The Forgotten country

Laos | Bamboo Byway | Day 241

A haunting feeling washes over me as I soar through the surreal thick foggy landscape, barely able to see thirty feet ahead. The dense jungle claws on to the haze. I hear rain, but it isn’t raining. Swells of dew are booming, dripping from the towering ferns splashing on the man-sized banana leaves below. Birds sing unfamiliar songs, echoing throughout the bamboo forest. 6:00AM, the jungle is almost at full blast.

In our attempts to get off the beaten path in Laos we cycled through some of the poorest, smallest, dustiest villages I have ever seen. It was intimidating peddling through clusters of rickety bamboo huts with waddling black hogs, mangy skittish dogs, filthy pants-less children, and staring nervous eyes. People crouch around fires cooking breakfast and warming themselves from the cold wet fog. Expressionless stares with no response to our timid “Sabaidee” (hello) or waves. We are answered with apathy as they continued to smoke their pipes, following us with their eyes. 

An unsettling tone clung in the air during our first days in Laos. A stark difference from the jovial Thai and Burmese. Sometimes people would look at us and immediately turn away, like they had seen a ghost. Many people seemed unwilling to work with us to get beyond the language barrier; confused looks while shaking their heads as we attempted our typical miming of whatever we were trying to accomplish. I don’t think it was out of rudeness, but out of shyness. An awkward shyness in response to our unfamiliar presence. It forced me to imagine the experience of a foreigner who doesn’t speak english visiting the US; would people be patient and go the extra mile to help a stranger or would they be put-off by having to deal with a difficult situation? 

"An unsettling tone clung in the air during our first days in Laos. "

This often forgotten country of steep rolling hills is jurassic. We cycled 350 miles from Thailand north towards the Chinese border. Just twenty miles shy of China, we dipped south, zig-zagging back towards the Mekong River. Most cyclist take the highway and make it to Pak Beng in three days, our long and squiggly dirt route took us nine. 

“The perfect camp spot.“ we thought, as we settled on to a flat piece of earth just before a small bamboo village. Next to the creeks edge, we were grateful to have water to wash the salt and dust from the day off our faces. Across the water, goats, water buffalo, and cows were also coming to drink and graze. We laid back and admired the golden light as it flickered behind the hills. We had purposely set up late and just before a village to avoid visitors, or so we had thought… 

This is a farming country and people are rarely without tools in hand, everyone, even children. It never seemed threatening until we were wanting to be left alone for the evening. Our first visitors were two men, both equipped with long skinny rifles, ready for an  evening hunt? We both looked at each other, ”They looked friendly... right?…” Soon after a few ladies with machetes passed by. We felt uneasy, but were willing to ignore it. Then came some visitors we couldn’t ignore, the water buffalo trudged across the river. Water buffalo are giant mud loving creatures with enormous swooping horns, cartoon like oversized hoofs, bellies, and noses, and are amazingly dumb. I remember a guide in Thailand telling his clients that water buffalo do not like foreigners. I thought it odd at the time, but his words came back to me as they started encroaching on our perfect campsite. 

"Our first visitors were two men, both equipped with long skinny rifles."

“Ok, Ok, that’s close enough…What are we going to do now?” A whole family of these half ton beasts; mom, dad, baby, aunt, uncle, and they gave little to no shits about us. We started hurling dirt clods near them in hopes of scaring them off, to no avail, this only seemed to piss them off. The largest of the beasts grunted, and ducked his big dumb head making a lazy, but swift, charge at us. 

"Abort mission!" I yelled while scrambling behind some rocks. 

It was just a show of dominance, and it worked. They made funny high pitched noises, that probably heckling, and gave us the evil eye as we quickly disassembled the tent and high-tailed it out of paradise. 

We ventured to the other side of the small bamboo village to find a new spot to pitch the tent. As we strolled through town we were meet again with the same expressionless spooked stares, and we had gathered a following of young children along the way. Kids will always be kids, no matter where you are, and they had definitely never seen foreigners. It wasn’t long before we had a large audience intrigued by all of our little collapsable camping gadgets and do-dad’s. A man eventually crossed over the creek to look us over, through gestures he asked why we didn’t set up in the hut next to the road, "To avoid any visitors, of course!” I laughed to myself…  

A network of rivers carve out bowl shaped gorges in steep limestone cliffs across the northern half of Laos. In a not too distant past the rivers here were a major transport hub from China to Thailand. Much of Laos revolves around its’ rivers and there are many little villages only accessible by boat. We decided it was only fitting to take a slow boat down the Mekong River. We caught an eight hour slow boat from Pak Beng down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. Huge rocks, rapids, and whirlpools keep the driver alert. Many families invest in these passenger boats and rely on the driver to safely make it down the river so we weren’t too worried. We tied our bikes on top of the boat, along with five other Chinese cycle tourers, and floated on down the mighty Mekong, nice and easy. 

"We decided it was only fitting to take a slow boat down the Mekong River."

Laos, like most of Southeast Asia, has a traumatic past; and sadly, America was no friend. During the Vietnam war, Vietnam used Laos for supply routes, creating the famous Ho Chi Min Trail. The US dropped two million tons of bombs on this landlocked little country, nearly the equivalent of all the bombs dropped during WWII, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history. The Secret War was never publicly acknowledged. 80 million unexploded bombs remain in Laos killing thousands every year. In 2016, President Obama, the first US President to visit Laos, dedicated $30 million a year for the next three years in aiding Laos in the dismantling of our unexploded bombs. Hopefully Trump doesn’t defund this program…  

In the backcountry of Laos it is hard finding nutritious meal options. Every restaurant we entered we were immediately greeted with “Noodle Soup?” “…"Yes, sure, fine, noodle soup for the umpteenth time, why not…” It became apparent that noodle soup is what everyone eats, for every meal. I started chugging soy milks to supplement because there was literally no food other than some weird corn chips and dismal cookies.

"The US dropped two million tons of bombs on this landlocked little country, nearly the equivalent of all the bombs dropped during WWII."

80% of the country’s employment is from agriculture, mainly rice fields. Many people here live without power or plumbing and the average person's yearly income is $1,500. Although Laos has been making gradual economic and business reforms, they remain largely dependent on foreign aid and investment. In Nalea we came across a group from the World Food Program. We sat with the men as they explained how the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides one meal a day for children under five years old, gives milk to infants, and helps communities make gardens with more nutritious food to battle the 40% of Lao children suffering from malnutrition. Hopefully Trump doesn’t defund this program… 

While in Thailand I heard the phrase, "Laid back Laos,” and to be honest, the country is pretty damn chill. Towns are calm and quiet, even the market is spacious and relaxed. Everywhere we go people are lounging in the shade and in no hurry to make a "sale.” 

"...and to be honest, the country is pretty damn chill."

Laos is celebrating 35 years of communism and it is one of five communist countries left in the world next to China, Vietnam, Cuba, and North Korea. Every where we go we see the hammer and sickle soaring along side the Laos flag. This is our first communist country and we still have a lot to learn on the topic. Never have I wished I paid more attention in school… 

Olivia arranged a short term volunteer opportunity with Traditional Arts and Etymology Center in Luang Prabang. We spent almost a week in this quaint little UNESCO World Heritage town. A beautifully preserved downtown from the French colonization period and is considered the spiritual capitol of the country. It was quite a different experience from the misty bamboo jungle we’d made our way through.  

Admittedly we found it hard getting to know Laos, which is evident even in our photography. We watched from a distance and struggled to interact. As we cycled further Southeast attitudes lightened up and people seemed happy to see us. We realized the area we first cycled through was one of the poorest in the country. We did have many positive interactions, the guesthouses were very clean, and the river culture was unique. I think the Lao were just very shy and unaccustomed to foreigners. Pre teen girls literally squealed with embarrassment when I said “Hello.” You don’t get that kind of reaction everywhere. I am glad I got to see the dusty small villages hidden behind the beautiful wild jungle.



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