Well, here we are in 'Lay-oss' (this is how Kennedy pronounced it, apparently he thought American soldiers wouldn't want to go to war in a country called "Louse", even though its pronounced with a silent S by the Lao people - another great example of in depth foreign policy research from the worlds only 'super'power). We've just arrived in Luang Prabang, a very civilised town filled with bakeries and great restaurants. We've spent the last week hanging around in the backwaters of Laos (literally, we've spent a lot of time on boats).
The biking has been great - the scenery is good, but also the people are very welcoming. It's hard to convey the sheer excitement of the children as we bike through these tiny villages where they probably don't see too many tourists. Usually our visits are preceded by cries of "falang falang" (white person) then kids come tearing out of houses and run onto the road, calling out sabaidee, SABAIDEE, SABAIDEEEEEEE!!!!! waving and grinning like mad. It's very cute and entertaining.
We started off down the Mekong. The first town we hit was a pretty intense intro to Laos, with locals careening down the hill towards the boat so they could run on board, grab your bags then get a fee for the 'service' of carrying them up the hill. With the bikes to deal with, this left me (D) last but not least off the boat and surrounded by about 20 highly insistent beggars while Claud raced off to beat the other travelers to the best hotel rooms.
Glad to leave this town, we headed off north through a surprising amount of tiny and really basic villages. There are only 6.5 million Lao but the towns are not that big (something like 200,000 in the capital) so there seem to be people spread out over most of the countryside we pass. The villages are as simple and as poor as can be - bamboo shacks on stilts over dirt, no power, with the basics of finding food seeming to be the main pastime. The bigger villages, a couple of which we stayed in, have generators giving power from 6 - 10pm.
After leaving another real dump of a town (apparently a 'dirty weekend' spot for the Chinese, which the condom under our hotel bed would attest to) we carried on north to a river valley - the Nam Ou. This was far more spectacular than the Mekong, with vertical karst peaks towering over the river and a bit of native bush, most of which has been burnt off elsewhere in the country by the locals 'slash and burn' farming techniques. We stayed a couple of nights in a village only accessible by boat and spent a day fishing with 3 Lao guys in their boat. Very cruisy, particularly after a big lunch cooked over a fire washed down with a few shots of Lao Lao which is the local fire water.
A bit over travelling with our bikes, which are a hassle when not using them, we decided to forgo the last day of the boat trip and bike to Luang Prabang. This resulted in our longest day yet at 147km but it was a nice ride (despite the drivers - there may be only a few cars but each one is travelling at light speed on the wrong side of the road, seemingly highly surprised that someone else might be coming the other way). The Hmong villages along the way were celebrating their new year which apparently is a time for match-making games where highly costumed men and women line up opposite each other and throw balls to those they like.
This town is a massive contrast to what we have seen so far, going from the extremes of poverty to french cuisine and artisan silversmiths. Nice to go to a bakery for breakfast today rather than sitting down to another bowl of fue (pronounced fur), or noodle soup, with dodgy mystery meat.
Next its south to Vientiane ("The Capital City" as the road markers call it) over a foreboding set of mountains that a few have suggested should be tackled by bus - we say 'stick your bus, we're hardcore'.
Ciao from Laos