10 – 21 June, 2013 – We spent one full week in Vientiane to recharge our batteries, believe it or not. We really liked the city for several reasons: it is very relaxed, little traffic, nice food, nice sites to visit and last but not least we met our cycling friends Astrid and Gerd again, with whom we would spend all evenings.
The most memorable event in the city was the COPE visitor center. COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) is the main source of artificial limbs, walking aids and wheelchairs in Laos. The visitor center offered a myriad of interesting and informative multimedia exhibits about prosthetics and the UXO (unexploded ordnance) that unfortunately make them necessary. We watched a film about an Australian organization helping to deactivate the many unexploded bombs and bombies (=bomblets or submunitions from cluster bombs), that can still be found everywhere in the countryside.
In 1964 the US began its air war over Laos as the Vietnamese used Lao territory to infiltrate personnel and supplies into South Vietnam along what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Did you know that
- Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the world?
- More than 580,000 bombing missions were conducted over Laos, which equals one bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years!
- Up to 30% failed to detonate and remained in Laos after the war.
- About 25% of all Lao villages are still contaminated with UXO.
- More than 50,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in the post-war period between 1974 and 2011 of which 40% are children!
- It will take more than 150 years to remove all UXO!
We knew nothing about this before we came to Southeast Asia and it is really shocking to us how little is known by others as well. Thankfully this wonderful visitor center exists and hopefully a lot of visitors share our enthusiasm for them. For more information or donations you can visit their website.
One week after our arrival in Vientiane we left the capital together with Astrid and Gerd to visit Xieng Khuan, a Buddha park next to the Mekong. In a field by the river this park is full of Buddhist and Hindu sculptures designed and built by a yogi-priest shaman in 1958. We took a few fun pictures and continued cycling along the Mekong river on a very bumpy and hot road. At around 5pm we decided to camp next to the river as we didn’t make enough progress to get to the next town. We found a nice roofed stilt-shack along the road, checked with some locals on the rice fields if we could stay here and spent another nice evening with Astrid and Gerd.
The night was hot as our little tent is missing fan and aircon and we were glad when we could pack up our things the next morning and leave again to enjoy the airstream. After our first break at around 10am we said our goodbyes and continued cycling alone as we usually rode more kilometers per day and a little faster than the others. Our visas expired soon and we had to move on. We were a little sad as we had a lot of fun with Gerd and Astrid and really enjoyed their company. The sadness didn’t last long as we met another cyclist and while chatting with him, Astrid and Gerd caught up with us. What a nice surprise. It was close to lunch and we enjoyed another last lunch in nice company (we thought!). More goodbyes after lunch and we cycled again alone for the rest of what would become a very long and hot day. When we finally arrived, shattered and hungry, we couldn’t find a hotel, either they were full or shabby and so expensive that we would have rather camped once more. After about an hour we finally found a nice hotel, but then we couldn’t find a place to eat. And we weren’t really picky but they either wouldn’t want to serve us at all, were closed or sold out! Lao mentality at it’s best. Another hour later we finally succeeded, had some rice and went to bed.
The next morning we left late as we slept so well and were still recovering from the tough ride the previous day. It was another very hot day and this time Johan wasn’t doing well. We were making slow progress on a boring road and at lunch we decided not to continue as we feared that Johan had a sunstroke. While checking into a guesthouse Astrid and Gerd suddenly passed. What a wonderful surprise to see them again. They decided to stay with us and we spent our last Lao days together. The next day we rode more than 100km together, again on a really boring road with just some scrub along both sides of the road. Every once in a while we caught a glimpse of the Mekong river, but very rarely. This part of Laos is certainly a distance that could easily be covered by bus, as there is really not much to be missed. But we are the stubborn cyclists that have to cover whatever possible by bicycle. Just to remind you, this is not a fun trip ;-).
1.5 days later we arrived in Thakhek, the town where we would leave Laos to go back to country #12, Thailand. Finding a hotel was as challenging as a few days before and Johan and Gerd spent two hours to find a decent place where we could stay for two nights and say our final goodbyes to our cycling friends. If all goes as planned we will meet them in New Zealand again, which would be wonderful!
We spent almost a month in Laos and enjoyed the landscapes, the warm welcome of villagers of all ages when we cycled through – at times we felt like movie stars – the mountains in the north despite its challenges and the food, which isn’t just noodle soup and of course having cycled for the first time with other touring cyclists. We did not really enjoy the far too laid-back mentality of the Lao people when everything seemed to be a huge effort for them. Sometimes we felt as if we were trying to sell them a refrigerator and not like someone who actually wants to spend some money on them. We never found out what time would be good for them to help us as at any time of the day Lao people just prefer to watch TV or sleep. While we really liked the scenery, Vietnam was much more dramatic and spectacular, but I have to admit that we didn’t leave the beaten track in Laos which we did quite often in Vietnam. Time on our visa just didn’t allow.
In total we cycled 1,142km in Laos, took a boat once, spent 29 days in the country, haven’t seen a single elephant in the land of a million and met a lot of other interesting cyclists as Laos’ empty streets are a cyclist’s heaven.