Laos – Km 77,070
After nearly three months in Thailand I crossed the Mekong River by boat and I entered to Lao. That night I slept in a hotel in Huay Xai, the border town which is plenty of hotels and restaurants to attend the large number of backpackers who travel in the area.
The next day I started to cycle toward the north through the only road which goes to Huay Xai. I knew that this part of the trip would not be easy because I had been informed that the routes in the north of the country are in very bad condition, sometimes they are a gravel road and too long or what it’s worse, under construction. It is a mountainous area with some passes over 1,000 mt of altitude. Thereby to cycle in Laos was so hard.
But the people are the most innocent and educated that I have ever met. Throughout my trip in Lao I answered hundreds of greetings, “sábaai dii, dii sábaai” they shouted from everywhere, almost always boys who were no more than 10 years old. Days after talking with Pierre, a Frenchman who works in an NGO, I understood the importance of adopting new education policies to help the families, because out of the seven million of the Laotian population, almost 50% are younger than 15 years old.
In northern Lao people are very poor, their houses are built up on piles, their walls are mounted with wood or bamboo cane, and with thatched roof. And they have a unique room, so the lower space is used like a barn, garage, living room and kitchen.
During my tour through the north of Lao, due to there is no any bar or restaurant along the road, I should always stocked up on food whenever I could; nevertheless it was not easy for me, because most of the shops only sell eggs, biscuits and junk food packages. So, the best option was always to ration what I found and to manage by myself.
The first day after 70 km of cycling through the mountains, I stopped in a village at dusk, after sighting a flat green area located on the bank of a river. There, one man came to me and through signs I explained to him my intention of camping. So he showed me the right way to the river where I put my tent and took a bath. After few minutes half population of the villages came to see me, although they didn’t disturb me, they always stayed some meters from me and when it was dark everybody left. At that moment I wished that someone arrived with a meal or just a piece of bread, because my food was scarce, but it didn’t happen and that night I went to sleep so hungry and I could have eaten a horse. Otherwise, from whom I expected something in the morning came to show me his forearm and hand, and through signs he asked me medication for his swelling, which was too big. So I looked through my things for an anti-inflammatory, although I knew that more than medication he needed to see a doctor urgently. I was very sorry and much more when I found nothing in my things.
Then a lady came to me quickly and pointing her head she asked me for medicines, so I gave her a couple of paracetamol tablets. But it upset me more, because then another man came pointing his tooth, another pointing his stomach and one woman asking me for food. Then I realized since I could not help these people the best to do was to leave. So I kept everything quickly, I loaded the bike with my things and after giving my last packet of biscuits to the woman who had asked me for food, I start to cycle.
That afternoon on my way to Luang Nam Tha I got a puncture in the front tire, but looking for changing it I realize it was not external but internal. So I noticed that the double wall of the rim was broken, and that I should buy a new one. So I understood that I could not keep cycling and thereby I hitchhiked, but there was no traffic and in three hours just few vehicles passed and none picked me up. But at least a couple of them stopped to give me water. It was noon and it was very hot. So after few hours I started to worry because I was in a mountainous area without food and 30 km far from the nearest town. “I have to manage by myself” I thought again, and I had the idea to push the sharp edges inside the rim with a screwdriver and turn it three times with scotch tape, so I was able to change the inner tube. “The African way”, I thought. And it worked because I could cycle another 250 km.
Way to Xai Uodom I met Rob, a guy from United States who was cycling since 8 months. It was funny, because in Thailand just by chance he had read an article in a local newspaper about my trip. That day we cycled 125 km, of which the last hill was 20 km up. When we started to go down the night came and although he preferred to camp I pushed him to keep cycling to the city which was another 25 km far. “We are very tired and the road is totally dark I know, but if we arrive we will sleep in a good bed and we will eat a good meal,” I said to encourage him. The route was a disaster, it was a gravel road and it was plenty of big stones. So Rob who at times was in a bad mood, said to me: “When I read about you I thought you were a crazy gay and today I check it, you are really a damn crazy guy”. I wanted to arrive and I knew that cycling together gave us more power. And it was good, because that night rained the whole night and during the next morning too. We were lucky, we slept in a Chinese economic hotel, and we had a good dinner.
The next day I realized that the route toward the north would be more difficult and because of this I needed to change my rim, so I left my bicycle at another hotel and by bus and I travelled to the city of Luang Prabang, located at 200 km south of Uodom Xai, in order to buy a new rim. And I was lucky, because throughout the city which has nearly 100,000 inhabitants, I have only found one rim mountain bike, and with 32 hole as I needed.
Luang Prabang is the third largest city in Lao and the main religious, spiritual, and tourism city in the country. Famous for its Buddhist temples, it is surrounded by mountains and situated at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers. It was declared World Heritage by UNESCO. It is a city with a lot of charm and a variety of activities for the travellers.
When I came back to Uodom Xai I met Pierre who was working since more than a year in Lao. Talking with him let me to learn the history of the country and one of its main problems. According he explained to me, formerly Lao was a group of principalities immersed in endless cycles of invasion, wars, decay and prosperity. But in the XIV century the Laotian Prince Fa Ngum started the unification of various regions to form the kingdom of Lan Xang, what means “Land of a Million Elephants”. Lao was subsequently occupied by the kingdom of Siam (Thailand), by the French, by the Japanese in World War II and again by France who finally granted full sovereignty in 1954.
But as a result of the Cold War, the following two decades were a chaotic period in Lao; at that time U.S. was fighting the Vietnam War and wanted to cut the supply routes from Lao to North Vietnamese enemy and prevent the country will take side for communism. Thus the communist Laotian side (supported by North Vietnam, China and the Soviet Union) confronted the US-backed right- wing. As a result, between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. destroyed the eastern and north-eastern Lao with continuous bombardment of cluster bombs, which are characterized by open, dropping hundreds of sub-munitions. Currently, the UXO Lao (unexploded ordnance) estimates that there are still over 70 million unexploded sub munitions, and therefore since more than 30 years the Laotian society can not use these land for agriculture and go through it, is a life-threatening. According to Pierre these bombs still kill and maim hundreds of civilians each year in Lao.
Finally with the withdrawal of the U.S. from Vietnam and the fall of Saigon by the North Vietnamese, in 1975 Laotian communists decreed the end of the monarchy and proclaimed the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. But according to Pierre from a couple of decades, the Lao government began to soften the regime, to allow the appearance of firms and the entry of foreign capital.
Then my trip continued through Muang La, Muang Khua and Muang May, where I met Guilherme, a French guy, who was cycling toward Vietnam. And it was nice, because together we went through what would be one of the worst routes throughout my trip. The dirt roads were in very bad condition, with passes over 1000 meters and sometimes with 6 or 7 daily areas under construction to go through. Often the roads were blocked, so we had to push our bikes over a huge mountain of stones, something anti-human to someone who is travelling with a bicycle of 80 kilos. The other option was to wait for the excavators and bulldozers to clear the road, which could take hours.
Cycling through this area let me to understand other problem of people. According they explained to me each year in the north of the country when it comes time to prepare fields for rice planting the people make the burning of the harvest remains and new areas of forests to meet the growing demand of fertile soil. This old farming practice, which takes place on slopes, has enabled many people, generation after generation, to produce food for immediate need. But actually the practice of burning has a temporal efficacy and its complete failure after having picked up one or two crops. “This method causes irreversible and harmful effects to soil”, Pierre told me. “Do the farmers understand or worry about this?” I asked. Pierre kept silence.
Then I thought about the economically developed countries, which spend thousands of millions for wars or banks financing when they should help with a sum of money, much smaller, almost a paltry amount compared, to the people of these countries to solve their food problems without having to force them to seek new forest to burn simply to survive. It also concerns to the climate change issue. But the point is that there is no oil in Lao.
To cycle through northern Lao, was like cycle under a huge fireplace, like to be under an immense blanket of smoke. Really asphyxiating!