After many weeks of touring, I now find myself, once again, in a place where people drive on the right side of the road. I had pretty much gotten to the point that I preferred the left side of the road, but I guess it is nice to be back in a more familiar place. I am a bit better at making left-hand turns on my bike…perhaps this is why it felt easier to get onto the highway in India and Thailand. More natural… But that ship has sailed. Now I am back to the real world.
My route through Laos is a zig-zagging slice accross the northern tip of the country that will take me from Houayxay, Laos to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam. En Route, I pass through Vienphoukah, Luang Namtha, and Oudom Xay. None of these cities were places I’d heard of before a few days ago, and none are very big when compared to the larger cities in other countries. The places I’ve visited here are gorgeous. Very peaceful, foggy, hilly, and green. You will see a guest house or two, a restaurant or two, big green mountains and valleys, and sounds of life: crickets, chickens, things moving around in the grass, and turkeys. You see huge turkeys on the side of the road here, which is interesting. As well as ducks of all varieties. Laos is, in a way, the land of many varied interesting domesticated birds. I was approaching a chicken and her chicks on my bicycle along the road, and when got to within twenty feet or so, the chicken ran to the other side. Her chicks followed her. This experience has kept me thinking for the past couple of days.
Since opening the borders to tourism in 1990, Laos has been pushing hard to bring in more tourists. The tourism department here in Luang Namtha, is publishing material that explains that development of tourism in rural parts of Laos – wildlife reserves, and rural areas where most small villages are – will help to combat severe poverty that is affecting much of the country.
Tourism has been an avenue that has allowed them to get financial support from E.U. member nations as well as from New Zealand to build some infrastructure to draw more tourists and to fight poverty. I do not know how well this is working, but I do know that there are lots of options – at least in Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, and Vientiane – if you are interested in trekking, meeting members of local tribes, seeing Gibbons, learning to cook Lao meals, and otherwise getting involved in a kind of tourism that is designed to support Lao culture and build it up. It might be kind of like seeing a sleepy backwater version of Thailand, before it boomed and became really popular. Hopefully it becomes popular enough to accomplish the goals of fighting poverty – a problem which is visible all over the place in the villages between Hoayxay and Luang Namtha. If you want to visit Laos, it seems as though it might be a great way to have a great experience while working to fight a serious problem.
Laos is a spectacular place…sort of a magical forest kingdom. Don’t get the wrong idea though, it is the Laos Peoples’ Democratic Republic. I was speaking only in the figurative sense. The experiences here have been beautiful during my first two days. In many ways the landscape reminds me of India: lush, green, lots of agriculture. Some of the people dress similarly, with men wearing colored cloth wrapped once around their waists in order to keep cool in the heat. Women dress differently from any place I’ve yet seen. The fashion in this part of the country seems to involve black (or dark) skirts with embroidery at the hem. There are also head dresses that are difficult to describe. I don’t really know any other fashion info yet…
People of all ages will shout variations of “Hello” as I ride by – either “Hello” or “Bye Bye” (which, I believe, they shout in order to communicate “hello,”) or, most common of all: “Sa-Bai-Dee!” which means hello in Lao(tian?). The variations which are possible within “Sa-Bai-Dee” are amazing: “Sa-Bai-DEEEEeeeee!!!!” It occurs to me that “Bye bye” may in fact be “Bai Bai” – sort of the way that in English, “hello” is shortened to “hi.” Perhaps. Perhaps not! Whatever the case, I believe that Laos may have the best greeting word in the world, and the people here seem to be aware of it. Just compare for a moment – “hello” vs. “Sa-Bai-Dee!” The latter is definitely way better. People here make sure that visitors do not leave without learning how to say hello in Laos – and now you know how to say hello in Laos as well. “Sa-Bai-Dee!”
The countryside here is very hilly by comparison with Thailand, which made for a bit of a difficult transition, but fortunately I had gotten a bit of a heads up on the hills before arriving so I was not completely blind sided. The nice thing about a day of climbing is that you finish your day higher than you started. This means cooler air. For the first time since being in western Turkey about four months ago, I put on my long-sleeved shirt, long underwear, ski hat, and a light jacket. After a day of getting hammered by torrential rains, and climbing into these mysterious foggy green hills, I found myself quite chilled by the time I arrived at the Mountain Lodge Guest House in Vienphouka.
I opened my wallet as I walked my bike, shivering, onto the grounds of the Lodge, and explained that the money was all I had (it was something like 60,000 Laotian Kip…perhaps $8 or $10 U.S. I still don’t know the exchange rate, so things are vague here). As I held out my tens of thousands of Kip, the inn keeper reached out from under her umbrella with a smile and plucked a 50,000 Kip note – “for the bed!” And then I asked, “Is there food?” She grabbed a 5,000-Kip note: “For breakfast!” Okay…I can wait until morning to eat I thought… I have chips and things… She returned a few minutes later with a candle, and I walked my bicycle up onto the balcony of my own teak-wood cabin. At least, I think it was teak. I am no expert in exotic woods. Whatever it was, it was only wood and nothing else. It smelled good. I parked the bike on the balcony as the heavens continued to dump unholy quantities of water down from above, and quickly took shelter from the downpour. The innkeeper returned once more to open a window in the small house, which made it sort of light inside. The light switches inside did not work – I assumed that there had been an outage during the tempest. Two mosquito nets were arrayed to defend the beds in the room from whatever nastiness might decide to make a pass during the night. After my Spider experience, I was happy about this. I relaxed and began the somewhat long process of arraying my clothes to become somewhat less wet during my 14 hours at the Mountain Lodge.
2 hours later, the electricity in the room suddenly lit up. “Yeah!” I said. Two minutes later, the young woman knocked at the door, and when I answered: “Dinner is ready sir.” “What? Now?” “YES! Sir!” “Oh…Okay! I’m coming…right now!” Didn’t know there would be dinner…should have saved all of my donuts…and chips…but will eat again! I opened my wallet again and she plucked a few bills from my now-thin collection. I had foolishly started my journey across Laos with only $18 U.S. (The sum of the spare change that I bought from a guy who was trying to exchange Kip in Thailand, and my own spare change from Thailand that I converted after arriving in Laos). I started out not knowing the exchange rate, and knowing that I would not likely find an ATM until Luang Namtha…somehow I started anyway. Idiot! If you ever go on a bicycle tour (or just walk around town), here are 3 great rules that will make life a lot easier:
1) Always have cash.
2) Always have food.
3) Always have water.
Back to getting food…
She handed me an umbrella. We walked through much-lighter rain (it had lessened since my arrival, though a kind of total darkness had now fallen on the Mountain Lodge). After a 45 second walk across gravel pathways, we arrived at the kitchen/dining room. It was a concrete slab with 4 picnic tables, and a few small lights – very open air. The nice thing about Mountain Lodge is that it has the best view imaginable of Vienphouka. Vienphouka at night is almost completely black. A town of what must be about 5,000 people (guess) and only about 10-15 lights visible altogether. It is an amazing, mysterious experience up there, looking down on this city through wisps of fog, sitting at my table alone, still feeling a bit chilled, but dry and wearing fleece, a hat, warming up, and having just filled up a cup of coffee. My table had a single candle burning and a deep purple table cloth. I do not know if they intentionally go for the mystical experience at the Mountain Lodge or if they achieve it simply by virtue of circumstance. I suspect that it is more circumstance than effort – perhaps this is why it is such an interesting place.
I quickly discovered the nature of the electricity at Mountain Lodge. A small one foot by one foot generator was humming in the corner, powering all of the light bulbs at Mountain Lodge. I was impressed by this small generator because although I did not count a huge number of bulbs at the Lodge, (perhaps 20 or 30) they were spread out over a distance of about 70 yards by 70 yards or so, in various rooms, lighting the walkways, etc. All of them wired up to this tiny little generator. This is how Vienphouka works: when you see a light down there in the city, it is because a family has decided to turn on their generator for a little while. It is all strange, because there are power lines running past the city, but I could only guess that they must run straight past and on to Luang Namtha, the larger city to the North East. Vienphouka is not wired to run off the grid.
The following morning, I awoke at 8a.m., emerged from my mosquito net, and plucked my various less-damp clothing items from the walls of my small house to put them back into my panniers and onto my self. The day’s ride to Luang Namtha was blessedly flat and easy by comparison with the previous day’s riding. After 40 miles or so, I found myself in one of the largest cities of northern Laos – one with an ATM – which felt to be about the size of Lander, Wyoming. After an hour and a half of struggling with the ATM (or, rather, struggling with my inability to use it properly – no Stephen, you have to select the CHECKING button if you want to take $ from your checking acct.) I got some money, and checked into a guest house here. Since leaving India and arriving in S.E. Asia, I have been staying in guest houses almost all the time because of my fear and discomfort with heat, bugs, and jungle. I am not in my element camping out here, so I have been seeking out hotels and staying in them for the first time on the journey. This will probably make me look back on Southeast Asia in a positive light because I will remember it as a place of comfort and ease in terms of accommodation. I am just happy that the jungles of the tour happened to be here rather than in Europe or the United States where hotel rooms are usually two or three times more expensive.
And I have not stayed every night in hotels…in fact, my first night in Laos was in the tent. It was a great night because I made the discovery that my iTouch can be hung from the ceiling of the tent, allowing for insanely comfortable reading (I have a reading application installed on the iTouch so that it functions like a Kindle…in fact the application is called Kindle…made by Amazon…who makes Kindles…). I spent hours that night reading Foundation by Isaac Asimov, and hoping that none of the sounds that I was hearing in the trees right next to me were about to suddenly materialize into an elephant or a tiger inside my tent. They did not, and the following morning, I woke up, said “Sa-Bai-Dee!” to four Lao soldiers who had stopped their motorcycles to say “Sa-Bai-Dee!” to me, and then resumed my journey toward Dien Bien Phu. A positive camping experience despite my negative feelings about the natural environment here…there are many many people who actually come to places like Laos and the Amazon as eco tourists…I will never be one of those people. Or am I one of those people? Oh God I don’t even know what an eco tourist is! But a visit to Laos is certainly worthwhile – just be careful about what you’re getting yourself into when you sign up for some sort of eco tourism adventure! It could become more than you bargained for! The jungles here are serious. Gibbons…tigers…elephants…spiders…everything an eco tourist could possibly dream of. Or have nightmares about.
It is now 11a.m. and way past time for me to hit the road once more toward Vietnam and then onward toward China. More updates to come soon. Thanks for reading and thanks to everyone for making our summer fund raising drive a great success.