The road was deathly silent. Although early in the morning and devoid of any sign of human habitation, there were no birds singing, or movement of any kind. But, perhaps this should not have been totally unexpected. The People’s Democratic Republic of Laos was, after all, the most bombed country on earth. In the span of nine years during the Vietnam war from 1964 – 1973, the U.S. government dropped an estimated 260 million bombs on this poor, rural country roughly the size of the United Kingdom, aiming to cut off the supply lines of the Vietcong insurgency. That amounted to more than the total amount of ordnance dropped during all of World War II.
He jumped onto the road a hundred meters in front of me. There was no need for him to check in both directions to see if the way was clear. This was National Highway 13, the main north-south artery through the country and a ribbon of mostly abandoned pavement where you’d be lucky to see a dozen vehicles go by in a day – at least on this lonely section south of Luang Prabang.
He was short, shirtless, and wearing camouflage military fatigues. He looked to be about fifteen years old at most, probably a decade or two younger than the vintage Kalashnikov machine gun he nonchalantly slung over his shoulder as he flip-flopped down the road. I’m sure he didn’t notice me coming up on him until I was virtually past him.
Guns make me nervous, specifically that type of gun. I had heard stories of banditry and anti-government insurgency along the highway. Vehicles were advised not to travel at night, and up until recently, it was even suggested that they only travel in convoys during the day. But, prior to my quick five-day pedal through part of the former French colonial Indochine, travellers were being given the all clear.
As I passed him, he looked toward me with a shy, almost embarrassed smile. I gave him a friendly wave and sped up, trying to put as much distance between me and the young potential rebel as possible, all the while looking in my rearview mirror and hoping his Russian friend remained slung over his shoulder. What was he doing way out here? Where had he come from? Where was he headed? And, almost more importantly, was he a good shot? He hopped down into the steeply sloped, drop-off side of the road, disappearing as fast as he had appeared moments earlier.
It was easy to get lulled into a sense of bicycling nirvana in rural Laos. Peace, tranquility and, most of all, stillness were my companions much of the time during my relatively short spin from Luang Prabang to Vientiane.
I continued on my way along the high ridge with seemingly nothing but green as far as the eye could see. Earlier, I had left the bustling little waypoint of Kiu Kacham after a challenging ride up out of the World Heritage Site town of Luang Prabang the previous day. It was a mostly gradual, although almost constant climb that ended on a ridge that was itself of an unrelenting, up and down nature.
The greenery was deceiving. Most of the large timbers and hardwoods were long gone, logged and replaced by energized ground cover and opportunistic bamboo that was now the size of trees. But, it was green, and provided the illusion of moisture, even as Laos now rolled toward the heat and dust of the “hot” season. Periodically, lengths of bamboo troughs sprouted out from the slope on my right side; ingenious, biodegradable spigots flowing with cold spring water that was thoroughly enticing, even with its questionable potability.
The road through northern Laos is a stream dotted with infrequent, somewhat randomly placed villages. It is their main street so to speak, and often, the only street. It is also the playground, with kids hurling their well-worn rubber sandals down the tarmac, aiming to hit their playmate’s footwear. Call it a makeshift version of marbles if you will.
Voices pop out at you from doorways, window ledges, and from behind woven mat walls. They are clear, piercing, and young. So how do all the children behind the walls know you are there? Obviously their companion at the window or door, the “scout” at the first house, has sounded the alarm.
Now, as much as you may want, and try to make eye contact, smile, wave, or say something, anything to every one of them, a few problems usually arise. Firstly, you can’t possibly address everyone. The salvo of young voices knows no proven defense – their forces are just too great.
Then, there is the issue of the “late caller.” You know the one. That’s the kid you’ve already passed. The one with the “ I can’t believe it’s a falang on a bicycle. At the very least, he should be on a scooter, shouldn’t he?” look on their face. I mean, you’re already looking ahead to the next wave of kids preparing for their onslaught of Laotian hellos, and other derivatives when, behind you, in the background and arguably in what may as well be a previous life, you hear a faint, but definitive “hello, hello, or sabai di.”
The choice is immense, and the potential ramifications catastrophic. To sabai di, or not to sabai di the late-caller? Taking a hand off the handlebars, carefully turning back and responding wouldn’t be such a huge issue if it weren’t for the pigs, piglets, cows, calves and yes, the other sabai diers. All it takes is a split second and you’d be laid out for all the village to see – the victim of a run-in with the prized livestock, or worse, a child, or worse still, one of the many mounds of cow and buffalo shit that make up the slalom course, which turns the road into a different sort of potential minefield.
How much would a pig or chick be worth anyway? As a comparatively wealthy westerner you would be liable, and at an exchange rate of almost 10,000 kip to the U.S. dollar you might need hundreds of thousands of kip. What was that number from chemistry again? Avogadro’s mess: 6.02 X 10 to some enormous power (23 wasn’t it?). I mean, at the posted, almost absurd rate of exchange, could a full-grown cow be worth a mole of kip? But, getting back to the dilemma at hand, to not sabai di, could anything be worse?
This leads to perhaps the most relevant greeting issue for a touring cyclist – fatigue. Why is it that most enthusiastic Laotian well-wishers conversant in hello live in villages with a fairly steep uphill grade? Fate? Bad luck? Bad karma from a previous greeting indecision?
Breathe. Pump those legs. Breathe. Pump.
“Hello, good-bye, sabai di.”
Breathe. Pump. Breathe.
“Hell…” Pump. “O”. Breathe.
Your hand lifts off the handlebar in a pathetic, half-hearted wave. You’re not sure if you’ve made eye contact because your broken sunglasses (Oakleys, for about the kazilienth time) have fogged up and your sunscreen-laced sweat is burning your eyes.
“Sa…” Pump. “Ba…” Breathe. “Di.” Pump.
And then, your worst nightmare is realized. Out of the liquid deficiency haze comes……….“Hello! Hello!” – the late caller!
As you may have gathered by now, Laos, particularly northern Laos, is a rugged, mountainous country. It is made up of relatively few roads, even fewer sizeable urban centers, and some of the poorest people on earth. But, like many disenfranchised people, they provide a disproportionate level of hospitality and kindness to travellers. Like many global destinations where the chance to stock up on the necessities for travel, specifically food and water, are limited, Laos is a country where you have to take advantage of opportunities when they appear, and assume the next opportunity may be a long day’s ride down the road.
The ride leaving Luang Prabang for Kiu Kacham was roughly 80 kilometers, and involved 2,037 meters of total climbing with the two longest grades being 15, and 20 kilometers respectively, for a net elevation gain of 1,170 meters.
After a poor sleep, the result of being serenaded by loud karaoke and a room light that, for the love of me, I couldn’t figure how to turn off, I left the restaurant cum guest house and made my way past the town of Phou Khoun, the turnoff for Phonsavan and the Plain of Jars. An amazing downhill run of almost 15 kilometers greeted me, the reward for the previous day and a half of climbing. Traffic was predictably light, almost non-existent, until I reached the bottom of the grade. Here, the haze grew thicker and lower, with the decidedly strong smell of smoke – fire!
The road disappeared into the smoke just past the dozen-long line of vehicles that sat there…waiting. The smoke was dense, with only the odd lick of flame braking through its choking mass. The land on both sides seemed to be ablaze. Perhaps the wind had shifted, and the regular burning of fields had gotten out of control? I tried to gauge the distance to a clearing, if there even was one. Donning an improvised bandanna mask, I moved to the front of the line, and cautiously pedaled into the unknown. I was ready to turn around at any point. But, once moving, I found that the visibility started to improve. Apparently, I was just what the doctor ordered, providing all the persuasion necessary to get the line of vehicles to surge ahead. I ended up leading the convoy through the smoke, and a few minutes later we were all breathing a lot easier.
It was a fast, flat ride through the town of Kasi and on to the tourist trap, which some might aptly describe as a burgeoning tourist slum, of Vang Vieng. To give credit to the local entrepreneurs who controlled Vang Vien’s development, I’m sure they were well intentioned, and thought they were just giving tourists what they wanted. The result was a plethora of bakeries, restaurants, bars, guest houses, and tour companies operating raft and tubing trips down the Nam Song river, which were entirely disproportionate in number to the size of the town, and its visiting population. Nonetheless, the views over the river at sunset, with mystical karst formations looming in the distance, and the communal bathing of things animal, human, and even automotive, was truly magical.
A hasty early morning departure began perhaps the easiest, fully loaded, un-planned century ride one could imagine. In the coolest part of the day, and dead flat except for some truly rolling stretches where speed was easily maintained, the kilometers flew by. The only casualty of this pure joy, adrenaline-fueled experience was the surrounding countryside. Towns like Tha Heua, whose livelihood came from the milling of reclaimed wood from the now dam-flooded valley, were tempting stopping points. But, the exhilaration of the ride was hypnotic, and I pushed on with the sound of my tires in the background, oblivious to the welcomed hand of a slight tailwind.
My trance was ultimately broken, and broken in the most absolute sense of the word. I had never, up until that point, worn through a bicycle rim. Yes, my rear wheel, an absolutely necessary part of my bicycle, had blown open on its side, and an inch long gash was now exposing a portion of my tire’s tube. The sharp metal edges rubbed against my brake pads with every revolution of the wheel. I was thinking my trip, for all intents and purposes, could be over. Surely, it was only a matter of time before my exposed tube blew, or worse yet, the entire wheel collapsed due to the stresses being put on it, and its obviously weakened structure.
This unfortunate circumstance forced an immediate change of plans. I disengaged my rear brake so as to let the wheel, with its sharp metal protuberances, spin free of my brake pads. I then delicately spun the remaining 60 kilometers into the capitol, Vientiane, omitting my planned side trip out to Nam Ngum Lake. The positive side of this predicament was that it happened when it did. The challenging, mountainous grades I climbed, and descended earlier in my trip would not have allowed me to travel with only an operable front brake, sometimes referred to as the eject button.
The next two days were spent roaming the colonial infused streets of Vientiane, searching for a capable new rear wheel, and easing my building frustration with a healthy overdose of French inspired baking. The promenade along the Mekong River was my evening haunt, complete with river traffic, restaurants, pedestrians both foreign and local, and even outdoor aerobics in a purpose-built outdoor amphitheatre.
Croissants and baguettes normally do a magnificent job of appeasing me. But, I was still a little disappointed when I was forced to cut my planned itinerary short, forgoing the ride across the Friendship Bridge into Thailand, and a flight out of the city of Udonthani a day later. Apparently, the closest bicycle shop where I could replace my rear wheel was back in Chiang Mai. Such were the stresses of cycling in rural Laos. My pen rai; no problem. In hindsight, it was a small price to pay for days of cycling nirvana.