Laos (part 2): Cycling connects people

Laos (part 2): Cycling connects people

14-02-2023 – 15-03-2023

Welcome back to Laos

We come from a very crowded and hectic Vietnam. We are the only ones at the border and there is only one booth and silence. No huts, no ATM, no exchange office, no shop, no frills. The mountains rise in front of us and the only shops we will find are in the first larger village we hope to reach by the end of the day. As we cycle, we hear the now familiar and friendly “Sabaidee!” (hello) from many corners. It always brings a smile to our faces. Somewhere along the way, in a farm hut surrounded by buffalo, we eat our last Vietnamese instant noodles and rice paper with peanut butter. We immediately notice the huge difference from Vietnam, where food is everywhere. In Laos this is much more limited. So we are delighted when we arrive in Vieng Xai. A small town where we spend the night in a nice guesthouse, but not before having a Beerlao with the neighbours. They try to teach us a little Lao and are very proud of their national brand of beer.

Vieng Xai: a dark history

In Vieng Xai we have breakfast with an Indian man who has lived in Laos for a long time. Then we cycle to some nearby caves. With an English audio guide, we cycle past some of the sites to learn more about Laos’ gruesome war history. A few weeks ago, on our first visit to Laos, we visited the UXO Visitor Centre in Luang Prabang. About how US (cluster) bombs are still causing casualties from unexploded ordnance every day. As we cycle to the first cave, a guide is waiting for us. We are the only ones and he tells us even more than the audio guide. We enter 5 caves where, between 1964 and 1973, the communist Pathet Lao fought for an independent communist Laos and lived alongside tens of thousands of local people. Due to the Cold War and fear of Russian influence, the US tried to stop communism in Vietnam. This is better known to us as the ‘Vietnam War’. At the same time, a secret war against communism was being waged in Laos, using more bombs than were dropped in Europe during the Second World War (also known as the ‘Secret War’)! Sadly, this made Laos the most bombed nation in history. For nine years (!) the Laotian people were besieged 24 hours a day, every 8 minutes (!) with a plane full of bombs. The people lived in darkness, in caves equipped with a hospital, a school and even a theatre. Airtight rooms were built for fear of chemical bombs. People cooked after dark, and work in the fields to provide food was done at night. Animals, such as chickens, had to be killed. Aircraft pilots were instructed to drop bombs where chickens roamed – a sign of life. Innocent life. Around the caves you can still see many large craters from the bombs that fell here, and the red-purple flowers represent the bloodshed that took place here. War is NEVER the answer! 🕊️

Naar de kermis

The Indian smiles when he sees us back for breakfast. Today we cycle to Sam Neua and discover that a shop there sells waffles, so we both order one. They are the biggest and thickest waffles we have ever had. They almost make us sick, but after the rice and noodles we can really enjoy them. There’s a fair in Sam Neua today. There are a couple of trampolines for the kids, a kind of poker game and coloured bottles are shot at with guns. Different but the same!

Eloy and food?!

As we had a delicious waffle left over, we had it for breakfast, followed by a portion of fried rice. Then we jump on our bikes and head for the mountains. We know that the next few days will be challenging. Few facilities, bad roads and lots of climbing. At the end of the day we find a place to pitch our tent in a restaurant. A young woman is busy dyeing thread for weaving. There is a patch of grass next to a waterfall and the restaurant looks closed but is open. The famous papaya salad is especially spicy! Audrey had had enough after 2 bites and said her stomach couldn’t take it. Eloy ventures in anyway…. Later in the evening, the family invited us to join them at their table and we ate all sorts of irreducible things. The spiciness takes its toll a little later when we are in the tent. Eloy’s guts sound like a spinning washing machine and he leaves the tent every hour to vomit.

Eloy still has a stomach ache and diarrhoea in the morning, but he is convinced that we will be fine and that we need to move on as there is nothing here. With considerably less energy we slowly zigzag our way up the mountains. We only pass through very small villages with wooden houses, where the women often work on a wooden loom. Towards the end of the day we realised that we were not going to make it to the last mountain and decided to find somewhere to camp as there were no guesthouses nearby. We were also running out of water. Suddenly, we pass a group of Thai tourists in their pick-ups at the side of the road. They are enthusiastic and out of the blue give us water, cans of Fanta and bags of spicy Thai instant noodles to cook later.) We are more than grateful and surprised that certain ‘problems’ can solve themselves unexpectedly. Suddenly we have water again. We cycle a bit further and set up camp on a (rare!) flat stretch, a bit sheltered from the road, behind a small hill. We quickly cooked the instant noodles with only 1/5 of the sauce, otherwise it would be too spicy. We are so incredibly dirty and dusty and sticky with sweat, but there is no point in worrying about that now. We are tuckered out and asleep by 8pm. Around midnight we are up again. Eloy’s intestines still can’t process the noodles and he storms out of the tent just in time. He also has a fever now, but with some medication he seems to be able to sleep quite well afterwards. We decide to try a bit of hitchhiking the next morning.

Hitchhiking and rubbish

We’re determined to try hitchhiking, but it’s Sunday, so we’re hoping there will be trucks passing. We’ve found out that a thumbs up doesn’t work in Laos; you have to wave your hand in the air! While Audrey looks for an empty pickup or truck, Eloy gets ready to wave. The first one moves on… But after 10 minutes, the 2nd empty truck stops. Translating on the phone, we try to explain that one of us is sick and if we and the bikes can go with them. They gestured that it was OK and the woman immediately crawled into the back as we had to ride in the front. We load the bikes together and soon realise that even with a pickup these mountains are a torture. There is not a single straight stretch of road and at every bend there is a moped, a truck or a huge hole to avoid. Our driver drinks a can of iced coffee to stay alert. Communication is limited as neither of us speak English and our Lao is very poor. Using Google Translate, we try to say something to each other, but the man is quite enthusiastic and the road is a rollercoaster, so Audrey is afraid of distracting him too much 😉 He is driving very carefully, which we are not used to here. We share our bananas and a little later we get a corncob in return.

The man laughs when he sees us putting all our rubbish into a plastic bag. Suddenly he opened the window and gestured for us to throw it out. He did the same with the coffee can and other rubbish. We are stunned and feel horrified. We translate and explain that we always collect our rubbish and do not throw it out into the open. He laughs and gestures to the window again. We take the plastic and paper anyway. The problem is big. All over Southeast Asia, but especially in a country like Laos. Laos’ economy has grown rapidly in recent years, which has led to more waste. 25% of all waste is plastic and 95% of this is single-use plastic, such as cups, bottles, bags, straws and packaging. It is almost unimaginable to us, but even in the larger cities, only about half of the waste is collected and taken away because there is no proper collection system. Something we take for granted.

The waste that is collected goes to landfills, which are poorly managed and often smoulder and catch fire. In addition, many people dump their waste in waterways, on the side of the road or burn it, causing air and environmental pollution as well as major health risks. On another occasion, we were taking a break on the side of the road when we saw a pickup truck pull up a few metres away. Huge bags of rubbish are being emptied on the side of the road, straight into a river. Our hearts break and we realise that we still have a long way to go.

After a good three hours and a whopping 90 km (!) we arrive at the village where we are supposed to get off. That says something about the road… We thank them and give them some money for petrol. Then we find a guesthouse and luckily Eloy makes it through the day in one piece and the fever stays away.

The next day the landscape is much flatter and Eloy continues to recover. We stopped at a stall selling sugar cane juice. The preparation itself is something special: the sugar cane goes through a press, the juice is collected and the bark comes out split. It also seems to be a good sports drink, with lots of sugar, and the taste is delicious. As Audrey describes it: ‘sweet apple but milder in taste’. Some girls from a nearby school roar with laughter when they see us and seem keen to have their photograph taken with us. First in groups, then one by one.

Phonsavan: Plain of Jars

We then continue to Phonsavan. One of the larger towns in Laos with a population of around 37,000. When we go out for dinner that evening, we see the first vagrants and children we have seen in Laos. They look incredibly poor and sick, some even mutilated. As soon as people finish their meals, they go to the tables to take the leftovers and eat them. It is heartbreaking to see. A few share some of their food and fortunately the restaurant doesn’t seem to mind.

The next day we visit the Plain of Jars. Central Laos is home to more than 2,000 stone jars, some of which are huge! The jars were used for burial rituals during the Iron Age and are scattered over a large area. At the site we are visiting there is also a cave with a hole in the ceiling. It is thought that bodies were cremated here.

As the photos show, there are huge craters in the landscape. The ‘Plain of Jars’ was discovered in the 1960s and 1970s, before the aforementioned ‘Secret War’ broke out. As a result, excavations only really began in 1994, and in 2005 a huge amount of unexploded ordnance was removed from the site. It was then opened to visitors, and in 2019 became part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a strange feeling to walk around this place. In the distant history of mankind, but with the devastating traces of the more recent ‘Secret War’ from 1964 to 1973.

Richting het Zuiden

After Phonsavan, we continue our journey south from central Laos. We now travel through a rural area that is very sparsely populated and where many farmers live. Shops are limited to a living room with some sweets and biscuits or a small table in front of a house with some fruit and sometimes vegetables. We also see that the landscape is changing quite rapidly. The cold mountains, where we often needed a down coat, are giving way to the drier and warmer interior. Outside the villages we see huge areas where deforestation has taken place or is still taking place. In many places there are bare patches, the ground is still charred, or ash is billowing in the air. This is to make way for more intensive agriculture and higher-yield plantations.

Lao wedding

Weddings in Laos can be heard from afar. A cosy affair with loud music or karaoke, lots of people and often right on or next to the main road in a tent. As soon as we pass a wedding today, we are asked to stop. Immediately someone comes running with beer. And then the floodgates open. One guest after the other wants to be photographed, including the groom. The beer is replenished all the time, even though we point out that it is not necessary. We are led to the guests’ table and invited to sit down and eat. The food looks unfamiliar and considering that Eloy has just recovered from his intestinal problem, we don’t really dare. But we didn’t get the chance to either, as people kept passing by for a photo. We see an opportunity to signal that we are leaving and can barely comprehend what has just happened.

The orange roads in Laos

Then we leave the sealed road and head south. Immediately we find ourselves on a steep dirt track, and when the sweat starts to trickle down our foreheads after a few hundred metres, we start to question everything. The rest of the day we struggle through 10cm of sand, over rocks, through a river, past still smoldering bits of land and several times we have to push the bike through the washed-out ‘road’. We pass several huts and people working on their land. Sometimes we are stared at as if we were from another planet, but this is soon followed by an enthusiastic and smiling ‘Sabaidee! Totally exhausted, we arrive in a small village at the end of the day. We found a guesthouse without a shower. The family tells us that we can shower inside as we have turned into 2 orange oranges. Everything is covered in orange sand and dust. Later, when we have dinner at the restaurant down the road, we try to order something based on photos. An omelette with sticky rice and a soup. The omelette turns out to be full of chillies and where Eloy gets hot, Audrey only notices it after the third bite and then goes over the top 😉

Paksan

After all the sand yesterday, one of the bikes has a squeaking brake. It takes a while but we manage to fix the problem. Today there are a few more hills and a lot of wind. At the end of the day we reach Paksan. This is the first major town, with many government buildings and even a ‘malaria station’. In some parts of Laos there is still a risk of malaria. This is one of the reasons why we have been carrying malaria pills in the bottom of our bags since we left home. In Paksan we drive to a guesthouse. Immediately an older guest comes up to us. He turns out to be from Boxmeer and has a lot of travel experience. During dinner, which is prepared by the owner of the guesthouse, he gives us lots of tips for the rest of the trip.

Back on the main road

From Paksan we cycle back on the main road, the only major road leading south into Laos. The road is flat but in poor condition and there is a lot of windblown dust. Regularly we disappear in a big cloud of dust from one of the passing trucks. As the pace is slower than expected, we decide to stop for some fried rice and then look for a place to sleep. At a guesthouse we happen to pass, we enter the courtyard. An elderly woman shows us a room that consists of four walls, but is incredibly dirty. So we asked if we could pitch the tent behind the building. She looks at us strangely, but after some hand and foot work she understands and agrees. As we pitched the tent, she watched with fascination. Her husband is chopping manioc until dark, a common activity along the road. We wash ourselves a little with a tap and a few cloths, but most of the dirt remains. Then we crawl into the tent to eat the rice.

The start of the Thakhek Loop

After a couple of days on the busy main road, we turn off to cycle part of the Thakhek Loop. The scenery is dazzling and after a day of cycling we arrive just in time to watch the sunset from a mountaintop viewpoint: ‘Rock Viewpoint’. Where history meets the present: an ancient limestone mountain range.

Kong Lor Cave and wet feet!

The next day we cycle to the limestone cave of Kong Lor. It is one of the geological wonders of Laos, 7 kilometres long and a river flows through it. We plan to continue the route on the other side of the cave, so the bikes join us on the boats. Actually 2 boats, Eloy in one and Audrey in the other. First some water is scooped out of the boats and then we sail into the darkness, armed with headlamps and life jackets.

At certain points in the cave the boats stop and there is a chance to get out and see the huge stalagmites and stalactites up close. Eloy sinks into the mud and falls into the water against the boat, wallet included! We laugh nervously; the nearest ATM is 100km away. A little later, Eloy wonders why Audrey’s little boat is not coming out of the darkness. …. It has run aground and Audrey shouts, “We had to get out and push the little boat free”. What a heavyweight! The last part of the trip is a kind of rapids. The bikes, equipment and ourselves have to get off. The boats are pulled up by a rope and then we sail the last bit to the exit of the cave. It was an adventure and what an extraordinary cave. We have never seen such huge stalagmites and stalactites and the colours are unbelievable.

A snake, an impossible road and diarrhea

On the other side of the cave we sleep in a wooden resort hut. When Eloy goes to the toilet, he encounters a live snake that takes off super fast as soon as he takes a step. It seems the snake is more afraid of him. At 2am, a loud noise comes from the toilet building next to us. Audrey goes to have a look. A tap has burst and the place is flooded, but there is no one in the compound so we just turn off the main tap and go back to sleep.

The next day we set off on a new challenge. The road is loose sand and rises steeply. It takes many hours to get through and there is no end in sight. We prefer not to camp in the middle of the jungle. We watch the sun set slowly, colouring the world around us in a golden glow. It is beautiful, but then it gets dark quickly and we find it anything but pleasant to cycle in the dark. No street lights, unfamiliar and bad roads with lots of potholes, possibly drunk drivers, forest fires (!) and strange noises and animals from the forest, to name but a few unpleasant things.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about it, so we just have to keep going. Just as Audrey has had enough, a friendly man emerges from a wooden hut that we had not seen before due to the darkness. He sees us struggling to push the bikes through the sand. He comes up behind Audrey’s bike and helps us push it on his flip-flops. We thank him and are motivated to make the last few kilometres to the main road. I don’t think we’ve ever been so happy to see tarmac again. And stars… Lots of stars!

The next morning Audrey immediately notices that something is wrong. Normally people have to go to the toilet when they wake up after a night’s sleep, but not a drop comes out! She quickly decides to take ORS and doesn’t go to the toilet for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, the anti-diarrhoea medication has run out, and when Eloy goes to the local pharmacy and clinic, it turns out that they only do herbal medicine.

Thakhek and other cyclists!

After a forced rest day yesterday due to Audrey’s food infection, we are able to cycle towards Thakhek today. There we meet a couple from New Zealand who have been living in the Netherlands for a few years. Their names are Bron and Renée, both also on a Dutch Santos touring bike, which they have named Rusty and Sunset. We have a bite to eat and in the morning we agree to cycle further south together. It is always nice to exchange experiences and stories with other cyclists. So far we have met very few other cyclists.

When we want to cycle to Bron and Renée in the morning, Audrey seems to have had a false start. A flat tyre! Number?! Somehow Audrey has the most flat tyres after her name so far. A little later than expected we are on the road. Soon a Swiss man joins us. He is a former cyclist and on his lightly packed bike he is clearly faster than we have ever been. As a result, we have already covered 50 km before noon! Eloy finds a guesthouse at 72km and we all decide to cycle there.

When all 5 of us are installed in the guesthouse, to our surprise, other cyclists arrive. A French family with 2 tandems and their 2 small children and a Swiss couple. On the way we also meet an elderly Italian couple. Yesterday we met almost no cyclists and today this! It might have something to do with the fact that there is only one road from central to southern Laos… and now we seem to be crossing each other. It is an evening full of stories and experiences, tasting each other’s food, sharing what there is to share, on the ground in front of the only guesthouse in the distant area.

French influences in Pakse and coffee

The next few days we cycle further south, the Mekong always on our right. Each evening we meet the 2 New Zealand cyclists in a guesthouse. One night we make pancakes with everything we can find in our panniers: banana, mango, coconut, peanut butter, chocolate spread, lime, jam and sugar. The next day we set off early to beat the heat. The temperature has soared over the past few days and it’s now around 35 degrees during the day. By 1.30pm we have cycled 66km and arrive in Pakse, the second largest city in Laos. With 88,000 inhabitants it is still very modest.

Coffee in Laos

In Pakse there are buildings and influences in the cuisine from the time of French colonial rule. There are several bakeries where you can buy a croissant or baguette, and coffee plantations in Laos were also started by the French in the early 1900s. Coffee became an important export product for Laos after the year 2000, when tourism started to grow. Coffee is grown mainly in southern Laos, on the cooler Bolaven plateau not far from Pakse. A much smaller proportion is grown in the north, in the mountains.

In 1998, the Lao government began burning down opium fields to make the country ‘drug free’. Together with Myanmar and Thailand, Laos produced about 70% of the world’s opium in the 1970s. Ethnic Lao farmers, particularly in the north of the country, were heavily dependent on the crop for their livelihoods. But since 1998, other crops have had to take its place. Rice is particularly difficult to grow in the mountains of Laos because of the terrain, low yields and difficult access. So coffee plantations were started, including in the north of the country. Today, Laos is the 5th largest coffee producer in the world.

Usually breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks look like the photos below, but now that we are in a bigger city we can eat different things again and we enjoy them very much.

Eloy’s birthday, special coffee and dinner with other cyclists!

We are so happy because it is Eloy’s birthday and we are celebrating it with: food! Chocolate buns, coffee and chocolate mousse. We walk around Pakse a bit that day and to escape the heat we look for a place to sit inside. Suddenly we see a bicycle hanging from a cafe, so we go in. It’s an old military bike hanging on the wall and it doesn’t take long for the owner to spot us. He had only opened this year and was very keen to have his photograph taken. Moments later, we are photographed and to our surprise, the photo is printed on the coffee! Eloy also gets a food gift from Bron and Renée: Lao coffee and a big jar of peanut butter. As it is the last day we will see them, we go out for dinner together. Italian, with a real Italian manager. The red and white checkered tablecloths, with pasta and cheese as only real Italians would prepare it.

Orange roads

After 2 days in Pakse we get back on our bikes. We cross the Mekong and follow it further south. Shortly after leaving the city, the tarmac ends and we are on orange sand and gravel roads. We have lunch in the only village we pass through and then it is a short distance to a ferry. But the ferry, which appears to be in a state of disrepair, is not for cyclists. Cyclists travel on a separate wooden boat.

4000 Islands: ‘Si Phan Don

We have now entered the area of Laos known as the ‘4000 Islands’. The Mekong River runs through the area and half of the islands are under water when the water level is high. Many of the islands are small and uninhabited, while others have no cars. In a hostel on the first island we meet a group of cyclists from Singapore and Malaysia. They are travelling through Laos and Cambodia. One of them, Amy, invites us to join her when we reach Malaysia.

The next day we went to several islands, including Don Som and Don Det. On Don Som we met 2 cyclists from Turkey who had set up camp by the water. We’ve been in contact via Instagram for a while and agree to go for a drink later. They were also on their way to Cambodia and Thailand.

On Don Det Island, all we see are guesthouses and restaurants. Compared to the other islands, tourism is clearly present here. We decide to stay in a hut on the less touristy side of the island for a few days, so we can cycle around. To our great surprise, there seems to be hardly anyone on the island outside the village.

Back to the mainland and the last day in Laos!

Audrey almost runs over a snake before we leave the island, and when we dock a suckling pig screams as it is put into another boat. There’s so much going on in the village where we arrive that we don’t know where to look. A man has a large reptile on a leash, as if walking a dog…

On our last night in Laos we visit the ‘Khonephapheng Falls’. It is hard to comprehend what nature has created in this place. Apart from 2 Laotians we are the only visitors. With a width of 10 km (!) in this part of the Mekong, it is said to be the widest waterfall in the world. It is also the reason why boats cannot travel from the Mekong Delta to China (where the Mekong originates).

As we stand and listen to the roar of the water, the sun casts a golden glow over the landscape. We admire the fishermen balancing on the rocks, trying to catch fish and even jumping into the water to pull out their nets. The laughter of children playing in the water reminds us of the importance of the ‘Mighty Mekong’ to the local people.

It wasn’t always easy, but Laos fascinated us from start to finish

Friendly people, the most enthusiastic children (in the world?!), incredible scenery (the north is so different from the south) and the opportunity to experience and learn about local life on a daily basis. From women weaving to support their families, to the recent history of war and unexploded bombs, to weddings, to eating rice on the road, to strange things in many living rooms, to markets selling rat meat alongside vegetables.

Some days the cycling was difficult, the roads were bad and the mountains steep, the air was hazy and polluted, and we both got sick. In total, we cycled 1860 km through Laos and covered 18665 metres of altitude. What we won’t forget are the happy children, almost all of whom shout ‘Sabaidee’, ‘Hello’, ‘Thank you’, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘Good morning’. It is hard to put into words. Laos was unimaginable and opened our eyes in so many ways!

Short video

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