Stories from my diary #4  – The land of Lao

Stories from my diary #4 – The land of Lao

Stories from my diary is a series of articles from my cycling journey from Rotterdam to Singapore. In this series I share stories from my diary that I kept daily. I was on the road for a year from 2 February 2015 to 30 January 2016. In addition to stories from this diary, I also share personal awareness of the impact that this cycling journey have had on me. Today #4 in which I take you into Laos.

October 25 – 105km (11730km)

The border with Loas is now very close. I’m excited. I have cycled through China for three months now and am looking forward to cycling through Southeast Asia.

The arrest has given me a fear. A sense of feeling that I’m continuous being followed by the Chinese authorities. During the arrest, I was detained and interrogated for an afternoon. In the end I had to sign a form with my answers written in Chinese and sign it with my fingerprints. The reason of the arrest had something too do with a Uighur revolt in western China. That’s what they’ve told me at least. I have been cycling in that area a few weeks ago. The whole event was all very strange and intens. I still have mixed feelings about it.

I’m looking forward to leaving China. From what I know authorities in Laos are easygoing. That’ll end the era of intrusive policemen who want to fully control me as a bicycle tourist. China is so huge, in the time that is available within the visa, the adventure is a rushed adventure. In Laos I hope to find more peace.

October 26 – 80km (11810km)

Today I cross the border. The border is not at all as secured as the border with China and Kyrgyzstan. Here I cycled into China three months ago. I get through it quickly and without any problems. I don’t need a visa for Laos. That’s the first sign of a more hospitable period in my journey. 

I’m sitting at a small supermarket near the border. I have contact with Matthew who has been cycling in front of me for a while. He is in the town of Luang Namtha, a little further down in Laos. The main road from north to south is well paved. Some people told me that it has been built with the help of China. After about 30 kilometers of cycling I arrive in Luang Namtha. I come across a number of Belgian tourists who I can ask some questions about the currency and a cheap place to spend the night. Later I drink a beer with an Australian guy. The atmosphere feels immediately different from China.

Later on I search for the cheapest place to stay in Luang Namtha. In the evening I meet Matthew and Anouk in a restaurant with a western range of fast food. Matthew is originally from Australia and has lived in the Netherlands for a while. Now he cycles from the Netherlands back to Australia to start his live in Australia again. A nice conversation. For what I’m used to, quite a pricey restaurant I find out when I pay the bill.

October 27 to 30 – rest days

A few days of rest in the tourist town of Luang Namtha. I sleep in a dormitory for € 3.50 per night. The evening of the first day I went out with Johan, a French guy and a French couple. Anouk, who I know from the meeting with Matthew, is also there. She is from the Netherlands.

Luang Namtha is completely geared to tourism. It looks like the entire economy is running on it. I notice that in everything. There are especially many backpackers who travel from place to place in Southeast Asia.

A few older women are walking around, selling something that looks like hashish. Now that I’m here, I purchase it one evening. It appears to be opium. I have read that Laos has a rich opium history. I’m immediately confronted with it. There are rumors that the government in Laos is tackling drugs such as opium with fierce prison sentences. I have no idea what to do with the purchased item. How do I smoke this? I put the small bag under my bed in the dormitory.

During the day I don’t do a lot of exciting things. There are organized adventurous trips, one of which is an introduction to local people in a jungle village. They are pricey and the kind of tourism I would rather not venture into. I write a lot in these days, a blog with photos of the last part in China. I am also working on a video that I finally did not receive.

I meet Ido who is from Israel. A hiker. We talk a lot about Tibet, about remote places. About how you can enjoy traveling more by avoiding the more touristic places. Later on another guy joins the dormitory. Eward from Germany. He has long dreads. One evening I come into contact with him and we go eat somewhere. Eward proudly shows me photos where he is smoking opium with locals in the jungle. He asks if I will go to the jungle tomorrow with him to share this experience. I let him know that I’m going to think about it. In a way I don’t feel so comfortable going into the jungle as a privileged Westerner to get high with local people. People who, in my opinion, probably have very few privileges and may be very dependent on the use of opium.

October 31 – 66km (11876km)

Today I’m leaving Luang Namtha. I follow the route to the south towards other towns such as Luang Prabang. It is quiet cycling. I meet an older couple. Someone from Sweden and someone from France. They have already reached the age of 60. The Swedish man talks a lot and is very enthusiastic. It’s nice to meet someone like that. I’m alone and can be in my own bubble sometimes. If someone is over-enthusiastic, it’s a way of communication that makes me more open.

In the evening I find a nice place to camp. I make a campfire to keep the mosquitoes away and go to sleep early. I have forgotten the opium that I had put under the bed in the hostel.

November 1 – 73km (11949km)

After a long night of sleep, I head out rested. I meet a guy. His name is Gonsa. He starts talking to me at a break that I take at one of the small shops along the road. He is 16 years old and has just played a football match. He says that his team has won and his friends are all drunk. He goes with me to the river to show us a place where we can swim. I buy two Beerlao beers, a very nice type of beer here in Laos. We arrive at a mud pool with a river next to it. We sit by the river together and talk about his life. He speaks English quite well which I think is exceptional. He talks about his sister who works as a police officer, which he sees as a good job. His brother is studying in Vietnam. He would like this too, but his parents have no money to also send him to Vietnam for education.

November 2 – 93km (12042km)

I get up early and cycle for a long time. Four spokes broke. They were too tensed. Tensioning a wheel without the right tools is impossible. To do it right, I need better tools. I always take three spokes that I tighten by feeling. In this way it is possible to get the wheel ok again. Bringing the right tension to each spoke is manually almost impossible.

I regularly come across cyclists. Usually couples. I then try to start a conversation. It often fails. I’m very excited to encounter them, but this enthusiasm is often not mutual. There remains a reserved attitude for the most people I meet. The question sometimes comes to mind whether this has to do with Western individualism. Local people here have a very different attitude. An often more open attitude. Or will it be that people who travel together are more focused on each other.

November 3 – 87km (12129km)

The last kilometers to Luang Prabang. It is now mainly down so I arrive quite soon in the afternoon at the town. I’m looking for a hostel by approaching people and ask if they know a shared bedroom for 30,000 Loa kip, which is just over €3,-. I meet a couple, a guy and two ladies from Eastern Europe. Through them I come across the hostel Spicy Laos. In a nice neighborhood.

November 4 to 6 – rest days

Today again a lot of time stopped on the video about China. I want the video from China very well and my perfectionism keeps me busy. There is a nice night market in Luang Prabang. Everything closes at 11:30pm. Also all bars. A rule that the government of Laos has implemented. A kind of curfew. I meet in Spicy Laos Gaja from Slovenia. I regularly go to the markets in the town with her. Gaja has stomach problems but soon feels better again. There are quite a lot of Dutch tourists here.

November 7 – 30km (12159km)

Left from Luang Prabang. Ido, the Israeli guy whom I have already met for the third time, pointed me to a bicycle shop. They seem to have western bike parts and may be able to help me with the right spokes. An American guy, the owner, helps me to make something right with my wheel. He only asks for money for the parts. I just have to share his shop on social media.

In the afternoon go cycling from the town of Luang Prabang. In my head I have a waterfall visit the next morning to shower. I have lost my Mp3 player at the hostel in Luang Prabang, I am disappointed.

November 8 – 67km (12226km)

Arrived at a waterfall in the morning but it turns out to be the wrong one. Not as beautiful as the world famous and more touristic Kuang Si Fall. But it’s very quiet. I’m the only tourist for an entire afternoon. I really enjoy the peace and quiet. There is a restaurant and I order a papaya salad. The lady of the restaurant punch a papaya from a tree next to the terrace. Then cuts it on the spot.

Climbing, climbing and even more climbing. 20 kilometers with a 12% increase. I secretly hang on a truck. In the evening I find a nice camping place. The temperature is a lot cooler now here in the mountains. It’s really comfortable. 

November 9 – 96km (12322km)

The children in the villages that I pass wave hello and shout “sawadee, sawadee!” When I stop for a break they gather around me. They laugh. Chickens and pigs roam freely. The local markets that I come across have fresh fruit and vegetables and pieces of meat. I even come across a living beaver on a leash that I can buy. I know they are protected and they should not be caught by the locals, but who am I to judge about this. 

I follow my route to the south towards the city Vientiane. This is the capital of Laos close to the border with Northern Thailand.

Nature in Laos

Laos rice fields with mountain scenery

Village in Laos

Children in Laos

Laos has a colonial past. It was colonized by the French in 1893. Three territories were merged and with that merging the French used the plural word Laos instead of Lao. The people in Loas has never really adopted this. During the Vietnam War the country was completely destroyed by the interference of the United States. Until today, many people depend on their own harvest. The economy is largely dominated by the surrounding countries, for example Vietnam.

The meeting with Gonsa was special. He didn’t seem to go along with the distractions of his friends, who when I met him were noisy and drinking beer. He started asking me questions. He shared his ambitions. I admired his knowledge and consciousness. I felt like he was trying to break away from the norm just like me.

I sometimes hear or read Western perspectives on a country like Laos with a certain superior view. For example, by saying that the country is poor and people there may be less happy because of fewer social benefits. I never had the idea that this is in fact their reality. It seemed that there was a great acceptance capacity for fate. I noticed that I quickly reasoned out of compassion based on my own social benefits. I have had to learn that this is not the reality of the people I came in contact with.