China felt over once we cycled out of Pu’er – our last Chinese city. We were travelling southward to Laos with 300km to get there. It even looked like we’d already entered South East Asia: the dirt a rich orange and sometimes burgundy, the tropical ferns lining the roads, tea was replaced with banana plantations, and dust seemed to make up 30% of the air.
50km from the border to Laos, Dan and I decided to ride separately, just for a little ‘me time’ . I had left an hour or so after him that morning and immediately got lost. I stopped in to ask a family (wearing my best ‘exhausted’ face) if they would take me there in their truck for a decent sum. They said no, but fed me some rice and egg and we communicated over illustrations of a Kangaroo, the Australian flag, and a globe with a bicycle going around it. Often these displays of my illustration talent don’t seem to get very far – villagers not often able to recognize a country’s flag or native fauna, but this family, 3 men and a woman, seemed to understand I came from Australia. I thanked them for the egg, waved affectionately, and rode back the way I had come, and comforted knowing I can communicate with people without Dan and that it don’t feel unsafe doing so.
Finding the right path and starting once more towards Laos, thinking it would be lucky to roll into town before dark, I watched the motorway riding a straight line to my wiggly one. I pushing through some foliage to see if there was a shoulder, which there was but it wasn’t busy so it was barely necessary. There was still a ludicrously large bunch of bananas in my basket to keep me fueled (they were a gift from the banana farmers we’d stopped to help load their goods into a truck the previous day).
The highways was an easy uphill and I plodded along unsure of my speed, I still thought 50km would take me till the evening, my jaw dropped comically when I saw a ‘23km to Mohan’ sign after only 40 minutes. We don’t travel with Garmins or km counters and don’t know how fast we go, and we haven’t taken a flat enough road for long enough to know what kind of speed we do. Oh, except one GLORIOUS time when we had been riding up and down the mountains, watching the highway cutting through valleys and tunneling through mountains and I pleaded to Dan to take it to get to the next town 30km away. That 30km would of taken the rest of the day on the road we were on, and when we got onto the highway, with a consistent downward slope, we arrived in town about 20 minutes later. It…was…the best!
I felt a sense of freedom that I hadn’t yet experienced on the trip thus far. Riding with Dan has many positives, but riding without him for a day was like being reborn. Like I had broken free of a strict regime, I had opinions and ideas that had absolutely no relation to another person. I don’t think about whether I’m going too slow for someone else, I don’t wonder how they feel, I can think undistracted about a topic for hours, or stop and stare into the crevasse of a tree for 30 minutes without anyone asking what the fuck I’m doing…if I wanted to…I didn’t do that.
I got into Mohan about an hour before Dan. After taking the highway and inhaling all of the now yellow bananas I was energized and he was exhausted, since he’d taken the much hillier scenic route…haha…amateur.
We crossed the border early the next day. The Laotian border town was quirky. We had read about it’s recent history beforehand – a gambling town, and when the Chinese came to gamble and weren’t able to pay their debts the Laotians held them captive.
But the gambling heaven didn’t last long. Not only prostitution and drugs come with gambling, also violence and bankruptcy. Some people couldn’t balance their debts and were held hostage after not paying their bills and losses, according to media reports. Rumors about corpses in the nearby river appeared. People who were lured into the casinos by promises of free transport and accommodation and a loan for gambling money were never seen again after.
Taken from Asienreisender
The Chinese government stepped in and closed the casinos and banned the Chinese from going there. The grand hotels and large buildings were abandoned with no more guests arriving, eventually closed down and left to rot. We rolled through the disproportionate streets – small, disconnected people sitting, watching us ride by, with huge hotels resting in the hills and the long smooth driveways leading to them. One was still accepting guests but I imagine not many, it sat with a small amount of pride through the cracked concrete and paint, daring the onlookers to judge it.
Within 1000 meters of entering Laos we saw elephants, 2 of them with chains around their ‘ankles’. They looked sad, defeated and vulnerable, I had never seen an elephant, not really; there are elephants in zoos I visited as a young girl but it’s not the same. These elephants are in their home, they have been born and were babies, adolescent in this jungle, in their homeland. I began a weak cry, but not for the depressing situation like you’d think. I have forced desensitization to the terrible treatment of animals (how could I continue on without doing so?). I wept for the beauty, their skin, their padded feet, the way they swayed.
Laos is called ‘The Land of a Million Elephants’ but I came across some information that said there were only 600 elephants left, another figure saying 2000. Either way it is not a million. I am not sure if there are any left to roam freely anymore, if they are any, they are rare. They are working elephants, tourism, logging, and in laborious jobs…it’s terribly sad.
Tears swept away we rode onwards to our first campsite in Laos. We asked a few times if we could pitch but people were pointing us onwards. Feeing a little unwanted we decided to hide, pitching our tent on the flattened work site that was off the road, as usual thinking we are geniuses to find such an inconspicuous spot. Just before the sun went down a small market of goods being sold off the back of trucks rolled in. We looked at each other through the corner of our eyes, we made a cup of noodles as a ‘nothing to see here’ gesture but I could tell they were wary. Yet to put up our tent and I decided to offer them my bag of boiled candy because it was dark now and we wanted to be in bed, they accepted and we all went about our business without anymore questions.
When we arrived into the next town I declared the start of my Christmas holidays and decided to catch the bus to Luang Prabang.
Coercing the small bus to put my bike and bags on the roof. Dan chased the bus off and I waved and laughed as he disappeared. 200km was not such a chunk that I felt like I was missing out of much, the mountains and state of the road meant that it took 7 hours to get to Luang Prabang. I didn’t bother trying to appreciate the ease of travel for long, I just watched the world go by listening to the music and having staring contests with the baby opposite…she won every time.
This is a short snippet to take you on the journey of the bus ride too.
I arrived in the outskirts of Luang Prabang and rode towards town; we hadn’t seen a westerner in months except one cyclist the day before Luang Prabang. I was waving at the first few, feeling like we were kindred spirits sharing the same skin and being in the same place, amazed and eager to talk to every one I saw. But as I got closer to the center of town I realized I was in a tourist grotto, hundreds of them! I was blown away. It made more sense now that the cyclist from the day before had rode straight past me going up a hill and didn’t say hello. When he suddenly appeared over my shoulder I had let out a sort of ‘puhhhh’ sound, the kind of one that comes from the bottom of your lungs and pushed out by your stomach muscles, I was so shocked to see him in all his tanned white skinned glory. But he didn’t even look back to say hi. I assumed he was on a Garmin mission or something; he didn’t have any luggage. He’d stopped at the top of the hill and I gave him one of my packaged cakes to groom him into talking to me and took him over to Dan with a look of ‘look what I found’.
So naturally Luang Prabang had been westernized and at this point I was very pleased about it. Sandwiches and smoothies, and burgers and pizza if I wanted it! Everyone spoke English. It was strange, I felt strange, like I was Tom Hanks in ‘Castaway’ returning from the island to his homeland and having problems adapting (it was very mild version of that).
I was eager to start a conversation with someone…anyone! I found a spot for dinner and plucked up the courage to invite an older couple sitting opposite to join me with my dinner, explaining ‘it had been such a long time since I had a conversation and if they wouldn’t mind, would they sit with me and have a beer?’. I failed to mention that I was riding with Dan, and even when they asked me if I was alone I said ‘yes’ wanting a taste of what it felt like to be a solo female rider, it seemed totally harmless. I had recently read ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ and in the book he lied to people often but in such an endearing way you loved him for it. It seemed like a free spirit thing to do. So I lied easily and freely and happily. They were deeply impressed, and when they asked me very seriously ‘why I choose to be alone?’ I had honest and truthful answers, because the reasons seemed to be the same with or without Dan ‘that I need to know what I am capable of, whether in fact I can do this or not’. We exchanged emails and I gave them my full name. Thinking I would try to explain why I lied later. They had invited me to stay with them in Vientiane. I never got in contact, and nor did they. Maybe it was better this way, I wasn’t looking for a connection with someone, just a conversation no matter how shallow or boring it was. Anything some else had to say was enthralling at the time. When Dan eventually got to Luang Prabang to join me we went out for dinner. Surrounded by Americans and Germans everyone seemed to be doing exactly as their own culture suggested they be doing, I was giddy to see so many of them in one place.
When we cycled through Vietnam we saw no tourism, I realise now that this must have been an exceptional experience, but at the time I thought this was normal. And we received advice from someone who said they enjoyed Laos more than Vietnam because it wasn’t as busy, so the tourism was a surprise. It was sad that the Laotians had to deal with it and change from their traditions to suit us, but if you looked a little harder you could find them in spots where the tourists would be too shy to turn down, or in construction sites having a pop up karaoke night, women congregating together as they always have.
When I arrived in Luang Prabang the 20th Anniversary of becoming a World Heritage Listed town was cause to celebrate. Here is a little collection of film to save me the trouble of explain it. – music by Szymon
I hopped on another bus to Vientiane, more likened to the typical ones of South East Asia: cramped, people lying in the luggage compartments under the bus, people sitting on stools in the middle of the aisles, little plastic bags handed out for your vomit, which got well used. I shared my seat with a sleeping head on my shoulder, her hair smelling nice and tickling my arm.
The bus bumped and the suspension squeaked through the night, we trundled along the ridgeline of the mountains as the sun was going down, the deep orange sunset darkening and sharpening the mountains. You could count the lights in the tiny clusters in the valleys, and not the number in the sky. Sleeping as much as one could in the 13 hours of driving I arrived into Vientiane at 5.30am and starting cycling suddenly very sickly in the direction I thought Vientiane would be.
I was holding tight onto a powerful urge to poo and after finding a hostel I sat in poor health in the common area till my room was ready and could spend a few days in bed. Facing the wall to avoid people’s conversations, I skipped every meal, and took myself for short walks down the street and back – until I heard the voice of an Australian country girl. Perking my ears , I rolled over ignoring the stab of pain from the fast movements. She was a cyclist and seemingly around my age. Hijacking her conversation she was having with another girl and I asked her about where she’d been riding from – the standard conversation starter in the bike touring world. I’d never met her before but she had characteristic of friends I had back home and she felt incredibly familiar. I even saw similarities between her and I. It turned out she was a fan of our Instagram account and had been following us for a little bit. It brought me out of bed, we ate together, walked around Vientiane in conversation, shared a common humor, and inspired each other, with her courage and my crafts.
Her name was Tamara and she had been cycling up from Australia from her hometown of Ballarat for the past 7 months and is continuing on to Mongolia then west across Europe. You can see her here! And here!
My stomach took another week to ease. Once I waved Tamara off as she continued the trail northward I started to wonder where Dan had gotten. It had been about 4 days without any word. I thought the 300km he had to get to Vientiane would be quick if his past riding speed was anything to go off. The 5th day went past, the 6th day went past and by the 7th I was preparing his funeral. Now that he was dead, I would have to go search for his body. My mother and brother had booked tickets from Australia to help me look for his mangled and half-eaten corps. These were dark days. Tamara had gotten in touch, saying that she had the pleasure of meeting Dan the day before saying he appeared to be relaxed and was enjoying the company of a Frenchman called Thorsten (who is German but speaks English in a French Accent).
I started writing Dan a note to give him when he arrived, it included why I was breaking up with him. That takes the tally up to 2 for this trip.
Buuuuut we recovered quickly and got on with Christmas. Which was spent in the hostel spending much of our time getting to know Thorsten who came and went like a mirage with plenty of advice and ‘no worries’ vibes. We have been in Vientiane for a long time now. It’s been a lot of lying around embroidering, and making plans for 2016. We cycle around town a little bit, getting lunch and dinner, organizing visas and planning our next stage. It’s just over 4 months on the road, I feel like we have hit a new chapter which fits nicely into a new year… feeling fresh and eager again. We have met many other cyclists while we have been in Vientiane. We love to question them about their day-to-day strategies. I think we are perhaps more honest than most people about our struggles or maybe it is sensitivity? It has been unusual being around so many people whom we can talk to, gone is the feeling of being pleased to talk to just anyone.