The short busy bridge brought us into Thailand, and a day’s bike ride took us to the Mekong River, at the point where Burma, Laos and Thailand meet, the infamous Golden Triangle. Here we crossed into Laos.
We followed the river on some very rough tracks as it carved its way through the mountainous scenery. The blue water ran quickly between jagged rocks that strew the waterway. Large white sand beaches were heaped up between sections of rock. A long way from the water was the real river bank marking the colossal extent of the mighty Mekong after the rains. But now it was the dry season and small farms and gardens with neat rows of crops were cultivated on the irregular pieces of flood plain.
Our journey from here was to follow the river upstream into Yunnan as far as the Tibetan border and Shangri-La, but with travel restrictions imposed due to Coronavirus we decided to continue downstream to where the mighty Mekong meets the South China Sea, about two thousand kilometres away.
We pushed on along the rough track, loose rock and fine powder that got worse on the hills where the surface was like a froth of rubble that we slipped and stumbled on. Small softer tributary valleys, carpeted with brilliant vibrant green rice fields came and went, and we returned to the harsher Mekong valley. Water buffalo wallowing in deep muddy water holes, turned their distinctive long curly horned heads, peering at us sideways with one eye, nostrils held high, while they observed us from their cool boggy bath.
We started to look for somewhere to camp. Weary after our battle with the track we came across a small village school that looked perfect. A lady sat out the front under the low shade of her simple shop. We asked if we could pitch our tent and rather assumed after the restrictions in Burma that this would just be a formality and everyone very relaxed. Unfortunately there was a small group of drunk policeman that needed to get involved. Thick set, rather empty expressionless faced people fuelled by local whiskey drank in the hot sun , stirred into officialdom, writing things in books and photographing us, standing back against the wall, like being checked into prison. Tediously time went by, daylight was fading and camping at the peaceful school playing field seemed difficult. The conversation with the casually dressed officials was drawn out and illogical, culminating in “ at Hatsa over the river there is a small guest house” they said. Ok let’s go then.
A gaunt wiry man with a gentle smile stood with a slender blue long tail boat on the steep river bank. The slight fragile craft matched his build. The river looked strong and menacing in comparison, with ripples and whirls indicating the fast flow over the rocks below. So often we are faced with this situation, our bike, us and all our possessions perilously perched on a piece of wood millimetres from total loss, but we have confidence in the locals and their good luck that disaster will not present itself. With the handle bars hanging over the side whipping up a water jet that deposited itself in the tiny hull, our humble meek boat man bailing from the stern, manoeuvred our way through the swirling current across the mighty Mekong.
The scenery was dramatic, the mountains towered around us, and the valley narrowed to such an extent that the rough track stopped as the river cut through the steep landscape. We needed a boat to take us on the next section. Boats were a lot scarcer than we expected. We often find ourselves drawn to iconic waterways on our trips and love all the life that surrounds these arteries for humanity, but the Mekong here, perhaps as it’s quite inhospitable, is not used so much. At villages there are but a few little boats but these are really only for tending fishing lines and crossing the river. The larger slow boats used for freight and passengers have gone as roads through the country improve, and they always struggled in the dry season with shallows. What is known as speedboats are what’s left of the Mekong River transport. A sleek bent piece of plywood with shallow sides, with a seating capacity for eight at a squeeze, and a huge ferociously noisy powerful long tail engine that flung us along the swift flowing Mekong at immense speed, swerving round rocks, skimming along the waters surface. The vast scenery shot by, our faces scoured by the dry wind, our hair forced back as the boat hurtled towards slabs of rock, turning at the last minute as the main channel twisted its way though the obstacles. This wasn’t the romantic image we had of boat travel on the Mekong, but reality was that this was the only way locals use the river for transport as the road system develops. We were soon catapulted to Pak Beng, a village that had become a pleasant cluster of tourist hotels overlooking a fine section of the Mekong.
So much of our journey in Laos would be like this, several days in remote parts, villages, rough roads, remoteness, forest, peace and birdsong, rice and noodles, and then all of a sudden flung for a night into white faces, expresso coffee, hotel breakfast, and varied cuisine. It was always nice to chat with backpackers and tourists, hearing about their journeys and experiences, particularly it is refreshing just chatting at a western level and speed for a change. Their journeys were all very similar and they moved in armies on set routes. They enjoyed each other’s company and exchanged stories as they travelled together from cool hostel to the next. This section of the Mekong was very popular for travelling by slow boat up to the iconic city of Luang Prabang. Hundreds travel each day this way, living the dream on the old boats, but this is only for tourists now and quite an industry has set up to meet the demand.
For us the dramatic river still didn’t have a track running alongside, but the map showed one further downstream. We hitched on a tourist slow boat and asked the captain if we could be dropped off at Tha Song village. The boat was clean and tidy, varnished floors and polished benches. The slow boat of the bygone time had scrubbed up well. We sat near the front, people watching as the hedonistic passengers boarded, each displaying their pseudo individualism with their travellers clothes, hair styles and tattoos. A guitar on the back of one showing his uniqueness. They compared their travels and life experiences in some kind of competitiveness, but really they were touring in a cocooned world where it seemed most important to mix and meet like minded people rather than interact with the real country. We had nice chats with our fellow passengers, hearing about them realising their dreams.
We signalled to the helm that our village was approaching. We sat blending with the full boat of backpackers, we appeared as one of them, perhaps rather older, but we weren’t any different.
The boat swung into the flow of the river and crabbed towards a steep sand bank. The chat on board quietened, the impressive stories were stemmed, people looked about, something was happening. Once out of the main river flow the helm rammed the bow onto the pristine virgin white sandy beach, Warty jumped off, her feet sinking into the undisturbed hot sand that had been shaped by the river water. The panniers soon followed and then the bike. We had landed back in the real country. Suddenly we were someone different, the whole boat was asking questions and starring in bewilderment. “How do you know where you are” “Are there any roads” “Where are you going” The egocentric faces smiled and waved as the timber boat with its turquoise blue painted topsides, edged backwards across the clear sparkling water and slowly swept into the river flow.
We stood like on a deserted island as we waved goodbye. The drone of the boat’s diesel gradually diminished as it went off in the distance. Silence and birdsong, we were alone once more in our world.
We were soon back on a jungle track surrounded by exotic noises, warbling, repetitive high pitched sounds and wild birdsong. Creepers hung from the tall trees on the steep hillsides, in a chaotic knot of vegetation. Broad leafed plants on large arching fronds hung over. Villages with wooden stilted houses were here and there. People peered from window openings, their smiling pretty faces framed like an atmospheric photograph. Others sat under their houses, shaded and called out ‘Sabadieh’ as we passed. Some worked at looms also under the shade of the house, weaving the traditional lower part of sarongs that all the women wear.
We stop for our usual lunch of noodle soup. Everyone is a little different. The individual putting their own mark on their creation, lean meat, chives, peanuts, bean sprouts, tomatoes, noodles and offal. Always a generous heap of lettuce, mint, and French beans, which is eaten separately in a rather undignified fashion of whole leaves rolled up containing a wad of mint plant with some lime squeezed over it, accompanies the soup.
There is no tea and coffee at these small places. The unlimited scented China tea stopped when we left Burma.
It always interests us how some cultures love the social aspect of sitting about drinking tea or coffee, chatting, staring into space,people watching and just thinking. It’s so often part of people’s morning routine, a chai huddled round a fire with your fellow rickshaw wallahs as a new hard day starts, a strong Guinean coffee, in West Africa, sat on tall stools at a coffee shack with cool African beats blaring out of a sound system, the tea houses of Burma, a social hub of society, and the small village cafes with flasks of scented tea for free. Cuisine is similar too. Some cultures love eating out, street food, colourful displays of what’s on offer. There is enjoyment from eating. Then there are others that just don’t seem to need this, where eating and drinking are more a functional requirement and not a social experience. From region to region it can suddenly change. We miss these places when they have gone. They are our resting halts, our chance to chat with local people, find out about their life, and recharge out of the heat and the tough road. They are our oasis and it feels barren without them.
We push on through Laos on hilly roads through wild scenery, taking a couple of days off in sophisticated Vientiane enjoying fancy French food, wine, baguettes and coffee.
As our journey progresses further into Indochina the produce in markets changes becoming more exotic, and different with all sorts of unrecognisable items.
As we enter South Laos, broadly following the route of the Mekong we decide to deviate away from the river to more remote and rural areas towards the Vietnamese border.
Soon we are climbing through forested hills that turn to jagged limestone mountains. We read about a five mile long cave tunnel with a river running through it which is navigable by small boat. It’s on our route and saves going over the top.
With sugar loaf mountains towering around us tinted orange by the rising sun we head for Konglor cave entrance. The bike is again laid across the little boat and with head torches on we head into the cavernous dark. The water is clear, huge stalactites and stalagmites reach up to the cave roof. The river flows through low caves and opens out to huge chambers, our lights dart about, marvelling at the formation of this subterranean world.
A couple of times we have to get out and wade hauling the boat up small rapids within the cave system.
Eventually a glimmer of light in the distance gets brighter and brighter and we emerge from the rock tunnel. Water buffalo are wading in the river. Luxuriant vegetation hangs over the blue river.
Tracks and paths took us through a sparsely populated land of some scrappy cultivation and thick jungle. There was a feeling of isolation and remoteness. Villages with simple wooden houses on stilts were here and there, but we went for long spells seeing no one, just the noise of the jungle to accompany us, warbling, reverberating and screeching in an exotic way.
We camped a night at a village house, putting up our inner tent to one side of their large open timber boarded first floor.
It’s always interesting staying in a village, seeing how they work and how everyday tasks are carried out. The house we were staying in consisted of a really large first floor, perched on stilts about three or four metres above the ground, which was open to the front and side. A ladder lead up to this, and the floor was very smooth polished boards. Only bare feet allowed here, you leave your footwear at the bottom of the ladder. Material hangings divided off some sleeping areas and the rest was a large open space with a bamboo railing round it and you could look out over the village. It was super clean and sparse. The ground floor was compacted mud. Motorbikes parked here, along with the families rotavator and our bike. There was a cooking area, a pit latrine and washing cubicle, plus a washing up area and a table with plastic chairs where we ate.
There wasn’t much food about, and not wishing to be a burden on their resources, we cooked on our petrol cooker, some noodles, coconut and chilli, and I bought some eggs from a villager. The family had sticky rice, a roasted rodent and a small bird that they crunched up bones and all making a disconcerting noise as they munched.
The layout of the utility part of this house like so many others we have seen round the world is always scrappy. They work through a muddle that makes every task difficult. Washing areas mix with latrines and there is no where to put anything down. Rubbish and clutter gather all around. There is pride in the upstairs living and sleeping areas, although they are simple with no furniture, but food preparation, washing and eating are not given priority. You would work in a more orderly organised way if you were camping in Europe. It’s not due to poverty or lack of resources, it’s just not considered important. This village had electricity which helps a lot when you are working in a muddle. So often village stays particularly in West Africa it’s so dark and you have to get sorted before the sun goes down.
The next day the route got really bad, a mere path, really rocky and rough through thick jungle. Rarely was there a village with the brightest green rice fields before the terrain returned to harshness.
A small deep muddy river needed to be crossed with a bamboo raft perched on the other bank. A boisterous young lady appeared and offered to strip most of her clothes off and swim to get the raft.
Progress was so slow, four hours to do twelve miles, with a lot of pushing the bike up and down hills. We chatted with some termite collectors. This was a poor area.
The striking sugar loaf mountain scenery gave way to a more scarred landscape of rolling hills and mountains. The jungle noise had diminished. We were now going through the Annamites, the scene of the most heavy bombing on earth, and where the Americans had used defoliants in attempts to break the supply route of the Ho Chi Minh trail.
A small museum in an isolated village had an exhibition depicting local battles in the Vietnam war, showing patriotic pictures of victories of the Laotian communist army taking hills and points that were identified by numbers, giving the whole thing a more pointless feel to the conflict. A few captured pieces of American military hardware were on display along with photos of enemy defeat. This was an interesting insight from the Laotian communist side, who are still in power today.
The villages here were quite impoverished, a lot more children about, indicating bigger families and they weren’t at school. We didn’t see many schools like we had in the rest of the country. The villages were pretty, no concrete, just simple wooden houses on stilts with walls of woven bamboo mat. Clusters of grain stores stood to one side. Poignantly many of the grain stores were using bomb casings for stilts, an effective rat deterrent with their smooth metal tapered surface.
These village houses were on much shorter stilts indicating they were highlander minority people that had been relocated. A lot of this probably forced movement of people has gone on here. The official line is the highlanders prefer to move from the mountains to be near to roads, schools and health care facilities. When we came here in 1990 they were all living in the mountains, proud people wearing tribal clothing every day and going about their normal lives. There was conflict at that time between them and the government. The minorities haven’t been supporters of the communist governing party, and when we came here in 2007 tribal minorities were only evident on the absolute fringes of the country. Something had happened.
The Americans used this opposition to communism to their advantage in the Vietnam war. They made a promise to these people that if they fought for them they would be protected. Like so often the promise was broken and so many perished as America washed their hands of the responsibility!
We eventually worked our way back to the Mekong north of Cambodia, passing vast areas of cassava growing. Lorry after lorry full of the fermenting dried crop going to Thailand for animal feed. The land has been deforested and burnt to make way for this. Stark and ripped of life, it looks savage and makes you think about the carbon footprint of beef.
We stop for a soft drink as we are flagging in the 35 deg C on an 85 mile day. The bright young girl at a shop explains to us she is a qualified secondary school maths teacher. Her English is fabulous, but she thinks she will never work as a teacher as her family business needs her, mentioning some things that are complicated about Laos. Such talent and intelligence, perhaps if she was a boy she might be able realise her dream and potential.