Saturday, 15 February 2014

The Hills of Northern Laos

Bullet Points:

- We rode across the Vietnam - Laos border at Dien Bien Phu to enter northern Laos.
- We spent one week cycling on the quiet hilly main roads and then a dirt backroad to get to the city of Luang Prabang.
- Our route was Namnga, Muang Khoua, Pak Nam Noi, Oudomxay, Pakmong, Nong Khiaw, Viang Kham, Sam Soun, Pakxeng, Luang Prabang.
- After a couple of days resting in Luang Prabang we now coninue our ride south towards Vientiane.

A Laos Morning

I think a part of me will be
riding these roads.
This morning cool air on my bare arms and
breakfast in my belly,
a hill under my wheels. Heart, lungs, legs
working strong and clean.
Bright morning mist glowing around me,
lip prickling droplets as I turn my face upwards seeing
white giving way to hot blue.
Smells of vegetation,
sounds of birds and people
calling out as they work.
Happy sounds.
And around the corner the happiest – is it not
for us all? –
Children’s brightness, speedy hands waving, clear voices
calling, bare
feet running in the soft dusty verges.
Scurries and shining grins, a giggle.
And the youngest
watching steadily, small feet planted squarely on the earth,
all that is solemn in their large eyes and careful quiet
greeting. Fresh in reverence at the
sacredness of a meeting.
where I am riding these roads forever and
this morning.


First Impressions of Laos

The reports we'd heard had all been rave reviews: "so peaceful," "very friendly," "highlight of South East Asia,""cycling paradise." So it was with pretty high expectations that we crossed the border last week, if also with some uncertainty about just how well we could really find all these claims met. It took all of about five minutes to realise that there was a huge difference on the roads - a near absense of motorbikes, or of any traffic at all. It really was peaceful, and we relaxed very happily into cycling the empty roads with a backing track of bird song and insects in place of the motorbike engines and tooting. Any stress left from the last week oozed off us into the quiet bush-covered land.

This legend of Laos friendliness was the next one to be overwhlemingly verified. As we rode into the first bamboo and thatch village we were greeted with the greatest celebrity welcome one could wish for, with children leaping up from their games and appearing from behind or within huts to greet us with calls of "Sa-bai-deeeeee!" (hello), sometimes followed up by the boldest spokespeople with "Thank you! Okay!! I love you!" This was accompanied by the most physically rigourous arm waving I've encountered. The adults, while not so flamboyant in their welcome, were equally warm in their returns of "Sa-bai-deee" as they worked, cooked or sat gathered in groups in the shade of their doorways.

So far in northern Laos we have seen people living with less of the mod-cons than we encountered in neighbouring Vietnam. A lot of cooking is done over open fires, a large number of houses are built of natural materials (wood, bamboo, palm), loads are carried by foot and a lot of back breaking labour appears to be put into gathering and processing by hand certain plant crops. Interestingly, alongside this we have noticed a greater international presence, with offices of NGOs such as World Vision, European Union marked trucks, Chinese road and dam building projects and China-Laos partnership hospitals and buses. After our time here, we will watch with interest how Laos develops in the next years and decades. Laos was known from the 14th to the 18th century as "Xan Lang", which translates to "Land of a Million Elephants", and we've learnt that it's rich forests have also been home to tigers, bears, monkeys, gibbons, snakes, rhinos, bats and a multitude of birds. The government has set aside a number of National Biodiversity Conservation Areas in an effort to protect these, but of course there are also significant pressures from deforestation for timber and farming, population growth, hydroelectric projects and mineral exploration. While we have enjoyed the bush-clad hills and relatively clear looking rivers, we have seen some of these pressures and realised it is not quite the unspoilt jungle paradise I had half hoped to find.

The main two cautionary notes that sat alongside the rave reviews from cycle tourists were that in Northern Laos there are a LOT of hills, and that food can be a bit scant. So we entered the country well stocked up with Vietnamese snack bars and back-up instant noodles, but quickly embraced the local specialty here, sticky rice. We have marvelled at its incredible qualities. It sits in the stomach like a happy brick, leaving you feeling full even after its energy-giving properties have well expired. It has a wonderful clumping ability in its stickiness, so that it is best eaten as finger food, pulling off pieces and dipping them in chilli sauce. It is sold in half-kilogram lumps for 80cents a pop, and can be taken as a takeaway lunch in small plastic bags. We have also enjoyed omelettes, noodle soups and the occasional bread roll, but they can't compete with the fill-for-money qualities of sticky rice!

The hills have been formidable at times, but wonderful. We really are passionate hill-cycle tourers, to the point where I'm a little anxious how I will find the upcoming flat lands of southern Laos and Cambodia. The bicycles though will be glad of some flatter land coming up I think, with signs of wear and age now coming rather thick and fast. Although we have replaced Ollie's bottom bracket, the rims, brakes, pedals and tires are all keeping us on our toes! Anyway, before we quite hit those flat lands, we have three more days of spectacular sounding hills as we make our way south towards the capital city Vientiane. I can't wait!


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