Monday, April 11, 2016

Laos - An unexpected pleasure

There are basically two ways to start your journey through a country: prepared or unprepared. We were definitely not prepared for Laos. The reason for this was simple: we had never planned to go to Laos in the first place and when the idea came up Vince, who we are traveling with at the time of writing, had been there twice before! What a luxury. Coming back to the first reason why we weren't prepared: the original plan had been Thailand - Malaysia. As we weren't able to go to Nepal and went through India much quicker than anticipated, we had quite a bit of time to spare. Going south wasn't the smart thing to do as we would be riding straight into the wet season which was still holding court there. So in effect Laos was the second choice, but turned out to be an unexpected pleasure!

Mike found it cold in the morning...
The border procedures were in theory simple. In reality, exiting Thailand was indeed as simple as getting ourselves and our bikes stamped out. So far so good. But then we apparently needed a police escort... for which we had to pay the rather hefty sum of US$14. Hefty because it is literally 2 km(!) to the next border and completely unnecessary as there is only one road you can take from there. See it as tourist tax I guess :-) Arriving at the Laos border, things went smoothly. We applied for a 30 day visa, which was issued promptly, then moved to Customs where they asked for a Thai import document for the bikes, which we didn't have as obviously the Thai Customs had taken that... This caused some concern but in the end it wasn't deemed necessary as we were allowed to go through... only to be stopped by the Tourist Police who 'invited' us to come in a chat... Oh oh! Now what?

He started his chat with saying we needed a guide to go through Laos on a motorcycle...? This had just been introduced, according to him, as another foreign motorcyclist had recently caused a serious accident at high speed, killing a local resident... I could certainly see where he was coming from as these people must be totally fed up with the lunatics racing through their villages, as we have unfortunately seen many times ourselves too. At the same time we were ready to turn around and go back into Thailand... 30 days with a tour guide would be ridiculously expensive for just 3 bikes and a guided tour was not what we were after at all. All we wanted was travel through Laos at our own pace, stopping where we wanted and stay somewhere an extra night if we felt like it. We assured him we would ride responsibly and did not want a tour guide. He assessed the situation and said he thought it would probably be ok and we probably wouldn't have any problems with the police... For a minute I wasn't real happy with the 'probably' thing... but we decided to continue.

Tourist meets local...
Entering Laos was different than I had imagined. The weather was miserably wet, foggy and grey which turned everything into a hazy blur. To be honest I could hardly see the difference between Thailand and Laos... as I could hardly see Laos at all! The main difference for the first 100 km was the roads. We had been spoiled in Thailand with good roads, now we had to be on the lookout for potholes, ruts and mud again. It was cold too, so cold that we stopped twice for some food to warm up as we hadn't fitted our thermal liners. Food which didn't go down well with either of us. Soggy noodle soup with chicken balls and garden mulch isn't my idea of enjoyment. Just 15 minutes later I regretted it when both my stomach showed it's dislike and my bladder desperately wanted to get rid of all the sogginess I had just been eating. Cold wet and miserable rises to new whole new levels when having to pee in the rain on top of a mountain somewhere... Lesson learned, I asked for steamed sticky rice the second time... which came with beef, probably, and veggies.

She's sorting extremely hot peppers... with bare hands!

Rain-gear in Laos, an umbrella...
Shortly after Laos started to improve for me. For starters it stopped raining, which was welcome. Our Rukka gear is waterproof but still, being able to see where we were was a big improvement! We also noticed much more traditional houses and enthusiastic kids by the side of the road. They were waving, yelling and most of all smiling... Yet the grown-ups in Laos didn't seem to be all that happy compared to the Thai and the Burmese. I guess that's what I missed most compared to Myanmar and Thailand, where everyone seems to smile. Mind you sub 12°C temperatures, windy and rain is nothing to smile about I suppose. The kids didn't seem to mind though. Entering Luang Nam Tha we found the guesthouse we had found on the net, to be made up of bamboo cabins! Great! As we were all in for something warm to eat we went on the hunt for food and found a beautiful family place. Each table had it's own clay pot with a small fire to keep us warm.

One of the things we wanted to have a look at was a local market, which we did the next day and had everything on offer from all sorts of veggies to frogs... live chickens... live ducks... dead snakes... dead cats... fish... etc. I liked the veggie part, but not the meat section. It emphasised for me that the way we treat animals is just too gruesome. I mean just dumping two living ducks and one chicken in a bag and hand it over to the customer who then hangs the bag on his motorbike and rides it home, with the bag bouncing all over the place... is not my idea of animal friendly. The other thing I noticed at the markets was, again, no smiles... Hmmm. 

Buy an expensive bike and you may chose from 2 or maybe 3 colours, buy a cheap one in Asia and they come in all colours of the rainbow... and they are in stock too!
Quite frankly I enjoyed the motorcycle shops more than the markets! They had absolutely everything in stock for the bikes they sell in Laos, which seems to be mostly Lifan from China. Breaking down on one of the step-thru models here is not an issue :-) I wandered through it, saw the seemingly endless racks of spare parts stacked up and wondered where I had last seen a bike shop even remotely like this... but came to the conclusion I hadn't, ever! It reminded me of the Yamaha dealer we visited in the US looking for a clutch cable. Their showroom was big, the office manned by people in suits who informed us that things like clutch cables were not something they kept in stock... Here they had everything from the smallest bearing to wiring harnesses and fuel tanks in different colours. Motorcycles are the sole means of transport for quite a few here and thus need to be easily repairable. While in the 'West' it's just luxury, with the result that we are all being stretched to the limit of what we will pay for our hobby. Having said that, to my utter surprise you can actually buy the Honda i110 in quite a few western countries too... maybe the times are changing?