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Cycling Laos, from north to south


I left the town of Luang Nam Tha (in northern Laos) during the Pii Mai (New Year) festival and rode west towards the Mekong. Evening celebrations struck up in the villages. People set off homemade fireworks, danced to loud Laotian music and drank plenty of Laolao (strong rice liquor). I was beckoned to a party and plied with food and drink for an hour. We ate from large communal plates of pork fat with spinach and bamboo shoots. Every few minutes a different person would work their way around the table pouring water down the back of each person’s neck. This gesture is done slowly, and surprisingly tenderly, using the spare hand to gently pat the person’s chest while muttering the words “Sabaidee Pii Mai” (Happy New Year). The water is to wash away the demons of the old year.

The main road through Laos

No one spoke much English but when I understood that they wanted to know where I came from I produced my world map. On seeing it they soon lost interest in an answer to their question and became absorbed in a five minute search for their own country. None of them had seen a world map before and they were all shocked when I pointed out the relative enormity of neighbouring China.

There was one awkward moment when a toothless 50-year-old man (who looked over 70) asked threateningly if I was “falang”. The word is commonly used in South East Asia and means foreign. It’s thought to be a bastardisation of the English due to Asian difficulties with pronunciation. However, this crowd used it to mean French and they evidently weren’t keen on their Gallic ex-colonisers. The momentarily tense mood eased when I assured them I’m from Ankit (England).

It was getting dark when I continued and the road was busy with swerving motorbikes, each carrying two or three singing drunks. I soon spotted a large Buddhist monastery with a high and steep corrugated iron roof. Asking if I could sleep there, my request was ignored and I was ushered by several drunk monks to another party. I was fairly light-headed and before I knew what was happening I found myself thrust onto an open bamboo palanquin and being paraded around the party at shoulder height by a troop of topless monks for a few minutes. I soon stumbled back to my bike and rode a couple of miles before fumbling my tent up in a parched rice paddy.

Groggily riding through the hot morning, I saw a small gathering in a village and found a cock fight watched by 30 hungover men in an intense silence. Two mangy birds with long tails and Shakespearean ruffs of feathers were squaring off in a 3-meter wide makeshift pen. They performed a surprisingly elegant martial dance where they circled and tried to unbalance one another, remaining beak-to-beak to protect their eyes from fast jabs. Suddenly they would both leap a yard into the air and slash out with their spurs before resuming their tense staring match. Sometimes one would get the other in a sort of headlock using a wing and sometimes one would make a low dart at the other’s genitals. As the fight progressed, small cuts appeared on their heavily scarred heads and blood began to smear across their bodies. The engagement stopped abruptly, and seemingly without reason, after about 20 minutes when the owners stepped in and scooped up their prize fighters. The birds knew it was over and didn’t even look at each other as they were sponged down side by side with surprising tenderness. No one seemed to have bet any money and I had no idea which cock had won.

In the afternoon’s searing heat, the small road became a bumpy mud road and I accepted an invitation to join an endearingly sedate new year party consisting solely of geriatrics. A day later I reached the village of Xieng Kok on the Mekong river. On a slight whim I brought three tractor tyre inner tubes with the plan of building a small raft and floating downstream. I pumped the tubes up by hand and was about to go down to the water when a man warned me that the river was dangerous for the next 20km but that I could safely start from another village in the jungle 50kms away. I strapped the bulging tubes to the back of my bike and rode into the trees with my cargo bouncing and clapping together on every bump.

It was the densest jungle I’ve ever found myself in and the stifling heat was oppressive despite there being little direct sunlight breaking through the overhead canopy. The narrow, rutted motorbike track was utterly deserted but the air was filled with the competing sounds of thriving life. Choruses of birds, a thousand varieties of insects, snapping bamboo trees, vast dead leaves resonantly crashing to the ground and a hundred other noises all contributed to the ceaseless cacophony. When I stopped to rest, inch-long ants would race up my legs and biting flies would attack. The path rolled up and down the hills following the river, often plunging through foot deep streams. Occasionally the trees would open for a few yards and allow a glimpse of the enticing waters and virgin banks. It reminded me of a passage from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (the inspiration for Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now which is set on the Mekong) which has always stuck in my mind:
“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish.”

After five hours, largely in my lowest gear and having seen no humans, I reached the next village – Xieng Dao. It was getting dark and I gladly accepted a villager’s offer to sleep in their house. I washed and spent the next hour smiling politely as the whole village came in twos and threes to incredulously inspect the wild stranger who cycled out of the trees. Dinner was eaten in darkness and I managed to crunch and chew my way through a cooked chicken’s head (beak, skull and all) which I accidentally put into my mouth and was too embarrassed to spit out. After I managed to swallow the last painful shards of bone the family, who evidently knew all along, burst into joyous peals of laughter.

The house was typical of all Laotian villages. Built of wood, it stood on sturdy 8ft stilts among which is the communal area. The partitioned kitchen is also on the ground. The bathroom, in a separate hut, contained a hole-in-the-ground toilet and a large concrete trough filled with water for washing. Upstairs is one simple bedroom. I was just nearing sleep in this room when the audible nearby new year party burst into the room in the form of four elderly women. Each was more pissed and belligerent than the last. Chanting and stamping their feet as then did so, they grabbed my host, his son and I and began slapping us on the arms, backs and legs. After two minutes of septuagenarian assault, I was released when one granny fell to her knees in the corner and loudly emptied her stomach. The others left her and danced out into the night. The room reeked of alcohol-induced vomit so I stood in the doorway for a few minutes and watched two monks dancing around a burning tree branch I saw them plant in a pile of sand earlier. I felt a little like I was in a mad house but my host (who resembled an Asian Forest Whitaker) put a reassuring hand on my shoulder and offered me a calm, knowing smile. I returned to my floor mat and fell asleep with the granny alternately snoring and retching a yard from me.

In the morning, after a filling breakfast of sticky rice and chilli sauce, I explained my water borne intentions before walking my bike down to the river bank. As I was about to unload and build my raft, a man ran down and frantically begged me not to go on the river. After much gesticulation I finally understood when he said “Myanmar. Police. Bang, bang, BANG!” For the last three words he clasped an imaginary rifle and jolted it at me threateningly, but with pleading in his eyes. This stretch of river acts as the border between Laos and Myanmar and border police would assume I was either a spy or a smuggler. My only option, short of risking gunfire, was to reload my bike and ride south, cutting across hilly jungle to the point where the river no longer borders Myanmar. With regret, I deflated the tubes, thanked my kindly host and delved into the trees once more.

Although still a mud track, the path was wider and occasional cars evidently struggled along it. The sun’s heat was aggressive and often amplified by large patches of vegetation being ruthlessly slashed and burned for future cultivation. I panted past large hillsides engulfed in a thriving frenzy of flames and others which were a ghostly, soot-covered aftermath with a few sad stumps rising above the blackened earth. These apocalyptic fields of fire were sometimes 200 yards long and I felt faint after holding my breath against the smoke. Ash clung to my sweat-embalmed body and I began to resemble a survivor from a house fire.

The Mekhong

I stopped at one lonely hut to ask for water and the two dozing children pointed lethargically behind me to where there mother was approaching. Her face was split with a wide, strangely red-toothed smile. She was carrying a live rat she had caught. It was the size of a small cat and the family was evidently in for a large dinner.

Thunder and lightning threatened for a few hours one afternoon and a vengeful storm – the first of the monsoon – broke and quickly turned day into night. I cowered in a leaky, deserted hut for two hours and rode on when the downpour eased. It was dark and the track’s hard-packed mud had become a slippery, sloping quagmire. The cloying mud jammed my brakes and the wheels turned reluctantly. Sloshing on, often pushing with bare feet buried ankle deep in brown sludge, I searched for a flat spot to pitch my tent. I continued striving up a long hill in a thick and murky moonlit mist. At the top I lost patience and camped on a relatively dry patch of track. Luckily no vehicles came in the night.

My journey back to the river took three days and brought me through several small, simple villages. I was upset to notice children bursting into tears upon spotting me and mothers hurriedly gathering up their babies and running inside. I devised the theory that a bicycle is so quiet that the villagers were shocked to so abruptly discover a hairy white man in their midst. So, for the next village I approached honking my klaxon, waving, shouting and singing loudly. The reaction was instant and overwhelming. Crowds formed along the roadside and cheered; big smiles accompanied vigorous, unabashed waves; and children lined up to give me passing high-5s.

The hills were trying and, for the first time since Arctic Norway, I had to push my bike as the gradients reached 16 and then 17 per cent (proudly announced on hand-painted signs). I emerged from the lush verdure gladly and joined a main road for the last few miles to Huay Xai, a border town sat on the river with Thailand visible on the opposite bank. A mechanic inflated my tyres with a machine and I pedalled a little way out of town to build my raft. After a couple of hours I loaded and launched a neat, triangular craft and timidly hopped aboard. The bamboo frame creaked and the tubes were almost submerged. My bags narrowly avoided a drenching as I drifted 500 yards downstream. Using my paddle (made from a stick attached to a mudguard, which in turn was made from half a plastic bottle) I managed to regain the bank. I had a think. The tubes were fully inflated; in fact, dangerously so. Myself and my gear were simply too heavy and 200 miles of Mekong lay between myself and my desired destination – Luang Prabang. My raft was far too low in the water and too sluggish to safely manoeuvre. Shrunken with humiliation and cowering with embarrassment, I dismantled the aptly named (but sadly unchristened) Tubular Thrills and returned to town to find a guesthouse.

By the following morning I was able to laugh at my aborted attempt as I boarded a two-day slow boat to cover the same stretch of river. There were about 50 tourists, fresh from Thailand, and I made some friends who laughed good naturedly at my futile efforts of the previous day.

The slow boat through Laos

The boat was a bizarre experience. I went from linguistic isolation to a boat load of English speakers swilling whisky and laughing uproariously. Watching the riverside drift endlessly past, I regretted my failure as I saw countless pristine beaches where I pictured myself washing next to my moored craft and pitched tent. At the end of day two, with a less than clear head, I spilled out of the boat along with the other passengers who quickly fanned out in small groups searching for the cheapest accommodation. The rush soon abated however as the town’s beauty and slow pace of life made its impression.

Luang Prabang was founded in the 7th-century and was the capital of several empires, most recently the royal seat of the Kingdom of Laos before the communists took over in 1975. Wedged between a large tributary of the Mekong and the river itself, the city is impossibly picturesque with hundreds of golden-roofed wats (Buddhist temples) scattered liberally throughout. Serene-faced monks wander along sedate streets of 19th-century French colonial facades. The elegant white-washed buildings don’t have the sad sense of decay often associated with old colonial cities but a pleasurably aged sense of dignity. The French may not be loved by the people of Laos but they left their mark in the form of baguettes (which come cheaply and heavily stuffed with fillings) and an abundance of burnt out old French codgers who often have long grey hair, bare feet and vacant expressions.

On my last day a few of us visited Kwang Si waterfall near the town. The fall tumbles 50 meters into a large pool which then overflows, via a series of small waterfalls, into several smaller swimming pools. The warm, turquoise water, dense surrounding greenery and dappled sunlight give the place a true paradise-on-earth appearance, almost as if a living place has been photo shopped beyond perfection and is being played back as a video in live 3D. We spent the afternoon lolling in the shadows and hurling ourselves out of a tree with a rope swing.

The only road heading south is Route 13 – the national highway. It says a lot about Laos that this arterial road is quiet and has only one lane in each direction. I followed it out of town and into a steep climb through a heavy downpour. After the rain, I disturbed several 8-inch geckos basking on the steaming road. Startled by my approaching wheels, they would spring into action and sprint alongside me as fast as they could with tails swishing rapidly and front legs raised up, flailing frantically in the air.

The climb continued for 50 miles leaving a luxurious 60-mile downhill the next day. Heavy morning mist slumped, slug-like in the valleys and minivans of tourists eased past me when I slowed to navigate the sharp curves. I always imagine tourists to be laughing vindictively when they overtake me on uphill slogs but the bored faces of cramped Europeans looked positively jealous as I zigzagged my way to the valley floor.

During the afternoon of my first 100-mile day since Hungary, I followed a tributary of the Mekong which flowed down a flat-bottomed valley walled with sheer limestone karsts. They looked like vast, jagged arrowheads dropped from the heavens and stuck deep into the fleshy earth.

I rolled into Vang Vieng on a sunny afternoon and within minutes bumped into some friends I had met on the boat. I spent the next few days, and indeed the majority of the next two weeks, with them. Once a peaceful little river village in an idyllic location, Vang Vieng is now infamous. It is best known for ‘tubing’ where scores of tourists hire large inner tubes and float down a two-mile stretch of river, stopping at several bars along the way. The town has become a fully fledged hedonistic hideaway and many people come for two days but stay for two weeks. The ubiquitous ‘happy bars’ are very popular for their two menus; one for food and drink, and one for narcotics. Marijuana, opium, magic mushrooms and countless questionable pills. These bars are complimented by several ‘Friends bars’ which screen back-to-back episodes of Friends all day while tourists watch silently with open mouths and dilated pupils. After all I had heard, I was certainly curious.

The tubes were surprisingly expensive so we went to the river without them and joined the throbbing party with droves of other tourists in swimwear. There was hardly a Laotian in sight. Locally-brewed whisky is free and fast flowing but anything to mix with the foul tasting liquor is costly. Many people clutched little buckets of a Red Bull equivalent which contains amphetamines.

Plentiful alcohol and a cocktail of drugs are not usually considered a perfect accompaniment to a fast flowing river with a bed of jagged rocks but anything goes in Laos. A certain number of inebriates die here each year but that seems to be viewed by most visitors as a reasonable price. There are also a variety of rope swings, zip lines, diving boards/platforms and a high trapeze. The river was unseasonably low when I was there and I quit before I got too far behind after a crowd-pleasing belly flop from 12 meters high.

The next morning, as I ambled stiffly down the street, I passed a man on crutches and several people with bandages. I noticed that most people had a limp but all wore a vaguely satisfied smile as they floated along. I had enjoyed myself too. It was a tourist experience, not a cultural one.

Kat, pre-crash

After a blank day of relaxation and a sweaty day of rock climbing on one of the karsts, I hit the road again and soon rejoined my friends in the capital – Vientiane. A small colonial city with little to do but relax, it encapsulates the atmosphere of the country. Everyone sleeps all day. Shopkeepers, waiters, tuktuk drivers and street vendors must all be woken up before any service can be procured. I decided to put the bike in storage for a few days and joined the others on a bus to Thakek where we rented scooters in pairs for a few days to complete a 300-mile circuit and take in a large cave on the way. The weather was fine and the road ranged from rock-strewn jungle tracks to perfect tarmac. I was sharing a scooter with a charming English journalist called Kat and we took it in turns to drive.

On day two, Kat unfortunately lost control on an unexpectedly tight corner and we hit the barrier. After an instant of airborne grace I ploughed into the ground and tumbled a couple of yards. Luckily my face broke my fall and I was largely unhurt. I hurried over to Kat who had landed on her front and had her head in her hands, shaking with shock. Everything happened quickly. The others arrived and bandaged a wound on Kat’s calf while I tried to calm her. The two of us were soon on the back of a pick-up truck headed for a “hospital”. The sky was ominously dark and often splintered with vivid forks of lightning. The storm broke just as we were dropped off at a village clinic. Kat was evidently in a lot of pain and was racked with a guilt exacerbated by the blood dripping from my face. She couldn’t walk so I carried her through the heavy rain and put her down on a dirty cot inside. Two men asked me to remove the bandage from her leg and I was horrified to discover an angry, inch-deep gash running for four inches down the top of her calf. Muscles, tendons, flesh and much blood were all visible.

Charlie, post-crash

The men began squirting iodine liberally and inexpertly. I had to run to the loo at this point and told Kat to try and relax and not look at her leg which she had not yet seen. She still had not had any painkillers or anaesthetic. While in the dingy cubicle outside I heard a banshee like scream. She had evidently looked. I hurried back. A crowd of small children had gathered in the doorway and I tried to push through them at the same moment as a brilliant bolt of lightning accompanied a deafening clap of thunder overhead. Terror spread across their faces as they turned to see a bearded, bloody-faced white man looming over them with the metrological drama playing out behind him.

Kat had a momentary panic and was worried about the cleanliness of the clinic.
“Is he even a real doctor?” she asked in a shrill voice as one man held her leg and the other prepared to stitch.
“Of course he is. He’s got a stethoscope” I foolishly replied as he moved in.

After the needle was first pushed alarmingly deep into Kat’s flesh, she resigned herself and bore the pain (still without chemical aid) unbelievably well. I think I probably squeezed her hand with empathy and disgust harder than she squeezed mine with pain. After nine stitches the drama subsided and the rain had begun to ease. Our friends arrived and an exhausted Kat (still unable to walk) and I hitchhiked to a village on the main road from where we could return to Vientiane for an appraisal from a more vocal doctor as our needle man hadn’t uttered a word.

Kong Lor Cave

It was Friday and clinics in the capital would be closed until Monday so I guiltily abandoned Kat for a day and got back on the scooter to accompany the others to Kong Lor cave. Five miles long and with a river running through it, the cave was spectacular. We charted a couple of wooden long boats and flashed our torches around illuminating snatches of ancient and gnarled stalactites and stalagmites. Eerie dark water, endless blackness and the lonely splutter of out boat’s motor.

Back in the capital, a condescending French doctor shrugged non-committally at Kat’s roughly stitched wound and failed to foresee the vicous infection which revealed itself a week later. My visa ended and I had to leave Kat on her crutches. Thailand was next on the agenda and had changed its free visa policy a month previously. I knew I would be returning to the country later this year on my way north after visiting Malaysia and Singapore so I chose not to pay for a visa twice and just get a free two-week visa exemption at the border. This left me with the challenge of a mad dash down to Malaysia and I hit the road hard.

More about Charlie Walker’s epic bike-ride at his own blog.

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