After a lazy month spent in Northern Thailand we finally made our way to Laos. An easy border crossing into our 20th country led us to a small town
where we got the slow boat to Pak Beng. For many people, it was only the stopover to Luang Prabang, but for us, it was where we would start our cycling journey through Laos. On our arrival, we strolled Pak Beng’s one street, undecided on where to eat. All the restaurants had the same menu and the same prices, so we settled for the one with the least pushy hawker.
We soon realized how different this small town looked just 500m around the corner, where no tourists probably ever ventured to go. There, locals were selling their produce at the market, chatting with each other, strolling up and down the street as if the touristy Pak Beng didn’t even exist.
We cycled our way to Luang Prabang over many ups and long downs, filling the empty gaps on the average tourist map, which were, for us, filled with the real Laotian experience we were looking for. Cycling, in this sense, is some sort of first-class ticket to what people generally don’t see. In the case of Laos, we gladly discovered that the mountains sang. Aside from the saying and their natural stunning beauty, climbing up through remote villages turned out to be a musical experience. For no matter how poor and underdeveloped these villages were, there would always be someone blasting out music from their homes, or shops, with the rest of the village almost singing along.
The sight was quite delightful, with women of all ages weaving their cotton or silk, and men working the lands. If it was a rainy day, everybody would just sit outside their teak homes weaving baskets, or chatting. A serenity that has stunned us, just like every time we see people who have barely anything but a content life within their community; no interest in the quest of what else there is in the world to achieve and do, for everything they need is already there. In some other cases, however, it was sad to see some people in the poorest villages lying around, looking oblivious to the world passing by, and vaping out from long pipes what we believe was opium.
The stunning rural scenery would, at times, turn into massive construction sites where Chinese workers and families had taken over the area. The true display of what China means by “friendship and shared development goals”, where Mandarins would do the job necessary for their country to hold the monopoly of power in Laos, while the locals watched from afar, learning nothing.
100km out of Luang Prabang, a pungent pain on the top of my leg that had been with me for a few days forced me to catch a minibus to town while Ross rode the rest. It was weird to be so “far away” from each other, after having spent 24/7 together for the last 8 months but we survived the day and after a well-deserved rest, we spent the following days exploring the sights and the French colonial architecture.
We knew that the hardest climbs were ahead of us, starting just out of town, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. We made our way through the hills, which relentlessly kept on coming, while we kept on going, fumbling our way to the top. After a week spent in the clouds (literally), with our clothes soaking wet and the fog dangerously obscuring the view of the road we decided to make some little adjustments on our route.
The thought of continuing out towards the even harder hills in the North East of the country was, at that stage, an unnecessary and easily avoidable pain. We headed South, instead, towards the capital.
Just before the awfully touristy Vang Vieng, the scenery abruptly changed to give space to sheer limestone rocks that seemed to have been suddenly pushed up from the ground, to then become flat and industrialized the closer we got to Vientiane.
The urban scene was quite unexpected and cheerful, and it was nice to see people jogging along the river and a big group of women sweating their daily worries away through a mixture of dancing and exercises. In the background the music pumping out louder than ever. We also had a lovely evening with another couple of cyclists and went to watch the new Star Wars movie in a fancy, yet deserted cinema.
The road in and out of town was dreadfully uneventful, but the scenery changed once again when we reached Nahin. The limestone formations reappeared, surrounded by silent and mystic forests. One last climb, on the Thakhep loop that we were partially riding on, led us to Lak Sao, finally reaching the border town with Vietnam.
Just as Ross wanted badly to visit Istanbul or cycle the Pamir Highway, I couldn’t wait to finally explore the one country I was looking forward to the most. Aside from what the history books had taught us, however, nobody would have prepared us for what happened next.