There are more than 2 Laos, that’s certain. For Gerben and I, well into our 400th kilometer of fixed gear touring, the distinctions couldn’t be more clear. Unlike China, where commercialism and its varied excesses were rampant, in one Laos I really feel the omnipresent weight of the government. It can only be described as tedious – a shadowy force insisting that things be done a certain way for no demonstrable reason. They close guesthouses, they impose curfews, then they turn around and give new guest houses to unwilling families in the middle of nowhere who don’t even know how to turn on the water taps. In some cases, the arbitrary rules match the tendency to indolence of most of the people – you certainly don’t see people working to find a way around them, like you do in China. In any case, this Laos is a bit of a chore, where all prices are proscribed, all services skeletally rendered and little interest shown in much aside from the hour of the next meal.
Then there is the second Laos. Some hours north of Vientiane the busy road thinned into an uneven ribbon of patchy pavement, frequented only by the massive trucks that still sustain trade with the Northern cities. We’d met up with a Dutch friend of Gerben’s who is in the middle of a 7 month cycling tour of Asia. She, of course, is decked out with a nice touring bike and all the bells and whistles. Waterproof panniers, a set of waterproof maps and the rest. Next to us, she looks like a tour de france rider patronizing some local kids on a practice trip. Consulting her map the night before, we’d decided to skip the busier route 13 in favor of the older and more scenic route 10. Route 10 shoots directly North from the capital city to Ang Nam Ngum, a beautiful lake nestled at the base of the mountain range that shelters Luang Prabang. We figured on a 2 day ride to the lake, and a part of the third day for our victorious glide into Vang Vieng, a tourist ghetto full of banana pancakes and sitcom watching stoners along the Nam Ken river – the Mekong’s little brother.
Our first day was a real joy. Flat, relatively smooth road surfaces, a cheerful sunny sky and increasing evidence of the rustic life of Laos that we were all eager to see more of. Rice paddies were the predominant agricultural effort, although some sugar cane also grew in patches along the road. Distant hills, hinting at the sharper karst cliffs to come, loomed closer and closer. We averaged about 25km/h – a small miracle on the fixed gear bikes I still haven’t managed to post a photo of, and stopped for lunch at one of the many karaoke restaurants perched on stilts above the rice paddies. There’s a different aesthetic here when it comes to views. While the tourist towns all feature a mountain or majestic river view, the Laotians themselves seem to favor the fertile fields that they toil in all day. It may be a bit of an acquired taste, but it makes sense when you see a pick up truck full of families pour into the restaurant and tuck in to a huge spread of fish, sticky rice, vegetables and soup. We picked a random guesthouse just as the sun was setting and entertained ourselves with a few of the passably good BeerLao from a nearby girly bar. Of course, Gerben and I sent Marieke for the beers, in order to avoid temptation 😉
The next day. thinks started heating up. The road narrowed even more, sending us hurtling over sandy patches where some run off during the rainy season had torn gashes into the surface. The hills got a bit more feisty, until all three of us were forced to walk our bikes up a 10% grade. This was only a hint of what was to come, but it was starting to scare me pretty good. At the peak of the massive hill, I stopped to drain the last of my water and looked back over the landscape we’d just passed over. I felt like I did after my first hill in the Sinai – as though I’d made a really, really dumb decision and there must have been someone else to blame for it… No such luck, then or now, and as we coasted down the far side of the mountain, all was forgotten and myself forgiven. By sunset, we’d reached one of the larger crossings and decided to pack it in at the Sook Somvang guesthouse (020 592 9513). In sharp contrast to the place we’d stayed the night before, Sook Somvang was run by people who actually cared about running a guesthouse. Their location, at a bend in the river town called Hinheup, must have been picked to serve the truckers making the tortuous journey down from China, but they had happily adapted to the trickle of bike tourists and other bus avoiders who were shuttling between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. The beer was cold and the food was good, but best of all, they had real Marlboro Lights – not the Chinese fakes smuggled in and sold all over Vientiane. We indulged a bit, shocking an older Dutch couple who took their bike pedaling deadly serious.
At the crack of noon, we managed to cruise over the rickety old bridge and into the first of the real hill country. The Japanese are busy helping the Laotians to build a new bridge at this point, so I don’t imagine the old mess will be there for long. We looked back to watch as a massive freight truck rumbled over the steel plates, causing the entire structure to sway like a tree in the wind. In the background, the supports of the new bridge loomed over the river and young kids jumped from the piers into the water. We quickly left the river behind, climbing a series of small rises up into the hills surrounding Vang Vieng. The sort of country here is well suited to growing just about everything, and the roadside villages have the prosperous ease of places that might be considered poor in the West, but where everyone seems to have enough to eat, warm clothes and happy faces. It’s hard to think of such places as poor simply because they can’t afford the shiny new Toyota Taliban trucks that you see in the cities.
In between villages, kids playing in the fields send up a chorus of “sabaideeeee!!!” every time we approach, quickly followed by a string of other words and naughty laughter as we cruise past. It’s charming, in its own way, but gets a little old when you’ve pumped up the latest hill and are expected to return hearty hello screams in between choking breaths.
Lunch was at a tiny restaurant overlooking the lake, with the smell of drying fish wafting in from the roadside stalls. We made Vang Vieng that afternoon and settled in to an overpriced guesthouse along the river to enjoy some hot showers and a couple days of overeating. Like any backpacker ghetto, Vang Vieng is all hustle. Everything costs twice as much as it did just 10 km out, and the locals (mostly transplants from prosperous Luang Prabang looking to make more money for the family by increasing their guesthouse franchise) have the desperate, bored air of people who don’t do anything all day. We quickly identified the Vang Vieng shuffle – the wounded limp of tourists who’d had one too many buckets during the obligatory tubing cruise and managed to slice their toes on the riverbed. The less said about the place, the better. If you’re cycling, I’d suggest pulling off at the first guesthouse sign you see before reaching the old airstrip. It leads over the river to a secluded area West of the tourist strip, and it is worth paying the extra dollar or two.
I’ve been spending an average of $8 US a day, including the guesthouses, so Laos is still cheap – for those concerned about that. For a few dollars extra you can find some real treasures, simultaneously escaping the drunken tourists and the unhappy, scornful locals who are eternally waiting for better-heeled customers they are certain lurk just around the corner.
Next up, Luang Prabang – the old royal capital of the Lao empire, and a UNESCO world heritage site, a fact loudly proclaimed by the increasingly frequent signs we’ve seen along the road. Below is a photo of what seemed to be the last cinema in Vientiane. The ubiquity of DVDs and VCDs imported from China has made the cinema as rare as an elephant in the land of 1000 elephants…