As Darkness Fell
As darkness fell, I felt relief more than anything else. It had been a long, hard day of cycling against the clock on a narrow track otherwise known as Route 23 running through the national forests of the Phu Sang He Biodiversity and Conservation area
in south central Laos. I had been trying to make it to the next town with accommodation before nightfall but had fallen 40 or so kilometres short. Now that the day of tense calculations of distance, time and average speeds was over, I felt calm
and unworried even though I didn’t know exactly where I was or where I would sleep. The race against time was obviously lost, so I stopped to get out my torch in preparation for some night riding and admired the beauty of the receding rays
of a red sunset.
It had been a day of surprises, as much for the people I’d met on the way, as for me. There had been the Vietnamese hunter in army fatigues, carrying an AK-47, who had struggled to maintain his composure as I warily peddled past him on the single track through deep forest.
And then wheeling my bike down the steep embankment of a creek crossing, I had inadvertently cornered a group of kids wheeling their bikes upwards. They stopped, refocused to confirm what they were seeing, and then panicked in silence. They dropped their bicycles, and those that could, scrambled up the side of the embankment to flee into the forest, while the smaller ones just froze in terror, eyes wide, trapped like bunnies. ‘Sabai dees’ didn’t help, so all I could do was to get past them as quickly as possible to put them out of their misery. Afterwards I had a good laugh thinking of the story they had to tell their parents that night. It was then that I realized how isolated these forests were, even though they were only 150 kilometres from the Mekong river and Nakhon Phanom in Thailand with its satellite communications, karaoke and pick up trucks. This is what cycle touring is all about, going back in time for a couple of days.
But back to my predicament. Before dusk I had thankfully made it out of the forest and into a cleared, rice-paddied, and therefore Lao speaking, area, so I could at least communicate with those that I met. (I speak rudimentary Thai/Lao.) The road had widened but was a tricky surface of sun baked, corrugated mud, and covered in a layer of sand of varying depths. It was also a dark, star-less night, so the going was slow, and before long I was on the lookout for a stilted, no walled, farm hut to sleep in. I saw a couple but my fear of snakes and scorpions was such that I knew I could never get any sleep in them, so I decided to carry on. Eventually I came across a guy on a motor scooter who jumped out of his skin when he spotted me flagging him down, but who confirmed I was on the right road and that there were villages further on.
A while later, I saw lights in the distance and as I came closer an eerier scene came into view. It was a village of a dozen or so stilted houses, and in front of each there was a flaming torch on top of a supported pole. Kneeling in the ‘wai position’ beneath each torch were women and girls, chanting and making offerings. I emerged out of the gloom, soundless on the sandy road, with just a small mag light heralding my arrival. What they made of me I cannot imagine, but I felt transported by the flickering fires and chanting monotone. I passed silently through the tiny village, receiving not a glance from anyone, a ghost from the forest, a white spirit on two wheels. I had been hoping for a bed for the night, but for obvious reasons felt it prudent not to loiter and soon disappeared back into the darkness. Perhaps I’ve entered their mythology. I know they’ve entered mine.
Back in the lonely black night and long out of drinking water, I started to feel fatigue. I continued on and after some time I heard voices. As I came closer I could make out the melodious lilt of female Lao. I ‘sabai diied’ into the dark and they replied. I continued a few more meters and there were three women sitting in front of a stilted house. They must have been surprised, but they didn’t show it. Just the usual, ‘Where are you going? Where are you going to stay?’ In short, they explained that all the men were away for a festival, so there were plenty of empty beds in their village and I was welcome to stay. I’m reluctant to play the stupid foreigner card but on this night I was grateful for it. Kindness shown to a stranger in need indicates …. what? Humanity? Civilization? Spirituality? Belief in the fundamental goodness of people? Certainly a lack of fear. (Of course, it is also possible that the guy on the scooter had alerted people of my presence.)
I was shown upstairs to the sleeping quarters of one household, a typical Lao/Isaan one wall dwelling, and invited to eat. All my empathetic senses were on overload so I didn’t eat much of the fish on offer and filled up on the sticky rice. I wasn’t that hungry anyway, but having run out of water hours before, I had a thirst on. The mother spotted my eyes on the empty water container and ordered her daughter to bring another round. I ate that water, so slowly did it go down my gullet, savouring every drop. It tasted of disinfectant aniseed wood, so I realized that the water I was given, not only had to be carried from river to house, but also had to be boiled with a fire using wood likewise gathered and carried to where I was so parasitically consuming it all. Getting drinkable water was hard work, which was why no one had been willing to part with any during the day. Despite still being thirsty, I acted sated and it was time for bed. ‘This is usually father’s bed,’ it was explained, ‘but you are welcome to it.’ I was covered in a combination of red dirt and sand, all held together by dried sweat. After pulling out my sleeping bag, and asking if there was anywhere I could wash, I was shown to a dish washing pale in the kitchen. ‘Ah, they bathe in the river,’ I realized. So I wiped the grime off my arms, legs and face with a wet rag, to the obvious approval of mother, seeing that I wasn’t wasting their hard won water, and then crawled under father’s mosquito net and into my sleeping bag to pass out. I awoke once during the night when a teenage son came home and ate what I had left of the fish. Just as I had thought, I had eaten someone’s supper.
When I awoke at dawn, being beaten to the worm by the women of the house preparing breakfast, I knew I had to leave soon to be no further burden and also I had to leave them something of use in return for their help. Money is the obvious solution, but it gives exactly the impression that I hope to avoid, rich westerner makes up with cash for what he lacks in common sense. The night before I had spotted an old but well maintained pedal driven ‘Singer’ sewing machine in the corner, which had reminded me of the sewing kit I carried. It was new with several needles and rolls of thread. After a breakfast of sticky rice, I expressed my gratitude as best I could and handed the kit to mother, who had a good look before passing it to her daughter. Mother was too poker faced to give anything away, but from the way her daughter protectively held the kit, I knew I had scored a hit. It was a payback with meaning.
I carried a rattan sticky rice holder, and after they had filled it with enough rice to get me out of their hair, I was on my way. It was just past six, and I had a little twenty-five kilometre ride ahead of me that would take half the day and fill me with despair.
Still no water. And the road was the same sand covered, corrugated, creation of hell. The varying depth of the sand was a problem because it prevented coasting. Get some speed up on the firm sections and suddenly your front wheel could be submerged in ten centimetres of sand, with all the nasty consequences. But ride slowly and the corrugations under the mostly thin covering of sand would loosen the fillings in your teeth, shaking your sinews and cartilage into submission. It was a tortuous, pissy little ride, and I hated every millimetre of it. When I rolled into the outskirts of Xai Bua Thong and spotted a Fanta/Pepsi stand, I took it nice and slow. ‘Yes, with ice please,’ and sipped my way through two bottles of sugar water that tasted like nectar made in heaven. I then rode further into town, marvelling at the rows of bottled water on sale, chose a shop with a bench outside in the shade, drank a litre, and went to sleep on the bench. Luxury.
The local government had accommodation available, and in the afternoon I did the laundry, showered, shaved and made myself presentable. Like Thais, Laos consider cleanliness close to godliness and personal hygiene is paramount. The next day was a short 40-kilometer ride on a mainly good red dirt road to Mahaxai. What a town it turned out to be. I approached it from its most advantageous direction, cycling through a village and then looking down onto a pristine, green river with people bathing and doing the laundry along its clean banks. The footbridge across the river was made of bamboo and wood and as I wheeled my bike across it, I couldn’t have been happier …. or so I thought. On the other side I was surprised to see another foreign tourist; it had been a whole week since my last one! We made our acquaintances and he turned out to be quite a character, a German who liked to explore caves and ride dirt bikes. He had lots of entertaining stories of encounters with bats and monks in the bowls of the earth. We spent an afternoon trying to amuse each other while eating som tham and roast chicken in the rest area over looking the river. Only occasionally did I think of the daughter from the previous night collecting firewood and water.
The German left on his 125cc dirt bike and I checked into the only hotel in town. Two other tourists (a couple) had also arrived but unlike me they seemed unwilling to talk. Never mind, there was a group of local blokes getting sloshed on Lao whisky and eating at a roadside stall. They invited me to join them, one of them spoke good English, and against my better judgment, I did. They turned out to be a fun bunch, didn’t get violent or bitter despite the extreme drunkenness of us all, and the English speaker had a lot to say about the secret war and the subsequent ban on all things foreign after the Americans retreated. He’d hidden his English ability for twenty years.
The next day I was in a hotel in Tha Kaek drinking beer and watching Australia play a one-day cricket test on satellite TV!
These were the most impressionable two days of a month trip I did from south to north Laos in 2001. It was my second time there and I have been back once since, plus I’ve ridden twice along the Thai side of the Mekong river. Lao/Isaan culture is something else.
Nice trip report.