We are currently on the coast of Vietnam and I thought it would be a great time to write a blog post soon after leaving Laos. Laos was incredible. From the moment we crossed the border in the south to the afternoon we approached the Vietnamese border, the landscape and country overall was extremely beautiful. We have ridden through some amazing places and the scenery has been more than memorable. From my last blog post right before my birthday, we rode north towards Savannakeht, a border town between Thailand and Laos where we spent our Easter. After a rest day with some new friends, we continued north and split off from our previous plan and decided to ride through the Thakhet Loop, a beautiful tourist route through limestone cliffs and mountains, also known as ‘karsts’. After a few days of riding into the mountains, we rode towards Phonsavan, which we happened to ride into on Laos New Year (Pimai).
There were quite a few memorable experiences in Laos. Although it is a communist country, like Vietnam, it appeared to be much more laid back and people were a lot more relaxed. Buddhism was also quite a bit more apparent than in Vietnam and we started to see more and more Buddhist Vat’s. (Vat is spelled with a ‘V’ here whereas in Cambodia and Thailand it is spelt with a ‘W’.) Because we had gotten pretty tired of constantly staying in guest houses and hotels all the way through southern Vietnam, we saw the Vats as an opportunity to camp once again, like we had done so often in Cambodia. The first Vat that we camped at was super pleasant and it was surprising how fast the monk we had asked to camp agreed. It was almost as if there was no question of whether we could camp or not, he simply responded with a nod and pointed to an area where we could set up the tents. The Vats were generally pretty easy to camp at, but we did have one time where things got complicated...
Everything went normal during the afternoon: kids came to see what we were doing, we set up our tents and hammocks, napped, did some school, made dinner, and everything we normally do when we camp. Nonetheless, at about 9:30 PM, a few men showed up and started asking us some questions about what we were doing, where we were from, where we were going, etc. Anyways, after a bit of charades and a few words of English, we were able to explain who we were, what we were doing, and how we had previously asked the monks if we could camp. However, a few more men showed up, some phone calls were made and in the end, some policeman asked us to go to a guest house one kilometer down the road. One kilometer doesn’t seem that far, but at 10 PM, it isn’t as easy to just get on our bikes and ride. We spent about an hour taking down our tents, packing our bags, and loading up our bikes so that we could bike down the road in the dark to a small guest house. There, we got one room for all five us to sleep in for the remaining six hours of our night. After a little bit of discussion, we ended up paying 80,000 Kip ($10) for one room. As the police and others were watching us all load into one small room, we realized that there was no air conditioning and the fan was not going to be enough to cool us down in a small room with all of our bags and us. It seemed as though the police were a little embarrassed for moving five travelers out of a Buddhist Vat at such a late hour, and one of them ended up payed the extra 15 000 Kip for the AC. Fortunately, that was the only time that we were kicked out of where we were camping in Laos. Although we were approached a few different times late at night by some men who asked similar questions, we were eventually left alone and we didn’t have to move again.
My 17th Birthday was amazing. I woke up to a wonderful breakfast of fresh mangoes, donuts and scrambled eggs with mushrooms and tomatoes. Throughout the day, we rode through dozens of little villages where kids constantly greeted us by smiling and saying “Sabai Dee!” which means ‘hello’ in Laos. We had thought that it would be a pretty smooth day of riding, but we ended up riding over 40 kilometers on dirt and our bikes got pretty dusty. By the time we arrived in the town where we were going to stay, we were so dusty that Dad decided that we would wash off our bikes at a car wash. It was very satisfying to see all of the dust and mud fly off our bikes and it definitely made it easier for me to give my bike a tune-up later that afternoon. After surveying the scene in the town, we found a restaurant where we enjoyed one of the best meals we had in Laos. It consisted of Laap, a typical Laos dish of meat salad and mint; Khao Neow (sticky rice); plenty of fresh greens from the farms; and a refreshing Nuoc Mia, a drink made from pushing sugar cane through a press. It was delicious and it was the best lunch I could have imagined for my birthday in Laos. Markos even spotted a shop that sold cakes, so after lunch we did a bit of shopping at a local market and found a cake that I thought looked good. It happened to be green on the inside with a flavor that we couldn’t really identify, although it was still really good and it even came with candles. I took a break day from my schoolwork and talked to a bunch of my friends, gave my bike a tune-up, and played guitar. Overall, it was a very enjoyable birthday and I appreciate all the birthday wishes that I received from various friends and family.
Soon after my birthday, we rode into a larger town named Savannakeht on Easter morning. While riding into the town with our minds set to find a guest house to take a rest day, we happened to ride by a Swiss family that was getting out of their car holding platters of food and a guitar. They surprised us a bit as we hadn’t seen western people in weeks and so we stopped to say hello. After a short introduction, they invited us to an Easter Sunday brunch where they had just met us. Five minutes later, we were in a priest’s backyard singing songs surrounded by about two dozen people from around the world. It was crazy how fast and surprising it happened, but before we knew it we were having conversations with people from Zimbabwe, Australia, South Africa, Korea, and multiple other countries. We also enjoyed a delicious brunch with cakes, breads, yogurt, eggs, and an assortment of other delicious delicacies that we hadn’t had the chance to enjoy in months. It was amazing. While talking to a few different people, we learned that the majority of them were connected through an International School that happened to be the same one we had previously contacted to set up an exam supervisor for a few of our midterms! We even met the woman who we had been in contact with and it made it very easy for Tarn and me to take our exams the following day. After having a very enjoyable brunch, we started to get invited to different houses and we ended up staying at the house of the Swiss family that had initially invited us to the Easter Sunday brunch. As we continued to talk, we learned that they spoke French, the father/husband played guitar, and they had a pool. It sounded better than we could’ve imagined, until they said they also owned a French bakery… and that’s where we didn’t really have the chance to say no. We spent the evening and the following day with them and it was great to meet a wonderful family that also had two younger boys who were twins. Gael, the husband, was also able to give us a ride to the school in the morning so that Tarn and I could take our exams. The second evening, we got to meet two of their other friends who were visiting them for two weeks and we spent the afternoon and night playing volleyball in the pool; enjoying an amazing dinner of grilled fish, papaya salad, and fresh fruit; and I got the chance to play his guitar for a few hours while we sat around eating a delicious watermelon. Overall, it was quite the surprising encounter and it worked out better than we could have ever imagined.
After our delightful encounter with Gael and his wonderful family, we rode north towards the Thakhet loop, a beautiful area in Laos that is known for its unique limestone cliffs and mountains (also known as karsts). Although we had initially planned to follow the Laos/Thailand border towards Phonsavan because it was going to follow a river and have flatter terrain, we had learned a lot more about the karsts and we thought it would be worth it to go see them. Despite the climbing we had to do because of the rough, mountainous terrain, it was an incredible area to ride through and I have put multiple photos on the photography page from this area. We continued to see similar areas with karsts in other parts of northern Laos, but they have all been a little different from what we saw while riding through the Thakhet loop. Personally, I think it was one of the most memorable areas that we have ridden through and I loved being in a place that I would have never imagined to exist.
As we continued north towards Phonsavan, we started gaining more and more elevation and we definitely started feeling it in our legs. There were multiple days where we were climbing for the majority of our day and by the time we arrive to Phonsavan, we had climbed over 1500 meters. However, we knew that we would eventually be rewarded with a nice, long downhill and we were able to enjoy a beautiful descent a few days later when riding towards and into Vietnam. All in all, although northern Laos was very mountainous, it was a beautiful area to ride through and we really enjoyed being in a much cooler climate. It even rained a few times and we had to bring out all of our rain gear after not using it since Eastern Europe! Speaking of Europe, we have actually met quite a few bike travelers throughout Southeast Asia that are from places such as France, Spain, and Germany. It’s been really interesting to see other people that are travelling in a similar way to us and we have enjoyed sharing ours stories from where we have been so far and learning about where they have been.
The main reason that we went to Phonsavan was to visit “The Plain of Jars”, an area of hundreds of stone jars that are scattered across hills and fields. The Laos people don’t know exactly why the Jars were made, but they believe it had something to do with the cremation of the people who had passed away. We explored three different sites that varied in locations from being surrounded by rice fields, amongst pine trees on the top of a hill, and next to a large cave. The first two that we visited (Sites 2 and 3) were our favorites because they were empty of tourists and sat amongst a variety of trees and bushes. However, the last site (Site 1) had the most jars and it was really cool to see so many it such a condensed space. An interesting fact about the Plain of Jars is that they are actually located in area of Laos that is known for the crazy amounts of unexploded ordnances that were dropped during the Vietnam War. The bombs were dropped by the US Army during the Vietnam War due to aborted missions where they needed to drop their loads to have enough fuel to return to the base.There were many areas that still remain filled with unexploded ordnances and the sites where the Plain of Jars are situated had to be cleared of UXO’s before opening them to tourists. It was really interesting to see how the Laos people would display these massive bombs in front of their houses and restaurants, almost as if they were showing them off. They ranged in size from being a couple meters high to ones that you could fit in a suitcase. It was scary to imagine what it would have been like to see hundreds of bombs dropping from the sky… It was also quite breathtaking to see the large craters that had been created from explosions. In the end, the Plain of Jars was a very interesting place to visit and it was thought-provoking to learn more about the unexploded ordnances and the Vietnam War.
While reading over this blog post, I noticed that I haven’t mentioned Pimai yet! Pimai is the Laos New Year that was celebrated from April 14th – 16th, although we don’t really know the exact dates because the people were in festive moods before and after those dates. We don’t even know if it’s over yet because we left Laos on the 17th and people were still celebrating Pimai! The holiday is known for the water that is incorporated in the celebration. For the weeks leading up to Pimai, all of the little stores that we passed by sold inflatable pools, water guns, and water balloons. During the celebration, the roads were lined with people that soaked anybody that passed by spraying their water guns, dumping buckets of water, or using a water hose. To add, there were tons of pickup trucks that had dozens of people in the back of them dancing and listening to loud Laos pop music as they dumped buckets of water on anybody that they passed. Some trucks had even but an inflatable pool in the truck itself! It was a really fun time to ride into Phonsavan on Pimai because all of the markets were open and we repeatedly got soaked. We even happened to notice a cockfight that was going on and we stopped to watch for a little bit. It was a little disturbing to see how the roosters were tearing each other apart, but it was interesting how intrigued the people were and it was clear that there was a bit of betting that was going on. Over the few days of Pimai that we enjoyed, we were soaked multiple times and I was able to capture a really good shot with my GoPro. We didn’t mind the water, but once, when a truck passed by that had dyed all of their water green, we got a bit annoyed because all of our clothes were soaked with green water and we had to really scrub our clothes to have it wash out. I actually ripped the back of my shirt while washing out the dye, although it was already coming to the end of its time as it was the same shirt that I have been wearing for riding for the past few months. I left the shirt at one of the hotels we stayed at because the hole grew and there ended up being a large tear all along the back of the shirt. Hopefully I can find another long-sleeved shirt in a market before we go to Japan because my wardrobe of clothes is getting smaller and smaller as my clothes are slowly wearing out. Overall, Pimai was a really fun and it was great that we were able to be in Laos while it was going on.
We are now in a coastal town in Vietnam about a week’s ride away from Hanoi. We are taking a rest day and I decided that I would finally write a blog post after not posting for about three weeks. As you can tell, Laos was extremely interesting and beautiful, but I didn’t really have the time to write on the blog. I am planning to do one more blog post before flying to Japan on May 2nd. Before we leave Vietnam, we are planning to bike to Hanoi, go on a Ha Long Bay tour, and Markos and Tarn plan to do an exam or two. I am really excited to go to Ha Long Bay because I have seen many photos before and it looks gorgeous. To add, it will be a bit of a little vacation for us because it is an all-inclusive tour for two nights and three days on the boat. I will write about it more detail in my next blog post and I will hopefully capture some great shots. I have been updating my photography page every few days recently, and I encourage you to check it out and read the captions I have included because they give you little snippets of other things that we have been up to that I didn’t mention in this blog post. Overall, we have been enjoying our time in Southeast Asia very much, but we are also very excited to go to a new country for us, Japan, and spend the last few months of our trip in a country that none of us have been to before.