Laos - February 2016

I had been to Laos once before, but only for a visa-run while my sister was visiting me in Hanoi.  Some key things about my situation and mindset as I crossed from Cambodia into Laos: I had not used internet for 11 months; I had not used a phone or contacted anyone (including my family or my girlfriend in Saigon) for over a month - I was truly alone and loving it.

A guy on the side of the road selling freshly dead rats 'n squirrels

Laos Food
I was pretty critical of Cambodian food because I was accustomed to wonderful feeds in Vietnam for about $1 / meal.  Laos was better than Cambodia, but also much more expensive.  The main difference between Laos food and other southeast Asian countries is that in Laos the staple is not regular rice, but sticky rice eaten with your hands - this may seem trivial, but I found it to be quite a big cultural difference.

Seamed sticky rice is always served in these baskets, usually with some spicy mince meat, but at around $3 for a feed it is no bargain

I'm not trying to compare everything to my beloved Vietnam, but at twice the price and half as delicious Laos "phở" didn't do it for me

Sticky rice and soy sauce is like the nectar of the Gods after a full day cycling dirt roads

Curry with rice noodles was cheap and delicious

Food got better (but not cheaper) upon reaching the capital

I have no idea what these raw edible roots are, but they were my go to all month

Laos Roads
I thought the dirt roads were behind me when I left Cambodia, but I was very wrong.  I could've taken the paved highway north along the Mekong river, but that wouldn't be much fun...

Cycling with Sven
Sven is a guy from Germany who has spent more than 10 years cycling, mostly in Africa.  We met on the road in a mountainous region and cycled and camped together for 4 or 5 days.  He was an interesting, reclusive character and obviously someone who loathed social norms and common ways of thinking or looking at the world.  Once, while crossing a bridge, we decided to go down to the river and swim to cool down.  When we got down to the river, I used my sarong to change shorts and Sven just got completely naked and made his way into the water.  Later, when he came out of the water, he was standing on the river bank stark naked and some children crossing the bridge were staring at him.  He looked at them as though he pitied their brainwashing - he was 100% sure that a naked human was no different than any other naked creature and anyone who didn't see it that way had some psychological issues.

The bike of a couple who cycled from England

Being invited to - and getting drunk at - an afternoon party is very normal in Laos.  This is a homemade liquor made from honey 

Humanized condoms mingle with the Laotians

Sleeping - Pondoks Galore
One really great thing in Laos is that there are empty Pondoks (huts built on stilts) everywhere.  I have a lot to say about sleeping alone with no people nearby or access to phone/internet and the effects this has on one's mentality - or rather the mental fortitude one needs to build up in order to be able to enjoy traveling in this fashion.  However, I will keep this for another post because I could easily write 10k words about this and the various branches that this tree has. 


Cambodia - January 2016

Cambodian Thirst
-Adapted from diary, Jan. 2016-

After such a long time in Vietnam, leaving ain’t easy.  The first 10 days in Cambodia have been wonderful – smoky villages, dirt tracks along the Mekong, starry nights under my mosquito net – but my mind refuses to adapt to the loneliness. I can’t stop thinking of the life I’ve just left in Saigon: playing xiangqi with old men at cafés, afternoons swimming, the shaded library courtyards, and evenings alternating between the pool halls and the embrace of the sweetest girl in Saigon.  Add to this a nightly indulgence of street food, cold beer, laughter, and love, and I found myself knee-deep in a world that I could happily spend the rest of my life in.

So I left.  Uprooting myself seems to be my instinctive reaction to good soil.  Are you getting too comfortable?  What if your girlfriend gets pregnant?  You’ve been in Asia for nearly 6 years, don’t you want to get back on the road and see what else is out there?  These were the questions I was struggling with; I had to go.  The consequence: my brain is held hostage by pleasant – and thus painful – reveries of the life left behind.  I know that solitude can be beautiful and rewarding, but it takes patience and adjustment and time.  After years of city life and companionship I need to relearn how to be alone – think alone, sleep alone, and extract enjoyment from the world alone.  This process is slow and frustrating because my subconscious will not let go of Saigon. 

I have developed some techniques to counter these vexing daydreams and return my thoughts to the ever-elusive present moment.  Whenever I notice my mind wandering (which is often), I calmly bring it back by taking several slow, deep breaths.  I focus all my attention on the smells, the humidity, and the subtle sensations as the warm air is sucked up through my nose holes and down into my lungs.  I think: There doesn’t exist, I’m here.  I’m now.  Here and now are tangible…  It was one of these inhalations that brought with it a very pleasant surprise about a week ago.

Cycling east into a light headwind, I had just passed through a small town (Keo Sama), ate a pomelo, and began pedaling up a hill.  It was around noon, scorching hot, and I was looking down at my handlebars.   I became aware that I was thinking about Saigon. Deep breath – Boom!  Suddenly, my medial temporal lobe was flooded with vivid recollections of South Sumatra. I looked up.  There was dense jungle on both sides of the road! Looking back down the hill, I could see traces of the town and I assumed that I had entered some sort of wildlife sanctuary.  I consulted my map – painfully low quality – and it seemed to suggest that the next 40-50k would take me from near sea level up to around 1000m.  It had been years since I’d seen virgin jungle like this and I was excited.  I slowly climbed on, stopping frequently to take pictures and absorb all of the sounds and smells: the caws and chirps of unseen birds, the canopy rustling with monkeys, and the musky, floral aromas of plants and trees flagrantly having sex.  My camera, monocular, and magnifying glass saw more action that afternoon than in the previous 10 days combined.  There were no signs of human beings aside from the tarmac road, some power lines, and a vehicle passing by every 15 minutes or so.

At the bottom of a hill, I saw a path into the jungle and followed it, leaving my bike up on the road.  It led to a lake teeming with life: algae, dragonflies, tadpoles, green pigeons, wasps, water spiders and bees that had metallic blue where their yellows should’ve been.  I fought off a strong urge to jump in and swim because I didn’t want to leave my bike alone for too long.  I got back up to the road, saddled up, and noticed I had a flat tire.  While I was patching the tube a motorist stopped to see if I was okay.  It was a friendly man in an old sun burnt Toyota with no windshield or license plates and the steering wheel on the wrong side.  I nodded that I was fine and waved him on with a smile.  Then I realized that I was quite low on water and I should’ve asked him for some.  I’ll ask the next one, I thought.

But there was no next one.  A very painful hour later, climbing at steep grades in belligerently hot sun, I was really suffering – completely out of water and thirsty.   As I climbed, I watched hot sweat sluicing off of my face, wrists, and knees.  I figured that I was losing about a liter every 7-8 minutes body-wide.  Going two or three days without food is no problem and only slightly uncomfortable after the first day, but to cycle uphill in intense heat without water quickly becomes critical.  I began getting cramps and light-headed and was having difficulty keeping my balance on the slow ascent.  I got to the top of the next hill and decided that I couldn’t go any farther.  I sat in the middle of the road waiting for a passing vehicle.  A couple minutes later a man and wife came up the hill on an old motorbike (you can usually tell a woman’s relation to a man by how she sits on a motorbike), I flagged them down and gesticulated ‘drinking water’.  They didn’t have any so I kept waiting.  Blue-faced monkeys were crossing the road high up in the tree tops and I watched a baby clung tightly to its mother as she glided through the boughs like a shadow – amazing.  The monkeys were talking but I couldn’t understand what they were saying.  I began fantasizing about what it would be like to drink water.  A few minutes later I heard the drone of an engine climbing up the hill in first gear.  It was an el dorado-looking thing with a man and his child in the front and several indigenous people in the cargo bed – presumably some sort of free-lance jungle bus.  As they passed I did my drinking gestures and they pulled over.  The boy came out of the front with two ice-cold 1 liter bottles.  As he ran towards me I felt a deep sense of relief.  The divine properties of water can only be truly appreciated through extreme thirst.  Pouring the liquid down my parched throat was bliss.  Ahhhhhh… I looked up and saw all the people in the bed of the truck staring at me, about a dozen ranging from infant to elderly.  They had dark, hard faces with pronounced jaw-lines and wore tattered, faded clothes.  They must belong to one of the ethnic minorities that have lived in these mountains along the Cam-Viet border since the Angkor Wat days.  I gave them a wave and a big smile and their faces made no reply.  They just kept staring at me with blank, fearful expressions like an ancient people watching a solar eclipse.

The following afternoon, 24 hours after that first deep breath in the jungle, I arrived in a town (Mondol Kiri). I was hungry and tired after a semi-sleepless night alone in the jungle doing battle with red ants (I didn’t win).  I saw a food stall and ate 2 plates of rice.  Cambodians have an unfortunate custom of leaving meat on a grill for hours until it takes on the texture of rhino hide.  Bone and flesh become indistinguishable.  I believe that the energy and horsepower that my jaw would require to chew through such meat would burn more calories than the meat provides, so I take my rice with a sprinkle of fish sauce and a fried egg.  Later, I found a Vietnamese café and settled into one of the hammocks.  I spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with the owner, who told me all kinds of interesting things about the jungle I had just come through.  She said that there were still wild elephants living deep in the forest.  I asked if poaching was an issue and she said yes, but not really because the elephant population was now quite small and it was so difficult to find them.  I lay there with my coffee thinking about those elephants: barely hanging on to existence in a world swarming with depraved, money-hungry primates.  The elephants’ only protection is the impenetrability of the jungle and their days are probably numbered.  I was reminded of the indigenous people in the back of the truck.  In a way, I thought, those people and the elephants probably have a lot in common.

The ants are plotting their invasion

4 days later I was nearing the Cam-Laos border.  I still had some time on my Cambodian visa, so I decided to take a detour and get off the main road.  My map told me that there was a road between Ban Lung and Siem Pang, a 60k stretch through forest.  Some locals and other travelers had warned me that there were still “unexploded ordnances” in the region (a cute euphemism for bombs and land mines).  The UXOs are American-made leftovers from the Vietnam War and they often kill grazing buffaloes and sometimes farmers or their children.  I was told that there was no danger as long as I stuck to the roads and didn’t go too far off the beaten path.  I set out from Ban Lung and spent the morning on a nice, packed dirt road the color of tamarind.  I crossed the Tonle San River on a small motor ferry.  After crossing, there was a village where I ate rice and filled my water bottles (3 liters) with murky river water, which is boiled by the villagers.  I met a man who spoke some Vietnamese and he said I shouldn’t try to make it to Siem Pang on my bike.  He said I should turn back to Ban Lung and circle around on the main road.

“Đường không tốt,” he said, “The road’s no good.”

“How far is it?”

“Oh, about 35 kilometers.”

“Any villages along the way?” I asked.

“Yeah, but not for a while.”

Well, I had already come 25k that day and paid 50 cents to cross the river. Another 35k isn’t that far and I wasn’t going to turn back because of some rough road.  Most of the highlights of my travels have been on rough road.  On I went.

About 4 kilometers later the road turned into a sandy path.  The sand was deep and my road bike had to be pushed like a plough through the hot, dry forest.  This forest was very different from the wet jungle to the south.  Here the trees were sporadic and angry – dotted with beehives and giant mounds of termite nest.  There were vines as thick as telephone poles wrapped around and uprooting most of the older trees like some hundred-year-long wrestling match.   When there were people, they were on big-wheeled oxcarts pulled by outboard ‘lawnmower’ engines (a familiar sight in rural Cambodia), but as I got deeper into the forest a person passing by was extremely rare.

As I was trudging my heavy bicycle through the sand, covered in sweat and filth, I began to feel the familiar groan in my belly which inevitably signals diarreas explosivas.  Diarrhea is something I have extensive experience with and, luckily, it usually does not involve cramps or pain.  Such was the case on this blistering afternoon.  I often stopped to squat and – because there was no stream or river – I had to use some of my water supply to clean myself.  I knew that diarrhea leads to dehydration problems and last week’s water shortage was still fresh in my mind.  But again I quickly ran out of water and found myself pushed to the absolute limits of thirst.  There were no people around to help and I was probably averaging only 2 or 3 kilometers per hour in the sand, like a slow walk.  The sun was at its zenith.  There were horseflies adamantly buzzing around my ears.  Worst of all, the sand track I was on would often fork or intersect with other sand tracks, so I was relying on my compass and shitty map.  The thought ‘what if I die?’ passed through my head – but not in a fearful way, more like a dopey observation.  I considered leaving my bike and trying to hike back to the village, but finding my way back would not be easy.  I began to get delirious and, at one point, screamed out at the top of my lungs to an apathetic forest.  I was slowly stumbling along, barely able to think, when I saw a dog ahead on the path.  As I got closer, I noticed that the dog had recently had puppies and her udders were dangling, full of milk.  I dropped my bike and began chasing the dog.  All I could think about was sucking some of the life-saving milk from those saggy black paps.  Then, a more rational thought struck me: if there is a dog, then there are probably people!  Sure enough, the dog led me straight to a small bamboo hamlet of 5 or 6 families.  They gave me water and some cassava to eat.  We couldn’t really communicate but they were very friendly and that night I slept under some banana trees near their thatched huts.  Turns out I did get lost, and I’d have to backtrack a few hundred meters to get back to the main path.  The next day, revived and energetic, getting to Siem Pang was no problem. 

And now I am here at the Laos border and I realize something truly amazing: I haven’t thought about Saigon at all since I entered that jungle nearly a week ago!  I feel as though I’ve been cured of a disease.  Like a weight has been lifted.  It’s exhilarating!  All that was needed was a little adversity, some struggle.  Saigon is now officially part of my past, inventoried in my mind’s storage along with all the other wonderful ‘worlds’ I’ve temporarily been a part of.  Not forgotten but at peace.  Because the road that now separates me from Saigon is long; and along that road there are jungles with hermetic elephants, and memories of myself trying to suck milk from a dog.