Farewell Laos. It’s been wonderful. We’ve shared rooms with large spiders, guessed at the origin or purpose of the various items being sun-dried beside the road, admired loads of lovely looking old VW Beetles in Vientiane, watched the sun rise over the Mekong, toured a coffee plantation, seen the French colonial influence in fiercely contested petanque games and experienced the full volume of the last day of a Buddhist festival. And normally paid between £3 & £8 for a room for a night (often with wi-fi but more often without, and sometimes without running water as well).
Our experiences haven’t all been positive though. Like the rest of Southeast Asia, Laos has an obsession with plastic bags, and it’s starting to get to us. At stalls and shops you practically have to wrestle your purchases away from the vendor, gesticulating frantically at your rucksack or the re-used plastic bag already open in your hand. Even when buying a couple of ice-creams, clearly for immediate consumption, shop assistants insist on putting them in a brand new plastic bag for the journey from till to street. It’s infuriating. And of course, despite the fact that Laos has a, well, let’s just call it a ‘developing’ waste disposal system, which you’d think would mean that people would be used to taking responsibility for their own rubbish as they can’t rely on the local government to do so, people gaily drop their used bags into the rivers and fields without a care in the world. Do they actually enjoy living in squalor? We’re sick to death of cycling past trees festooned with plastic bags and grass verges buried under discarded bags and bottles. And it’s not like there aren’t that many bins –village streets are lined with them (cleverly made from re-cycled tyres) so why don’t more people use them? We’ve been told that when food was traditionally wrapped in banana leaves it was never a problem to simply discard the biodegradable wrapper in the street, and plastic bags are still a sufficiently new phenomenon that disposal habits have not yet caught up. But it’s hard to believe that. It feels like plastic bags have been ingrained in the culture here for much longer. There’s little we can do though but to continue our two person war against plastic by refusing and re-using as we go along, and trying to avert our eyes from the flapping roadside horrors.
Thankfully, there’s been plenty to distract the eye. While in Luang Prabang we pedalled out on a day trip out to admire the turquoise waters of the Kouang Xi Falls (where there is also a sanctuary for rescued Asiatic bears).
Then the route south from Luang Prabang to Vientiane took us through some of the most beautiful scenery we’ve seen. The hills are a bit of a slog, but the views make every pedal stroke worth it. We really pity the poor backpackers who take the overnight bus and miss it all. The hill villages are stretched out affairs, with houses perched on the thin strip between the edge of the road and the steep escarpment, and because most of the houses don’t have chimneys, fires are lit outside and daily chores are conducted out in the street – we got to see it all as we cycled through it. It must have been the middle of broom-making-season as all around us grasses were drying in the sun. Men, women and children would then roll the grass stems and then thrash them against the ground to remove the seeds before bundling them up into brooms.
Other activities include spinning, weaving, basket-making, childcare (we saw men looking after toddlers as often as women), food preparation, laundry and ablutions (under the single village tap).
At Vang Vieng, which we’d expected to hate due to its reputation as a party town, we were so enchanted by the soaring karsts that we stayed an extra night to take in the sunset one more time. Our stay was made all the more pleasant by finding an excellent economical guesthouse in the quieter southern end of town. Our friends Sue and Justin had ended up in the party area and wished they’d brought ear plugs. Vang Vieng was where we said our goodbyes to Sue and Justin as they carried on down to Vientiane and then sped on through Thailand and into Cambodia to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.
We made our way more sedately to Vientiane and spent a few days getting our Thai visa and also having some more ‘Threewheeling’ business cards printed. The Thai visa process here is not one we’d recommend. They open for business at 8:30 but apparently the queues start at 6am. We arrived around 9am and queued for ages just to get a form and a number. We completed the form then sat down to wait, and wait, and wait. There were around 200 people in front of us (and at least 150 more behind us) and it took well over 2 hours before our numbers were called. After we handed our forms over we were told to go to another building to pay. Whereupon we had to wait a further 30-40 minutes before we were allowed to pay, despite there being no queue at the counter and indeed little discernible activity behind the counter. All in all, having arrived at 9am, it was most definitely lunchtime before we managed to escape. The only redeeming point in the Vientiane process was the next-day turnaround (unlike the four days in Phnom Penh). So far Kota Bharu seems the best: next-day turnaround, cheaper than both Vientiane and Phnom Penh, and no big queues.
We toyed with the idea of getting a bus from Vientiane to Savannakhet as we’d heard the road was flat and boring, but Sue and Justin reported that the buses require your bike to be boxed (Really? Even when we’ve seen motorbikes on the roofs of the bus?), so we decided to pedal. It was, as expected, flat and boring, and the hot headwind didn’t really help matters, but you can’t have it breathtaking and gorgeous all the time, and we’ve done plenty of flat and boring before so a little bit more didn’t hurt, and it’s always more satisfying to have pedalled somewhere yourself, watching the daily lives of people unfurl around you.
And in any case we had the Dinosaur Museum in Savannakhet to look forward to.
It’s not a very large museum, just two rooms, and the exhibits are all labelled in Lao and French, but the curator is a very enthusiastic chap who speaks some English and gave us a guided tour. He opened up drawers and gave us all sorts of exciting things to fondle. I felt a bit bad and just trusted that he knew what he was doing. These artefacts are millions of years old. Shouldn’t we have been wearing gloves at least? Anyhow, it was pretty cool – how many of you have held a Tyrannosaurus Rex elbow in your sweaty mitt?
From Savannakhet we continued south along route 13 to Khongxedon where we’d intended to turn east on route 16 to Salavan, but it turned out that despite route 16 being marked as the main road on our map it didn’t exist, so we had to back track a few kilometres and take route 15 instead. Unfortunately route 15 is only sealed for around 30 of its 75 kilometres, the remaining 45km are on red dirt. On dry sections great clouds of dust enveloped us as other vehicles passed, but the alternative, we discovered, was getting stuck behind the water van that wets the road in an attempt to prevent the dust clouds. Sliding around on the slick surface, and then having to stop every kilometre to scrape mud out from beneath the mud guards was even worse than the dust clouds.
Salavan marked the start of our ascent up onto the Bolaven Plateau, Laos’ primary coffee growing area. We’d been really looking forwards to this. The climb was not too steep and we trundled along through acre upon acre of small coffee farms. It’s the end of the Arabica picking season and every front yard was spread with red and green coffee cherries drying in the sun.
We’d heard about a coffee tour run by a Dutch guy in Paksong so made our way there, however, the first coffee shop we came across was not the original one run by Cornelius (aka Koffie) but a new place run by a guy from Seattle. We had a cup of his coffee and listened to him pontificate about how his coffee roasting process is far superior to Koffie’s and how his coffee is made using 9g of beans per cup with water at 97C (Oh yeah? And how did you achieve that at 1300m altitude?), which drips through the grounds for between two and two & three quarter minutes; and how he is not running tours at the moment as it is the end of the picking season so there’s nothing to see but no doubt Koffie will take your money and just take you round his back yard. Basically he was so far up his own ass we couldn’t wait to get away, and the coffee he served left just as bad a taste in our mouths as his company had.
Just down the road we found Koffie’s coffee shop (we’ve suggested he updates his sign with his name to distinguish it from the place up the road as we were not the only ones to initially go to the wrong place) and booked onto his tour for the following afternoon. He also recommended the waterfall tour run by the Tad Fane Resort (where his own tour starts) so that was our day planned.
We were up bright and early, rolled 12km down the hill to the Tad Fane resort and spent the morning strolling through coffee plantations and then dense forest to see some waterfalls, and in the afternoon we were joined by an Aussie couple and, in his own inimitable and highly amusing style, Koffie told us all about how coffee is grown, how to tell the difference between Arabica and Robusta, how the soil affects the flavour, the different methods of growing, picking and processing and the impact that has on the final product, and finally, a really nice idea for a treat: go to a super coffee retailer and select some single estate beans that have been shade-grown, hand-picked, washed and sun-dried. 1kg will cost around 50-70 euro (ouch!). However, for a nice treat, you only need 100g. That’ll give you 10 cups of ridiculously good coffee and at just 5-7 euro is much cheaper than 10 cups of Starbucks. What a great idea!
We finally left Tad Fane at 5pm and hurtled down the hill in a desperate attempt to reach Pakse, 40km away, before darkness fell at 6. We almost made it. But then it took us an hour to find accommodation – everywhere was full! The next day we discovered that there was a sports tournament on in Pakse, and just down the road in Champasak (our next destination) there was a 3 day religious festival taking place at Wat Phu. The information officer in the tourist office assured us there’d be no accommodation at all in Champasak. So we went there anyway.
And how glad we were that we did! Yes, it was a bit stressful finding a room, but we held our nerve and found the fantastic Vong Paseud guesthouse. Run by an avuncular, somewhat portly chap with a gap-toothed smile as wide as his waistband, the rooms were only 50,000 kip (about £3.70), and his restaurant, overlooking the Mekong, served cyclist-sized portions of delicious rice or noodles at cyclist-budget sized prices. Heaven!
We’d arrived in Champasak on the last day of the Wat Phu festival. The flyers suggested we’d see “candlelight processions, illuminations, traditional musics and comedies, music groups.” The reality was kilometre after kilometre of tat stalls with the nasal caterwaul of competing Asian pop songs blaring at ear-drum excoriating levels. The Wat did look quite pretty, illuminated for the most part by hundreds of tiny oil lamps, but the effect was spoilt a bit by the ankle-deep debris and retina-searing fluorescent strip-lights that I suppose were there to help illuminate the steps, but actually imprinted themselves on your retina so violently it was difficult to see anything at all. We stuck it for about an hour and then decided to come back the next day.
We knew the site managers would have a big clean-up job on their hands so waited until the afternoon before returning, but they’d barely scratched the surface of the sea of plastic bags. It was pretty disappointing. This is a Unesco World Heritage site and apparently a place of huge religious importance to Buddhists and Hindus. We thought that a) people might have taken a bit more care not to mess the place up in the first instance, and b) that a bit more effort might have been put into the clean-up efforts. Plenty of monks get up at the crack of dawn to go out on the scrounge (sorry, Keith gets cross with me for that phrase, what I mean is receiving alms), so why can’t they, for one day, get up at the crack of dawn to go and help clean up their sacred site? It’s not like they seem to have much else on their agenda; maybe a bit of navel-gazing followed by sticky rice for lunch?
If you scrunch your eyes up to ignore the landfill-look, then Wat Phu is an impressive sight. The remains of two ornately decorated temples stand either side of a central aisle, which leads to a vertiginously steep staircase, enclosed by ancient, gnarled frangipani trees. The view from the top terrace is stunning, looking out over vast plains and the Mekong river, and it’s easy to imagine how awe-inspiring the site would have been in its 11th and 12th century heyday. Perhaps it was just our bad luck to visit it at festival time.
And so we came to the end of our Laos visa and the familiar final-day dash for a border. The Pakse/Ubon Ratchatani crossing is a nice easy one. Get stamped out of Laos, pay an ‘overtime fee’ of 1 US dollar, fill in an entry/departure card for Thailand, get stamped in and off you go. So, goodbye Laos; for the most part, we’ve loved you!