#thanks to juliane for this translation
Down the river
“Laos – South Asia’s forgotten country“, “Off the beaten track“, “unspoiled and undiscovered“ – phrases of random guide books floating around in my head.
On my first day, Laos doesn’t look like this at all – Giom and I are sitting in a boat together with about 50 other tourists, chugging down the Mekong. Our bikes are lying on top of the roof sheltering the people from sunshine and rain. After following the river a couple of days on the Thai side we are now right in the middle, watching the river banks passing by on our left and right. At this time of the year the Mekong is carrying a lot of water, however, there are various places where big rocks are rising up out of the water and the otherwise calm waters are forming big whirlpools, giving the idea of bigger rocks underneath the surface.
At night the boat lands in Pakbeng and everyone is getting off. Children are already waiting, offering to carry the heavy backpacks up the bank in the hope to get tips. Women carrying signs are shouting “Do you need a room?“ and “Free Wifi“ trying to get hold of guests for their empty rooms. Pakbeng lives from tourism. Every night boats arrive, dropping of backpackers along with their luggage only to pick them up the next day and carry them further to Luang Prabang.
So usually the guests only stay for one night, they need a room, dinner and breakfast. There’s a lot of competition, nearly every family has transformed their home into a hotel, restaurant or shop or even everything together. The closer to the river the better the chances to make a profit on the never ending streams of tourists.
We are the only ones not to travel further down the river the next morning but mounting our bikes. And then, after only a few kilometers, we are cycling through the unspoiled, forgotten Laos as described in guidebooks.
In the villages, children are waving at us and their cheers “Sabaidee, Sabaidee“ are following us everywhere. People stop in the streets, gazing after us, pointing their fingers, shouting out in astonishment.
The road is narrow but asphalted and in relatively good condition. It’s going up and down, people cultivate corn at the mountain slopes and live in simple huts made of bamboo or wood, standing on stilts.
At night we head for a temple, there are no hotels here. A surprise is waiting for us: the monk who is the head of the temple speaks good English because he’s from Luang Prabang where he also went to school. He permits us to stay overnight but first sends us together with the three novices to the nearby river to wash off the dust and sweat. At the river there are many children cheerfully dabbling in the water and some men and women taking a bath here.
The next morning half the village has gathered in the temple. Everyone has brought along some food, the people are sitting together, having breakfast. The monk explains that it’s an important Buddhist holiday and invites us to eat with them. We’re offered a small bamboo basket with khao niao, sticky rice, and are asked to eat. The rice is molded into a small ball and then dipped into the various, mostly very spicy dishes. We eat our fill and are given some bananas to take with us. A great experience for us but also for the local people who most probably never had two farangs – that’s how they call white people here- visiting their temple.
Up the mountains
We go on cycling through the mountains, the road getting worse and worse until it’s only a dusty track full of potholes. Rainfall and heavy truck traffic don’t seem to do the road surface any good. According to my information the road is supposed to be completely asphalted. After all, it’s the country’s main north-south connection, even if the condition of the road and the spare traffic give you a different impression.
Every passing truck wraps us into a cloud of dust, the villages at the road side are all one color, the color of dust and it’s exhausting to cycle.
It always takes a while until we find food and most often it’s only noodle soup or some bananas. At a road side stand someone is selling porcupine meat. There are also smoked flying foxes and a type of squirrel, dangling from a rope. I’m not allowed to take a picture, of course it’s illegal to hunt and sell these animals.
Back in the world of tourism
Four days later we arrive in Luang Prabang and we’re back in the world of tourism.
At the Mekong river banks one hotel follows the other. The city is listed as UNESCO World-Heritage Site and attracts most tourists in Laos. You can visit the royal palast, several important temple complexes and beautiful waterfalls and caves in the surrounding area.
The advantage of such places for us is definitely the food. The selection is great and even if the prices are higher than in rural Laos, we welcome the change from noodle soup and rice. After eating at the foodmarket it’s nice to stroll down the Mekong or to pass the more touristy nightmarket.
However, the real attractions can be found in the surroundings and not within the city itself. Together with some other guys we cycle 30 kilometers to the Kuang Si waterfalls. For me only a small trip without all my heavy luggage but for the others not used to the heat and to cycling it’s a much bigger effort. We’re happy when we finally arrive and deeply impressed by the turquoise waters running down in several waterfalls in the middle of the forest. We’re swimming, forgetting the time so we have to cycle back in the dark.
After several days in Luang Prabang I continue southbound, this time without Giom, it was time for me to go on traveling on my own.