People had started buying tinsel, I’m sure I had heard carols on rotation in a department store ….. it was time to leave.
Cycling in Asia is very climate driven. I’d asked many and the answer was always the same best you try their winter. Winter equals next to no rain and temperatures under thirty Celsius. I thought about post-Christmas but was told the farmers start burning off their old crops at the end of February, it only left December or the masses in January.
A cluster of countries I hadn’t seen was the obvious choice and my plans soon crystallised to Northern Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. A couple I’d met cycling in South Australia (thanks Marek and Libby) gave me their trip notes and at least the start was bedded down. My searches of the internet for a route South from Laos into Cambodia aligned with a tour run by Cambodia Cycling. It couldn’t be more perfect, a few weeks wandering alone then a couple of weeks with potentially like-minded cyclists finishing exactly where I wanted to finish, Siem Reap.
My proposed route but you never know till the end.
I arrived in Chang Mai, Northern Thailand a week ago and was knocked back by the sultry heat, the exotic smells and the continues background buzz of small motorbikes it can only be Asia. I headed out into the night market greedily attacking the Thai food, wanting to embrace the real deal, see how it compared to home. Within two days I was a little unsure what made me do that. If I was an experiment for chilli intake I failed miserably and ran back to plain Western food for 24 hours till things settled. I was also more observant of colourings, not only for the fiery red blighters but innocuous looking green ones which also burnt like a bastard. They were all on my radar. Westerners are fragile beings.
I soon headed up to Chang Rai. Some friends, Trish and Paul had escaped Western society over ten years ago and now live the majority of their year here. A smattering of ex pats, a few stores stocking most Western tastes and a far better climate than Europe sealed the deal for them. They have been doing voluntary work with the local hill tribes and feel that they have had an impact on improving the standard of living and quality of education. My time there was a mixture of refined resort style dinners and the opposite end of the spectrum, dark, dusty and desperate looking “hole in the wall” cafes. The cafe’s were always bustling with a steady flow of locals who ate silently, heads never lifting, indicating the satisfaction being derived from these classic dishes. I was fortune enough to have bypassed the experimental testing stage as Trish and Paul showed me their favourites.
Another night had me invited with my hosts to a dinner with a group straight out of central casting. Every expat raconteur, extrovert and story-teller had gathered with the promise of a lavish Thanksgiving dinner and it didn’t disappoint. Sitting out on an open pagoda as the wine flowed, the food continued to arrive and the stories had me thinking I’d lead a far too sheltered life. Nearly every person there had a story of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Two had been in Vietnam during their civil war and still “hanging in Asia” when “Apocalypse Now” was filmed. George was working as a landscape gardener in Kuwait when Hussein suddenly turned nasty and he had to hide in the city for five months before escaping, understandably fearful of being captured or worse. Another guest was flying a commercial DC9 which crashed without killing him and then blank faced told me he moved into insurance due to a sore back from the accident. Even the dog had a story of recovering from what should have been a fatal venom attack by a spitting cobra. I felt like I should have left a tip for the entertainment !
I was told a massage would ease my sore back, a problem for the last two months. Trish dropped me outside the massage parlour and bid me a pleasant time, she waved as she drove off. That wouldn’t have happened too often in Australia. “Thanks dear I’ll be home in two hours ” Shoes off I stepped inside and was met by a gossiping group of ladies. Price negotiated and feet gently washed I was putty in their hands. Directed upstairs into a room of thin mats and two other massuers. I changed into some thin ninja pants and waited for the fight to start. My lady smiled and firstly attacked my feet her knuckles searching out knots in my soles, then my calves till I flinched. Her hands slipped up inside my pants to my thighs but her business like manner, her steady probing for ways to hurt me had any other thoughts miles away. It went on, I was twisted, bent rolled and pummelled. Ordered onto my back I felt her step, yes by now she was standing on my butt then begin walking down my thighs. This sent my muscles into an instant spasm and I flexed sharply. I was staring down but I heard her land heavily on the floor, she laughed loudly as did the other masseurs. It was the only round I won.
I was on the road cycling a day later after posting my bike bag on to my final destination. Gone was my last sniff of luxury all I had to look forward to was cold water washes and slapping myself after every mozzie attack but there was the appeal of the unknown. I arrived at Chang Khong, a border town late afternoon, drank a few beers and went to bed early. The sun wasn’t even up when I began riding to the border control and Freedom bridge 4. I was relieved of my last Thai baht and lifted my bike onto a government bus to cross the river. Funnily Laos looks a lot like the other side of the river. Ten kms up river at Huayxai I bought a ticket on the local slow boat which would drop me at PakBeng. For everyone else PakBeng will be their overnight stop before a second day’s ferry on to Luang Prabang. The cyclists arrived in twos, predominately Europeans doing the long haul. We hoisted our bikes onto the ferry roof and prayed they’d still be there when we arrived. I hadn’t seen a solitary other rider yesterday yet they had gravitated to the ferry port on mass.
The touring bikes laying on the roof of our slow boat to Pakbeng.
There was still people boarding the ferry as we pushed away, a long sleek yet rickety vessel with 150 adventurous souls aboard. The boat swayed from side to side as the captain navigated the fast flowing river, every so often the scrapping sound as we touched bottom or the creak of the roof twisting under the stresses of steering. Late afternoon we started hearing local touts calling us from the shoreline before we actually saw the port of Pakbeng, port is a dubious description. Let’s just say other boats had also chosen to tie to trees here. We all piled off, legs wobbling. We all found rooms or were continuously harassed by the ten-year old touts. Funnily enough fifty of the passengers ended up in the Indian restaurant staring at each other like we had all day but glad for a change of diet.
The next morning I was the only cyclist to leave Pakbeng by road, the others returned to the port and headed straight to Luang Prabang by river. Did they know something I didn’t ? My route would see me there in four days and 350 hilly kms. The road clung to the smaller Nam Beng river, a tributary of the Mekong, the villages clung precariously between both. Once the river would have been their only access and water supply. The children would run to the road as I ground my way upwards yelling sába̖ai-di or sounding like somebody to me. Hello, hello. It hasn’t stopped, all day everyday they run to the road, entertainment must be scarce up here.
I’ve eaten nothing I could ask for in five days, every meal has been sign language, pointing or a simple request to fill my stomach. My charades need work, my chicken dance is reliable down to producing an egg from between my legs for breakfast. Chicken can also be tough as the local variety spend their whole life running and avoiding road traffic whilst seeking food. Now I come to think about it few are plump, it showed on the plate. As expected the results were mixed but nor did anything kill me.
The eating highlight would have to be the tin shed opposite a truck tyre service it was also the towns only cafe. One big polished concrete floor with no trimming except for the plastic tables and scattered chairs. I was the night’s entertainment as they brought a large dish of steaming chicken, vegetables and rice. The wow factor was the chillies even after requesting they go easy (madly waving no and fanning my mouth ) I extracted a whole cup of the buggers from my otherwise delicious dinner. Two large bottles of beer Lao helped immensely. They backed it up for me with a fantastic soup the following morning.
The eating lowlights are still strong. How can I forget the mushroom and leafy greens mixed in a phlegm like sauce oozing over bullet tough rice. As I ate a guy ran past me water dripping off a net with a carp. He went straight into the kitchen and all I heard was the loud bang as it was dealt a fatal blow, that’s fresh. The following day I stopped at a market, a young boy helped me order some noodles in exchange for an English lesson. Ok it was a bowl of noodles, he got ten minutes of English practice. As I slurped my noodles I turned to check out the adjoining stall. In amongst the bananas and bamboo for sale was a bloody great rat. My slurping stopped. I stood and gestured to the smallholder. I signed for eating, she nodded, I pointed, you eat ? she grinned and nodded. I looked at her, I’m sure with a fair amount of disgust on my face, she laughed. I left my bowl I couldn’t eat another spoonful. As I walked away an elderly woman sat down and started finishing my meal. Was it a ploy, I’ll never know but it worked. The people in these parts are so poor.
I feel like I saw the true side of rural Northern Laos. Few Westerners, in fact only four over four days and a dozen crazy elderly Chinese who were cycling from Hong Kong to Bangkok. Singing and laughing on a day of many mountain climbs I was in disbelief at their enthusiasm. I had a chuckle late in the day when a small truck with some of the Chinese riders and their bikes powered past me. Three of the women, heads down, fast asleep in the back.
I enjoyed the smoothness of Chinese built roads, built to ferry Chinese products to the world. I was astonished at the number of hydro electricity schemes being built, again by the Chinese and unsure of the effect on the local river dependant farmers. Who owns the power from these power stations ? The vistas are vast and magnificent, each morning I’ve watched low-lying mist slowly burn away against backdrops of jagged mountain tops. I’m sure this was the start of the mystical stories of Asian dragons and serpents before cable TV arrived.
Finally into Luang Prabang covered in dust from the inevitable road works and a long day’s riding. I was like a wide-eyed country boy as first the traffic became frantic and then the throng of locals and tourists overwhelmed me. The streets were busy and noisy. I rolled along next to the Nam Khan river till I found a quiet clean room. I savoured the warm shower washing away the days grime. Endured the night market with everything I don’t want or need. Exhausted I finally settled down for a couple of beers and a very non-Asian meal of pizza. It was bliss.
The thing with staying in rather rudimentary ( read thread bare sheets, exhausted mattresses and mozzie infested) accommodation along the back roads of Northern Laos is that when you finally find a slice of luxury you don’t want to leave it. That has been the case in Luang Prabang. My Melbourne booked luxury has been so good I’ve had to force myself to go out into the local throng, amongst the noise and dusty streets. Why poke your head out when there is a pool two steps from my door and someone folding down my bed. I’ve ridden out to distant Wats to better feel and understand the Buddhist ways, I’ve shuffled through the night market EVERY night and looked at things I’ll never buy. I’ve got up before the dawn to observe the monks receiving an offering of sticky rice from the locals, it’s harder to flick from your fingers than you think !
I’ve had a couple of interesting massages from a place that only employs deaf massuers. The owner said “don’t ask for anything she won’t be able to understand you” Funny because the second time she rubbed her two pointer fingers against each other ? She was very small, it took all of her weight to get into my aching, tight muscles. I left with my body more supple and ready to ride for another three weeks. Sadly I leave my luxurious haven, The Maison Dalabua today for the spartan guesthouses of the cycle tour heading South finishing in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
The tour started poorly and it was a day or two till any form of consistency appeared. The bike tour leader, Sung did not show until fifteen minutes before we were due to start riding. There are four of us riding, a couple from Canberra Julie & Jerry and a Belgium, Theo. We introduced at the breakfast room when we saw we were the only ones wearing stupid clothing. Sung is a very poor communicator but can tell you exactly how many kms and the terrain at any given moment. He is also a fantastic cook and takes over the kitchen at our accommodation, I was nervous about this but he is good, very good. It is evidently common for people to come into a guesthouse kitchen, pay a few Laos kip and cook away. I was dubious but it has worked splendidly. He’s also your go to man to fix a rubbing brake or repair a tyre, but as for telling you about your surrounds or history forget it.
The first night was a testing time for the group. It was a long day with many, many hills to climb and we arrived sweaty and buggered. We’d been told it would be a home stay, that rang a few bells. It wasn’t a home stay because no one could call the rooms we were given a home. The squat toilets had twenty years of poor aim stuck hard to the surrounds. There was a plastic barrel full of icy water and a scoop for a shower and when you’d finished please toss the remaining water in the direction of the squat. The bed sheet although seen through a dim homemade fluoro light was a story of many excited guests before me. We all said little but everyone eyeballed each other at dinner, not wanting to ruin the tour on the first night. Sung’s cooking was terrific cooked in a nearby restaurant before we reluctantly headed back to our rooms. We all slept in our clothes until dawn then hightailed it out of there. So last night set a new low benchmark in accommodation for me….. anywhere.
The accommodation level has lifted since, it had to, often basic, a little old and tired but generally clean. So a few days of climbing amongst craggy hills and then we arrived in Vang Vieng, the backpackers party town. We finished riding at midday and rushed off to get a tube and float 5kms along the Nam Sang river back to town. Waiting at the queue it was apparent that the tubing wasn’t the real interest to everyone else. An American guy standing next to me tipped 750 ml of Coke out of a large plastic Coke bottle so that he could get a whole bottle of local whiskey into it. He’d drunk the lot before we actually left the queue ! The plan is to be absolutely blind drunk before finishing the 7-8 riverside bars along the way then hopefully drift along the river back to Vang Vieng without drowning. There are other hurdles to cross now you are drunk. Why not see if you can jump off a cliff face into hopefully waist deep water or swing out of a tree on a rope and let go at the appropriate point. Remember the more you drink the worse your timing is but that’s just an experienced observers take on it.
So each of us with an old truck tube floated off. The local bar owners toss water filled plastic bottles with a rope attached. If you want a drink you grab it and they haul you to shore. It was very effective way of keeping your fluids up. There have been a number of misadventure ? deaths along the river over the last few years but I think that is the lure, the excitement for those seeking an adrenaline buzz. The locals are torn between closing the bars and losing their Western income.
The days roll on, we rise early to avoid some of the heat and ride for an hour or two before stopping for breakfast. It’s nice wheeling through the countryside as it wakes. I’ve seen the monks in small rural villages gathering their daily alms from the locals without a camera in sight. In Luang Prabang it was more like a sideshow than a religious offering. The morning light was soft, the roads were slippery in the shadows from the morning dew. I came down a hill at speed and braked hard and somehow managed to stay upright. As I crossed a bridge I found a mother and daughter standing side by side at the roads edge. Just in front of them were two small fires with steamers on top. As I rode past they bent as one, lifted the conical cooking lids and swung them like lanterns wafting the smell of steamed corn cobs into the still air. It was silent, tranquil and a very special moment, the Laos people are such gentle souls. It’s hard to think of the killing fields further South.
After all of our time in the countryside we were looking forward to some Vientiane city comforts but the truth is the best bits have been on the back roads. Our group laughed and joked as we sat on straw-strewn earth eating big slices of watermelon from the woman selling them and fattening a few water buffalo down by the river. As our guide used the woman’s machete on another watermelon, she turned and started pulling at the hair on my legs seeming to be sizing me up as a potential heir to her watermelon empire. Could I live here knowing that every day whilst I was tending the water buffalo and watering the melons, my wife was chatting up the passing trade ? I gave it a bit more thought and then it was gone, we were on the outskirts of Vientiane and the traffic had me concentrating on staying alive. I’ve now done five hundred kms with the group and five hundred kms on my own. I’m over half way and feeling fit.
Vientiane, the capital is a bustling Asian city full of exhaust fumes, grubby streets and Western food. Our guide, Sung took us out for one last meal. His strength has been his cooking and food selection whenever we have eaten out. We’ve been spoilt for choice and I have found one hundred ways to burn my mouth along the way. Some have been memorable for days after…. I mentioned his communication skills were bad, he simply disappeared into the night, off to take another tour, not even a good-bye ?
We flew from Vientiane to Pakse and the second half of the journey today. An hour’s flight then a look around the provincial country town and market before putting my bike back together. The market was extremely interesting and sold everything you’ve never thought of eating. Yesterday’s lunch was a plate with a cup over it to stop the prawns from jumping off the table. Today the small crabs were laced together in take-away packs of four on a neat little lattice contraption. It all so different to home and I guess that’s why I travel.
I’ve been told the roads get a little rougher from here. There is a spare mountain bike in the van so I have an option at least. We have a new guide and a new driver. Four more days in Laos then into Cambodia, I’m so looking forward to seeing and experiencing Siem Reap. The second half of the tour started in Pakse, an hour and a quarter on a plane away. The tour tempo changed dramatically, suddenly our new guides, Lucky & Dee want to show us history, explain local life and the cycling took a backseat. Our bikes simply became our vehicle to get to another place of local importance. Another rider, Canadian Cat, joined us we were now five.
We rode out to a Hindu temple not far from Pakse built long before the Buddhists arrived. We trooped up a few hundred slippery stone steps guarded on both sides by gnarly old frangipani trees sprinkling the path with their flowers and scent. Finally the vista opened up to a beautiful if not slightly dilapidated Hindu temple standing defiantly on the hillside looking out over the valley and the Mekong below.
Visiting Hindus were lighting incense, praying and bowing deeply in front of the altar, a mixture of kitchen offerings and really just anything shiny. With a haze of smoke rising and glancing sunlight creeping in on all sides it seemed very spiritual and I had to leave. I felt it was a time for the true believers.
We rode South around a sandy island on the Mekong just out of Don Daeng where we had stayed overnight, carried our bikes down the bank and into two small boats, one for the bikes one for us scattered with half a dozen plastic BBQ chairs. We rode the sandy paths watching local farmers trying to raise small crops and survive in a very primitive way yet everyone smiled everyone called out and then went back to whatever their day had been.
We stayed in beautiful but simple bungalows at Se Plan overlooking wetlands in a small National Park. The vista from my room was serene, the fishermen in shallow boats scooting across the glassy surface, the water barely waist deep below. Some were fishing whilst others appeared to be harvesting wet grass to feed their cattle. Cows grazed at the water’s edge, I swung in a rattan hammock and didn’t think about Christmas.
I left the curtains drawn back wanting to see the sunrise. At 12.30am I was woken by a sound like an old alarm clock, the grazing cows had crept up to my bungalow to feast, the rustic bells around their necks a dead giveaway. I lay there, it wouldn’t stop. I got up went outside convinced my moonlit body would be immediately attacked by mosquitoes. I started quietly shooing the cows, they moved away….a bit. Another half an hour later, clapping and hollering I finally got them far enough away to close my eyes. I missed the sunrise but stood to see a fisherman net in hand staring straight into my bungalow. He didn’t wave but nor did I, I went and showered.
I’ve never mountain biked, I’m still unsure but I think I’m a convert . We rode over an old extinct volcano slipping and sliding on the scree, almost ripping up skin. I made it to the top sweaty hands and shaking a bit. Ready to sign up to whatever religion had taken the best bit of hilltop real estate. It was the Buddhists again. At day’s end our guide, Lucky spontaneously asked if we wanted to join him on a fast circuit to some local villages, through tight village paths, along dusty red gravel. Up and down through potholes that I was unsure I could climb out of, somehow we all made it. It was pitch black when we arrived back at the lodge. All I could see were four big smiling faces in the dark indicating it had been pretty darn special. We washed away the grime then regrouped for pre-dinner beers.
Today we transferred down nearer the 4000 islands a series of large earthen clumps carved from the various river flows of the mighty Mekong river. It’s not as free-flowing today in a large part due to the Chinese construction of many power stations upstream. The Laos people sign up to partnerships, 90% Chinese 10% Laos. Barely a partnership. The Laos government sell 70% of this electricity on to Thailand. Meanwhile Cambodia and Vietnam are not getting the water flow they once did. The river farmers are all being effected. Already the river turns green at times through insufficient flow much to the anger of the locals.
My favourite photo taken from my porch on the Mekong at Stung Treng.
We rode all day around these islands, some 10 kms long others barely habitable. The people on the small islands see few tourists except escorted cyclists weaving along their farming laneways. The children screamed and whooped it up wanting to high five and waving till their hands almost flew off. Our boat transfers would find us all huddled together with the bikes filling up the remaining room on pairs of rickety river canoes.
The tracks were narrow and rutted, occasionally a small bridge with the planks jumping about like a decrepit keyboard bucked and clapping as we crossed. We passed water buffalo sitting deep in the river their nostrils flared nothing else showing. Covered in red dust we finally arrived at our hotel and washed away a day of sweaty grime and childlike exhaustion.
Our guide decided we needed a change from the river, the flatlands. He sent us up into the mountains for a couple of days. Suddenly we were huffing and puffing up hill after hill with only a minute of relief on the descents before another would show its face. The sun always seems hotter when you’re peddling up hills. I was tipping as much water on my head as I was drinking and we stopped regularly to restock. The forest closed in around us, few people were living around here. Big soot belching trucks and old sturdy motorbikes stacked with precariously high loads of precious timber ripped from the forest were our constant companions.
The town of Sen Monorom couldn’t come soon enough we are all shattered. Dinner was at a backpackers owned by a Tasmanian in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Talk about living outside your comfort zone. Married to a local his three-year old daughter danced and entertained us as we listened to 80s music. We drank a well-earned beer or two which almost put us to sleep as we waited for our meals to arrive. That night the wind blew wildly, the windows rattling ensuring I woke often. I staggered down to my bike and out to breakfast at the backpackers “hangout” As great as the food was we had an unsettling long wait from the kitchen, the day seemed to be getting away.
Out to Bou Sra waterfall, a 68 km round trip up and down more hills. Our driver Dee who laughs nervously every time he says the word “hill” climbed up into the falls and swam in the tumbling water. He wasn’t so happy to return wearing one sandle and wondering if his other would float all the way to Vietnam ! Jerry gave him half the money for a new pair saying he was only paying for the lost one.
Transferred back to the Mekong and more weaving on local car and truck free sandy paths close to the river, we crossed regularly back and forwards on ferries. In Kampong Cham we crossed a rather rickety 900m long bamboo bridge which is rebuilt annually after the summer rains wash it away. The click, click, click of the bending bamboo was both rhythmic and nerve-racking under our wheels. How daunting to build such a massive structure knowing that your best work would be washed downstream when the heavy summer rains came gushing down taking all before it. I guess it ensured you had annual work but rather demoralising.
It’s wedding season and we stop to check out a big tent with tinny music blaring and hundreds of seats lavishly covered in satin covers. It’s a wedding and we are ushered in, chairs pulled up. Jerry grabs the microphone from the shiny suited M.C and wishes the bride and groom a good marriage in English. The groom is perplexed, the bride blank faced and then rather peeved. We are handed bananas and sticky rice and watch as the groom has his hair trimmed by others in the bridal party. A custom I am still struggling to get my head around. Get a haircut and get a job ? We peddle off feeling like we have been extras in a B grade movie. We pass farmers bent low swinging their scythes through the rice stubble, they’d look up, we’d wave, they’d wave, all was good in the world ?
Surreal, one minute peddling and sweating in the midday the next on velvet covered chairs at a wedding wishing the newlyweds good luck ?
We must be getting closer to Siem Reap the distance between temples has reduced dramatically, the traffic too has increased, the extent of English spoken by the locals has increased tenfold. We had become lulled into country life and when we finally peddle into the city we are frightened by the throng, the beeping and aggressive driving. Our eyes dart about, gone are the sound of chickens, the chopping of trees and the bleating exhaust of a passing motorbike.
The first night in Siem Reap was chaos, Christmas night and everyone was out, everyone even the disbelievers. I walked to Pub Street and into the surging crowd. The vibrating bass speakers shook the ground and the heat drove me straight back to the hotel it was crazy. It took two nights before I bothered to return and was pleasantly surprised at the calmer vibe. Away from the Main Street delicious local meals could be easily found all washed down with large bottles of Laobeer. Yes Laobeer is that good they sell it in Cambodia !
Our group peddled from temple to temple but with a difference. Our guide took us along dirt roads then onto narrow jungle paths trees slapping us constantly. Suddenly the vegetation would clear enough for us to steal glimpses of the stone wall around Angkor Wat and the peaceful moat surrounding it. It allowed us to appreciate the overall Siem Reap kingdom without the tourist throng.
I had wondered at times whether I had done the right thing in joining a group tour after riding alone but the real value has come from the local knowledge and keeping us away from the highways. The less travelled backroads, the dusty but carefree tracks and being up close to the locals getting through life without the stress of modern living. My mind wandered back to the watermelon lady and the buffalo herd that could be my empire many kms North ? Was it an opportunity missed !
The group took time to gel but by the end we rode as one looking out for each other, aware of each other’s idiosyncratic behaviour and keen to share our discoveries. We’d shared the frustration of arriving late scurrying off to wash our riding gear, wash ourselves, contact the outside world and be ready for dinner all within an hour. With a few days to go to finish we were looking forward to an hour by the pool in lieu of having a guide with limited English describe the history of another overcrowded temple. Angkor Wat is massive, it’s the biggest religious complex in the world and on everyone’s bucket list. Even at dawn there is a crowd of 5,000, it’s hardly a serene, tranquil experience but its aura is undeniable.
Our group starts to splinter, first the guides, scurrying off to other tours then each of us says farewell until only one remains to blow out the candle and head back to chilly Belgium. A diverse trip through a part of the world I barely understood. Physically and economically the countries probably sit somewhere between Myanmar (Burma) and Vietnam with much of the fast change we saw being pressured from China to the North. My bike has again let me into a window of everyday life that a tourist coach could never have managed. I’m grateful for good health and to have kept the peddles turning for 1765 kms. Hell, the number even makes me feel tired.
I fly home for New Year Eve tomorrow and to catch my breathe.