By the time I crossed into Laos from China I had been on the road for 464 days. I was really looking forward to being in South East Asia – a gentler climate, lower altitude and above all a cycling companion. I was to meet Karen in Luang Prabang and we would be cycling together for 8 weeks. It was a leap of faith, I really didn’t know Karen, I had talked to her for half an hour at the first UK Cycle Touring Festival a couple of months before I set off on my trip. I remember sitting together at the closing session, I can’t remember what we talked about only that the conversation was easy, comfortable and fluid and on the strength of that we agreed to spend time together on the road.
Excited and apprehensive is possibly the best description of my feelings. I had been on my own for such a long time. I wondered how set I was in my own ways, in all the routines I must have developed without even realising. Had all the thinking I’ve been doing about myself changed me in the way I relate to others? I was worried too about money. On a short trip or a holiday you want and can give yourself treats and I’m very strict trying to stay within my budget in my long haul journey and as a result my standards for the places I eat and where I sleep are fairly low. In the distance Karen was wonderfully reassuring. Full of of those thoughts I cycled to our encounter, already enjoying in my mind the ease of communication, the sharing of the moment, the camaraderie. I was ready for company.
I loved my first few days in Laos, cycling through the tropical forests and mountains in the North of the country. Everywhere I looked was so lush and green as if the earth had let go of all inhibitions and delighted itself creating this verdant place full of huge trees, enormous climbers, gigantic ferns and bamboos, big butterflies. I was captivated by it all and also by what I couldn’t see but knew was there. I could see evidence of the life boiling in the forest everywhere, in the shrill mating call of the cicadas in the trees above my head, in the multitude of dead snakes and giant centipedes on the road and in the sudden movement of the bushes as I went pass.
Every now and again I passed small hilltribe villages, hamlets of stilted houses made of woven bamboo and grass roofs. Women sat in their verandas working on complicated cross stitch embroideries and excited children with big smiles ran to the road shouting Sabaidee (hullo), a welcome word I will hear thousands of times during my stay in the country. Some of the villages had small shops, identifiable by the yellow crates of Beer Lao stacked outside where I was able to buy a cold drink but a lot of the time I had to rely on the odd roadside stalls outside isolated houses selling a small amounts of local produce. I stopped in one of them selling big pomelos, a woman and her four small children were sitting by the house and even before I had a chance to ask for the price of the fruit she offered me two small bananas. I was touched by her generosity, looking at her living conditions I am sure she was part of the over 23% of Laotians living below the poverty line. I thanked her, bought one of her pomelos and sat in her yard to eat it whilst she did her needlework and her bare foot, wild haired children watched me open eyed from the safety of the inside of their hut. Soon, a car stopped and after some negotiations she came back delighted, counting money, by sign language she told me they had bought five fruits, she told me that a few times which made me think this was quite an event. Encouraged by the sale she quickly refilled her stall and came back to the hut with a big gappy smile.
The day before I met Karen I was offered hospitality by a young man who had returned to his village to help his family with the rice harvest. We went down a small path to his house where I met his mother, slight and delicate looking but carrying heavy sacks of rice. After she finished storing the newly harvested rice I went with her to water her vegetable garden, quite an involved job. First she had to climb down a very steep path to a waterhole to switch on a pump attached to a complex system of hoses, then she coupled and uncoupled the hoses until all her small plants were watered. Before going home all the work had to be done on reverse. Whilst we were watering the garden, her husband was in the river trying to catch our dinner.
Dinner was lovely, sticky rice from their fields, wild ‘chicken’ caught in the forest and, as his father had had a lucky day, a freshly caught fish chopped up raw with fresh herbs and lime. Family ties are very strong in Laos and form the basis of much social interaction, the extended family of my host came to watch me eat dinner. I felt very self conscious as they all pointed at me and nodded approvingly each time I put food in my mouth. One of them picked some of the khao niao (sticky rice) and like an experienced sommelier sniffed it, put it in his mouth and gave his verdict: “good rice”.
After dinner I was shown to their indoor shower room, a concrete enclosure with a squat toilet, a tap and a bucket with a scoop. In a country were the majority of rural households don’t have running water and washing takes places in the communal tap, having an indoor shower room is a real luxury and they were incredibly proud of it. And then a bed was made for me, a matt on the floor covered with a mosquito net, a pillow and a blanket made the most comfortable bed ever.
I left the village after saying goodbye to my lovely host family. They had been up since 4.30am the mother cooking more sticky rice and the father fishing. I followed the Nam Ou river downstream on its way to meet the Mekong and soon saw big dam building works part of the development of a seven-dam cascade by China’s Sinohydro Corporation to generate hydroelectric power for an energy hungry society. The human and environmental cost is enormous. Communities of diverse ethnic minorities that have relied for generations on the Nam Ou and surrounding forest resources for food, income and spiritual well-being will be significantly impacted by the dams. In total, 89 villages are expected to be displaced. Will the village I had just stayed in be one of them? and What will happen to the way of life of the family of the village and thousands like them? How many endangered species will disappear?
Pondering all of this I arrived in Luang Prabang and met Karen. Sabaidee, Sabaidee!!! What followed were 8 wonderful weeks of cycling, laughter, camping, friendship, exploring and much more.
We spent the first few days together in Luang Prabang, the capital of the first Lao Kingdom in the 1300s. Luang Prabang is an atmospheric place that we explored to our hearts’ content in between poring over maps, planning our route, getting everything we needed and giving Karen the time she needed to acclimatise.
Getting used to the rhythm of the road with Karen was easy, she is such a considerate, easy going, generous soul, I couldn’t have hoped for a better companion after my months of solitude. It was so nice to have someone to turn to and be able to say: “look how beautiful”, someone to share the ordinary everyday things with.
On our first night on the road, we camped and I slept like a baby, didn’t hear the night time visitor that disturbed Karen, seemingly interested in her sky blue Roberts bike. What difference it made to my sleep being with someone else! In the morning a guy approached our tents insisting on offering me money whilst pointing to the inside of my tent. It wasn’t until Karen pointed it out and I read other accounts of women that I realised he was after early morning sex. He was quite harmless but I it was just unbelievable!
Beautiful landscapes of rugged mountains, huge karst towers covered in jungle, rice fields, lakes and ponds full of water lilies, villages and side roads of red earth regaled us all the way to Vientiane where we met again with the mighty Mekong which we were to follow all the way down to the border with Cambodia.
I had read in other peoples’ blogs that in Laos it was possible to sleep in Buddhist temples, we didn’t know how that would work out with us being women. In Laos it is considered an offence for women to touch a monk, his robes, or to hand anything to a monk directly. In many instances a male friend or family member will be used as an intermediary or lacking that a plate or some other item will be used and then placed on the ground for the monk to use. This posed a problem for us, how would we ask for permission to stay? We developed a drill – before going into the temple compound we would put on long sleeves, Karen would get out her phrase book, open it in the correct page and leave the book on the floor but this didn’t seem to be very effective so in the end we went for the sign language approach whilst at the same time showing a photo of our tents which worked much better. In this way we spent some wonderful nights in the temples.
In one of those nights we arrived at a temple by the Mekong where the initial answer to our request to stay was a negative. It was quite late by now and it was getting dark. In Laos the change between light and dark is sudden, night falls upon you in an instant and we knew we would find it difficult to find a place in daylight so we insisted and finally someone agreed that we could stay. We chose what we thought was a discreet spot to pitch our tents at the back of the temple trying to keep away from what we fondly called the ‘breakfast club’-every day soon after 6am villagers came to the temple to offer food to the monks. From our tents we used to hear them praying and then sharing the food and respectfully keeping out of the way.
No sooner we had finished setting out tents when a small man with a checked shirt arrived in a motorcycle, from his air of authority we deduced that he must be the village chief. In no uncertain terms he told us to move our tents, carefully chose the new location, watched us set up and advised us to lock up bikes and finally left. The light in the Mekong was wonderful and we moved closer to the river to cook our evening meal. Two soldiers, with guns over their shoulders came over. By signs we understood that they didn’t want us there, they kept on pointing at the river and Thailand just across it. One of them, the officious looking one, asked us where we were going (we were going to Savannakhet) and very agitated he got on the phone. He shouting ‘falang, falang Savannakhet!!’ down the phone (falang is the term used for foreigner and we had heard it thousands of times on the road) We knew he was talking about us but had no idea what he was saying. He asked to see our passports and went back on the phone, so much gesticulating and agitation, more ‘falang, falang Savannakhet!!’ and more pointing at the river and Thailand. We had no idea what he was saying so our minds started to fill in the gaps: “that night there was going to be a raid on illegal emigrants coming over from Thailand and we were just in the path of all the activity” or was it that they thought we were trying to cross over to Thailand illegally?
We moved back from the river and went back to our dinner when villagers started to arrive and encircled us watching our every move and pointing at the ingredients of our meal. They got very excited when they saw the garlic and the ginger – ‘falangs use the same ingredients as us!!’ we imagined they saying. And then they paid great attention at the way we were eating.
The evening had been totally surreal: village chief, soldiers, Thailand, illegal emigrants, falang, falang Savannakhet, dozens of villagers watching us cook and eat. We felt part of a monty phython sketch and the evening wasn’t over yet!
The women proudly showed us some beautiful flower displays that they had brought with them and urged us to go with them to the river. Just then the monks went in procession to the spot where the soldiers were supposed to be guarding the border and started chanting. The dozens of villagers gathered around us went to the Monks, lit the candles in their flower arrangements bringing them to live and in an orderly way went down the path to the river, deposited them in the water and watch them to float downstream. Some of them pointed at the moon, at that point the penny dropped and we understood that we were in the middle of the November Full Moon festival!! Teenagers arrived in their scooters with offerings to the river; thousands of moths flew around the search light illuminating the path to the water; Karen had the children in stitches…It was a happy, happy night and when they all left and the temple became silent, we were left with a warm happy feeling and the November full moon.
When we got to Savannakhet there was a surprise in waiting – Dietrich, the Swiss cyclist with whom I crossed the border to China from Kyrgyzstan was there. In China he had told me how much he loved the Mekong but I had never expected we would have meet again. It was wonderful to see him and be reminded of his dry humour. Also, it was fascinating to see how the monks in the temples were more approachable when we were with a man.
On and off we cycled together all the way to Si Phan Don, also know as 4000 islands, an island archipelago in the border with Cambodia. We rented a little hut in Don Det with hammocks outside and rested there for a few days. The perfect ending to our Laos adventure.
When we got to Savannakhet there was a surprise in waiting – Once again I met Dietrich, the Swiss cyclist with whom I crossed the border to China from Kyrgyzstan. He had told me how much he loved the Mekong but I had never expected we would have meet again. It was fascinating to see how the monks in the temples were more approachable when we were with a man. On and off we cycled together all the way to Si Phan Don, also know as 4000 islands, an island archipelago in the border with Cambodia. We rented a little hut in Don Det with hammocks outside and rested there for a few days. The perfect ending to our Laos adventure.