Arriving Southeast Asia
When I arrived to Bangkok for the first time in March 1987 I was 17 years old without any experience of Asia. The airport was undergoing re-construction and was crowded and a bit messy. In the arrival hall I saw a group of buddhist monks and I remember my thoughts were something like ”wow…. is this really for real now…???”
The staff of the exchange organization picked up me and my two fellow swedish exchange students, squeezed us into a small car and drove us to the arrival camp for the foreign exchange students. My first impression of Bangkok was it was a huge and crowded city with a messy traffic situation. The glittering roofs of all the temples we passed by seemed very exotic to the young and unexperienced version of myself and when we stopped to have some snacks along the way the smells and the atmosphere at the food stalls added to this feeling.
I truly enjoyed my exchange year even if it occasionally was very tough to be so young and far away with no phone, no skype, no internet, no e-mail i.e. none of the modern methods of communication that we now take for granted.
Despite the occasional hardships I had got caught by Thailand and later chose to study Thai language and southeast asian history at the university. The academic approach to the language and history boosted my interest of the region even further and when I later started to work in Bangkok, Thailand developed into my second home country.
I haven’t calculated how much time I have spent in Thailand in total but the amount of years have definately been enough to completely delete my initial ”wow feeling”. To me Thailand is nowadays just as exotic as a visit to a grocery store in Göteborg a rainy Tuesday afternoon….
Unfortunately I haven’t spent very much time in Thailand’s neighbouring countries and eventhough I know that there are great similarities between the culture in Thailand and its neighbours, I was very curious if it would be a quick or gradual transition from chinese to thai-like culture. A few weeks ago we started to discuss when we will start to see the first signs of approaching a more southeast asian landscapes and culture.
Kunming is only 250 km north of the tropic of cancer and we thought that city might be the gateway to southeast asia. The city offered us 10 degrees and rain and it felt more like being back in Göteborg rather than close to the tropics.
Southern China is home to a diversity of minorities and some of them speak languages that belong to the same family of languages as Thai. We didn’t know what to expect but we were curious to enter the area where these minorities live to see if we could see any traces of ”thai-ness”.
The initial 2-3 days of cycling together with Greta was in a complete chinese environment. Language, food, people and everything was just like elsewhere in China, but then the change came rapidly over just a few days. People we met didn’t always speak chinese anymore and, as I mentioned in a previous post, we could even get by by speaking Thai to people.
Being able to communicate freely without translation apps in the smartphone or using sign language was of course a relief and very convenient, but most of all it gave us a feeling of being close to home. Things didn’t feel as foreign to us anymore and we felt we were on our home turf. I think that if we would have cycled in the opposite direction we would have got the same kind of feeling when arriving in southern Denmark or anywhere else where Swedish could be used for communication.
The further we got towards the Laotian border, the more people we met who we could communicate easily with. This was very convenient but it wasn’t only the common language that made us feel we had arrived to the proximity of Thailand.
The last two weeks of rain and cold weather was gone and the temperatures rose and the sunshine came back. The landscape also changed and turned into something that we think resembled that of northern Thailand. The cycling was a rollercoaster up and down on steep but not very high hills. None of us know the names of thai trees and bushes, but we know what they look like and we saw many kinds of trees that we are used to see in Thailand.
Another thing that made us feel close to home was the architecture. Houses in villages we passed through had so many similarities to those in rural Thailand that we almost thought we were already there. When looking closely at some houses we could see that details such as ornaments were similar, but when looking a village from a distance it also looked like thai villages with a tight cluster of many small houses and a oranged tiled temple roof as a contrast.
Cycling up and down steep hills make us hungry and thirsty and every time we stopped at small shops to buy some snacks we found more and more products that were imported from Thailand. As long as we were in China most products were chinese, but there were some thai products too. Once in Laos it seemed that 80% av the products on sale were from Thailand and we felt like we had already arrived to Thailand. It seems like Laos import most of its consumer goods from Thailand, which isn’t very strange since they have a very similar culture and language.
Just like in Thailand shops along the road in Laos always have a TV turned on in some corner and it seems that most people prefer to look at Thai TV channels. One evening we had our dinner at a small restaurant and at 6 PM we heard the familiar tune of the Thai national anthem. We have heard that song thousands of times and it is nothing we normally pay any attention to and we didn’t this time either. I think half of the song was played until we simultanously looked at each other realising that it really was the thai national anthem, that we were in Laos and not Thailand and that we had biked all the way from Sweden to that little restaurant. It was like a wake up call that we are getting closer now….
Everytime we saw something that resembled something thai we got surprised and happy. We pointed out thai looking things to each other and sometimes stopped to take photos. I find it interesting that ordinary things in Thailand that I find as exotic as going to the grocery store in Göteborg, can be so very interesting and exotic outside Thailand. After all a thai style ornament on a roof is not such exotic after all but I think that after cycling thousands of kilometers through snowstorms, burning desserts, across tall mouintain ranges and meeting new cultures, seing a thai style roof or hear someone speak a language close to Thai makes us feel that we are soon there even if we haven’t yet crossed the border into Thailand.
My second cousin Greta is a person who is a true outdoor adventurer. The last years she has done expeditions on skiis in arctic environments and she is a very tough woman. Going on a multiday cycling tour in a hilly landscape was new to her and before she left Sweden she bought herself a brand new leather saddle that takes about 500-1000 km to break in.
When planning our ride together we knew Greta is a person who don’t give up because of some rain or aching muscles. She is absolutely fit for a tough ride in the mountains, but all of us, Greta included, suspected that even if her muscles are strong enough for this kind of endeavours, her experience from skiing in the arctic maybe hasn’t prepared her bottom for sitting long days on a brand new very hard leather saddle….. The plan was therefore to cycle not too long daily distances – it was after all her vacation and we wanted to enjoy each other’s company without pushing hard and rushing through this nice and interesting area.
Since the distance from Kunming to Luang Prabang is too long to be possible to cover within the two weeks Greta has been with us, we decided to start cycling from the city of Mojiang some 250 km south of Kunming. Wej and I planned to cycle there ahead of Greta and take a bus back to Kunming and pick her up at the airport. When we left Kunming I got some mechanical problems and had to return to get my bike serviced. This meant that there was no time for us to cycle there anymore and we decided to wait for Greta in Kunming and take the bus to Mojiang together.
We arrived late to Mojiang and when we looked out from the window the following morning the rain was pouring down. It wasn’t cold like in Kunming, but getting wet is never fun. Wej and I use ponchos for rain protection, but we have no rain pants. This is no problem since the upper parts of the legs stay dry under the poncho and the mudguards take most of the water that gets sprayed from the front tyre. This is only valid IF there is a mudguard….. When I changed tyre a week ago I had to remove my mudguard and since then my legs get soaking wet in 5 minutes after it starts to rain.
Solving problems is a part of this trip and what to do to stay decently dry? It is simple – get some plastic bags and tape them around the legs and voila – you have created a new rain pant. It doesn’t look good and it’s certainly not high-tech, but it works.
Our first day on the bike with Greta was a 60 km gradually downhill experience. We didn’t have to use much effort as we rolled between the mountains on a small countryside road. The rain stopped after some time but it was still very humid and the road was wet. We didn’t want to camp and found a very nice newly built simple hotel in a town that has a name that is so long and difficult to spell that I won’t even try to remember it.
Day two was going to be the climbing day. The first 45 km was going to be rather flat and then a climb of about 1000 vertical meters was waiting for us. 45 km is a good distance to warm up for such a climb, but there was a but……. After 20 km the condition of the road changed abruptly. It had been a nice sealed road but at a certain point the asphalt ended and the road turned into a dirt road. All the raining the last week had turned this dirt road into a ditch of soft mud and we had to zig-zag in order to avoid the largest potholes. Sometimes the mud was so deep that the surface of the mud reached well over our hubs.
The speed wasn’t higt and even if we tried to avoid it we sometimes had to put our feet down in the slushy mud water. We rode through this for almost 20 km and when we got out we were severely delayed and wouldn’t have time to climb that mountain.
There was a house right after the muddy section ended and we asked the man who lived there if we could get some water to clean ourselves and the bikes. He then pulled out a water hose and we spent half an hour to get our bikes and ourselves decently clean again.
After our session in the mud we started to talk about finding somewhere to stay. There is not much flat ground in this area and where ever there is flat land, there is always a house. At the bend of the road we found a large flat area that was used as a deposit for gravel. No work was going on and we were alone there so we decided to pitch our tent on top of the piles of gravel. Gravel is dusty and we and our equipment turned grey after staying at Camp Gravel Hill….
We took on the big climb the following morning and it went very well. It was the first 1000 meter climb for Greta and she did just great. Not so far from the top we caught up with a french cyclist who rides a recumbent and we rode together to the next city where checked into a small hotel that had signs in thai and laotian, but no staff that could speak any of those languages.
We parted with the frenchman the next morning since he had to take a bus out of the country due to his visa was about to expire. Our plan for this day was to cycle for 100 km but after 85 km we saw a path that led from the road to a little hill. We thought it could be a good place to camp and pushed our bike through out on the hill and parked the bikes beside a low concrete wall. Not until after the tents were up did I realize that this was actually a grave and there was another one 15 meters further on too. We had some fruit with us and when we left in the morning Wej did just like what she usually does when visiting a chinese grave – she put a fruit in front of it and gave it a ”wai”.
Next day we arrived in Mengla which is the last proper city before the border to Laos. Our plan was to ride past it but it looked so nice so we decided to stay and spend the evening just walking around and absorp the atmosphere. It all resembled a Thai city very much and Wej and I couldn’t stop pointing out similarities to Thailand.
It is only 50 km from Mengla to the border and we arrived to the checkpoint by noon. After having lunch and changing money we left China after 77 very interesting days. We only cycled some 50 km on the Laos side the first day and stayed the night at a small guesthouse.
The next day we found the most exotic and unusual campsite so far on this trip. When cycling in Thailand it is always OK to camp at the buddhist temples and when passing a temple in the late afternoon we decided to ask if we could camp there. Greta pointed towards the tall drumtower and said it would be a dream to camp there. Wej asked the abbot if we could camp at the temple and he said yes. When she asked where, he pointed towards the tower and Greta’s first dream got true. We then had our evening shower in the nearby river and her second dream got realized too…. 🙂
The roads in Laos had so far been good, but immediately after leaving Camp Drum Tower we got on a road that was in bad condition. First we had to do a major climb and then we had to speed down zig-zagging between the potholes and the loose gravel and we just barely made it to the small town of Pak Mong before it got dark.
That day we found no place to have lunch and when we stopped to ask where the next restaurant was we were informed that it was far away. Wej has an amazing ability to communicate with strangers and she and the housewife joked and laughed a lot and it all ended up in Wej preparing an omelette in her kitchen. Imagine stopping outside a complete strangers house and 15 minutes later being busy cooking your lunch in that strangers kitchen – it takes some charm and communication skill to get that far…. 🙂
Thailand is usually called the land of smiles. Cycling in Laos proved that Laos is the land of the even bigger smiles. We liked China and the chinese people, but they were a bit reserved. It only took us one hour of cycling in Laos to realise that the laotians seem to be much more outgoing towards bypassing strangers. There is always a big smile and everywhere the children shout ”sabaidee” (hello) and wave at us. It will be very interesting to see if it will be like this when we ride across the Thai countryside.
Arriving into Luang Prabang was like arriving into a giant tourist attraction. Hotels and guesthouses everywhere and cosy restaurants serving nice food line the streets. There are plenty of foreign tourists here and we have spent a two days relaxing, eating and getting a very needed massage for our aching muscles.
Tomorrow we will start the four day ride to Laos capital Vientienne. I will apply for visa to Thailand there and while we wait there we will sit on the shores of the Mekhong river, drinking a Beer Lao and watching Thailand on the other side.
P.S. Some of the photos in this post is taken by Greta.