Half way around the world till Laos

As interesting a time we might have had in China, by the time we left we were more than ready for a change. That change however didn’t quite come straight away. We crossed the border and… well things seemed a bit the same for a while. The same red construction trucks and the same big buildings in sight. We were in the middle of a very busy and very dusty Chinese building construction site!

We ended up spending our first night in Laos in a room that seemed fit for workers spending the night and already at the distance we started to hear what would become our soundtrack throughout Laos or even the whole South East Asia: Karaoke! Little did we know at the time just how much of it we would hear, and to be honest, how tired we would become of hearing it…

Nonetheless, construction trucks and karaoke aside, as soon as we started cycling away from the border: green! (albeit covered in a fine layer of red construction dust.) Slowly in the distance, but getting ever closer as we pedaled, we would have glimpses of green covered hills, layered one after the other. 

On the way we started passing wooden houses on stilts, with people gathered outside around the fire in the mornings. We were most definitely not in China anymore! The villages were visibly even less developed than before, but perhaps the more remarkable was a certain feeling of community hanging on the air.

These villages filled the small gaps of land between the road and the hillsides, in a long stretch of houses, one after the other. A communal water source would normally exist at one end of the village and people would bathe and collect water for drinking. The source more often than not, wasn’t anything more than a bamboo stick channeling the water from a nearby spring. 

Somehow it all felt  much more calm and a relaxed way of life than in China. Our ears were quite happy too. Way less trucks, way less honking. Even with the occasional karaoke being sung from one of the houses, which at the time, we still thought was a Laos thing…

And then there was that word that automatically puts a smile in your face. “Sabaidee!”. It was like being back in Tajikistan with so many friendly kids, but the welcoming sounding even more pleasant: “Sabaideeeee!” shouted from afar and in every direction. The local hello, which to form the sound in your mouth naturally puts a smile on your face. Especially when you say it in reply to the most genuine smiling cheerful kid waving at you from afar 🙂

Another source of excitement was the change in food. Sarah had been in Laos before and as much as she didn’t quite remember everything about it, one thing she did remember: the food. Quickly the foodie treats hunt began! To start off we had our first (of many) ice coffees at the side of a road. Soon, rice crackers and bananas chips followed.  And at lunch, sticky rice in a woven bamboo pot. These all in the same day! Our stomachs would definitely be happy around these parts.

We were heading towards Luang Prabang. Although with not much recollection about it, Sarah had already been there and for some reason the name also stuck in my mind as not unfamiliar. The night before we camped just outside town, underneath a bamboo tree, just a few meters from the road, but completely invisible and unnoticed. Several people on motorcycles passed, completely unaware of our presence. I remember going to sleep at night marvelling at all the sounds of the forest around us, with all sorts of creatures. I couldn’t really imagine what they were, making a cacophony of interesting and amazing sounds.

One thing I also won’t forget was getting back to the road the next day, early in the morning, and suddenly facing a pair of huge elephants as we turned the road. A caretaker was taking them to their usual river morning splash place and I couldn’t but admire the amazing size and presence of these animals. Their slow but strong pace, their wrinkled skin and their almost human eyes.

Arriving in Luang Prabang, we couldn’t help but feel a little out of place. Where did all these people come from?! Suddenly we were surrounded by foreigners, nearly outnumbering the local people. Still, the town felt pleasant and relaxed, in the Lao way. We found an affordable room to stay in and spent a few days in town just checking out the food and night markets, trying out different fruit juices, having more ice coffee, spending some time just contemplating the river and being overall lazy and relaxed.

By the time we left we were still feeling in need of a longer, more permanent rest, like the one we were planning to have once we reached Thailand. But, to get to that rest we had to continue pedalling. And peddallin we did! And that’s how shortly after leaving town we clocked a milestone distance! 20037.5 km! It might seem an odd distance to celebrate but it meant we had by then cycled halfway around the world (since the earth’s circumference at the equator is around 40075 km).

For most of the rest of the day, we had a dog accompanying us (or actually leading our way), literally for 35km straight!  If we stopped, he would stop and wait for us. If (and when) we tried to shake him off on a downhill he would eventually catch up with us on the next uphill. To make things even better, everyone in every village we passed through seemed to assume the dog was ours, and therefore (as we also felt a bit) that he was our responsibility. Like when he peed in the corner of someone’s yard, ran in front of cars or made all the village dogs go mad. And there were in fact a lot of other dogs around, mostly pups and older bitches. We could never really tell if they were pets or if it was due to the fact that it is not unheard of (and later we saw it) that people breed and  eat dogs around these parts of the world….

Nothing better to celebrate our pedalling halfway round the world, then stumblimg across some soothing hot springs, which we found after having said goodbye to our canine escort shortly after leaving the town of Vieng Kham and a ridiculously steep hill. Hot springs might not be the most obvious and immediate thing that comes to mind when thinking of South East Asia, but considering how much we had struggled and sweated to get up that hill and given that, to our surprise, the nights were actually pretty chilly, a soak in the warm water was in fact the perfect treat.

The further we went south the more wild and green the landscape seemed to become. Hill after hill after hill, giving a beautiful view of blue mountains, overlapping peaks as far as our eyes could see. The weather was also getting warmer, to the point that we decided to try and sleep one night in one of the many field huts we were seeing along the way. There would be no need to setup the tent and we could just enjoy the views over the hills.

As we were keeping our eyes open for a hut we could borrow for the night, we passed by a school where a person was locking the gate. A funny interaction of looks being exchanged followed, where without anything almost being said, we understood we were being asked if we wanted to spend the night at the school. It must not have been the first time cyclists passed around here… We gladly and without hesitation took the offer and scouted the school for a place to camp. And what did we find on one of its corners? A hut to camp! And what a great view it had! We even had our own little bench to cook dinner and enjoy breakfast while contemplating the view. From that night onwards we spent a few more sheltering in all sorts of different huts the route had to offer, more often than not, only to be awakened at the end of the night or beginning of the morning by curious smiley farmers.

Even though when we entered, there was the ever present thought at the back of our minds that Laos was one of the most landmine contaminated countries of the world, in the end as we were cycling in the west of country the campings in Laos were some of the easiest and most relaxed we had had in a few months. It wasn’t like in Central Asia where we could camp almost anywhere, our choice just depending on where the view was best, but Laos was so sparsely populated that most time all it took was to take a path coming off the main road or to borrow one of the many available field huts for the night.

Despite the many and very steep hills, we kept a good pace though Laos as we had a very important appointment with some very special Dutchies. There was at least every day a 1000m elevation to gain but somehow, the yummy food and the friendly people made it all much easier. We left the country with our biggest dash ever, a 140km ride from dawn to well… pitch dark, but soon we were close to the border to Thailand and ready for some more interesting changes.

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