Laos – Evrim and Elif Yiğit Tour Journals, February 18, 2012
And Laos; unceasing hills, roads ascending for kilometers, immense view and children shouting “Sabaidie” and running from behind you as you’re climbing. This was all I could recall about Laos from my previous tour 3 years ago. Elif and I were speaking about this as we were drinking our beers facing to Laos, sitting at the other side of Mekong River near the border of Laos. Our plan with Laos was to spend a month up on the mountains and look for new roads. However there are only 13 roads in Laos and some of these roads are completely or half distorted. If you get on a road looking for adventure without gathering enough information, you may have to put up with days of struggle in dust and soil. Just because of this, instructions we gathered from the cyclists we’d met in Thailand who had toured in Laos will be quite helpful for us.
Next day I find a repairer and maintain my bike before crossing the border. It’s really easy to find the necessary tools to clean up your bike, open up the hubs and apply fresh grease in a simple repair shop here. We purchase a couple of spare brake pads and sleep early for the next day.
Before crossing the border, we have a more fulfilling breakfast as our final in Thailand. Food is more expensive and more of poor quality so we’re aware that we’ll miss the food we ate in Thailand in 1-2 weeks. As we’re having our coffee, we get lucky and a cyclist arrives to the 7/11 store just across us. When two cyclists meet, they always have some information for each other. Our luck is that this English cyclist has just come from Laos and rode through the new roads we’d wanted to follow. As we sit together and drink something, maps are opened up and exchange some information. My nice memories about Laos revive thanks to this cyclist we’ve recently met who has just come from Laos. This coincidence reminded me of the cyclists we’ve met in Mae Hong Son as we were having breakfast before the tough climbing stage which would have lasted 4 days. They’d provided us some precious warnings at the last minute, half an hour before we start our trip as well.
The policeman at the border is quite cheerful. He offers us some candies, smiles and makes jokes on cycling; another instance of unceasing Thailand joy. We cross the border by a small boat. Two bikes and 3 people, that’s the whole capacity of the boat. Since we have visas for Laos from before, we don’t waste much time at the border. I just exchange a small amount of money and get a two fingers wide bundle of bills in return.
The hotel I’d stayed in before got more expensive this time, so we prefer to stay in a new cheaper place 2km away from the city. Because we crossed the border late, we have to spend the night in this border town. Because next town is 120km away from here and in order to reach there, you have to climb for 2000km.
We wake up early and get on the road. Even if Laos is pretty hilly, ascents are very easy to handle. Roads usually treat you gently with 8% incline and gifts you with an incredible view as it carries you above. If you want to make this journey even more unforgettable, I recommend you to tour around here in a rainy season. Because the nature will present you indefinite colors under a bright sun as it’s cleansed by rain. Climbing doesn’t begin immediately. During the first 20km you cannot even feel the incline and the weather is cold. We cannot get warm until 10:00am. In 2-3 hours, shows up the real thing but with the incline of 8%, our pace gets fixed around 12kmph. As the sun begins to ply us, we take a break at a diner with a river view in a small village. There’s also a lodging option in this place which’s at precisely the 60th km. If you don’t feel ready, you’ll have to find this recently opened diner and ask for a place to stay. However we decide to move on. This 120km stage of Laos is in fact a “welcome” part. It’s one of the easiest ascents in Laos. Here Laos roads are like as if they want to warn you. It tries to say go back right now if you cannot make it, because if you cannot do it now, you’ll be quite regretful onward. We get through the 120km quite easy. We stay in the bungalows I’ve stayed in before. It had been one of the most pleasant lodgings of Laos but now it’s winter and even if you feel the 40°C during the day, nights are ice-cold. They don’t have a water heater so you have to shower with very cold water. As I feel like flames are going out of my body after I get off my bike, even if it’s really hard to have a cold shower, I feel fresh after I’m done. Our neighbors are a German couple touring by motorbike. Even if they had come through the same roads as we did, there’s quite a big difference between us. Riding through the same roads two different two-wheeled vehicles and making such quite different senses about it seemed interesting to me. Somehow even if motorcycled travelers experience the country more than the ones riding by bus, they’re away from everything to some extent. Cyclists always raise a characteristic of being like a local and eat whatever they’re eating. If you’re riding a motorcycle then lots of things seem dirty to you. Always drinking water from an enclosed bottle, not eating everywhere, stay away from traditional food in some extent, eat western food if possible and not staying everywhere, always bringing your sheets and pillow with you… If you’re riding a bicycle, this has to change or you cannot proceed in this geography. Water, food, sleeping, what they eat, what they drink, where they sleep, you have to do the same. That’s why you get closer to the country and the people.
The stage of first 2-3 days isn’t the most pleasant road of Laos. Roads are of good quality but it’s a little too wide to be in the nature. Climbing is in fact climbing but the view you’ll see on the top isn’t indefinite. We come to a town called Luang Nam Tha on our 2nd day. It’s become one of the centers for tourists in Laos. There are too many lodging options. The market is pleasant and there are too many foreigners. We check a couple of GHs and learn about our lodging options. As I recall, I’d previously stayed in a place a little out of the town which had a much better ambience than the ones in the town. Elif and I get off the town for 500m and find the GH I’d stayed before quite easily. It’s in fact is a GH as green and as cute as I recall. Next day even if we want to keep on and go to Muang Sing village near the Chinese border, we prefer not to ride. We have to stay away from our bikes for a while and rest our legs for the steep ascents ahead of us after the climbing stage of 120km two days ago. These free resting days are great dangers in Asian countries where you can find delicious food. When you’re riding a bicycle, not only your legs but all muscles on your body work, especially your lungs as you breathe deeply and your stomach that reached an infinite gluttony. Here during these free days as you’re wandering around the markets, there will be such tasty deserts to side your coffee, fried bananas, appetizers made from sweet potato or sweet beans, nutty blends wrapped in rice dough, deserts with coconut or green tea, fried balls with various fruit blends cooked in some kind of a pastry “batın koo”, jello poured on top of slimly planed ice, coconut milk, various Chinese deserts made by various fruits will be the best friends of a hungry stomach. If you aren’t fulled up, a wide range of meals, soups, seafood, pork, chicken, veal, goat’s meat, buffalo meat or vegetable dishes may allure you. If you prefer a wider range, you can have a feast with the ones I tasted; lizard, spider, worm, grasshopper or the ones I didn’t want to try; dog, crocodile, snake, mole, bat and various wild cats. Here may be the country that eats the most differen kinds of animal species. The reason of this is without a doubt isn’t a strange palate. And just because of this, to blame these people because of the different animal species they eat will be a huge shame and injustice.
The town called Muang Sing is 40km away and there’s a ramp that’ll slow you down if you’re going there by bike. As you get into the town you encounter a strange ambience. Everywhere is caked with dust and it’s everywhere is red of a tone of earth as the dust that motorcycles whirl, Laos women walking along the road, children and Buddhist priests make this scene even stranger. It reminded me the movie “Mad Max” which Tina Turner acted in. We find a comfortable hotel in our dusty town. At night, it’s quite dark outside, there aren’t any illuminations in the town except for the motorcycles passing by. Lots of towns are dark like this in Laos. Except for a couple of major towns, there’s no electricity for 24 hours in towns of Laos. In some small settlements, electricity is produced by a generator between 6-8pm in the evening. Even if the towns have electricity, it’s quite limited. In short, Laos cannot afford to put lamp posts on the streets, or to lighten them up and illuminate the towns. Laos has dark nights.
After staying in Sing for a night, we go all the way back again. After resting for a night in Nam Tha we hear to Oudom Xai where I’ve stayed for 2 times before. I’d mentioned that we’d always encounter too many cyclists in Laos to Elif. We’ve been staying here nearly for a week and I began to be ashamed since we haven’t seen even one cyclist. As we’re heading to Oudom Xai from the road number 3, at last we encounter a cyclist at the 20th km. Since he’d been to colder countries he has a big amount of load, it resembles more a truck. As we’re chatting, he says that there are two more bikers ahead of us and they’re going to the same direction as we do. Since he’s near to the end of his tour, he’s glum as he tells us about where he’s been to. We wish each other good luck and end our conversation of bikers that come from different directions. Bikers who’d been half an hour ahead of us are now an hour ahead after the conversation of half an hour. So we miss our chance to catch them. Even if Odom Sai was the town we’d been planning about, it’ll be quite back-breaking to try to reach there in a day. I guess the total distance is 130km and it’s of course hilly. So we come to the intersection of road number 3 and number 13 and decide to go to Chinese border from there. There’s a town 6-7km before the Chinese border, even if we could find a lodging there, there’s nothing to do in that town so we decide to go to the border and check the hotels over there. I’d like to remind you that since nearly a week before, we haven’t seen any triplex buildings, haven’t stayed in a concrete room and the towns, villages were all been formed by bamboo or teak trees.1km remaining to the border, as we’d given up our hopes to see a town, as we get closer to the top of the ramp we’re climbing, suddenly a town shows up consisted of big concrete buildings, hotels and casinos. All buildings are multicolored and they have 7-8 floors. All buildings’ green, pink, orange walls are decorated with Roman style pillars and pillar tops. A great shock for us. You cannot encounter this scene even in Laos’ capital. A casino town. Made in China. Chinese constructed it but the town is nearly empty, like it’s been abandoned. We decide to eat Chinese food in a restaurant nearby. As we’re eating, 3 American cyclists, who’ve just come from China join us as well. While we’re having a nice conversation, another 2 bikers pass by us. The number of cyclists we’ve met so far made a total of 6 and I’m proved right about what I said on meeting many cyclists in Laos. This town doesn’t attract us much.However for the bikers from USA, town’s casinos are a lure. We say farewell to each other after we’re done eating and go 20km back to the intersection of roads number 3 and 13.There’re 2-3 GHs. We chat and eat with a Chinese tour driver who stayed in the same GH with us at night. This tour driver is an interesting person. He takes his customers to Asia’s unrecognised natural beauties of Asia and since he’s a good photographer, too, he shares his shoots of nature which are as beautiful as most people couldn’t succeed in shooting. During our conversation as two bikers who passed by during we were having dinner come to our GH. French couple had bought two gearless bikes for $5 from China, passed through Yunnan region with these and came to Laos. Girl’s bike was gearless and the boy’s bike had had 3 gears but it broke and now it only has 2. In all ways, both bikes are at least 25-30 years-old. Since it’s time to sleep, we wish them good luck and go to bed.
Next morning we begin to pedal from the famous road number 13 to Odom Xai. This road was built by the Chinese and China uses this road as a bridge to other Asian countries like Thailand and Cambodia. They want to build a bridge to the road number 3 between Laos and Thailand as well. If they manage to do that, Chinese traffic (billions of people) will flow to other Asian countries through Laos. Number of trucks in Laos seems like to be doubled already. Chinese trucks with their different colored and written license plates pass by you at full speed and prevents you to enjoy the beauties of Laos.
Now it’s time to ask “what’s it that makes a country a country?” Language, religion or race, what do you think? How about “what makes a country beautiful”? Why some countries seem ugly to us? What’s the difference in between?
Laos was a self-contained small but an unspoilt place. However China is a great threat for Laos. Their border is very strong and immoral. China had began to use Laos as a bridge for the last couple of years after some agreements. When I passed through the same roads 3 years ago, there were people of Laos inside the vehicles passing by. Laos people aren’t in a hurry, they’re calm. Lonely Planet says “If you’re in Vietnam, Cambodia or Thailand, tuk-tuk riders come after you all the time, ask if you’d like a tuk-tuk. If you’re in Laos and need a tuk-tuk you’ll have to wake the tuk-tuk driver up in the first place.” about Laos. 3 years before, I’d ridden with a cyclist as we’d been chatting while we were riding who I’d met on the road. After a while we’d noticed that there’d been a truck behind us and he’d been following slowly from behind us maybe for 10 minutes. As we’d cleared the road, he’d thanked us and passed by. Frankly I’d been a little ashamed. He was a driver from Laos who didn’t want to disturb us even if he had the space to pass by. But now… China had convinced Laos to use them as a bridge to cross other Asian countries. For that, they’d built nice roads for their cars to be able to go faster. (be sure that these roads’ quality China built in Laos is 15-20 years ahead of our country) There’s a busy truck traffic on these roads which are coming from China. Chinese truck drivers want food, Casino and women on the road. Laos has to find a solution to their desires. Chinese are noisy, they eat dirty and use everything dirty. Laos people already began not to like the Chinese. Furthermore Chinese built a couple of dams and others are incoming. They began to construct a new railway but Chinese wanted to build another casino town between Vientien and Vang Vien. Since Laos didn’t let this much, Chinese suspended the railway construction. In other words a foreign enemy is wandering around inside Laos, on their roads and fields and more Chinese transform Laos. Chinese are smart and know about commerce. They know that they can do whatever they want in a small and poor country like Laos. They build a road, they give away 5 but demand more, build a dam, provide electricity for the future casinos in Laos but take more than what they give from Laos people. That’s exactly what makes a country ugly. As you tour in Laos again after 3 years one can figure out why the roads are uglier now. Because Laos had had a pure body like a young one. But now there’s something injected to its body, running through its veins and poisoning its body; China. And as China and other foreign matters keep on transforming the body, Laos will be more poisoned and will become “addicted”. Right now Laos is uglier; more addicted, more spoiled, a contaminated body. And what’s known as a country is this “body”, not religion, language or race. If this body is protected, if things go inside the body don’t corrode this body, that body, that country survives.
We spend the bight in Oudom Xai and head to Mung Khua, a cosy village at the north of the country. This town is usually visited by foreigners who come to Laos from the north of Vietnam. In addition people come here from the region 100km south of here which’s quite touristy by boats. During my previous tour, I’d come here by boat and had gone to Oudom Xai by bike. This time we decide to stay in a different GH than the previous one. Since it’s located at the point where two rivers unite, the town is splitted by water. 3 sides of the main town is surrounded by water and most of the GHs you’ll stay has a river view. The GH we liked is at the other side of the river and has a location that enables you to see the river and the town behind it from where you’re sitting and connected to the main town by a wooden floored drawbridge which’s longer than 50m and has a width of nearly 2m. The owner of our GH is one of the sweet people of Laos and his speaking like “sit hiyııır, iiiit, drink viskiiii, sleeeep” causes us and other people staying in the GH to giggle. It’s so pleasant here that we don’t leave the GH for 2 days, eat, drink whiskey and enjoy the beautiful view. With the accompany of the home-made whiskey which our GH owner explains as “madır meeeyk, fadır diriiink” (mother make, father drink) we stay late until midnight with the other 3 people staying in the GH and chat.
After spending two pleasant days, we go back to Odom Xai. Even if Xai isn’t such a nice town, it has a diner where we’d eaten the best food of Asia so far. Because of this it’s like a dream to come back to this town at every turn and fill our stomach with delicious food. After a satisfying sleep with a full tummy, we feel ready for the 120km we’ll ride towards Muang Ngoy the next day.
There’s a steep mountain we have to climb over between Muang Ngoy and Xai. You have to climb with a nice incline for a long while but this road which had been a nice memory for me has been damaged for the last 1-2 years because of the rain and busy truck traffic. Even if the first 15-20km passed comfortable for us, the semi-earth, semi-asphalt road at the climbing stage complicates the bike ride for us and we get covered in dust beginning from the first kilometers. Since we’re challenging time and don’t know how much more of the road is distorted we try to progress instead of taking a break and rest. As we start descending, the road seems to get worse. Excessive dust melts down our brake pads immediately and we cannot speed up even if we’re descending. Until the 90th km of our way, we have to ride in dust for nearly 70km. As the turn we took at the last 20th km is a less common road (highway number 1C) it’s in good condition and it’s easy to proceed fast. Despite all mishaps we arrive to Ngoy 1 hour before it gets dark. We meet two of our friends who we’d been having fun saying “drink,whiskey,eat,sleep” and spent time with 2 days ago in this town. After we find a nice room and change, we meet them for dinner in the evening and continue our conversation from where we left.
The remaining part of our journey after here will be new thing for me, too. We’ll follow the road number 1C from west to east to Vietnam and we’ll descend for 100km following the road number 6 parallel to the Vietnam border. We’ll take a turn to the road number 7 from there and reach to Luang Prabang on Pongsavan. Luang Prabang will be our last stop in Laos. After resting there for a while, we’ll go to the Nan region of Thailand. We’ll cross the border from Muang Ngeun town. This part of Laos will be quite challenging for us. Because Laos is quite generous to cyclists in means of mountains and the highest ones are ahead of us. The second reason is that our road goes from paths where not lots of tourists visit and our last passage will be the most bombed region of Laos. Since we’re not in Laos right now and know that we completed that route in one piece, I know that you’ll not be concerned and I think I must inform you about some things. I don’t know if you know this but Laos is the most bombed country of the world.
The duration of bombing is 9 years.
Bombs consumed per person is 800kg.
Bombs per square kilometer is 2500kg.
Unexploded bombs (UXO) are more than your predictions: 288 million cluster bombs and 75 million bombs.
UXO’s annihilated between 1996-2009 is less than your predictions : 1 million
Today there are 74 million UXOs and if it goes like this, they need 14*74=1036 years.
Nowadays Laos has a population of 6 million and every day a person dies because of these unexploded bombs.
You may guess the total number of bombs from the informations above. 6 million * 800kg = 4800000000kg. You’re confused, aren’t you? It makes 4,8 million tons.
Click here for wiki : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unexploded_ordnance
Now another important point. These bombs aren’t dropped to Laos but to the closer side to Vietnam and especially to where we’ll ride for the next 10 days. Furthermore these bombs were dropped to the settlements where civil people were living (sorry USA doesn’t bomb innocent civilians) and roads. In Laos’ hilly geography, only 3 roads; highway number 1C, highway number 6 and highway number 7 lets you reach from one place to another. A big part of this 5 million tons of bombs were dropped on these roads. That’s why you cannot camp along the road. You cannot go to the bushes to pee. Even schools aren’t safe. Because they find tens of bombs in the school yards every year and they’re being annihilated. These bombs called UXOs are an ironic source of aid for poor Laos people. 5 million tons of bombs means aluminium, it means iron. Which means money for poor Laos people. The brand new business sector of Laos, which’s supported by USA is junk-dealing. Lots of people are making ends meet doing it, making money and sometimes die.
After all these I’ve told, I’d like to tell about our adventure of 10 days under another title. Because after learning about these, people start to evaluate things with a much different perspective. Farewell for now.