Pedaling Through Laos|
Tuesday, December 21, 2004
|Photo courtesy of Norman Schwagler
|Anyone need chickens?
Weaving my bike around buffalo dung and chickens, I began to have serious second thoughts.
The rough plan was to ride south 500 kilometers in six or seven days, generally sticking to Route 13 which snakes parallel to the Mekong River, and eventually crossing back into Thailand at Savannakhet.
Riding through the early morning market, visions of Communist re-education camps (en route to Laos I drank beers with a man who spent four years in such a place), napalm scorching jungle, Agent Orange, land mines, ambush, and dengue fever crept over me. And why not? There are still large areas of the country, places I will be careful to avoid, contaminated by UXOs (unexploded ordnances).
During the Vietnam War the United States dumped two million tons of bombs on Laos. In the north along Route 13 towards Luang Prabang there have been recent incidents of bandits attacking tourist buses. The route I chose was considered safe, but to be sure I asked the day before at the US Embassy if the road was indeed secure. The reply: "I don't know, it should be."
Hanging for a couple days in Vientiane was easy living, it's a downright charming place with French colonial architecture and tree lined avenues. One can walk anywhere. Life moves gracefully in a blend of past and present, East and West. I was reluctant to leave it behind, asking myself how people in the countryside would react to a large white American wearing a goofy green helmet storming through their backyard on a beat up orange mountain bike. They had to ask themselves what I was doing there, or at least pose the question to me. Five kilometers outside of the city someone did just that.
E'ryting Is Gonna Be Allrigh', Mon
She had a blue-knit sweater wrapped tightly around her waist and a long black flower-patterned skirt, typical attire for Lao women. Her braided hair, slung over her left shoulder, was tied in a knot. Out of nowhere she appeared riding a Honda scooter, skillfully avoiding the potholes and occasional truck while keeping pace with me ( I suppose I kept pace with her) as we chatted in broken Thai about where I was going, where I had been, what she had for breakfast -- nothing in particular. She seemed genuinely interested in what I was doing and was nothing but smiles and engaging charm.
She turned off several kilometers down the road, but her impression remained: I no longer felt alone or afraid on this dusty road in Laos. (note: I was never that afraid, just a little tweaked at times)
In the countryside now, my constant companion is the sun. For miles there are only rice fields, road, and sky. Life in Laos moves so slow that at 20 kms per hour I feel like I am zipping by it.
I've fallen into a good rhythm and knock off about forty kilometers before coming upon Ban Naxon, I hitch my steed to a post at a roadside stand for some late-morning joe. (note: all stands are along the roadside, in fact, all life centers around the road, but the air and the entire setting out there in the middle of the dusty Lao countryside makes one feel as if he were continually swaggering through a pair of swinging saloon doors, hence the use of the term roadside.)
Now, in Laos, one doesn't drink so much as you chew a cup of coffee. It's a thick, gnarly, potent concoction with an inch of sugar coagulated at the bottom -- rather enjoyable. It wasn't long before an audience gathered, young and old, short and tall, to witness the spectacle of me drinking this cup of coffee.
A place to lay my head
The shadows stretch long as I cross the bridge over the Nam Mang River into Ban Thabok. The odometer reads exactly 100 km. My legs still possess the power of movement, but I no longer have feeling in my ass. I sit down (on a nail) to a lukewarm Beer Lao and a bowl of pho, the most popular dish in rural Laos consisting of egg noodles and onions along with other stuff not readily identifiable. This is no culinary tour.
The town is quiet except for some kids kicking around a cigarette wrapper in the dirt. I ponder the night's sleeping arrangements. According to the guidebook there are no hotels in the area so I've already prepared for the worst-- packed in my left rear pannier is a mosquito net hammock, but after eight hours of riding I wouldn't mind leaving it there.
I speak to a young woman at the restaurant. She disappears around back and reappears with her bicycle. She leads me back down the road to a temple located on the river. Some words are exchanged between her and a few old monks. They turn towards me and smile. The entire temple is mine for the night. It's a majestic open-air structure with a gaudy giant purple and orange fluorescent fresco on the ceiling. For a moment I feel overwhelmed by the kindness and the fresco shown to a complete stranger.
Flickering candlelight sends shapes dancing across the temple walls as I hold court with a half-dozen young novice monks. They teach me how to write my name in Laos and I find them to be a gullible audience for my magic coin tricks.
Roosters really do wake people up in this part of the world. Sipping tea while massaging my sore ass I stand at the river's edge. A stray cow wanders by. The sound of its wooden bell, a lazy, warm, friendly, content sound keeps perfect time with the scene, seemingly symbolizing life in these parts. I pack up, check my gear and head south.
I pedal steadily towards the next town and the next bowl of pho. On past tiny villages with funky names — Ban Namching, Pakxan, Ban Namsang — I keep pedaling, a lot. There is more pho, more Laos coffee and a lot more smiles. I shack up in rustic hotels/shacks in the towns of Pakading, Hin Bun and Tha Khaek.
Sunburnt and dusty I begin to get a sense of fitting in out here. I am unaccustomed, however, to such long stretches of quiet unless I'm asleep or passed out, but then I wouldn't know what's going on. While riding, I do know what's going on: It's me and the road and the bike and the mind... it's me and the road and the bike and the mind... it's the mind and the road and the bike until ultimately it's just the mind. It's fun at first until you start talking to cows and trees just to bring yourself out of this self-imposed stupor zone.
I come to a fork and look east to the craggy mountains in the distance — Route 12, Vietnam. Something says to forget responsibilities at home and turn here, head toward the unplanned, the unknown. This could be the elusive adventure.
My mountain bike is back in its corner now buried in a heap of smelly clothes looking much the same as it did before the trip except for the tires; I never cleaned them, just left the dirt caked on. Every now and again I'll glance over at it to remind myself of the trip in Laos, that it really did happen — I didn't just see it on TV.
Editor's Note: Norman Schwagler is a teacher and freelance writer based in Bangkok who went to Laos to ride and explore.