Reaching Laos again felt good. It had been a push to make it to the border in time and once our visa’s and stamps were received we could finally relax. Borders are strange and interesting places. This one was quite remote, although it was on a major Asian goods route, which links Vietnam to Myanmar, through Thailand and Laos. All around us trucks waited to be let through to Vietnam, carrying cattle and other supplies (probably a lot of Laos natural resources). For the next few days we would see Thai, Lao and Vietnamese trucks heading in both directions. The Vietnamese still drove the worst.
Dusk was settling on the on the mountains as we left the border, snaking our way a few kilometres down the road, before scrambling down an embankment to make camp. Even after all these months of stealth camping, I still prefer to be hidden well away from people, even when I know the people won’t care or harm me. Somewhere, in the back on my mind, not matter how much I try and block it out, a tiny part of me still feels vulnerable out here at night. I hate to admit it and I know it’s illogical, for if anything, hasn’t the last 12 months taught me that the world is a much a kinder place then we are often led to believe back home?
It was already heating up when we woke at 5am. A taste of what was to come. Thanks to my mum we had rice noodles with vegetarian mince for breakfast, followed by a hefty hit of Ovaltine. Then it was time to hit the road. To our delight, the first part of the day saw us freewheeling down on to the lowlands. The Laos we found at the bottom of the mountains was so different to the one we had left behind a few weeks ago. The villages here were well stocked, almost everyone had fridges and to our joy ice cream made a return to the scene. There was even an ATM, sticking out like the Tardis on the dry baked Laotion plain. The heat drove us underground like trolls in the afternoon, as we cooked our lunch under a bridge. I longed for a river, but it was bone dry, even the buffaloes could only find the smallest, muddiest water holes. We camped in a field that night, watching the sky turn red and laughing at the buffalo family that came to check us out (they make some pretty weird noises and sniffed us in a funny way).
Karsts appeared the following day, towering over us on both sides. Our map had told us of a climber’s camp (Green Climbers Home) and it was here that we stopped after 50km. It was an oasis in the otherwise hot and dry landscape. Tents, bungalows and shady sprawling restaurant/bar as well as a swimming hole and cave. Astrid and I camped in the forest and Marita escaped into a more suitable tent. Her $20 kids tent had started to show it’s quality (or lack there of) and she had spent the previous night unable to sleep due to the lack of ventilation and presence of ants. The rest of the day we spent relaxing, swimming and reading. All three of us were very impressed (and slightly intimidated) by the incredible buffed climbers we encountered there. I started doing push ups again that very day…
Having decided not to climb this time (but with a plan to return) we cycled the remaining kilometres to Thakhet the next day. Charming run down (but beginning to be done up) colonial era edifices predominate in this laid back riverside town. Trees offer shade along the riverfront, cows meander down the road at sunset and across the Mekong you can see the glitz and glam of Thailand, which seems a life time away. We found ourselves the most ridiculous 70’s style hotel and sat drinking shakes and making plans for the following day. At sunset we had the good fortune of meeting Fanus, a South African mine consultant (yes, we confirmed that almost all the mines are Chinese owned in Laos) with whom we swapped stories about our homelands and life on the road. He was one of the most kind hearted people we have met.
To avoid some of the heat and try and make it to Kong Lor cave we were up at 4am the following day. Ear splitting karaoke was still going on. We suspected it was the karaoke bar behind our hotel until we ventured outside to load up the bikes. The noise was coming from Thailand across the Mekong, which was still lit up like a Christmas tree! You could tell it was the end of a long night as the singing was slurred and the karaoke duet soon disintegrated into drunken crying. We imagined the couple holding each other, singing and sobbing, ‘I love you,’ ‘no, I love you!’ Drunk people are the same the world over. It makes me smile.
While cycling that morning I began thinking about the similarity between drivers all over Asia. Yeah, the Vietnamese are the worst for us cyclist, but all over Asia, the driving leaves a lot to be desired. It’s not uncommon to see heavily overloaded buses, sway dangerously to one side while overtaking at speed, drivers passing on blind corners, vehicles narrowly missing each other, no helmets on motorbikes, no giving way when pulling out, and almost everyone using their mobiles constantly. I don’t know what the road toll is, I only know the hospitals are basic at best, and as a foreigner you are told ‘go to Thailand,’ if you are injured. That morning, unfortunately I was presented proof of the consequences of this disregard for safety, when a motorcyclist crashed into a van behind me. I did not see it, only heard it. The injured man was not wearing a helmet, had a massive skull fracture, and never regained consciousness on scene. At one point Astrid and I thought he was going to arrest on us, and he was showing clear signs of a serious head injury (decelebrate posturing). Without Western standard hospital care (which he would not get, unless he could pay and possessed a passport) I doubt he would have survived. Possibly he wouldn’t anyway. I actually felt quite helpless at this scene, for even though Astrid and I both had all the knowledge and skills to care for him in the pre-hospital setting, without our equipment, all we could do was take his pulse and try and get the locals not drag to him too violently off the road. In the end, the injured man was bundled into the car that he had hit, music still blaring and driven off somewhere.
It was a sobering reminder about how far we are from ‘first world’ medical care.
If this accident had been in rural Victoria, this man would have had at least 3 paramedics with a helicopter on the way to airlift him to a trauma hospital. How lucky we are. Even though our health system is far from perfect, to have a system that will take us to a first class hospital (where we don’t have to pay for the services) when we are seriously injured is something very precious. Something worth protecting and fighting for.
By 12:30 we had covered 100km and were at the first turn off to Kong Lor Cave. We ate lunch, then threw our bikes on the roof of a tuk tuk that took us over the mountains for 40km. We were dropped at another dusty junction and decided to cycle to remaining 40km into Kong Lor. What a beautiful cycle it was. The light was turning golden and it reflected against the karsts and the stark beauty of the bare fields. Kong Lor is a small village, with a scattering of guesthouses and primarily exists because of the cave. We found a delightful place to call home for the night and cooked our food on the back porch, watching darkness come over the valley.
Kong Lor cave was worth the trek. It’s a 7.5km boat ride into the heart of the mountain, through vast caverns with towering stalagmites and stalactites. You get to walk one section and occasionally go over rapids and have to get out of the boat, while the driver and guide expertly maneuver it through the shallow water. At the end you get spat out on the other side of the mountain, surrounded by dripping rain forest (well for us, because it was raining). After this early morning adventure, with thunderstorms rolling in over the valley, we decided it was a perfect opportunity for a rest day. So while the thunder clapped and the rain fell we relaxed and read books. I may have had an afternoon nap.
Our bikes were loaded back on to the tuk tuk roof the next day and we crammed on with a small bunch of travellers and locals. Kong Lor is just that little bit harder to get to then your average tourist attraction (especially without a tour) and we found the other westerners to be an interesting bunch of people, many of them long term travelers like us. Soon we were joined by more local kids, women with babies, chickens, bags of produce, and by the time we were back at the main highway, there were people hanging off the back of the tuk tuk. It still amazes me how many people can fit in to one vehicle.
Arriving later than hoped for at the crossroads, we still managed 90km to Paxsan, where thanks to some travellers on motorbikes we found a charming bungalow by a lake. Another storm rolled in that night and it delayed our departure somewhat, although we still managed to leave before 6am. It was 150km to Vientiane and our pedaling was interspersed by noodles, drinks, ice creams and chocolate and by 5pm we had made it to the capital. Exhausted but happy, we celebrated with pizza.
The sixth of April, one year after our departure from Melbourne. How fitting that it was the day my sister also arrived. I cannot really describe how amazing it was to see her after a year of separation. What followed was one of the loveliest and most relaxing weeks. We started our days with delicious Pho, followed by meandering around the city, having coffee, checking out temples, going to museums, a trip to a Buddha park and generally enjoying the Lao capital. In the afternoons, when it got really hot, we hung out in our lovely room, chatting, reading, and laughing. Mish treated us to picnics and dinner, mum again provided us with joys (cheese) from home as well as supplies (dehydrated food) for the road ahead.
Most of our time in Vientiane was about spending time with Mish, but we also applied for our Chinese Visa. We had been quite nervous as we had heard of people being rejected and of how difficult it was. Luckily all our internet research and careful planning paid off and we were rewarded with a 30 day visa (not possible to get longer) with minimal fuss. It felt like a real victory, if we had been denied entry, it would have really stuffed our plans.
Soon, after a week of laughter and fun, the goodbyes started. First was Marita, off to Vietnam to meet a friend and then home for her brother’s wedding. We have plans to meet again in China. Then Mish, back to Melbourne and her PhD. All I can say is, I cried like a baby. It was such a wonderful week and I was reminded how awesome and precious my sister is. Family visiting is a little bittersweet. It reminds you how much you miss and love them.
We have been traveling with Marita on and off since Malaysia, as well as having other friends, backpackers and family join us. Now it’s back to just Astrid and I. It feels a little strange, but also good. Our time in SE Asia is drawing to a close; the vastness of China and the mountains of Central Asia beckon us.