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You Are Viewing Laos

It’s flat. Honest…

Posted August 30th, 2008

195km Vientiane to Vang Vieng

Closeup of the basket ladyAfter our marathon bus ride to Vientiane and a day of sightseeing, we decide to leave the capital city on Friday for our ride north to Luang Prabang. There’s no natural light in our hotel room but we still manage to wake up around 5am and after cooking breakfast outside on the patio we’re ready to go. These are the best hours for cycling, when the air is cool and refreshing.

Our initially promising early start is soon delayed when we stop at a motorbike shop to fix a very slow leak in Friedel’s front tire. It’s been losing air for about three months now and we’ve just topped it up once a week, being too lazy to find the hole in the tube. Today we decide we’ll sort it out so we stop by the shop to use their compressed air and start to pull the tube out. We instantly attract the attention of four underemployed mechanics and for a moment we wonder if we shouldn’t just get them to do this but then we remember a photo another cyclist showed us of a Lao repair to his tube that went wrong. The patch turned into a big bubble when the tire was inflated. Better to do it ourselves, we think. Unfortunately our five minute stop turns into a half hour job when we realise the new tube we’ve put in also has a hole and it’s a quick leak this time! Off comes the tire again, we patch the hole and eventually we’re on our way. (more…)

Karaoke and grilled squirrel

Posted August 27th, 2008

12km Bus station to Downtown Vientiane

Loading the bikes onto a bus. Eeeek!We hummed and hawed over whether or not to take the bus to Vientiane. As soon as we made our decision we changed it and then, a few minutes later, reversed it again. The bicycle has always been our preferred way to get around but, with time ticking down on our Lao visa, five days of long, hot riding seemed excessive to cover a relatively bland stretch of countryside. On the other hand, ten hours in a bumpy bus is no pleasure either and on the few occasions we have hopped on the bus there are always the little twinges of ‘what ifs’ – what if we’d met someone interesting out there in the middle of nowhere?

We’ll never know because in the end we plumped for the 7am bus from Savannakhet. The bus was a local affair, aging with lumpy seats and one television at the front pumping out karaoke tunes all the way to the capital. Now we were rolling with six wheels instead of two but the experience was still full of discovery. Over the course of 500km we learned that every single karaoke video features a young, handsome man with a guitar, singing his heart out for a beautiful girl. We also had another installment of our lessons in real Lao food. Ladies jumped on the bus at each stop to sell everything from three eggs on a stick with developed embryos inside (these were popular in Cambodia as well) to grilled squirrel and green mango with a salty chilli dip. The green mango was tasty. We didn’t try the squirrel. We’ve never been tempted by the eggs. One man across the way bought a dozen. (more…)

Oh Falang, Falang, Falang

Posted August 26th, 2008

295km Tadlo to Savannakhet

Cloths sellers on a bike“Oh, Falang! Falang! FALAAAAAANG!”

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. (more…)

A humdinger of a stinger

Posted August 23rd, 2008

144km Champasak to Tadlo

We are happily plodding our way through a 50 kilometer climb to the coffee plantations of the Bolaven Plateau when a scream from Andrew signals that all is not well. More of a shriek actually, followed by wild swerving and bike acrobatics while a whole village looks on with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment. It’s some seconds and a few choice words later before Friedel realises what is going on: a head-on collision between a bee and a knee has resulted in one wounded cyclist and, somewhere in the sky, one insect with a severe headache. After an initial check, we limp over to a roadside stand and order a cool drink to help us collect our thoughts. Soon Andrew’s knee is a red, swollen ball but he bravely decides to continue on. Like most bee stings, we expect this one will fade away by the evening.

As we go up the hill we wave to countless children and try to ignore the common but confusing shouts of “where you go?” from passing adults. “Ummmm, that way?” we answer befuddled and pointing in a vague direction. Half the time we have no idea where we are going and the rest of the time we wonder why they need to know or if there’s some disaster on the road ahead that will prevent us from going further. Later in the evening a local man will tell us that this is a perfectly normal thing for people to ask one another, although he can’t quite explain why. It just is. (more…)

Happy under the clouds

Posted August 19th, 2008

140km Don Det to Champasak

dsc_3590We’ve never smiled quite so much at grey skies as we have lately here in oppressively hot and humid Southeast Asia. Under normal conditions we’re quickly covered in sweat and by the end of the day a rash spreads across our legs and backs from all the salt that sits on our skin. We get sunburnt too because we can’t seem to find a sunscreen that stays applied well when we sweat. Under cloud cover though it’s a different story. Feeling still a bit burnt from our journey through northern Cambodia, we breathed a sigh of relief when we pulled the curtains back on Sunday to discover the sun well hidden.

After a few days of relaxing it was time to leave the islands in the Mekong, the highlight of which was our journey across Don Som. It was a short trip that took only a couple hours, a way to branch the distance between two more populated islands, but our few hours on this completely untouristed patch of land were adventurous and fascinating. When we landed at the pier, just a five minute journey from Don Det, we immediately noticed the land all around was covered in a few inches of water. We’ve seen this many times now and it almost seems normal to start stripping off our shoes and socks as we arrive at a dock before plodding in bare feet through the muck to get to higher ground. (more…)