Febuary 26th, 2017 in Samut Songkhram, Thailand
After weeks of Vietnamese rain and humidity, we crossed into Laos. And like the turn of a page, the rain and clouds were suddenly exchanged for blue skies and a scorching sun. We felt like we'd been teleported to the African savannah during the dry season as the landscape changed from lush and green to dry and yellow.
But the weather was not the only thing that changed; all of the sudden we were eagerly greeted by almost everyone we saw. Not that the people of Vietnam had been rude in any way but now we were greeted with almost desperate calls for our attention in a way we hadn't experienced since Tajikistan.
But along this rather rural “highway”, every kid in every village would come out and shout: “Sabadee! Sabadee! Hello hello!” They'd wave their hands like maniacs and when we'd wave back they would all light up with the biggest of smiles. For the first couple of days, we felt like we were in a never-ending royal parade, waving to the commoners of our kingdom… that is, if we pretend that "falang" (foreigner) is a type of royal greeting.
On our second day we were surprised to run into Simon and Nicky heading in the opposite direction. We had previously met these guys in Bishkek, more than four months earlier. While we continued to Kazakhstan and China, they had flown to India and now we met again on a long and lonesome road in Laos! We probably stood in the blistering midday-sun for at least an hour swapping stories and anecdotes.
With the south of Laos being both dry and sparsely populated, camping was once again a viable option. But after our first night camping in Laos, we realised that we (mostly Robin) didn't really want to camp anymore as it was just too bloody warm! Additionally, it didn't help that yet another one of our sleeping mattresses had turned into the shape of a human-size hotdog. But the guesthouses in Laos are both frequent and inexpensive so things could have been a whole lot worse.
After heading west on route 9 for the first two days we turned south onto route 13 that would take us almost all the way to Cambodia (with the exception of some planned island hopping). Both of these roads were marked as main highways on our maps but would, by any other standard, be considered dusty country roads.
Not that the country is in any need of big motorways; south of Laos is not heavily populated nor does it seem to have the economy to support every household having their own car. Consequently, the traffic consist mostly of motorbikes and the occasional bus or truck, and the overall traffic volume is pretty low.
Initially, we had planned to take a shortcut via road 26 that was marked as a semi-big road on our maps but after some research, we learned that even though the road looks big enough on maps, in reality, it's nothing more than a small dirt/mud track. Apparently, it's a thing in Laos to add not yet constructed roads to maps so that they won't get outdated too quickly. But if the project never makes it past the planning stage, you're left with an imaginary road…
In hindsight, we probably would have been fine taking the shortcut as the weather was dry all through Laos. But with the past weeks of rain fresh in our minds, we imagined ourselves pushing our bikes for days through the mud and went with the safer option of sticking to the main roads.
We had our first rest stop in Pakse, a fairly small but westernized city situated by the slow-flowing Mekong River that we would come to follow for the rest of our time in the country. After a night in the city, we took the bridge across the Mekong in order to spend the next evening a few kilometers down river in a village called Champasak. Here we took things even easier, wining and dining to beautiful views of the river front as the sun set.
The next day we had to cross the river once again in order to get back onto route 13 that would lead us south. This time there was no bridge though and when we got to the harbour (basically just a beach) there was a guy pointing us towards a tiny, tiny boat, just wide enough for us to fit the bikes inside. We were just a little bit freaked out, imagining that everything we own would end up at the bottom of the river... But the Mekong River runs slow and steady so our fears were probably uncalled-for.
At the end of the day, we jumped on a second “ferry”, crossed the river yet again and arrived on the island of Don Khong. Don Khong, with its narrow dirt roads and views of small fishing boats in the wide, slow-moving river, gave us our first taste of the lazy and peaceful lifestyle that almost defines the "4 000 Islands" of the Mekong River.
After spending an evening on Don Khong we continued toward Don Det, the main tourist island. To get there we had to first cycle the length of the island Don Som. Even though Don Som was located in between two tourist islands, it didn't have any tourists or even accommodation itself. We didn't even see a road wide enough for a car. Instead, all the “roads” were just thin sand trails twisting themselves between clusters of farmhouses. The trail forked several times but as they all continued in a southerly direction there didn't seem to be a “wrong way” and we always ended up back on the same path.
The island wasn't particularly long but as the trails was sometimes almost threadlike and the sun stood high (“forcing” us to take a dip in the river) it probably took us a good two hours to cross.
Taking a fourth “ferry” from Don Som to Don Det, we could see all the guesthouses, bungalows and restaurant lining the edge of the island. Once again we had joined up with the normal backpacker crowd, this time in a place where it's always happy hour. We started by having lunch and then proceeded to spend the next three days alternating between lying in hammocks, eating and drinking well and floating down the river on an innertube while sipping a cold beer.
But on our last day we felt obligated to get off our lazy assess and do some exploring, so we cycled over to the next island, Don Kong, for some forest cycling, a swim and some scenic waterfalls.
And that concludes our brief journey through Laos. Lazy, lazy Laos… We would like to say that we deserve being lazy after cycling over 18 000 km, climbing over 128 000 m, suffering the sicknesses of Central Asia and the harsh weather of China… But honestly, always being on the move, always having things to do or fix (the never-ending to-do list) and always preparing for the next challenge is what has made this trip what it is/was. Now, we don't really know what to do with ourselves. We can't help but feel a bit like we've lost our purpose and that we're not really accomplishing anything anymore.
Even though we always knew the last part of the journey would be easy, we find it a bit hard to slow down and relax. Southeast Asia has a different tempo, a tempo we feel a bit out of sync with. This journey was suppose to be a challenge, and it has been, but now that seem to have come to an end. The only challenge we're facing now seems to be how many fruit smoothies we can drink in a day…