Laos is an incredible country for bike touring. I visited ancient temples, witnessed the sunrise over UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and lost myself in fairytale landscapes and fascinating histories. The whole country of Laos is absolutely gorgeous, and everywhere you turn you find yourself surrounded by karst mountains, scenic rivers, impressive waterfalls, and numerous caves. The sense of adventure make it perfect for bikepacking. Many roads are yet to be build, and the mysterious mountains and forests just call for people to go out and explore. But, the most incredible part: The Lao people! Which is why I would like to finish with a story of my last day cycling in Laos:
I camped about 5 km from the border in the military zone, where I am pretty sure I was not supposed to spend the night. But since there were no signs prohibiting camping, I chose to be adventurous yet again. When I woke up on Monday morning, I counted my change and decided to get breakfast somewhere. I had about 26 000 kip left, so I was sure I could find me something to eat. When I rode into town, I realized it was only 6:45 am and most restaurants and stores were closed. I was incredibly hungry and didn't want to rely on the chips I had left, but I had no choice but to keep going on an empty stomach. Just as I was about to leave town, I saw a group of 8 men dressed in nice suits eating breakfast at a restaurant. My lucky day!! So I walked right into the kitchen, showed Grandma (they usually cook) all the money I had left, and tried explaining I wanted some eggs maybe but no meat. She smiled and I was sure she knew what I meant. I sat down outside and waited for my food. Suddenly, one of the business men approached me and started a conversation. As it turns out, they are a group of important business men and politicians getting together to discuss improvement to the local community. They invited me to sit with them. I felt slightly uncomfortable at first, since I hadn't showered in three days, but I also didn't want to turn down their offer. We had a great breakfast, talking about poverty, chances and hopes, education, tourism, child labor, food, camping and life in general. They left after some time and when I finally got up to pay, I learned my bill has been covered. So I wanted to give Grandma in the kitchen my remaining money, but they refused. To this day, I carry my Laos money with me. Even better though, I carry amazing memories with me that will continue to guide me through life.
Sabaidee, everyone. I hope to be back soon.
Although he who walks behind an elephant may feel very secure, he is likely to get splattered with elephant dung.
It is my first day in Laos. Borders are always exciting, challenging and nerve-wrecking. They are like a surreal place, a parallel society of fear and hope, anxiety and happiness, new beginnings and old endings. I feel hopeful and ready for what's to come as I push myself up to 1200 meters (about 3000 feet). On the other side of the border, everything will be different. A new language, a new currency, different people and a whole new adventure. Who do I get to meet? Where do I get to sleep? Will I enjoy the food? How is the quality of the roads? Before I get the chance to find answers to all these uncertainties, I have to get my Visa and make it through customs. Anxiety is settling into my body.
There is a long line of anxious travelers like me hoping to make it to Laos. Almost everyone else has arrived on buses. The road-worthiness and skill level of local bus drivers are highly questionable. I have seen a lot of buses and it seems like they are not only overfilled with (paying) customers, but also even more luggage. I left my sense of order, safety and security at home. Otherwise it would be impossible to have a worthwhile time here. Speaking of time, I am next in line at the Visa-on-arrival Gate. It's $30 to get into Laos. Plus an additional $2 for the stamps. I read about this online, and learned that Laos' customs authorities make extra money by charging ridiculous fees. I get handed over to the next window. Another $2 for more stamps. While the traveler ahead of me is making a scene and refusing to pay, I decide to stay calm and smile abd enjoy the show. Other customs officers notice me and we all smile. I get it. They use the system to make money off of tourists. There is nothing we can do about it, so might as well smile: Buddha forbid! The guy at the following window wants $3 to determine my body temperature. Laos is a country with high levels of Malaria infections. Even though I can clearly see his machine does not work, I am at their mercy. After paying everyone that is on duty I finally get my passport back. I feel ecstatic. Like I will never be the same person again, just because my passport has been stamped. It seems like the road from Vietnam to Laos is just another stretch of asphalt, leading me to places I have never been to before. Yet, the small section of in-between-ness (is that even a word?) means everything if you are at the mercy of goverment employees that do not share the same language as you. But I made it, I am finally in Laos!
Even better, the next 20 or so Kilometer are downhill. Feelings of pure freedom settle in, as I enjoy the scenery. The wind is blowing my hair back and I get tears in my eyes from the cold air; probably the only time I will ever enjoy crying. However, the next climbing section is waiting for me. That is one of the biggest lessons of bike touring. After every high, the low awaits. And for every low, the next high will follow. At the top of the mountain I just climbed is a small village. People here look just the same as in Vietnam. Members of the same indigenous tribe, only separated by an artificial, man-made border. I find a local shop with children playing in front. Since it is getting very warm, I decide to take a break from the sun and rest in the shade. 'Pepsi? Coca Cola?' My voice is shaky from the exhaustion of climbing in the heat. 'Yes, we have cold beverages. It's a hot day today, right?' Wow, I feel embarrassed. In Vietnam, hardly anybody understood English, so I sure did not expect the shop owner to understand me very well. He walks over with an ice-cold Pepsi in one and his newborn child in the other hand. Multi-Tasking Laos style.
I sit down and enjoy my perfectly cold soda, watching rural Laos' life pass by on the streets. I see pigs running around and little children running after them. A duck with its ducklings, followed by an old man on a bicycle. Other children walk by, dirty and with holes in their clothes. It looks like they are coming from work in the fields to get a little lunch break. Most of them are not even ten years old. I see trucks rushing in and out of town, new cars and old motorcycles. A bus with tourists from the border drives past, eager to make it to the next bigger city. Most of its passengers are probably asleep, not realizing anything of the life in between their stops. I am, too, headed for this city. Yet, my travels take me away, into a world of unchallenged truths and reality. As my thoughts get carried away, I decide to continue my journey and head right into the unknown.
Compared to Vietnam, Laos has a very low population density. It inhabits only 5.4 million people estimated, yet 68 different ethnic groups. Laos stands at the centre of mainland Southeast Asia. It shares borders with all the main states there, including China, so that when one engages with Laos, one touches the heart of the region. Any study of culture and society in Laos inevitably leads into broader issues associated with all of the surrounding societies, whether related to early origins or contemporary developments. A key physical feature is the Annamese Cordillera mountain range that runs from north to south, along the eastern border with Vietnam. Trust me, I know every part of that area, since I cycled it.
There are other secondary ranges, and to the north of the capital, Vientiane, is the highest peak, Mount Bia. Out of these ranges all the main rivers flow from east to west into the Mekong River. In the north, the Mekong forms a short border with Burma and most of the border with Thailand. Along the rivers there are floodplains suitable for rice paddies.
Explorers, travelers, and traders have long been enchanted by the magical vistas and extraordinary biodiversity of the Mekong. The Lao government - sponsored by China - plans to build nine dams on the mainstream Mekong, and hundreds more on other rivers and tributaries, claiming that this is the only path to development for one of the region’s poorest countries. So as I made my way along the Mekong river, it was heart breaking to see how local fishermen and farmers are struggling to make a living with those dams being buid. In general, I found it amazing to see how far the Chinese invasion of Laos had come, so I did some research:
China’s growing influence in Laos, marked by expanded investment and trade, has led some international agencies to warn Laos about an unhealthy financial dependence on China. Analysts say Laos is looking to balance China’s influence by drawing support from longstanding backer Vietnam as well as the West.In 2014 China became Laos’ leading investor with funds totaling more than $5 billion, with projects in mining, resources, hydropower and agribusiness. China is also a leading investor in hydropower, with several dams planned to be built on tributaries from the Mekong River with reports indicating China is preparing to sign contracts for up to nine new dams. Laos’ northern provinces rely on electricity from China, as most Laos hydropower power is exported to neighboring Thailand. Analysts say China’s dominant position is raising fears over destruction of biodiversity, land eviction and unemployment among displaced farmers.
Luang Prabang: UNESCO World Heritage City
Every now and then, I make it to a place that draws me in. I plan to stay for a day, or two the most, and end up staying a week without even noticing. Luang Prabang is such a place. Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Luang Prabang Province in northern Laos. n 1995, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) elected to inscribe the Town of Luang Prabang on the World Heritage List. Specifically, the Committee noted that the old city centre “represents, to an exceptional extent, the successful fusion of the traditional architectural and urban structures and those of the European colonial rulers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique townscape is remarkably well preserved, illustrating a key stage in the blending of two distinct cultural traditions.” Did I like the architecture? Yes, it was nice. But I stayed because I enjoyed the feeling of the city. For the first time in weeks I was among other tourists. I met amazing travelers that had great stories to share. We went to the night market, enjoyed great food, went to see the waterfalls, I visited an elephant sanctury, and simply enjoyed myself for a few days. It is immensely important to recharge on a journey this long. So I had some great days in Luang Prabang, but also knew it was time to leave after a few days.
Buddhism in Laos
Buddhism has long been a strong force in Lao culture and remains a major influence in everyday life. Each ethnic Lao village has its own temple (Wat ), which is the focal point of village festivities and rituals and has traditionally had a guesthouse, monastery and school. Buddhist images are found in shops, homes and offices. The wats fill in the mornings and evenings with people chanting Buddhist prayers. The Pha That Luang is the holiest symbol in Laos.
Traditionally, all Lao boys and men are expected to spend a period as a monk as a rite of passage — usually as a novice (before the age of 21) prior to marriage, but possibly in old age as well. Ordination as a monk brings great merit to one’s family, and improves the karma of deceased relatives. This is also a way for Lao boys, especially those of limited means, to receive an education; some boys and men join the sangha to gain both secular and religious knowledge. The period of ordaining as a monk varies from just a few days to many years, though young men typically ordain throughout the three-month Lenten period.
Buddhism defines the Laotian character. A typical day begin early with an offering to a monk and trip to the market to buy food. They often vised the local temple in the morning and in the evening. I was lucky to be invited to sleep at temples and experience the overwhelming kindness of buddhists in Laos. Furthermore, watching the Alms Giving in Luang Prabang was an amazing testament of the togetherness of Lao people: Each morning at dawn in Luang Prabang the local Buddhist monks form a procession around the streets of this charming town, collecting alms of rice and vegetables from the local population. This happens all over Laos, in the case of Luang Prabang, hundreds of monks leave 35 temples of Luang Prabang in the early hours of the morning in total silence and barefoot to walk the streets and collect the offerings of the faithful. The food given by the local population is the only food they will eat that day. Yet, many hungry children wait in the side streets, away from tourists, so that the monks can share some of their food.
The following week I spent on small village roads and areas off the beaten paths. After the full touristy experience in Luang Prabang I was ready for the solitute of bikepacking remote areas again. I rode past small wooden huts, took dirt roads into the mountains, and visited small villages. I saw empty schools, and fields full of children working to sustain their families. I saw poor people with a rich heart. Everyone was always smiling. Children chased me on their bicycles. SABAIDEEEEEE!!! I passed men on their domestic elephants, working in the lodging industry. Worjers returning home from working on Chinese rubber plantations. More children yelling SABAIDEE as I rode past: such a welcoming culture.