Days 224 – 226
Landing in Thailand and hearing the hum of hornless traffic was therapeutic. I felt relaxed for the first time in weeks. After a 24 hour layover in Bangkok, I caught a connecting flight to Chiang Mai – the closest airport to Myanmar and my original route. I was in awe of Chiang Mai’s state of calm. The streets were empty, quiet and pristine. I had forgotten what it felt like to be in a developed country.
That being said, South East Asia is a well trodden backpacker trail. The only culture shock was other westerners. Having spent months in countries where westerners were few and far between; the onslaught of tourists was something I wasn't prepared for. I found it difficult to know how to interact with them. I had been accustomed to speaking with locals, non-English speakers; I’d slow my speech, discuss cultural and religious differences, and talk about cycling. More often than not, I was approached out of intrigue and curiosity. I very rarely sparked up conversation myself, there was no need. When I wasn’t talking to locals, I was with other cyclists, where our common mode of transport was the instigator for conversation. And, naturally, we were like-minded.
In Thailand, I was completely out of my depths. When I did have conversations with other travellers, I couldn’t help but seem disinterested, unable to think of anything to say. There was no commonality, or interest, from my part, about their journeys. I didn’t want to drink, smoke weed, visit a waterfall, an elephant ‘sanctuary’ or ‘hike’ to see a temple. I wanted to escape. Waste hours treading tarmac in nature. Be solitude on my bicycle. I wanted to be alone, wrapped in my abnormal comfort blanket.
It’s interesting how quickly experiences change perspective, wants and needs. Back in London, I’d surround myself with people – usually at the pub. Maybe those days are over. Or, at least, on hiatus.
After two nights in Chiang Mai, I headed for the steep hills of the north. I was impressed by the smooth tarmac; it was bouncy, pothole-less and easy. The more miles I put between myself and Chiang Mai, the more 7-Elevens, road stalls, and western restaurant chains I discovered. Thailand’s obsession with convenience is a cyclist's dream. I didn’t have to think about anything.
A short 40 miles from Chiang Mai, I found myself in a national park. Deep luscious greenery, surrounded by sky reaching woodland, palm trees, long grass and peace. It was a well overdue mood lift. As I set up the tent, I relaxed. It was comforting to be back on the bicycle, and even better to be sleeping outside.
Five kilometres from the Myanmar border, I rode past a golden Bhuddist monument. The towering statue shadowed the valley below, and offered the potential for a place to sleep. I left the bicycle leant against the steps, parallel to the road, and walked to the statue’s feet.
“HELLO!” I yelled repeatedly, looking for signs of life. The rustling of leaves in the wind was the only response.
I explored the area for ten minutes before I stumbled upon a row of white terraced houses, accommodation for monks. Again, I called out. Eventually, a man appeared from behind one of the doors. Dressed in a bright orange floor length robe and a shaved head, his body was delicate and skeletal, a sign of his seniority. Over Google Translate, I asked to pitch my tent. Initially, he was hesitant. So, I showed him the bicycle (a magic trick in the art of negotiation), to which he eased and offered a patch of grass in front of his home. He unlocked the outside bathroom and encouraged me to use it.
Home for the evening.
Before I set off, a farmer appeared with a punnet of bananas. He offered them to me. Despite the kind gesture, I only took two. I had a day of climbing, and one kilo of bananas was an unfair and unnecessary weight to put on a pair of already strained legs.
As I struggled up the first steep climb, a monk approached; walking in the opposite direction. He must have noticed my profusely sweating forehead and took pity. Without a word, he placed a bag of cherries in my palm, followed by a bottle of water. I pushed my hands together, bowed my head and thanked him for his generosity.
The incline was too much. For the second time on the trip, I succumbed to pushing the bicycle to the incline’s summit. I mentally persecuted myself for doing so, but sometimes the body needs to be listened to. The subcontinent had extinguished any previous climbing fitness.
The jungle scenery continued to astound. Having witnessed the farmland flats and dry landscapes of India, I was overwhelmed by Thailand’s green. After a few hours of climbing, a long winding descent ended in KFC in a small town. The food was far from finger-licking good. I told myself to eat locally from then on, and to get over food poisoning paranoia. That afternoon, I continued through the countryside until the day’s last light.
Country 22, and one that I’d never been to before. I cycled the remaining 10kms to Huay Xai, a small town on the bank of the Mekong River. Not only an acting vessel for tourists travelling to Luang Prabang, Laos’s second largest city, but a vital lifeline for the small communities living in the remote area.
I’d arrived in town just in time to watch England defeat Iran in their World Cup opener. I befriended a Welsh man in a bar, who streamed the game on his iPad. I sat with him, watched the game and exchanged only a few words in between goals and sips of Beerlao.
Day 229 Myself and Robin, another cyclist I met in Tajikistan, had agreed to join forces in Luang Prabang and cycle to Vietnam together. Robin had already waited two days for my arrival, so instead of cycling overland, a route which zig-zagged the countryside, I opted for the two day slowboat. I was also keen on the idea of seeing Laos from the tranquillity of a river.
The slowboat was far from tranquil, it was packed. A tin of British and European sardines. The British are an infamous breed of backpacker – the torturous hours that entailed were a stark reminder of this. Unfortunately, fate sat me next to a group of travellers, who embodied the definition of ‘Brits Abroad’. They kept the stereotype alive and well – either proud, or unaware of their invasive and obnoxious behaviour.
As we floated down the Mekong, we suffocated under the echoes of ABBA and Spice Girls. A group of girls screamed the lyrics at the top of their lungs, downed cans of beer, and danced at the front of the boat as if they were on a Contiki Tour.
Dense jungle lay either side, whilst villagers sat on the riverbank – either to wash their clothes, or to catch their dinner – often waving at the vessel that passed. Having spent months in Central Asia, Pakistan and India, where the culture is opposing and more conservative than our own, I was shocked at the girls’ behaviour. There was no respect for the culture and surroundings they were immersed in.
That evening, I joined two other slowboat travellers for dinner. Luckily, they felt the same. “The worst Brits I’ve met on this trip”, they explained.
The slowboat was hungover. I was relieved. The river was tranquil, the rainforest was alive with wildlife, and the river was full of local fishing boats. I was sitting in front of Steph and Jesse, two Greek travellers, who entered Laos on the same bus as I. They were warm and kind, their familiar faces inviting. The majority of the six hour journey was spent talking to Steph. It was the first non-surface level conversation I’d had in weeks – I didn’t realise at the time, but I needed it. It was long overdue and meant alot. I disembarked in Luang Prabang feeling energised.
That afternoon, I caught up with Robin at the hostel. During his multi-day wait for my arrival, he met Leo, a Chilean cyclist. Leo decided to join us on the ride to Vietnam. So, as a three, we shared tales from the road and wandered the Night Market. I was back with cyclists and back in my comfort blanket. And with that, the adventures from the slowboat were soon forgotten.
Day 231 – 232 We agreed to take a day off. I repacked my bags, bought a sim card and food for the following days.
Later, we visited a Buddhist temple that sits high above Luang Prabang – the bird’s eye view was a postcard, populated with bamboo bridges and small wooden houses. That being said, the town’s centre is littered with boutique restaurants, coffee shops, bars and souvenir stores, and as a result, has lost any authenticity it might have had. Funny how tourists travel to underdeveloped countries to sit in coffee shops that mirror those at home (I write this from the comforts of a McDonald’s, shameful) .
The next day, we followed the main road headed east. It was a pot-holed affair; trucks drove past every few minutes, followed by scooters. I found it peaceful. Being the only road I’d cycled on in Laos, it was world’s away from the carnage of India, and the over-development of Thailand. Rob thought differently.
The people of Laos live off the land. The country is distinctly poorer than its neighbours; its geography acting as a huge hindrance to its development. It lacks sea ports, is mostly dense jungle and rural peaks, and is sandwiched between China, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. The majority of its investment comes from China, who builds infrastructure, but drains the country of its natural resources. Its saving grace is the Mekong River, but still, that only generates tourism and local trade.
That being said, the Laotian countryside is (mostly) untouched. Villagers sit on steps outside their homes, selling snacks and street food to travellers. Chickens are ‘organic’, dogs roam free, and cattle sit within yards of their owners, chained to trees. Long thin boats carry fishermen, and their nets, along expansive lakes and small rivers. And foreign cyclists meander along the quiet roads waving at the locals, basking in nature’s beauty.
That evening, we found shelter at a Buddhist temple in Nam Thouam. The temple was hidden in the forest, just off the main road. The monks welcomed us with bottles of water – and ushered us to sleep under the temple’s overhanging roof. With more enthusiasm than the situation granted, I unrolled my mosquito net. I hadn’t used it before. I tied the hook to the side of the temple and placed my sleeping mat and bag underneath. It was the first time I was able to sleep outside with no tent since Turkey. But, more importantly, use a piece of kit I hadn’t used for the previous eight months.
After dinner, we played cards under candlelight, before drifting off to the sound of nocturnal nature.
There was a heavy downpour overnight; everything left outside was soaked. As I was coming to terms with the situation, a monk gestured for us to head inside. From 5am villagers had arrived one-by-one. Food offerings, to those less fortunate, was a daily occurrence at Buddhist temples. Once the ritual had come to an end, we were offered the leftovers. Rob and Leo ate anything thrown their way – unidentifiable objects – maybe chicken feet, liver, heart, sardines… who knows. I stuck to rice and BYO pesto.
Later that day, we started a steep 20 km climb. The road was long and winding. 11 kms in, with Rob and Leo miles ahead/ behind, I cycled over a glass bottle. The glass shattered and sliced open the rear tyre. Luckily, I was at a small settlement which overlooked the valley below. I found a place to rest the bike whilst I sorted the puncture. A group of children gathered – they sat peacefully, without a word, and watched the entire show.
Inflated, the new inner tube poked out of the tyre’s side wall. I knew it wouldn’t hold, but I continued on. Under the strain of an 8% gradient, it burst. White dust covered the tarmac. I didn’t know what to do… With the rain came a temperature drop, so I walked with the bike until I thought up a solution.
No solution came, only white noise. With a dead phone battery, I put my thumb up to every pick-up truck that drove by. The plan: hitchhike 30 kms to Muang Xai, our evening’s destination.
Twenty minutes later, a western-looking couple pulled up waving enthusiastically. “Hey, do you need help?”, the lady asked in a thick French accent. I told her and her husband the situation – and they kindly offered me a lift to Muang Xai.
On the drive to the top of the climb, Rob cycled past – in the opposite direction. “ROB!”, I yelled, repeatedly out of the window. He didn’t hear. We made a quick U-turn and began to chase. When he came back into view, a few kilometres later, we beeped the car horn aggressively until he stopped. He was cycling downhill to find me. The French couple were over-the-moon when they found out Rob was Flemish. It meant they could speak French together. The French love nothing more than to speak French. Any opportunity and they’ll take it. I updated Rob on what had happened and we agreed to meet in Muang Xai.
At the guesthouse, I dropped my bags off, had a shower and went to the one and only bike shop in town. They had a tyre in the right size, but I was unwilling to give up a Schwalbe Marathon for a Kenta. I couldn’t do it. It was like swapping an iPhone for an Xiamoi. Rob arrived whilst I was there. He was also hesitant. “Sleep on it”, he advised. The bicycle shop invited us to join them for beers; we stayed for a couple Beerlaos and chicken feet before finding the exit.
Over dinner, Leo messaged to say he’d wild camp and join us in the morning – it had taken him all day to reach the top of the climb.
Days 234 – 235
Rewind to Central Asia – Harriet had donated her tyre patches to me before she went home. I only remembered this when I emptied the saddle bag. I saw the gift and rejoiced. Hallelujah, one slashed tyre fixed. Rob and I spent the rest of the morning working on the rear rack (broken) and front calliper (out of alignment). Productive.
Looking tired and dishevelled, Leo joined us that afternoon. His wild camp on the summit had not gone to plan. He told us a story of drunk locals, raised hands, a lot of rain, and a tent move at 1am.
We left Muang Xai and followed the river east; 100 kms of beautiful rolling hills. Rain halted Leo’s progress, so myself and Robin continued together. Late afternoon, we stopped at a school on the outskirts of a small village. “Of course”, the English teacher announced after we’d asked to camp on the school grounds. The children were an enthusiastic bunch – either high on sugar or excitement – it was Laos’ National Day. As we waited for Leo, we returned to the centre of the village and passed the time in a restaurant.
It was dark by the time he joined us, so we set up camp on the restaurant floor; its balcony overlooking a valley and roaring river below. Perfect.
Day 236 – 237
We woke up in a silenced chorus. It was early. Rob lit his stove on the road and made us coffee. I put away the mosquito net, content with another good night’s sleep without a tent, whilst I contemplated the elevation we had to cover that day.
The morning was spent tackling a ten kilometre climb, with an average 5-6% gradient. It was hard work, but the view from its peak was spectacular. A rubber-burning descent dropped us into a small town; we took a short break to collect water and snacks. After, we cycled high into the hills until we found a ledge overlooking the dense jungle below. An ideal spot for the night. The glow from the Milky Way lit our tents as we cooked dinner and discussed what lay beyond the border. I stopped for a second to take it all in. At that moment, the magic of the trip had returned, and I was reminded why I was cycling.
The following morning, it took an hour to reach the climb’s end. Forest canopy and cloud cover created a misty atmospheric mountainside ride. I found Rob on a bench drinking an iced coffee and tucking into sweets. Whilst he’d been waiting, he spent his remaining Laotian Kip in the shop outside passport control. I followed suit. I enthusiastically departed with my cash and returned to Rob with a bag full of food and a big grin.
Belly’s full, moods upbeat and Leo in tow, we exited Laos. We followed a ridge through no man's land; there was a sharp drop to our left and a deep green jungle sprawled until the jagged horizon. Vietnam was waiting, somewhere in the mountainous bush below.