Oh Falang, Falang, Falang
295km Tadlo to Savannakhet
The young girl shouting at us at the top of her voice couldn’t have been much more than five years old but her voice was loud enough to awaken a whole village to our presence. Soon it wasn’t just one child shouting at us but dozens. A fair few adults joined in, more softly than the children but still loud enough for us to hear the Lao word for ‘foreigner’ slip across their lips as they pointed at us and laughed.
Our ride through Lao, which started so agreeably on the islands in the Mekong and touring around the Bolaven plateau, was becoming a little more trying. It wasn’t the first time we’d been labelled ‘falang’ – this experience is common to every tourist in Southeast Asia – but on this narrow dirt road we could barely cycle a hundred meters without being followed by a deafening ‘falang’ chorus. Every cluster of houses brought the same alert from one eagle-eyed child, which spread from home to home until it seemed everyone who could scream was shouting our way. We were reminded of the sound a flock of birds might make when a predator appears.
The performance quickly lost its novelty and the snickering laughter that went along with the ‘falang’ label left us feeling mocked and unwelcome in Lao. Our mood wasn’t helped when we took a break in a shady spot, across from a family who’d also stopped their motorbike. The man spent ten minutes staring at us, without smiling or responding when we offered a ‘sabaydee’. We are used to being a strange sight but in other places we always managed to make a connection with the local people. On this day, we were left time and time again feeling like the outsider that people would rather not have around.
Calls of ‘falang’ followed us throughout the day. They came as we rolled through a monsoon rain, trying and failing to find shelter until we were completely soaked. The sun fell lower in the sky, then dusk arrived and dark quickly followed. We were still going, having failed to find anywhere to stay, and still the kids managed to spot us and call out ‘falang’ as we passed. We were tired, wet, muddy and frustrated. It was one of those moments where we really started to question what we were doing covering large distances on a bicycle and at the same time longing for those wonderful countries like Syria and Iran, where any stranger would do their best to help and it was easy to make new friends.
Well after sunset we spotted the silhouette of a hut the rice farmers use for shade during the day. We climbed the ladder. pitched our tent as a mosquito net and fell asleep almost instantly.
We woke up hungry – we hadn’t eaten a proper meal the day before – and with a renewed optimism for better kilometers ahead. In the tranquil early morning the calls of ‘falang’ were fewer but now we met with a new challenge: trying to get breakfast. In the first large town we stopped at every restaurant but no one would serve us a cup of coffee. It was at the sixth stop or so that one lady finally made us a cup, despite the insistance of the ten men sitting around drinking their coffees that we should go further down the road. As we sipped our drinks, we noticed the restaurant next door cooked food. Would they make us some eggs? We went over once we’d finished our drinks and soon a fantastic omelette was on our table. Things were looking up until the bill arrived and we discovered they’d charged the agreed price for the food but double the going rate for the coffee we ordered to go along with it.
This scenario was repeated over and over on the ride to Savannakhet. If we didn’t ask the price beforehand we inevitably ended up paying anything up to double the going rate. Once even when we asked the price of a bottled drink the bill was quickly inflated and it wasn’t until we threatened to walk away that the shop agreed to sell us drinks at close to a normal rate. We don’t enjoy this kind of confrontation but neither do we enjoy being taken for a ride. By the time we reached Savannakhet, how tempted we were to take the boat across the Mekong to dear old Thailand with its straightforward nature and good food! We’ll write more about the real Lao food later, as opposed to what you find in Westernised restaurants. Taking the escape route to Thailand would be the easy way out though and we know there is more to discover in Lao and every chance that we’ll rebound to more good experiences soon. There is the matter of our expiring visa though and with a long stretch of repetitive cycling ahead we may well take the bus to Vientiane, buying us a few more days to explore the north of the country.