May 27, 2014 by melcogger
Entering into Laos was like entering into a new world. The roads were quiet, people markedly friendlier and overall more peaceful than what we had experienced in Vietnam. Most importantly busses, trucks and motorbikes did not engage in the inexplicable practice of lunatic hooting at every movable object on the road – even invisible ones that only lunatics can see. So yes, we were still hung up a little about Vietnam but don’t worry that’s what Laos is for. Life is significantly more laid back here. We spent 3 days (240km) crossing the circumference of the country from Lao Boa to Savannakhet on a road which sees lots of trade between the two nations. The down side to this was that there were reminiscences of what we had left behind niggling at us as we enjoyed the pleasures of pedaling through this marvelous land. Every indifferent restaurant owner or speeding hilux bukkie, in our minds, could only be one of those – like ghosts to haunt us. Reader: “Ok, ok we get it. You didn’t like Vietnam. Get over yourself already.” And you’ll be right. In fact, thank you for your honest advice. We can assure you that’ll be the end of it.
Back to cycling: we split the trip to Savannakhet into 90km to Phin, 55km to somewhere unknown and a 110km to the end. It was the longest we had ridden in consecutive days, totaling 403km over 5 days from our last major stop in Hue in Vietnam. It’s by far not the longest stretch of cycling we’ve heard of but stretching the boundaries for us nonetheless. When we met another tour cyclist in Savannakhet (Dean McMinnemon cycling from Ireland to to Australia having accomplished 17 000 plus kms already) who informed us that he had just come off a 13 day stretch of 100kms a day, our jaws dropped. We’ve come to learn of other tour cyclists through our new craze of secret blog stalking so it was nice to meet one in person. Being a relatively small community, it’s always amazing to meet and share experiences of the road. It’s also hugely inspiring to know exactly what can be achieved by simply pedaling along – entire continents in fact. There wasn’t much food on the road so we made sure we stocked up at every market and small store. On the ’55km to somewhere unknown’ day we stopped at an isolated guesthouse somewhere unknown because our legs simply couldn’t take it anymore. That night we ate 6 meilies, a pineapple, a beer lao and a can of condense milk for dinner – the exact combination of carbohydrates and sugar to ensure we faired better the next day. Our guesthouse was nice enough, but with a tin rough ensured that we were staying in a hot box. Although I can report that we made it safe and sound, there was one point where a 5 year old girl on a bright pink bicycle easily sped passed me. Emasculating to say the least!
Our two year wedding anniversary was approaching and wanted to make it to something other than a random one-horse town. We did the research and found a place called Si Phan Don (4000 islands) in the very south of Laos that met our intrigue and fancy. It was a 400km detour that we resolved to bus one way and cycle the other back up. This decision had an uncanny impact on us. A one day bus ride could get us to 4000 islands in no time but despite this the thought of it made us terribly anxious that we kept delaying it. After copious amounts of relaxing in Savannakhet (5 days to be precise. Oops!) we decide that it was far easier to cycle 5 days than to risk the unknown of a bus ride. By the time we made this decision it was too late to get to 4000 islands for our anniversary so we made the best of it in Savannahket and treated ourselves to a 2 hour full body and foot message, burgers and beer at a small but cosy restaurant in town. Although Savannakhet is really a ‘nothing’ town by tourist standards, we took delight in just living – eating, sleeping and sitting by the Mekong River sipping beer at sunset. Our relaxation was infinitely enhanced by the guesthouse we stayed at (Joli Guesthouse). We had a spacious room, tv, aircon, crisp white sheets, unlimited wifi, free breakfast, free water, free bananas, free coffee, and the whole place to ourselves. Added to this our hosts were more than friendly and accommodating. We’ve noticed that traveling has the tendency to be rather transactional if every personal interaction is reduced to buying food or accommodation. The human element is drastically diminished because perceptions by us and against us are purely for the purposes of getting something. This tendency is so bad that we only ever learn words for ‘how much?’, ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’. So to have guesthouse owners that smiled, greeted us (sometimes several times a day) and conversed with us was extremely refreshing.
We finally set off from our lazy stay in Savannakhet and headed south towards sleepy Pakse (small to medium sized ‘city’). We split the 240km journey into three days, which was largely uneventful and easy going except for this flaming red ball of fire that rises in the east. We were now cycling in the second hottest month of the year and struggling. Thankfully rainy season is on its way and we’ve already had to cycle in a number of downfalls which are pleasantly cool. The only thing worth recalling during this journey was an extra 10km I had to cycle because Melissa absentmindedly left her helmet at a drinks stop sending husband to the rescue. The extra kilometers on top of a 114km day meant that a tin of condensed milk was needed before we reached our hotel. We call the things Melissa has left behind ‘casualties’. So far, we’ve lost a water bottle, a flannel, a thermometer ect (I’m not really keeping score).
We didn’t know how long we would stay in Pakse considering our over-extended stay in Savannahket but upon finding a guesthouse with two hammocks overlooking the Xe Don River (tributary to the Mekong River) our lazy nonchalant attitude in Loas forced yet another extended stay. While lazing about we noticed the alarming rate at which other backpackers travel. Most of them jump off an overnight bus from Vientiane and before you’ve even introduced yourself they’ve hopped onto the next destination. Pakse offered us everything from a chill out plekkie, ice cream, cheap beer and really nice restaurants – what else do you need?? It even had an assortment of Indian restaurants, one of which (‘Jasmines’) we ate at nine times over four days. During each meal I itched to talk about cricket with our Indian waiter, hoping that he felt the connection between us. You see, South Africa has the biggest population of Indians outside of India and so naturally we eat a lot of Indian cuisine and I have a lot of Indian friends. He did not reciprocate obviously because there aren’t as many South Africans living in India as there are Indians in SA.
By now, we had decided to not cycle northern Laos but rather cycle all the way down the Mekong River into Cambodia and towards the ocean. We had read about a number of beautiful waterfalls located on the Bolaven Plateau – a 214km detour loop starting and ending in Pakse- the thought of which finally got us off our bums and pedaling again. The first day was a mix between a gradual 600m elevated climb intermittent with scenic waterfall stops. For 5000kip (R5) each the waterfalls were well worth it. The slow bumpy roads off the main road to the sites caused some problems in the rain (I fell off three times) but adventurous nonetheless. We met two more tour cyclists in Paksong at the end of the day. Yet again, always nice to share stories and experiences. The next day was all downhill – 70km of it! Hardly had to pedal at all. Added to this we reached our 3000km mark and best of all, it wasn’t in an excavated pit on the side of a busy highway.
Our holiday continued in a tiny village next to Tad Lo. Eating, reading, sleeping…. Hmmm…. Not much actually. You know a place is quiet when you neglect to look left and right when crossing the street. As much as we love cycling we’ve rather enjoyed having some time off. In our world cycling is our ‘job’ (we wake up at 5am cycle, breakfast, cycle, tea, cycle, lunch, cycle, soft drink, cycle, ‘home’) except there’s no need for leave application forms because we’re the bosses now. Articles in your face! (We spent the last two years in slave labour training to be attorneys while saving for this trip). We probably had our best accommodation in Tad Lo: huge wooden cabin, a large double and a single bed, a balcony with hammocks and a modern bathroom with a separate shower (the only downside being that you couldn’t poo, brush your teeth and shower at the same time as in other Asian bathrooms). Each morning in Tad Lo we decided whether or not to leave or not and five days later packed up and headed back to Pakse for some more Indian food.
As we rolled into town (everything all too familiar) and parked at Jasmines, two Japanese guys smiled and nodded to us while admiring our bikes. You can always spot another tour cyclist this way and low and behold they were (other European backpackers hardly ever say hello or even make eye contact). Except these guys (traveling separately) were the real deal. Yuichiro Kato is cycling from Portugal to Japan and the other, Tiro, cycled from Japan to England and is on this way back to Japan, detouring through SE Asia. Holy shit! We arranged to meet for dinner to get more details and it didn’t disappoint. Yuichiro is a teacher and has taken a year off while Tiro has adapted his entire lifestyle for the last three and half years and is seemingly a professional nomadic tour cyclist. We were headed the same direction as Tiro so we cycled a day together, saw the ancient ruins of Wat Phou and shared a couple meals.
We braced ourselves for a grueling next day of 122km in sweltering heat along a deserted road towards Si Phan Don (the destination we eyed for our wedding anniversary but only managed to get there twenty days later). It was rough. This heat is really something else. It doesn’t matter how much water you drink or pour over yourself, everyday there’s the threat of heat exhaustion and more seriously heat stroke. Melissa drank eight liters of water that day. Although relatively flat and straight, at about 9h30 to 10h00 cycling just became tedious. We had to stop every 20km for soft drinks and when we couldn’t find any, at abandoned road side stalls. At 12h00 we had had enough of the heat when Mel’s vision started going blurry and we were hungry. We stopped at a road side stall to have some noodle soup and the most amazing Loation woman turned a fan right onto us. She offered to let us cool off by throwing water over ourselves by their well and let us sit out the heat of the day on her porch with a hammock, a mat and some pillows. After a tin of condensed milk and drinking copious amounts of water, we were ready to hit the last leg of a desolate hot stretch to paradise. We eventually made it, crossed the Mekong on a fishing boat and as we edged towards the harbour at Don Det (a small island on the river) we saw another embarrassing site. Farangs (white people) were scattered along a tiny, dirty, litter infested strip of ‘beach’ soaking in the heat in teeny tiny swimming attire. We quickly disembarked from the fishing boat and scurried up the ‘beach’ in order to disassociate ourselves with this amusing practice. I wonder what the conservative locates must think…? We found an extremely cheap and very basic bungalow on the sun rise side of the island with two hammocks for 20 000kip (R20). While overlooking the river with splendid views it was more like camping than anything else.
Si Phan Don was ‘interesting’. Clearly a very popular place for young irresponsible backpackers. Most restaurants advertise ‘happy’ shakes, space cakes and hangover breakfasts with Valium. Not really our cup of tea. Although an ‘off the beaten track’ destination for backpackers in the 70’s, with the installation of electricity, the island has become extraordinarily popular with the young crowds in the last ten years. Locals are, understandably, very hardened in their manner and approach to tourists. This, no doubt, has developed from the type of travelers that have dawned its shores: half naked guys and girls walking between bamboo huts, chickens, cows, pigs and playing children is a strange site indeed. Anyways, we didn’t let our snobbish attitudes ruin a good old chill out. As can be expected we spent copious amounts of time in our hammocks reading, eating… blah blah blah (which is probably what you are thinking reading this at work).
If you haven’t seen our videos from our personal facebook pages, here’s two videos of our very blissful and happy stay in Loas. See you in Cambodia chaps!