Laos in a Word

Yesterday we cycled from before the morning fog had lifted until well after the evening sun had set, covering 100km and climbing two mountains on our way out of Laos and into Vietnam. Now that I’m surrounded once again by speedy internet, blaring trucks, terrifying factories, grabby noodle vendors, and gorgeous women in high heels, tight jeans, and hipster glasses, I’m finally starting to understand what it was that made Laos so charming.

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Being in Laos is, quite literally, a breath of fresh air. Sure, there’s the occassional heaping of dust that Chinese and Vietnamese trucks (depending on which border you’re nearest to) toss up into the air, but for the most part, there’s nothing but rice paddies, trees, houses, and mountains. My lord, lots of mountains.

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This is almost always the case, but it’s particularly so in Laos: I don’t feel that my writing can do justice to all of the beauty to be found here. I don’t even want to try. One single word came to mind over and over again. “Warmth.” The warmth of the scorching tropical sun beating down on my back, turning my bald white head red and my red cycling jersey white. The burning in my thighs from cycling up mountains that didn’t look quite so tough on the internet. The smiles, laughs, waves, and high-fives from innumerable village children, most of them only half-clothed. Immense hospitality from friends of friends, from strangers, and from the Korean multimillionaire diamond-trader-turned-guesthouse/resort-operator that I had met a few months back. Campfires. Starlight.

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A shrine.

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Its only inhabitants.

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This kid and I exchanged greetings, yelps, gestures, poses, and dances from across the river, until he delivered the finishing blow: he mooned me!

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I love this country.

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The central market in Muang Ngeun, just across from the Thai border. Almost certailny less than 2000 square feet.

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Change. Much of the land is still so riddled with unexploded ordinance dropped by American forces hoping to interrupt Vietnamese supply networks that the locals can’t expand their villages or fields without risking life and limb. Chinese power plant companies, on the other hand, have the resources to scan for bombs, disable or detonate the ones they find, and then go on with business. This plant was in Hongsa, about 60km from the Laos/Thai border. The supply road leading up to it was the best road I rode on in my 50 days / 1300+km in Laos.

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A day of riding in Laos often left me with the impression of having visited the set of Jurassic park. Masses of primordial vegatation in all sorts of shapes, almost surely hiding dinosaurs beneath.

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Hardly a day passed where we didn’t curse the roads. Even the best ones, running from the capital at Vientiane north 300km through the tourist towns of Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang, are full of potholes. Other country roads look like this – so sandy that you can’t get any traction on the way up, and so bumpy that you can’t get any speed going on the way down. Then again, if the mountains were less severe and the roads less hellish, who knows what would happen to all that charm?

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The other good thing about all that discomfort is that it makes the good stuff that much better. In this case, “good stuff” refers to the way we overran (clockwise from 12 o’clock) Alicia, Lauren, and Khanh’s place. Alicia was a friend of Chris’s from grad school. She convinced her housemates to let us live on her floor and soak up the joys of daily routine: rising early, communal eating, doing the dishes, scouring the yard for rocks on which to busting up coconuts, etc.

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Going out for pizza is nice, too.

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They even took us out for ice cream

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and even went out early in the morning to pick up breakfast.

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Needless to say, it was not easy to leave.

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We did, though, because we always do. Or at least, we tried. About 45km out of Luang Prabang, we stopped at this resort-under-renovation that I had passed by before. In June, I had had the good fortune to run into Ben, a Korean businessman who had recently bought the property. Whe chatted as he fed me and beered me, and then he let me pass the hottest hours of the afternoon sleeping on his floor; one of his employees even brought me a pillow. When I woke up, Ben had been called to town for a meeting, so I cycled on, a little disappointed that I didn’t even get the chance to thank him.

The chance arose again, though, when we passed by on our way out of LP. I was expecting either that Ben would have forgotten me, or that he’d be miffed to see scruffy old me pulling up again, this time with a band of beggars right behind. Quite the contrary – his first words were “Oh, Mike’s back! We’d better get you guys some beers.” Before we had even finished our noodles, it had been decided that we would rest that afternoon, head back into town for Korean for dinner, spend the night at Ben’s other hotel, come back the next morning, stay for a Saturday barbeque, and then hitchhike our way out of the country the next morning.

If a Korean ever again asks me whether I feel I wasted my time and energy learning so much Korean only to wind up leaving the country, I’ll remember to tell them about days like this.

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This winter, the resort will open up to Korean package tourists. Kayaking in the river, riding ATVs, panning for gold,

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frolicking in the river
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and becoming a mud monster…if that’s what you’re into.

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The bbq party was cancelled, so the four of us spent the day reading, napping, playing frisbee, and otherwise enjoying the feeling of not having a thing to do. At dusk, we gathered what we needed for our first campfire: reeds and sticks, sunflower seeds, and a couple of ukuleles.

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Actually, though, it would have been enough to just lie back and look at the stars.

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I’m once again reminded that views like this are possible almsot exclusively in places far from the comfort and convenience we usually take for granted.

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5 Responses to Laos in a Word

  1. Jeff says:

    Dang. Great post.

  2. ian chen says:

    numorous shining stars are really awsome ,full of mystery.it’s hardly to close eyes for a while.staring at them,insomnia won’t be a enjoyable thing?!

    • Michael Roy says:

      Yup, one time in Taiwan Mingyu lay on his back and waited for 30 minutes for the clouds to open up so he could get the perfect shot. We’re so lucky to have the time to do that.

  3. Marisa says:

    Stunning photos, great post. Thanks, Mike! I just got back from a work trip to Cincinnati. I stayed with Sara’s mom, Lisa, and it was great. It made me nostalgic for old times, and Athena in particular. Hopefully she’s well, wherever she is and whatever she’s doing!