LAOS: 18.12.04 - 25.01.05

Route: Huang Xai, Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Paxe, Si Phan Don
Distance Bike: 818 Km  Distance Boot: 900 Km

Preface: Laos is an unexpectad interesting country: In the North der Mekong river is flowing through fascinating mountains covered with primary forest and in the South the Mokong is becoming a romantic river with small islands a la Robinson Cruso. Everything seems to be still very original. Inspite of this, Laos couldnīt win our hearts. The prices for tourists are always twice as high as for locals (but it is still cheap) and the kindness seemed us to be more like a mask. But for normal tourists (packagetourists as well as backpackers) we really would recommend Laos. In Laos it is possible to make some adventures without giving up with comfort. But if you are planning to visit Laos, you should not wait too long, because the weel of time is turning quite fast.
Touristboat: In Huang Xai, the Mekong River marks the border between Thailand and Laos. Because this region is also quite close to Myarmar and China, we expected this area to be quite sensitive. So we decided to use for the first 150 Km on the Mekong river the normal Riverboat. Together with nearly 40 other tourists we travelled down the Mekong River to Pakpeng, as small riverside village. We really enjoyed the nice 6 hours trip on the Mekong, flowing trough mountains and primary forest.
Mekong; fascinating landscape and good current: After having built up our canoe during the dawn, we left Pakpeng very early. The current on the Mekong River was really strong, and so we travelled really fast. We also had to paddle through some nice rapids. Nadine was a little bit arfaid of the rapids and whirlpools, and so I was really happy that we bought some livejackts in Bangkok. After we found out, that our canoe was stable enough for all the rapids and whirlpools I really enjoied the "Wild Mekong". With some nice curves the Mekong flew through the junglemountains of Northern Laos. Perfect for a lunchbreak of for camping were all the picturesque white sandbeaches. Quite often we also found some realy great small island with a small beach between some nice rocks; a perfect spot for camping!
Speedboats: Especially in Northern Laos, there are only a couple of roads and so the only oppertunety to travel between some villages is by boat. It seems, that the locals donīt have enough time and so they travel with so called speedboats. The small only 5m long boats have a 40 HP outboard engine which makes them roaring really loud and really fast. The passengers normally have to wear a motorcycle helmet, but after a 6 hours trip from Huang Xai to Luang Prabang you must feals completely crazy in your head. To travel with a speedboat is also quite dangerous, because they quite often flip after hitting a small rock or things floating on the river. The result: many injured and some dead passengers eachs year. For us the sppedboats were no problem, because they didnīt come to close to us. 
Luang Prabang: Luang Prabang is a lovely small town on the east bank of the Mekong River, surrounded by jungle and mountains, with nice buddhist temples and some French colonial achitecture. Although many western Tourist make their pilgramage to this small town, it still seems to be a quite and relaxing place.
Christmas 2005: If you are abroad for are long time, the traditional feasts, and especially Christmas, are getting more important to you (at least for us). Last year we were really lucky and had the chance to spend Christmas in a church in Jordan (with Christmas songs played through speakers). This year we did not realy get the Christmas felling, because with more than 25° C it was much to warm for us; funny, that the temperature has such an important emotional infuence on a religious feast. But at least the businessman in Laos recogniced, that Christmas in an important feast for the Europeans, and so many restaurants were decorated with Santa Claus ans Christmas trees.
Christmas Eve: We spent our Christmas Eve together with Beth from Denmark, her husband from London and Sven and Simona from Switzerland (we met them on the Tourist Boat). All of us were not really crazy about celebratging in one of the party-restaurants with waiters dressed up as Santa Claus, and so we went to a small riverside restaurant. Although they also had a small Christmas tree but it was still ok. Beth and her husband even invited us for the dinner. We also had not to do without a distribution of chistmas presents (in German we have for this the nice word "Bescherung", for me the english translation sounds like words stolen from a meeting of businessmen). Beth and her husband had some very beautiful silk scarfs, and we had at least a nice picture from us for them.
Boattrip with Sven und Simona: We heard that the nearby Nam Ou River should have the most beautiful river scenery of Laos, and so we decided to explore this river. We left our bicycles in Luang Prabang and together with Sven and Simona we travelled 130 Km by bus to the starting point. Wtih Seven and Sinona sitting in the middle of our boat we started our tour. The first day we paddled on the slow flowing river through a scenic landscape with a lot of bushes in the water and some small rocks on the banks. We spent the night in our tent and on the next morning, we went back to the river. In the late afternoon, we came into some bigger rapids, hit a big stone below the water surface and fell into the water. At the end of the rapids we managed to swim to a small sandy beach. From some local people we borrowed a bucket to get the water out of the boat (it was completely full). When the boat was empty, we crossed to a beach on the other side (the sunny side) of the river. Although our panniers are waterproof for cycling, they are not waterproof for swimming, and so nearly all our equipment was totally wet. Here the official damages: all cookies destroyed!!! water inside our milkpowder, bow from Svens sunglasses lost, underwear from Nadine and Simona lost (they had it on the boat for drying). After three days we again arrived in Luang Prabang, a good place for drying our equipment :-))
Protection clothing for motorcyclists: This ist the Lao version of protection clothing for motorcyclists. It is really helpful to protect you from sunstroke, and rain. It is also helpful if you fear (like the chief in "Asterix and Oberlix") that the heaven might fall on your head! Fortunately the most motorcyclists in Loas drive very slow and careful; sometimes even we overtook some motrobikes.
Gold!!! On nearly all the sandy beaches along the Mekong river you can see some glittering dust. First we thought, that it must be some Pryrit dust, but very often we saw some woman, standing in the river with big bowls. No, they did not wash their clothes, they tried to wash gold out of the Mekong water. It seems that it is a very hard business, because the women had to stay up to their hips in the cold water all day long. Washing gold is also nothing to become rich, because the huts, the women used for living, were nothing more than some peaces of bambo, covered with a plastic awnig.
Rapids: The Mekong River between Lunang Prabang and Vientiane is quite famousfor its rapids. Of course, they are different depending on the water level, but because we had dry season they were not so tough. Much more difficult were all the whirlpools. Most of the time they suddenly appeared directly in front of us and we had big problems to avoid them. Quite often they had a diameter of 1,5 m und were about 1m deep (size of the airhole), but there were also bigger ones. We were not always able to avoid them. While Nadine managed to pass throug the whirlpool, I got stuck in it. Most of the time, I immediatly got quite a lot of water inside the boat. Because the back of the boat hang in theairhole of the whirlpool it was quite deep in the water. The surface of the water was just some centimeters below the upper edger of the canoe. But somehow we always managed to escape from the whirlpool, instead of falling into the water (sometimes we were really lucky).
Vientiane, problably the quitest capital of the world! After all the quite days on the Mekong river, we were really looking forward to arrive in Vientiane, (we expected a busy and vivid city). We didnīt found what we were looking for. Vientiane with its 50.000 citizens (we heard this from a traveller), although the capital and biggest city of Laos, seemed for use to be more like a small provicial town (like our hometown Limburg in Germany). Vientiane has its own slow pace. Cycling, normally in the capitals (like Cairo, New Delhi or Bangkok) quite adventerous and sometimes even dangerous, was here pure fun. There were only a few cars on the roads, driving not much faster than we. Also the normally quite scaring mortorcyclists were totaly harmless in Vientiane. They drove really careful and slow (we were able to overtake some of them!). So it was very easy for us to make all our office trips, shopping trips and sightseeing trips on our bicycles or on foot. Because Vientiane is so "big and dangerous" all the guesthouse take care about the tourists and close their doors at 22:30pm! But this is ok., because there is no nightlive at all in Vientiane.
Morning offerings: Each morning at dawn, you can see the buddhist monks with their orange robes wandering through the streets. Different to Europe, where the priests get a monthly salery, the monks in souteastasia are dependend on donations from the local population. So each morning, they are wandering in small groups with thei bowl (for begging) on beaten tracks through their village or city, while the local people are waiting with some food on the roads. By the way, woman are only allowed to make their offering while knelling. After only half a hour (in Vientiane the just walked around the block) they already returen to they monestarys with completely filled bowls. No wonder, that the average  monke looks better feeded than the average normal Lao.
N13: On the Mekong river we hardly had some contact to the local people. In all the places we stayed so far in Laos, most of the Lao just saw and treated the tourists as walking Dollar notes. To get a better impression about Laos, we decided to cycle at least a bit. So we changed from the Mekong river to the National Highway N13. The N13, connecting the very North with the far south, is one of the most important roads in Laos. Famous ist the road for a section north of Vientiane, especially for the section between Vang Vien and Luang Prabang. During the last years it happend sometimes, that rebels fired with guns on busses and governmet cars, and in summer 2004 also some tourists died. The south part of the N13 seems more likely to bee a quiet secondary road. There are only a few cars in Laos and except of some rich people which prefer to drive with more than 100km/h trough small villages, the traffic is very slow. It was even possible for us to cycle next to each other. The most famous means of transport is a smal agricultural machine, fixed to a trailer (you can also use this machine also to pump water, as a mower, as a plough, ....). Wtih this vehicle nearly everything can be transported: the children to scool, the buffalo to the vet or the family for shopping.
Sabbaidee, Sabbaidee! "Sabaidee" is the Lao word for "hello", and as soon as some children saw us, they immediatly strated to welcome us with crying and waving. Especialy the small children between 2 and 5 years were really happy with us, the strange looking cyclists. Some of them became totally crazy and we had the feeling, that they are going to fall in a shock. If the children are 1,5 years or younger, than normally the mother is crying "Sabbaidee" while waving with the arm of her child. The only thing beeing able to stop the children seemed to bee my camera. As soon as I took out my camera to take a picture they all immediatly dissapered (even after they were alredy following us for severel hundred meters). But as soon as the camera is back in his box, they again start their welcome procedure. We never had the chance to find out why the children were so afraid of the camera, because it was impossible to find someone speaking good enough English. Laos is a buddhist country with still a strong superstition. We think, that many Lao people are just affraid of something happening to their soul, while beeing photographed.
Broken Trailer:  After nearly 5000 Km, our bicycle trailer was not stong enough to carry the boat and broke. Of course this happened in the middle of nowhere. There was no village and especially no repair shop with someone beeing able to make an aluminium welding. So we packed the boat on our bicycles and cycled the last 200 Km until Paxe with an empty trailer. In Paxe I had really good luck and found a mechanik with knowlege about aluminium welding, and after 45 minutes the trailer was propper repaired.
Si Phan Don: In the very south of Laos, close to Cambodia, the Mekong suddenly fans out creating a big lake with 4000 islands. Si Phan Don (Lao for 4000 islands) is an amazing landscape with great islands, chanals, rocks und lonely beaches. Althoug especially the big islands are densely populated, we found some small island a la Robinson Cruso. A small paradise for swimming and relaxing!
Mekong Falls: On the south tip of Si Phan Don are the two famous Mekong Falls. With the Khon Phapheng Falls beeing the waterfall with the most water in Asia, we decided to visit the dramatic Sophamit Falls. Between two islands the Mekong is falling into the deepth between to rocks and then flows through a narrow cannyon. We also wanted to visit the Mekong Falls,and so we tried to come quite close to the falls with our boat. But still 1 Km before the falls, the river became very shallow and the current became quite strong. After we hit some sharp stones, we decided to visit the falls by bicycle. So we went back to the village on the last island, took our bicycles out of the canoe and cycled to the falls.
Packing the boat: After 900 Km on the Mekong River and the Nam Ou River, we finished our third boat trip. Because of some small sharp stones, our boat was a bit damaged and we had to repair it with our repair kit. Also the aluminium poles wer a bit twisted. Most of the weight was in the back of the boat (water, 4 panniers and Martin!!!) and always when we got chought by a whirlpool, the back fell inside the small whole in its middle (sometimes nearly 50cm deep), and so the canoe was twisted. But after about 2,5 hours, everything was cleaned, our bicycles already packed. The next trip with our canoe will hopefully be in South America on the Amazon River.
A jungle bordercrossing: Officially the border between Laos and Cambodia is closed for tourists, but in realaty, nobody realy cares about this. Normally all tourists use the border on the Mekong river, an travel from the border to Stung Treng, the first town in Cambodia, by speedboat. We decided to use the landborder about 10 Kmīs south of the Mekong-border. We were quite surprised, when the road to the boarder left the paved road and became a gravel road (which was blocked by a still burning tree, brurning from the last bushfire). After 10 Km, still in the middle of the jungle, we arrived at a lonely checkpoint. First the officer wrote all our datas in a big book and after a short bargain, we had to pay a service charge of 1 US$ each, to get the exit stamp.




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