The border crossing is fairly smooth , but slow. We are being asked for a carnet but when we have none it seems to be no problem either. The visas are issued on arrival, and the hard part is to organize money. We still have yuan and also some " hard currency " but in terms of local currency it looks to be difficult. Right on the border there are a few restaurants so we walk from one to another until everyone is in possession of sufficient Kip to make it to the next working ATM. The exchange rate is completely bananas - 10000 Kip is one Euro .
Anders and Petra leave immediately after completion of the formalities on the rest of the group wants to spend a few days together , relax a little and share pictures . We are all worn
out after about 3 months of chasing visa and entry dates and itineraries. A lot of the journey up to now has been a rush and we urgently need a few
days rest. After we have checked the maps we decide in a democratic manner to do this in Luang Nam Tha - the first larger town in the north of the country. Martina gets the tow rope out again and
pulls James’s bike to get there. James and Anna are planning to find a transport for their bike after a few days break to have it repaired in Thailand.
Laos is a bit of a culture shock after 33 days China. This country is not being called P(lease)D(on't)R(ush) republic for nothing. The rainy season is just over, the "winter" has not quite started and it is unusual hot and oppressive for us so that are already breaking a sweat from thinking - not that we would do it too much of that at the moment! Even the locals are extremely sluggish from noon until about 4 o’clock. Which raises the question whether this is because of the heat or because of marijuana and opium. Both are grown here and pretty much every tourist gets appropriate offers daily. In Luang Nam Tha I see an organization that tries to teach the farmers alternatives to the cultivation of drugs and the country has huge problems right down into the schools with opium addiction and also other drugs are being consumed in increasing degrees. Consumption and trade of opium have a long tradition here and after Afghanistan and Myanmar, Laos is the 3 largest opium -exporting nation - only since 1996, trade and cultivation are actually prosecuted and punished . The staff of our Guest House falls regularly into a rigor mortis from noon onwards and not in stores or anywhere else you need to try at this time to buy something. If one is perceived at all you get only a : "No have" in response to each question and if you want to re-order something at a restaurant after dinner - a tasty Beer Lao for example - then you must make really sure that one of the waiters looks you in the eyes while you talk to him , otherwise he simply floats away and you wait until the never-never . The only people who are really constantly enterprising are three old ladies who sell bracelets, bags and caps - but they make up for the busyness sense of a whole country. At least 4 times a day ( but usually more often) they come past and try to bring their goods to the man and the woman . They are really good and enduring and after they got five rejections which they never take it too seriously they usually are lucky at 6th time - you think to yourself:” ok then I'll buy one or two wristbands and then they leave me alone” - this is, however, a false assumption because they just come anew each day and the argument that you have already purchased something from them just does not count – one certainly must have a friend or a Bibi back home who you have to buy something for! But they are always friendly and so you cannot help but love them and so we make our jokes with them and give them sometimes even a glass of beer which actually makes them leave you alone for an hour.
We spend a week in Luang Nam Tha , wash our clothes, sleeping bags and bikes and I try to finally get on with our blog and website to bring it up to date . Unfortunately I've had no time for more than diary reports since Mongolia and as for the pictures - they are ordered according to cities and countries, but I need to sort the good and bad ones now and then resize all the pictures which I want to post and then upload them one by one on the website because of the slow internet. It is a time consuming affair and so - despite the many hours I spend on the computer this week- I only manage to post the blogs and images up to Mongolia . The China Blog gives me quite some trouble – there’s just so much to tell and then we have bought a new camera in China, so I have to edit tons of images and also the lethargy of the Laotians has somehow rubbed off on the Chaosteam
After a week of rest only Johan and we are left from China squad. The others are on the go on different routes now. We want to ride to Luang Prabang next so we finally get our heads together and get on our way. While there are not too many paved roads in this country they are still much better than we expected. Here in the North Laos is quite mountainous and the road goes up and down through the jungle and it smells so good. We have never found out what it is that spreads this wonderful fragrance, but we have since then also not yet found another jungle smelling so good.
We ride to Oudomxai up and down through mountain roads. It is a shame but you can see that large parts of the jungle have been cut down everywhere. The road is in stages in a pretty sorry state and over large parts we are wrapped in red dust clouds where there is only a dirt surface. The dust is very fine and of a consistency like talcum powder. It gets in everywhere - even with closed visor there is no escape from it. The small villages along the way are quite poor and confirm the great poverty of this country which still has to struggle with the aftermath of Vietnam- and the second Indochina war. Although Laos was politically neutral it was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War (according to wikipedia with 2.5 tons of bombs per inhabitant - I think that’s what you call overkill ! ) still explosive devices are found everywhere and cost lives. Although tourism in the country is increasing more and more it focuses primarily on a few cities , and there are still areas where the resistance fights against the communist government, so you cannot and should not go there. Education and trade are still in need to be modernized and agriculture mainly focuses on the provinces along the Mekong River . This is a rather sleepy and also partly forgotten country . Oudomxai is not really nice. We are looking for a place to stay for the night and wander through the nightly town without actually finding something that we want to look at closer.
Nearby there is a nature reserve with waterfalls which we want to explore the next day but when we get there we are faced with a locked gate and can’t find someone who is responsible for tourists wanting to visit here and so we just keep riding . Our next destination is the old royal city of Luang Prabang. The city of a thousand temples (we did not count them but there's really one on each corner) . In the backpacker district we search for a Guest House - the owner and her rather large family lives in shags in the yard while they rent out all the rooms of the house to tourists during the season except for a small office. In Luang Nam Tha we met a Frenchman who runs a small business in this city renting motorcycles and offering guided off road tours. Olivier had invited us for a coffee and promised to help, if we need it, but he is currently out guiding a motorcycle group so we just ask a member of staff if he could recommend us a workshop in which Johan can possibly buy a new chain and sprockets and so the young man brings us to a helpful Suzuki dealer. Although that one does not have the parts he promises to try to get them. Olivier is expected back in the coming days and so we decide to visit him another time and take Luang Prabang on the horns instead. Meanwhile, the night market is open. It consists mainly of stalls for the many tourists – selling silk scarves, handbags, jewelry and what else may covet the tourists heart and foreigners from all corners of the world are pushing through the narrow gaps between the stalls. We find various buffets where there is a 1,- € (ie 10 000 kip ) eat as much as you like offer - this counts only for the vegetarian stuff - for meat and sausage then you have to have to pay extra . Of course tourist prices prevail on the market, but you can find good deals, and often if you dare haggling you end up with half the original asking price or even less - I 'm not very good at this game but I try. Every time I think that I have made a bargain I realize by how enthusiastic I am being thanked for the purchase that I probably still paid too much anyway .
In Laos is a curfew in place from 12 at night, but usually most of the shops , bars and pubs are closed before - the locals go to bed with the chickens and get up with them so do we after a while as there is not much else we can do. We visit Olivier again the next day. He is there, but behaves rather distant and when Johan asks his employee if he has heard from the Susuki dealer in terms of his spare parts and prices Olivier reacts quite strange and tells us that he does not want his employee to be acting as a middle man for us!? We do not understand what this is supposed to imply and decide we do not impose further here . We find the dealer by ourselves again and it turns out that he could get the parts only in part, but there will be no matching front sprocket for Johans Suzi in Laos - the only suggestion would be to weld the original part in a slightly larger sprocket - this idea does not appeal to Johan however and so he decides to continue to travel and to try to find something suitable in Thailand.
The end of Buddhist Lent is coming up and it is pure coincidence that we are here just now – it seems as if we have chosen the right time for our visit to the city. All the preparations are in full swing everywhere . In the courtyard of our Guest House is a great hustle and bustle , the women cook delicious meals and let us even try the things destined for the monks as part of the festival when they go up to the monasteries to feed the monks and get a blessing in return for that. Another part of the festival seems to be that small boats are being built a lot of which are going to be lowered into the water covered in candles at the closing stage of the Festival of Lights. But before that, there is a 2 -day rowing competition on the Mekong which is closely followed by both tourists and locals. We definitely want to stay until the Festival of Lights takes place and so we have a few days to see the sights of the city and surrounding areas. We visit some of the many temples and the Royal Palace where the most impressive part is the entrance hall, which the last ruler had redesigned when he took office. It’s walls are covered with a colorful glass mosaic depicting the history of the ruling family - otherwise the kings of this country seem to have been quite modest and the palace is furnished in a simple fashion and I ask myself several times why so strict measures are taken to ensure that neither photos are taken nor any bags may be taken into the building - I do not see much that is worth stealing and everywhere stand watchdogs anyway that ensure that the few art objects that are kept locked in glass cabinets stay there. 1975 the communist Pathet Lao units conquered the city and this was followed by the abdication of the last king - it is likely that many of the good and potentially valuable objects were destroyed on this occasion.
We also visit the Kuang Si Waterfall - which is really nice and I surprise myself with the fact that I manage to climb to the very top which is not really easy because unnecessary expenditure on protection measures have been spared and instead of building costly fences and steps one counts on a well-developed self-preservation instinct of humanity (forget claiming for damages if you injure yourself -any injuries are due to overestimation of ones abilities and therefore self inflicted). After we worked ourselves in sweat nicely climbing up and down we reward ourselves with a swim in the crystal clear pools that are below the individual stages of the waterfall and I am amazed that not only tourists, but also locals swim here - the young people take it not quite so accurate with the usually fairly strict clothing rules.
The culmination of our time in Luang Prabang is the Festival of Lights or Bun Awk Phansa . It takes place in October at the full moon . Throughout the city artful floats made of flowers,
candles and incense sticks are sold. Early in the morning the locals have flogged to the monasteries and have distributed the previously prepared
food to the monks and received blessings for it. Different teams from the surrounding areas have built and decorated boats which have been carried across the town in a procession to the main
temple of Wat Xieng Thong, where they are now rated for beauty and originality. We've been waiting quite excitedly for it to finally go dark and to see what 's happening now so we walk finally in
the direction of the temple where the boats are lined up. On the way I treat myself to one of the very small flower arrangements –after all I light a candle in every Catholic church, even though
I 'm a Protestant. It cannot hurt to send a candle down the Mekong with the Laotians. We are still a little too early and so we watch sunset at a shore Cafe on the Mekong - a wonderful experience
in itself. Then it is finally dark and we join the stream of people who walk to a staircase that leads down to the river from the temple and with all the others I send my floral arrangement with
lighted candle down the river. Then we go up to the temple to look at the boats. Here is an exuberant celebration on the go. Everywhere we hear traditional music, the boats shine with hundreds of
lighted candles . It smells of incense and we are swept along by this overdose of stimuli for all the senses . Over all, the full moon shines in the sky and so do hundreds of paper balloons. The
absolute high point is reached when the huge illuminated boats are carried to the river and lowered into the water .
We knew nothing of this festival and it is therefore a happy coincidence that we here are just now, but we are really happy to be able to experience this spectacle .
The next day we set off in the direction of Vientiane. We want to make a stop over by a big lake the other side of Vang Vieng . We pass through small mountain villages with palm huts . The people here are obviously very poor - we stick out with our big bikes and apart from us hardly any foreigners are traveling here - only when we come in the near of Vang Vieng we can see tuktuks with tourists again. It draws us further – we don’t really want to join the tourists and the men are looking forward to go fishing. 25 kilometers and then we should be able to find a place for camping or a Guest House.
In the next town we turn and suddenly get serious scratching and grinding noises from the rear of our good old rubber cow .
Blast it – please not the here and now! Around the corner is a car repair shop - maybe we can change the bearings here. Everyone is quite helpful and luckily we bought 2 replacement bearings in Mongolia so there should be no problem here. What is the snag though is that suddenly everyone wants to help and everything is disassembled in the blink of an eye and put back together again and suddenly nothing fits anymore . Oh great - Johan and Kevin take matters into their own hands now , shoo away the nice helpers and take everything apart again then reassemble it all with logic and the trial and error method. On one side we have a broken washer and a flat wheel bearing which consists only of bent teeth , and for which we have no substitute. Now the guys here want to also call it a day and close the workshop . We put together what we can and although we still have too much play in the axle we leave. At least the whole thing sounds pretty normal again now . It's dark and at every pothole we hit I'm afraid that something will give but after a while we find a really nice guesthouse with clean rooms, a huge yard where we can take everything apart and at reassemble all over again tomorrow and it is even with wifi and for only 5 € per night. Well – we do deserve a little bit of luck as well now. We find nothing to eat here but they sell BeerLao - we decide drink us happy and because we only had a noodle soup all day this turns out cheap too!
In the morning the two men disassemble the work of the previous evening again at leisure, clean all parts and put everything together again properly and in the correct order and most of all in peace – and it fits . Before we leave Johan now just wants to look after his chain again and here comes the next shock - the front sprocket is completely shot one tooth is already broken the others look as if they will suffer the same fate very soon. After some contemplation, we decide to remove the chain and then to tow Johan to Vientiane with the outfit- in the capital it should be possible to find a workshop somewhere !
Towing works unexpectedly well and we quite quickly cover the 80 km to the capital . We want to meet up with Micha here - another fellow of the China Tour and he has emailed me the coordinates for his Guest House which we now enter into Johans GPS and go straight towards the city center. Then Johan calls from behind that we should stop when we see a larger motorbike shop which we soon do. There they give us the address of a shop that also deals in large motorbikes (everything above 250cc ). This workshop is also found quickly and although they do not have the parts here, they can help Johan . They are the people that previously suggested to weld the original broken sprocket to a larger new one and then put it back together with a new chain for the rear they have a matching sprocket. We can leave Johan’s motorcycle there and are now riding all three of us with Johan's luggage on the outfit to the guest house - but only after our Liza has been duly admired by everybody and the obligatory pictures are taken.
Vientiane is the most rural capital we have ever seen in life - even here stands the curfew from 12 clock at night and everything here closes around 11 pm. On the side streets children play badminton. There is not terribly much to see, but we enjoy the relaxed atmosphere here and also we need a few attempts to all get a visa for Thailand - our visa is not a problem and issued the first time around but Johan has a few big problems. He has lost his motorcycle jacket with all his papers In China and got a temporary passport there with only 3 pages and China and Laos visa have already taken a full page each. Now he only has an old passport with one blank page and that's the last page which is not really intended for use - the nice man at the consulate declines to stick the new visa on top of an old one and will not stick on the last page either also the Thai Visa must be in the same passport where the Laos visa is. He will however make use of the last page if he has a written authorization from Johan’s embassy - this Johan must „organize" now ...... we are creative and think of a solution on how to get this authorization – well let’s just say: it all works out and we now all have a Thailand visa. Our Liza needs some repairs to the sidecar brakes. So the guys visit the workshop one more time - the caliper holder on the sidecar is bent and as we can find no matching brake pads here anyway they take out the brake altogether and we just drive without for a while again.
We visit the largest temple and the Buddha Park and otherwise just wander around the city admiring the French Colonial architecture .
All in all, we use our time in Laos mainly to recharge our batteries after a rather stressful first part of our great journey and to digest an incredible number of impressions collected over the last 3 and a half months and set us to a more leisurely pace for Southeast Asia - it worked perfectly .