Monday, 23 June 2008

Saturday 7th June Northern Laos By Motorbike: Day One

Northern Eastern Motorbike Tour of Laos
Today was to be the first day of my motorbike tour of northern Laos. I had 'borrowed' the itinery from the firm (Green Discovery - a very well run outfit) who I'd hired my Honda Baja 250cc dirt bike from. Check out the official trip description here for a succint overview of my trip. I had planned to make the journey in five or six days but as things turned out it was more like eight days in total. I should at this point thank GT-rider's author David Unkovich and many forum contributors who gave me invaluable information that helped me navigate my way around this beautiful corner of South East Asia. It was a real adventure and one that I'll never forget, I hope you enjoy the highs and lows as much as I did.

Traveling Light
Any thoughts of an early start were put to bed by last nights' late finish, so at 9am I began the rigmorall (is this a real word? It is in Lancashire) of packing up. I wrapped my guitar in my coat, cunningly using a sleeve as a fret-board protector and then shoved any other non-essentials in my big rucksac. Both guitar and rucksac were to be put on a bus and transported to Vientiane where I would pick them up 6 days later. I had been at pains to explain that my guitar must be treated like a princess, and no that doesn't mean played three times a day!

Had my final breakfast at The Ancient, this time it was French style pancakes and bacon and fried eggs with a coffee. Also purchased a coconut cake which was to prove invaluable later in the day. Checked out of my lodgings ($12 per day, fan, no aircon (and extra $6 and it's not really that hot at night - 75 degrees max), hot shower, own loo. Went to the ATM which was closed so found another one (there are about 4 in LPG and they all have strange opening times and most only actaully give you the money after several attempts). Withdrew 2.1 million kip which sounds a lot but is actually only 125 pounds. This money had to last me my entire journey including accommodation, all food, water, beer, sightseeing admission charges and ofcourse petrol costs for six or seven days until I reached Vientiane my journeys end and the only other place with cash machines on my route.

Bought a pair of boots for 15 pounds as I left my last pair propping up a matress in Chiang Rai, they really stank anyway. Bought a dry bag and then headed off into the great unknown. Cruised up highway 13, all my belongings for the next seven are now packed into a 20 litre rucksac, that's what I call downsizing. The sun was shining and the forecasted rain was nowhere to be seen thankfully. After 30k's or so I hung a right towards Pak Xeng and blatted along a half-sealed rode for 65k's snaffling a quick photo of a working elephant as it plodded along the dirty track whilst being ridden by two Laotian loggers. At Pak Xeng, just after the river crossing you take a left fork up a steeply inclined dirt road as it eventually brings you out onto a ridge which is lined by countless small villages consisting of around ten small bamboo huts on stilts. The views from on top of the ridge are fantastic.

Navigating in SE Asia
Laotians on the whole seem to be better than Thais at directions, Thais just nod and tell you what you want to hear whereas Laotians draw maps with sticks on the ground, some of which are very confusing! The main problem when navigating in this part of the world is that quite often the maps (although very very good David U!) don't show some forks in the road and at these little junctions there may or may not be a signpost which almost invariably will have instructions in Thai or Laos which are completely unintelligible to westerners. Taking a wrong turn can result in a detour of several hours until it becomes semi-apparent that something isn't quite right. It's darned hard work navigating out here even thought there are so few roads. It doesn't help not knowing the language either.

Driving on the Roads
Not quite as well policed as the UK and not a single speed camera in sight, driving in SE Asia so far hasn't been too precarious, you just have to be on the constant lookout for unexpected road hazards such as kamikaze chickens, slow moving ducks, sleeping pigs, docile cattle, nonchalant water buffalo, mangy looking dogs, small children, rockfalls, craters, bogs, scooters, 4x4s and the odd public bus. Most vehicles insist on taking up both sides of the road so it's a risky game cutting corners unless you are absolutely sure there's nothing coming the other way.

The Village People
Enroute I passed countless villages, and without fail as soon as a child spotted me on my bike they'd smile, wave vigorously and shout 'Sabaidee'. They are so cute, my hand ached from all the waving, I felt a bit like the Queen but it made the kids' faces light up with glee so it just had to be done no matter how late in the day or how tired the Royal Hand. Eventually descended off the ridge and took a left hand fork (not on the map) maybe 5km before Sam Soun. Actually I took the right fork thinking 'stay high' as it climbs up the ridge but 3km up this narrower track I stopped and asked villagers if I was on the right track to Sam Soun. After much head shaking and many confusing stick diagrams later I headed back to the fork and took the left downhill and in ten minutes or so I was very happy to stumble upon Sam Soun which is little more than a T-junction, but it did mean I was on the right track thank goodness. At this point I devoured my carrot cake purchased earlier this morning to beautiful views over the lush green carpeted mountains all around me. Good job I had that carrot cake as I hadn't seen anywhere to grab food for many hours.

Vieng Thong Or Not Vieng Thong?
After a quick re-fuel at a makeshift petrol station (a wooden shack with a few plastic bottles containing the red stuff) I attempted to resolve the problem I'm having with my bike - the chain keeps going slack and clanking on the chain stay. Not a show stopper but rather annoying. Managed to get my bike partially fixed by a very helpful villager in a village that was signposted as 'Vieng Thong'. Hmm, twas too small to have a guesthouse though, in hindsight I think this was a cunning rouse by the locals to make the farang think they are in Vieng Thong, they certainly seemed to agree that we were in Vieng Thong when I asked them, although I was subsequently to find this was not the case at all. The light was fading by now and some dark, menacing looking clouds were drawing in. In the absence of any guesthouses there was nothing for it but to crack on until I found somewhere suitable to sleep for the night.

Randomly found the first guesthouse I'd seen since Luang Prabang, neon lights have never looked so good! I was beginning to think I might have to gate crash a village hut and sleep with the pigs. The guesthouse was basic but had mozzy nets, a bed, a hot shower in the outhouse and squat toilet too. After a long days riding, often not knowing if I was on track or had been heading up a two-or-three hour dead end I was ready for a shower and some food. The shower proved to be a mere trickle that made my mum and dad's old shower seem like the Niagra Falls in the rainy season. It took me a good 15 minutes to get wet all the while dodging hungry mozzies whose radars must have been going berserk as I stood there starkers.

Laos At Last
Tentatively wandered 50m or so down the road to Ennau & Ding's restaurant, which had a sign in Lao outside. Generally that means cheap food at local prices, not over-inflated tourist prices. The owner, Ennau beckoned me inside. Ennau's spoke a little English and was keen to sit with me and converse before, during and after my meal. The difference in attitude towards farang was marked. Ennau was genuinely warm, earnest and kind and attentive and more interested in making friends than making money, sadly the opposite was true in Luang Prabang which for all it's pretty charm was inside just a tourist trap. The UNESCO World Heritage fund has ordered that the whole town be protected, preserved and rebuilt. It's a shame that this order only applies to the buildings and architecture and doesn't extend as far as protecting the hearts, minds and attitudes of the residents. It pains me to say it but I get the impression that whatever Luang Prabang had, it has lost. Like whitewashed graves, it looks pretty on the outside but inside is full of dead mens bones, now where have I heard that before? Anyway, where I am right now (I'm not sure what the name of this town is) I feel I've finally found a piece of the real Laos!

Work, Education, Health
Ennau and I discussed many topics, albeit with a lot of hand waving. After rummaging around in his bedroom which is on the ground floor immediately next to the kitchen and adjacent to his in laws' bedroom, Ennau produced a tatty looking book with an English gentleman on the front sporting a monocle. It had some writing in Lao on the front. He explained that whilst living in Luang Prabang as a child he had bought the book, an English-Lao phrase book and had studied it since he was 16 years old, he as now 28. He was keen for his daughter-to-be to learn too and said he'd send her off to Luang Prabang and pay 100,000kip per month to have her educated. Ennau drove a truck once a week (no matter how hard I tried I couldn't get an answer to what was in the truck, chances are it would be agricultural products). He made the journey to the cities such as Luang Prabang, Phonsavan or across the border to Vietnam to deliver his goods. The rest of the time he worked in the kitchen with Ding who was 8 months pregnant. 'My wife very fat' he explains, 'she open in one month'. That's one way of putting it I thought as I quietly spat out yet another piece of chicken gristle. He wanted to know how many children I had and wouldn't relent until I said I had two, a boy aged six and a girl aged three and that my wife was back in England working selling flowers. (All references to children and a wife are purely fictional, ahem!). Ennau explained that if you want your children to go to school you have to pay. I explained that it was free in England up to the age of 18. He looked gobsmacked. I then noticed a huge amount of scarring on the top of his right wrist. He explained that he fell off his motorbike after drinking too much Lao Lao (rice whiskey) and made a mess of it. He says he went to a hospital in Thailand for two months and paid 20,000bhat (a fortune for Laotians) to have a skin graft. I knew already that health care in Laos isn't as good as it is in Thailand and so could understand why he went. 'Why not Laos hospital?' I enquire, Ennau shakes his head and makes a slicing motion above his wrist. 'In Laos they do this'. At this point the I really began to understand how backward Laos is in terms of health, education, sanitation and so on. Another fascinating topic came up. Ennau wanted to know how much it cost in England to have our children taught to learn Laos. A perfectly good question if you think about it. I'm not sure if he understood my Commonwealth-based answer but I hopefully managed to let him down gently!

Chicken Feet
Ding had made me stir fried chicken and sticky rice (Laotians eat sticky rice rather than steamed rice wherever possible), it was very filling - just what the doctor had ordered but the chicken pieces were a mixture of cartilage and feet. Luckily there was a cat handy to help me look more appreciative.

Lao Lao Land
Ennau cracked open the Lao Lao and insisted we went in turns. Lao Lao is a rice wine whiskey that is legendary around these parts and is drunk on a daily basis by most Laotians. He explained that a couple of shots would help me sleep. He poured it out of a big plastic drum (which didn't inspire confidence). The whiskey was completely translucent, ie. 'white', not brown like Scottish whiskies. I was already feeling whacked out and had heard tales about the inebriating effects of Lao Lao so I was not keen on having any, but Ennau insisted we went in turns. Three shots each later my upper digestive tract felt like it just had a hot poker inserted into it. Lao Lao has a similar burning effect on your throat as Doxy (my anti-malarial meds.), and so the two together gave quite a painful chest-on-fire sensation, but what can you do with hospitality like this? I just had to make a few audible whooping noises and grin through the stinging.

Rice Based Economy
The Laotian economy is agriculturally based, in fact only this morning I was reading the Vientiane News(paper) and both headline stories featured rice farmers, highlighting their current plight - fuel and fertilizer prices make growing rice uneconomical. The further north in Thailand (Chiang Rai province) the more rice workers I saw out in the paddy fields. This trend continued into Laos, and now it seemed that the vast majority of people here eek out a living by either foraging off the land or planting rice. As an aside, in this part of the world they use the measurement of a 'rai' rather than acres or hectares. A rai is a 40m x 40m plot of land. It's been puzzling me for sometime as land is sold by the rai. Now we all know what a rai is, good.

By 10:30pm I was dying on my feet and the Lao Lao was indeed sending me into a sleepy coma, so I settled the bill: 35,000 kip for 2 Beer Lao, 3 shots of Lao Lao, stir fried green vegies, chicken feet and sticky rice and soup. That's about two of your British pounds.

Thudded into bed, applied the garish pink mozzy nets and fell soundly asleep.

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