After a truly emotional experience in Cambodia, making our way north along the Mekong the past couple weeks felt like vacation again. We spent Christmas in the most surreal but wonderful way possible, biking through tiny Cambodian villages where we felt like celebrities. The Mekong Discovery Trail is an informal system of bike trails that heads from the modest provincial capital of Kratie (pronounced “Krah-Chey”) 180+ km north to the border with Laos, meandering through countless small settlements where Khmer families live more or less the same way they did during ancient Angkor times (save for a few more motorbikes and televisions rigged up to car batteries). Cambodians were generally friendly throughout the country, but judging by people’s response here you’d have thought we just returned from the Moon. Children sprinted out from underneath stilted, thatch-roof huts to add to a chorus of “hello”s. Sometimes their parents even got into the action. Our map told us that we could get a ferry across the river, bike north and catch another ferry to come back to Kratie and travel about 45 km (~30 miles) roundtrip. When we finally got home as the sun was setting and consulted Google maps it became clear that this was probably more like 60+km, which goes by even slower than it sounds when no bike on the entire continent fits your 6’4” frame. But it was a small price to pay to feel so far from the beaten path and have such authentic interactions with locals. We’ve seen a lot of Buddhist temples on this trip – most bigger and bolder than the ones we saw on our bike rides. But none of those had the same sort of intangible magic in the air – set amongst lush rice paddies, vegetable gardens and palm trees and filled with young monks that seemed shocked to have a foreigner stop by.
From there it was time to cross into Laos. This required one of the mor harrowing bus trips we’ve encountered. The bus was about three hours late due to ongoing strikes by garment workers in and around Phnom Penh. Once it finally arrived we began a laborious journey lurching through the most potholed stretch of road we’d ever seen. The bus rarely topped 25km an hour and would often slow to a stop before bottoming out. Cambodia’s corrupt lawmakers must not drive to Laos very often – this would ruin the suspension of their $100,000 Land Rovers pretty quickly. We finally made it to the border – little more than a converted train car in the middle of the jungle – at around 10 p.m., which is about two hours after the entire country of Laos goes to bed. They kept it open just for us and after the various “exit fees” and “administrative charges” ($3 worth of ink for every passport stamp, it turns out) and one bathroom break in the dark edges of the jungle (“Don’t think about the hundreds of thousands of landmines that litter the country.” “Don’t think about the hundreds of thousands of landmines that litter the country.”), we were Laos-bound.
Our first stop in Laos was the languid Si Phan Don, or “4,000 Islands.” No one is quite sure if it’s really 4,000, but there are indeed many multitudes of islands in this area, as the Mekong fans out in a vast plain that stretched 10 miles across during the rainy season. People have inhabited the islands for generations and each island acts as its own little hamlet. Lucky for us, we arrived during the once-a-year boat racing festival, where a team of young men from each island compete against each other. It was fun to watch, though we didn’t get the most welcoming glances from the locals – we felt a bit like a bus load of Japanese tourists snapping pictures at a Fourth of July celebration. Don Det, the island on which we stayed, was a bit overrun by guesthouses and restaurants catered towards backpackers, but you could appreciate why people flock here – hours in hammocks watching boats drift down the Mekong with a large BeerLao in hand quickly turn to days that turn into weeks. It’s a place where a traveler, forever attempting to evade the trappings of adulthood, can lose themselves and never leave. We met some of them.
From there it was a few hours north to the regional hub of Pakse, where we rented motorbikes and spent a few days driving a ~120km loop around the Bolaven Plateau, a beautiful area of waterfalls, idyllic little villages and coffee plantations that grow some of the finest product you’ve ever consumed – pure black gold. Suffice it to say that getting a nice caffeine buzz going and riding a motorcycle while listening to tunes on your iPod in perfect weather is just about as good as it gets. We spent two nights and one whole day in Tad Lo, a post card of a little town that seemed to have more baby animals (pigs, goats, cats, dogs, chickens) than people. We were a little wary of spending New Years Eve in a tiny town that was only on the fringes of the tourist trail, but all 15 of the foreigners found each other around a bonfire in the back yard of a hostel. There was much merry-making, some spirited discussions about what sort of music should be played and a fair share of Lao-Lao, the local rice whiskey better suited to to livers of locals than foreigners.
From there it was north on another six hour bus ride that ended up being closer to nine (we call that the “150 percent rule”) to Tha Khek, in the central part of the country. Another longer motorcycle loop starts here. We only did one portion of it as a day trip, but wished we had the time to do the whole thing. Absolutely stunning sets of karst mountains complete with phenomenal caves and even more idyllic little villages where organic farming isn’t a shtick – it’s life just like it’s always been. We got a personal tour of a mindblowing cave hundreds of feet high in places from three kids under the age of 8, had a cave to ourselves that serves as a holy swimming hole in the wet season and took a boat ride through a 7.5 km underground river – five miles of massive chambers that looked like a movie set.
From there it was up to Vientiene, the surreal but comfortable capital of Laos. Dozens of great restaurants and coffeeshops were a nice urban indulgence after a couple weeks of rural life. The town’s architecture is a strange hodgepodge of French colonialism, post-1975 drab Soviet-style apartment blocks, traditional Asian temples and brand new shining office buildings built by recent Chinese foreign investment. Kaytlin indulged her new favorite pastime – public aerobics with old Asian women.
We made a big choice and elected to skip Northern Laos and head directly west towards Myanmar. We’re bummed to miss it, but know that the two weeks we would have been there might be better spent in India and Nepal. Turns out that the world is way bigger than you realize. Headed into Myanmar via a land border tomorrow – something that foreigners couldn’t do until a few months ago. Very excited for the opportunity to experience Myanmar at such a pivotal time in their history. Internet may be harder to come by there, but we’ll do our best to keep you updated.