A Travellerspoint blog

A Place Like No Other

DAY 252, KM 9278, Boten, Laos

sunny 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.

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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.]

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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?

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We are a little sad to leave Laos, but we can't help but grin when we think....we are almost in CHINA!

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Although, we were warned that the Chinese people are no good!

Posted by amyandwim 02:14 Archived in Laos Comments (3)

Dude, that was some strong ginger!

DAY 242, KM 8746, Vang Vieng, Laos

sunny 36 °C

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After a week of rest and nice air-conditioned hotel rooms, we took a bus to the center of Laos, where the mountain ranges start and it promised to get cooler. We both felt excited and renewed when we found friendly people and a beautiful landscape... We were back on our feet again, and happy to be biking again. Little did we expect that we would soon end up in the hospital.

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We had just climbed 150 km into the mountains and had reached Vang Vieng, a big backpackers town at the base of a gigantic limestone mountain range. Because of its location, there are boundless recreational opportunities, and we were looking forward to float down the river in an inner tube and soak our painful rear-ends in the cool river. When we arrived in town, we were proud of ourselves, but also famished from a day's biking on little fuel. So we scarfed down a big plate of ginger rice and headed out to find ourselves a bungalow.

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After a shower, we were all ready to go out, when all of a sudden it hit... Wim got up in a panic and said," I can't think, something's really wrong with my head." At the same time I got a sense of overwhelming, unreal panic. Wim ran out of the room, all the time talking about how something was wrong, asking what was happening, why we were there, and where we were. A few minutes later, my heart started pounding so hard that I thought it was going to explode and I was drenched in sweat. Neither of us could hold a thought for more than a few seconds, much less finish a sentence. Did we get poisoned? Was someone trying to rob us? Was it the heat? We were confused and terrified.

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After leaving our bungalow, we only have little bits and pieces of memories. We were walking on the streets, but had no clue what we were doing or why we went outside. Somehow though, we got ourselves to the hospital (which was equipped with a nice stethoscope, and three beds), but neither of us remember how really. Once at the hospital, this man appeared in front of us from time to time and kept telling us "drink, drink". The doctor was trying to wash the drugged dinner out our stomachs (=drink a lot and then vomit. After that, repeat....) He didn't speak English, so we had no clue if he even knew what was wrong with us, or if we even told him we had a problem. We lied there shaking and staring at the ceiling for the next 4 hours, waiting and hoping for it to end. We couldn't ask the doctor anything, so we didn't know how long it would last, if it would get worse, or whether he was just waiting for us to die.

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After 4 hours, the doctor (who needed his beds back) ordered us to go home. However, when he found out that we didn't have money to pay him right away, a look of distrust and concern crossed over his face. Where these druggies going to pay him back? He decided not to risk it, piled us onto the back of his moped, and drove us to our bungalow to get his payment (20$). Apparently, he wasn't expecting any emergencies in the next half hour, because he left the entire hospital to fend for themselves while he was gone.

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Back at our bungalow, we continued shaking and staring at the ceiling for the rest of the night. Much to our relief, we could finally think semi-straight again after another 48 hours (this seems like eternity when you don't know if it will end). Only after four days and four nights in bed did our zombie-like stare disappear. Our bodies had finally recovered.

We're trying really hard not to give up now, because we have too many adventures ahead of us and we really want to reach our goal... the gates of China! Sometimes it is hard though.

Posted by amyandwim 22:02 Archived in Laos Comments (8)

Breakdown

DAY 236, KM 8599, Vientianne, Laos

sunny 40 °C

That's it. We're finished, we're kaput. There is nothing left in us to keep us going. For the past few days we have been searching out fancy hotels with airconditioning and passing the days horizontally.

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What happened?

April is the hottest month of the year in Laos. And that means over 40 degrees Celcius in the shade, plus 100% humidty. No problem if you just drink enough water, right? Wrong! At about 10am in the morning the temperatures have hit white people melting point. We have been drinking 5 plus liters each during our biking hours, and we still hardly ever pee! (I will stop there with the bodily details) Every once in a while one of us will turn completely red, start trembling, and almost faint.

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That's when we find a tree and lay in the dirt until we feel like we can go on. That is about every thirty minutes. When we finish our day, we are exhausted and the exhaustion doesn't seem to go away, even if we rest for a day. We aren't just talking about being uncomfortable anymore...we're talking about hitting the wall, and our bodies shutting down completely. Wim even tried to shave his head for some natural air conditioning:

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Apart from our bodies shutting down every 30 minutes, we have been quite disappointed with Laos. You see, Camobodia was challenging, but everyone we met along the way raved about Laos and it somehow kept us going. "The people in Laos are wonderful!" After hearing this from a ton of people, we had visions of shiny, happy people welcoming us into their lovely country with open arms. What a needed change after Cambodia! As we approached the border though, we soon realized that the guards were not going be be the huggable Laosians we had been expecting. No, they were big, mad and wanted bride money. They told us, "no money, no stamp." Apparently though, Wim would rather die than give money to corrupt authorities. The stand-off was long and really uncomfortable, but in the end they bended and gave us our stamp, because, well, that is their job after all.

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Unfortunately, this kind of set the tone for our southern Laos journey. As in Cambodia, restaurants are far and few between, people run away from us, and most people are too afraid to try to communicate. (This has resulted in a lack of biking fuel, and a skinnier Wim and Amy) However, the village people of Laos add a new dimension to our daily food challenge. When we go to a restaurant, we always ask the price first. After agreeing on a price, which is always a special tourist price, we sit down to eat. It turns out though, in Laos, that a full bowl of soup is a lot cheaper than an empty bowl of soup. When we go to pay, the price often triples, and sometimes has been known to jump tenfold! At one point the restaurant woman ended up asking 3 dollars for an agreed upon 1 dollar bowl of chicken broth... after a hand-gesture discussion, I figured it might have been a "misunderstanding" and gave the $3 to the women. At that point she yelled, "Thankyou!" aggressively in my face and started laughing like a wild hyena. So it really makes us wonder, where did all those shiny, happy people go?!

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After many of these incidences during our first week in Laos, we really started to feel drained. Often, during our time in small villages we feel like outsiders that are to be exploited, instead of respected as fellow human beings.

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The Last Straw

Amy began the week with diarrhea and naseau. Quickly, but surely, Wim was not far behind. Struggling to keep pushing on, we gathered our mental strength and made horribly slow trips to the next cities. As we were approaching the last city, we met a cow who was also having stomach problems. Just as Wim was passing around the backside of the cow, a great explosion occured on his leg. Needless to say... the cow felt relieved. And we felt totally defeated. We have now officially collapsed, we are completely physically and emotionally finished!

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Little did we know...

Little did we know that in just a few days things would take a turn for the worse. We would both find oursevles in the hospital, struggling to stay conscience...

Posted by amyandwim 01:37 Archived in Laos Comments (6)

A Land of Contrast

DAY 225, KM 8428, Stung Treng, Cambodia

sunny 37 °C

Cambodia is a land of contrast. There is village life, where things have not changed in hundreds of years. And there is city life, where the economy and the way of life are changing everything.

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Cambodian Village Life

The houses out in the countryside are simple bamboo boxes on sticks. They have no doors, which allows for a nice breeze to flow through, keeping everyone cool during the night. During the day though, the whole family, along with the cows and the pigs, sit in the shade under the house. Strangely enough though, the "hotels" always seem to be concrete boxes with tin roofs. And in places without electricity for a fan, that really makes for hot, sweaty nights!

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As we would ride past these houses, about 40% of the village (40% of Cambodia is under the age of 15) would come flying out of the shade, gleefully shouting,"helllloooo, helllloooo!" The kids made us smile and feel welcome as we biked through the countryside, and we appreciated their enthusiasm as the adults were often very stoic and reserved towards us.

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It surprised us to see how the people in the countryside live. Had we been passing through 200 years ago, I doubt that it would have been any different. People would often be pulling heavy carts that should have been pulled by strong animals, small children were doing heavy labor, schools and hospitals were non-existent, and most of the people were just sitting around without any opportunity to find a job. Restaurants (if there were any) consisted of a table on the side of the street with one pot of noodle soup.

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Each village that we went through had a single specialty. If you are in a stone carving village, all you see is stone carvers, and you can bet that there is no one selling sugar cane juice. But if you are in sugar cane village, you will find a lady selling sugar cane every 5 meters at the same price. But imagine that you are hungry, you have to wait for noodle soup village if you want anything to eat. For two unlucky days, we went through one sugar cane village after the other. There was no noodle soup village in sight. We had to bike on sugar cane power alone, which gave us a very liquidy feeling throughout the day.

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However hungry that we were while riding through the country side, we always hesitated a bit to enter a restaurant. It was always a problem. As we would enter a restaurant, everyone would quickly rush to the back of the restaurant to avoid contact with the scary foreigners. As I approached them, they would either stare like a dear in the headlights, or they would start vigorously cleaning things, hoping that I would just leave. Sometimes we were doing dramatic gestures and attempts at communicating using our Cambodian phrasebook. Instead of helping the situation, it usually just caused widespread panic and confusion. We went through this over and over again, every time that we wanted to eat something.

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When we finally met someone who was calm enough to look at us and listen, we would order a noodle soup (that's all there is to eat). Unfortunately for us, the deeper we got into the countryside the more strange the meat floating in our soup became. Sometimes we had so many vital organs floating around in our soup, that we could have probably created a new life form if we had stirred hard enough. So, after the long struggle for a meal, our meals were more for survival than for relishment.

City Life

Of the few cities that there are in Cambodia, they are crowded and chaotic. But, you can also find a clean bed and electricity, which meant the world to us after days and days of riding through little villages. Unlike in Thailand, we were relieved to find a tourist place. It meant that people wouldn't run away from us (one school teacher even dragged us to his school and made Amy sing Jingle Bells), we didn't have to eat organ soup, and we could cool down at night with a fan. It was like heaven!

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Although traveling through this country was really dusty and not always fun, it was incredibly interesting and we wouldn't have had things any other way.

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Posted by amyandwim 19:38 Archived in Cambodia Comments (5)

Dirt. It's what's for dinner.

DAY 216, KM 8125, Siam Riep, Cambodia

sunny 40 °C

Dirt. Lots of dirt. Dirt up our nostrils, in our undies, and crunching between our teeth. The minute we crossed the border and entered Cambodia, our brand-new, four-lane highway vanished, and 150km of this lay before us:

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We had to wear surgical masks inorder to breathe.

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The last three days we spent making our way through the dirt cloud to Siam Riep to visit the Temples of Ankor. Despite the bad road, we were glad that we didn't have to take public transportation.

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Actually, we have to say that we liked the route a lot. Along the way we saw lots of rural villages with folk music blasting from public speakers. We also saw people praying in the temples, happy naked children playing in drianage ditches, farmers hearding cows down the middle of the highway, and we got to taste some really strange tasting meats.

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Now we are in Siam Riep and this morning we biked around the temples.

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The coolest temples are the ones that are squashed by trees.

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However, we had to go back to our hotel in the afternoon because the sun was starting show it's negative effects on Amy.

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Posted by amyandwim 22:35 Archived in Cambodia Comments (1)

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