Laid Back in Laos
31 Mar 2007
|We have been in Laos now for just over 3 weeks and we're really enjoying it. We don't have a story to compete with the classic that was the nuns but we have had some great riding through some fascinating countryside and have met some lovely people along the way.
The title of 'Laid back in Laos' certainly fits, as Laos is quite different to any other Asian country we have been in. When we crossed the border we got the instant feel of a different country. I know that sounds a bit daft as we were in a different country! but the change was huge. In Vietnam people were always out doing something industrious, the fields were in full production, the goats were tended and the buffalo were pulling carts or ploughing fields. There was always something growing or being planted. In Laos on the other hand almost every field in this NE corner (and through most of the country we have discovered) was empty. It wasn't as if the geography or the weather had changed it was just that nobody was doing anything! Apparently you can actually get 3 crops of rice a year in some areas of SE Asia but we are not convinced that in Laos they get even one! It is certainly the case that they are very poor and that was also evident straight away so maybe there is an issue of affordability but we have read and heard that the Laos people are on the whole a lazy bunch. The french had a saying that "the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Laos people just listen to it grow!!" an interesting approach to take when they are obviously so poor and some extra food and development would certainly be welcomed. Our guide book says that the Lao people have the notion that "too much work is is bad for your brain", a notion that we have certainly witnessesd along the way.
This lazy, or shall we say laid back approach to life is also in a way one of the Laos people's most endearing qualities as it gives a very calm and peaceful feel to the whole place. There is not the same frantic rush that you get in other countries we have visited. This is also added to by the fact that there are hardly any vehicles on the road. Primarily this is because they can't afford them but also in many areas sealed roads are still relatively new and there are only 6 million people in Laos compared to their Vietnamese neighbours where 83 million people fit in to an area not that much bigger! Again the quiet roads suit us down to the ground as we cycled along 2 abreast listening to the sounds of the birds and crickets, on what was more like a leafy country lane rather than a main highway, which is in effect what they are. A very hilly country lane I might add, as one thing they have learned from their neighbours is how to build steep roads and it's fair to say that we had some of our toughest riding so far in our first week here. Let's just say that in that area they don't do flat - it either goes up or down and usually for long periods of time.
The other thing we noticed immediately was that the villagers were so quiet when we rode through, very few "hello's" shouted out or "sa ba dee's" (hello in Loas). This was excentuated outside the villages when lots of the kids would actually run and hide when they saw us coming. We didn't think we were that scary and we felt so mean as these poor kids could be carrying fire wood or their younger siblings and would run off into the forest. One woman who had no place to hide as we rode past moved her small child to the opposite hip from us and looked visibly scared as we rode past trying to re-assure her that we were nice people really! All very strange and I'm not sure if it's Vicky or me but the fact that we camped the first few nights and had not had a shower might have had something to do with it!! Seriously though, we assume it is because the border we crossed from Vietnam is still relatively new and this area has not seen many tourists, so we must look pretty strange and a bit intimidating. At least that's what we'll tell ourselves anyway.
Sadly these villages on the North East have nothing. No schools, just a handful of small shops and no other services that we could see. The house's are all made out of wood or bamboo and are built up on stilts. The kids look grubby and pretty scruffy but they still have lovely smiles. As we have moved further east and south where tourism is growing at a great rate, things have changed. Less frightened kids and a load more sa ba dee's. In fact it brings a real smile to our faces when we see the enthusiasm and excitement of some of these kids as we ride past. You get the feeling that if they had any on they could easily be wetting their trousers!!!!
We were pretty tired after the hard riding in the latter part of Vietnam so we decided to take it a little easier when we first arrived in Laos, do some shorter days, maybe do a 'sight' or two on riding days not only on rest days that has been the norm up until now. Our first stop was Vieng Xay where we visited 7 caves that were used during the time of the Vietnam war. We hadn't realised that Laos was also very involved in the war and suffered greatly at the hands of the Americans. The caves were fascinating. Each one was used buy a government official and his family during the war and each contained rooms for sleeping, eating, washing and official business. They also had an emergency room which contained an oxygen machine and a sealed door that could be used if they were ever gassed in the cave. Our guide was able to tell us that thankfully these rooms were never required. All of these caves had been man made with dynamite in strategic positions that could not have been targeted from the air. There was also a huge natural cave that was apparently used by 500 Laos soldiers when they were not engaged in the fighting and it included a man made stage and huge recreation area where they could play sport to help keep them entertained. All very interesting and worth the stop.
We then went to the extreme when we stopped riding altogether, put the bikes on a boat and went to a village up river without any roads. Muang Ngoy is a small village that relies on the river and surrounding forests for everything. Today the river and forests still provide a great deal but their biggest source of income is certainly from us tourists and has been for the last 8 years. The village is a real chill out place. You sleep in bamboo huts with hammocks, decks and river views. Very basic with no running water and limited electricity but a lovely atmosphere. We spent two nights up there where we swam, went for a paddle in a traditional wooden canoe and basically relaxed. It was very pleasant.
We then continued on to our first Laos 'city', Luang Prabang. I have put city in inverted commas because although it is referred to as a city it's really just a sleepy town on the junction of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It actually has world heritage status due to it's large number of temples (or wats as they call them) and it's lovely setting. We had 3 great days there doing the usual mix of jobs and sights and eating nice food. It was such a contrast to be sitting in very modern restaurants choosing from a mix of Laos or western style food and drinking lovely local grown coffee or beer, after having come through such basic villages. A contrast that we now just accept as being part of the Asian package but one we still find quite hard to come to terms with. We have to admit that we certainly enjoy getting a mix of both as there is something very rewarding and adventurous about cycling through the rustic villages on quiet roads, camping in the forest and eating local food with local people but we also enjoy the civilisation that you get when you reach a touristy town. So I guess we are lucky to get the best of both worlds but it does still play on our conscience.
While we were in Luang Prabang we visited the Kuang Si waterfall. It's a beautiful place with several swimming holes and a bear rescue centre. It also has a tiger that was rescued from hunters 5 years ago. There is a big push in Laos to try and reduce the amount of hunting of wild and endangered animals and birds. From some of the dead things that we have seen at the local markets that have obvoiusly not come from any farm, they still have some work to do.
From Luang Prabang we had 4 lovely days cycling to the capital city Vientiane . It is more of a city but as fitting the rest of the country it's pretty relaxed. Obviously busier than elsewhere but just kind of small UK town busy not manic Kathmandu or Hanoi. It's nice to be in these type of places. Luang Prabang in some ways felt artificial due to the high percentage of tourists and the lack of locals other than those servicing us visitors. Here we seem to mix in with the locals doing local stuff which is really nice. Whilst in town we went for a herbal sauna and massage. Not our usual style of activity but great fun. Once we were dressed only in our sarongs it was a few cups of herbal tea then into the sauna. As air temp resembles a sauna outside at the moment it felt a little odd choosing to go to a place even hotter, but it was actually very relaxing. We did start by stumbling around in amongst the locals not able to see due to the steam but once we found a spot on the benches we soaked up the atmosphere so to speak. Then it was out side for more tea and the massage. The building was an open plan stilt house, in the wooded grounds of this temple, so we lay being prodded and stretched on these wooded beds in lovely serene surrounding accompanied mostly by Lao folk, a new and very different experience.
As I said it's much busier in Vientiane and that goes for the roads too. Still very quiet but interestingly the majority of the 4 wheeled vehicles are very posh and very new 4x4's. Loas is obviously a poor country developing fast and there are a lot of folk here that are doing very well for themselves some how. The guide book we have is only 2 years old and things have moved on so much since then. When it was written there was only one cash machine in the whole country, now we must have seen 1/2 a dozen in this part of the city alone. Also the price of stuff has shot up including food, accommodation and transport. How do we know about the cost of transport I here you cry, they are meant to be on bikes.... that's our little secret....
The weather so far in Laos has been affected by the locals insistence on using 'slash and burn' agriculture in the hills. Despite the fact that it is very bad for the environment, not to mention their health, they continue to slash areas of the forests and burn it all to clear it and make way for cash crops that perhaps will reap some benefit for 2 or 3 years but then leave the soil infertile and the hillsides prone to erosion. As a result at this time of year the sky is never clear and the sun never strong. At sunrise the sky gets brighter but the sun is just a red ball that is not strong enough to cast a shadow or have the intensity that it would normally have. This meant that sadly distant views were out of the question but it has kept the temperature down nicely for biking. A great help as we have done some pretty serious hills. Apparently the government is trying to stop the slash and burn but until then the country and the environment will continue to suffer.
We are now in the deep south a place called Pakse. It could have taken us about 6 days to get here but for us only 4. We rode for 3 days south from Vientiane to Tha Khaek (356km) then decided to stick our bikes and us on the bus for the next 300 km to Pakse so we would have time to make a side trip up onto the Bolaven plateau to the east of here. It will be an in and out trip but apparently worth the effort and is very famous for it's coffee plantations which will be something new.
So we are now in striking distance of the Cambodian border which should take us a couple of days once we come down from the plateau. It's strange to think that we have been on the go now for over 5 months and in 2 short months time we will have done with South East Asia for now and heading off for some family time in Australia. Still many more kms to cycle and new experiences to have and hopefully share with you. Hope you are enjoying our wee web blast as much as we enjoy sharing our travels with you.
Take care and keep in touch
Nick and Vicky