Lethargic Laos

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February 26th 2008
Published: April 30th 2008
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Ask me what I did in Laos I will say not much. Even though we have cycled from the Chinese border south to Vientienne we have also spent a lot of time still and resting. Drinking lots of wonderful 'Beer Lao' and eating many baguettes and doughnuts, we are definitely appreciating a rest and relaxation. Maybe it is where we are in our journey but I think that more likely it is Laos; it really is an infectiously lazy place.

So we are off to drink lovely rich chocolatey Lao coffee, maybe iced with condensed milk added. A wander round the National Museum may reveal more about the country to us and help us feel justified in relaxing in Vientienne, the capital, by informing us a bit about Laos. But even if I never learn a great deal about this place I think I will always have a feeling of fondness for it, since it is really hard not to like warm weather, beautiful people, nice fruits and lazy days.

Vientienne is the smallest capital city I have ever been to. It is quiet and there is hardly any traffic. There is only one building over two or three stories high and it sits uglily overlooking the Mekong. There is a one-way system in town and people respect it! The town has a very European flavour to it and I think it is because of the traffic, since every other Asian city we have been to has always been so much more chaotic, the only other places we know like this were small towns in France or Belgium. Every now and again though it is interesting to see the telltale mark that shows us we are in the tropics; the fruit for sale; magnificent pink dragon fruits and coconuts and the beautiful Buddhist temples. There are bougainvilleas and frangipanis starting to flower and palm trees swaying in the wind. Also there are the smart Sixties concrete kitsch of some office and house designs. The concrete trellis offering shade and style to otherwise quite ugly buildings and the relentless battle against fungus and algae growth on the white-washed walls.

Trying to buy clothes here has really brought it home to me that I am somewhere totally foreign. The women are really tiny (actually so are the men) and nothing fits me at all. The other day I managed to track down the largest pair of sandals in the entire market. I had to buy them; of course this depleted my bargaining skills by quite a bit, but they were still good value and now I have cool feet again. And should the rest of my clothes eventually totally fall apart at least the sarongs are one-size-fits-all!

So a bit about our ride here.

In the north of Laos the villages are all perched on top of stilts on high ridges and steep slopes. Pigs, long-legged chickens, and bare footed children wander around. People line the roads with cut grasses that they beat and roll on the tarmac before leaving to dry. They are shaking the pollen out of the flower heads to leave the stalks for use in weaving mats and making brooms, but Robin gets a bit of hay fever from this. All along the road people emerge from the jungle with baskets full of cut leaves and stalks, maybe even a few dead squirrels hanging out from the baskets too. Everyone yells "Saibaidee!" at the top of their voice as we cycle past. Often shouts of Saibaidee seem to come from the forest itself, we never see the people greeting us so enthusiatically.

The first town in the north of Laos was very much a Chinese enclave. Most businesses in Udomxai were run by Chinese people, but often by ethnic Lao people from just over the Chinese border who had mostly the same lifestyle and traditions anyway. It was just that in Laos everything was a load smaller, especially food portions which were also much more expensive than in China. The stilt raised bamboo huts here in Laos did not come with attached solar water heaters and modern concrete bathrooms on stilts as they had on the Chinese side and although power cables followed the road most of the hill villages have not been hooked up yet.

The towns are tiny, the villages just really a collection of houses, there are hardly any shops or restaurants anywhere and UN World Food Programme jeeps pass us most days. What shops there are have very little for sale in them, the restuarants aren't much better. With a hugely mountainous and until recently jungle covered countryside northern Laos has difficulty feeding itself. Laos produces almost no exports. These days it can only really export rainforest hardwoods and that is making a quick and devastating change in the land. The government has banned the export of rice, as the country barely produces enough to meet its own needs. But with a big market demand and higher prices across the border in Thailand there is plenty of incentive to dodge this, we would later learn that Laos rice is often packaged as "produce of Thailand" to be shipped out under the radar.

In the hills the villagers take anything they can to eat. Everyday we see people catching frogs and there are very few birds around. Although we can hear a lot of birds in the forests in the north they are cautious and we do not get many views of them. Perhaps they have learnt people are dangerous. I hope so. We had mixed feelings seeing people eating wildlife, whether frogs, beetles and other insects, birds, rats, squirrels or other rodents. It is amazing that these people have the knowledge of how to survive with the jungle, but with the rate of deforestation in Laos at the moment I can not help feeling that the exotic menu has numbered days. I am not really sure what
Petrol Station, Laos StylePetrol Station, Laos StylePetrol Station, Laos Style

In a hill tribe village, northern Laos.
these people will live on at all once they have completely removed all their jungle. In other countries where we have seen deforestation like this, such as Assam, India, where the forest was removed people, buildings and agriculture filled the gaps, but here the population is so sparse that all that's left are scrub covered mountains rolling into the distance and I feel a sense of emptiness. Little of the cleared land is being cultivated and even less is being grazed, yet where previously cleared areas are starting to re-forest themsleves this secondary growth is being burned off, seemingly for no reason at all.

After a hard days slog through the hills from Udomxai we arrived at the tiny junction 'town' of Pakmong. The restaurants here are service stops for the passing buses but also display the variety of wildlife found in the surrounding forests. The menus inlcuded such dishes such as frog soup, roasted frog, and roasted big lizard. Babecued squirrel seemed a popular option, as did a number of dishes made from beetles and other insect larvae. As we watched a woman shelling a huge bucket of live beetles outside her cafe a guy appeared with a
Endless Forests, minus the trees.Endless Forests, minus the trees.Endless Forests, minus the trees.

Northern Laos, on the road south towards Luang Prabang.
dead porcupine and after a quick bartering session the woman added this to her food display. We ordered sticky rice and noodle soup but got a saucerful of food for more than a tableful would have cost in China. After some pleading they lowered their price and sold us a kilo of rice.

We had heard so much that Laos was the last bit of South East Asia with nature, and have to say that this amazed us. Although Laos is quiet and green, to us it is depleted. When we were in Xishuan-Banna National Park just over the Chinese border we had wondered at the beauty and amazing diversity of the jungle, but even there Robin had reminded me that although impressive even that beautiful piece of jungle was depleted; the giant, really old buttressed trees had been removed years ago and it would be hundreds of years more before any grew in to fill their places. Here in Laos we now realised that Xishuan-Banna, although depleted, was the best bit of jungle we had come through. Maybe far away from the main roads and rivers, up towards the Vietnam border the situation in Laos is different, we
A rare piece of productivity.A rare piece of productivity.A rare piece of productivity.

Rice Paddies in lower valley, northern Laos.
dont know.

We wondered about our perception of the world now. What once we would have enjoyed and like others thought of as a wild paradise we now see as depleted and less rich. It is sad but I am not sure exactly why. Sad because we can no longer feel as much enjoyment just from seeing greenness, as before this trip when we lived in towns and offices, but it is also great that the reason we are like this is because we have been lucky enough to have seen some of the best wild landscapes on this planet. I suppose our standards are pretty high now! '

We did still enjoy cycling on the quiet and hilly roads, but the wow factor that we had hoped for in lovely South East Asian jungle clad rolling mountains had already been and gone in southern Yunnan. Instead an infectious lethargy had set in.

Admittedly we were very tired and even the week resting and enjoying sightseeing in Luang Prabang with Robin's family did not refresh us from the long hard cycle in Tibet and Yunnan. The place was quiet and the pace slow. As the days are
Laos Cuisine #1Laos Cuisine #1Laos Cuisine #1

Shelling beetles in Pakmong, prior to frying them up.
hotting up we are winding down. Laos just feels lazy to us. The people do not hurry anywhere. We occasionally see people working in vegetable gardens, but never that hard, the pace of life here seems to be very relaxed. In China by comparison the same piece of land would be full to bursting with masses of agricultural produce, here in Laos there are nice well spaced rows of veggies so that half the plot is empty bare soil. The veggie gardens here look more like western ones, not the places that you rely on to feed a nation. Maybe it is because the Chinese are so industrious in all their endeavours that emphasises the laid back attitude here so much, but maybe too it is true Lao people never really seem to work hard.
Then again maybe people here do not really need to work too hard. Yes they are very poor, they have hardly any money, but ...they live quiet lives in the countryside. To be as poor in a more industrial nation would be much worse. However I can't help wondering how much longer this happy laziness can continue, as the jungle shrinks, less and less wild (and free) food and other materials will be available.

Many people may find these thoughts weird since the tourist centres of Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientienne have plenty of lovely restaurants and international foods, but cycling through the smaller towns even just on the main road Robin and I have found it hard to get enough calories. People here are small and hardly eat anything. Usually only noodle soup is available and although served in a large bowl it is mostly water. We have taken to eating 3 kilos of rice a day; a breakfast of sticky rice with condensed milk like a rice pudding and a lunch of just sticky rice and dinner of sticky rice and maybe a noodle soup to help wash it down. On the bikes I always have a kilo of rice with me, as we never know how much food will be available, if any, in the next place. Most villages are just too tiny to have any shops, and what shops there are dont really sell anything. When we do find restaurants we have to order double every time as the portions are Lao sized!

What is Laos
Laos Cuisine #2Laos Cuisine #2Laos Cuisine #2

Corns and freshly shot Porcupine await a good roasting in Pakmong. Also on the menu were "roasted big lizard", "roasted mole" and various styles of frog.
like though?

Luang Prabang is the cultural capital of the country, the past home of Kings and countless monks. It is also now one of the newest and busiest UNESCO World Heritage towns. The old town sits enclosed by two rivers'- the Nam Kahn bends round two sides to join the mighty Mekong. Temples abound; steep sided multi leveled tiled roofs decorated with serpents and dragons. Golden Buddhas and tree filled gardens surround them. Luang Prabang is really very beautiful and there are brilliant treasures in the many temples to wonder at. The town recently though has undergone a massive change. Boutique hotels have sprung up and quite a few backpacker places too. When we were there the place was heaving with tourists and it was difficult to find a room. The main street had more Farang than locals about. It was not just backpackers but many middle aged or older tourists who flew in and out especially to visit this UNESCO site. This was quite a shock for us to be on the tourist trail again after so long.
However it was a great place to meet up with Robin's parents again. We spent days looking at
Laos HighwayLaos HighwayLaos Highway

Crossing a tributary of the Nam Ou. The rivers are the traditional highways of the country, many lowland villages are only accesible by boat. The riverbanks support strips of vegetable gardens on the rich mud exposed during the dry season.
the Temples and the evenings in different restaurants. I have to say though our favourite food places were the baguette stalls and in the evening the fantastic barbequed fish from the river.

Finally after resting for ages in Luang Prabang we dragged ourselves back onto our bikes inexplicably still not re-energised after days vegetating. However visa pressure was now on and we had to move. The landscape and road did not disappoint and soon we were slogging up through the beautiful tree lined mountain roads. The downhills were great but even though we were happy to be greeted by picturesque riverside villages on stilts at the bottoms of the valleys this only meant that we had another seriously big climb to do. We were finding it tough and had to camp out on the first night in a road side bamboo shelter and just eat all the food we had on us. We made do and it was great to sleep outside again perched on the edge of a big drop and wake up to see the sun rise over the cloud filled valleys below us. The next day was more of the same big hills but the landscape
The Nam OuThe Nam OuThe Nam Ou

A major artery of northern Laos, passing through some stunnign scenery, even if it is chucking it down. (Incidentally our first rain for over 4 months!!)
was really worth it even if we just had to rely on the sticky rice we carried for lunch since there is just nothing to buy on the way. We ended up at about 1400m in the clouds at a busy little crossroad town that happily sold Vietnamese imported sweets and peanuts so we stocked up with munch. We passed loads of other cyclists on the road. It seems the traffic free stunning landscape attracts a lot of people to take their bike with them on holiday to Laos.

From here we had a long downhill to Vang Vieng, with huge limestone mountains rising vertically out of the flat valley floor. Jungle clings to the cliff sides and massive caves cut into the outcrops. The scene is straight from our imagination of what South East Asia should look like, a quiet river winds through the town surrounded by paddy fields and people wearing cone straw hats. Bizarrely this wonderful setting of Vang Vieng has been turned into a party town. The techno beats pound out into the night sky and we are left dazed on the edge trying to reconcile the heavy cool tropical night air filled with singing
Northern ForestsNorthern ForestsNorthern Forests

A rare good patch.
insects to the amphitheatre of sound created by the disco in the middle of the idyllic surrounding rocky mountains. We had been warned that this town was "Packerdom gone mad" and admittedly partying it up with other foreigners is not what I went travelling to do, but the setting did win me over and some of the bars were quiet cool. Though not the ones showing back-to-back Friends episodes on big-screen TVs all day, we gave these a wide berth.

In the day it was dead quiet and we had time to go cycling off through the fields to caves and lagoons for swimming in. The tourist scene is so established here it meant that everything had a price tag, but it was actually fun to pay and go into the caves and cross the bridges. Although not a wild experience it was nice to have a built path up to the cave and to have a rope swing up to jump into the blue cool lagoon before having a beer from the small bamboo bar built there. Some people may find it all too touristy, as we might have done previously, but now we were just happy to have beauty and easiness. Here we could just sit and gaze and swim a bit if we got too hot. We did not have to work hard to see the next amazing view. We could kick back and open another great Beer Lao.

Additional photos below
Photos: 49, Displayed: 33


Monster MothMonster Moth
Monster Moth

Much bigger than it looks on here.
Lethargic BuddhaLethargic Buddha
Lethargic Buddha

Even the enlightened fall prey to the sleepy atmosphere in Laos.

Laos is full of beautiful butterflies. Possibly the only type of wildlife not on the menu (assuming they get past caterpiller stage).
Shrewd Business Girl, Luang PrabangShrewd Business Girl, Luang Prabang
Shrewd Business Girl, Luang Prabang

Selling "flower for buddha" outside the temples.

3rd May 2008

Going to Thailand?
Hiya Pals Are you going over the Friendship Bridge to Thailand? We were up on the Mekong, at Phu Kradung, a few years back. They also seem to eat anything that can't run fast enough, but in larger quantities! Festival season starts here in a few weeks with Knochengorroch, we'll have a boogie and think of you. Happy Trails. Love, Shirl and Dave

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