Continuing on from Laos Part 1:
Rural Laos is strung together by a seemingly endless web of spectacular dirt roads, stretching into forgotten little corners of South East Asia. Twisting through the jungle, the air thick with humidity and butterflies, most roads are rarely trafficked by anything other than the occasional motorbike and it’s easy to forget you are only ever a skip and a jump away from the South East Asian tourist trail.
Jack, Jessie and I got our first real taste of western tourism in Luang Prabang, and were instantly grateful we did not spend our rest day there. Tourists vastly outnumbered locals and in the crowded night market I realised that strangely I was more uncomfortable in the company of Englishmen and Australians than I was being stared at in a rural Laotian village. Bars and guesthouses occupied virtually every building and yet in spite of that it took us over an hour to find a room at a reasonable price. We failed to see the attraction and stayed only long enough to charge our electronics and visit the UXO Museum before moving swiftly on.
Up and down Laos friends play petanque, a hangover from Laos’ French colonial past
and practice cock fighting casually.
Hammers and sickles adorn homes and shopfronts, a reminder of Laos’ Communist present,
and despite their tumultuous history the people seem more chilled out than any I’ve met before.
Even the dogs can’t be bothered giving chase.
Stretches of smooth tarmac link up Laos’ dirt roads making the country an accessible touring destination for anybody able to brave the heat and humidity.
But this is why we were there
Bumpy, dirty, slow and steep
and ridden to the soundtrack of strange jungle noises and distant motorbikes.
From Luang Prabang our road rose 1400m before descending and rising again, undulating aggressively in the mean time.
Sometimes climbing on a bike can be a peaceful, almost meditative experience. Your body and breath find a rhythm and your mind can seem to slow. Not on these hills though – these hills demanded constant attention. Eyes dart up the road to scout for rocks or holes, shoulders and back work overtime to keep your loaded forks straight on the incline while legs apply just the right amount of pressure to keep the bike going forward without skidding the rear wheel and bringing you to an instant stop. And all the while sweat pours into your eyes and down your arms making your handlebars slippery.
I didn’t feel like I was riding these hills, I felt I was brawling with them, and we agreed that between the relentless gradients, heat and loose sand it was the most physically exhausting road any of us have ridden.
But we had all been riding long enough to know that exhaustion is fleeting
and whether it was the silent magic of early morning from a mountain top
or a cool afternoon breeze greeting you as you round a bend
we were constantly reminded why we love doing this.
Our road lead us past settlements populated by Hmong people, a Laos ethnic minority some of whom are still persecuted by the ruling communist party for being allies with the USA during the Vietnam War.
Electricity still hasn’t made it to many of these settlements and with what they can grow or forage the people who live here make for themselves whatever life they can.
A home made boom gate eventually blocked our path and we ducked underneath it. On the hill above the gate were some huts and in need of water we called up to the men inside.
One walked down the hill and told us to stay at the road while he filled our water but intrigued we pretended not to understand and followed him up the path.
Jack and Jessie joined a group of ten men under a wooden shade hut while I followed the man filling our water. As he topped up our bottles from a large metal bowl I glanced around and poked my head into a room that appeared to be some kind of dorm. Bunk beds lined the room’s length and my eyes moved slowly over the scene coming to rest on a pile of machine guns leaning in the corner, a rocket launcher perched beside them.
I quickly returned to the man filling our water who appeared not to have realised that I left and together we rejoined the others. After sharing news of the rocket launcher with Jack and Jessie we agreed that we may have strayed somewhere we shouldn’t be. The men were friendly enough and offered us some bitter apples and shots of Lao Lao.
Some of them were wearing a badge on their sleeves and when I asked what it meant several of them shared a glance.
“Army?” I prompted
“Police” one of them smiled, and a few of the other guys chuckled.
We thanked them for the water, made our excuses and left. “No photo!” one barked as I reached for my camera so I bade them farewell
and took a blurry pic of one of their huts when I was out of sight.
We can’t be sure but it seems possible that we accidentally stumbled upon an outpost of the Secret Army – a Hmong Royalist Militia established and funded by the USA during the Vietnam war. They fled to the jungle after the Pathat Laos took control of the country and still periodically engage in fighting with the government.
It’s probably more likely that it was actually an army base placed in the region to keep the Secret Army in check. Either way the whole experience was strange and jarring in a country otherwise so peaceful.
Entering Phonsavan region some unnaturally cylyndrical rocks rose abruptly by the roadside and I realised we had discovered a ‘plain of jars’. There are 90 such sites around Phonsavan housing jars hand carved from huge slabs of hollowed out rock and suspected of dating from 500BC to 500AD.
Theories abound but nobody knows with certainty who made them, when or why
and we nestled amongst them debating the various going theories while making noodles for lunch.
Rejoining the main road Jack and Jessie turned left to Hanoi and I turned right to Vientiane.
Between Tajikistan and Laos I had spent more time this year with Jack than anybody else. It would have been sadder to see him and Jessie roll away if I wasn’t so sure I’d them again someday.
I sat on tarmac roads for a few days to ensure I wasn’t late for my flight – but even tarmac roads have their charms. Besides, even as a solo rider
whether it’s the company of cheerful kids commuting home from school,
hospitable army officers letting me camp on their Sepak Takraw field
or chance encounters with other folks living their life on the road, you are rarely actually alone.
And when the road narrows and quietens I have come to value and cherish my time alone with the landscape.
While my pedals spin my mind wanders, sorting the clutter of life, filtering through my doubts, joys, uncertainties and aspirations until a rise in the road or a passing scooter brings me back to the moment.
Solitude like this was one of my greatest struggles at the outset of this journey but will be one of my greatest losses once the ride concludes.
On my final morning I rolled up my life and stuffed it into bags for the final time. Once in Sydney I still have to ride to Melbourne but that feels more like a warm down. It feels like the real journey ends in Vientiane and to have now crossed this imaginary finish line feels surreal. I’ve become so comfortable living each day out of a tent with dirt under my fingernails, never knowing where I’ll sleep and just eating whatever is available. It’s the idea of returning to a land of English speakers and living out of a house that now makes me nervous.
Really it was a day like any other but my morning routine felt more significant than usual and I lingered longer over my breakfast mango, trying to notice each subtlety of the campsite and memorise the rough feeling of the wooden slats under my feet.
‘Where are you going?’ a man questioned at a rest stop.
‘To Vientiane’ I responded.
‘On bicycle? Whooh!’
Outside the city the traffic thickened and I began weaving through lines of motorbikes, changing lanes and braking hard. Focused on my destination the significance of these final few kilometers faded and I quickly found myself outside my hostel. Not feeling ready to finish quite yet I rode around the block and then around the city. I added 20kms to my day taking a fully loaded Suzie on an aimless tour of Vientiane until the sun began to fade and I was forced to finally stop, causing a scene squeezing her through the narrow hostel doors and blocking the stairs with my six filthy bags.
I texted home to share news of reaching my finish line, and as quietly and unceremoniously as my journey began it ended.
But there’s still a few hundred kilometers of epilogue to go.