Luang Prabang is a very interesting place from a travellers point of view. It’s beautifully situated, two rivers concentrate most of the historic interest in a walkable area, and it’s a full-blown, comfortable tourist destination. Although there are plenty of backpackers, the majority have either flown in or are on a tour. I can’t think of many places I’ve been where walking the streets it seems the majority aren’t locals. Sounds terrible? Somehow it isn’t. The funny thing is we’d recommend it. One part of it is the dominating and very impressive presence of the Mekong. Which here is pronounced May-kong. Mostly, from a traveller’s p.o.v. looking for an exotic location that’s stress-free, this is it. The food, markets, sights, walks, and explorations out of town are all great. Good for your Mom. So there’s our pitch. Just don’t come in rainy season.
Tourist dollars are very important, 12% of the economy, and Luang Prabang is where most of them are spent.
Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world and one of only a handful that remain communist. The remaining group: North Korea, Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos.
Oudomxay to Luang Prabang
Arghh, road construction a lot of the way
Breaking rocks with sledgehammers, argh for him
Collecting sand for the concrete from the river
The villages are usually linear following the road
Ready for pavement, pressed up against the old village
Deers’s head, deer parts and a squirrel. Daryl from TWD would approve, this is what he usually appears with
Birds, sadly beautiful
A leopard cat. A little big bigger than a domestic cat. Not endangered
Uh oh, storm ahead
But they seem to disappear as fast as they come, so no worries, just a short shower
Check this out. A fancy lunch restaurant, best we’ve seen yet
Higher hills now
Birds check out Lucinda, as piglets like to do
One of the many upcoming stunning views
To the Mekong
And a bit further down
A Mekong market
Because it’s mostly fish
And pig parts
Fried bananas. Yum
And we roll into Luang Prabang across this bikes only bridge, one of many
Here’s a nice lo-tech map of Laos if you can’t mentally place it, lol. We’re entering at the top left, riding in a zig-zag line south through it to Cambodia. The Mekong (we followed it in China) makes up part of its border with Thailand
On that subject we found this map showing the Mekong’s massive drainage. All of Laos for example
Day 1, across the border from Chiang Khong to Luang Namtha
We had day-one dirt route plotted into the GPS hoping for a fast border crossing, but that was not to be. We flew through the Thai exit and got our escort across the Friendship bridge to Laos then hit a non-moving queue at the immigration window, same as last time. A bus had beaten us here, oh well
So the back-up route direst to Luang Namtha
Many small villages
This one had had electricity recently installed, the meters and wiring were new
Some homes, usually occupied by the elderly, looking close to collapse
Bad weather ahead, but sooo green. It’s a hothouse…
A Buddhist shrine by the road
Most of the elements here are roosters. I’m still wrestling with the meaning of ten rooster. In Tibetan Buddhism it represents greed, one of the three poisons. Then there’s because King Naresuan made a famous cock fighting wager with the King of Burma. All kinds of stories but nothing solid yet. One of many things to be sorted out
The first glimpse of the limestone crags that dominate Thailand and Laos
Dry season. Next rains sufficient for rice are maybe May/June
This is something Laos is famous for: Bamboo bridges. Fantastic, will expand on this in the next post.
This one is maybe Lucinda-able, but didn’t risk it. About 30 inches wide and wobbly. But watched a scooter do it with aplomb
Day trip to Muang Sing
Homework time. Like Thailand, it sounds like it’s all about the ‘aa’ sound, the rest often just wraps around it. Or more likely I have it all wrong, Spanish was so much easier
The ride north from Namtha is all about the forest. This is a national park
Bamboo, found wood and thatched villages
Up here the biggest road hazard is pigs. Further south, cows. Pigs move quite quickly and predictably on the road. Cows are slow but slightly less predictable. They often decide they want to walk with a different cow and make a direction change. Further south, additional hazards
Street market. We’re off the main routes up here, close to the China border, and they’re very shy
Mostly root vegetables
I buy a bag of something from the kids, pay, then hand the bag back with a smile
Then into this remote village, and ride back to Namtha
I’ve been shooting video for the first time in a year. Movies coming up soon
Luang Namtha to Oudomxay
A great ride but lousy roads
Check out these next two pics. Remarkably similar we thought
A typical riverside village. The water here is very clean and silt free
Kids are fishing with old masks and spears. We watch for a while but don’t see nay success, so I guess it requires timing and patience
A slightly more developed village. You can tell because of the metal roofs
Here’s the fabulous road. Twisties and green endlessly
The other direction
A tiny ground covering everywhere in bloom
It’s mostly like this here. It’ll change dramatically further south
We’ve done this route before, to China and back, but we found a variation each time
The blast out of Chiang Mai. Sorry to leave it in one way, we made a good friend there
To Chiang Khong. Border towns worldwide are often shitholes (specially in Latin America where they’re just coke bottlenecks) but this is a nice town
Lotus on the main drag, with of course
guppies! and a few platties, slow stupid fish that spoil the effect
There’s a great walkway along the Mekong
Massive staghorns in the trees
That’s Laos on the far bank. It must have been interesting how this proximity worked during the Vietnam war
The Thai freight barges look like this. The owners home is built square and true on the stern. The Captain steers looking out over his front porch. Nice
We stayed an extra day to go to Loi Krathing, a festival honoring the river. It’s the end of rice harvest, they want to thank her for her abundant water, plus apologize for polluting her. It’s also a time (like Semana Santa in Guatemala, where they queue up to apologize for the people they’ve murdered that year) to ask for forgiveness and promise a fresh start.
The view from the bank above. The main event isn’t until midnight, but I have an early start for the border, so this is early
One of the things is to send lanterns into the sky. It’s a little tricky getting the air hot enough and takes maybe 5 minutes of careful positioning
Up they go. They go up high enough that you loose sight of them
It’s a family thing too
Lots of food and pretty girls
Eating at the water’s edge
This is interesting. You order beer in towers, maybe 8 pints each, with a tap at the bottom
Then early to bed. Shame, those towers have a magnetic force.
One last thing. Another of the big festivals in Thailand is the Cow Festival. Here are the finalists for Miss Cow Festival, 2015
Note: I’m typing this outside at 6:45pm and the mosquitos are out, carrying all sorts of bad things, like malaria. The local repellent is fragrant and effective. Canadians will be interested to know that so far (with about half the world covered) our mosquitos, as we like to brag about, are indeed super-giants. For example here in Laos they’re about 25% of the size and itchyness. You can’t even hear them coming they’re so small.
So here’s how it goes in advance of a new country, or at anytime my route plan has finished.
I usually plan in various levels of detail.
First, an overall country plan. Which border in, which border out. Overall route that connects things we want to see, in loose terms. Calculate mileage estimate vs days on visa. Get an idea of where to shop for insurance after entry. Then we plan out as many days, in detail, as makes us comfortable. Being comfortable with life, no matter the circumstances, is the constant goal on a long ride and planning is the obvious, if only partial, solution. If the country is ‘difficult’ like Bolivia we might have a detailed rolling 5 day plan. If it’s easy like Australia we might just have a loose big picture plan then take it day-by-day.
So Laos for example is somewhere in the middle. Not hard, but needing some thought. I don’t have a table in my room where I’m staying, so this is how it looks
Maps. I buy the ITM maps for countries ahead whenever I can find them. I bought a handful when I was back in Vancouver. Then I have something to look at well in advance. But over the last few years I’ve found out that local maps are nearly always better. So here I have 3. I compare them, write notes on the best of them and throw the other 2 out. My paper map will be my Bible and will sit in my tank bag window. I’ll pull it out when I meet someone who knows more than I do and write more notes on it.
Right now in the photo I’m almost at that stage and I’m comparing the quality of my recently downloaded new OSM country map for my GPS with the best of the three paper ones. Then I start planning the first few days (in the case of Laos, 3, not easy, not hard) and enter the hard data into Basecamp and transfer it to the Montana.
I have Google Earth running on one of my iPad minis so I can see the geography of my route. On the second mini, here beside the PC screen, I’m watching a movie. I like to watch downloaded movies when I’m working.
I’m also mentally going through if I need any gear or supplies than may be needed or that I’m running low on and get this sorted before I head off. For instance I haven’t been able to buy Laos Kip, their currency, here in Chiang Mai. So I had to go top up my US dollars, knowing that will work until I can find them. In the back of my mind I’m thinking there might be a hawker at the border.
When all this is done I’ll head down to the bike and repack the panniers. They’re never organized after a few weeks riding and I like everything to be close to perfect before heading off.
But perhaps the biggest thing is assessing Lucinda’s service and tire needs. As it happens Chiang Mai was a good spot for a regular service, so that’s done. I’ve been keen and had 2 sets of tires shipped here a couple of months ago. A set of Heidenaus for China and to remount for Myanmar and into India, where I’ll need to think ahead again. Plus a set of Karoo 3’s (TKC 80’s unavailable in Bangkok) for Laos/Cambodia for the dirt, which I’ve had mounted. I’ve got a spare air filter and a quart of oil. I’ve mentally processed that my nearest mechanic will be Phnom Penh, about 6 weeks (?) down the track, should I need something. So that’s done.
I’ll wash my suit if I can find a place with a bath. Unfortunately, not this time. So I’ll head off a bit stinky, but not horrendous.
So it’s all of this stuff. I really enjoy it. But blended with the enjoyment of the process, unique to each rider, is a constant background feeling which can be anything from happy anticipation to apprehension. For instance, I was apprehensive about Indonesia. There have been so many bad stories and unhappy endings. But it was fine, thanks to Lucinda’s ‘alert/responsive’ nature. Now the background feeling is slight nervousness that the dirt tracks I have in my plan might not be dried out, ie mud, after rainy season, which I’ve been warned about. So we’ll adapt the route as we go depending on conditions.
Did a few Thai things while we waited for our new starter motor. Andrew brilliantly arranged this through his local dealer in Singapore, which saved me having to ship one from Vancouver or Melbourne. There wasn’t one in Bangkok, which wasn’t entirely unsurprising.
So. We go off for a ‘must see’ and take a tuk-tuk downtown for a 9:00 pm fight start. Tuk-tuks are almost infinite in variety and performance, varying from wrecks that die for good at a light, and you get out with a laugh and wave down a new one, to (occasionally) tricked-out dragsters, like this one. A good start, we don’t want to be late
We arrive at small fenced-off compound and buy VIP seats at the gate. 600 baht, 22.25 CDN, ringside, expensive. Falangs (gringos) and well-dressed Thai’s, on white plastic lawn chairs, cracked and mushy, beers in hand. Perfect
Muay Thai is Thai boxing. There are two places in town to see this and we’re at the ring the locals and repeaters go to, not the ‘show’ type fight.
There are 5 rounds, 3 minutes each.
After they enter the ring they appear to do 2 things. First, with Thai music in the background, they do a combination of a prayer and a dance. Then they visit each corner with a further prayer
The first round is very tentative. It’s very beautiful: they’re solid on the back foot and mostly tapping in time with the music with their forward foot, ready to strike. They hold eye contact, looking both serene and wound-tight, like a rattler. It’s more of a musical dance, at first, than I anticipated, very different from Western fighting
Super-fast kicks start the action. Most are fended off with the arms, some land, only a few miss
After a few fights it’s clear the fight starts, and hopefully for one fighter is finished, in the 4th round. The 2 minute break at this point is particularly intense. Everyone is quiet
And it turns into a brawl. There’s no breaks in the fighting, they attack each other relentlessly. It’s this way in every fight, total war starting when they come out for the 4th. The guy in red shorts comes in with a left foot
Then after a skirmish drives his knee into blue’s ribs hard
It’s brutal and three of four of these in rapid succession usually ends in this. Down, medics in, the fight’s way over