The road in the mountains –Pak Xeng to Sam Soun
As I write this, I am sitting by a river near a village that could be Vrindavana, the holy land of Krishna, God and cowherd boy from India. I can imagine that Krishna and the Gopis are just around the corner in the next cluster of trees.
There are tan gold cows and young girls with baskets of wood held by a strap on their head, skirts pulled up to the knees to cross the river. The men are healthy, muscular legs all the way up to their swimming underwear, as they wander up and down the river, fishing.
Erik and I are camped by the river after our 2 days up in the mountains between Pak Xeng and SanSoum….the land of the Khamu tribes that are converting to being Lao.They have electricity for the most part. There is a village hand pump for bathing and drinking. They still forage for wood for heat and cooking, carrying large loads on foot back to the village. Water buffalo, pot bellied pigs and chickens dot the villages. Some villagers even have a scooter—the ultimate family and business vehicle. We see them going up and down the road, although ‘road’ is too strong of a word. Widened goat path would be much more accurate in some places. The road is wide enough for an SUV to pass, but it’s washed out at every corner, and rocks jut up in most places.
We knew it was going to be tough, and it was tough. No surprises. The only food to be purchased along the way were tiny packages of cookies or puffed savory snacks. When we needed to get drinking water, sometimes we had to buy it in those little water bottle sizes. When we did find springs by the side of the road, with a plastic or bamboo pipe sticking from it, we always stopped, pulled out the filter and filled up our jugs. I am carrying nearly 1.5 gallons and Erik was carrying another 1/2 gallon. We never know when we are going to find water again and are being overly cautious. It’s been great for camping. We have as much water as we need for cooking and drinking. And sometimes even a sponge bath.
A day earlier, we were slow to rise from our campsite in a slash and burn hillside, a jungle being converted to pasture. When we finally got out of the tent, a woman was pulling a lead attached to a water buffalo up the path, her husband on a scooter behind the water buffalo, encouraging it to continue moving forward. The group stopped feet from our tent, and the water buffalo was duly tied to a burnt stump of a tree.
Erik just finished making coffee and handed me my cup. The couple smiled and stared. They didn’t move. The man was wearing blue Hawaiian shorts and a peeling faux leather jacket, a machete in a wooden case tied to his waist. The woman was wearing the traditional sarong, the back side of it worn thin from sitting on the earth. The looked to be about our age. They could not stop staring, so I gestured them to join us, and asked if they wanted coffee. Luckily they agreed, and I was able to offer a bowl of coffee/cocoa that the man took. The woman took a proffered banana, and soon we were smiling and all wishing we could speak a common tongue.
The couple REALLY liked our stove. They have to cook on an open wood fire, so they thought it was pretty nifty that we could cook with gasoline on our MSR camp stove.
The woman went over to our tent, looked through the screen, tried the zippers of the door, back and forth. I feel like an astronaut newly landed in Laos, and the locals were checking out our space ship.
I can never fully relax in these situations, so we skipped breakfast, we didn’t put on our cycling clothing, and we started folding up the tent. The man wandered away, but the woman started to help. She wiped our tent fly from dirt and tried unsuccessfully to get some of the water off it. She folded it and brought it over.
After all our panniers were packed, she lifted each one. I could see her estimating the weight of each, and then the total weight. Her eyebrows raised up as she realized how much we are slogging up and down these mountains. I am sure that she would have had a thing or two to say to us about packing more lightly if only we spoke the same language.
We are embarrassingly rich compared to any of these people in the villages. I try to hide our extravagent gear, although I doubt they would even know exactly what they were looking at.
The couple, and now two friends that joined them, bid us adieu, standing next to the water buffalo, waiting for….something. What? Erik and I set off, creaking down the road.
The views leave me energized, the air is fresh like I haven’t smelled in the last 2.5 months in Thailand or Luang Prabang. It is GREEN everywhere, the mountains are steep, the world is alive, the sky is blue. THIS is the Laos I was looking for. Now if only I could speak Lao….Then I could stop at these villages and exclaim over the beautiful weavings the women do outside the front door, or we could ask to sleep in a village with the locals and hear about their lives. Damn the language barrier. It’s a serious thing that I mostly don’t know how to get around.
On our last day of this particular ridiculous mountain road, the last 20 kilometers, the sun was hot, our muscles were just not the same as they had been. Everything was a bit slower, a bit harder. A white pickup truck passed us as we were pushing uphill, and I thought to myself,’ wow, that is the first vehicle I have seen in 3 days that is not overloaded with either bags of sticky rice headed for market or packed with people, or both.’ The truck slows and stops. A middle aged Lao man hops out and asks where we are headed, and offers us a ride to the end of the road, where it meets up with a more major road. I agree immediately, though Erik is a bit hesitant as this is our last chance to be up in these incredible mountains.
The ride over the last 20 km is in an airconditioned immaculate new Toyota pickup with soft music playing, and a slow conversation with the Lao man, his pregnant wife silent in the passenger seat. The scent of Erik and I’s unbathed bodies fill the cab.
The roads are horrendous, and I can’t even believe that he would take this nice truck down this goat track. But it turns out that he lives at the village we spent the night outside of the previous evening.
What I could piece together from his broken english was that he was born in the forest with his family and when he was a child, the family moved to a village. No electricity. When he was 15, his family sent him to the great city of Luang Prabang to become a monk. That was his first chance to get a real education, which he took good advantage of, because now he is a doctor at a small clinic in the mountains here.
Our ride ended quickly enough, and we were deposited outside the local gas station. The station consisted of shack with 3 drums of fuel with a hose to fill passing vehicles. Half of the shack was the ‘convienence store’ where one could buy cream wafers, coffee in a can, cigarettes, or little packets of liquid soap. No refrigerator, and you couldn’t even really walk inside the ‘store’, as it was just dusty cardboard boxes with the goods spilling out.
Lunch consisted of: one tetrapack of soymilk with a sippy straw, a rice cake, a tiny packet of puffs, and a muffin sized for a toddler. Tasty, yet, dainty.
Across the street, a local market was happening, the first I’d seen since Luang Prabang, with a grand total of 3 vendors. One woman sold bok choy, another sold bok choy and cilantro, and the third sold bokchoy, napa cabbage and a few pomelos. We bought bok choy, cilantro and a pomelo! And ate all of it for dinner. Yummy vegetables with pasta.
And that brings me back to the moment, where Erik is lying down next to me. The sound of night insects and the river will lull me to a deep sleep, and I will wake with pep and vim, ready for the 70 km over mountain passes to a town with a guesthouse where we can wash some heinously dirty clothing, charge our devices, and hope against all hope, find some internet.