A road to Vientiane – The End

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Children are everywhere, and never miss a wave or smile.

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Stack ’em high: cheap and easily sourced wicker is used for all kinds of goods.

Finally, as Cara and I leave Vang Vieng, the terrain calms down. The lumpy, hazy limestone backdrop is still impressive, but now the long climbs have been replaced by gentler rollers, which relax into an all but level, agricultural landscape. It’s been a while since we’ve ridden a flat road.

Still, when the short and stunted climbs come, they hurt. They should feel easy: our leg muscles are strong and sculpted from dozens and dozens of mountain climbs. But the sun syringes out our energy and salty sweat blots out our vision. My heart pounds in angry, head-thumping beats and my sweat-drenched arms are as slippery as eels.

Past cement works burping out fumes into the hot, sticky air, the traffic is now newer, faster. The latest, bodywork-pumped Toyota Hilux pickups, and even some sleek Mercedes sportsters streak past, and a couple of ridiculous civilian Humvees. There are wartime Willy’s Jeeps on blocks, and older flatbed minibuses too, locally converted into people carriers. Not in the European sense of the word. These ‘Jumbos’ heave both people and their produce, so loaded their chassis sags over balding tyres, gulping over every pothole. Jetties are welded on the back to handle the assumed overflow: wicker baskets with discontented chickens, lengths of rebar dragging in screetchy screams along the tarmac, even a moped or two roped down on the roof. Come school time, boys hang off the rails, or off each other, like a bunch of grapes swaying in the wind on every bend. Other school children are on their bikes, dismounting to push up the hills, which their simple, one-geared drivetrains can’t cope with. Girls ride, holding parasols to protect their faces from the sun. Here, dark skin is for peasants.

In fact, older farmers are still working the land, hauling bags using straps across their foreheads, their tiny frames belying strength drawn from a lifetime of manual work. It’s their faces that show their age, creased with the fine grooves of a record. Elsewhere, mothers work the rice fields, small babies hanging limply like little monkeys, tied to their backs by sarongs, shielded from the sun by conical hats. Laos borrows both from Theravada buddhism and animism – the belief in personalised souls in animals, vegetables and minerals. Spirits always need appeasing, so all along the road are birdbath mini-temples, sometimes with framed black and white photos of ancestors, and offerings – mainly rice and soft drinks – weather it be outside restaurants, homes, or an Esso garage. We cross paths with other cyclists, a young couple from Belgium and another from Germany, chatting easily but briefly, swapping info on the best places to stay, and routes to take.

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I hope the spirits have a bottle opener.

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Nam Ngum reservoir.

The signposts read 150km to go, but a detour onto a back road at Phon Hong eeks out another fifty, via Nam Ngum reservoir, famed for its hydroelectric dam. We spend the night in a small resort, where an old man with sallow, gaunt features and a clothes hanger body comes over for a chat in his family run restaurant. He’s learned English from the American company he worked for until ’74 – a year before the monarchy abdicated and the PDR was formed, when foreign firms jumped ship. A lot has changed since then. The once rich lake has been largely overfished. Now, exporting electricity to Thailand and Vietnam is big business, and a second dam is built further upstream. The reservoir is massive, peppered with islands, home to over thirty villages. There’s also a mansion of a Malay-backed casino an hours boat ride away, a den for Chinese and Thai gamblers. He talks about the nationalisation of the language, which only happened some ten years ago. ‘Now everyone can learn from each other,’ he says. Loas is split into ethic groups, depending on the altitude of where they lie in the country – the Low-Lao and High-Lao being completely different culturally. He seems pleased the mountain dwelling Hmong, seen as a wild, opium-growing illiterate folk, are being educated and relocated to grow rice in the low lying farms, while their forests are razed to the ground, and the trees exported to China. ‘Is it better now, since the fall of the monarchy?’ I asked. ‘Yes, 80 per cent better’, he smiles. After all, Laos has been embroiled in one tug of war and foreign occupation after another, so I guess any peaceful time is better.

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On our last morning riding, we pass by lily ponds with pink flowers, and stop for breakfast by a wat, with a tropical garden full of standing golden buddhas. It’s close to a wide river that’s glossy with deep, blue-green water. There’s a small restaurant opposite, serving up ‘fur’ – the staple dish. A large bowl of pale noodles and thinly sliced meat is served alongside a platter of lettuce, chives, mint, chillies and lime, which are then added to taste. This one has a treat of tasty fish balls in there too.

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This lady saw me taking a picture of my noodle soup, so whisked me off to her market stand for a portrait.

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Wats: gold-gilded Buddhist temples

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A novice monk on his way to the wat.

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Coconut stops. Way better than Coke.

Come lunch, we stop for papaya, finger-sized bananas and babyhead grapefruit. Coconuts sold at roadside stalls make a welcome change from the tepid water in our bottles. The top is lopped off with a machete, and the juice is drunk straight from the fruit with a straw. Then the shell is split in two; we scoop out the young jelly-flesh with spoons. To round off our fruit fest, we pull over in a dusty local market and buy a pineapple, its sweet aroma wafting out into the air above the rancid smell of blocked up drains. I hack at it with my knife, and throw the juicy peel to our fanclub of flies.

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Coming to an end: 82km to go and feeling a little sweaty.

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Open to tourism: a floating Carlsberg bar. I’ve a few friends who’d like that idea…

As we near Vientiane, our quiet road bloats into a three lane highway. But we’re just ten kilometres away, and we can sense the finish line, which thrusts energy into our tired limbs. Vientiane is the only city in Laos to actually feel like one, even if it’s as much European as it Laotian. Surreal is the sight of two Laotian women pushing a wooden cart piled high with Ferrero Rochet chocolates, across the road at a set of traffic lights, in the full heat of a tropical sun.

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In the UK, there’s Kwit Fit. In post communist Loas, there’s Che Guevara Tyres and Exhausts.

First we pierce an outer rim of oily mechanics’ grottos, then the manicured compounds of embassies and NGOs. It’s only as we pass the city’s French-influenced ‘Arc de Triomphe’ that the real physical and emotional relief – and the sadness – of arriving here sets in. It’s now innevitable. The culmination of several thousand kilometres of of hard riding – from the frigid, high mountains of Sichuan to the dank, sweaty, tropical plains – is now distilled down to just the few hundred metres that lie ahead. We’ve been reminiscing, pondering and analysing our journey all day, resurfacing and recounting each little scrap and snippet of memory to each other, yet it’s still hard to come to grips with it all being over.

It’s been a wonderful, fascinating and exhausting trip, and I can think of few ways to better the last couple of months we’ve spent riding through SW China and Laos.

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4 Responses to “A road to Vientiane – The End”


  1. 1 Jarrod December 25, 2007 at 8:56 am

    I rode the same route through Laos back in 2003 – thsnks for the great blog Cass, it brought back plenty of memories for me! I have been reading your entries from back when you did Sydney to London and have always enjoyed your writing.

  2. 2 otbiking December 25, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    Thanks very much Jarod.

    Mind you, I think I spent way too much time in internet cafes… I’ll try and get round to retro-posting some pictures soon from the comfort of my home.

    Any bike travels planned for the new year?

  3. 3 Ward and Manja December 26, 2007 at 11:07 am

    Hi Cass and Cara,
    You’ve got a nice site here! And the descriptions are, well, I can see what you’re writing.
    We’re still enjoying Luang Prabang: massage, cooking class, temples, … chill.
    When we’re back home and we dream about cycling in India, we’ll know who to contact ;-).
    By the way: we’ve put you on our website in the section Travel Buddies… Look here: http://azietrip.be/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogsection&id=28&Itemid=57

    Keep up the good work there!
    Enjoy!
    Ward and Manja

  4. 4 otbiking December 28, 2007 at 10:43 am

    Great to hear from you guys. We’re back in cold (but not yet rainy) UK… The detour to the reservoir was really nice, thanks for suggesting it, and the last ride to Vientiane was hot hot hot!

    Enjoy your travels in 08,

    Cass


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