Like the Nile is for Egypt, like the Yangtze is for China, the Mekong river is for Laos. The mighty Mekong river is everything for the people of Laos. It is on, in and beside the Mekong that life is abundant. It takes only one glance at the impenetrable dense jungle hills to understand why such a river is so important to these people. It takes only a second look at our bicycles to decide that we will be taking a ride with the locals, by boat, slow boat!
The “slow boat” runs from the Thai border to Luang Prabang and takes two days. As the steady chug of the diesel motors plow through the caramel waters of the Mekong, you begin to question and marvel at how the Laotian people have built a way of life here. Undoubtedly, for centuries the Laotians have used the river to transport, trade and net fish. Strewn trees align the banks meters above telling tales of the Mekong’s brutal power. But today the sun is shining, and the waters are gentle. Occasionally, Distant high-pitched screams and laughter of children cut through the drawl of the motor. The children play at the waters edge where their village huts sit above on bamboo stilts within the dense jungle canopy. Smiling at the playful naked children, you can’t help but think, that to live here, one must be born here.
The Laotian people have had a difficult recent history. Laos is the most bombed country of the world, through any war. An estimated 2 million bombs that dropped on Laos during the secret war of 1964-73, naturally not all detonated. From this, children, farmers, and locals are still finding and suffering from these bombs today. Jasi and I both noticed the frequency of people, particularly the elderly, with missing or prosthetic limbs.
The country is also one of the poorest of the SE-Asian countries and is becoming aware of the benefits tourism can bring. We crossed such an example as we stopped roadside for a delicious mango. A lady approached us with a swollen and infected face. The infection was stemming from a wound on her cheek and she pointed to her cheek for us to help. We sadly couldn’t help this poor lady and it pains me to think of how she is coping now. Compared to Thailand, Laos seems 50 years behind and their way of life seems far more primitive. We likened the way of life here more alike Myanmar than thriving Thailand.
Laos was our first communist country of our trip. Our curiosity to understand more had me asking every person that spoke a few words of English. Unfortunately, the level of English here is just not sufficient enough to ask any juicy questions. Before the communist regime, the French controlled. The French have left a permanent stamp on Laos as reflected in their food. French patisseries line the major cities streets, baguettes stuffed with herbs and spices are sold at every corner and French architecture styles’ every significant street or prime location. It takes you back a moment as you enter through a patisseries door. As you enter, you leave behind a street crowded with buzzing scooters and your t-shirt swimming on your back in sweat. You close the door and turn to find a counter aligned with glazed tarts and the scent of warm croissants wafting in the air. 2 cultures intertwined into everyday life, separated by a patisseries door.
The Mekong had paved a relatively smooth path for us during our first week in Laos. Our plan was to head for Vietnam, and this meant leaving the Mekong behind and facing the rolling jungle hills. “The Loop” is a breathtaking stretch of road in central Laos and is a challenge normally undertaken by motorbike. With great struggle comes great reward we hoped. The sights on our way to Vietnam via “The Loop” were simply our most breath taking yet. Enormous rock faces framed endless rice fields, dense jungle and gorgeous butterflies kept us company and the cutest of children helped push our bicycles up slippery muddy slopes. We had never dreamed of such sights.
Entering Laos, our mapping devices told us of the incredible hills we had to cycle over. What our mapping devices didn’t tell us was just how sticky, humid and insect ridden the jungle can be. Riding endless curving uphills, your shirt is drenched within 30 mins, your eyes begin to sting from your salty sweat and strange little insects stick to you. The rolling storm clouds dance above bringing 30 mins of torrential rain, then clearing to a burning hot sun. Its like standing in a sauna for 8 hours a day and poring a bucket of water over your head every hour. Our decision to leave our tent in Bangkok as we tour South East Asia was our best yet. I couldn’t imagine finishing a day in this environment and then sliding my way into an even hotter tent.
There are times on the road, when we look across to each other, dripping with sweat and we meet eyes. We don’t need to talk, we both understand each other. “Why the hell are we putting ourselves through this?” are our thoughts. There are days on this journey and certainly a few in Laos where the physical exertion weakens the mind and has you contemplating the decision to push your bike up another hill. Over the past year of bicycle touring, I’ve developed my own little answer for this question. I’ve came to the following simple and logical conclusion. Wherever you go, whatever you do, whatever your luck may be, you will always have a job to do, a deadline of some sort or a problem arising. You’ve just got to learn to enjoy the uphills. Take the positives, make a plan, be grateful, do whatever you like, but physics will tell you that the uphill part needs a whole lot more energy than those sweet downhills, enjoy the ride up!
After a year of bicycle touring, witnessing the chaos on the road has become normal. We have become a little desensitized to what we would have described as ridiculous 1 year ago. To see a donkey dragging a cart full of chickens as a scooter drives by transporting a fridge, is nothing unusual anymore. However, there are still exceptions to our daily chaos. We were hitching a ride on a local truck over a mountain in Laos when a small girl onboard needed to go to the toilet. She was crying and motioned to her father the universal ‘crossing of the legs’ toilet signal. I expected the truck to slow and give the girl a chance to pee on the side of the road. Instead, the father held his 3-year-old daughter out the back of the bouncing truck, travelling at 80 km/h. Nobody in the truck was concerned and they only giggled and pointed at our shocked faces.
Laos is a land untouched and as long as the jungle thrives, it will remain that way. The people along the Mekong have developed a simple way of life. The remoteness and simplicity of these villages we encountered, particularly as we journeyed by “slow boat”, provokes thought to the complexities we have in our world, or just how important it is to stay connected. As mentioned Laos has had a tough past and it is still recovering. The people seem happy and only returned smiles and friendly giggles to us. The lack of English sadly limited our friendly encounters to just that, a smile, and a hello. The dense jungle and abrupt mountains of Laos means future development in this country will be slow. This intense landscape acts as both a hindrance and protective barrier for the future of Laotians. A hindrance to a steady supply of medicines and education channels but also as a barrier to protect the people from western influences impacting their content and simple way of life. There is no doubt that Laos will continue to be a land of untouched beauty for years to come.
Talk to you soon,
Matt and Jasi