Drying Tobacco on bamboo slats.
Apologies for the late entry but days on the bike have been long of late due to the increased heat. Whipping out my laptop whilst sleeping in humble family bamboo huts also didn’t seem appropriate on many an occasion. As there is no 9-5 or Mon-Fri in rural Laos and Vietnam it came to the point where I had absolutely no idea what day of the week and almost month it was. This is definitely a luxury most people cannot afford and I enjoyed waking up with the roosters as my alarm clock and cycling till dusk. Visa extension penalties aside it’s a great way to travel! So with the Khmer New Year just behind me I have made a resolution to be a bit more diligent with my notetaking and even purchased a generic Asian Moleskin diary today. It’s official they can make a fake of anything in Asia!
Laos is ever popular with cycling tourers and with good reason. With a varied and beautiful landscape, laid back people, light traffic and low cost of living it win rave reviews and has had an influx of cyclists this year due to a few articles being written about it in European cycling magazines….perhaps too many cyclists to be honest taking away a little of the “adventure” but making up for it in great company!
Timid compared to their boisterous Vietnamese neighbours.
Looking back on Laos I can confirm that the definition of living hand to mouth is sadly most prevalent in Laos. Salt is not sold by the bottle but in clear plastic bags tied with an elastic band, with an equivalent amount to that of 4 sachets that you would get free (ok built into the price) of your Big Mac meal. Sugar and cooking oil are sold in a similar manner and to highlight the point even further garlic is not sold by the clove but by the segment. Despite their bare bones living conditions the Laos people have a strong aversion to grubbiness and were astounded when I shamefully revealed I only shower….sorry take a dip and pour bath, once a day due to my cycling activities. Children under 5 are exempt from this as they get away with just running around naked. Sachets of single use shampoo adorn even the most humble bamboo village shop and they are in high demand. Just as you grab your towel from your drawer before stepping into the bathroom, our Laos counterparts pop into the local shop for their sachet before hitting the local river, waterfall or lake. Thanks to “world aid Australia” bucket showers of the dip and pour variety,with bamboo walls for modesty, dot many of the villages in Northern Laos. This was a service I was very glad of after a nights camping or on a very hot day. The addition of the modesty bamboo walls was particularly appreciated as my shower and scrub technique whilst grasping at my sarong and simultaneously juggling the dip and pour method led to some near indecent exposure on more than one occasion. I put it in the same category as sitting in the lotus position….if you weren’t brought up that way it’s a difficult skill to master gracefully.
Bath time, Vang Vieng.
I quickly moulded to the Laos way of life and became a little laissez faire about reaching my target distances each day. Laos was supposed to be bicycle touring for dummies and so in true relaxed Laos style I ended up at dusk not near a town with a hotel or guesthouse on more than one occasion. Terrain and the mid-day heat were my downfall on each occasion. The joy of cycling as a solo female with a bicycle means that it is very easy for you to integrate with the locals being viewed firstly as a novelty and thankfully secondly as a non threatening poor humble cyclist. I had a flashcard the basically said “ I am a tired cyclist, can I please put up my tent in your garden?” Unashamedly I did this with the hope of being invited into their home instead, which they did as reliably as the rooster crows at 4am each morning.
When it came to dining everyone produced what they had foraged that day, the daughter was in charge of all things green to be found in the forest, the boys were responsible for protein be it a bird from a successful slingshot aim, a clever snare of a squirrel or possum or if luck was on our side a snake or frog. Rice was the mothers prerogative who had the sticky stuff steaming in abundance all day long. On such occasions I produced whatever I had in my panniers, be it nuts, dried meat or packet noodles….basically anything that didn’t turn rancid in the heat. My contribution was always received with a warm “Oh you shouldn’t have, but I’ll accept it with both hands all the same” smile.
Paper making, random "Ban" near Kasi.
The transition from evening to sleeping time is rather brisk and takes some getting used too. One moment the bamboo mat is a communal table cloth on the floor and within moments the dishes are cleared away and the double function mat becomes a bed. When all bamboo mats are taken out of hiding to carpet the single roomed house, it’s a case of find your patch to nestle. On my first “homestay” obeying my inbred European 1 metre distance rule, I found myself a “private” place in the corner, however my feet were facing towards the door which elicited worried glances between the family members. Apparently after a long game of charades it transpired that this was a major faux pas. It had spiritually bad Phi attached to it and after some scuffling I had myself auspiciously aligned if not a little close for comfort to the grandmother. Some hair rustling ensued throughout the night. Thankfully cycling 100+KM in the heat has a similar effect to taking 3 Valium tablets and I slept like a log…a bamboo log perhaps! No wonder family is everything to these people if they live 3 generations to a room.
Local Papaya forager, who became a little too friendly after a beer or two!
Guesthouses were available in most towns at about 100km distances which worked out nicely apart from the odd terrain issue which resulted in some wild camping. After sitting at the crest of the mountain near Kiukacham I enjoyed the boisterous peaks in the distance. I was a clear advertisement for coca cola as I downed 4 of them within 20 minutes in an attempt to tackle the remaining 30km before complete darkness. Although it gets dark at 6.30pm drivers are cautious until 7.30pm as the workers return from the fields. After 8pm you are a sitting target on the road. I would have liked to have lingered longer to admire a view I well and truly deserved after a 30km climb but sensibility prevailed over aesthetics.
In search of dinner.
Mum this next bit will be of little interest to you so you may want to skip on a bit. Images of the hot springs and a bed at a resort 30km away (downhill I heard) almost won over the amazing view in front of me. Three uphill bans later I happened upon a German tourist whos motorbike had broken down and was waiting for a bus to bring him to Luang Prabang. I asked him what the terrain was like ahead and he said confidently flat and up. I sighed in disbelief, I surmised it was a false peak where I had enjoyed my cokes from and a deflated Kate said Auf Wiedersehen. (next morning after a 1km climb I enjoyed 25 km downhill, how can someone ride a bike through a country and not even notice the terrain!) With energy levels at an all time low I spotted a bamboo hut, open on all sides to the elements but it had a raised bamboo floor and elephant grass roof. At this moment sensibility did not prevail and I called it a day here. I lugged my gear up to its elevated position, waiting until locals passed so that word of the “farangs” existence would be unknown. With my tent erected I went about covering the reflectors on my bags with banana fronds and quickly inspected my abode from the road below. Invisible! Perfect I thought and went about cooking myself porridge the only food in my bag….it’s not all fine dining and jaunt cycling in the countryside you know!
Wild camping, Northern Laos. Otherwise known as the sling shot night!
My "coffin" tent whilst camping with fellow French Cyclists.
As I was marvelling at how delicious porridge is when you are utterly exhausted and ravenous I heard footsteps coming up the earthen steps to my campsite. With the lights of the village not far I knew I was in shouting distance of help and I flicked the lock button on my pepper-spray as a precaution. I needn’t have bothered, it was merely the chief of the village inviting me to sleep with his family a further example of true Laos hospitality. I kindly declined as I made quite an effort to schlep myself up to this “campspot” and I hadn’t the energy to pack up and play charades and smiles all night with his family. In hindsight at 4am I wish I had taken up that offer. I was awoken by the sound and feeling of stones or some natural material being shot at my tent. I passed it off as something falling off the roof until it happened again 4 times and the faint light of a bamboo torch was visible in the distance. Penknife in one hand and pepper-spray in the other I poked my head out of the tent and shouted “sabaideeeee” in the most masculine voice I could muster up. I hoped the masculine voice plus the two pairs of boxer shorts I hung outside my tent would be enough to persuade the hunter that an angry man was waiting for him if he dared to come any closer. With much relief I heard the pitter patter of flip flops skipping down the road. In rational hindsight I reckon it was a well intentioned early morning hunter using his sling shot to rouse some animal life out of the bushes. Instead of an innocent bird or squirrel he got a quite the catch….a westerner! I slept in the coffin position the rest of the night, knife in one hand, pepper-spray in the other until dawn.
Unfortunately the hunter was not the only visitor that evening as I felt a few nips whilst I was cooking dinner the previous night. Painfully I had proof that it is a fallacy that clothes protect oneself from mosquitoes. Within moments of igniting the camping stove the brats were feasting on the non cycling tanned parts of my legs. They were rather partial to my thighs and buttocks. The heat severely irritated the bites the next day and the saddle didn’t help ….so much so that I almost shed a tear over lunch. Note to self be more diligent when applying deet mosquito repellent. After an incident in Thialand where I applied 80% deet to myself during the midday heat and burned holes in my T-shirt you can understand my reservation for using the stuff.
Homestays and guesthouses were not my only form of accommodation as I bedded down in a police station, a wat temple and even a school. School starts early in Laos and with no battery left on my phone alarm clock I had to sleep near the window in the hope that the light would wake me. Although the police had given me the key for the school I still didn’t fancy 40 odd children staring at the “farang” as she packed her panniers the next morning.
The school I bedded down in.
The Laos are known internationally for their “Ber Lao” and are justifiably proud of their export. The same enthusiasm is shown for their bottled water ULTRAVIOLETED AND OZONATED is proudly plastered on the label. Who craves ultraviolated water when radiation incidentally does not kill giardiasis and amoebic cysts. After finding no alternative to local water in India my grumbles were eased when a water treatment manager informed me that it was written in English on the bottle for a reason….for tourists! I’m guessing it’s a similar situation in Laos. That said I wasn’t sick once in Laos.
As the evening drew to a close outside a village near Vang Vieng I managed to catch the market stall vendors as they were closing. The offerings were scarce as expected so I snapped up the remains of the staple sticky rice and chicken cleverly herbed. My taste buds are always fully alert after 100km of cycling but as I devoured the chicken I wondered how many developed countries actually know what real chicken tastes like! I lingered on this thought as I watched the hammer and sickle flag flying high over the market as it does in many of the “bans” towns throughout Laos. It would appear that not everyone was listening when it was replaced in 1991 by the silhouette of That Luang.
Embryonic eggs....all is revealed in the name containing embryo of a young chick. Foul tasting to me but a delicasy to the locals. The number relates to how old the embryo is. I mistakenly thought it might have something to do with how hard boiled it is.....I went for a 5 to avoid Ecoli, a mistake you don't make twice!
Chicken feet, the Laotian Tayto.
When applying for sponsorship for a cycling expedition through rural Laos I now reckon Senekot or Lax it would be a suitable choice for future journeys here. Sticky rice 3 times a day with little more than a garnish sprinkled on top is hardly what I would call a balanced diet but is sadly a reality for many. I’ll give the French their dues and the baguette in Luang Prabang was a welcomed change from the sticky rice staple. Some key ingredients were lost along the way since the brief French colonization and instead of dough in the middle sadly it’s usually air. Bread balloons basically. Inside they are filled with a few slices of cucumber, rich liver pate, fish sauce and various processed meats I can’t hazard a guess at but which most certainly required quite a bit of mastication. If you get a fresh one they are admittedly rather tasty!
Sumptuous dog....I didn't know at the time! Sorry Lola I was thinking of you after.
On reaching Vientienne my first protocol was Visas. First I needed a Thai visa, then a Vietnamese visa and when that was done I needed a few extra days on my Laos visa. This also coincided with “National Womens Day” which I am usually all for but on this occasion I didn’t want to waste yet another day on visas. As if all that paperwork wasn’t enough I was mugged on the street and spent 3 days trying to file a police report. The police station was open, the security guard was there but being the National holiday the following day they had decided to make a long weekend of it. This was supposed to be the head police station in the country and not a policeman was insight. I spent the day playing petonque –another throwback from French colonialization and we even had a BBQ together. However for all my patience no policeman turned up that day. Two days later it was business as usual and I got a more professional than expected report filed in a matter of hours. They even made me draw a sketch of the guy who mugged me, it was like an episode of CSI Miami. With only 92 cases being reported since 1999 it seems they like to make quite the event of reporting a crime which would be easily dismissed as bad luck in many European countries.
Unidentifiable but edible with dolop of mastication and no other alternative.
I wish the same thoroughness could be said about the Laos medical system. I picked up a spider bite somewhere along the way during my afternoon slumbers in Laos. This coupled with an allergy of some form had left me with a nasty gaping wound. With no medical care in northern Laos I resorted to using Lao Lao whiskey as an alcohol disinfectant….not to be advised. The international hospital was closed for renovations so I made do with a local clinic. Not a word of English was exchanged and her bedside manner said “You’re on a plane back home soon so I don’t really care” and I was issued with a prescription for a melee of pills which I had no idea what they were for. The next problem lay in that the pharmacist wanted to confirm the medication was for me but the pharmacy booth had only one window at eye level. With that I broke the strict no pointing with your foot rule and made a less than graceful manoeuvre to poke my leg through the window of the booth. I did this with an air of exaggeration and comedy or otherwise this faux pas would never have been accepted! Slap stick humour breaks all barriers in Asia!
With all my visas eventually in order, police report filed and pills of some form in my pocket for my leg I was delighted to be on the road again. For a capital it doesn’t get much easier than cycling out of sleepy Vientiane. At one point the highway merged from 4 lanes to 2 due to roadworks and I diligently moved across, however the headwind was strong at that point so I cycled on for a while with my head down. After a few KM’s I popped my head up and wondered how long I’d been cycling the wrong way down a motorway….alas everything is accepted in Asia!
South of Vientianne due to a strong headwind, I knew I wasn’t going to make it to a big enough town to deserve a hotel so I veered off the main road route 13 in search of a welcoming ban. When I arrived in the village 5km down a dirt track I created quite a bit of consternation. Babies were yelping, children turned on their heels and adults looked at each other apprehensively. Like approaching a nomads tents with a pack of killer mastiff dogs, I find the best method of approach is to sit tight and look amiable and weary. This vulnerable solo-female card has its merits and must be used correctly….such displays of passive dependence rarely fail! Within moments as predicted the chief of the village wearing a creased vest and sarong had obviously been woken to deal with the “falang”. After scrutinizing my honest face for a moment I thought it an appropriate time to produce my flashcard and let my intentions be known. With that I was ushered into his home and the usual charades game of …Where have come from, where do you go, are you married ? ensued. surprizingly my evening diary scrawls elicited mere curiosity and thankfully unlike their Thai and Indian counterparts the Laos know the difference between welcoming and intruding. My camera however was a step too far for this primitive village. Who could blame them really, this dark heavy black machine with moveable lens and blinding flash was hardly a greeting devise and sent the younger generation into bawling hysterics. They say the photographer has no conscience but definitely no photos were to be had in this village!
On reaching Savanakhet my first protocol was to find a doctor or fly to Bangkok. My wound was so big it practically whistled as I cycled. Also my energy levels were diminishing as the the wound got bigger and more infected. Keeping a wound clean is dusty, humid Asia is an impossible battle I lost. As luck would have it the local clinic had a Vietnamese English speaking doctor…..what a relief. He reckoned I had fought off the spider bite reaction but actually an allergic reaction was the problem, which was why the more I cleaned it with alcohol the worse it got. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it…could it have been the rat, the dog or the stewed toad that had caused the allergic reaction? I was kept in overnight for observation and deemed fit to go the following afternoon. It seems the standard treatment for anyone admitted to hospital is to put them on a drip. Instead of a pouch for the liquid a Coca Cola bottle is often used. Its not uncommon to see a woman holding the coca cola bottle up high above the stalls in a market as she goes about her daily shopping.
In the following 3 days the wound did heal somewhat….well it didn’t get worse but sadly as I write here from Cambodia I’m back to stage 1 with a worsening wound in a country with expensive rip off scam hospitals…..spoiler alert , more about that later.
The Coca cola mountain as I like to call it.....4 were downed on the top and given a KG packet of sugar I would have eaten it as if it were a bowl of cornflakes.
The food in Laos may not deserve any Mitchelin gold stars but for ingenuity and resourcefulness they get 5 stars. The most entertaining part of each market meal was a game of deciphering what I was eating. Although my sign language has improved significantly I find the vegetables hard to communicate and understand….particularly as many do not have English names. Similarly animal sounds are not universal. I asked “mooooooo” when pointing to the meat and I received that translucent smile that says, I just hope you are asking a rhetorical question. As I was nearing the end of my meal a flea ridden dog limped past and the vendor pointed enthusiastically at it and then towards my bowl. It would appear I ate dog not beef…..easy mistake don’t judge me!
Laos main source of protein is fish. So much so that I constantly thought the Laos swimming team had come to town as the majority of boys were parading around in their black briefs either coming from or going to the local river, lake or pond. Although the ladies are constantly modestly dressed I can only presume their bodies are equally as well chiselled as their male counterparts. Apart from the pot belly from malnutrition in the Northern Hmong villages I have never seen a fitter healthier nation. Obesity is certainly not a worry here. When I see the meagre catch after hours of fishing in the over fished rivers and lakes I sometimes wonder if they expel more energy in attaining the food than the actual food itself. For the majority of Laos people their next meal is always a surprise. Dinner will be cooked when a fish has been caught and there is rarely any flora or fauna that the Laos won’t consider nutrition. Their only savoir is that the climate is perfect for numerous exotic fruits, with each bamboo hut possessing some fruit tree. Some families sell their meagre fruits outside their house displayed on bamboo tables in an attempt to increase their income.
Delightful character I happened across as I was using an Al Fresco toilet in the forest off the road!
For a true perspective on the diversity of the Lao cuisine a trip to the local market is a must and something I made an effort to do in most villages. Under the dim light of the half-open, half-closed food market has the ordered chaos of an ants nest. Goods arrive by any means of transport from the meagre bicycle, to a tiller and trailer and on the upper scale a local Song Thaw (truck with open back for people and goods thanks to the advent of wooden benches) Then coolies make their way through the narrow wooden stalls, demonstrating extreme dexterity as they dodge man, woman, child or dog in their way.
Fish are displayed in buckets jumping vigorously with the more senior of them often making a successfully escape in your path. The fish are sold alive, raw, diced, stewed, fried, marinated and any other method of cooking you can think of! Fermented fish paste with the most bawking, pungent smell you can imagine is a popular addition to the condiments tray in each restaurant and noodle stall. To achieve this paste, fish are put in a jar and left to ferment for 1-2 years depending on how strong a stomach you have….or how olfactory impaired you are. Live frogs, huge toads, and eels are all actively seeking your attention. Sun dried toad and fried pork fat have saturated the snacks market leaving little room for the likes of Tayto. It reminded of how my grandmother often made me a “donut” on an old Aga cooker which essentially was a toasted jam sandwich in disguise. However the innocent child was more than pacified when it was described as a donut….similarly one Laos boy proudly called the fried pork fat sold in clear cellophane bags tied with an elastic band as “lays” crisps….I guess we all guilty of consumerism!
The trusty mechanic in action...4 times that day! A record I hope never to repeat!
The meat section of the market is not for the animal rights activist, it is more reminiscent of an Edwardian teaching hospital. If it is anatomy you wish to study this is the place for you. After a shocking and extensive “guide” through a local market with my newly found friend Penu (well that’s how I pronounce it) in a ban 35km from Vang Vieng I was a little wiser to the products on offer. Organs include horses and boars penises, an expensive delicacy it would seem. Like in China poultry feet are an every popular forerunner to Tayto and sold by the bundled tied with geass. Dried buffalo hide with hair still intact (to show authenticity?) were sold hanging in strips. Stomach intestines were a bestseller and for the more prosperous buffalo tongue. With no bones inside it was only for the privileged. Confusingly buckets containing black chunk which I long considered to be liquorice and wondered how out of play they seemed in the meet section, transpired to be pig or buffalo blood. No part of the animal is not used. The Budhists among us may think that it has something to do with the guilt attached to killing an animal but as I saw the all too familiar squirrel, rat and mouse on offer I concluded it had more to do with survival. When I see a turtle on offer I have to show my western side and wearily look the other way. As the mallet crushes the shell of the beautiful creature (still alive) I wonder is the expensive yet miniscule meat inside really worth it? The same could be said about crab but I guess I’m just all too used to seeing pet turtles in tanks being by their owners.
Granted Ireland has its fair share of red tape so an unbiased comparison cannot be found. However one debate that is ongoing in my head is whether we are mommy cuddled too much to our detriment. I watched one day as two boys no more than 7 years old casually ascended a coconut tree joking as they went. In Ireland this would be considered an absailing adventure holiday to post a postcard home from. Nowadays in our culture of sueing I find it sad that children are not allowed to develop such skills. Climbling frames with carefully rubberized floors beneath do not count. Within a couple of generations restrictions have made us into a timid, over-protective race where “safety” is being used as an excuse for physical risk and dare I say physical discomfort. On the other end of the spectrum I have seen toddlers playing inquisitively with machetes and other sharp instruments. The parental view is that if they are old enough to walk the next natural progression is learning the skills to work…or survive. I dare say there must be the odd fatality each year but no doubt it goes un noted. How many six year olds do you know that can gut a fish?
After Savanakhet a beautiful crumbling French colonial town ageing with grace I headed due East along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Their is something very rewarding about following a historical route and uncovering its remnants and ruins as you go. So far my route planning has been little more than country bashing based on road conditions so when given the choice I shall certainly be opting for a historical route in future. My last evening in Laos was spent in Lao Bao a typical border town where my evening was spent fighting off Viagra and bootleg cigarette pushers. Despite leaving a female garment hanging from hotel door I had constant banging on my door all night from the local “ladies of the night”. High heels would have been a better option but the closest thing I have in my sparse cyclists wardrobe are flip-flops which are sadly rather unisex.
My patriotic number plate, on the Ho Chi Minh trail.