Soundscapes of Laos and Vietnam

Update – 18 September 2019

In the mazes of the colonial alleys of Luang Prabang hide primary schools where children give themselves to heart 🙂

It’s recess at Luang Prabang School

In Luang Prabang always, it’s a day of celebration! Not everyone is interested in boat racing, some prefer to share a meal with friends or family.

Neighbours’ Day Version Laos

In the evening it is a completely different melody that one hears as you listen to the temples.

Buddhist prayers at nightfall in Luang Prabang

Music accompanies us everywhere on our bike ride. Sometimes in karaoke or just in the background of restaurants, but always kitsch!

Big sound in a roadside restaurant

As we approach the villages, we slow down and enjoy the scenes of life under the bewildered eyes of the locals.

A village crossing on Highway 1c

On September 7, we arrive in Vieng Xai. 45 years ago, the town was the stronghold of the Pathet Lao, a communist paramilitary organization fighting the Americans alongside the Viet Minh from 1964 to 1973. The city is surrounded by multiple cellars where the inhabitants took refuge during the bombings. During the visit to the cellar of Mr Kaysone Phomvihane (Secretary-General of the Party, who later became President), our guide recounts:

“In here, special, we have “air tight bomb shelter room” … So this room was used sometimes when the Americans used to[drop bombs] onto Vieng Xai. Mr Kaysone with his family came to stay here, crossing the door but he can’t open it. He used this air pump to [bring the air inside and this filter for dust and chemical]…”

Explanations of the guide in an anti-bombing cellar of Vieng Xai

Arriving in Vietnam, in Mai Chau, we discover the festival of mid-Autumn and its parades of dragons in the schools and shops of the city. Every year, it coincides with the end of the rice harvest.

Dragon dance on mai Chau’s main street

Finally, further north in Moc Chau, we visit huge tea fields. Here, dozens of women hand-pick the precious leaves while chatting!

Tea picking at Moc Chau

Nung, Song, Sam…

For this last article about Laos, we wanted to present some numbers that have marked us or symbolize our passage:

0 like…

… the number of punctures on roads that do not have a good reputation. If potholes are a real permanent danger (we warn each other when they approach), we were pleasantly surprised by the condition of the existing bitumen. And/or the quality of our 4 new Schwalbe tires!

29 as…

… years since the country was officially opened to tourism. Yes, it was not until 1990 that the Democratic People’s Republic of Laos opened its doors to foreigners, after more than 50 years of French protectorate, a Japanese invasion, 9 years of secret war with the United States (1964-1973) and 15 years of strict communism. So inevitably, Laos has kept an authenticity, a raw and spontaneous character that made us fall under its charm. By bicycle, we crossed dozens of traditional villages, with raised wooden houses so atypical open on the main street, looms curled in a recess and countless gallinaceans. All of this devoid of frills for foreign visitors (supermarkets, distributors, bars…), it is rare and appreciable in 2019.

Traditional bamboo house

44 as…

… the number of rowers per boat at the Luang Prabang Boat Festival. We had the chance to attend: this race takes place every year at the end of the monsoon. Each village on the Nam Kha River, a tributary of the Mekong River, participates in the competition. The boats are made during 1 year in Buddhist monasteries, if possible from a single tree. It is above all a great popular festival where beer Lao flows afloat!

120 like…

… the longest distance travelled in one day by bike, from Luang Prabang to Muang Nambak. Let’s be honest, it was a nice buse, especially since China is building in this area a huge hydroelectric dam synonymous with many trucks on the road. But it is sometimes the “game” by cyclo-hiking to find a nice village-stage for the night, join a beautiful road (the fabulous 1c that we highly recommend) or avoid bad weather.

Chinese dam under construction

365 as…

… the number of Laotians who die per year still today as a result of the explosion of a cluster bomb. These bombs, dropped in complete dysproportion by the United States during the Vietnam War, are sought and demined daily by various associations such as Humanity-Inclusion (formerly Handicap International). COPE works to ensure a future for the many injured and amputees.

Bomb crater in Vieng Xai

660 as…

… the kilometres of buses travelled at night between Paksé and the capital Vientiane. With a little apprehension for our frames in the hold, the ride finally went very well for them as for us.

800 like…

… our budget on the spot in euros for 1 month and for two.

1000 and 1 like…

… the amount of “Sabaidee” (Hello) chanted with smiles by the children on the road. In a country with a tormented recent history, it is a real joy to see the new generation so curious!

Generations of Lao women

1100 as…

… the total of the kilometers cycled on the territory, in the province of Champassak to the south, from Vientiane to Louang Prabang (the famous Route 4c), then to the northeast towards Vietnam. Vertiginous roads that allowed us to fully appreciate the local landscapes. Terrace rice fields, banana groves and above all bamboo forests have followed one another, all in extraordinary shades of green characteristic of the rainy season.

Tiered rice fields along Highway 1c

About bamboo, we discovered its importance in local life and the multiplicity of uses of the plant: baskets, clons and braided walls of houses, tube for cooking with the egg,breathing tube, musical instrument, food… That’s crazy! We recommend this short video of the French Development Agency whose action we discovered in Vientiane and which works precisely in the region of Houaphan on the sustainability of bamboo forests:

4c in the lead!

With a title like this, one would expect a bad climbing article. In the lead? 4c? Usually this rating is synonymous with first experience of rock climbing rather than exploit. But in Laos, road 4c from Kasi to Pong-Dong is not equipped with spits or ropes. Rather asphalt, a lot of gravels and as climbers pick-up trucks, white minivans of tourists, overloaded trucks and… two bicycles!

23rd of August 2019, in good mood and playful by the incredible environment of the region, we decide to tackle the road bis. No, no, not Highway 13 supposed to allow the drivers most in a hurry to reach Louang Prabang without a hitch. The other, 4c. Yan and Brieke, our wonderful Dutch Warmshowers hosts from Vientiane, had advised us, for its wonderful pass, so let’s go!

Rice fields, at the foot of the mountains

We start smoothly, in the middle of green rice fields and crossing two or three peaceful villages. In the distance, the future Vientiane-Kunming highway (understand: the local pharaonic Chinese construction site) escapes into the heart of the mountain. Its tunnels are barely dug and workers are numerous on the edge of its roadway under construction. On our side, we begin to meander to the village of Ban Thong Muead. Curves are rare and our 15 kilos of luggage combined with a slope close to 10% require us to create laces. We laugh, we keep our spirits up and we climb like snails. The rain, at first just a fog, begins to fall massively. The day before, we had met a fellow Spanish cyclist who, clumsily, asked us: “And you? Are you
in holidays?” Hell no, cycling isn’t just a vacation 😉

Waterfall and fog

It took us 4 hours to overcome the 20km and 1500m elevation. It’s so far from the stratospheric speeds of carbon bikes on alpine roads. But no matter the records, it’s a completely different accomplishment to reach the pass with our “shell”, so far from home and together!

Holy view at the pass!

We make a break for lunch : noodles and soda (for want of better) at the pass and start a magnificent descent, punctuated by some impromptu hills that end up consuming our thighs. The valley reopens, the sky too and we reach Namuang Gnai at 4pm, the brakes warm and head full of landscapes! The Guesthouse is simple but green and welcoming, tomorrow we still have 65km of falling bumps to arrive in Luang Prabang.

Laotian mountain snake

Tired but happy, I reread these lines of Paul Fournel (“Besoin de vélo”, Seuil, 2001): “There is an animal relationship on the bike to the world: the mountains that we see are to climb, the valleys are to be descended, the shadows are made to hide and to rest. To be in the landscape, in its heat, in its rain, in its wind, is to see it with other eyes, it is to permeate it in itself in an instinctive and profound way. The mountain that stands before me is not a mountain, it is first of all a hill to climb, an ordeal, a doubt, a worry, sometimes. At the top, it is a conquest, a lightness.”

A journey in Don Khone

Here we are in Laos:) To acclimatize, we decide to go for a little trip on the 4000 islands, an archipelago that evolves according to the level of the Mekong. We stop in Don Khone for three days. Here are some shots!

On Khmers lands

At the entrance of Cambodia on July 26, we had only a blurry picture of our bike route in the country and of the shape that would take this part of the trip. The ugly border of Poipet passed, we reach Sisophon on a dusty road and then Svay Chek further north. The landscapes are arid, almost desert, it is far from the cliché of shimmering rice fields during the monsoon season. There, like an oasis, stands proudly the Farm OrganiKH and its hectare of permacultural greenery, held by a Franco-Cambodian couple Olivier and Darin for already 6 years.

One of the many plots of OrganiKH Farm

We put our bags there for a nice week of volunteering, punctuated by the collection of butterfly flowers each morning, weeding, transplanting, watering plants such as lemongrass or roselle during the day, other various tasks (compost, construction of brick plots of land, etc.) and evenings in the large and atypical common room. We meet beautiful people (3 French agrology students in internship here for several weeks, 2 Anglo-Saxon HelpX volunteers and a slew of Scouts), enjoy Darin’s exquisite mets and a healthy and pleasant setting to recharge, meditate and “work.”

Epilogue to a new beautiful week HelpX

On August 3rd we head back to the big town of Siem Reap, a few kilometres from Angkor. In a (sporty!) day of bike-visits, we tour the thousand-year-old temples, banners of the past power of the Khmers, slalom between drops and tourists and especially appreciate the anarchic vegetation that sublimates architectural ruins. Unesco obliges, the place is expensive and very busy (at least Angkor Wat) but still worth it.

Ta Nei, our favourite among the temples of Angkor
Birdsongs at Ta Phrom Temple

The urban comfort of Siem Reap is a trap that we want to avoid, so we are moving back to the east quite quickly, on the “rive” north of Lake Tonle Sap that we will unfortunately not see given the exceptional drought. We reach Kampong Thom after 150km. From there, we make the decision not to go down to the capital Phnom Phen and to spend more time in the North. So we’re on our way to Kratié, the sky is pouring a few capricious rains and the rice fields are starting to look great, the heart of the country seems more irrigated than the North East. The proximity of the houses also allows us to glimpse the local life, quiet and rural, between dogs, chickens, pigs and oxen. “Hello! Suo sadai!” are chanted as we pass by the countless children.

Atmosphere on our bikes!

It’s heartwarming, we try to answer every time and cross children gazes.

Sunset on the Mekong, the local children also enjoy!

On August 8th we arrive on the banks of the majestic Mekong. Between him and us, we will have to learn to live together for more than a month until Yunnan in China! We explore on foot the small island of Koh Trong, mainly populated by grapefruit, and then head back to Laos, 250km from Kratie.

In the ferry to Koh Trong

Attracted by the banks of the river, we take the road not carossable thinking to arrive slowly but surely to Stung Treng, 150km further. But our GPS and our Maps.me maps play us a trick and we end up getting lost in the dense and wet weather… cycling the muddy terrain quickly becomes terrific.

Lost?

Fortunately we turn back before night and manage to explain our “dismay” to the teacher of the nearest village who offers us to stay overnight in his home. He also tells us the way forward the next day. We accept and end up neither one nor two to share a chicken rice (freshly killed …) with our host, his wife, his parents, children and all the local pet shop. It’s great to live the daily life of a Khmer family for an evening!

The next day we finally reach Stung Treng after multiple river crossings and some showers…

Is the rain coming? Don’t panic, we’re taking refuge in a shop!

Finally, on August 12, we connect the remaining 62km to the Laos border. Ready for 4000 islands!

Thailand, B-side

On Friday, July 19th, we leave Bangkok by the same way than we entered: train, with our bikes on board to Ayutthaya. This flea jump towards the former stronghold of the kingdom of Siam promises us a definite change of scenery, as the temples contrast with the modernism of the
present capital. On site, we take advantage of the few bike paths and the small scale of the area to buzz.

Famous Ayutthaya scene

We appreciate the vegetated ruins, the alternation of bricks and stucctu, the Buddhas and the timeless atmosphere of the sunset on the remaining stupas despite the destruction of the city by the Burmese in 1767. For the rest, tourism is a little too invasive not to mention the unethical tours on elephants backs …

It’s like Indiana Jones:)

The weekend is over, we’re back on our bicycles heading to Khao Yai National Park. 180km in 2 days, under the heat and above all, new challengr, with 800m of vertical drop! Not always easy to choose the right route, we find ourselves first on a little stewing highway. We almost climb shoulder to shoulder with huge trucks that struggle as much as we do.

Unexpected meeting with a cycling farmer

Fortunately, we end up with beautiful laces in the park’s primary forest to the sounds of locusts and birds, with harmless macaques crossing here and there. The place is worth a visit: the forests are sublime, rain trees, vines, thick trunks and foliages of the canopy are home to countless butterflies, gibbons and other fantastic animals. The famous Asian elephants, sometimes visible in the grasslands, have remained well hidden and unfortunately we have only seen their poos! Not to mention the leeches that particularly affect Cléa’s ankles…

Khao Yai Park grasslands

At the campsite, we meet some porcupines, wild deers and mischievous monkeys (goodbye bread!). Both Thai and French tourists are very curious to see us cycling in this remote place full of pick-up trucks and the discussions are therefore very open. We finally take advantage of our gas stove to cook after having searched it in Singapore in vain and then in Bangkok to find the right cartridge.

Porcupines crossing the campsite

On July 23, we leave Khao Yai and begin a beautiful descent before reaching the plain. We are finally in Sa Kaeo after a terrific day on bikes: 130km under continuous rain and truck mud splashes… The dream…

Ironically, tonight we are staying at the “Sun Resort”, perfect for recharging batteries and dry. Thank you, buddies, tonight we’re using the “Comfort Hotel” travel prize pool:)

We’re tired, but still thirsty for discoveries. Tomorrow, already, if all goes well, we will cross the border of Cambodia for new adventures!

Love Green Farm

Just arrived in Bangkok, after 14 hours of train from the southern village of Surat Thani, we join Boon and his urban farm project Love Green Farm in the western suburbs of the megalopolis. He is registered on the HelpX platform and so we meet each other by this way.

Local and international volunteers are already here (Cecile, french, and Benji, german, both backpackers in Asia for several months), they are busy bringing to life the vegetables (tomatoes, beans, red corn …) and trees fruit trees (manguiers, bananas, papaya, jackfruit). They also manage the farmside areas such as irrigation canals, weeds and much more.

A parcel of the urban farm

We take our marks, help as much as possible and rediscover the basics of gardening, very different from our daily life in bicycle.

Transplanting snitching

We also enjoy unique and valuable exchanges with Thai volunteers who teach us how to transplant young plants, cook the famous Pad Thai and bring us on a tour of the streets of Bangkok.

Pad Thai, fabulous Thai feast

As the week passes, clearing and seeding progresses, we allow ourselves a few bicycle rides in the city centre and exchange regularly with Boon, our host. Here are the original questions we asked him 🙂

When did you start this project?

5 July 2018, with my 2 hands!

What motivated this green/organic farm project?

I want to do a clean food campaign for all life. I love the earth and I want to protect it.

What do you think about the nature place in Bangkok and about the pollution (air/soil)?

A lot of pollution here, we have only a few parks and green places to purify more than 100 tones of pollution a day. It’s impossible to have clean air and clean food in Bangkok if half of the people is still silent!

How do you deal with the difficulties to make plants and vegetables grow well in Thailand and Bangkok?

I do what I can when I can! I deal with positive thinking! This is very important to fight for the earth 🙂

Is HelpX a good source of volunteers for you?

Definitely yes, I just show my ideas. Then people read and think about it. If they like it they come, most of the time they are very kind people! The four of you have a lot of energy and a strong passion to build your mind and achieve your goal. This is very good for my own learning and encourages me to be patient to win this campaign!

How do you find other volunteers?

I have a Facebook page, a volunteer website, and I am in some online volunteers group. So I can post my ideas and my activities to invite them to join it 😀

How do you manage them?

I just talk to them, tell them what I want and listen to what they want. As soon as they understand the goal, everything is automatic as it should be! Looks easy but sometimes it’s not if I need to deal with uncontrollable things such as big rain! Haha

What’s next? How do you see the future of the farm ?

Plant, plant, plant, and plant as much as I can!  I see the future farm as a little forest that can feed people living nearby and be a model of sustainable agriculture 🙂

A big thanks to Boon and the volunteers for their welcoming and long life to the urban farm!

If you are willing to visit Bangkok and would like to participate in the project: https://www.helpx.net/host.asp?hostid=93305

Bangkok

Bangkok is unique. Unchained, exuberant, roaring.
Getting around by bike requires a constant awakening, good reserves of adrenaline and a small dose of madness. In peak hours, the crowded arteries allow only a meticulous and laborious slalom, inspired by the 2 motorized wheels that do not fail to spit their gasvenom under your nostrils at every red light. Taxis, empty and in a hurry to catch their next prey or ordered to stop in incongruous places to satisfy the king customer, are by far the most dangerous cohabitants of the urban jungle. Buses and especially tuk tuk scan the ideal route imbued with the fluidity of the cyclist but bring you the charm of local life before your eyes. Individual cars, on the other, are as bland, oversized and despairing as in our attitudes.

By day, pedals in motion, figies of the new king, tricolor flags and yellow Buddhist shingles parade at the corners of your sharp eyes like a well-honed kaleidoscope. At a standstill, the gilding and serpential shapes of countless temples, as well as the open-air kitchens or the sinious writings of Chinatown, draw you to the exoticism of a future break. Looking up, what you will rarely do as it is difficult to lose the thread of traffic, it is the skyscrapers and subways “out of ground”, edified or in the process of being, that will enchant you or indignant you according to that your antibodies are still attached to the fever e expansionist or you have just completed the last issue of the Decline.

At night, if you have the chance to pedal at full speed on a little busy aisle, the scripted or decorative neon neon will gradually make you lose your footing and you will find an impromptu poetic refuge in the ever-ambient moist. If you are, rightly, of the family of nocturnal advertising sign outs, throwing yourself into this task would be totally despairing here. Just enjoy the stupas sublimated by their projectors that bloom like stalagmites on the edge of the dirty river. Or change your senses, feel the last edible scents that triumph over the carbonized nitrogen stagnant on the asphalt like a stubborn fog. Listen to the soft roll of oriental tongues surpassed by the rattling of the stalls being stored that syncs with that of your adventure partner’s derail. Touch your brakes and rest assured, they will hold as much to the next urban alert as in the mountains once you leave the big city.
Return to sight, leave your brain at rest and remember the mop of the day for an innocuous count of tricolor fire.
5-4-3-2-1… Bangkok.

Illustration by Charles

On the Thai road

June is ending and we reach in a morning of cycling, from Kota Bahru, the Thai border. With a bit of apprehension (“crossing here can be dodgy during periods of sectarian violence”, says the Lonely about supposed Muslim-Buddhist tensions), we enter in the Kingdom of Siam without any trouble, any fees neither questions from the customs officer who even wish a “good luck” once the stamp is delivered 🙂

We choose to go to the nearest train station (the first we meet from Java) and take, to “earn” few kilometers, an ultra-economic class train towards Hat Yai. The trip is relaxed, the bikes well wedged along the windows wide open, some hills appear among the path and a Muslim family, from the baby to the veiled grandmother, accompanies us.

Let’s go Matcha!

Hat Yai gives us a first glimpse of Thai “shapes”: colorful and dashing buildings, often adorned with uninteresting advertisements, overlooking charming echoes where food has a place of choice. About Thai caligraphy, as is the spoken language: it is beautiful but absolutely not comprehensible or imitable for non-expert. Choices on cycling routes won’t be easy!

A brand new temple on the road

We begin July by pleasant country roads in Songkhla province. On the menu: temples with carved and gilded roofs often adjoined by a Boudha, fields of rubber as far as the eye can see, recognizable by their small individual dome in order to collect rubbery sap, always those damned palm trees and… Dogs! Damn it, we did not miss them: Malaysia had more or less banished the canid to Sylvain’s delight but here they are so many… We warn each other each time we see more or less terrifying pets, pushes a little on the pedals to get out and, until today, keep calves unscathed.

A forest of rubbers among many others

We camp on the edge of a pretty lake, welcomed by the local guingette where we had previously a good diner. At dusk, local adults and children watch us set up the tent while the last fishing boats decorate the horizon.

Songkhla Lake at dusk

July 2, we head to Trang where we have a promising contact via Warmshowers. This first crossing to the West Coast rhymes with verticality and so we make our thighs on hills more and more frequent. The surrounding jungle is beautiful and the mercury rises over 40 degrees easily. Fortunately there are the “iced milk tea” or “Cha” breaks. It takes us 2 days to reach the town, allowing ourselves a stop at pretty waterfalls. Kim, Bruce Willis’ angular lookalike from Pensylvania, warmly welcomes us in his little family: tonight is KFC meal! The evening is great, Kim, an English teacher in a high school, tells anecdotes about the specificities of Thai education and then evokes his bike rides and the countless cyclists welcomed to his home. Great stories!

From Trang we reach Krabi in 2 days of regular pedaling, we find a good rhythm even if Cléa does not lack to yell “Lance Armstrong: not too fast!” On the way we explore an emerald-coloured lake, the water is soft but the atmosphere a little too touristic.

When Thailand rhymes with Disneyland…

Krabi, wedged between huge mangroves visible at low tides and cliffs with gravity-defying silouhettes, has an undeniable charm. We fall even more under the spell at Railay, the adjacent peninsula, which instantly makes us want to put on slippers and harnesses to rock-climb. However, we don’t want to rent at a expensive price or take a course for beginners, and so we are largely satisfied with the few steep trails and a wonderful remote lagoon.

Railay on fisheye

On July 6, we head north to Surat Thani. After 180km of bike – “Russian mountain” rather nice, a parade and a football match catches on the way, we arrive in Surat Thani.

Unexpected Village parade
Local football match, with speaker!

Time to store the bikes in a safe place and we are sailing for a week on Koh Phangan and Koh Tao island. Hell yeah, we’re going to dive!

Cycling in Malaisia!

18th of June 2019, Cléa celebrates her 28th anniversary, it’s raining loudly on Singapore and so we are waiting until the beginning of afternoon to “take off”. Or rather to pedal because here we are, it’s the big start on bicycles! Just the time to thank our Belgian hosts and we are on wheels to cross the City-State.

A great great Thank you !

We first try to find bike paths, interrupted constantly by works, finally we choose a large north-south car axis. Faster, more reliable and relatively safe because Singaporeans drive properly. The country is tiny and we find ourself 4 hours later on the bridge of Johor Bahru, gateway to Malaysia. A real mess: a queue of endless trucks, uninterrupted motorcycles and finally a very basic border post. Not a word of customs, just a stamp for 3 months and it’s done!

A quick stopover in a hostel and we leave the next day to the North East. We pedal in a landscape made exclusively of palm trees, a sign that the oil so criticized in Europe continues to “drive the business”.

A coincidence, at the same time Sylvain reads “L’humanité en péril” by Fred Vargas. The subject is treated as well as many other human damages… Malaysia is the second largest producer of palm oil in the world and in front of our eyes, workers collect large bunches of fruit while we chain the hills below a good 37°C average.

Pee break 🙂

In the afternoon, we arrive at our Warmshowers site: Bob, a 67-year-old man retired, offers a room, a shower, a fresh coconut and even a dinner for passing cyclists. We have the chance to meet Mikel, Basque, and Birgitt-Soren, Danish, long-term cyclists who go down to Singapore and tell us about their experience of the previous countries that we will soon visit: Vietnam, Thailand, etc.

First Warmshowers in an idylic place 🙂

June 20th, we follow the east coast to the north of Mersing. The landscape remains similar but the road becomes fuller of cars. We follow the thin strip of tar on the shoulder and everything is fine! In the evening we camp in a quite nice place, sheltered from the wind and rain by a pine forest, 10m from the China Sea.

Lunch break 🙂

The next day, still heading to the North, the vegetation evolves, the palm trees give way to coconut trees and mango trees appear around the houses. After 100km we reach Kekunang Tering Chalet, a pretty beachside guesthouse where cyclists are welcome. The night is very stormy and we end up installing the hammock under a carbet, the only way to stay dry! Mosquitoes kept us loyal company all night.

Stop at Pantai Kemasik

Kuantan and then Paka follow the next days, we are regularly greeted by passers-by and drivers and we enjoy the good food in the “warungs” on the roadside. We’ve got a sore butt, but we’re in high spirits! Not far from Paka, we visit a turtle sanctuary, sponsored by BP/Petronas Industries which operates a huge refinery a few kilometers away. Greenwashing is ridiculous…

On the 24th we reach the outskirts of Marang and Kuala Terengganu where a new Warmshowers, Abdul, welcomes us very generously. We openly discuss a thousand and one topics with him (religion, food, literature, cycling of course …) and so we have a great time!

Kuala Terengganu Chinatown

Finally, after a stopover on the desert peninsula of Penarik, a chilly and humid night in our great double hammock, here we are in Kuala Besut. In one week, we have traveled a good part of the East Coast so we allow ourselves three days without bicycled on the Perhentian Islands before reaching Thailand!