While in Kunming I found and bought a cheap flight to Sydney leaving on December 5th and in doing so imposed a non-negotiable time limit on my trip for the first time in nearly eight months. My ride would wrap up in Vientiane and then I would fly to Sydney and ride to Melbourne by Christmas, keeping a promise to my parents to be home for the holidays.
My new time limit forced me to skip a large chunk of southern Yunnan on a bus to Jinghong. For nine hours I reclined lazily with the other passengers, mindlessly watching the Chinese comedies on TV and gazing out the window. To travel effortlessly like this was thrilling at first but I soon found myself jealous of the motorbikers snaking their way through the distant back roads, feeling the itch to rejoin them and wondering what I was missing out on while the scenery sped by.
From Jinghong to the border with Laos the air was thick and the jungle was thicker.
The landscape and architecture felt distinctly un-Chinese
and from glancing through the trees you could be forgiven for thinking that you had already crossed into South East Asia.
Soaking up the final days of slick Chinese roads. I’d read ahead about conditions in Laos and knew there wasn’t much of this left in my future.
One last isolated Yunnan campsite,
one last hole in the wall noodle place,
one last smooth tranquil sunset
and suddenly I was in Laos. Country number nine.
Vietnam heaves with 88 million to the east, Thailand bustles with 66 million to the west, and nestled between them minding their own business are the 7 million people of Laos. Mellow, peaceful and with space to breathe, it is the perfect antidote to two months in China.
Southern Yunnan’s architecture and climate felt distinctly South East Asian but upon actually crossing the Laotian border the differences were stark and immediate.
Houses were designed with a rustic simplicity and sat comfortably on spacious plots,
tropical flora lined the roadside providing welcome shade from the scorching sun
and children were no longer confused and scared by me. Calls of “Hello!” and “Sabaidee!” echoed so constantly from the roadside that ensuring each one was enthusiastically returned became an impossible task.
In Luang Namtha I reunited with Jack and his girlfriend Jessie! I had ridden with Jack and Elliot through Tajikistan but as they headed north through Kyrgystan we parted ways before entering China. Elliot paused his trip to earn some money so Jack swapped him out for Jessie and kept on riding.
Our routes converged in northern Laos and beaming to be back in a gang after the solo roads in China we shared our weird and wonderful Chinese tales through mouthfulls of rice and beer.
Reunited, there was only one thing on our minds, dirt. We spent a morning with a map connecting Laos’ patchwork of relentlessly hilly back roads into a general route towards Luang Prabang and within a day were suffering the consequences of our decision.
Our road shrank to a gravel track which for hundreds of kilometers pushed its way through the jungle undulating constantly with regular gradients of between 15 and 25%. No flat road to speak of.
The muggy heat of the midday sun made sustained efforts difficult and we paused at the top of most hills to collapse on our handlebars and catch our breath. Buckets of sweat poured off us and our clothes spent most of the day sodden, or were discarded completely when the sun ducked behind a cloud.
A white knuckle descent would follow down the other side as we tried to keep our speed low on the gradients while dodging rocks and loose sand before the air was again filled with the sound of grinding gears as we pushed our way up the next climb to repeat the process again.
The roads weren’t heavily trafficked, but around some Chinese construction projects the truck count rose. Each truck kicked up a new cloud of dense impenetrable dust
that left us clambering to cover our eyes and mouths in its wake
coating us and everything near us in thick sticky sand – the perfect adhestive for our sweaty skin.
Wild camping in Laos is fraught with difficulty. Aside from the jungle being dense to the point of impenetrable, you need to be wary of bombs.
Laos was the victim of one of the largest clandestine bombing campaigns ever carried out by the USA. To disrupt the communist Pathet Laos from providing support to communist forces in Vietnam the USA between 1964 and 1973 dropped the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years.
The legacy of this military tactic exists not only in the lives lost and people displaced at the time but in the continued threat of death and serious injury today. Around 30% of the bombs dropped (called UXO) did not detonate and remain lodged in the ground of towns, farmland and river banks around the country, regularly killing or maiming farmers or children who stumble upon them.
Aside from the human tragedy of the situation this meant we could camp only where it seemed people had been already and that we would never stray off the beaten path – no excuses.
This rule saw us sometimes camping in villages along the roadside – beautiful peaceful places with a worn in aesthetic feel.
The air was perpetually tinged with fragrant smoke from the fires of people steaming sticky rice in their homes
the homes themselves a patchwork of colours and textures
more often woven from bamboo and reeds than built with brick and mortar.
In one village we were invited to a house party. We arrived late and the party had already started without us. Jars of home made rice wine with long rubber straws had been rolled into the corner and we were made to join in the drinking game of the evening.
We were each in turn given a straw and told to drink from the rice wine jar. A lady sat next to us with a mug of water and we couldn’t stop drinking until we had emptied the jar enough so that the mug when poured into it wouldn’t flow over the lip.
Seems simple enough until we realised the lady’s various tactics of distracting us while pouring in extra water so we had no idea how much we had drunk and were forced to begin again from the top.
While one person drank from the jar, others in the room would pass around a bottle of ‘Lao Lao’ – a brutally alcoholic Laotian spirit – grandly toasting to the room before taking a swig from the shot glass and trying not to scrunch up their faces.
Responsible as we are we knew that hills and hangovers are a bad combination and excused ourselves before the party got too raucous. We fell asleep to the soundtrack of boisterous toasts and infectious laughter echoing through the village late into the night.
Laos hospitality though can sometimes be a double edged sword. In another village we were invited to breakfast. Bowls of brownish stew sat on the floor and we rolled our balls of sticky rice and dipped them in as instructed. It tasted strange but I’d tasted worse. Jack found some small chunks of meat and nibbled on them to see what they were.
As the water level dipped I noticed a tail, about ten centimeters long, rise to the surface of the bowl. Often people in Laos gather meat from the jungle, but cows and sheep don’t live there. Rats do. We were eating a bush rat stew and upon finding the rest of the rat floating around the bowl I suddenly realised I was full.
Little rat hand. Enough to make anybody vegan.
After rat breakfast Jack and I were invited to visit the school and take over a short English lesson from the local teacher. Jack finished the lesson’s content in the first thirty seconds and watching him scramble to fill the next ten minutes made me immediately grateful that I hadn’t become an English teacher in China.
As Jack floundered before the class, I gossiped quietly with the cool kids in the back row.
Our camping restrictions made truly secluded campsites rare and mornings saw a regular stream of inquisitive visitors. Since Istanbul locals have been discovering my campsites, squatting down and watching me just go about my business – gazing in fascination as I cook dinner, pull down my tent or clean my bike. In Laos I finally joined in to see what life is like from the squat, and it’s pretty sweet.
There were far less welcome visitors too, like when Jack discovered his panniers had filled with thousands of biting ants
or when I woke to find a group of termites tearing holes in my tent. Welcome to the jungle.
Views along our route were sometimes gorgeous but the road conditions were poor and it wasn’t long until the road claimed it’s first victim.
I got a flat tyre on a descent from running my tyre pressure too low and didn’t realise until it was too late. I hit one bump and then another with a totally flat tyre and put two sizeable dents into my rear rim.
Then the road claimed it’s first victim… for the second time.
Not ten minutes after damaging my rim, my front wheel washed out on a sandy corner, sending me sprawling across the road and scratching up my elbow. Not my day.
As we neared Pak Ou the scenery became stunning and tearing my eyes away from the view to concentrate on not crashing again was increasingly difficult.
We camped by the Mekong sipping Beer Lao as the sun spread its final rays for the day, the rhythmic puttering of narrow boats growing louder and softer as they whirred up and down the river and we agreed to rest a day on the Mekong’s banks.
A lazy day ensued
This was my view for most of it – sprawled on bamboo slats away from the heat, hanging with the narrow boat operators ferrying tourists to and from Luang Prabang.
Occasionally managing to complete a job or two
while the tourists around us had their fun
until the earth had completed another rotation
and they returned to Luang Prabang, leaving nothing but the sound of lapping waves on the river bank.
To be continued.