DAY 252, KM 9278, Boten, Laos
Sunday 20 April 2008 35 °C
As we pedal through the remote mountains of Northern Laos, up and above the clouds, an air of mystery and stillness surrounds us. There is barely any traffic along this road, barely any villages. It's just us, surrounded by strange intimidating limestone cliffs that loom up around us. As we pass through villages, the quiet, strange air is even more pronounced. Villagers strap baskets and babies to their backs and walk for miles along the road collecting plants.
Outside of the villages young boys gather in groups along the road, sporting large military guns, and we say a nervous "sabaidee" (hello) as we pass. [During the secret war of the CIA, America supported the Hmong guerrilla fighters living in Northern Laos. After the war though, they hid from the new Lao government in the mountainous north of the country. To this day, the families of these people still hide in the mountains. They are very isolated and live an impoverished life. In attempts to get the worlds attention, they have in the recent past shot people along the road. Their lives haven't improved though.]
(Photo Roger Arnold's. It didn't seem like a good time for a group photo, but this is really what it looked like!)
Once in a while we biked through heavy smoke, eyes burning and lungs gasping for air because the people were burning large plots of forest next to the road. We would come up on a huge cloud of dense smoke that engulfed the one and only road going north. We didn't know how thick or how far the cloud went, but there was no way around. We once even had to stop in the middle to duck down into a ditch to breathe.
As we came down out of the mountains on our way to Luang Prabang, we were also nearing Lao New Year 2055. Lucky for us, that meant that we got doused with water by just about everyone along the way.
It was great fun, but the craziness only escalated with each coming day until we arrived in Luang Prabang on New Years eve. Young people were out in mass, throwing water, flour, and paint at each other. Big groups of kids piled into the backs of pickups, blasting music, dancing and throwing water onto everyone they passed. When Wim and I were spotted, everyone would yell,"falang, falang!" and then the water/flour bombardment would begin.
After a while of being victimized, we decided to stick up for ourselves and buy some flour for retaliation. After few hours I mentioned that I had had enough, but Wim refused to stop, "No Amy, this is fun FOREVER!" So we continued on for the rest of the day, so that Wim could release his inner barbarian.
One day, we didn't make it to the next town, and decided to ask in a little village for a place to sleep. An old man led us down to a sand bed next to the Mekong and said that we could put our tent there. Families were busy washing their clothes and themselves in the river as we started to set up our tent and cook some dinner. As soon as everyone saw us though, they all came to quietly watch. With an audience of thirty people silently watching us set up for the evening we felt like we were hosting a cooking/construction show. Soon though, a guy that spoke english came down to invite us to sleep at his house. So, we deconstructed everything, waved goodbye to our fantastic audience, and spent a great night talking with him about how it is to be a Lao guy. As soon as it was bed time, everyone pulled out a mat and we joined the family to sleep on the floor. In the morning before we left, grandma tied some strings around our wrist so that our gaurdian spirits would not get lost while we were traveling!
We got a rough start in Laos, but we have now completely fallen in love with the place and it's people. People here are incredibly laid back, unassuming and down right sweet. Everyone grins and yells sabaidee as we pass, the roads are traffic-free (even in the big cities) and the scenery is unreal. What more could you ask from a country?
We are a little sad to leave Laos, but we can't help but grin when we think....we are almost in CHINA!
Although, we were warned that the Chinese people are no good!