Archive for the 'On tour: Laos 07' Category

Photo-Story Laos

We didn’t manage to post any pictures of Laos while we were on the road, so here are a few from the trip, with captions. We’ve also worked in plenty of others into previous posts, so sift through if you want to see any more. We’ll do the same for our travels in SW China in the next week or so.

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The roads were generally very quiet in Laos, even Highway 13, which links Luang Prabang and Vientiane. Certainly peaceful enough to ride two by two and chat.

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It was December but still, the sun beat down, making the climbs tougher than we expected. The first couple of days rollercoasted up and down from one valley into another. Up and up…

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Then back down again. Fast and swoopy. Road bike territory.

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We had our own on board sound system, so didn’t need the cheap copy Karaoke CDs and VCDs sold in every roadside truckstop. Laotians like nothing better than to crack open some beers and (drunkenly) sing the night away.

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There’s plenty of fresh fruit on sale too. You’ll need to sharpen those bargaining skills, as prices spike at the sight of Westerners. Tourism has mushroomed in the last five years (apparently in 2007 it was over 1.4 million, up 37 percent from the year before), with a slew of negative side effects on Lao culture – yet Laotians are still a very welcoming people.

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Religion is predominantly Buddhist, with some Animist tendencies too. Offerings, often in the form of a soft drink (and in this case some deodorant), keep spirits happy and thirst quenched. And clean. Continue reading ‘Photo-Story Laos’

Heading Home – and a Merry Christmas too!

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It’s in the detail: 50 Cent and the Buddha..

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And a rich man.

We’ve begun the first leg of our non-bike-propelled travels to get us home. Not quite in time for Christmas, but close enough to see all the Gilbert Clan. Perhaps that’s the best way to do it (-;

With this in mind, here’s out last post:

After crossing the border from Laos into Thailand, a night train whisked us to Bangkok in relative comfort and luxury. As sunlight shone in fingers across the cityscape, we chugged in fitfully for the last few kilometres, pausing at small stations as we cut through the urban sprawl that rings any Asian metropolis as big as this; under soaring concrete overpasses and glinting high rises, across stagnant canals and past squat, crooked and makeshift wooden homes. Segregated by the narrowest of darkened alleyway-tunnels, these houses opened out directly onto the rails and all the detritus that’s quite literally excreted from the trains. People wandered along the tracks to work, or sifted through garbage to see what new offerings the night had brought. Clothes hung out to dry in the humid air, between the dead-headed leaves of banana trees and under palm trees, combing the air in the breeze. Ladies pushed carts loaded with leaf-wrapped delicacies, plying their wares with drawn out, nasal cries – “Sa-ba-di-kaaaa”. Dogs and men yawned as they awoke. Continue reading ‘Heading Home – and a Merry Christmas too!’

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. Continue reading ‘A road to Vientiane – The End’

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.

Continue reading ‘South to Vang Vieng, B52s and Bruce Springsteen’

Not quite Apocalypse Now…

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Come morning, we board the boat for our Mekong river journey. Us, and perhaps a hundred or so other foreigners, which comes as something of a surprise after the relative remoteness of our travels so far. Yep, we’re firmly back on the tourist grid, except that this one is of the budget backpacker variety, rather than the mass Chinese flag-waving tours of North Yunnan.

Also a surprise are the sardine-can conditions on board. We’re beginning to learn more about tourist and local price distinctions in Laos, and the growth spike of tourism in a country that ranks amongst Asia’s poorest. Our tickets are 9US each, plus 5US for each bike, which certainly ensures a decent revenue from each boat trip. Which is fine, except for the fact that there’s no qualms about packing us in. The hard wooden seats are so closely spaced that even locals can’t sit comfortably. Most of the taller men adopt a kind of foetal position, contorting themselves into different shapes as limbs go numb. Meanwhile, our bikes are roped up on the roof. Luckily I have a quick check, as I realise the panniers have been lobbed on beside them, ready to slither off as we chicane through the first set of rocks…

Including the Mekong, which runs the length of the country, there are over 4000km of navigable waterways in Laos. Up until recent years, these channels were the main source of trade and travel. But as the road network improves – largely down to foreign investment – most locals prefer a cheaper, bumpier bus ride over the uncertainties of river transport, given the fluctuations of the dry and rainy season. Nowadays, it’s the romantic lure of travelling the Mekong that keeps businesses going, catering predominantly for tourists – as we’re finding out.

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BeerLao: Lifeblood of Laotians and Aussies alike. Continue reading ‘Not quite Apocalypse Now…’

Sunset on the Mekong

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It’s a two day, easy ride from Udomxai to Pakbeng, stopping en route in the small village of Muang Beng, where we find the perfect, simple, family run guesthouse we’d envisaged. A basic, spacious room, a rickety wooden veranda and a restaurant nearby that serves up ‘fur’ – Vietnamese noodles – and banana fritters and papaya for desert. The ideal cyclist’s pitstop.

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Our terrace: the perfect place to kick back after a day in the saddle.

Pakbeng is our first step onto the SE Asia backpacker ladder, as it’s an overnight stopping point for the slow boat from the Thai border to the popular hangout of Luang Prabang. There’s not much to it. A narrow street lined with markets, restaurants, guesthouses and shops, that drops right down to the sandy shores of the Mekong. But like everywhere on the tourist trail, its thirst for tourism is growing, and it uncomfortably flits between the local, devalued Kip and the hard currency of the tourist dollar . Outside a shack, a sign reads implausibly: Internet. High Speed. Broadband. As unlikely as it sounds, I head over to check it out, finding three computers under dustcovers, in a room shared with a thriving hairdressing salon. ‘Tomorrow’, comes the reply to my enquisitive glance. Somehow, I doubt it, and I’m kind of relieved too.

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Poor little fellows: roadside snacks served on a banana leaf.

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A battered old Laotian number plate. Continue reading ‘Sunset on the Mekong’

Trouble in da jungle (Part 2)

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‘Look at that boys, it’s a 29er. He’ll never find spares round here, mind.’

(continued from our decision to head off the beaten trail…)

So there we all were, full of the beans of life, marvelling over the beauty of the landscape, our memorable night in the stilt house, the mounds of sticky rice we’d eaten and those rather magnificent, bare breasted hill tribe women who’d visited that morning.

And then, just as we forded a river and I rode through a muddy puddle, it happened: Boooooooom.

No, thankfully not exploding ordnance from the war. It was my rear inner tube shredded to bits, and the tyre popping clean off the rim. And on closer inspection, things didn’t look good at all. The whole rim had all but split in two – a tectonic-like crack had spread around it, warping the wheel into an S, making even pushing the bike impossible…

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Above: not a happy wheel…

Continue reading ‘Trouble in da jungle (Part 2)’


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