To no surprise, I was sad to leave Cambodia, but the wonders of Laos were just around the corner- a charming country filled with river islands to the south, mountains to the north, ‘sabaidee’ (hello) calling children, monks clothed in orange robes, roadside water buffalo, rats on skewers and of course the Mekong River tracing its way up the length of the country, and my companion for the following weeks.
I planned to follow the Mekong up through Laos. I stopped by the idyllic island of Don Khong to the south of the country situated in the centre of the river; A charming little place with the feel of a sleepy european village. In fact my entire trip very almost came to an abrupt halt on this island. As I sat on the banks of the river, book in hand, soaking up that afternoon breeze, I had visions of myself retiring to the place- settling into a life of fishing by day and hammock snoozing by evening. Anyway, it turns out, in order to retire one must first gain employment, thus, off I went.
I welcomed in 2015 in Laos. To be honest, the days of the week or dates become of little significance when your life is spent commuting from one place to the next and as a result I very nearly failed to even acknowledge the ‘big’ day. However, as I cycled my way through each settlement on the 31st, I couldn't help but notice balloons, loud music and mass social gatherings throughout the villages. In truth, I was a little perplexed by the entire affair. Not realising it was new years eve, all I was seeing was a country of wild, raving, unemployed, party mad hooligans. After all, it was a Wednesday afternoon?
Then the penny dropped and later on that evening there was one more party goer with a Beerlao in hand.
Crossing back into Thailand
One of the luxuries of being in South East Asia, is the ease at which you can potter your way from one country to the next dipping in and out as you please and thats exactly what I did upon leaving Savannkhet in Laos. Knowing that the road ahead was likely to be slightly less exciting whilst also taking into account the relatively pricier aspect of Laos and its comparatively bland food, I thought to myself, tonight I fancy Thai for dinner and with that I crossed the border bridge back into Thailand. It was like catching up with an old friend being back in Thailand, all those familiarities I had forgotten about came rushing back.
Crossing the border into the country was less effortless though. The Laos officials were fairly adamant that I wasn't to cycle across the bridge connecting the two countries; “no bicycles on the bridge” he said. I Begged the chap but he stood firm, “Oh go onn” I said- as if me wining would trump any legal formalities. “I’’m quick”- any cycling modesty left at the gate. “Please”- reaffirming my good manners.
Slightly tired by my wining, he eventually gave in and with a few strict instructions I breezed across the bridge, only to see a bunch of angry looking Thai officials on the other side. “But he said I could…..?!” I said, sounding like a small child.
Anyway, karma came in the form of the disinfectant shower I received on the other side. The border official had failed to bring to my attention the disinfectant carwash that most vehicles receive upon entering Thailand. As I nonchalantly cycled my way towards Thailand's border gate, as if from nowhere I was engulfed in a heavy shower of disinfectant. I have felt pretty clean since.
It wasn't long before I made it up to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, marking my entry back into the country. I spent a week in the distinctly French looking city obtaining Visas for both China and Vietnam. And my time off the bike gave me plenty of opportunity to gaze into the challenges of my onwards route through Laos. There was no mistaking that cycling up into northern Laos was going to be tough and most likely some of my most challenging cycling to date. I had heard and read numerous accounts of the severity of the hills heading my way, these ’gruelling’, ‘compassionless’ (bit dramatic?! Classic case of playwright turns cycle tourer) climbs just around the corner and I only needed to look at the a topographic map of the region to realise this; Put it this way, as far as the terrain colour pallet is concerned, If I had initially been riding on land coloured somewhere between a straw yellow and a duck egg blue, I was now heading into the intimidatingly dark depths of a steel grey with thickening shades of batman black. This was an area of the colour palette for which I had very little experience dealing with. This paint brush was going to require a deep dose of turps at the end of its use. Things were about to take a rather dark turn..
Feeling slightly unsettled by all of this terrain research, I decided to abandon anymore, eat a bag a muesli (fresh from the capitals international supermarket) and comfort myself in saying ‘Ya know, I think it’ll be alright’.
With both my China and Vietnam visas in hand, I began my ride up and across the mountainous regions of Laos and Vietnam. One climb after the next, I pedalled my way through this battlefield of hills, climbing and descending 1200-2000m each day. I would often begin my days in the depths of a valley having spent the night in the low lying town. Waking up to a cold damp foggy scene (think Britain mid January), clothed in jackets and scarves, I’d begin the ascent up the mountain. Pedalling my way up through hillside villages I’d eventually rise high above the blanket of clouds below, welcomed by sunny skies. Not a bad way to start the day!
Though its tough cycling over mountainous terrain, the beauty of such comes from the breathtaking views from the top and of course the unrivalled pleasure of freewheeling down the other side;There really is no greater feeling than reaching the peak of a hill before speeding down the other side dodging your way around stray water buffalo, passing cheering school kids, cruising your way into the depths of a valley overlooked by these towering peaks.
Having spent the last few weeks weaving my way through the hills of Laos and Vietnam, this has given me a good opportunity to perfect my hill climbing technique. Fear not, Im not about to bore you with my gear/gradient preferences or any riding position alterations. No, the best way to climb a hill is to take the approach I like to call ‘PodPlod’- this entails settling in to a chosen podcast (My preferred being- Desert Island Discs, The Graham Norton Show, Frank Skinner on Absolute Radio, Steve Wright in the Afternoon….who knows how long i’ll hold off the enticing 7series download of The Archers…. ) whilst plodding your way up the mountain in a steady, relaxed manner (though the sweat, rosy cheeks and heavy breathing might suggest otherwise..). This tried and tested method works every time but even so, on occasion, I have found myself abandoning this approach and instead favouring the ‘attack’ method. Indeed, regularly after a wild and wonderful downhill, I find my self completely high on life, a bundle of energy, ready to take on the world and in some completely absurd ‘Bradley Wiggins type' fashion Im under the impression that (laden with my 10kg load) i’ll ‘attack’ the next climb, i’ll rocket my way up there, after all i’v seen them do it on the Tour de France- ‘bring it on’ I say, ‘Im ready for ya’, ‘yeehaa’. And so I attack. And I attack well. Totally convincing, for anywhere between 10-15m. Then reality kicks in as I peer up at the dizzy heights of the mountain range ahead of me, and the several hours of uphill pedalling heading my way, and at about this point, I reach for the ‘pod’ and begin the ‘plod’.
Over the last few weeks I have also had the pleasure of catching up with my family. Not only did we ‘holiday’ together but we also ‘toured’ together. Team Liver taking on the world on two wheels. Well, Laos, for 48 hours….just enough time for mum to realise that the enjoyment of cycle touring centres heavily on a decent support vehicle with a trusty, attractive ‘Im with you every step of the way’ driver.
The language barrier
It often amazes me the ease at which people can communicate without speaking a mutual language. On a daily basis Im forced to mime, act, point etc in order to ask or answer a question, and most of the time we just about get by- though theres always a few who make that common mistake of confusing my hearing ability with that of my ability to speak the local language- the more puzzled I look, the louder the sentence gets repeated….
But this evening my acting skills let me down; There I was ordering up some dinner, pointing out my desired foods off the produce table when I had hoped to throw some rice into the mix, only I couldn't see any rice. Thus, I traced my mind back far into the depths of my performing arts lessons from School days, hoping to recall the ‘act like a grain’ class, but nothing came back. So instead, I tried a slightly different approach; one thing I have seen an awful lot of in this region of the world are rice paddy fields, I have pedalled passed endless miles of them, from the the rural regions of Thailand to the terraced hillsides of Vietnam, and with every paddy field comes hundreds of paddy field workers, spending their days undertaking the back breaking task of planting the grain, commonly wearing the distinctive cone shaped hat typical of the workers here in Vietnam- and with this knowledge, in my efforts to put across my desire for rice, I began my re-enactment of rice planting, on the tiles of their restaurant floor. The confused expressions of the restaurant staff suggested my performance wasn't entirely convincing. Nonetheless, I persisted, completing one row after the next, wading my way through the ‘flooded fields’, gazing up at the ‘midday heat’…..needless to say, there was no rice on my plate this evening.
So, having winded my way up through South East Asia, I have just about held off the ride into China long enough to avoid the worst of its winter. Starting on the 1st February, alongside a friend from home, I will take on the mammoth task of cycling China in 60 days (due to my limited 60 day Visa allowance). Every time I study the global map marking my route home, China remains this dominant feature; A huge expanse of land centred midway between Australia and home. For me, its a country which fills me with excitement as much for the ‘challenge factor’ involved as the cultural, scenic changes ahead. South East Asia has also dealt me the luxury of cheap, plentiful guesthouses, warm weather and regular towns en route. However, as I head up north in to China, life is going to take a much more remote, wintry turn and life in the tent is most probably going to become a permanent feature once again. As always, though, I can hardly wait to get going.