February 18th, Vientianne, Lao P.D.R.
by Mr. D
Still alive folks, and still progressing slowly, but surely towards Hong Kong... although it often feels like we're spending most of our time cycling in the wrong direction. - Such is the problem with Lao roads, and our route planning.
But, we made it out of Thailand on a gloriously sunny (read Bl00&y Hot!) day into Laos just after we put up the last post.... and it was like crossing into a different world. Mind you, the first time I arrived in Thailand, it felt the same, so I guess I must gradually be acclimatising myself to less and less 'developed' countries. (more about the word 'developed' later)
[ Jumbos in Pakse ]
You can often see a country at its best near its borders. - Coming into Malaysia from Thailand you are greeted by a clean, grass lined 2-lane motorway near the border. (which of course later deteriorated to a dirty overused road) - The Thais have obviously pulled a leaf from the Malaysians 'guide to impressing your neighbours' book, and also have a lovely clean, grass lined 2-lane motorway near their border with Laos at Chong Mek. - a full 2 miles of it! - We expected the Lao to be doing the same and were a little disappointed to see the road on the other side of the Lao border. - no road markings, no street signs, no lights, no cars, (3 trucks) - we were later to find out that actually the Lao government did spiff up their road near their border. It got much worse from there!
Lao money is great. On the black market you can get about 6000 kip to $1 - We looked at our wallets and suddenly realised that we were millionnaires! - Rich and I thought smugly about all those people back home who spent years of heartache building up a fortune when all they had to do was come to Laos. Even better is that until recently the largest note was 1000 kip (15cents) (they now have a 2000 and a 5000, but they're still quite rare) - so we're carrying around huge wadges of money!
We spent our first nights in the southern most town of Pakse on the banks of the Mekong river. (The Mekong dosen't look anything like the river in Apocalypse Now - maybe I'm missing something) - The Mekong is a big wide river, and even in the dry season it's up there with the Missouri and others as a 'big' river. - Until very recently, no one had put a bridge accross its entire length, but the Ozzies came along and 'donated' one to the Thai-Lao border crossing near Vientianne. One wonders why?
Lao only has a population of some 4-5 million we are told... and most if it (80%) is rural, which dosen't leave much for the cities. Indeed, Pakse is really just a small town. - There really wasn't much to see and do there, accept for the fact that it was the first full moon of the year, and there was a major religious festival down the road in Champasak. We left the bikes in the room and took a ferry boat down the river to find our festival is actually more of a carnival, and 'Wat Phu' a religious site also dating back to the Khmer empire, was over run with loudspeakers, and carnival rides and women selling barbecued chicken bits, and sticky rice. - It was pretty fun and we got to meet some Lao monks and students and chicken sellers, and poke about the monument like everyone else.
Transport in Lao works kinda cool. - basically if there is a vehicle going in any direction, it's a bus. There are so few vehicles in the country that anything that moves is fair game for a ride. - We puttered back to Pakse on the roof rack of a Jumbo tuk-tuk, while watching lorries and pickup trucks pass us crammed with people in the back. - The second law is that and all horizontal surfaces are seats for as many people as can fit. - Our tuk-tuk managed to fit 6 people on the roof, and we couldn't count how many people inside. - A week later we were to take a bus with almost 80 people sharing seats designed for 43. - I sat, knees to my chest, on a bag of rice and Richard shared some a steel plate with a few friendly Lao. Great for the first 10 minutes, but after 6 hours it gets kind of uncomfortable. I shall never moan about National Express or Greyhound again!
The Lao transport system does have its upside. - Bikes were the least bit of trouble for the bus people, and it seemed a totally normal request to take our bikes on the bus to Savannakhet. The locals do much weirder stuff. - We've seen buses carrying absolutly everything including motorbikes, sofas, huge flats of water bottles.... but the best (worst?) is livestock. - We took one bus with two piggy's and several chickens stashed under someones seats. (pigs are too precious to ride on the roof I think) - The pigs knew what was coming, and boy did they protest. Fortunatly that ride didn't last 6 hours!!!
[ We're better than TV ]
On the map Ta-oy looked to be, maybe 50-60kms away. - Rich & I have got used to doing that before breakfast, so we set off early in great spirits, and pedalled our way out of town and took the first left, down the dirt road that led to Ta-oy. - We knew things might be a little difficult when we got to the first large river... only to find only the remenants of a bridge, and everybody else wading through the river. - We waded our way through too, and thought it was a great laugh. - The road continued still smooth, albeit very dusty, and we gaily replied to the continuous calls of 'where you going' (in Lao) with 'Ta-oy' - People looked at us kind of strange, but said no more... or at least no more that we could understand! (important difference)
After 20kms the villages stopped and the people petered out. Every 10kms we might see someone, but it gets wild out there... wild and beautiful - but all of a sudden we realised that Lao really is an empty country. - We pushed on through the morning, our speed low due to the dirt road, and our tummies started rumbling... no motorbikes passed us, only the occassional pedestrians walking along the road. - This absence of people would have been wonderful if it hadn't been for our rumbling tummies. - We pedalled on, and the road got worse... a few punctures, and then the road started going uphill, and a few more punctures, and then the road got much worse. We didn't know it at the time, but we were cycling along parts of the Ho Chi Minh trail built by the Vietnamese. - It was hard enough doing it in the dry season... but I'm glad we weren't soldiers in the NVA trying to pass it in the wet season with the Americans bombing the living daylights out of us! - yikes. We were eventually reduced to slowly pushing the bikes up over boulders and sheet rock road in the blazing sun. Our bottled water ran out and we managed to find a stream from which to purify some more, and we got slowly more and more hungry. At 4-O-Clock I stopped and mimed Richard to be careful of 4 small bombs lyuing in the middle of the road. We finally made Ta-oy at nightfall, exhausted and hungry, and found a house to crash in for the night.
We quickly hit the town to discover that there were no restaurants here.... no electricity, no nothing except for a collection of wooden huts. Then in the distance we noticed some lights and music and figured we'd been looking in the wrong place... well we hadn't, but we were fortunate to stumble accross a bunch of people from 'Mines Advisory Group' (MAG) who spend there lives out here blowing up ordinance. - One of them was a Brit, and the rest could speak quite good English. There first reaction on seeing us was disbelief, before asking 'where the hell did you guys come from' - I guess not too many tourists make it Ta-oy.
They were just settling down to some dinner, and were happy for us to join. - We scoffed more than our fair share, and were then treated (forced?) to consume copius quantities of Beer Lao and Lao Lao (local rice liquor)
We had a great night chatting to the MAG folks... but it was also sad to learn of the problem of mines and unexploded ordanance (UXO) out here. - Our friends the Americans really did a great job bombing this place in their secret war 20 years ago. Indeed more bombs have been dropped on Laos than any other country in the history of the world. - Even sadder is that as far as I can tell, the Lao people were really just stuck in the middle, and got the S#!t kicked out of them as a result. Paul, the Brit bomb disposal guy was hardly surprised when we told him about the bombs in the road. - He mentioned that the road grader working on widening the road into Ta-Oy got blown up the week before when it ran over an unexploded bomb, and then continued on to tell us the appalling extent of the UXO situation here.
MAG is now almost entirely funded by the UK government, although in the past the EU have also contributed. - Apparently the Norwegian and Scandinavians have also been pouring in millions to UXO aid organizations here. The American contribution... well they did make a small contribution to MAG (US$100,000 - whoopee, that'll go far!) but otherwise there is not one American doing bomb disposal in Laos at the moment.... that's pretty sad I think! - Two thumbs down America, and two thumbs up Europe.
Next day Richard & I felt sick and hardly complained when the police told us that the highway marked on our map to our next destination was actually just a footpath, and we'd be foolish to attempt to go that way. MAG confirmed this, and offered us a ride back to Salavan in their spanking new land rover. - Cool, we accepted... but it was tough road even for the land rover.
The trip to Ta-oy was well worth the effort. It was beautiful up there, but I found it scary to think of how little I knew about living without supermarkets and restaurants and the modern conveniences apon which we are all so used to now. It amazed me to see people living in touch with nature, farming and sharing with their neighbors.
Spent the afternoon throwing my guts up in Salavan. Richard wasn't much better. Next day we elected to hop on a bus to somewhere bigger, Savannakhet, and this is where we had our hellish bus rides arriving in Savannakhet just after dark. If anyone else asks us why we cycle, we'll be able to tell them that it is easier than taking the bus.
That night Richard and I succumbed to the worst diarrhoea. - We spent the next three days in bed and ate almost nothing. We don't know what made us sick... it could have been the water.
After 4 unpleasant days in Savannakhet, we struggled 120kms up the road to Tha Khek. The road was quite nice, but Richard & I weren't in too good a condition, and we arrived exhausted in Tha Khek and had to rest up for a couple more days.
Jaymz beside the Mekong
We spent the next three nights camping out and having a much better time as we headed north along Route 13. Route 13 is the major N-S route in the country, and we were only passed by a trickle of traffic. - The vehicles that did steam past us were usually Japanese 4x4's belonging to aid agencies and development groups. We were also passed by a Jag tanking north at about 90mph. Richard remarked that it must suck having a Jag in Laos, because this was probably the only road you'd be able to drive it on.
Food for the most part sucks here. Especially out of the cities where the delights of Lao cuisine quickly deteriorate to 'Feu' - a Vietnamese style noodle soup. - It's worse than the Monty Python spam sketch, only here it is Feu, or Feu with Egg, or Feu with weird bits of meat. - In fact we've been having Feu 2 or 3 times a day, and it gets old fast!
I'd spent 2 days marvelling about how the only road-kill on Lao roads were butterflies. Dogs are nowhere near as prevalant (or as annoying) as in Thailand, and likewise with the cars. Then just outside of Pakkading, we passed by a bunch of people standing by the road watching a girl crying over a dead body. - It seems someone driving a swish 4x4 was busy overtaking a bus and didn't think to watch out for people by the side of the road. - We didn't stay and dwell on the situation, but it sobered me up fast.... then it got me worried. Every day we're on the roads we are putting our lives into the hands of car and truck drivers, and all of a sudden I didn't feel quite so safe.
We made it into Vientianne on Valentines day having completed an amazing 1000 miles. We were well proud and decided to treat ourselves to a fancy hotel and a Magnum Ice Cream. - But we bumped into an Italian cyclist who made us feel a little smaller when he informed us that him and his wife had cycled from Italy (27,000 kms) and he'd met a guy from Germany who'd left in 1962 and hadn't stopped cycling since. - That guy had been around the world several times, clocking over 340,000 kms and was still going. - I don't think Rich & I are quite that insane yet.
Later that night we were first on the scene as 2 motorbikes ploughed into each other at an intersection. The bikers weren't wearing helmets and both smashed painfully onto the tarmac before bouncing a couple times and coming to a halt. -
Following the accident at Pakkading we were somewhat mentally prepared for this and sprang into action, each taking a body as 2 groups of oogling Lao gathered around us. However, it's one thing learning first aid in a classroom, but when you need it its all totally different. Adrenaline zips through your system, and you look at this body thinking 'oh S#!t, what do I do now.' - Someone started pumping on my guy's chest, and I'm thinking 'hold on we don't even know that he's NOT breathing yet' - I stopped them, and then it came back 'A.B.C. - Airway, Breathing, Circulation... couldn't quite remember what Airway was about, but felt for breath with the back of my hand.... 'yup, ok' ... ok pulse, I felt his neck... and 'yes, thank god, ok' - there was a small pool of blood leaking from his head and the guy had blood & dirt over his mouth. - (Later I thanked my lucky stars that we hadn't had to do CPR) .... ok... get some help... I asked some people to get help... then... urrrr.... Recovery position, I got some guys to help me move him into the fetal position as best as I could remember, and then looked up and no one had gone to get help.... jumped up and went to the nearest store... "do you have a phone, call an ambulance!" - they looked at me blankly with an embarrassed smile. There was no phone nearby, and there are no ambulances! - So it was that we piled one unconsious and one semi-concious body into a tuk-tuk and rattled and bumped our way to the city hospital. There Rich, myself and the tuk-tuk driver loaded both people onto stretchers and wheeled them inside, and left them in the care of a couple 'couldn't care less' nurses.
We never checked back on our victims, but later watched an Australian version of 'Emergency 911' back at the hotel. I'd never appreciated how lucky we are in the West with our emergency services and so many every day things that we take for granted... even down to telephones and Mars bars. The amount of things we could have done wrong in looking after those two guys is phenomenal.... but maybe we saved one of their lives... but what if their neck was broken or their skull was fractured... or all sorts... it's scary.
Vientianne turned out to be paradise. - I wouldn't quite term it as cosmopolitan, but it does have Italian Pizzarias, Indian curry houses, Scandinavian bakeries... ohhhh heaven! - Rich and I have been in paradise... we're eating huge meals three times a day and loving it... so much we're almost thinking about not leaving tomorrow... but we will (maybe stocking up on croissants first) and it's now off up North towards Luang Phabang and China. - Probably won't be until China sometime that we'll be able to update this again.