Thanks to Juliane for this translation
English version updated!
Cycling under the starry sky
I’m on the way in the Bolaven Plateau in Southern Laos. A track takes me to the impressive Katamok waterfalls I admire in the evening light before cycling on. Dusk is already falling and I’m thinking about what to do if I don’t make it back to the asphalt road on time. I have a tent with me and the water should last, too.
It gets dark pretty fast here and after my dynamo broke down a couple of weeks ago I’m without light. „Not so bad“, I’m thinking, „I still have my flashlight“. Nevertheless, I’m pedaling harder now. Few minutes later I notice that the flash light is empty, it was on by mistake, lighting my up my bag from within. It’s pitch black by now, nothing but jungle to the left and right and above me a small dark blue band where stars are shining.
Slowly, I’m cycling on, feeling the potholes only when it’s too late. It would be better to stop and build up my tent. I can do that in the dark as well. However, the wall of leaves and bush seems impenetrable, no even place for my tent to be seen.
Especially because I’ve be warned in the morning not to leave the tracks because there are supposed to lie around several old bombs from the Vietnam War. This area was heavily bombed by the Americans during the war, a popular retreat for North Vietnamese troops. Generally more bombs have been dropped above Laos (more than 2 million tons) than during the entire Second World War making Laos the most bombed country in the world.
So putting up my tent here doesn’t seem like a good idea and accepting my destiny I cycle on through the dark. It definitely has got something beautiful, cycling underneath the starry sky if only the road would be a bit better. After a while I see some lights, looks like some kind of settlement. I discern some forest huts, some people are sitting around a fire. I park my bike and step into the glow of fire. „Sabaidee“, I greet the people. A small child starts to cry. Frightened, others are hiding behind the adults who are starring at me in surprise. With some words in Lao and gestures I explain that I’m looking for a place to put up my tent to go on cycling tomorrow in the morning in the light. The people shake their heads, avoiding my eyes and don’t really know what to do with me. I proceed to the next fire, repeating my explanation. Here people seem to understand, even though they don’t speak Lao, I supposed they belong the Hmong minority.
During the Indochina War Hmongs were „used“ as soldiers. In the first Indochina War there was a Hmong army, numbering 40.000 under the leadership of 400 French generals. Later on, about 60.000 Hmong were used as cannon fodder by the CIA in drug financed campaigns against the Vietnamese.
An old man is brave and friendly, even inviting me into his cabin so I don’t have to build up my tent after all. Quickly, I’m cooking a soup under the curious eyes of the children and go to sleep. Here, the day starts early, before dawn the old man gets up, preparing a big pot of rice for me. Way too much for breakfast and he is satisfied when I take a huge amount of food with me for the day.
Sleeping on the rice paddy
Also the next nights I spend with simple people. I would like to cycle a track through the national park marked as „impassible during rainy season“ in the map. „Won’t be that bad“, I’m thinking to myself, „rainy season is nearly over.“ A couple of kilometers further I find myself in front of the first mud hole and I have to push my bike through the jungle, going the long way round.
I’m spending the night with a family. Again, I don’t have to put up my tent, they offer me a place in the provisional hut in the midst of the rice paddy where the family lives during harvest time. Life is simple here but hard too. For the first time I see that the people don’t cut the rice but pluck each ear by hand because they don’t have any mechanical tools for threshing. After the rice has dried it’s mashed in a kind of mortar to remove the hulls. With this method, it’s hard work to get the daily ration of rice. The only electricity comes from a small solar panel, just enough for a light bulb and to recharge the flash light and the small radio owned by the father.
The remaining possessions can be listed quickly: some pots, mosquito nets and blankets, a radio and of course the two teenagers own a new smart phone to play the latest Lao pop songs before going to sleep.
In Laos there’s a phone shop in nearly every village however remote it may be. The latest models, mostly produced in China, are really cheap and are status symbols among the young ones. By now there ‘s network nearly everywhere and with the cell phones the big world of the Internet has arrived in the middle of the jungle. The people can watch videos on youtube and go on facebook. They live in the jungle, own nothing but a hut and a rice paddy, live is structured by nature and traditions and at the same time the have access to this ultra-modern technology. I wonder how they cope with this technology and I think the influence is not only positive.
Just like for television there’s no “manual“ for the Internet, nobody explains to the people that not everything they see corresponds to reality. It arouses the desire for the supposedly western lifestyle conveyed in music videos and movies and it also arouses the greed for money and possessions.
I can feel the force of these effects the next morning: I notice that the family expects some money from me and I give them 50000 Kip (5 Euros) which is a lot of money in Laos, more than a hotel room would cost. For me it’s completely ok to give away some money not as a direct payment for the overnight stay or because they expect it but simply because I have more than the family and they can use it better and need it more than I do. Without great gestures I offer the father the banknotes, he takes them, counts them and puts them in his pockets. The woman asks how much it is and looks at me. But I have the feeling that these people instead of being thankful are disappointed with the amount of money. As if they’d expected me to buy a new tractor (which would be great but then way too expensive for me). Unfortunately, here it often happens that the people think of a farang, a white person, as immensely rich.
A further negative effect of the Internet I came across a couple of days earlier in a temple. A monk was selected to communicate with me as he spoke the best English. Unfortunately, his English knowledge was restricted to “Where are you from?”, “What is your name?” and “Beautiful woman, fuck me on the bed!”, followed by a malicious laughter. He got this sentence from a porn clip he had on his phone. When the supreme monk wanted to talk to me and the monk already mentioned was supposed to function as interpreter again and again he repeated his three sentences until also the supreme monk notices that his young colleague’s English knowledge was not as could as he had thought.
Back to the jungle: I cycle on through various mud holes, I wade through rivers with the bike on my shoulders and finally I lose my way in the middle of the forest, trying to make a detour around a huge mud hole. I end up on a track no car has passed for a long time, sometimes the way is blocked by some undergrowth, once even by a tree trunk.
After a while two Vietnamese are walking towards me and explaining to me in sign languages that there’s no come through to Champasak (my destination), the water of the next river is too high. The same I had heard about the last river, however it had still been possible.
I was on the point of returning a anyways as until now nobody had confirmed to me that it was possible to come through and I hadn’t met anyone from Champasak. Also, I had no ideas how far it still was, for the first time on my journey a was thinking about a GPS.
And when the two guys tell me that there’s a second way back, with a bridge and a ferry across the rivers I decided to go back. Until the evening I manage most of the distance for which I had needed one and a half days on the other path. And really, there’s a provisional bridge and a shaky wooden ferry, a village with a small shop (but without electricity). Completely filthy and exhausted me and my bike arrive at the same village I had started from in the morning. I was bit angry because everyone I had asked for the way confirmed to me that it was the way to Champasak but no one tried to explain to me that there was a different, much easier and better way most people used.
So this track is added to my list of tracks I’d like to cycle once in my life but most probably in the next couple of years a lot is about to change there too and some day the pavers will fight their way through the jungle, leaving a perfect, smooth street. Not always to a cyclist’s delight.