Friday, December 6, 2013

Sabaidee Laos

Vietnam border control

Yesterday I said good bye to Vietnam and headed for Laos. It's more like a see you soon Vietnam, as I'll be exploring the Mekong Delta in the south with a friend over the holidays. But for now I'm off to Laos.

The day before the border crossing, I spent the night in the last Vietnam town, Dien Bien Phu.   I sighted some other westerners, a sign that I was close to something or some place worthy of tourism.  That place, is Laos.  For cyclists it is known as paradise; a variety of terrain, great tarmac, little traffic, cheap,and friendly people. I was looking forward to exploring and determining this for myself.

After eating a few of my favorite little banana wrapped surprises for breakfast I set off for the order 37 kilometers from Down Bien Phi.  As I expected, it was a continual climb out of Vietnam. Few cars passed me on the road, interesting there isn't more tourism and travel between the two countries.

Welcome to Laos

I arrived at the Vietnam border control which was absolutely empty. I got my stamp and told the customs officer several times "No thanks, I don't need to exchange money!" He even pulled out a wad of cash in Lao currency to make sure I had understood him correctly.  I crossed the border and continued to climb for 2 km before reaching the Lao border control. At first glance it looked awfully calm for a border control, and sure enough it was. The officers had just gone on their lunch break. It was11:30 and they wouldn't be back until 1 pm. What luck I had! There was only one establishment up at the crossing, a restaurant, so I had lunch to make the time pass by more quickly.

At 1 pm I was back at the border control. It's a good thing I don't judges country by their corrupt government officials, or else I wouldn't give Laotians the time of day. First, I forked over money for a visa, then some more for the processing fee, a minute later I picked up my passport two windows down and handed over more money for another “fee” a stamp?!?!  What's cushy job working for the Laotian government, first you get a nice government salary plus any of the money you scam off the tourists. I wonder if they do like waitresses on the states where they pool together the money then split it over a beer cheering to our innocence. I knew I was getting charged for a ton of ridiculous fees, but what can you do?  In all, between their lunch break and the visa process I started pedaling at 2pm.  I had 70 kilometers to go to the town where I wanted to stay, the only one with guest houses after the border.

I've got the road to myself- Let's hope it stays like this....
People had told me Laos was a cycling paradise and it didn’t take me long to figure out why.  With beautiful fresh tarmac and little traffic, I was in paradise.  In my first 60 kilometers in Laos, maybe 2 dozen cars passed me and the same amount of motor scooters and not one of them honked? I take that back... A Vietnam bus did go by in the opposite direction and of course laid on their horn.

How could it be? What a change from Vietnam!  I thought I had been in some rural areas in Vietnam but in my first 30 km in Laos I was shocked at the primitive life I observed.  Lots of little kids running around, most without any clothes, others completely filthy playing along the side of the roads waving and shouting Sabaidee, not Hello, it was great!  Men and women in their underwear or with a sarong wrapped around them taking baths in the street with the public water hose.  The houses are small, very small, many are on stilts, and all are made from bamboo and other plant/wood combinations.  A few new developments are made from concrete, but very few.  The people seem more reserve and respect my space as a cyclist. I stopped for a drink at a local store and they didn't all sit and stare.  Most signs for attractions or city buildings are in Lao and English, which makes it a little easier to get your bearings in a town.

Most of these villages don't even show up on the map, you can see why

I rolled into town right at dusk, found a guest house, and informed myself about the ferry down the River Nam Ou.  There was no internet in town except at one café, where they told me it wasn’t working today.  Life seems very simple and laid back here.

Soon they will have bike racks on the top of these boats, don't underestimate the Laotians!
Today I hoped on a ferry, on purpose, that traveled down the Nam Ou for a good 5 hours.  I wanted to see the view from the river as it was suppose to be an exceptional ride.  There isn’t a road that follows this river, yet there are little villages scattered on the bank every so often.  There were 7 tourists on the boat and we split the price of the boat between us all.  We were under the impression that we were the only ones who were going to be on the boat.  But when my bike went on top of the boat when their was plenty of free space inside, I knew this boat was going to get crowded.  We waited for about an hour and a half for our driver to depart and took a few other local passengers.  However, after about a half hour, we made our first stop and a handful of other local passengers got on and a few departed.  We did this continually the entire way down the river. At one point our boat turned into the local school boat that took kids home at the end of their school day.  I couldn’t believe the amount of stuff we were able to fit on the boat.  It was probably only a meter and a half wide, with short wooden benches (not super comfortable after about an hour and half (makes me appreciate my Brooks bike saddle).  The sides were high enough to keep out the water, which was definitely needed considering there were a fair amount of rapids. 

I'm sure I would have climbed those mountains had I been pedaling....
I was so thankful that I decided to do the boat ride.  You might think it is cheating, but biking every last millimeter of the world is not my objective on this trip.  I’m always excited to see different scenery and from the middle of a roaring river, the scenery was definitely unique!  The river bank was sandy, the water was greenish blue, one of the cleanest I’ve seen in all of Asia. Kids were swimming in the water and bathing themselves, I dipped my feet more than once, but it still didn’t look inviting enough for a swim.  Halfway down the river huge mountains began to appear and I was thankful that I was sitting in the boat rather than climbing them!  Like Halong Bay, the mountains shoots straight out of the water, but these were a continuous chain rather than scattered rocks.  Some were Karst like and others were covered in lush green vegetation.  It was a fascinating sight, enough to keep me entertained for a good 5 hours, that and I borrowed a Lonely Planet from a Dutch couple and read up on places to visit along my route. 

The view from my guest house

Just shy of 5pm we pulled up to the “dock” a long flight of concrete stairs up to the village.  Luckily I had help with my bike and bags.  Laos is more “tranquilo” than Vietnam, but the locals are quite clever,….they are smart about catering to tourists.  In China and Vietnam, I hardly ever saw a menu translated in English, here, everything seems to be in English, and the prices are still cheap, but higher than Vietnam for food.  From what I can tell, Laos is the “hot spot” for SE Asia tourism, but since it is so laid back, it doesn’t seem like it has sold itself to the tourism industry,…not yet at least.  Lots of tourists in this small river village, Nong Khiaw.  For some reason they all stay on one side of the river, so I ventured over to the other side to stretch my legs and explore. I found the local market, some food stands, and joined a game of pick-up volleyball.  Might sound crazy, but I do miss other sports.  I’m dying to go for a run, which will have to wait until I reach a beach, because I didn’t bring my running shoes. 

Joined a game of volleyball with the locals
Tomorrow I head to Luang Prabang, which I’ve also heard is quite popular among tourists.  I’m looking forward to doing laundry, being hosted and having some conversation in English.  I might  have to go to a western café or supermarket because I’m craving dark chocolate.  I can’t seem to find any chocolate here. There are plenty of other sweets, but I’d kill for a Lindt chocolate bar, 70% cocoa or a fresh batch of my delicious brownies I always made back in Barcelona.  That and some red wine and cheese are on my list of cravings....Don’t ask me where these cravings come from, but it’s the first time on my trip I’ve started to notice them.  Maybe some Lao banana pancakes and coffee and condensed milk will do the trick tomorrow for breakfast before I head out.  I already scouted out my local restaurant on the outskirts of town.  Boy life is good!

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