Sunday, 15 March 2015

Laos V: Ghosts and the Plain of Jars

Saturday 29 September 2012, Phonsavan, Xiangkhouang, Laos

Legend has it that the plains of central Laos were once ruled by a tyrant called Chao Angka. His barbaric governance held his subjects in fear and misery, but none could oppose his powerful army, and the merest whiff of insurrection would be met with terrible punishments. Yet there was only so much suffering his people could take. Driven by desperation, some fled and risked their lives to seek assistance abroad. A few made it beyond the borders, but were captured and hauled before Khun Jeuam, the powerful king who ruled the lands of the north. He listened as they trembling relayed their treasonous case for the deposition of their king; and Khun Jeuam thought awhile, for he was a just man. After a long silence he rose to his feet. He took up his spear, marshalled his army and marched them chanting south.

The two great armies collided on the plains: Khun Jeuam leading the charge into battle; Chao Angka raging furiously at the oncoming invaders. The battle was long and violent, but finally the defending army were routed and Chao Angka, the tyrant of the plains, fell lifeless and bloody to the ground.

A roar of elation went up. Khun Jeuam was victorious! The people were free! This called for a celebration like nothing seen before. This called for a megalithic piss up! They wasted no time, promptly firing hundreds of stone jars large enough to carry gallons of rice wine. These pots were huge, with many standing taller than a man.

It makes you wonder if these really were men at all. Their stone jars are so massive that surely only a giant could lift them. So perhaps instead we should imagine an army of giants, drunk on victory and gargantuan quantities of booze, rolling about on the plains, kicking their feet and singing songs to the sky in triumph. They must have had a suitably giant hangover the next day too, because nobody cleaned up and the aftermath is still spread over an area of 5,500 square kilometres. It is called the Plain of Jars.

Our stay in the central plains was low key in comparison. After our night with the Lao shopkeeper and his family, we rolled down out of the hills to the region’s capital, Phonsavan. We found the town basking in a wide cropped plain at a confluence of roads flowing in from the south, east and west. After so long riding through thatch and bamboo villages, the pillared balconies and solid construction of the houses gave the town a striking sense of permanence. We rode down the dust-blown boulevard until we reached a proliferation of restaurants and guesthouses—a proper tourist district, the first we’d seen in weeks. After days of eating noodles and rat meat and not being sure where we’d sleep each night, I’m sure you can imagine the excitement we felt about a few days of good food and a guaranteed bed. 

On the road to Phonsavan
We were scrupulously restful, lounging around for days as we caught up with sleep, calories and the blog. Then early one morning we wheeled our bikes unloaded out of our room and pedalled towards the low grassy hills behind the town. We locked the bikes up and continued on foot, and then ahead of us as we climbed we saw dozens of enormous stone jars rising into view.

They really are huge. They’re rounded like barrels and beaten out of tonne-lumps of granite, the largest standing ten feet tall. There are also hundreds of them, spread like autumn seeds across the hills and tapering away over the horizon. We approached the nearest cluster and peered inside. Their original contents are lost and their hollow interiors are now filled with plant-life or rainwater, transforming them into little capsule kingdoms for frogs, spiders and lizards. We ambled from cluster to cluster in the hazy morning sun, cresting hills to find new swathes of grass speckled with more giant jars. Confronted by a spectacle on such a scale, we couldn’t help but wonder why anybody had gone to the trouble of making them. The legend of Chao Angka is good, and like so many folktales I suspect it has some basis in reality (probably one in which Khun Jeuam is no more kind and just than the last king, but victorious nonetheless), but sadly it’s unlikely these pots were ever used to store wine for a victory party.

Drawn by the mystery and hoping to find some answers, a French archaeologist called Madeleine Colani arrived in the region back in the 1920s. She was a curious lady, dressing all in black and bringing her younger sister with her to serve as a much-suffering assistant. Together they set out along dilapidated tracks into monsoon jungle, sleeping beneath banana leaves and venturing into subterranean caverns—Madeleine apparently once lowering her sister down into the darkness on a rope and refusing to pull her back out again until she found something interesting. The pair spent years gathering evidence from ashes and bone fragments and finally proposed the now generally-accepted theory that these mighty jars were built to hold the mortal remains of the chieftains who once controlled the salt route that ran through the area around two thousand years ago. They are funerary pots. Traces of this history still inhabit the folklore of Muang Phukoot district, where it is believed that to disturb the jars is to risk disturbing the ancient spirits that sleep inside.

A butterfly that was fluttering around the jars.

As we wandered between the jars that day, the restlessness of Laos’ more recent history was also apparent. Deep, half-sphere craters were blown out of the hills, and there was a boundary of red and white markers all around to indicate which areas had yet to be cleared of explosives. A strategic junction thousands of years ago, the Plain of Jars remained so in the 1960s as the forces of the Second Indochina War boiled up out of Vietnam and Laos.

Following the Second World War, communism exploded around South East Asia in opposition to the lingering stench of colonial rule. By 1954 the Anti-French Resistance in Vietnam had driven their old masters out, fast-tracking French-ruled Laos’ to independence.

Laos was undecided about its future. Three paths lay before it: left to communism, right to maintain its monarchy, and a vague trail of middle-ground neutrality somewhere between. In a bid to balance these conflicting pressures, the last King of Laos, Sisavang Vatthana, named three princes rulers of a new coalition government. Each fiercely believed in one of these paths and it was hoped that together they might steer Laos through the troubles ahead.

And there were troubles. As France withdrew from Vietnam in 1954, America tagged in to pick up the war against the communists in the north. Twenty years of gruelling conflict were still to come, on top of the ten already endured between the French and Viet Minh. The Viet Minh had already spilled into Laos and were occupying significant areas of land to secure their supply lines to South Vietnam. A maelstrom was converging on South East Asia, and Laos was desperate to keep out of its way.
Hard to see here, but that brownish patch in the middle of the photo is a bomb crater

In many ways it is not surprising that the 1962 International Agreement on the Neutrality of Laos was a failure. The North Vietnamese depended on their Laos-side supply lines for their war against the Americans. They also saw an ally in the Pathet Laos, and became increasingly active in supporting and directing these Laotian communists. America for its part could not sit back knowing that the Viet Minh were sneaking down the wings of the conflict zone, but they could not engage in open war there due to Laos’ neutrality. So the CIA enlisted the help of a Laotian General called Vang Pao, a man of influence in the Hmong tribes who inhabited the crucial area in the north. In the early 1960s Vang Pao hiked from village to village to gather an army to fight the communist forces. This “Secret Army” was financed by the CIA, and supported by US air drops and reconnaissance. As the conflict intensified these aerial support missions would evolve into the cataclysmic bombing runs that would contaminate Laos with unexploded munitions and wreck or end the lives of over 50,000 civilians in the decades to come.

The ground war for Laos was largely played out on the Plain of Jars. For a decade, it was here that Vang Pao’s forces dug in and fought the encroaching communists. Each year they were overwhelmed and beaten back; but then the rains came and washed the trails away, throttling the communists’ supply lines, so Vang Pao and his Hmong Secret Army could charge in again, retake the plains and dig in for the next spin of the wheel.

With the popularity of the Vietnam war waning in the US and the press getting wind of its involvement in this clandestine war in neutral Laos, by 1973 the US was making for the door. Vang Pao’s aerial support dwindled, so too did his army, suffering unsustainable losses on the battlefield. In 1975 the Plain of Jars fell to the communists for the last time, sending the Hmong people scattering for their lives. In June of that year the Pathet Lao marched into the royal capital of Luang Prabang and by December they held Vientiane. 600 years of monarchy in Laos was ended on 2 December 1975. Sisavang Vatthana, the last king of Laos, was sent to an internment camp where he died in unknown circumstances sometime between 1978 and 1984.

The Hmong people were now trapped in a country ruled by the army they had spent a decade fighting. Some, including Vang Pao, were able to escape before the Pathet Laos could close off the borders and airfields, but thousands were left stranded with their new rulers bent on hunting them down. Facing death squads and napalm strikes, many fled into Laos’ forested mountains where they hunkered down and prayed that their US allies would return to save them. 

Thirty years later, in 2006, 400 Hmong veterans and their families emerged from the mountains. They had spent three decades living like hunted animals, but they could stand it no longer. They were promptly arrested and they have never been heard of again. It’s thought there may be many more Hmong still hiding out in these mountains, possibly thousands, trapped in the hills with nowhere to turn. While across the towns of Laos each year, the celebrations of the communist victory go on, with fanfare, fireworks and plenty of rice wine.

The people of Laos carry their history lightly. Travelling through the country it’s easy to miss the signs of the old horrors amid the stream of smiling faces. There’s a quiet determination to get on with life here. In the tourist district of Phonasavan, empty bombshells are welded together to make cafes, while up by the jars we were offered cutlery and necklaces fashioned out of shrapnel. On the edge of town, Mulberries Silk Farm has established a sustainable silk industry: rearing silk worms, growing mulberry trees to feed them, and training local people to work the looms.

Laos gets on with things with great dignity and warmth, despite having every reason to rail at the players and circumstances that conspired against them only a few decades ago. It puts the challenges of our rather contrived adventure very firmly in their place. That night, however, I was feeling a little less stoic about our challenges. A dose of mild food poisoning left me crumpled round the toilet with my head against the porcelain, so we were forced to take another day off so that I could recover. Ahead of us were some of the biggest hills of the trip as our road cut west towards the old royal capital of Luang Prabang.

*    *    *    *    *

Leaving Phonsavan

Working the looms at Mulberries Silk Farm
A barrel of night: indigo dye from Mulberries silk farm
Working conditions for the silk moths are poor.

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Laos IV: The heart of Laos

Friday 28 September 2012. Somewhere near Tha Vian, Xiangkhouang, Laos

Cycling is as glorious as the day is long. Though not for long beyond that. When the day fades and night creeps in and you’re still pedalling up a hill, not really sure where you are or where you’re going, the magic does tend to drain out of it.

“Are you sure we’re even on that trail?”

“I’m pretty sure, look, you can see the hill we’re on, and we followed that track there—that’s probably that line.”

“Or that one.”

It was evening on our second day down the backroads and Olivia and I should have reached the top of this hill half an hour ago. We hadn’t, I’ve discovered since researching this piece, because I don't think we were where I thought we were. This goes a long way to explaining why our hill went on for much longer than it was supposed to, and why we were left wearily labouring the pedals as the sky ripened into dusk.

We’d set off that morning in a buoyant mood, rolling over lonely low hills and down through the dappled light of bosky river valleys. The road was much quieter than the day before; the villages and food shacks sparser. Half hours would tick by to nothing but the mutter of our pedals and the distant lowing of livestock. Now we were out here and making good progress, it seemed so blindingly obvious that taking the risk and venturing off the highway was the way to do it, and yet making that choice was never easy. Every time we ventured down some narrow track we rolled the dice and could easily find ourselves down on one of the essentials.

“Remember Prigi.” we’d always remind ourselves.

Prigi was a fishing town in southern Java and had been an early lesson in our adventuring. We’d set off out of town one morning down a little stone track that we assumed would quickly join up with the main road. It didn’t. The trail was exposed, it was baking hot and we ended up getting lost and running out of water. We had to resort to raiding coconuts from trees and hacking at them with a rock for twenty minutes for the sake of a few mouthfuls of shell-splintered milk. In the end it took us three days to get back to the main road. And while we regale the story with a fondness now, pushing our bikes up that track in the equatorial heat with just a few hot dregs of water left in our bottles was not something we ever fancied repeating. 

Back in Laos, the day rolled on. By the early afternoon our road had shrivelled to a white stone track surrounded by meadows and turtleback hills. This should have been idyllic riding, but the stones were causing havoc with my worn old tyres. The rubber was now so thin that it only took a bump and a pointy stone to breach the inner tube. The first puncture shot the air right out of the back wheel. Then, within the hour, it returned to smuggle it back out again as we sat eating lunch. 

We were expecting the rest of the day to be tough as our route now wound up into the hills for twenty kilometres before descending to the town of Muang Khoum—or at least it would have done, if my map reading had been up to scratch. I was convinced there would be a place to stay once we reached this town and I was adamant that we could make it before dark—a point I maintained even when we got up to leave and found the base of my tyre spreading flat into the ground.

We fixed the puncture and bit in to the ascent, relieved at least to find the road newly paved and the worst of the day’s heat behind us. We climbed up what felt like endless concertina hairpins as the sun dipped west and the cool air of the evening rose to bristle our skin.

Four hours passed—twenty kilometres—but still the road went up. On and on as the light withdrew, stretching our hunched shadows up against the dirt. Every time we rounded a corner we prayed that there we’d see the road curving downwards—it must be one of these corners—but there was nothing, just more road winding up.

Just as the light turned grainy and the sun pinched away behind the hills, we rounded a corner to find a hushed, palm-thatched village in the shadow of the hills. Any immediate hope of finding accommodation was quickly checked as we rode past the dark and silent houses, peering around for any sign of activity. A single light shone up ahead, emanating from a little wooden shop-shack at a bend in the road. We dismounted and asked the shopkeeper in our caveman Lao if there was somewhere we could stay or pitch a tent, but he didn’t seem to understand, grew agitated and walked off, leaving us there, not sure what to do, as a few shy, silent people emerged and gathered around us.

Night was nearly on us now. We had to find out if we could camp here, and if not then we needed to get moving. The risk from unexploded ordnance made wild camping unthinkable, so we’d just have to keep riding until we found another village or reached Muang Khoum. It was a grim prospect. We’d been riding for almost twelve hours now, we were exhausted, soaked in sweat and the air was growing cold.

Just then we were helloed in English, and we turned to see the shopkeeper returning from across the road with a merry old man on his arm. The old man spoke a slow, gentle English and seemed pleased at the opportunity to practise. I’m afraid we were just eager to clarify the situation and we rushed the pleasantries: was there anywhere in the village that we could stay?

‘Yes.’ he beamed, gesturing into the shop ‘You can stay right here!’

This spontaneous hospitality was not uncommon on our trip, but we still couldn’t help marvelling at the family’s generosity as we sat with them that evening around two large bowls of sticky rice and barbecued meat. They were too poor to afford a table, but generous enough to invite us into their house, give up a bed and have us to join them for dinner. The next morning we offered the shopkeeper some money to cover our costs, but he was aghast at the suggestion. We had needed help and he was clear, despite the language barrier, that we were his guests, his friends, and he was only doing what anybody else would do in that situation. I wonder how true that is.

It was frustrating not being able to fully express our gratitude to the family that night. We had the grandfather translate for us a few times, and the rest of the time we patted our bellies and beamed at the meal, chopped up our phrases to botch together new ways of thanking them, and Olivia helped the children out with their English homework, though in the end I think our appreciation was most apparent in our appetites. All those hours up the hill had worked up a thumping hunger and we wolfed down heaped forkfuls of rice and set eagerly at the bowl of treacle-dark meat. 

It was as I was gnawing at a plum-sized portion of the meat that I realised something wasn't quite right. This little chunk was actually half a ribcage. Now, this was about the right size for a very small chicken, but this was definitely not poultry meat. It was mammal meat, and from a mammal that couldn’t have been any larger than a ferret. 

‘Very good food.’ I told the grandfather, ‘Erm. What is it?’

Liv, now alerted, was warily eyeing the proportions.

‘Ha. Ahh.’ he struggled ‘I no... in English. Sorry.’


‘It’s very good.’ Liv corrected, and we got back to eating, though perhaps a little less enthusiastically than before.

It wasn’t until the next morning, after we’d confirmed with the shopkeeper that this road would eventually reach Muang Khoum and we'd hit the top of this hill in a few miles; after we’d been inspected by a crowd of giggling children and introduced to their pet, a large blue-furred rodent, like a giant hamster crossed with a gopher; it wasn’t until we’d said our goodbyes and shaken hands with everybody and made it some way up the hill that I realised what it was we had eaten.

‘I think we ate one of those giant hamster things last night.’

‘One of those? Oh. Shit.’

Hoary bamboo rats, they’re called. We saw a row of them being barbecued by the road a few days later, and later learnt they make up a chunk of the protein intake out here. And, in many ways, we really hope it was a hoary bamboo rat. Because otherwise, what the hell were we eating?  

*   *   *   *   *

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Laos III: Bombs and backroads

Thursday 27 September, 2012. Somewhere near Muang Bo, Bolikhamsai, Laos.

The hills were darkening beneath a silvery sky when our pedalling was checked by barriers up ahead. A river cut right across our track and the unfinished bridge was barricaded off, hunks of concrete and rebar lying collapsed in the water below. We’d taken a gamble coming this way and it looked like we might have just lost. An entire day wasted. Our priority now was to find somewhere safe to sleep before nightfall, and wild camping was not an option. Something sinister lurked among these hills, ready to strike anyone who strayed from the road.

It all made the last few days seem rather pedestrian. Three days earlier we’d struck west out of Nahin, following the quiet highway as it wound over the folds of the land. Stacks of sedimentary rock towered around us as we heaved up the slopes, watching as we wheezed over the crests and disappeared away down the long stretches of descent the other side. From a hilltop vantage we saw a forest strewn with jagged castles of limestone, that were themselves invaded by shrubs and the spray-top canopy of dipterocarp trees, while down in the rambling countryside below, the glossy greens of the forest receded into lemoning grass and acres of twitching rice fields. Habitation was sporadic, but we’d previewed this route on the bus on our way to find a cash machine a couple of days earlier, so we could work our days around the few guesthouses we’d spotted along the way. Food came regularly enough, often noisy bowls of noodles slurped in the cool gloom of crooked roadside shacks.

On the second day we rejoined our old friend the River Mekong. We’d last seen her about a month ago when one of her tributaries blocked our way and got us thoroughly lost in eastern Cambodia. But we were still glad to see her. She slithered wide and smooth beside us, scoring out Laos’ upper-southern border with Thailand. For much of that second day we clung to her northern banks, until near the end of the afternoon when we arrived at the town with the ATM we’d visited on the bus all those days ago: a sparse, clay-coloured place called Paksan.

After finding a dank, mosquito-ridden guesthouse, we settled down to dinner at a restaurant on the crossroads at the edge of town. There was a tangible chill of apprehension that evening. The crossroads marked our departure from the highway and gateway into a web of backroads that spread out into the heart of the country. Craning round from our table, we could see the dusty brown road disappearing away into the dark. We had no idea what the road would be like up there, or how we’d manage with food and accommodation. Our map showed a number of small settlements, but these little white dots had varied recently from well-stocked villages like Nahin, to a single thatch hut or nothing at all. While food was a concern, it was accommodation that worried us. We had our tent, that was true, but we both agreed we would rather keep riding than risk beating a trail to pitch out here.

Back amid the helium-whine of the guesthouse that night, our little Laos history book filled us in on the details. During the Secret War of 1964-1973 the United States, in a bid to stem the encroaching tide of communism from North Vietnam, dropped more bombs on Laos than were dropped on Germany during the entirety of the Second World War. The equivalent of a plane dropping a cargo-load of bombs every eight minutes, twenty-four hours a day, every day, for nine years.

The weapon of choice was the cluster bomb. These devices start out as canoe-sized shells that tumble from the bellies of B-52s, then peel apart to scatter hundreds of apple-sized “bombies” like polystyrene balls in the wind. As they fall they whirl, priming them; and as they land they detonate, sending a ballistic spray of ball-bearings in all directions. The result is a flickering firewall that shudders through the jungle, shredding foliage, trees and anything else in its path.

The problem for Laos today is that up to 30% of these bombies didn’t whirl enough, didn’t prime—or did, but then didn’t explode when they thwacked into the dirt. The war ended and they remained, 80 million of them, and the land today remains infested.
They’re under the soil, in trees, in the rice fields, by the roads, in the playgrounds, even beneath the floors of houses and schools. They are an ever-present threat, killing or horrifically wounding hundreds of people—even now, forty years on—every year.

We were only inconvenienced in that we couldn’t go pitching a tent wherever we fancied—if there were no guesthouses this way, we could always ask to pitch in someone’s yard or behind a soup shack—but for the people of Laos there is no easy solution. Since the war ended, government organisations, local groups and international charities have worked tirelessly to clear a staggering 500,000 bombs from the country, and in doing so saved countless lives and enabled villages to expand and feed themselves in relative safety. But that still leaves 79.5 million to go.

The next morning we pedalled over the crossroads, off the little highway and away down the backroads. The road was  narrower, but in good shape and much livelier than the highway, humming as it did with the day-to-day manoeuvrings of village life. Scooters buzzed by loaded with baskets, puppies and piglets trotted in the road, farmers stared from their seats on long-handled tractors, and kids squealed and scampered between the houses.

The further we rode the sparser the villages became, and by mid-afternoon we were alone on a narrow lane surrounded by tall grass and ferns. One by one the hills gathered and the climbing began. In the hot silence of the afternoon we found ourselves up against a roller coaster of brutal inclines, coils and plunges. These climbs were short, but they were very, very steep, and made worse by the rapidly deteriorating surface of the road. We had to stand and haul our whole bodyweight down onto the pedals to keep them turning, or else dismount and take a running charge. Here was a lick of the adventure we'd been after, and we spent most of the time wondering when on earth the road would flatten out again. 

Thankfully it did ease off towards the end of the afternoon and we were rewarded with a beautiful evening ride, racing along a loping dusty trail with hill upon hill spread out before us, stacking back in gradated shades of smokey beryl into the pearl sunset.

As we came over another low rise we spotted the barriers, the river and the dead-end. The bridge was in pieces and completely impassable. Just as we were getting ready to turn back, a woman directed us down to the riverbank and we found a small crowd waiting for a motorised raft that was puttering over from the far side. 

Ferried slowly over in the diminishing light, we were still anxious about finding somewhere safe to stay. We were lucky. In the next village, just as the sun touched the tip of the hills, the manager of a guesthouse overheard our enquiries and offered us a simple concrete room for the night. He handled the entire transaction with a straight-faced professionalism, showing us the room and cooly counting the money, perhaps hoping to distract from his unusually tender years. He was about twelve. The only time his age betrayed him was when he yelled at his parents to pass him the keys, and, stood waiting by the door, we felt like his mates getting permission to crash round for the night. We ate a noodle dinner and finally crawled into bed, the thrill at conquering the day quickly sinking beneath a deep and dreamless sleep.

*  *  *  *  *

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Laos II: Finding our way

Sunday 23 September 2012, just west of Lak Sao, Bolikhamsai, Laos.

We knew something was wrong as soon as the two steaming bowls were placed before us. Tangled among Liv’s noodles and protruding from the water rose a strange orangey-red flap. 

“Is that a… fin?” she poked it with her chopstick.

It was morning on our first full day riding in Laos and our stomachs were rumbling. We’d spotted the tell-tale chequered tablecloths outside this little roadside shack a few minutes before and couldn’t believe our luck when the lady here offered us chicken to go with our noodle soup. Noodle soup had been the mainstay in Vietnam and it was terrible; oily water, noodles and a few slices of spring onion: there were barely enough calories in there to last an hour on the road. We knew that Laos was much poorer than Vietnam so securing decent food out here might be a challenge. But here was chicken noodle soup. Yes please!

Now we were frowning into our bowls. Liv gave the protrusion another jab and it rolled to reveal a squinting eye and pink cerebral matter. It was a cockerel’s comb with the upper third of the head still in tow. Indeed, both of our bowls were bobbing with the hacked remains of the bird's head and legs: a massacre for breakfast. We stared glumly into the bowls. The bowls stared back.

But when you’re riding there’s not much room to be fussy, and it didn’t taste so bad. The comb had a texture not unlike thick, slightly undercooked pasta: rubbery with a cartilaginous snap at the centre. The eyes and brain were, however, far too much for either of us to even contemplate at that hour of the morning. I was just glad we didn’t order beef.

We’d set off early that morning into a world lost to fog. The fields around us were dissolved in a smoulder that choked the early sunlight and shrouded the landscape in soft, uncertain forms. Towers of karst loomed up out of the mist like ships, while islands of foliage hovered abstractly in the distance. The road, thankfully, was deserted.

As the hours ticked by the morning wore through. The sun sputtered and caught, smears on the horizon sharpened into hills and, like a valet’s rag lifted from a boot, the morning emerged a brilliant shining blue.

We sailed that day along a road of near-perfect asphalt that dipped through wide arenas of paddy agriculture ringed by thick, broccoli-head hills. As we reached the edge of these sanctuaries the road would coil up into the shade of the greenery, and after a modest climb we’d spill down into the next plain with a welcome rush of cool air. 

It was still the early half of the afternoon when we hit the final summit of the day. Sprawling out below us was a vast grassland spattered with trees and embroidered with the thread of a sparkling river. We’d just ticked over the 10,000km mark. Cycling felt good again.

We lingered a while before descending into the plain and the bright little market village that lay tucked up against the base of the hill. This was Nahin, a serene little street of corrugated tin roofs, market stalls and tinkling cowbells. We bagged a room in a neat, wood-panelled property and spent the latter half of the afternoon ambling around the grassy paths before being called over to shoot fermented bark liquor off a tree stump with some of the locals. We chatted until the light began to fade, the smell of barbecue smoke wafted in and we took our leave to head to one of the town’s bamboo and thatch restaurants for a hearty meal of meat, rice and vegetables with an ice-cream dessert. I tell you: tired legs, a weeny bit drunk and a full belly—life does not get much better than that.

We hadn’t had a proper rest day since before the attack in Vietnam almost a week ago, but by the next morning it was clear that we couldn’t just spend the entire day relaxing. Our bikes needed some work and we had to figure out our route across the country. Our original plan had been to follow the highway all the way to Vientiane, then cut north through Luang Prabang to the Chinese border, but after our cross-country rumble through Cambodia’s north-east and the daily bombardments of fruit and abuse in Vietnam, the notion of simply pedalling along a highway, even if it was quite hilly, just felt a bit tame.

There were also more pragmatic concerns. In four weeks time we would be crossing into China and we had promised ourselves that we were going to try and make it through some proper mountains and onto the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. In ideal circumstances this was bordering on reckless. There were wolves, bears, hypothermia and altitude sickness to worry about. But on top of these we would be arriving at the worst time, with winter fast approaching and reports going round that one of the crucial roads was currently impassable.

We’d buy a big blanket and hope the road got fixed. That was the plan. But if the road did open up and we didn’t freeze to death, the jagged topographic charts made it abundantly clear was that we’d need to be at the very top of our game if we were going have a chance of pulling this off. We needed to be fit, and we needed to be prepared. We needed to make the most of Laos’ hills and backroads. So that afternoon I was sat hunched over a keyboard in the gloom of the village internet shack, poring over satellite imagery, maps and travel blogs as the generator roared behind me. There did seem to be an alternative route through Laos that broke north just a few days further west along the highway, although I could find no reports of anybody having cycled it—just one guy tackling it in a 4x4 coming in the other direction several years earlier. It sounded pretty rugged. It was perfect.

Our bikes, however, were in serious need of attention. That morning we had wheeled them round the side of the guesthouse and set to work. Besides the usual cleaning, calibrating and oiling, Liv had to fit a fresh set of off-road tyres that her parents had delivered in Hoi An. Rather foolishly, I had not taken this opportunity to order replacements because at the time my tyres had been fine. Now, just weeks later, the rubber was balding and had started to fray; they were getting thin and slippery. I had no hope of replacing them here and probably wouldn’t for some time. So I did what I could. I switched them around to prolong their lives, since rear tyres tend to wear quicker than the front; I took my pocket-knife and sawed cross-hatches into the worn rubber to try and improve their grip, though in retrospect I think that just made things worse; then I cleaned, tightened and de-gunked the chain and sprockets. The wheels turned, the brakes stopped them and most of the gears worked fine. It would do.

Liv’s bike looked fearsome with its fat new tyres, but it was also showing worrying signs of wear. The brake pads had worn down to the metal and started chewing into the rims. Three out of the four wear indicators were gone, carved out by ridges that ran right around both sides of both wheels. With all the hills and screaming descents that Laos promised, the prospect of a catastrophic wheel failure was sobering. We needed a bike shop, but we’d have to make do with DIY and good fortune for a week or two as we cut through the backroads and on to Luang Prabang.

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Liv's new tyres

Chicken noodle soup!
Map of Nahin
The view from the hill before Nahin
Crossing the 10,000km mark