South to Vang Vieng, B52s and Bruce Springsteen

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Highway 13 runs south of Luang Prabang and is the last challenge on our ride. Rising from the hot and humid banks of the Mekong, its backed by canine teeth mountains and sharp limestone peaks straight from the pages of Middle Earth, where one jagged silhouette blurs into another. In the morning, clouds lie marooned in the fertile valley folds below, as we climb one pass after the next, briefly skirting along ridges before swooping down once more to cross a river. Then we huff back up again, slowing to a crawl as the sweat beads down, maliciously stinging our eyes – and this is one of the cooler times of the year… Water stops come courtesy of the communal taps in villages, most of which bare the insignia’s of various aid agencies – in fact, 10 percent of the country’s GDP is provided by foreign aid. There, men with slim, toned muscles, and women with sarongs clinging to their petite but shapely bodies, wash in the sun and wave as we pass.

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High Five! Laotian kids have borrowed from the book of Borat, high-fiving us as we rode by.

The villages themselves are invariably small and simple; most houses are little more than bamboo huts. Tobacco, grasses, chillies and fruit are being dried out in the open, and enormous, spiky-skinned jackfruit hang down from trees, straining their branches. Like bird baths, miniature golden temples – the size of doll’s houses – are set on plynths fixed to posts; offerings include soft drinks crawling with ants, sticky rice and even cologne. By afternoon, we’re melting in the heat haze. But a relay of smiles keeps us riding. Girls dance to the music from our on-board sound system as we pass, and everywhere, children wave and call out the Laotian greeting with impressive, relentless enthusiasm. Babies are scooped off the ground and their tiny hands flapped into action by smiling mothers. All this attention is phenominal. We pull over for bananas sold on bamboo tables by the roadside, short and stumpy bunches like a fat man’s fingers. Or to refresh ourselves with sweet, sticky papaya that runs down our chins.

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Firy colour: chillies drying in the sun.

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There are plenty of mud-caked water buffalos…

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…but fish is the main source of protein in Laos.

The road is well paved and even though it links the country, it’s still quiet enough to cycle two by two. Buses and trucks are remarkably courteous, waiting before overtaking, or peeping lightly on their horns – a miracle after the noise barrage of China. At Phu Khoun, a highway joins us from Phonsavan and the Vietnamese border to the east. It’s easy to forget that only a few years ago, attacks from Hmong bandits, driven by hunger and poverty, were fairly common along this stretch of the route – with several fatalities, including two Swiss cyclists. These same Hmongs fought the Viet Cong with the Nationalists and Americans, but were left in the lurch when the peace treaty was signed. Those who could fled abroad, or were relocated in the US; there’s a large community in Minnesota, of all places. The ones who were left to fend for themselves sought refuge in a concrete US military camp that was once the largest in Asia – Laos’ infamous restricted zone – receiving financial help from Hmong communities abroad, until the majority were flushed out by the government a few years ago. Riddled with landmines and unexploded ordnance – lying as it by the VC’s Ho Chi Minh supply trail, which tunneled in and out of the Vietnamese and Laotian border – it’s not an area most tourists choose to visit, for good reason…

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Some fifty kilometres short of Vieng Viang, and the scenery notches up in beauty. One big jungle-covered nodule after another rises high above the canopy. Then the road leaves the mountains and enters a wider valley to follow a clear, shallow river, lined with tendrils that sway above the waters. Fish is the main source of protein in Laos, and most of the kids are heading home from an afternoon’s hunting. A small group ride silently alongside us on their singlespeed bicycles, their feet wildly churning the air to keep up, before slamming their bare feet on the rear tyre to bring the bikes to standstill in a puff of dust. Tanned and wearing nothing but their briefs, Cousteau-style diving masks are tipped back on top of their heads, and in their small hands are homemade spear guns. The design is simple – a piece of wood whittled down into the shape of a gun, with a thick rubber band and a wooden arrow set with nails. We’re given a demonstration; judging from the line of fresh fish that hang from their handbars, they’re effective too.

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Vang Vieng itself is less impressive. As we pull up to town, Bruce Springsteen’s ‘We built this city on rock and roll’ comes thumping out of a speaker in a riverside restaurant, into the heavy, evening air. The lyrics seem cruelly ironic, given the town’s wartime past. The main road is bolt straight, as it was built around an air strip for B52 bombers; now it’s lined with one tacky restaurant after another, bright and neon in the dusky light. It feels like we’ve stumbled across a riverside version of a Thai beach party hangout. The shops are packed with board shorts and singlets. Straight away, we’re handed a flyer that sums the place up. ‘Come and get wasted at the Rising Sun. Drink like a fish. The price is like water.’ As we look around for a place to stay, everyone is heading out for a beer after a day’s tubing on the waters – which, as it transpires, involves bobbing down the river, and stopping for yet more beer en route froom riverside bars blasting techno music.

Luckily, Christof has given us the address of a calmer spot in town. A narrow and rickety, hundred metre long bridge leads us to the opposite bank, springing up and down as we ride across it. There, we find a cottage that simply can’t be beaten for views. It’s sunset, and an orange, luminescent glow slips over the mountains, our faces and our sunburnt arms. There’s no better time to admire the massive, naked limestone peaks behind us; pale, bleached trees try and cling to the steep walls, like climbers clinging for life.

We park up the bikes, order a papaya shake, and get ready to relax…

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It really was a rickety bridge. Note merry floating revellers too.

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And that papaya shake tasted good too…

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4 Responses to “South to Vang Vieng, B52s and Bruce Springsteen”


  1. 1 samakomlao December 31, 2007 at 9:26 am

    Nice photos and story. Thank you for sharing

  2. 2 otbiking December 31, 2007 at 9:43 am

    Thanks for the link Samakomlao. That’s an interesting news/forum site you have there.

  3. 4 Owen September 13, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    Good story! But Bruce didn’t do “We Built this City”…. that was Starship.


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