Laos. The most bombed country in the world. A place where a secret war played itself out more than 40 years ago between those on the payroll of the CIA and the forces of communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese army. Every week the Lao people still suffer from the consequences of unexploded ordinances (UXO’s) dropped by the American’s. Since the end of the war, more than 20,000 people have been maimed and killed, and it’s still a major contributing factor to ongoing poverty, as land affected by the ‘bombies’ is effectively locked away from being able to farmed or developed for infrastructure.
It was the three of us that left Luang Prabang early, to head east towards Vietnam to meet Astrid’s mum. Viktoria had taken ill and we planned to meet her again in a few days time. Our panniers were full of food from the market as we had heard that there is not much to eat in the mountains towards which we were heading. This was to prove true, as village after village contained only the smallest store, selling sweet biscuits and soft drinks, and if we were really lucky, eggs. The mountain people in Laos seem to mainly subsistence farm on ground that appears impossibly steep. It did not take us long to appreciate how mountainous Laos really was. Soon our poor lungs and legs, having not climbed since the Cameron Highlands were burning. We did get a 15km down hill after a 15km ascent, but the joy was short lived as we were soon climbing again. Just before sunset we limped into some scrub on the side of the road and made camp. It felt wonderful to be self sufficient again.
The climbing continued, we were often cycling through areas that would have once been forested but had been subjected to ‘slash and burn’ to make room for agriculture. When there was forest, it was very beautiful, but overall there was more deforestation than I expected. The villages we passed through consisted of neat clusters of mainly wooden houses, often appearing to cling to the side of the mountain. Cows, buffalo, chickens and pigs meandered around freely, kids played and called out shy ‘sabaidees’ from the shadows of doorways. Women washed by the communal tap, or scrubbed children in buckets. Although poor by our standards, these villages all appeared to have some form of running water and electricity. The roads are quiet compared to what we are used to with only semi frequent trucks and buses during the day. We met quite a few cycle tourists, some on SE Asian tours, and one couple on a tandem who had cycled from Poland.
In the afternoon of the second day in the hills we chanced upon what seemed like a rather random guesthouse in a small village. We had planned to go further, but not used to the climbing, we were all pretty exhausted. It seemed like too good an opportunity to bypass. Furthermore, another cyclist, Peter was already staying there. He was a lovely guy from Austria on a tour around SE Asia and we swapped stories and shared dinner and hot chocolate.
It seemed that the hills would never stop. While not unrideable, or even crazy steep, they were unrelenting. We stopped frequently for snacks, which unfortunately often translated to sweet biscuits and soft drinks. That night we made our camp in a banana plantation and were visited by ‘the night cow’ a few times; a curious cow that kept checking us out, as it is normal to find livestock roaming around free on the roads and in the villages. I always wonder how they know which animal belongs to whom.
Finally we found ourselves on a rather desolate plain. The flat cycling was a relief. We were to learn later that the landscape had been dramatically changed from the intense bombing raids in the 70’s. The area surrounding the plain of jars was one of the hardest hit, due to its proximity to Vietnam. Exhausted, we finally rolled into Phonsovan, slightly shocked by the amount of people, shops and produce. After having been in the mountains for four days, it felt like a big city, not a small provincial capital. That night we met up again with Viktoria (who had taken the bus from Luang Prabang) and were treated to a lovely dinner by some Canadian motorcyclists who had seen us on the road. What lovely chaps, we really are lucky.
As it was back out to the mountains the following day, we stocked up for the next few days at the market (so much food!) before heading out to the ‘Plain of Jars’. What a strange place. Like the name suggests, it’s a vast plain, which was heavily bombed but has been cleared by MAG (mind advisory group). What makes it so bizarre though is the presence of large, megalithic jars. They are scattered in groups throughout this plain and look very mysterious and odd. Apparently they were used as burial jars by some ancient people, although not much is really know about them. I like the myth that they were used by giants to brew beer better. After our site seeing side trip, it was back on the loaded bikes and heading east. We had a pleasant afternoon, cycling mainly downhill, surrounded by mountains, rice paddies and the occasional village. Reaching a small cross roads town we tried to find some accommodation. We shouldn’t have bothered. There was only one room in one hotel, and although we were happy to all share it, once they realised there were four of us they wanted to heavily over charge us (and not provide any bedding). So we left, picked up some water and made camp outside of town. This is one of the reasons I like having a tent, even in a place like SE Asia where many people tour without them. I like having the choice to walk away, and really camping is so much nicer. Especially in Laos where no one bothers you. Of course, UXO’s are a concern (although fairly unlikely), but we made sure always to camp on well trodden land.
It was back to climbing now and we ascended steadily for most of the next day. Not so much deforestation in these parts, which was a nice change. That night, instead of finding somewhere to stealth camp we asked if we could camp in a small mountain village. They villagers, almost all women (we are thinking the men are off working somewhere) readily agreed and we pitched our tents in the centre of town and even got to have a shower (local style) at the communal tap. Everyone was so friendly, very curious and also quite shy. We had quite a large audience as we cooked dinner. One elderly lady was particularly impressed by our aubergine, and when Astrid gave her one, she was delighted. We decided to call her aubergine grandma. It was a really wonderful experience getting to observe village life at the end of the day – the boys playing soccer in a small field, kids carrying chickens back to their cages, a lady hand feeding a buffalo in a pen, women washing, kids being called to dinner. Our experience in this village made us feel like we will definitely ask to do this again.
Like the village, we were up early and soon pedalling. The mornings were cool with a light mist blanketing the mountains. After a few hours we had descended into a valley and village that actually had a restaurant. Over some soup (the only thing you can get in these parts) we realised we were exhausted. After 7 days of cycling, mainly in the mountains, Marita, Astrid and I were in need of a day off. After some discussion and weighing up options we decided to hitch on a truck or see if there was a bus. We asked around, there was a bus in an hour. None of the trucks heading our way were empty, so at 12pm we loaded our bikes onto the roof of a small bus and squished inside with the locals and 4 other foreigners. Laos is one of the only countries where putting your bike on a bus is not an issue and you are unlikely to get ripped off. Ah buses. Blasting Thai music videos (men in pink shirts, crying about girls), inching down the winding roads (much slower then we would cycle) and taking four hours to cover 88km. Although I was grateful for the break, we were all reminded why we choose to cycle.
The bus stopped in Xam Neua, another provincial capital. This town had a palatable soviet feel, with big boulevards, statues and huge public buildings. I liked it a lot and we secured a great guesthouse with a big balcony looking over the rooftops. There weren’t many tourists, and the ones that we met were mainly traveling by motorbike. It was good to get some information about the road ahead in Vietnam. Apparently it was shit.
Early the next morning we headed to the market to buy food and then to the gold shop to change some of our Laoation Kip into Vietnamese Dong. Sadly the gold shop wasn’t nearly as black market and secretive as we had hoped it would be. We then cycled the 35km to Vieng Xai, the old headquarters of the Pathet Lao. What a fascinating place. It’s in a large valley, surrounded by karsts and rice paddies. During the secret war, while the American’s dropped bombs on Laos, the Pathet Lao and the people from around Vieng Xai lived in the caves of the karst mountains. At one point up to 20,000 people resided in the caves. They had a school, bakery, hospital and also housed the army. The caves were altered by blasting, to fashion rooms and passageways, and it was from here that the Lao resistance ran its entire operation. It was certainly quite amazing walking through the caves and trying to imagine what it would have been like as the bombs fell outside.
After falling to sleep to the sound of bad karaoke the following day it was time to split up. Astrid needed to be in Hanoi the following day to meet her mum and Viktoria had decided she would also take the bus. Marita and I were not quite ready to stop cycling and opted for the open road. It was very sad to say goodbye to Astrid, as we had not spent a night apart for almost a year. The morning’s cycling was stunning, and mostly flat. We reached the border at just after 1pm and it was very casual, men with underpants showing crowding around the official, who was unhurriedly inspecting passports. The town on the other side of the border was not particularly pleasant, so we had some lunch and continued on our way. The road was indeed awful, but not as bad for cyclists as it would be for other traffic. Lots of mud and pot holes. After having cycled though some very dry country on the Lao side, we were amazed to find bright green rice paddies on the Vietnamese side. It also looked like it had rained not so long ago. We made camp on the side of the road, cooked a delicious curry and went to bed early.
I woke up feeling over it. The previous day had been fun but I now wanted to be in Hanoi. I missed Astrid and was tired from the mountains and no real rest days. We headed off early, cycling through villages and bamboo plantation. The kids of Vietnam were not shy like the Laotian kids. They screamed ‘hellos ‘ with all their might. In one village, as we stopped to buy snacks, I was randomly handed a baby to hold by a smiling villager. Marita thought it was hilarious. I felt sorry for the baby, I was not at my most cleanest. We cycled and cycled, ascending, descending, but never really appearing to make it that far. In the afternoon we hailed down a truck and got a lift for 20km – the roads are definitely worse in a vehicle! The truck dropped us in a village with a slightly ‘crack den-ish’ hotel. We were filthy, tired and then it began to rain so we took it. I was feeling really down at this point, Marita cheered me up with chocolate and we discussed trying to make it to Hanoi the following day by cycling and hitching.
The town we were in had felt deserted the previous night but in the morning it was much more alive and we were excited to ‘smash’ two Vietnamese rolls. As we were eating breakfast and discussing our options, a bus with ‘Hanoi’ written on it passed us. We kind of looked at each other and went, ‘fuck it, lets do it’. I raced after the bus, hoping it had stopped further up in town, it hadn’t but some locals told us another bus would come at 9am.
So began our long and frustrating trek to Hanoi. We hailed a bus at 9am, heaved our bikes onto the roof and making sure several times that they were indeed going to Hanoi. Yes, yes we were assured. Somehow neither of us were convinced. After an hour or so we managed to find out that we were on a bus full of teachers heading on a shopping trip to Thanh Hoa and not actually to Hanoi. It was okay as we knew we could get a bus from Thanh Hoa to Hanoi. Once we were dropped at the bus station we got our first real taste of how pushy the Vietnamese can be. We were immediately surrounded by men hassling us. The bus clearly market ‘Hanoi’ would not take us because of the bikes and a very annoying guy kept at us to take another bus. A lot of the other buses were too small and eventually we took the bus the annoying man wanted us to. It was a rip off, although we did get the price down somewhat. Backpacking with bikes, not fun. The bus ride sucked, overcrowding, constant blaring of the horn and taking hours and hours to go only about 150km. The bus didn’t actually go into Hanoi, but dropped us at a petrol station about 16km out.
It was getting dark but the end was near. We loaded the bikes and carefully negotiated the crazy traffic into the old quarter in Hanoi. It was cold – like a Melbourne winter night. I actually loved it, after months of hot weather, the cold was refreshing. We found the hostel, showered and were then reunited with Astrid, her mum and Ben. It felt great to have arrived.
Till next time