- Jamie Shannon
Cycling up and down in Laos and meeting strange ladies of the night
I crossed into Laos and immediately set to work in finding somewhere to camp. It gets dark here by 18:00 and that doesn’t leave me with much time to even cook my food and so I chose a place not two kilometres from the border. It wasn’t great. There was stagnant water everywhere and mosquitoes buzzed about as if Christmas had just returned but at least I could sleep.
Cycle touring in Laos is vastly different to Vietnam
Cycling into Laos was like cycling into a different world in more ways than one. Everything seemed so different here. The road was just a track really that often disintegrated into large piles of sand. The jungle around me appeared even lusher than it had done in Vietnam and, most of all, there was hardly any human presence or construction to be seen anywhere. I immediately liked it.
I followed a slightly undulating road along a ridge for much of the next morning. The sun began to shine and the small villages that I passed roared to life as I approached. Sabaideeee! Sabaideeee! The children would cry as I passed. Pigs and chickens darted into the undergrowth and across the road and the adults all waved as I drew near. It felt wonderful.
Everything was going rather smoothly but then I began to climb my first Laotian hill. Oh dear. I had read about these things. The narrow roads snakes its way up and around every single indentation at gradients I really have not seen since I cycled in Turkey. It was seriously hard work. I just have to get into the highest gear possible and spin the peddles furiously.
When I eventually do reach the top (or what you thought was the top), the brakes must be checked and the helmet must come on because what’s about to come is a plunge into the centre of the earth almost. I honestly had the sensation many times that I was falling as I sped down the switchbacks. It was very strange.
If I'm lucky, I may have some ‘flat’ land for a couple of km’s but more often than not, it's straight back into another huge climb. It;s demoralising and its almost heart breaking when I realise at the end of the day, I have only cycled 40km’s. Only 500 more to go.
I passed through yet another small village in the afternoon where I thought I’d stop to fill up on some food. This consisted of a soup with noodles and a few pieces of beef. It wasn’t great but I knew this was all I could expect for the time being.
With a mere 30 km’s under my belt, I spotted a great spot by the river in which to camp and so wheeled my bike down through the bush where I set myself up for the rest of the day. It was only half three, but what with the hills and my rush to get here, I decided I wasn’t going to push myself too hard.
The great thing about Laos is that there are cattle and water buffalos everywhere and they just love eating grass. This affords me great spots in which to pitch my tent on freshly cut grass. Much better than sleeping amongst the trees and bushes and its got the added benefit hardly any mozzies being present too.
I got a bit of a fright during the night when a heard a herd of buffalos run past my tent through the water It shit me up something rotten until I looked outside and realized what it was. Pretty cool though.
Another huge climb followed the next morning. I huffed and puffed my way up in the rain and was feeling thoroughly rotten with the situation.
I do love the mountains in a way, particularly when I at last reach the top but it’s the people who really lend colour to the whole scene. The Laotians are all so friendly. In this part of the country, a house might consist of nothing much more than a simple wooden or bamboo structure elevated from the ground on stilts. Most of the cooking is done outside on open fires and children and adults alike shower outside under communal water taps. It’s probably the most basic living conditions I have encountered thus far but the people seem extremely happy with what little they have. It does remind you that human relationships and health are two of the most important things in the world. Everything else is just a bonus really.
Another typically Laotian plunge threaded me through some beautiful little villages but also left me wading through mud four inches deep. Despite this my spirits were lifted simply because of the cheery faces I met along the way and I arrived in the town of Viang Xai feeling great.
I pressed on however as the much larger town of Sam Nuea lay but fifteen km’s away. One more big pass lay in between it and myself and I arrived at around two caked in mud and soaked to the bone.
It was here that I needed to get my finances in order. I emptied my Dutch account of the last of my funds before heading to the market to try to see if I could change the ten dollars I still had left in Vietnamese Dong. The ladies there offered me 50,000 Kip. I told them they were all very funny before crossing town and asking in a bank where It was possible to get it changed. They had no idea and so I just kept on walking around until I got some answers. I finally found someone whom led me to the back of another shop where a Vietnamese lady offered me 80,000 Kip thus that was another ten dollars in my pocket.
I found a great little café where I drank some proper coffee just to warm up a little and to use the internet, and decided there and then that a guesthouse would be the order of the day. I knew that a huge mountain blocked my way west out of town and thus I took the easier option in the form of a bed and a shower.
I also managed to change the last of my dollars a little later too which was a god send. I may just be able to make it to Luang Prabang indeed.
The next day was really just a blur of mountains, gradients that never seemed to let up and cries of sabadieeee from the children.
It’s a little like time crisis actually when you ride through one of these villages. Little heads pop out of the most unexpected places as you cycle past. Behind you, to your left and right, up ahead and peeking out through a small ‘window’, little heads scream at you. Toddlers of about two or three come streaming out of their homes waving and shouting as they wobble towards you. It never ceases to put a smile on my face but when I turn the last corner, that smile soon disappears as I begin the next twenty kilometre ascent.
I won’t lie – this day was hard. Physically it was tough and I began to crack up a little mentally too. I just couldn’t see an end in sight. Twenty km’s up. Twenty km’s down. One km flat. Fifteen km’s up. Fifteen km’s down. At this rate it would take me another ten days to reach Luang Prabang. Cracks began to appear in my mental armour. Curses followed. My legs began to falter and I was left in pieces.
Later on, a man on a scooter pulled over to say hello. Turns out he lives in Luang Prabang where he studies English. He asked where I wanted to go to and I simply replied “home. I want to go home now”.
We talked for a while and exchanged contact details. A few days later he even offered to put me up whilst I was in Luang Prabang but I wasn’t able to take him up on his kind offer for reasons I shall explain another time.
The whole landscape was shrouded in mist for the majority of the following morning. When I reached the top of the pass however, the mist departed the scene rather dramatically which left the sun shining quite beautifully. A relatively warm decent followed which left me feeling great.
A strange thing happened later on whilst I was drinking some coffee. A truck screeched to a halt behind me and a toothless man got out the front and invited himself over, intrigued I dare say, by my stove. Having rooted around in my mess tin and finished playing with my knife, I noticed him eyeing up my coffee. I knew what was about to happen as it hadn’t been the first time and so, just as he was about to pick the cup up to no doubt drain it of some of its contents, I grabbed the cup and said, “no, no, no my man”. I don’t know why people think it’s okay to just drink my coffee having just met me. I’m all for integrating into a new culture and all that but I have to draw the line somewhere.
I really couldn’t find anywhere to camp this night. If the ground wasn’t thickly clad in jungle, it was being used to grow something and I ended up having to slide the bike down a huge incline to a small spot down by the river. It would be a huge job in the morning to get everything back up again but at least I had clean fresh water. This is always a delight for me.
Cycle touring from the UK to Vietnam - perhaps the strangest encounter thus far
I got the tent set up and began to cook my food when two young girls waded through the river from the other side. They didn’t say anything to me but just giggled as they passed by. A little later however, an older woman with quite wild hair crossed the river too. As she walked towards me, I could tell she was going to try to start up a conversation, but what with the lack of a common tongue, I knew this would be somewhat difficult and tiresome too.
She didn’t utter a word. She just smiled and watched me as I boiled my rice and began chopping my vegetables.
As if the lack of verbal communication wasn’t enough, she continued to stand over me whilst I continued to cook my dinner, not wanting for whatever reason to sit down.
Twenty minutes passed and she still stood there.
I didn’t know what she wanted from me and really did begin to get a little disturbed by it. The sun fell behind the horizon and it became pitch black with the only illumination coming from the flames on my stove. My meal was by this point ready to eat and yet here she still was, forty minutes later or so. What to do?
She gave me a small bag with some cooked rice inside it and so I offered her some of my food which of course she declined. I then said goodnight and shook her hand whilst saying it was nice to meet you. She kind of held my hand until I quickly pulled it away and indicated that I was going to sleep. Still she didn’t move.
What could I do but get inside my tent? I climbed in and lay there eating my food whilst reading my book. I zipped up the inner door halfway as to appear not too rude and yet still, she stood there, a faint shadow in the darkness not two feet from my ‘door’. I have never felt so creeped out in my life.
Half an hour later and, with my dinner now finished I continued to read my book. I usually washed my kitchen stuff straight away but, what with the lady of the night hanging outside, I thought this could wait for the morning.
I read paragraph after paragraph and yet this shadow outside my tent wouldn’t move. She just stood there still and barefoot. Silent and wild haired. Strange is just too polite a word.
By now it had passed half eight, a time when I would usually be turning in for the night and I decided to poke my head just a little outside my tent in order to pretend to be reaching for my water. She had left. Thank goodness. I could at last wash my stuff and get some sleep. Two and a half hours she stood there in silence. It was quite simply one of the strangest experiences of the trip. I just hope stranger things aren’t to come.
Climbing ever higher through a national park the following morning, a car pulled over and after some chatter in English, I was gifted two large bottles of water and a whole bunch of bananas. This I could use a little more of.
I stopped at what I was sure was the top to take in the views before strapping on my helmet and flying down the other side where, 40 minutes later, I was greeted with a small town and where I decided to take shelter in a hotel for the night.
Alas the only cash machine in town didn’t accept my Dutch card thus I wandered down to another guesthouse where I found four foreigners sat outside.
I kind of like this in a strange way - being in this shitty situation with my finances and bank cards as I’m forced just to deal with it in any way I can. Thus it was that I found myself an hour later checking out of the hotel I had already checked into and sat down with these four foreigners, one of whom I transferred some money from my Dutch account to his French account and where I received fifty euros in Kip afterwards. I’m so very happy to have a European bank account as it makes things so much easier.
I decided that, since it was so very cheap and because it never stopped raining and I really don’t enjoy cycling in the rain, I would spend an extra day here generally just lazying about.
I was on the road the following day by 10:00 and pretty much spent the rest of the day passing through small wooden villages and climbing some seriously steep switchbacks before tumbling towards the centre of the earth just in time to start the whole process again.
I wanted to reach the town of Nong Khiaw within a couple of days as I knew that from that point on, the really tough days would be behind me.
It rained all day, but as it so often in this part of the world, small bamboo shelters were always on hand to provide cover just when I really needed it.
I arrived in Muang Kham just as the sun began to set, and not wanting to pay for another bed, was back heading west again before you could say “How many Oreo’s can you eat?” I found a place five km’s down the road where the tent went up under a tree and where I was sure I wouldn’t have any strange encounters during the night.
Off early again the next day as I wanted to get to Nong Khiaw as early as possible. A bungalow waited for me overlooking the river and I of course wanted to make the most of that.
I knew I had another monstrous climb ahead of me today but, once again, the gradients allowed me to remain seated so, despite it being incredibly tough physically, I was still feeling great. The climb still took up the entire morning though. As if to make my life even tougher, large parts of the road were missing seal again which made it all the more difficult to cycle on. I was once again covered in mud.
More quaint villages were traversed throughout the morning. Chickens and pigs darted out in front of me every five metres and the children hobbled towards me as they shouted hello.
As I approached Nong khiaw, a town famous for its caves and limestone cliffs, the surrounding landscape became ever more dramatic and my sense of excitement increased too. After almost two weeks since I had left Hanoi, I would once again be entering Falang land again. A land of plentiful food, accommodation options and, more importantly – lots of interesting people to talk to. I had a plan once I reached Nong Khiaw but that plan was soon to be irreversibly changed for the better. I always say in life you never know what’s around the next corner and this is certainly true of what happened next.