Thakek, Lak Sao, Paksan, Phonsavan, Middleofnowhere, Hanoi – 790km
Laos is a country that reminds you that you love life. In many ways, Laos is why we bike tour. It beats you to the breaking point, but then erupts in beauty, and the contrast makes your mind fly. One minute you’re negotiating a flooded bridge – water flowing past your knees, gaps between the planks threatening to suck you under. The next, you’re rounding a bend to descend into the most picturesque village you have ever seen, again. And then you watch the entire village hiccup. All activity stops for a brief moment of silence before the kids empty out of their houses in a sprint for the banks of the road to watch you pass. The whole village of people puts their eyes on you, open-mouthed, and if you’re lucky they let out that wonderfully complex and gorgeous Laos grin. Immediately, your experience shifts from being punished by the terrain to undeserved celebrity. This post is particularly tough to compose. Each day on the bike is a new adventure, filled with stories that are too complex to share, and that taken as a whole rarely combine to form a common theme. One theme-of-the-day, often repeated, is that northern Laos is tough on the legs. It is characterized by some of the most continuous and relentlessly mountainous terrain that either of us has seen. The country folds up like an accordion that’s been chopped to bits, and the road through it snakes up and down along ridge tops, diving steeply into deep valleys before immediately climbing back up to escape out the top of the next ridge. This happens over and over again, and the frequency and amplitude of the folds increases by the day as you bike east. We’ll give highland Laotians a pass on not biking much. The ride is never flat, and never straight. And it is almost always remote. Our route out of Laos was the most direct line from Phonsavan – a sizeable town – to Hanoi, and yet we felt like the only westerners there in decades. Many foreigners may travel the route by bus, but neither party gains the benefit of interaction. The main foreign influence in the regions we biked through seemed to stem from one source: UXO (UneXploded Ordinance). Places like Phonsavan are on the map not only for the archaeological mystery of the Plain of Jars, but also for the eerie contrast that the site has with its history of violence. The landscape is pock-marked with bomb-craters from the CIA’s ‘secret war’ that took place there during the Vietnam years. Visitors are instructed to stay strictly within the white markers to avoid setting off one of the many unexploded bombs that had been dropped forty years ago with an aim to killing communism. Those bombs are still killing people throughout the entire country. Poor farmers mostly – the same people they killed back then. The tourism market in Phonsavan profits by sharing its own sad history via film and stories, in a way that no one, at least not yet, could call exploitative.
We saw many UXO removal teams as we biked, and their efforts are inspiring. They find and disarm live cluster-bombs daily – in roads, schoolyards, villages, farm fields and jungle – as they will for many years to come. Word has it that even the US has coughed up some cash for the process, although we still refuse to admit fault. (If you’re of our generation and haven’t heard of this aspect of the ‘Vietnam’ war, look it up – we were ashamed of our own ignorance)
Laos’ confusing history may be much of why we enjoyed being there. Lao culture is relatively unvaried, but this seems to be balanced by the deep complexity of the people. One village might be filled with big Thai smiles, another might give you suspicious smirks, and the next group might stare at you until you meet their gaze, then avert their eyes with a frozen, flat-lipped expression that seems to say ‘if we pretend it’s not there, maybe it will just pass without bothering us.’ (The bear-on-the-trail phenomenon.) We thought maybe there had been stories – an alien race of white-skinned people that destroyed their parents’ generation for reasons that would never be understood – and we were thus the harbingers of pain. We asked about this at one of the villages we stayed at along the road. ‘Why are some people happy to see us and others are afraid?’ we asked. ‘Yes! Yesss. Well, we are not afraid, but others, yes, because maybe they see you this very big, giant thing coming down the road, and hairy faces’. So maybe the reason is simpler in some places: we look weird, and brutish and ugly. We later learned that in other villages, the solemn mood might have been the result of the fighting that still continues to this day. But this is part of the beauty of what we’re doing, because the emotions of the people become our own as we bike among them.
The H’mong village we stayed in, Sam Ohn, the village that told us they were not afraid, was an experience unlike most days. A student had found us resting one day, and like many people do, pulled up on his motorbike to practice his English (this is especially fun when you’re biking up a steep hill). By the end of the conversation he’d offered us a bed for the night in his small village, and after we first claimed to have too many km ahead of us to stop, we chased him down and took him up on the offer. The village was simple, muddy and wonderful, and brought us each back to our experience in the Peace Corps. The food was a tad gnarly, and there was ‘no toilet, just, go as you like, anywhere’. Perfect. But our western minds aren’t accustomed to the amount of affection we got there, and it’s shameful how tiring it was to be interesting.
Since our last post, nearly every day has been exhausting in its own way. Physically, mentally, or both. We hit Phonsavan with big plans of continuing northwest to Luang Prabang, the beautiful tourist mecca, where we’d take some time, enjoy the city, speak English with other English speakers and drink fine coffee. But we felt our legs: they were wasted. We looked at our calendar: we were two weeks behind schedule. Laos had been sticky, and we’d biked a thousand kilometers more than what we had originally planned to be at by now. We decided then to change course and make another run for the border. A day of rest, and then Hanoi in a week. It was an abrupt but liberating decision.
We shoved off, half-rested, and immediately began losing time. We got bogged down in unrelenting hills, and good food became more and more scarce. The majority of our calories were coming from uncooked instant noodle packets (eaten dry), sardines, sugar biscuits and the occasional soy milk. Distances between towns with services were impossible in a day’s ride, so we ended up camping in the humidity, feeling more and more disgusting and sun-crazy without water to bathe with and good food to eat. And this is why, at first, we had mixed emotions when my bike broke, far beyond my ability to repair it.
I had been braking hard on the steep downhills, using nearly as much energy in slowing my descent with my arms as I had been pumping uphill with my legs. After one particularly steep drop I rounded a curve, and when I began pedaling uphill the bike seized up. The rear tire wouldn’t roll. I glanced down and…..fuuuuuck. After so many miles of dirt, grit, sand and abuse, the brake-pads had eaten through the rim and it had completely blown out the sidewall. Back in the States, Rob had been warned by a bike mechanic that his rim was on its last legs, so he bought a new one. Not wanting to believe the implication that mine were on their way out too, and not wanting to spend the 200 bucks, I had ignored the advice. And now I was hiking – in the sun, with no water, and almost no money. I deflated my tire so I wouldn’t ruin that too, and began pushing, hiking up and down the next six kilometers of hills. I squished at mysterious liquid-filled plastic bags that I found on the road with my feet and settled into a mood of resignation. I found Rob, broke the news, and as we hiked together we were able to plan our next move.
Bike rims are not easy to come by, and we were in the middle of nowhere. The bike ride to Hanoi was not happening, so the best we could hope for was to find our way to the city by other means and hope that there would be some sort of work-around there. A bus finally saved us from the leeches on the side of the road after we’d been sitting for hours. As it weaved through the landscape, we noticed that the passengers around us were puking continuously from motion sickness. The driver’s assistant had a stack of plastic bags that he handed out in a steady stream, and riders dutifully filled them with vomit, tied the ends, and tossed them out the window. Thus the mystery of the plastic bags was solved.
We could see from our fish-bowl view of the world that we’d missed a challenging but beautiful ride. The mountains of Laos disintegrated through vast, bamboo forested karst cliffs of northwestern Vietnam, to the flat-lands that we’ve returned to. And now, after many brutal hours of waiting for brutally uncomfortable bus rides, we are here.
We sit in relative comfort. One of us writes this with a 102 degree fever, the other suffers a mysterious and growing skin rash, but we’re ready to move forward. Tomorrow, a trip to the American Embassy for the rare, expensive and annoying honor of adding visa pages to the passport, followed by a trip to the Indian Embassy to fill one of them. And then we pray that someone in this city can save my ride.
We’ve come full circle. It’s a beautiful thing to return to Vietnam. To see the country where this adventure started, again, but with the wisdom gained from bicycling through three of its closest neighbors. We are almost ready to close the chapter on this heat and head north, but first we’ll explore this awesome city from our wheels, so that we can take a piece of its personality with us into the next… who knows? And we’ll breathe deeply, damn it, because we finally have some time to rest.