Thursday, May 5, 2016

Laos - Going back in time

Having waited for 3 days for the weather to clear, we gave it a crack to go further north through the Nam Ha National Park. In the morning it was still grey everywhere we looked. The forecast had promised sunshine, but the forecast had promised that 3 days ago too, instead we had 3 days of rainy miserable and cold weather... When we left Luang Namtha in the morning we couldn't even see the mountains around us as they were all covered in grey clouds and wondered if there was any point in going further north. It's not that we don't like riding in the rain, we prefer a rainy day on a bike over a rainy day in a car. The thing is, if everything is covered in a thick layer of clouds... then you don't see anything!

We had breakfast at the same place where we ate the night before. It seems that just like in Mexico there is hardly any point in cooking yourself in Laos, money wise, assuming you can get the ingredients for a half decent breakfast that is... Food can be quite an issue when in countries where you can't read the labels. It might be fun to just do a blind select and see what you get but the result could be something like deep fried cockroaches... which aren't my idea of food and I'm pretty sure my stomach won't like it either. What we tend to look for is variety, vegetables and not too fatty. 

Despite the weather not giving any indication it might clear up, we went north. I'm glad we went. Suddenly we found a totally different Laos. The faces changed, the landscape changed and we were in for a ride back in time. The road we were riding on winds its way through a way of life which clearly hasn't changed much over the centuries. Small villages with houses made from bamboo dotted the green mountains. Lush, dense tropical forests occasionally gave way for wild flowing rivers and small scale farming. The houses seemed impossibly small until you realise their life is outside. Washing of clothes, food preparation and cooking and even washing yourself is all done outside the house. There are no washing machines, fridges, kitchens, bathrooms... A bar of soap is all that is needed to wash yourself (including your hair). A shower head is a bamboo pipe which diverts cold water from a mountain stream.

As we had expected, the road was full of holes, cracks, mud and bumpy. It didn't matter as we had a great time. Wherever we went, kids were waving and cheering us on. Traffic was minimal and limited to small bikes plus a hand full of 4WDs and trucks. Apart from the 4WDs, people ride and drive slowly in Laos, which suits us well. There is so much to see here that most of the time 60 km/hr isn't a bad cruise speed. Despite the grey weather it's a beautiful place. Vince suggested it was very much like Myanmar... while I can see what he means, Laos is also quite different, beautiful but different. In many ways Myanmar is even more back in time than Laos.

The Chinese influence is visible everywhere. Most motorcycles and trucks are all Chinese brands for instance. There are quite a few Chinese supermarkets and restaurants too. We've been told the Chinese have built most of the roads too, which wouldn't surprise me. Meanwhile the rain which had threatened all day stayed away and in the afternoon we even had a little bit of sunshine! Just as well as the road is a beauty. Winding like a snake and partly over the top of a mountain ridge with beautiful vistas on both sides.

The guesthouse we stayed at the end of the day is best described as a dump but couldn't dampen our spirit, especially not as in the evening Vince was keen to take us to Souphailin's Restaurant, where he had been in the past. Good choice as it's as simple as can be, mum does everything! A simple kitchen, with a wood fired stove is all she needs to make a wide range of delicious dishes. Perfect! So we went there again the next day for breakfast.

The day after was, if possible, even better than the day before! Laos now really started to show its best...! Having a relatively short riding day meant we could enjoy the ride to the max, didn't have to worry about getting anywhere in time and could thus stop frequently. Be it for photos or just to enjoy the villages and scenery. The overwhelming thought of the day was one of having gone back in time. Riding in a world like it was many decades ago. Mentally erase the cars out of the picture and it all fell in place... The bamboo houses, the dirt tracks into the mountains, the wooden carts, the washing being done in the streams and the little Hondas being used as the family transport... by the whole family at the same time!

The enthu-siasm of the kids was so incredible. They kept waving us along where-ever we went. One of them, a little girl, was waving so frantically as she came running/sliding down the muddy hill next to the road, that I not just waved back but stopped and stretched my arm to shake her hand... she smiled but firmly shook her head... she didn't want that! I waved again, she smiled and waved back, so again I stretched my arm and again she shook her head... I waved which brought her beaming smile back again! It was only after I rode away that I realised she must have been hesitant because I was wearing my full adventure helmet and sunglasses... Blast! Should have taken my lid and sunnies off!

The strange thing with riding here is the split-in-half towns. The original path through the villages has been widened and widened over the years to allow cars to move through at speed... Not so nice when you live there and another hoon comes flying past your humble abode at barely one metre away, blowing dust through your glass-less windows. I guess if you're driving a big luxury 4x4 you don't care much about others and don't care much what others think of you... I quite honestly think it would be a better place had the original track still been there. An even better place I should say, as Laos is still wonderful! 

Having said that, the roads we took were in places covered in mud and sand. Strangely enough this somehow complimented the area we found ourselves in, it was as if we were riding the roads as they should be. It blended with the scenery, the small farms and the single cylinder trucks. Unlike the single cylinder trucks we had seen in Myanmar and Thailand, these have mid mounted engines... looking at the average age of them I think Ferrari must have stolen the mid-mount engine idea from them :-)

To finish a beautiful ride we stopped at a guesthouse which offered a great stay and perfect parking for the bikes inside the gates. Unfortunately the best food in town turned out to be at the guesthouse... as the once good pizza restaurant nearby, which Vince had visited before, was now under careless owners... resulting in poor quality food which took forever to arrive.

As we enjoyed our stay, we decided to stay an extra day and found the Indian restaurant a really good one too! We chose the one closest to the bridge. We had a lazy day ourselves and enjoyed the scenery around the bridge over the Ou river.