get in. Instead, it was by the road and free to get in! What a way to end a couple of tough days riding.
I have forgotten to mention until now that it was Christmas time while we were in Laos. Most days Chris kept his phone in his jersey pocket playing the 60 Top Christmas Hits he had downloaded while we were still in China. My parents transferred enough money to us so that we could stay in a nice hotel in Vientiane for a few nights over Christmas, eat a really good Christmas dinner which we had at a French cafe and even bought a bottle of wine which we drank as we watched Christmas movies in our hotel room. It was a good Christmas and yes, we even went to church where we had to stand in the carpark as it was packed.
So this essentially brought us to the end of our adventure through Laos as we caught one of the sleeper buses we had been so enviously noting throughout our journey through the country. In twenty odd hours we trundled from Vientiane to Hue in Vietnam. I’m not sure I’d recommend the experience. They were great about the Trolls and hoisted them up onto the roof in a matter of minutes without batting an eye despite several people telling us it wouldn’t be possible to take them. We knew otherwise though as we have seen over and over again the can-do attitude of the Laoations when it comes to transporting absolutely anything at all by vehicle. Any Laoation, we know, would have put both Trolls on the back of their moped along with the two of us had we paid them enough. The bus was never going to be an issue. We did come across an issue though as we crossed into Vietnam. The leaves of all the banana trees had been shredded by the wind that was howling through and we could barely see them anyway for the rain that was lashing down in torrents. Confused by this unexpected turn of weather we consulted the guidebook from our reclined positions on the bus. Oh shit Chris said – it’s the wet season…