Post #5 from SE Asia, pedaling across Laos

Hello from Vang Vieng, Laos
12510

arriving in Vientianne, Laos

I have currently pedaled 1/4 the way across Laos. I crossed The Mekong River on the Friendship Bridge near Laos’ capitol. Now this is an interesting crossing, because in Thailand you drive on the left side of the road, but in Laos, it is the right side. So just how do you switch? (clue, it is NOT gradually). Well, when you cross, there is an X crossing. It is helter-skelter as you cross the X from the left side as vehicles going the opposite way cross the X intersection cross in the opposite direction. When you do this, do be careful. I have found that it takes a lot to unadjust yourself and drive (or pedal) on the left side. One false ‘flashback’ and you could be road kill.

Well, anyway, here I am in the Communist People’s Republic of Laos. The last communist country I have visited was Cuba. I bicycled across Cuba in 1998, and it is a cyclist’s paradise. So how would Laos be? I was warned to NOT break any laws. Well, I didn’t think that would be a problem. As we age, even breaking laws becomes more difficult. Unfortunately.

I had a pleasant 30 km. ride from the bridge into the new capitol of Vientiane. I immediately found that their language, Lao, is different from Thai. So is the written script. Now I had 2 languages that I could not speak or read. So I would quickly have to relearn how to say ‘hello, please, thank you, that’s way too high, no f-ing way!, you’re robbing me, give me my money back!, SHE TOUCHED ME FIRST OFFICER!  (no, not really) and HELP! POLICE!” Also, I hoped my hand gestures would still apply. Common ones were trying to explain that I was hungry or thirsty. These seemed to work. But I deeply feared that one of these days, I would make what I thought was an innocent hand gesture when I had, in fact, in their culture, flipped them the bird. So I was always ready to flee after each new hand gesture I tried.

The most difficult ‘body language’ communication I have had yet was trying to explain to a Thai pharmacist that I had bacterial dysentery and I needed medicine — QUICK!. I finally had to ‘act it out’, to their great amusement and my terrible embarrassment. 2 pills, 25 cents, and 8 hours later and I was fine.

I rode my bike up to a beautiful old colonial hotel in Vientiane right on the Mekong river. Grand old mahogany-finished rooms with a wrought iron balcony overlooking the street and river. $11 bucks a night for near splendor.

But before I entered the hotel, a young man approached me offering me ‘may-wanna’. I shook my head. I was not sure that this was ‘party-approved’. Then immediately after him, 2 attractive young women accosted me, wanting to sell (or more accurately ‘rent’ to me) something else. Ohhhh. I wondered it they were part of a sanctioned worker’s brigade or union. Was the party that they were offering ‘party-approved’? I went in and registered.

If Laos is communist, you would never know it from the street. Everyone is doing business, selling wonderful street foods, offering laundry service, you name it. Their tax code is pretty simple. You pay 10% of your gross sales, and don’t you DARE lie about your gross sales. Now even I can understand that. And actually, they have been most fair and honest. I met a S. African cyclist earlier and he commented about how there is not much thievery here. He thought that it was because of their Buddhist beliefs in kharma. Whatever you do will catch up to you. In a sense, Buddhism is less forgiving. Their edict is ‘get it right the first time’. Whereas Christians can screw up, as long as they remember to ask for forgiveness at the end. I don’t know. But I am surrounded by many poor people daily who do not seem interested in robbing me.

When you ride a bike across a country, you are truly at the level of the people. They are generally very curious of you, and helpful. Across Laos I must answer back to the children ‘sawaydee’ (welcome) at least a few hundred times a day. Answering back brings big smiles to the numerous children in the villages.

In one village while I was sipping an iced drink, I was watching a grandmother holding and adoring a baby. Then I observed her funny, bright-gold socks. Strange for such a modest culture. Then I noticed. She had artificial legs. Was it land mines, or bombing? I did not have the nerve to try to ask, much less ask if I could photograph her. Which brings me to the not-so-secret Laotian war from 1964 to 1973. After the Geneva Accords stating that Laos would remain neutral, North Vietnam quickly sent in 50,000 troops. And the US began bombing. In that 9 years, the US dropped 1.9 million metric tonnes of bombs. That is over a half ton for every man woman and child in Laos. this was by far the greatest amount of ordinance ever dropped on a population. Also dropped were massive amounts of land mines and defoliants such as the cancer-causing agent orange. The US lost over 800 pilots during this time. None of them were acknowledged since there was no war officially going on in Laos. They remain forgotten forever as MIAs.

I went to the Laotian National Museum in Vientiane. The upstairs of the museum is completely dedicated to the US-Laos war. I assure you that the photos and text are NOT pleasant. In their eyes, we were not saviors. But the Laotians did not like the intrusion by North Vietnam either.

I am riding now into the mountainous area of Laos. I intend to cross into Vietnam at the newly opened crossing at Dien Bien Phu. It will be a struggle for me to get there. Cold and wet in the mountains. It is difficult to get accurate maps of this area. There are very few tourist traveling in this area. I hope I can find guest houses to stay at. One thing for sure: I will not be wandering across the land-mined countryside.

5 Responses to Post #5 from SE Asia, pedaling across Laos

  1. Hi Dwight-

    You look great! Keep em coming!

    JM

  2. Great photo. not bad for an “old man”. My brother (and maybe me)want’s to go on your next bike trip. How about Mexico? :>)
    gs

  3. what btype of dog are you eating with your rice?

  4. Denny, whatever one was run over in the street the night before. Kharma chooses for me.

  5. Wow! I am speechless! Continued safe passage…my dearest friend.

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About the Author

Dwight Worker is an American professor, activist, adventurer, and fugitive. He escaped from the Mexican penitentiary Palacio de Lecumberri in 1975 along with the book and movie Escape about the story

Throughout his life he participated in civil rights, anti-war, and environmental movements. In 1991, Dwight volunteered to serve in the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Worker is a former professor at Indiana University, where he created the Information Security program for the Kelley School of Business before retiring in 2008 to farm, write, and travel.….READ MORE