28-12-2022 – 16-01-2023
Laos is a very special country and made a big impression on us. It is one of the poorest and most bombed out countries with a complicated history, but at the same time one of the fastest growing economies in Asia with the youngest population (the average age is 23!1). The children are everywhere and it is hard to explain how incredibly enthusiastic they are. Day after day, from trees, houses, rivers and classrooms, we hear “hello”, “sabaidee”, “thank you”, “good morning” and “I’m sorry”. As soon as a child sees us, they shout “falang” (originally meaning a Frenchman, but used for all foreigners), followed by shouts of joy. Children run up the street waving, giving high-fives and shouting every English word they know. Besides the children, there is always a party along the road. Identifiable by music that can be heard for miles, red plastic chairs in a party tent and lots of Beerlao. It is brewed with rice and is considered by many to be the best beer in South East Asia. So on the road we see many huge trucks loaded with Beerlao (or melons) heading towards China.
From Thailand we boarded the slow boat at Huay Xay. The boat will take a total of 2 days to travel up the Mekong River and arrive in Luang Prabang. After loading the bikes onto the roof of the boat, we quickly sit down in the middle of the boat. We have heard good and bad stories, but it seems to be a very special way of experiencing life on and along the Mekong.
At least we managed not to sit next to the engine. It makes such a deafening noise that some people sit in the corridor. More annoying are the tourists who just drink beer and brag about all the weed and magic mushrooms they have taken…
The Mae Khong River translates as the Mother of Rivers. It is a lifeline that millions of people have depended on for hundreds of years. It is important for transport, for villages accessible only by water, for agriculture and for biodiversity. It is responsible for 25% of the world’s freshwater fish catch. The Mekong rises in Tibet and then flows for almost 5,000km through China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. We witness life on and by the river and see many children playing, fishermen and people washing next to water buffaloes going about their business in the river.
What is striking is that the water level is incredibly low. It is clever that boaters with such long boats can still navigate the river in the dry season. We regularly hear the sound of the boat scraping the bottom. For some years now, the river and its ecosystem have been threatened by climate change and the hundreds of dams built to generate electricity in the various countries through which the river flows. China, which already has a number of dams, is a major player in this story. Downstream countries are increasingly suffering. The dams block fish migration and filter out fertile sediment that would otherwise end up in farmers’ fields. Incredibly, the Lao government itself is planning to build dozens more dams on the Mekong to become the ‘battery of Asia’, with the idea of boosting economic growth. But research shows that the damage outweighs the benefits. For the 70 million (!) people who depend on the river for their livelihoods, economic growth is unlikely.
Ten kilometres from a village where we were to spend the night, the boat ran aground. The crew, consisting of 2 men and a woman, are trying to push the boat free from the bottom with bamboo sticks. When this fails, several people are asked to get out of the boat and push it. In vain, as the remaining people and luggage are unable to move. A second boat is called for help and when it arrives a little later, we have to transfer. It was now dark and the boats had no lights. The last few kilometres to the pier are made in the dark. When all the luggage is ashore and most people have left, we help Raoel, a cyclist from Spain, to get the bikes off the roof and lift them up the dozens of steps. We agree to have dinner together later. Luckily we had already booked a room, so we didn’t have to look for one. When we arrive, however, it turns out that our room has already been taken. In the end, we get in, but whether it was the best choice… The smell of mould and disinfectant wafts towards us and there seems to be no water. The water pipe burst 2 days ago. But later we get cold water when an outside tap is turned on, it’s strange scenes. We console ourselves with the thought that it will only be for a few hours and have dinner with the Spanish cyclist.
We wake early the next morning to the crowing of roosters and scooters whizzing past the window at 6am. Once again the bikes are hoisted onto the roof of the boat and we enjoy the day as life on and along the river slowly passes us by. Towards the end of the day we arrive 10km outside the city of Luang Prabang. We cycle the last stretch to the city centre.
We decide to spend a few days in Luang Prabang. The whole city has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, as its turbulent history has given it a special mix of well-preserved buildings and culture. There are many French influences dating back to its colonial past. As a result, it is not unusual to find croissants, baguettes and crepes on the menu. Luang Prabang is situated on the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. In summer, a bamboo bridge is built across the latter to reach the village on the other side. In the rainy season the current is too strong and the bridge is demolished.
In Luang Prabang we visit the UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) Visitor Centre. This is a museum that gives a deep insight into the unexploded ordnance of the Vietnam War and the effects it still has today.
Laos has been the most bombed country in the world in the history of mankind. During the ‘Secret War’ (better known to us as the Vietnam War), more than 2 million tonnes of bombs were dropped by the United States over 9 years (between 1964 and 1973). 240 million (!) ‘bombies’ (small bombs contained in a cluster bomb) were used alone. About 30% of them did not explode. This means that there are still millions of unexploded bombs in the ground. Fifty years after the war, people (including farmers) and especially children are still seriously injured by UXO every year. The areas where most of the bombs landed are also the poorest in the country.
UXO Lao is a UN-backed government organisation that is trying to make the country safe again through awareness raising, training and clearance operations. But the work is dangerous and it will take decades to defuse all the bombs.
We also visit Ock Pop Tok. An organisation whose mission is to preserve traditional weaving and give women the opportunity to develop in a safe environment. The women work in comfortable conditions, receive a fair price for their products and the organisation emphasises the role of women in the economic and social stability of a community. Later, as we cycle through Laos, we regularly see women spinning, weaving and dyeing yarn in front of their homes. It is like stepping back in time, but for the women it is an important source of income and a way of preserving their skills and knowledge of traditional weaving.
After an impressive day, we meet up with Sanne and Bouke, Dutch cyclists we met through a WhatsApp group of world cyclists. On the market square we celebrate New Year’s Eve together. It is clear that the Laotians like to party. It is a pleasant evening and people are dancing on chairs and benches. Even on New Year’s Eve, there is loud music everywhere and the mood is happy. Audrey hears deafening dance music even in the supermarket. Even though New Year’s Eve is on a different day here.
Before leaving Luang Prabang we visit the Kuang Si Falls. We decide not to go by bike this time but by minibus. When the overbooked minibus finally comes to pick us up, Eloy is allowed to sit on a beer crate and Audrey shares the seat with another person. It turns out that Audrey is also not used to sitting in a car after months on a bike. Nauseous from the winding road, she gets out later and barely manages to keep her stomach contents in. It’s a bit different to riding your own bike. But the waterfall itself is beautiful, especially the colours of the water. Eloy quickly jumps into the water to meet his mermaid (for the attentive reader, see the pictures below).
After a week without cycling, our leg muscles are starting to spasm in the mountainous landscape of northern Laos. After 50 km we start looking for a place to sleep, but only stop after 1000 metres of altitude and 90 km. The bungalows we cycled to were full, but luckily another room was made available on arrival. The hostess speaks Lao and French, so our basic language skills are put to the test. As we go to the table for dinner, the beady eyes of a large, freshly grilled fish stare back at us. It tastes good and we are joined by an American family with 2 children. The two teenagers have 3 passports! They are travelling around South East Asia for a year and we have many stories to tell each other. After a wonderful evening we quickly fall asleep.
The next day, Audrey realises that she has been asking a bit too much of her legs. She can barely lift one leg over her bike because of the pain in her hip. She manages with a bit of fiddling, but the nagging pain (as it turns out) will be with her for a few weeks anyway.
We have to move on anyway and cycle to Nong Kiau today. On the way, we pass through many rural villages where the baby boom is in full swing. Countless children come running out of every house as we pass. It is a bit overwhelming, but the joy shines from their little faces.
Nong Kiau is much more touristy again. There are a few tour operators, a striking number of Israeli backpackers, loud karaoke and many guesthouses competing with each other. On the other hand, it is a stunning location with river views and several mountains to hike over.
We also decided to do one of the walks to a viewpoint. At the entrance there is a sign warning us to stay on the paths because of possible unexploded ordnance (UXO) in the area. As we climb, we realise that our walking condition is not the same as our cycling condition. There is a lot of sweating and a lot of stopping. At the top we have a fantastic view of the river, the village and the mountains.
Back down we go to a floating terrace. Some Laotians are having a party. Eloy is asked to join in and is given beer. Punctually at 6pm it’s over and the Sats go home. We eat our plates and walk back to the guesthouse. A little later we hear some people outside our door. When Eloy goes to fetch water, he sees a group of women chatting. They ask him if he wants some champagne. He gets some coffee instead and thanks them. Cheers!
As is often the case, we changed our itinerary and ended up applying for a visa to Vietnam. Visas make planning more difficult. For some countries you cannot get a visa on arrival, you have to apply for it in advance. This can be tricky if you are travelling by bicycle. There is also often a time limit on the visa, such as 30 days for Vietnam. This seems like a lot, but it’s quite disappointing on a bike when you see how big (and mountainous!) northern Vietnam is. We will cross the border in 9 days and, feeling a little uncertain, we decide to make an attempt to explore northern Vietnam by bike. Whether we are physically up to it is the question….
The next day we are back on our bikes. One of the toughest days so far is on the agenda: 1500 vertical metres in 60 kilometres, with the sun burning down on us. Along the way, here and there a verge or piece of land is set on fire as an alternative method of pruning and to make it fertile again. The ash particles literally fly around our ears. An extra challenge! We pass through some small villages with lots of happy children, but mostly see (Chinese) trucks full of beerlao and watermelons, which, like us, have a hard time getting uphill. We often see these big trucks thundering through the small villages, honking loudly to get all the animals, children and traffic out of the way in time. Audrey wonders how many children have been under one of these monsters on these narrow roads where the houses are right up against the road and the road is the children’s playground.
At the top is a Hmong guesthouse. The Hmong are an ethnic group that we have written about before in the Thailand blog. We stop to enjoy the sunset and phone home. Later, when we see the moon, it looks like a huge orange. We’ve never seen this before, but it turns out to be due to all the dust and ash in the air. After this spectacle we go into the room. The bed is literally a wooden plank and there are iron bars sticking through the wall, but never mind. The insane view (and the fact that there is no other guesthouse) makes up for it. At night the temperature drops to 8 degrees and there is no heating, but we have thick coats. We eat in the restaurant, which looks like a big shed, and pass on the fried frog. The man grabs a chicken by the legs from the freezer and takes it to the kitchen. Not to think too much about it is our motto 😜. We get something different from what we ordered, but it’s not the first time and certainly not the last. Oh well, as long as we don’t get a rat, dog or frog on our plate….
The next day we come across rats literally hanging by their tails from a food stall. We stand there with our mouths full and let our stomachs run on muesli bars and bananas for a while. Again, many metres of altitude in the mountains and the going is tough, but the ever-enthusiastic children along the way make sure we stay cheerful, shouting back “Hello”, “Good morning” and “How are you?” When a child sees us from a house, tree, riverbank or classroom, there is an explosion of laughter and shouting. This includes whole groups running up the street to give us a high five. Incredible, indescribable!
The huts and the conditions in which they live are also indescribable. People wash themselves at the communal well on the side of the road. Elderly people sit on the ground cooking on a small wood fire, with chickens, pigs and cows running around. We give toothbrushes and some soap to a mother with quite a few children (we count at least 7 of about the same age). She seemed grateful.
Just before we reach the larger town of Oudomxay, we spot a coffee shop tucked away in a petrol station. It appeared to be closed as there were no lights on inside and we could see no one, but it was open. The owner makes the best coffee we have had in Laos so far. A stroke of luck at the end of a hard day.
We stop at a guesthouse in Oudomxay and they have a room available for 80,000 kip, or €4.50. The bikes are allowed in the room. Unfortunately, the shower doesn’t work, so we move to another room. The toilet doesn’t flush there, but with a little fiddling with the cistern we get water. So for €4.50 you have to be a bit of a plumber.
Apart from a group of French people, we are the only foreigners at the night market in Oudomxay. And we are thoroughly analysed, from head to toe. A little uncomfortably, we walk past the stalls selling food. One more bizarre than the other. Tongues, ears, strange slippery things and blackened pieces of meat of uncertain origin. The girl behind the stall thinks we want 4 pieces, but we quickly thank her. Not a word of English is spoken here. Laotian table manners are also a little different from what we are used to. All the rubbish (napkins, egg shells, claws, …) is thrown on the floor next to the table. We don’t quite understand it, but it seems to be the most normal thing in the world. We eat what looks like chicken corn, but turns out to be a cold sausage stuffed with cheese. We hope it hasn’t been there all day. ….
As Eloy goes to get 2 more pancakes, the power goes out in the whole town. There seems to be a big fire somewhere. With candles and emergency lights, people continue to eat as if nothing is wrong. Just before midnight, as we crawled into bed, the power came back on. The night is a bit restless. Crows are everywhere, but everywhere in Laos! Water is dripping somewhere and we regularly hear loud roars coming from the road. At 5.30am someone starts talking in the room above us. But later we fall asleep again. Fortunately, we didn’t see any mice, apart from the dead one Audrey found behind the bed….
We read on a blog that the Red Cross has a sauna and massage parlour here in town. We don’t quite understand the connection, but the ambulances are actually next to the sauna. We are the only tourists. For just under €4 we get a one-hour massage and access to the sauna. It is primitive, but what an experience!
While Eloy goes into the sauna, Audrey gets her massage first. She is a bit nervous. There is a mattress on the floor and the curtain closes. An oppressive scent of tiger balm, peppermint and camphor fills the room. The masseuse starts on the feet, which tickles quite a bit, then leans her whole body on Audrey’s still stiff and aching thighs. A few moments later Eloy joins her. Audrey almost bursts out laughing when Eloy looks up strangely as the woman almost pulls his toes off.
The sauna itself consists of three cabins measuring no more than 1.5 by 1.5 metres. It is hot and humid in there. The woman across from Audrey starts to talk, but of course they cannot understand each other. She describes how she has to tie a towel over her face and head. It looks rather funny, but 2 seconds later she gets up, grabs Audrey’s towel and wraps it around her face. That’s how it’s supposed to be. Outside the sweat lodge people are rubbing themselves with ‘Dutch’ yoghurt and stones are being used to scrape their bodies. The occasional bundle of herbs also makes its way into the sauna. Before Audrey knows it, a woman sits down next to her, says something about ‘falang’ (foreigner) and pulls out her selfie camera. By now we are used to this in almost all circumstances. What a sauna experience!
Then it’s off to Muang La. The road to Muang La is quiet and follows the course of the river, without too many mountains. On the way we pass through some small villages that live mainly from what is taken from the river. We see chillies being dried, fish being sold and weeds being taken from the river and dried. We also pass a huge, smouldering rubbish dump. The stench is indescribable, but unfortunately it is reality. Outside the larger cities there is often no rubbish collection service and as the economy grows, so does the amount of waste, especially plastic. Disposal cannot keep up, so many people burn it themselves, with disastrous consequences, or it ends up in nature, rivers and eventually the food chain.
In Muang La we look for a place to stay. One of the 3 guesthouses is closed and we immediately see why. Just a few months ago there was a big flood. The river destroyed everything along its banks, including the guesthouse, other houses and farmland. Large pieces of debris are still lying around.
When we visit the guesthouse on the main road, we are given a not too clean room with a smelly bathroom. It is very common in Laos for the siphon to be disconnected or only half connected. So as soon as you use the sink (if the tap works), the water and toothpaste splashes on your feet. There is no hot water, but in another room there is a very dirty bathroom where we can take a hot shower with a water hose. Eyes closed and a quick wash is the message 😉
Then we set off in search of dinner. We walk a bit along the only road and there are 2 houses with dining tables on the same road. We do not manage to communicate well, all that is made is littered with flies and something that turns our stomachs. On our return, Eloy pinned his hopes on another small restaurant which, according to the map, was 400 metres away. Audrey doesn’t believe it and goes back to the room to look for the ‘spare’ instant noodles. Then Eloy calls: the restaurant is real and they have fried rice! Astonished, Audrey arrives. A little later, the governor arrives and asks where we are from. He welcomed us to his village. The walk through the village is also interesting. Parents calling their children to watch and wave at the ‘falang’; laughter and shouts everywhere. A joyful, sometimes slightly awkward attention.
The last stop in Laos is Muang Khua. This is the last major village before the border with Vietnam. There are a few tourists, but tourism has not taken over the village. Rats are sold on carpets on the ground among the vegetables, big fish swim in barrels in the market and children play on the banks of the river. A man works on his wooden boat and a fisherman tries to teach his son how to fish. We stay for a few days, making plans for Vietnam, arranging visas, and spending quiet days of reflection and contemplation.
Then we set off again, this time uphill for 20km. Again there is an invasion of children who see us coming from afar. They smile, and so do we. Suddenly we hear shouting from the valley through which the river flows. Moments later we see a group of people waving and shouting happily from the river. They had seen us before we had seen them. We see women busy collecting weeds from the river. Children are having the time of their lives in the water.
A little later, as we stopped to drink some water in the shade of a wooden hut, a man approached us (see first photo below). He is unable to communicate in words, he may not be able to read or write, but he inspects the bikes thoroughly and then sits down next to us on the grass. He smiles all the time, and that’s all we have to say to each other. #universallanguage
Our last day in Laos is another mountain stage, but it goes well because it is cool. Leaving early means cycling above the clouds while the sun is still hiding behind the mountains. The border post is at the top of a mountain. When we get there, it is lunch time for the customs officers. So we decided to have lunch ourselves. After an hour and a half, we are suddenly cycling through a beautiful no-man’s-land into Vietnam. A new country always brings with it a healthy excitement and desire to explore. The last few days in Laos have been good practice for the most mountainous country in South East Asia: Northern Vietnam.
Laos. A country with breathtaking views, nature and mountains, but at the same time struggling with poverty. The close relationship many people have with nature is something we can’t imagine anymore. Many rural people depend on nature for their basic needs: the rivers, the forests, the farmland. They make fires to cook and keep warm, collect plants to eat and make things (such as roofs, furniture, baskets and boats). The rivers are used for washing, but they are also full of fish and seaweed. Almost every household still has chickens, pigs or cows. Or a piece of rice field for their own use or to generate a small income.
But we also saw the huge challenges of waste disposal, of rubbish in the countryside and in the rivers. And how fragile nature is in a growing economy. For poorer, resource-poor farmers, deforestation, slash-and-burn and waste burning are often the only way to cultivate land. The associated health problems are a fraction of what we are used to. The air is regularly filled with a thick haze, causing respiratory and other health problems. In February and March, large areas of land are set on fire at the same time, resulting in 20 times the permissible level of particulate matter in the air. Low-flowing rivers, mushrooming hydroelectric dams and flash floods clog another vital lifeline. What the future holds for Laos with China’s massive investments and hidden loans is anyone’s guess. Think of the ‘New Silk Road’ high-speed rail link between China and the Laotian capital, and the hydropower dams possibly leading to ecological disaster. But to say that most people are not benefiting and yet are incredibly resilient is an understatement.
Love, Eloy and Audrey