342km Luang Prabang to Pakbeng
We must be gluttons for punishment. After a gruelling journey over mountains to Luang Prabang, we hit the road again for another steady series of rolling hills all the way to the tiny riverside village of Pakbeng. We could have taken the boat straight from the tourist centre of Luang Prabang to the Thai border but instead we plumped for the more difficult option of four days cycling to the halfway point. Our legs were complaining but our souls were happy as we pedalled through yet more rural villages to the steady tune of “sabaydee” sung by Lao children.
The average Lao family seems to have about eight children. You can’t pass through a village without large groups of enthusiastic and smiling kids running to the roadside to greet you and it’s these young Lao citizens who have really won us over to the country. When we first arrived a month ago from Cambodia we thought Lao was nice but not great. A tough couple of days about halfway through made us feel like running back to Thailand but now, looking back, we are so glad we didn’t take the easy option.
Who could regret a chance to collect high fives from so many cheering bystanders, making you feel like you’re in the Tour de France? Or better yet, the genuine smiles from the kids as you trade waves with them. This is exactly the kind of thing you miss if you just pass on a bus – not to mention the pleasure of cycling silently behind a family and observing their traditional dress, the baskets of wood they carry, half-strapped around their heads, and the long pipes they sometimes smoke as they walk. It’s all fascinating and we have rarely been bored on a stretch of road in northern Lao.
Unfortunately for you, we don’t have many pictures of people to share because the people here are quite shy and we don’t feel right waltzing into a village on our bicycles and snapping away. We would have liked to bring you a photo of the woman who brought Friedel into her kitchen to learn how to make som tam, a salad made from green papaya. You’ll just have to come here to experience it for yourself. Maybe you wouldn’t want to see some of the pictures we could have taken. Andrew turned his head this morning to see the hind quarters of a dog being chopped up for the dinner table. It will make Western minds cringe but here, in a very poor part of the world, it’s just what you do to feed your family.
Our journey in Lao on bicycles ended when we arrived today in Pakbeng, a village on the Mekong that lives for the tourists who overnight here to break up the two-day trip between Luang Prabang and the border town of Huay Xai. We showed up early (most of the boats pull in near sunset) so we had a lazy afternoon visiting the wats, talking with the men who run the tourist bureau and watching the town gear up for the evening rush. Despite many stories about how seedy Pakbeng can be, we found it quite a pleasant place to spend the day and wished we had longer to linger. Our visa is well and truly at its end though so it’s on the boat for us, onward to new adventures in Thailand.