I have joined a mad Irishman on a cycling trip around the world.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Sabaideeeeeee!!

Laos is definately the respite I was hoping for. As soon as we crossed the border we were greeted with blessed quiet. There just isn't the traffic we've been dealing with, the roads are almost empty. And they're good! It is serene. On our first day we were riding along minding our own business when four monks appeared out of the bushes on their bicycles, in their saffron robes, and rode along behind us for a while smiling and saying "Sabaidee!" As we ride through the tiny mountain villages, the tiny children carrying even tinier children on their backs wave very enthusiastically and the old ladies chewing betal grin their purple teethed blood red grins and call to us as if saying "Yes, indeeeeeed!"

Monks out for a ride

Village life - old lady, tiny child, giant pig
It certainly hasn't always been peaceful in Laos. In a town on the border (Sam Neua) we visited a series of caves where the heads of the Lao Communist party, soldiers and thousands of villagers sheltered for nine years during the Vietnam war, what people here call the American war. The Americans bombed Laos day in day out for nine years during this "Secret War". It is still the most heavily bombed country in the world ever - 2 million tonnes of ordinance, two tonnes for each person. Air America, controlled by the CIA as it turned out, also flew here carrying opium among other things. The existence of these pilots were denied by America if they were caught. Today, an average of one person a day is killed by Unexploded Ordinence, cluster bombs which didn't explode when they were dropped but do explode when touched by farmers ploughing their fields or children hunting for scrap metal or mistaking them for play things. Work is being done to clear areas of Laos of these UXOs but at the current rate this will take another eighty years.

Inside the caves

Huge system of corridors and rooms

Toilets are often like this
Monument to The Red Prince
We've seen all sorts of creatures in Laos, from creepy crawlies like leaches (on my arm!), mad looking caterpillars and a praying mantis to the giant piggies, wild ducks, geese, mad dogs, buffalo and goats which occasionally like to cause road blocks, elephants (I only saw their bums in a truck) and all sorts of furry creatures in the markets like squirrels, badgery looking things and once something like a beaver. In fact we've watched the shortest journey possible of a pig to market, the carcass was heaved from a truck, gutted, and cooked for our breakfast noodles all in the space of a few square meters.

Trance caterpillar

Mad bug

Salim
There are some serious hills in Laos, as high as the Guatemalan highlands but with graded roads so the hills are very very long. We got caught out one day climbing up, it took us much longer than we expected, and by the time we were descending night had fallen. Our lights weren't up to much against the total darkness and we'd been told there was nowhere to stay until the town another 20k away.  We asked anyway in a tiny village and were directed to a little old lady's shop. She showed us into a tiny corridor which was already obstructed by touring bikes! Peering into a tiny room we beheld Bob, an Australian cyclist from Tazmania living in Hanoi and we found Richard searching for beer in the little old lady's shop, he was English and living in Spain. The tiny corridor had been divided into three really tiny rooms by two pieces of hardboard. After a dinner of eggs, tinned mackerel and Beer Lao, we clambered into our respective tiny rooms, said goodnight to each other through the walls and woke each other up all night long. It was great to meet some other cyclists.

We cycled with Richard and Bob for a day or so, they were faster than us but with much less baggage. We met them again in Nong Khiaw which was a collection of bars and guesthouses and travellers, the first we'd seen for a long time, on a beautiful stretch of the river. We stayed for a couple of days while I delt with my first experience of traveller's diarrhea.

Richard and Julian in the mist

The view from the bar in Nong Khiaw
We had got so close to Luang Phra Bang (the old capital of Laos) that we decided to take a detour in the wrong direction and then catch a boat for a day into the city. So we headed back into serious hill country, good 30k stretches of climbing. On that road we met SIX touring cyclists, all going the other way towards the city. It was mad to see so many.

Our boat ride was fun if uncomfortable. The bikes were hoisted onto the roof and tied down with the guy ropes from the tent. They were treated very well, it was the most painless boat journey we've done. After eight hours we arrived right into the centre of the city which was absolutely heaving with travellers. It took is more than an hour of cycling from guesthouse to guesthouse to find one which wasn't full. The town was great though, mostly for the food. We ate very well. There was a night market which had everything, barbecued fish and meat, piles of rice and noodles and beer, all for a dollar or two each. And there was CAKE. Very exciting. I think I put on a few kilos.

Our boat was the one on the right

Sunset on arrival into Luang Phra Bang

Sunset from a bar in Luang Phra Bang
I lost a few kilos pretty rapidly on the hills to Vientaine, facilitated by a bug I had picked up which made keeping food down difficult. A nice gang of Canadian cyclists donated some antibiotics to the cause and we made it to Vientaine, the current capital, via Vang Vieng, the town to go tubing and watch Friends.

Dragon guarding the King's temple in Vientiane
We've nipped into Thailand so as to renew our visas in Laos. Good timing as I'd just decided I'd had enough of the stomach aches I'd had for a couple of weeks and so it was time to check out another hospital in another country. I received some Falang treatment and was taken to the front of every queue in the packed hospital. I've been told I have a stomach ulcer which is treatable with antibiotics, antacids, anti-nausea and anti-flatulence drugs (which I think were intended for Julian). Hopefully I'll be completely better by the time we cross the border again, just in time for more Beer Lao.

The sun rises in Laos, shines on the Mekong and sets in Thailand

Rah