Riding Through Shock and Dust – Laos, Asia
My body juddered with the bicycle – a shopping model – as its flimsy wheels rattled over the stones, disturbing them and the dust of the
dirt road. A month later, I returned to the resort and went out for a day cycling again. The next type – a mountain bike – was a constant
threat. Its chain kept on jumping on, and bouncing off the front sprocket wheel after I tried to adjust the shifter lever. The chain’s erratic
movement, causing a ‘thousand natural shocks,’ caked my fingers in dirty grease as I put it back onto the chain wheel.
My heated frustration leapt to boiling point. I perhaps should have flung each of the bikes asunder; one into the wooden roadside fence, the
other into the nearest shrub as dead losses. Except their owners in the town would want them returned once a pedaling tour around Vang Vieng’s
scenic area in Northern Laos was finished.
Trying to hire a reliable, something called decent, roadworthy, totally functioning push bike, is like targeting a needle in a haystack, unless
you happen to turn up at one of the several stores or agencies in Vang Vieng that rent them out early enough – say, no later than 8:00 am, before
another would-be unsuspecting hirer has designs on one. You should want to bag a ‘best’ one available placed alongside others. This wouldn’t, of
course, be necessary if all the machines were in tip-top working order.
The overtly tourist resort, Vang Vieng, has a market for nearly everything touristy. Bicycle renting – good or bad – is no exception. Even the
mother of the guest house proprietor goaded me into borrowing one from her. She knew at once that I was going to fish for one elsewhere; she caught me
marching out of the entrance doorway.
"How much?" I asked nervously.
Having vicariously passed them over, it didn’t sink in that you can hire a model for 5,000 Laos Kip, less for one of the same variety and quality further
in town. I handed over a 20,000 bill. She went into the back to look for and summarily returned with the 5,000 change from her daughter. The daughter, like her mother, was also good at goading, persuading wayfarers to stay at her prodigious three-storied Phouangham Hotel which stuck out
like an orange thumb on the town’s main road.
"Stay here. Good price," she called across when noticing me looking in at another six-and-two-threes guesthouse for the same room fee across
the road, except that it hadn’t a restaurant area outside at the front.
The town though, situated between Luang Prabang and the Laos capital, Vientiane, is generally non-descript. A back of beyond Dodge City appeal about
it exists, apart from a few cream colored French-styled buildings with balconies and brown slatted windows. Otherwise, three main roads running north and
south linked by streets, not forgetting a disused tarmac air strip to launch bombing raids during the Vietnam War, is the rest.
Having a population, a mere 25,000 souls, Vang Vieng would be a place to pass through ignored. Providence has made it lucky enough to be situated beside
the Nam Song River where several wooden waterside bars are now conveniently located, attracting herds of Westerners. They come to gulp Beerlao or stick straws
into small communal plastic buckets to suck up sloshing vodka under chunks of ice; lounge in hammocks under straw-roofed shelters, gazing lazily into the water
The purposefully named, ‘The Bucket Bar,’ is probably the most frequented among the others strategically placed around the town.
Pandering to Western tastes is an easy Laos trick. Vang Vieng is in one of the country’s most idyllic settings: endless sunsets dipping behind shadowed
jagged mountains on which towering cliffs that show purple-grey limestone in daytime, rising above tinder dry corn fields beyond the Namsong-turned-golden.
You will want to explore this bewitching ambience. Taking a bike to cycle away is irresistible.
Before I’d ventured more than a few yards, I heard the owner warn:
“Bring the bike back. If you get it stolen, buy a new one.”
Whoops. One could only feel humiliated, scorned, mocked by this money-making jibe; a puppet on a string. There’s nothing more odious than insensitivity and
lack of respect where money’s concerned. This mentality – seeing Westerners as nothing more than rich dollar signs – has its tentacles everywhere. Worse was
shortly to follow.
Being only the second full day here, it takes time to orientate oneself. The free ‘map,’ a limited shoddy drawing grudgingly given by one of the store
attendants, easily has you blundering up to a checkpoint, a hut put up to charge foreigners to cross a main bridge.
“Six thousand Kip,” a woman outside demanded.
Laos’s people frequently pronounce all the stresses and all the words when saying how much you should pay for something, wanting you to think
their inflationary currency is something important.
“What! You’re joking! Just to cross a bridge?” I almost choked in stunned amazement.
If you desire something, to reach a place, incredulity usually evaporates. After mumbling the sum the notes were coughed up, then the ride over.
Other ways and means – detours to avoid this outrageous fee – were then undiscovered, but the main dusty stony thoroughfare was found which passes
several caves. Talk about being a money target. How many more money shocks could there be further on?
Travel, though, is partly about discovering the undiscovered. Flitting your eyes from one hand-written wooden sign to another, directing one to this
cave, then another, soon has you finding out what this cave-hopping caper is all about. ‘Come to our beautiful cave where Buddha is worshipped,’ read
one. ‘Laos’s people sheltered here,’ read another. ‘The lagoon nearby is ideal for swimming and snorkeling.’
Apart from unsuccessfully trying to find a cave called ‘Tiger’ and a ride back to the stony junction, you can decide to pass up the hypnotic drivel.
Pressing on up the main dirt highway to see what the one cave, Poukham, the most sought-after, really does have to offer, is a sensible option.
The mountainous limestone that loomed up from nowhere is much more mesmerizing; mysterious shapes that deserved several pictures. The dirt road dust
was whipped up by the moving motorcycles of riding locals; by an odd pick-up truck, as though a vapor had appeared. The otherwise stony surface impeded
the bike’s progress, but every effort to press on passing peculiar signs to Jinnaly cave hidden inside the Red Cliff wonder, Khan Cave, Than Numborkeo,
is well worth it.
Worries about continuing in the wrong direction soon dispersed as another wooden sign, slap bang in the middle of a fork in the road, said ‘Poukham Cave
2kms.’ Distance indicators in Laos can often be inaccurate – three or four times more. 10,000 Laos Kip to see it was reasonable, but not everyone was
interested. Laos families were sitting lazing on the ground picnicking. Young Westerners were either sunbathing or eagerly swinging and jumping joyously
into the ‘beautiful blue lagoon,’ a cloudy river pool, not blue, and altogether disappointing. After a visit to the cave, you can lounge in a wooden
conical-roofed shelter, read awhile, or listen to the beating vibe of resort-type music.
Equipped with a flashlight I staunchly ignored vendors hiring theirs, and almost stumbled into a solitary man waiting to pounce on any cave wayfarer at the entrance.
“Do you need a guide?” was refused. I clambered past a respectable semi-retired couple who’d just completed a tour. Their attitude towards venturing any
further without one was, quite frankly, foolhardy.
“It’s very big; a long way in. There are many possibilities. You may never find the correct way back out.”
“How much did you pay?” a younger couple asked.
“Two hundred Baht between the two of us.”
“We may come back.”
I switched on my torch when needed, almost scorning this complicated over-cautious advice. It was sufficient. Continuing into a massive chamber, an
altar containing a reclining Buddha is passed, looking remarkably like the giant languid one in Wat Po, Bangkok.
Caves are often alike, possessing circular chambers with unique rock formations. Apart from becoming a little trapped, panicky, in the furthest smallest
chamber, moving round and around, the need for the guide was groundless. The way out was defaulted-on as though a prison break had occurred.
Unlocking the bike, a bleached-blonde guy clad in vest, shorts and flip-flops, turned up looking entirely in tune with the ambient sunny surrounds. After a
few starts, he throttled off overtaking the bike which unsuitably gave a rickety ride back. That and the clouds of dust generated, resembled someone using a
hydraulic drill on a building site. His motorbike looked the better answer.
Admiring the sallower tints from the lingering sun and shadows on the close and distant limestone mountains was countered by swelling-up anger as the bridge
got nearer. According to one travel book about adventuring in Borneo, ‘getting angry in Asia achieves nothing.’ Perhaps it should read, ‘getting angry anywhere
What should one do about it? Suffer, ignore, use it?
The same woman was still sitting outside the hut as I rode off the bridge, and decided to catch her off guard:
“Do you charge Laos people to cross this bridge?”
She looked confused, quizzical; didn’t know how to respond; muttered something to a younger woman.
“I said, do you charge Laos people to cross this bridge or just foreigners?”
“No, just foreigners,” the younger replied.
“And is that because we have money?”
I finished the journey, needing no answer, letting them know that here is a human – just like them – with thoughts, feelings, and allsorts. One day it
may work wonders. Who knows?
I Chatted to a Danish couple over a Beerlao at a village cafe; dedicated cyclists who were also touring around on mountain bikes during my second visit.
The husband had a flat tyre and gear problems. He used a screw driver to try and adjust the derailleur and waited for the tyre to be repaired.
“I feel angry, too. It’s the mentality, the exploitation,” he remonstrated.
“Since arriving in Laos, I’ve felt nothing more than being a dollar sign,” the wife interjected.
Exploitation in any shape is a lowest common denominator. I read somewhere that Laos was the most bombed-out country by America during the early 70s.
It could be understandable if Laos’s people are avenging their country on unsuspecting American and also Western tourists from countries that might have
colluded with the bombing that happen to visit today. But is anyone bombing Laos now? Who’s preventing its people from getting their country out of the ‘stone age?’
The couple rode off extending the road tour. I cut it short, finding it difficult coping with the heat and seething resentment towards the bike’s owners as
the chain jumped and jumped. Constant cries of “Saba idée” (which means hello) from village and roadside kids were furiously ignored. I couldn’t wait to hand
the bike back and let them know that they are actually careless, inattentive, and inconsiderate. Being concerned about their bikes’ return is a joke, save for
the money they accumulate. One day letting them know may work wonders. Who knows?
Reducing my ego failed miserably. Otherwise, the alternative ways there and back over the Namsong wouldn’t have been needed to avoid crossing the fee-paying
bridge. A narrow wooden planked crossing linking Vang Vieng with some riverside bungalows and another main bridge several kilometers down the highway are other
The next morning I left for Luang Prabang, herded in a fast, convenient, and comfortable minibus. In Cambodia, a traveling companion alerted me to a magazine
article about an intrepid French explorer who travels around the world the slowest way imaginable using his legs, a horse, or a pony. Asked why he did it this
way, he replied: “because it used to be the way we always traveled, and some of us still do. We are losing touch with our surroundings, with ourselves and with
each other. Globalization, for all its mass communication: faster internet connections, social networking websites, cell phones and jet-setting, what do we really
know about ourselves and our relationship with each other? Not much.”
But if Westerners could be seen as more than mere money-making labels or Laos’s people as more than poor relations, the world might be an entirely different place.
How can it be realized, though, belongs entirely to another story.