Many in the USA, consider NBA and American football to be, ‘ world sports ‘. Baseball goes even further with its ‘ world series ‘ pretensions. None of these come anywhere near the mark, not even close.
An estimated 650 million people follow Manchester United. As we travel around Asia there are many differences that we are starting to pick up on. Buddhism has been with us from day one in Kuala Lumpur, but it has its strong regional flavours. As we crossed the Friendship Bridge from Thailand into Laos, many things change. Pepsi and Coke are on both sides of the Mekong of course.
But it is at the first market that you find proof of world brands. Row after row of United kit along with Arsenal, Liverpool and Barcelona of course. Football is a world sport. There are the strange ones. I have only just noticed that Magnum ice cream bars have been with us for all of our 2 years on the road. Here they are everywhere, which as a feat of distribution has to be marveled at.
We pay a king’s ransom to have our bikes put into the back of a pickup and over we go to Laos. We pedal away, now on the right side of the road which takes a bit of mental agility. We spend the night in Savannakhet and are up and away early for our first kilometers in Laos.
There are far more bicycles in Laos. This morning there is a peloton of white shirted children on their way to school. ‘ Hello! ‘, it is shouted at us, along with the occasional ‘ Bonjour! ‘, this being a French area historically. Goats are everywhere and more cattle than we have been seeing. We are on a minor road, running as close to the Mekong as we can get. It is brown and dusty, every blade of grass or leaf of tree cropped close.
This is marginal living. Too much stock, too much firewood being taken and too many people. The 32Km we did the first day just assaulted our senses. I failed to photograph it at all well. It was just too intense.
Where there was water being irrigated, things were green and fertile enough. Later in the day we had the Mekong and a second river. On its banks a boatbuilding yard were making two huge traditional wooden boats. The process was identical to that we had seen in Estonia.
All day, and every day since on these dusty minor roads it is the children that have amazed us. They have the senses of bears, never missing our passing. Up they spring like Meerkats “ sabai dee!!!! “, hello in Laos at the very top of their voices. From windows, barns, classrooms and fields it comes and we greet as many as we can see.
A village is having a festival. Chairs and tables and a disco floor full of teenage girls who all stop to shout and wave. Little work is done in Laos on a Friday afternoon. We stop at a stall and have to try to come to terms with Lao money. 10,000 to 1 exchange rate with the Euro means there is a lot of noughts to cope with even buying a bunch of bananas. We stare at it in the same way that a dyslexic looks at a b and a p.
Quite by chance we find a remote guest house. Later, when we are both being violently sick, we will wish that it was not quite so remote. Luckily we are not simultaneously sick, so one of us can play nurse. For a while the water supply goes off. Things turn unpleasantly grim.
We have just enough energy after a day of recovery and a few bottles of water to get into town. We have eaten nothing for almost two days as we ride into Thakhek. What is more disturbing is that we can not bring ourselves to eat anything. Luckily the town is a bit of a tourist honey pot and has a good restaurant. A bit of outrageously priced comfort food and a Roti banana.
Stronger by the morning, we are out for another assault on the senses. Low light, smoke from charcoal fires and burning rubbish. Water Buffalo, goats and children, palm houses, mopeds and bicycles. Constantly it is shouts of ‘ Hello ‘. Two boys are ahead. One stands on the pedals and steers. The other sits on the back rack his feet on the outside, turning the same pedals. Crickey, they are pedaling the same bike. They make a valiant job of keeping pace on this unique tandem.
The girls all have white shirts with either a red or blue neckerchief. This is the young pioneer uniform of communism the world over. They ride their bikes in close little packs, all full of gossip and chat. We pass a charcoal fired brick-kiln with bricks stacked in rows to set. The air is even more stained. It is a smog full of flavours and depth, none of which could be described as nice.
It feels good to be putting good distance together on a compass north heading. We have this strange notion that north will bring cooler riding. Probably a nonsense but we are happy to have that hope.
By the late morning, things start to become a little greener. Soon enough it is dense forest with a blue ridge of hills off to our right, held in the haze. Few birds are around, but there are butterflies the size of playing cards. This is rather nice.
As you know, we like a quiet place to rest at the end of a long day. So, the sign ” Guest House and Nightclub “, rang a few alarm bells. Asia like it’s music loud. Laos even more than most. Our only hope was that a remote road in Laos on a Monday night would not justify the bother of opening up. It ended shortly after midnight and may have been turned on for no one.
We are becoming very weak with poor sleep, little or no appetite and the constant drain of the heat. The next morning is the smokiest yet, but as we head back towards the Mekong, and the town of Pakkading things once again become a little greener. Limestone hills are all around us and we are back under a thick cover of forest. We find a good place to eat and a quiet guesthouse. But when we pick up an email, our spirits drop. A couple from the UK have been killed on their bikes in Thailand.
We had been just a few hundred kilometres from where it happened. The similarities are shocking – same time on the road, met at art college. We manage to send just two emails using our phone to pick up a Thai network on the other side of the Mekong. So many of our friend have had a terrible shock. We are both in a bit of a mess, distressed by the news.
Next morning is our coolest start yet. 20′c and it stays coolish all day, which is wonderful beyond belief. A quiet day on the S13, notable for being passed three times by government convoy of Lexus cars, top of the range 4X4′s and police front and back.
We are putting together a few good days now. 97Km and we end the day at Thebok. Should we feel a little smug, possibly not, but we do.
We are on the S13 straight away. Just 21′c, which is wonderful indeed. Our fellow road users are more pushy than usual, aggressive even. We are mulling this over as we are passed by a pickup taxi. It is loaded to bursting point and beyond with people. They are as tight as passengers on an airport shuttle bus. Those that can get their arms up manage to wave and there is a big shout of ‘ hello ‘. It all helps.
We are forced off the road more han a dozen times. Where the drivers of the two trucks think we are going to go to, as they speed towards us, I have no idea. A moped is pulling out to come by. No problem, and around they come and again we are off.
We conclude that this road is the worst we have been on in two years. It is homicidal and we look to the gps for an alternative. We take a left to pick up anew road that feeds traffic to new industrial units. It is wide, new and almost unused, serving as it does an area of scrub and half built storage facilities. The right turn that we want to take is a hopeless sandy track. We have one more option and it looks good. We turn right and into the most corrugated and nasty road for a very long time. It is busy with all the traffic trying to find the sweet spot through the ruts.
Vientiane is the capital of Laos. It is big enough and French enough to have good bakeries. We rather like it. Apparently, so does every other touring cyclist in Asia. We see more pannier laden bikes in a morning than we did in Europe in months.