Thursday, 27 February 2014

Onto the Mekong

Bullet points

-Our journey in Laos has taken us south from Luang Prabang to Vientianne and onward through the cities of Thakek, Seno, Pakse to Don Khong Island on the Mekong River.
-We will soon cross into Cambodia and continue to follow the Mekong River southward.

  After a fun ride in the north of Laos, Luang Prabang proved a fun town to be stopped in for a couple of days. For the first time we laid eyes on the great Mekong river, already a phenomenal mass of water even this far from the sea and in the height of the dry season. With a population of 50, 000 it was big enough to provide us with a few treats and comforts and more importantly some bike replacement parts (again!). Being tucked amongst hills and at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers it all adds up to being a pretty pleasant place to hang out.

Mekong River from Phousi Hil, Luang Prabang.
Monks and Bamboo Bridge, Luang Prabang.
  Yet more hills awaited us as we set out again on the road south, each day consisting of at least one big climb and plenty of ridge top undulations, passing through villages of woven houses, some nice forest land interspersed with deforested slopes, and into dramatic limestone karst country. After three days we very suddenly dropped from the hills and exited out onto expansive flat lands like we’ve not seen in our whole year of riding. 

Enroute to Vang Vieng

Back into dramatic limestone country

Out onto the flatlands and long straights
Getting in the groove of flat land riding has proven to be quite a change, each day achieving many more kilometres but with less variety with which to stimulate the mind as we rolled on down into Southern Laos. In Laos there are two distinct seasons, wet and dry. Right now we are nearing the end of the dry season meaning that far from my misconception that all of South East Asia would be green and lush we have found a land that is dry, dusty and largely colored in shades of brown. To be honest we’d both say the recent days riding have held the least interest for us of our whole trip, yet we had a curiosity for this area and that curiosity has now been met, so we hold no regrets whatsoever. Even among the mundane there is plenty to observe and mull on…

In the north we loved seeing hoards of kids commuting to school together on push bikes.  Unexpectedly, from our short observations, motorbikes seem to be the more common mode of transport in the south, even amongst young school students! As the push bike is making a resurgence in much of the Western world I suspect here there will be a continuing trend toward racing around on a motorbike for some time yet. How the world swings in strange roundabouts!

What a beautiful sight!
 We rode with a group of really nice kids as they went home for their lunch break from school. We’ve come across very little English language in Laos (other than in tourist destinations) yet to our surprise in this relatively remote village these kids could all speak easily with us. I suspect it’s a result of one very motivated, committed and skilled teacher at the school. It’s quite phenomenal to think of the impact that this teacher will likely have and the opportunities that may well open up for these kids as a direct result. I’m not suggesting that speaking English is the be-all-and-end all, but let’s be honest with the world the way it is being an English speaker has huge advantages. What a reminder it is that a great teacher can have a big impact!
Joining the commuters.
To save ourselves a little time we took bus journey through some of Central Laos. We opted for the “local bus” rather than “VIP” bus in order to save $6.  The 350km journey, on well sealed, straight flat roads took 8 hours! Why? Breakdowns, re-loads, unloads, flaming vehicles blocking the road, picking up passengers from another broken down bus, and plenty of mystery stops with no explanation for anyone on board!

Road blockage. Eventually we raced by so we'll never know the outcome of this drama.
 Laos food isn’t too bad, we just find there’s not always enough of it to fuel our cycling engines. As our return to NZ gets ever closer I find food is becoming more and more of an obsession and several times now food crises have arisen! The greatest challenge is not simply the lack of food it’s just not quite knowing what food sources lie ahead. Will we get a hearty feed of eggs and rice and bananas for lunch, or will be left stranded with a measly little noodle soup?! The term ‘food security’ has taken on a new meaning for us!
Food crisis victim.
 I don’t know if it’s a result of natural atmospheric conditions or a consequence of all the burn-off that goes on at this time of year but each morning we see a stunningly beautiful sunrise. The sun glows orange through the haze and can easily be looked directly at. A pretty reward for those 530am wakeups!
Dawn beauty. Possibly a result of atmospheric pollution.
 Even amongst the northern hills many of Laos’ rivers are navigable by motorboat and so a strong river culture has developed. Now that we’ve reached the flatlands the Mekong has gained a huge volume, has widened, and is home to a larger population and a lot of boating. We’ve entered a river-life where commuters take ferries, tourists cruise on site-seeing vessels, and men buzz about casting their nets from small sleek craft to make their living and feed their families.

Ferry boats

Cruise boats

Work boats
 Sitting on Don Khong Island gazing over the river we pour over the maps in excited anticipation that we will now more or less follow this river to it’s end point, the Mekong Delta in the South China Sea. The river began it’s journey on the Tibetan Plateau and runs 4350km to the sea. We too began our journey on the Tibetan Plateau but by the end of it in just three weeks will have taken a slightly more convoluted journey to the South China Sea…via Morocco!

Final stage to Don Khong Island, Mekong River.

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