Sabaidee Karen

Karen and I by the Mekong

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.

Sabaidee!

Road side stall

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.

The vegetable garden freshly watered
Nam Ou River and source of 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?

Works on one of the dams
Will they be driven away?
Life will never be the same

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.

Temple in Luang Prabang
Floral offerings at the temple

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.

Karen on her lovely Roberts

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.

Karst landscape in Vang Vieng

Red earth roads with plenty of dust
The Mekong at Vientiane
Buddha Park near Vientiane

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.

One of the temples where we slept
This lovely Monk welcomed us with open arms

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.

One of the floral displays placed in the Mekong – Photo:Karen Bailey

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.

Karen and Dietricht in the perfect Laos position!
Sunset in Don Det, 4000 Islands

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.

21 thoughts on “Sabaidee Karen”

  1. How wonderful Blanca! I’ve been reading this in a middle of the night jetlag moment, trying to get used to being back from our trip to Vietnam. The landscape looks so similar, but the culture seems very different. Such a pleasure to join you on your trip!
    Loads of love
    Kath xxxx

  2. Maravilloso, Blanca!!!!

    Fantástico reportaje, fantásticas fotos…guapísimas, además!!!!!!

    Un abrazo fuerteeeeeee!!!!

  3. Lovely reading & thanks for sharing your experiences on the bike tour. I always look for peoples reports on the equipment they use. So much out there , a lot absolute rubbish but still expensive.
    Certainly would be nice to give a bit more on the stuff you are using. Well done to you. Ride safe & enjoy

  4. I’m sure there’s so many of us getting enormous pleasure from reading your accounts and seeing the photographs (especially the elephants!) Laos brings back so many memories and raises so many questions. Have you thought of a way that your admiring fans back home could sponsor a bike repair, a meal out?

  5. Yet another wonderful episode in the amazing adventures of Blanca.
    It must have been wonderful to have company to share the sights, sounds and life in Laos.
    Continue to take care and entertain us as your journey takes you on.
    Love from Maureen x

  6. Hi Blanca,
    So nice to hear about Laos and your journey through. Thank you! It has brought back many memories of when Dinks and I travelled through in 1999. The generosity of people who had so little was overwhelming. Also we have yet to find coffee as good as Laotian!
    We look forward to the next instalment x

  7. Dearest Blanca how lovely to read your latest blog….
    So very very special to have spent that time sharing your journey – and accutely aware that it was just a tiny part of your awesome adventure.
    Happy travels special lady…
    xxx

  8. I love reading about your adventures Blanca, How exciting it has been for you. Laos sounds fascinating. Please promise me you’ll put a book together with your thoughts and photos when you return?

    Much love to you from Dossie and me

    Michele x

  9. Yet again I have loved reading your blog, it is so different from where we are in Ecuador,yet your wonderful description of the jungle sounds just like the forests we have been cycling through. It must be lovely to have someone with you for a while. Best wishes Sarah

  10. Kaixo Txuri!
    Nos alegramos muchísimo de que estés con compañía pues has estado muchos días sola, aunque contenta, y de tu relato que compartes con nosotr@s. Bonitas fotos. Content@s también porque al final los monks os han dejado dormir en buen lugar.
    Musuk
    Antton eta Karmele
    Esperando a la siguiente….

  11. Just read this properly on a quiet Sunday morning in London where the spring bulbs are just trying to wake up. Kids off skiing next week and we are off to the Brecons to walk for a few days next weekend. It will be cold and damp. So a far cry from your daily life. I dont know how you have managed to get bike fit. My blogs would be full of biking agonies and discomforts I am sure! Bue for now my exceptional friend x

  12. Just read this properly on a quiet Sunday morning in London where the spring bulbs are just trying to wake up. Kids off skiing next week and we are off to the Brecons to walk for a few days next weekend. It will be cold and damp. So a far cry from your daily life. I dont know how you have managed to get bike fit. My blogs would be full of biking agonies and discomforts I am sure! Bue for now my exceptional friend x

  13. Sabaidee Bianca! (or- I’m back to Nei Hao! now) Another great post… and staying with locals is just the best insight into a culture as you’ve made so clear. Your time with Karen sounds wonderful. Your photographs are superlative.

    I took a leaf out of your book and stayed in a monastery (well – pagoda) for first time in Myanmar night before yesterday – I was well looked after by the women who take care of the monks there.

    Now I’m laid up in Samut Songkhram (fortunately in a wonderful hostel) – having stepped off a pavement onto a stray stone whilst crossing the road and damaged the middle of my foot – RICE is the order of the day!
    Take care, my friend.

  14. A full moon festival and lush greenery sound amazing. A multitude of dead snakes and giant centipedes on the road (what about the other live ones???) and men thinking they can buy you, sounds much less appealing to me, but I know you’re loving the whole lot. Loads of love.
    carol

  15. As usual I am loving your beautiful and creative posts. Wishing you a very happy birthday on March 12!
    Much love,
    Patricia

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