Sitting beside the Mekong River, watching the sun rise from the balcony of our guesthouse on the island of Don Kong seems like a very apt place to be writing my blog in Laos. The sounds of cicadas chirping, birds tweeting, cockerels crowing and goats bleeting coupled with the soothing tones of a distant 'prayer' bell provide the soundtrack to my morning. Ash and I are spending three nights here before we cross the border and head into Cambodia. Our time in Laos has gone quickly...too quickly...three weeks have flown by and not one second of it has been un-enjoyable.
I love Laos, unabashedly. It's been the most magnificent country to cycle across: from the lush jungles in the mountainous north, to the gently undulating southern region dominated by the wide and lazy Mekong River. The Laotian people have welcomed us with a warmth that has heartened us no end. It is normal at the end of the day for back, knees and legs to ache...but in Laos you can add arms and jaw to that list from all the smiling and waving we've been doing! Young children always wave, smile and sometimes dance with such genuine enthusiasm whilst shouting the friendly greeting "Sabaidee falang!" (Hello foreigner!). It has never been a chore to return their greeting and seeing their faces light up with happiness would melt even the stoniest of hearts! Older school children are equally friendly and we have often found ourselves joining the morning rush hour (cycle) commute to school where polite greetings of "Good Morning" and "Thank you" are followed by nervous giggles from groups of school girls embarrassed at practicing their English skills with an actual westerner. Their charming innocence is incredibly endearing.
After the frenetic and somewhat chaotic pace of China, it was a massively pleasant surprise to arrive in Laos and instantly find ourselves in a much more relaxed country. Roads were quieter (even though we are following the main road - route 13 - from north to south, it's often felt as if we were cycling along a country lane), construction projects were less obvious and people just didn't seem to be in a rush to get anywhere or do anything with urgency or impatience. It was incredibly refreshing and we were instantly hooked.
It took a day or two to find our feet when it came to buying food and snacks. In China, plentiful and cheap food is easy to come by and the choice is seemingly unending. In Laos, food is still cheap, but portion sizes are smaller and the choice of snacks is much more restricted which meant that we initially struggled to take in enough calories from the food we were eating. Fõe (noodle soup) is a staple and we have often found ourselves eating it for breakfast and lunch. Fried rice and fried noodle dishes are common, as are snacks of bananas, peanuts, and rice cakes which have kept energy levels high in between meals. The French influence is still clearly evident too as baguettes (filled with either meat and salad or butter and jam) can be found in most of the larger towns. Sweet treats of custard-filled doughnuts and corn-filled fritters have been exciting finds too!
Accommodation has largely been cheap. We've often paid between £4-6 for a comfortable room in a guesthouse. It's more basic than the equivalent in China: hot water isn't always available and you often have to share the room with a few lizards, ants and grasshoppers! As the temperature (and humidity) is dropping now that we are out of the mountains, we are able to save a bit of money by opting for fan-cooled rooms rather than air conditioning. A couple of times, on rest days, we've chosen to stay in more expensive accommodation and it's interesting how much more you can get for your money. In Pakse, we paid around £12 for a room in a nice hotel that included a buffet breakfast. We slept in a pristine room, with the luxuries of hot water, air conditioning and cable TV and in the morning, feasted on plates of rice, stir-fried pork and vegetable dishes, fried eggs, sausages, rice soup, toast, butter and marmalade, tea, coffee, fruit and salad. The breakfast alone...and boy, do we eat a lot...was worth the price of the room. It's not something we are able to do all the time, but occasionally, the benefits of a great sleep and a super-calorific breakfast cannot be underestimated...for body and soul!
Jumping back to China: Our final couple of days took us through more sweaty jungle scenery! After leaving Jinghong, we decided to take the main highway to the border. Whilst it may not have been as pretty as the G213 that we'd been following for many days, it did provide us with a nice hard shoulder to cycle on and plenty of tunnels to save us from any excessive climbs...our legs certainly needed all the help they could get! On reaching the border town of Mohan, we stopped for some food to use up the remainder of our Chinese currency. The food was nice enough, but when it came to paying, the owner (perhaps thinking that we'd just crossed the border from Laos and weren't accustomed to Chinese restaurant prices) wanted to charge us over double what we'd paid at any other eatery in China. It was a really frustrating situation as our incredibly limited Mandarin restricted our ability to effectively argue over the price. We tried to make it as clear as possible that we weren't happy and certainly weren't going to pay the full amount that he was asking for and in the end compromised with a reduced, but still expensive, bill. It was a disappointing end to our time in China.
The north of Laos is very undeveloped and the first few days saw us cycling through endless unspoilt jungle, dotted with picturesque villages: collections of simple wooden houses with thatched roofs. It was a lovely introduction and nice to be able to visit before the Chinese complete their high speed railway link from Beijing to Singapore via Bangkok (it's currently got as far as Kunming) that will surely spoil such a naturally beautiful landscape. Laos imbues you with a desire to travel slowly and immerse yourself in its rich culture. The idea of hopping on a train that will reach speeds of up to 400kph seems to go against everything that makes Laos what it is today. Whilst I'm sure the train will boost economies and facilitate tourism in certain towns and cities, I fail to see how it's going to benefit the minority population or the environment...but hey, when has China put the environment or the needs of minority populations above their own economic development? I can say things like this now. I'm no longer in China!
The first touristy place that we came across was Luang Prabang. Initially, after having spent the past three months off the traditional tourist map, it felt very weird to arrive in a town that was full of westerners, with bars offering enticing BOGOF deals and cocktails. We felt like outsiders to this world of relative convenience and 'comfort' and it was interesting to see the places selling western food and 'proper' coffee were often more popular than the cheap and rustic eateries selling local cuisine. It is a gorgeous town full of Indo-Chinese styled buildings and ornate Buddhist temples. We rested here for three nights and could have stayed much longer. It's the kind of place where you imagine people come for a few days and end up spending a few years! It exudes calmness and relaxation, and simply wandering beside the Mekong and Kham rivers whilst drinking ice cold fruit smoothies was a perfect way to spend the daytime. In terms of food, the night market is a wonderful place to get a cheap and filling dinner: less than £1 for a smorgasbord selection of dishes to fill a plate from...we ate here every night! One of the main reasons that tourists flock to Luang Prabang is to see the alms-giving ceremony. It takes place at sunrise, so requires an early start. It's a very meaningful ceremony for those taking part, where saffron-cloaked monks file down the street in silence and receive gifts of food from locals. It is inevitably going to attract hoards of camera toting tourists but, despite the mass appeal, it's important for us 'visitors' to remember that not everything is just one big 'show' for our benefit and we should maintain a respect for local traditions. There is a degree of conflict within the town in that street vendors sell food packages to tourists so that they can participate in the ceremony, yet the 'official' line is that you should only participate if it is meaningful to you. Whilst it may be 'fun' to participate, there is a danger of turning a long-standing religious ceremony into a bit of a circus. It was fascinating to watch the ceremony, but this morning I was fortunate to witness five monks from the small temple on the island pass in front of our guesthouse and receive gifts of sticky rice from the owner. In many ways, having the privilege of witnessing this from the privacy of the balcony was more special than Luang Prabang. My instinct was to reach for the camera, but It would have been too intrusive on what was, for them, a very private and spiritual moment.
Leaving Luang Prabang we had a decision to make: do we take the easy option and spend three days cycling through our last mountainous section to Vang Vieng, or do we push really hard and get the mountains out of the way in just two days? We opted for the latter. In hindsight, it wasn't a choice that I'd recommend for anyone else cycling this route. On the first day, we climbed over 3,000m and spent 10hrs 40mins in the saddle. Our arrival at our guesthouse was a joyous occasion, but legs felt like jelly and "tired" doesn't begin to describe our mental state! The following day I needed ibuprofen to dull the pain in my arthritic knees and it was cruel fate that the toilet in our bathroom was the hole-in-the-floor, squatting kind...limited flexibility required a degree of creativity on my part!
We arrived in Vang Vieng after passing through some amazing landscapes dominated by towering karst scenery (limestone caves and springs). It's a town that is renowned for having a hedonistic party scene and, without wanting to sound like two old farts, we desperately wanted to avoid that! We searched out a nice looking hotel that was run by a father and son from Singapore. It was a perfect place to rest and we were treated to a double breakfast portion after they found out that we were on our way, by bicycle, to their homeland! When we chatting with them about what to expect from Singapore: very developed and modern, it sounded like a world away from sleepy Laos!
The following day, we found ourselves arriving in the capital Vientiane. Our hotel was comfortable and ideally located close to the night market, where we were able to buy a selection of delicious stir fry dishes for dinner, which we washed down with an ice cold BeerLao! We only spent one day in the capital and whilst there were some nice religious buildings and statues to visit, there wasn't that much of interest. Outside the Great Stupa there were collections of people selling caged birds. The idea being that you pay to release the bird back into the wild and in turn will be rewarded with good karma. It seemed like a pretty messed up way of 'buying' good karma...especially for the birds! Ironically, these same birds would inevitably soon be caught in nets once more, in time for more gullible tourists to finance this viscous cycle.
From Vientiane we headed south towards the Cambodian border. Now that we are out of the mountains, the going is much easier as the land gently undulates. The scenery, whilst not as breathtaking as in the north, is still beautiful and children still frantically wave to us and greet us with beaming smiles! After having spent two months in China, it feels strange to be on the verge of leaving a country after just three weeks! Laos has definitely been one of our favourite destinations so far and one that we'd both love to return to in the future. I'll be genuinely sad to leave this wonderful country behind but our three day rest on the island of Don Kong has been a perfect place to conclude our stay.
Love and hugs. X