Southern Laos – the hard way

Pakse to Paksong, Xekong, Saravan, Taoy, and Samuoy. And back. 450km – 6 days.

Bike touring, like all things truly worth doing, is not easy. Sometimes, on hard days, the constant hunger and sore butts, the rattling and shaking from rutted tracks, and the realities of living on the road in a foreign culture become difficult to bear. Thoughts of the comfortable life at home creep into your mind. But then you turn the corner to see emerald mountains bathed in the orange glow of sunset, and you realize, for the fifteenth time that day, that bike touring is unmatched. Nothing else can compare to the complete immersion in both landscape and culture that the cyclist’s view affords. This is the ultimate way to travel, and now, after sampling the alternatives, we can say that with complete confidence.

We’ve had a lot of hard days since we crossed into Laos on August 4th. Everything else we’ve biked on this trip has been a mild warm-up to what southern Laos threw at us. The adventure touring has truly begun; border issues, flooded roads, knee-deep mud, and more dead ends.

But first, we have a confession to make: we rode motorbikes – danced with the devil, if you will. Despite all of our high-minded talk about the ticking of freewheels, the meditation of the pedals, and the joys of cycling, we too were lured in by the promise of cheap, easy energy provided by gasoline, and the ability to move down the road at 60km/h with a quick flick of the wrist. We made an impromptu journey 160km south to visit the 4,000 islands area of the Mekong River, where the river’s great falls plunge into the lowlands of Cambodia. It was a quick out-and-back trip, but we learned a lot from that quick detour on our motorized bikes.

riding motorbikes south

Once you adjust to life on the road, it becomes an addiction that is not satiated by biking around town. When you hit cities, a jittery restlessness quickly emerges in your gut, commanding you to move. So, after a somewhat disappointing trip south, we were ready to saddle up, eagerly anticipating the climb up to the Bolaven Plateau; a climb to cooler weather, amazing coffee, and dramatic waterfalls. Surprisingly, after 5 weeks of biking, this was our first real climb of the trip – from 200m up to 1300m (clearly this is not Patagonia), but the road engineers were kind with their grading and we handled it with ease. The architecture and furnishings of the dwellings we passed gradually subsumed a mountain feel, and clothing became heavier, thicker. Up on the plateau, our first foray with slippery-as-ice Laotian road-mud was not so kind. I took a headfirst dive into a huge mud puddle and the aftermath of my accident was glued to my body like an unwelcome advertisement, inviting countless grins and laughter from the locals we passed.

oops.

But this was alleviated by the unfailing power of gravity, water, and wind at a nearby waterfall, which conspired to form sheets of driving mist that howled across a canyon with a hurricane’s ferocity – providing the perfect venue for an all-body power washing. First day completed, we tucked into delicious bowls of Vietnamese cuisine in Paksong, watched over by a (probably endangered) captive eagle, thoroughly enjoying the strange sensation of being um, cold, for the first time in 35 days. Syrupy-thick, rich, delicious Lao coffee awaited in the morning. Video of Day 1

Karma paid Alex a visit the next day on our descent off the Bolaven Plateau as pavement disintegrated to mud, and the nice thick orange line on our map changed to a thin yellow one to reflect the change in road status. His laughter from my fall the previous day faded into mine as the Laotian Ice Mud threw him to the ground, smearing the same impossibly-clingy mud all over his clothes and bags.

slippery. as. ice.

His accident urged caution, and we carefully moved downhill on the slippery substrate, trying to avoid turning our wheels or braking too quickly, gradually but steadily eating away the elevation we’d gained as we passed through acres of coffee plantations. Gorgeous views out over the lowlands below, glimpses of tiny villages, and almost no traffic lifted our spirits; this was the bike touring we had been waiting for. 40km later, those spirits were trapped in a quagmire of clay, mud, water, and one very badly stuck truck.

celebrating beautiful scenery and empty roads

After pushing, pulling, and carrying our bikes for an hour through thigh-high sticky mud that coated everything in a thick layer of goo, we caught up with 4 Laotians whose truck was firmly stuck in the worst of it. They clearly needed our help, so we volunteered our arms for more pushing. After two exhausting hours of rocking, pushing, hauling, lifting, levering, and cursing, the truck finally crept out of the 500m long swamp of mud – tires flinging hot mud-missiles at our chests and faces as they struggled to find purchase. Good Samaritan status achieved, we half slid/half crawled back up to our bikes and man-handled them across the swamp to dry ground as visibility faded with the dying light.

endless mud

We still had an unknown distance to bike, now in the dark, down an unknown, monsoon-destroyed road. The next 20km involved blindly feeling our way up and down the rocky, bumpy hills that were interspersed between more muddy cesspools of construction sludge. Each successive dip into the multi-hued mud puddles caked another layer of the cement-like mud on our tires, bikes, bags, and bodies. By the time we reached pavement two hours later, our bikes were so choked with sticky mud that it was a struggle just to roll them downhill, and our feet no longer fit into our toe cages.

sticky mud makes for slow travel

We stopped on the side of the road and scraped away enough mud to allow the tires to spin before biking the last 30km to Xekong. Another day finished in the dark. Exhausted. Filthy.

It took 90 minutes of concentrated scrubbing and 10 gallons of water the next morning to remove the mud that had accumulated from one day of riding. What the hell were we going to do when we didn’t have access to a hose? The route we had planned to take from Xekong to Saravan was decimated by the rains, according to local sources, which meant we had to climb back up the Bolaven in a circuitous, but scenic route.That evening, we passed through throngs of villagers returning home from the fields and were blessed with friendly waves and smiles the whole way down. Happiness. We experienced the delectable delight of a Laotian BBQ that night in Saravan – and if this film/landscape architecture thing tanks, we’re going to open a restaurant based on this ingenious dish/cooking method. Delicious.

local bicycles in Saravan

In the morning, we stockpiled enough food to last 3 days – we would be following another infamous yellow line north, and so had to plan for the worst – then set off from Saravan towards Xepon near the Vietnamese border. The washed-out dirt track that we were expecting never materialized, and we followed a newly laid ribbon of asphalt out of town, signs of the old road’s disheveled state passing in our peripheral vision. 25km later, a busy Chinese factory and adjacent lumber mill explained the new road. Our map, last updated in 2011, clearly couldn’t keep pace with the foreign investment-spurred logging occurring in Lao’s dense forests. The road wound steadily up through a patchwork of pristine forests and recently cut scrublands, passing small hamlets that were a world away from the large trucks that occasionally rumbled by.

Apparently this new road had not yet brought tourists with it, and we were a sight to behold for the villages that we passed. Whole families lined up on porches, women gaped open-mouthed on the side of the road, and village life ceased temporarily while we rode by. We stopped for a rest break across the road from Kappa village, and within 3 minutes, the entire village had lined the opposite roadside, staring at the strange invaders. We waved and smiled, greeted them in Lao, but no one moved. Finally a young man came forward and introduced himself in English and shook our hands. That unleashed the floodgates and we were soon surrounded by curious children, women, and men who were clearly making fun of our bike shorts.

We spent half an hour chatting with Lam, who told us the road was paved to Taoy, then set out to climb the massive hill that lurked just beyond the village. Unlike Bolaven’s gentle grades, these climbs were very steep, very long, and very difficult.

The pouring rain actually helped keep us cool while we pumped upward on tired legs. When, after numerous false summits, we finally reached the top, we were awarded with incredible vistas over endless tracts of mist-draped mountainsides and thick green valleys, all lit up by the splendor of evening light.

As night fell, we began the long descent towards Taoy, reached it after dark, and purposefully avoided asking about the next day’s road. Whatever lay ahead, we would deal with it in the morning. A second dinner of dry instant noodles packets supplemented the meager provisions we found in town.

It took 3 hours of asking, questioning, searching, asking some more, and backtracking to find the road to Xepon the next day, which was strange, since our map showed the same yellow line continuing from Saravan to Xepon. The Chinese must have had other ideas. Where did the large paved road go? “Road goes to Vietnam.” How is the road to Xepon? Laughing – “Oh, I never go on that road, very bad. Motorbikes cannot go, bicycles, maybe.” The ‘road’ to Xepon was actually a dirt track, 3km out of town that branched off from the asphalt road, leading into the forest.

We were congratulating ourselves on finding the elusive road when a farmer living along the road approached us. In Lao: This road go to Xepon? “Yes, but broken.” Hand gestures: why? “River, 3 rivers over road.” River? Shit. How high? Waving hand: over-the-head-deep. Swimming motions. Are there boats? “No.”  Fuck.

Neither of us wanted to turn around, so we took the only other option: we biked towards Vietnam. But first we waited for an hour to have our passports checked in Taoy – a completely unnecessary formality that we would repeat several times down the road.

waiting

The road quickly deteriorated out of town, and we made slow progress on the rocky, bumpy surface.

Here, the word remote took on a whole new meaning, as this seemed to be, by far, the most isolated place either of us had ever been. Between the smallest villages, young girls would sprint in terror and dive for cover at the sight of us, and young boys would jump off the road and cower behind bushes. One old woman picked up a naked baby and ran away shrieking. Was this simply a fear of the unknown, or was this a deep-seated, real fear of westerners caused by the 2,093,100 tons of bombs that the USA dropped on Laos (bombs that are still, today, causing horrible injuries, death, and disfigurations) during the ‘Vietnam’ war?

grim reminders of the US’ “Secret War” on Laos

But interspersed within the myriad confused stares and random shouts of “Sabai-dee” were precious gems that warmed the heart; little girls and teenage boys shouting “I love you” and huge grins on the faces of entire families as they watched the two strange falangs struggle uphill. We made camp just before dark at a bridge construction site.

Our tent was clearly visible from the road, and we woke up the next morning at 5:45am to an audience of 5 curious men who watched our every move from the nearby bridge, making already challenging emergency toilet trips to nearby dirt piles all the more difficult. My stomach hurt too badly to eat, and Alex had only a few cookies to ease his hunger. We plodded very slowly uphill, the lack of sleep and stomach sickness making progress difficult. We stopped at a military post to ask directions to Vietnam, and they responded by asking for our passports. We sat down at a table with progressively more senior officials that wore progressively more serious expressions on their faces as they glanced through our pages of visas: Kampuchea, Vietnam, China. They were clearly concerned, and kept muttering something under their breaths that we hoped was not the Laotian word for ‘spy.’ After much heated discussion, we were escorted by a military officer on motorbike to the police station at Samuoy, the last town before the border. We were seated in what very much looked like an interrogation room, and began to get a little nervous while we waited for the police officer to arrive. The man entered wearing a leather jacket and a grim expression, and carrying a laptop. He and another officer asked us questions for 45 minutes, slowly taking down our answers on the computer. Gradually the mood relaxed as they discovered we were just lost cyclists trying to find a way north; and what started as a potential spy investigation quickly devolved into an exchange of emails and Facebook names, with a promise to ‘Friend’ him when we had an internet connection.

the long way back…

Bad news quickly followed, however, and they told us we were not allowed to enter Vietnam at this border crossing. It was only for locals, maybe? They were very apologetic, but this news meant we had biked 150km over 2 days only to have to go back to where we started, which was still a long way from the only road going north. And, there were no buses or trucks going back to Taoy, so we would have to bike back, one of us in a sickly state. Damn. Armed with few provisions and even less energy, we turned our 45kg bikes around and set off, hoping that somehow we would find a truck to carry us and our bikes back to Taoy. When bike touring, the last thing you want to do is backtrack. You lose the sense of purpose that comes with forward movement, and your legs are no longer propelled by new vistas. After 25km, we were out of food and very low on water, and no trucks had passed all morning. We were resigning ourselves to a long, difficult ride back when we heard the distant rumbling of a large truck rounding the bend. They stopped, and we put our bikes in the back before jumping in the front cab with the four teenage Lao boys entrusted with the giant machine. Back in Taoy, we made friends with another teenage driver who agreed to drop us on the other side of the massive hill that loomed ahead. They dropped us off with a friendly wave, and we cycled the 50km back to Saravan, running on little more than a few pieces of white bread, peanuts, and Pho.

The next morning – frustrated, badly behind schedule, and exhausted – we put our bikes on top of a bus that was northbound for Thakhaek, and resigned ourselves to this small bit of shame. Apparently, the only road north out of southern Laos during the monsoon was the main highway, Route 13, (how the hell were we supposed to know?) so our bus drove southwest, back to Pakxe where we’d started a week earlier, before it turned north to begin the 14 hour haul to Thakhek with our bicyles and 1000lbs of cabbage balanced precariously on the roof.

The sanitized bus and motorbike rides we’ve taken contrast sharply with fresh memories of exhaustion, hunger, and accomplishment. We’re reminded once again that travel via motorized transport removes you from the landscape and culture that on bikes, you work so hard to immerse yourself in. You become a spectator, rather than a participant in your own voyage. In the end, it is the struggle that sticks to you, changes you, defines the experience, and makes the journey something worth taking.

lost, again.

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5 thoughts on “Southern Laos – the hard way

    • They didn’t lead us astray at all! They just led us on another type of adventure. I don’t think a good, up-to-date map of Laos exists, so when we get off the big roads word of mouth is the only way to proceed. Unless you want to stay in the flatlands, biking into the unknown is the only way to bike in Laos – its great.

  1. You guys are intrepid. Thanks for spending the time to craft a detailed, insightful record of your journey. As a former magazine writer I appreciate the good read!

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