Cyclists cyclists everywhere (Southern Laos)

19 02 2011

‘Helloooooooo’ we wave raucously at the two fellow cyclists that glint in to view on the other side of the road. We all slam our brakes on and swing round, grinning shiny sweaty grins into the hot midday sun. It is a wonderful thing, and up until now quite a rare thing, to meet other cyclists. For the majority of our trip we have gone days, even weeks, without seeing any other ‘farang’ (foreigners) and it has been many weeks since we bumped into another cyclist! Until we hit the lower Mekong.

The cycling pair we bumped into yesterday morning were a German man and woman in their early thirties. They were perched upon wonderfully rickety bikes that they had brought in Cambodia; they had small backpacks balanced on the rear pannier racks with not a cycle helmet or sniff of lycra in sight. The whole image looked slightly Mad Max-esq every bit as if they and their bikes might fall apart at any minute. We passed the usual pleasantries; information on the state of the road ahead, distances between stop-offs etc and they were relieved to know that, though rolling, there were no major hilly surprises on the horizon – their bikes only had a very limited gear range! This was a rather refreshing meeting for us as in the whole of the past 7 months not once have we met such .. shoe-string cyclists, in fact this may have been the first “bikepackers” we have ever come across. No way would their bikes stand up to the rigours of long distance touring but that was not their intent, they were very much part of a Mekong (thus quite flat) adventure that would see them utilise a whole range of transport modes.

The second set of cyclists we met, not an hour further on, were a most delightful American couple who were whizzing along on the tiny wheels of their fold down bikes. These crazy kippers were on a world tour to celebrate the chap’s 70th birthday. They had two tiny front panniers which held their essentials and were bedecked with a wild array of gadgetry clipped, strapped and tied to their bodies and cycling hats. With their little bikes folded neatly away they basically flew into an area they were interested in, toured around on busses etc and then whipped the bikes out for any sections they felt inclined to cycle!

The THIRD set of cyclists, (please bear in mind that we hadn’t seen another single cycling soul in almost a month) didn’t stop. Though we did exchange large waves and huge whoops of ‘helloooooo!’ . These where two boys, on decent touring bikes, and probably on a bit of a testosterone-fuelled-distance-cruncher of a trip.

And these were only the beginning! As we continue towards Cambodia we are practically falling over an absolute glittering tiara of bicycling bunnies. We have chatted to Thai, Russian, and German (lots of) pedal pushers; gone are the long distance purists of India, Iran or Turkey.  Over the past few days we have met people who are using bikes for journeys that last for as long as 2 years and as short as two days. It has been both an education and a real little heart warming pot of diversity. Wheel on the revolution!

Lazy Laos zzzzzz

14 02 2011

When cycling Hanoi to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) there are three main options (just ask googlemaps!); one is down the dreaded (yet beach soaked) Vietnamese Highway 1; the practically deserted, beautiful but HILLY Ho Chi Minh Highway; or take a right onto the 9 into Laos and zip down the main north-south Highway 13. We have opted for the Laos diversion – Liz has never been so, heck, why not!

The moment we crossed the border at Lao Bao we were seduced! The wide open traffic free roads, the warm steamy air simmering from the heat of the hazy sun; the mile upon mile of empty brown red scrubland intermittently dotted with grazing cows, little stilted wooden houses, and snuffling boars. Every small village we pass through the air keens with the shrill pitching ‘Sabadeeeeeeeee’s of the under 5’s. After the fuzzy excitement of Vietnam, Laos feels like a mighty exhale.

With the return of warm moist days we ditch our dodgy Chinese doormen’s coats and re jig our daily schedule; now we are back to rising at 5.45am to ensure we make full use of the cool morning hours; by mid morning the sun is nipping at our exposed ankles and soon burns through our factor 50 sun block, Catherine even has a dark tan mark on her back, under her clothes! We are on a bit of a mission to make it to Savannakhet (see previous rim issue blog!) so hurry on.

We stay at cheap roadside guest houses in basic cells offering varying degrees of cleanliness but varying degrees of little else; most have a ceiling fan, a lock on the door, a toilet and a tap. At one such establishment our walls were liberally decorated with half scrubbed out pencil drawings of women’s heads – their barely visible features eyed us suspiciously in the harsh strip lighting as we laid out our sheet bags on the rock solid bed. Yet the rooms are adequate and the owners pleasant and obliging. We often get the feeling we are the only clientele, until the next morning (early) when gaggles of Laotian travellers stream out of the adjacent rooms.

We eat what we can at little road side shacks; a feast of son tam (papaya salad), sticky rice and an omelette is a usual evening meal – even though we try to indicate only a ‘nit noi’ (little bit) of chilli our lips and tongues usually end up pulsing shiny red as we rush to consume enough calories to get us through the next day.   As the red sun sets over the distant hills, we breathe easy in the warm, clear evening air.  Not for the first time on our trip do we thank the slowness of our wheels that allows us to spend our time in these seemingly dull and dusty little places; little places that wouldn’t even get a sniff in a Lonely Planet, but where we get to simply sit, sip an ice cold beer and sink lazily into Laos at is easiest.