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Published: April 30th 2008
The long flat road stretched out endlessly south from Vientienne. The first day was ok; we made good progress despite a relentless headwind and towards the end of the day the forested hills of a National Park loomed up to the left of the road. We checked into a nice little guesthouse and set out to find the market in the tiny town. We managed to stock up with bananas and peanuts, which are about the only snack food we have found in this country. It was only then that we noticed the other more exotic foods for sale: kingfishers, herons and squirrels lay dead on the tables. Our hearts fell even more as we looked round to find a flattened pangolin and a civet (we think) for sale too. Once the stallholders had realised that we were interested in these animals more and more kept being produced for us to look at including a huge flying-squirrel. We have never seen any of these nocturnal and hard-to see-creatures alive and it was very upsetting to see them dead. We had not gone into the National Park proper, but here in the market we could tell that we were indeed near a
Not quite ready to drink yet......
good bit of forest from the wildlife that was for sale. Obviously the local people here were good at tracking or at least trapping these rare animals, we hope that soon they are able to put their skills to use in eco-tourism rather than for hunting, but I am not too sure.
As we looked around we remembered a conversation we had when we had nipped over the border to Thailand on a visa run from Vientiane. There we had met a British expat who had told us that the Thais, like the Lao, will eat anything, and having long ago chopped most of their own forest they now get all their wildlife eatables from the Lao who paddle across the Mekong to riverside markets on the Thai side to sell the dead wildlife. This is particularly disturbing as whilst we could have some sympathy for the Lao eating wildlife - Lao is one of the poorest countries in Asia and has a food shortage, much of the rural population still lives very close to the land and such wildlife has always been a traditional and free source of food and much needed protein. Thailand by comparison is a
rich and developed country with Tesco and Carrefour hypermarkets and a population that surely does not still need to be eating squirrels and rare endangered wildlife. No doubt the Thai pay good prices for this stuff, so much of the trapping and shooting occurring in Laos forests is now being done to make cash exports rather than to feed the family or tribes' needs. This subtle shift alone will more likely lead to the extinction of some of these species. This also constitutes international trade in wildlife species yet is happening quite openly.
The cycle on south proved to be long, hot and boring. The road was endlessly flat passing through brown, dry paddy fields with the odd buffalo and patches of dry lowland forest which usually only had young-medium aged trees and that were often on fire anyway. As in the north we wondered at the burning of what was obviously secondary forest growth (the virgin forest having long ago vanished) as there seemed to be no attempt to convert the land to agricultural use.
We found ourselves counting the kilometres into the constant heat and headwind before stopping for rests in empty bamboo field shelters. After
The amazingly colourful Dragon Fruit, one of the few decent snacks available in Laos (they are nearly all imported from Vietnam though).
each stop it became harder and harder to motivate ourselves to get back on the road. Despite having been in Laos for over a month and having done hardly any cycling in that time we still felt constantly tired. Maybe it was the heat, maybe the lack of decent food in the country.
After arriving exhausted in Savanakhet we decided to take a bus. However the luxury of a hotel with cable film channels and evenings spent drinking Beer Lao on the banks of the river proved too big a lure and the days slipped by. We would sit watching the sun sink into the haze over Thailand as the lights and neon lit up on the other side of the river, a complete contrast to the low key sleepy town we were in. Savanakhet itself was pretty dull. The central market has been moved out of town leaving an empty hall and a city with no soul. It was seriously quiet and in the middle of the day completely dead. By the afternoon a few locals manage to get out playing the odd game of petanque and possibly opening up some beer, but that was the sum of
The Fishing Hour
Any riverbank, anywhere in Laos, the hour before sunset.
activity we saw in the whole town. It must have been this placidness that infected us again since we found that we did not have enough energy to even try to go and get the bus.
The bus journey from Svanakhet to Pakse had been OK. None of the stressful bike loading of Indian buses, here the bus boys actually listened to our concerns for fragile derailleurs and were sensible about loading. It was also interesting to see how Lao people travel. Slowly and completely crammed in! I spent the journey squashed under an old guy's armpit. But every one was good tempered even in the discomfort.
Eventually we arrived in Pakse to find a much more interesting town. It had beautiful rivers and pleasant riverside bars but also loads of markets and just a bit more life in the place. There was also quite a bit of tourist infrastructure and we seriously enjoyed the Nazim Indian food Restaurant, which made a great change from sticky rice. It was here we decided to take another bus down to Siphandon, the 4000 Islands.
We decided to take the bus to 4000 islands, leaving the bikes and our
It pays to keep your eyes on the road, I actually ran this guy over with my bike (though I think its fairly certain it was already dead before that).
luggage in Pakse to avoid a back track with all our stuff through yet more flat brown paddy fields. Siphandon (4000 islands) is a magical place of tree covered islands and huge waterfalls. Here close to the Laos-Cambodian border the massive Mekong River splits up into countless channels and hundreds of islands have formed from the heavy load of silt and sand that she is carrying. Round here the boat is still the king of transport and the villages on the islands do most of the trading and fishing from thin long tailed boats.
The islands of Don Dot and Don Khone offered a brilliant solution to transport in French Indo-China. These two Islands span the Mekong Falls; the south part of the island is lower and down stream of the massive falls and the northern end up stream of the falls. The French built ports and a railway over the islands so were able to load goods below the falls onto the train which brought them upstream to waiting boats at Don Det.
In Siphandon only 10 years ago the people hardly used money, now they have long tailed boats with motors, generators, TV's, mobile phones and
Poultry - Laos style
Not just dead chikcens, no a few herons, a waterhen and a kingfisher too. I dont want to try imaging what might be in those banana leaf wraps.
motorbikes. There used to be only a dozen extended family groups where people got all they needed from the river, the forest and the communal rice paddies. The boats and houses were made from natural resources and the massive Mekong provided plenty of food, with any extra being traded for family gold to see them through any hard times. It is absolutely mind boggling how quickly development has happened here in Laos.
Siphandon is now definitely on the backpacker route. And justly so the place is still idyllic. We stayed in one of the many bamboo stilt huts on Don Det and lazed in hammocks and cooled off in the wonderful Mekong. It was perfect to live in the middle of the river and hire bikes to cycle around the good forest on the southern island of Don Khone. Birds flew in the treetops, which was a first for Laos where mostly the only birds we have seen have been in cages or dead for sale as food in the markets. We cycled out to some seriously impressive waterfalls; it was dry season so mostly we could see miles of scoured rocks stretching for as far as we could
Yes, even this impressive jungle dweller is for sale in the market and on the menu too.
see. We just could not really grasp how big the river is here, what we were looking at was only a part, since there were loads of other islands behind us too, all with channels and waterfalls running between them.
We had to drag ourselves away from island life and a boat, bus and tuk-tuk later we were back in Pakse for a final Indian meal before the cycle up to the Bolaven Plateau. We got an early start in an attempt to take advantage of the cool of morning. The road was good and the climb not too strenuous, however by 11 am we were wilting and it was with great relief that we found a perfect waterfall. We rode through the coffee plantations for which the Bolaven is famous and arrived at an empty car park with abandoned food stalls, obviously this spot was popular with locals at weekends, but when we were there it was empty. However just as we were going down to the falls a guy on a motorbike appeared to get our ticket money! We had been spotted going through the plantations. Still we didn't mind as the place was well kitted out
Dead and on sale for meat in the market.
with shady benches and litter bins. Below us a big deep, cold pool of water was surrounded by jungle clad circular cliffs and a pretty powerful stream of water tumbled down. You could walk all the way round the pool and behind the falls, but we spent most of our time on the really cool bamboo rafts and ropes that were set up in the falls so you could pull yourselves out and underneath the torrent of water. Seriously refreshing and quite a buffeting experience complete with cold down draft! We spent the rest of the afternoon warming up again in the shade and snacking. At about 4pm a big group of local people turned up to play in the pool and it was time for us to cycle on to Paksong still uphill to get to the top of the plateau.
There was not really very much to Paksong. It had been completely destroyed in the "American" war. Unfortunately Robin woke up the next day with a cold and we had to rest up. By now we were really fed up with sticky rice and fried rice but it was the only affordable food available with definitely more
A very happy lady plucking a squirrel.
calories per kip than the noodle soup. In fact the restaurants in Paksong were really quite expensive, we learnt from another tourist that the prices in Lao had rocketed in the 7 years he had known the place. The effects of tourism we thought, but perhaps it is just that there is no other trade here and that petrol is not cheap, who knows, but we were looking forward to getting out to Vietnam.
We had a lovely ride over the top of the plateau on a dirt road. The road was good and the forest and plantations around were interesting. It was nice to be off the tarmac - it kept us interested in the road. Unfortunately the road all too quickly led back down into the valleys and into the heat and thunder storms at Attapeau.
The two days from Attapeau to the Vietnamese border have to be some of the best bits of cycling in Laos. Although it was ridiculously hot the place was brilliant. Huge trees lined the road and the good new tarmac made for speedy cycling even if the steepness of the hills did not. This was some of the thickest jungle
Dreaming the miles away
Riding south through the heat, endless plains and headwinds we basically counted down the kilometres and time until we could take another stop in these regular shade platforms.
we had come through in Laos. It is also close to the Ho Chi Minh trail and at one point we passed a woman with a metal detector who must have been looking for unexploded ordnance (UXO) to dig up and sell for scrap. She was wearing no protective equipment and when we heard the machine bleeping and saw her starting to dig as we got close we pushed up the pace a bit to get clear. Many children and others are killed or seriously injured every year in Laos trying to make money from the legacy of the "American" war. Laos has the unfortunate title of being the most bombed country in the world, the American bombs falling during a war that never officialy existed but continues to kill and injure people to this day.
The road just kept climbing and the gradient and the heat meant we had to push our bikes sometimes. We arrived at a shade shelter to find it full of Vietnamese guys all using their mobiles. It was weird but then around the corner we found a huge logging camp. Obviously the only mobile reception was up at the top of the ridge.
It was this logging camp that made us realise how rich this forest is around here. Massive trees were piled up over a huge cleared area. I have never seen such a huge amount of timber. I only hope that the logging here is being carried out in a restrained manner, leaving enough jungle cover for nature to survive, but somehow I am doubtful of this and I wonder how long this wonderful area will last.
We cycled on along the newly tarmaced road, but soon had to stop to throw ourselves into a cool river. We were just sweating more than we ever had before (now that's quite a bit!) and the river was so lovely. We were joined by a local family who had come to get firewood but also could not resist a swim in the river and the chance to drink of homemade rice-whisky whilst wallowing in the water. I can now see the attractions of the life of a water buffalo in this heat. Once the heat of the day had subsided a bit, we cycled on to the only village marked on the road signs. There we found two small shops which amazingly
At Pakkading. The road south is usually nowhere near the river, unfortunately. And since its construction long distance passenger boats have ceased to exist, or no doubt we would have been on one.
had biscuits for sale! We happily bought up the biscuits and it was no surprise to us that they had come from Vietnam, since Lao had been completely lacking of such things until we had got this close to the border! After a warm Pepsi we cycled on but again lethargy had set in and as we crossed a river with wallowing buffalo again we could not resist and decided to camp under the bridge and swim again.
It was great to be camping again and we woke in the morning to a big thunder storm and downpour which kept the morning cool. The cycle on to the border was seriously steep and the new road cut huge swathes out of the jungle leaving massive cuttings of bare earth. No shade trees were left for us along the road, I suppose they never considered that anyone would cycle or walk along this road and certainly when we eventually arrived at the border the guards were very surprised to see us.
Laos has been a strange country for us - we had heard so many amazing stories from other travellers but often the realilty did not live up to
The Mekong Valley
Basically this was the scenery the entire way south from Vientienne; brown and dry paddyfields, or dry forest. Bring back the mountains!!
our expectations. Certainly the country is not a cheap, little travelled place anymore. Whether our disappointments were due only to the rapid changes that have occured in the last few years, or whether it was due more to the fact that we were simply too tired to prise ourselves away from the ease of the tourist trail we may never know. I certainly think getting into more remote areas would have made our time there more interesting, as the last 2 days proved, but maybe if we come back again we will bring a few extra kilos of weight to lose. In the meantime Vietnam lies ahead - a country we have also heard many stories about, none of them good.
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