Pedalling up into Laos
Travelmag - March 19, 2005
As I shuffle my standard railway eggs and plastic sausage around my plate I read from my notes that I am to be among a party of twelve including our guides for our six day bike tour of Southern Laos. I discard my breakfast and I am met at Ubon Ratchathani station by Yu the Thai guide and Rin the driver. They are not related! We pick up other arrivals at the airport who fly in at this time and the remainder at an Ubon hotel. We seem to be a mixed group of nationalities with an obvious fair range in age and according the conversation, abilities.
Over lunch at our hotel in Khongjiam on the banks of the Mekong, an outline of the tour is given to us by our English speaking Welshman, Lem Morgan, ex- British Foreign Office and now inveterate Thailand hasher and biker. Thoughts of a few hours repose in a hammock were soon dispelled as we were gently advised to mount our bikes for a 30km 'warm-up' ride through the Pra Taem National park and over the Pak Mun dam. We rode over two wooden bridges and through some very nice off-road trails towards the dam. School children were sitting above the first bridge completing their assignment for the day. What seemed to be required was a sketch of the river, the surrounding area, or the bridge. There was much work to be done! However, it was exhilarating for us riding back to the hotel as the sun was setting and we all comfortably came to the consensus that cold amber fluid was a necessary prerequisite to our 'al fresco' dinner on the banks of the Mekong.
By 10am the following day we had completed our exit from Thailand and entry to Laos at Chong Mek. Chit, our Lao guide had traveled 20 hours in a bus from Luang Prabang to facilitate our entry to Laos. We did allow him to sleep in the support truck for the day's ride to Champasak!. It was not long before we were on laterite roads with very little traffic and Lem and Chit had arranged to stop every 20kms for a rest, drinks and fruit. By lunchtime we had covered 60km and we stopped under a tree to devour chicken fried rice which Chit had bought at the border. The occasional cattle drawn carts ambled passed us, a teak laden truck would grind its gears stirring up clouds of dust and the children on the road and farmers in the fields would invariably greet us with the traditional 'Sabaidee'. In fact this was to be a daily feature, puzzling on occasions, when voices would greet us from the bushes with no-one to be seen! By 4pm we were climbing the large steps that separate the three levels to the top of the Khmer temple at Wat Phu. This afforded a wonderful view of the surrounding plain. For good luck the Lao visitors would bathe their heads under the small stream which flows from the sacred spring. Champasak is only 10 kms from Wat Phu and we ended our 90km day at the Thavisub Hotel where our bikes were washed and cleaned by Chit's crew and there was time enough time to spare to enjoy the delights of Beer Lao at $1 per bottle. Ordering food at the Noxa Guesthouse and having it served can take some time if you arrive in a group, but Chit was ahead of the game and had everything ready on the table by the time we had sat down and you could say Beer Lao. Mekong cat fish, plaa beuk was favourite with side dishes of mixed vegetables in oyster sauce, steamed rice with prik nam plaa, spring rolls and spicy grilled chicken, ping kai.
Don Khong one of the Mekong's largest islands is 115km southward on Route 13. We have to leave early and momentarily join hundreds of Champasak schoolchildren biking their way to school. Here it is 'Sabaidee' from and to every child, with hands more frequently waving than holding firm to handlebars. Uplifted by this wonderful experience we keep up a fair pace stop for breaks every 20km and pull over under foliage by a stream for our packed lunch. We arrive at Villa Muang Khong a charming colonial hotel and restaurant on the Mekong by 4pm. The glorious red ball of a sunset strikes a fiery path across the Mekong and dissipates smaller rays of light through our glasses of cold drinks and we reflect that that was a relatively hard day but we will be compensated by the fact that we will be making this charming hotel our base for two nights. Our conversation revolves around the possibility of spotting the Irawaddy Dolphins tomorrow.
On our way to see the Dolphins the next day we detour to the impressive Khan Phapeng Falls, a series of what we reckon is a good 5 plus on the scales of rapids. Not surprisingly, the outlook has been built with a very solid wood and the inevitable souvenir shops are not too intrusive. We decide to buy cowboy hats, the rims to avoid the direct sun on our heads during the boat ride down the Mekong to see the Dolphins. Bikes and clients are put on to two narrow boats and we cross the river to Don Det where we have lunch at Noun (Noo-un) Riverside Restaurant. The charming and entrepreneurial Noo-un tells me that she used to be an accountant in Pattaya and can fix me up with anything I want - she was I assume talking solely about visas and local trips! Then we ride the few kilometers across the island weaving our way through a myriad backpacker guesthouses and pick up a couple of narrow boats for the 20 minute journey downstream. 'Do not lean to one side too vigorously-this tends to destabilise the boat' was the gist of what the boatman said! Dodging sunken trees, islands that appear when the Mekong is low and other obstacles, we arrive visa-less on the well tilled banks of Cambodian soil, where to our surprise there are benches placed in rows, there is a little shade from a canopy and a cool-box full of Cambodian beer! Here, enterprising soldiers have little else to do. And so from this vantage point all the visa-less tourists, in what is after the boat ride, absolute comfort, watch the magnificent Irawaddy Dolphins make their occasional camera defying sweeps. We pray the dolphins will live on.
On our return to Don Det we stop at Leepi Falls, smaller than its big brother the Khan Phapheng Falls, but no less impressive. Bamboo traps hold plump fish that were perhaps too lazy to avoid the rapids.
Taking the boat back to Villa Muang Khong Hotel, we traverse the far side of the river where the sun is setting on a fascinating cameo of river life. Sounds of laughter, plumes of spray from children running in the shallows, the steady pounding of clothes being washed by the women and the ceaseless throwing of round nets beyond the front of the men's boats, all provide a magnificent golden cameo. With a slight tinge of regret we are back at our hotel, just before darkness.
The following day starts with a two hour transfer to begin our journey into the coffee growing area of Laos; the Bolevan plateau. We climb ever upward, passing Arabic and Robusta beans drying in the sun, beans, bananas and papaya growing by the road-side. We stop at a tea plantation for lunch after a steady slog of 20km and our charming elderly Vietnamese hosts show us the tea process and sell us their best tea and coffee. It is early in the afternoon when we arrive at Tad Fane Resort where sitting on the upper balcony we are greeted with two magnificent waterfalls crashing hundreds of metres through the forest. This is truly back to nature and we have a log fire with guitar strumming waiter to accompany our dinner and underline this fact.
The following day we climb almost immediately up to Paksong. But having put this two hours behind us there is a mostly gentle 80 kms downhill. We drop 900 metres in just under 60 km over tarmac road and finally dusty, rocky tracks. At the junction for Muang Beng, where if you are not careful you can lose your grip of your bike as you pass the joyful sight of villagers bathing under the village pump, there are many photo opportunities. And what better than when you rest at the junction and you are joined by a generation of Lao from Grandma with her betel stained teeth to ever so cute baby held by slightly older sister. But then, only 7kms to the lovely Saisse Guest House. This is the hotel where 'a river runs through it'. Rocks cascade the water beside the wooden bungalows and we would sleep to this soporific sound. Dinner is in the garden and so is breakfast. We want to stay one more night, but regretfully the itinerary pushes us on.
Paying the bill after breakfast takes a little longer than usual. A Japanese Parliamentary Association is also staying here and decides to leave the same time! But Southern Laos is nothing but laid back. 'Now, how many beers did you have last night sir? I have just two on my receipt'. Disarming; Charming!
The final day of the trip dawns with the knowledge that there is an immediate climb of 8km. The road then undulates but the 'Sabaidee's' increase. I stop by a school where a teacher has the attention of her class of around forty outside in the playground. The word goes out that there is an alien at the perimeter fence and suddenly the forty children break away from the incredulous teacher and rush to the fence where much bemused, I straddle my bike. A cacophony of 'Sabaidee's' and the occasional 'Where you from? What your name?' drown my thoughts. To much laughter I fall off my bike negotiating the rise from the school up to the road. I lay there and laugh with them all. Oh! a little knee graze, but isn't this so much unadulterated fun?
And then up to the junction where we turn right for a 20km descent to Pakse. We stop for lunch and are fed magnificent pieces of papaya. We have use of the Pakse Hotel in order wash and change, get our bikes into bags and boxes and drive to Chong Mek and back to Thailand. We have our entry forms all filled in for Thailand to save time and are rather smug about this. But lo and behold, while we have been away for these brief but wonderful six days, Thai immigration has changed the forms! 'Mai pen rai', go with the flow etc and we all agree that this is the only way to go. We are so laid back after our six days in Laos and more than five-hundred kilometers on our odometers that we could take much worse bureaucratic hassle than this.