Flying into Houey Xai is flying into one of those tiny little provincial airports you can only love. A golf cart pulling a trailer brings you luggage from the plane and you have to grab it yourself. The boys in the Vientiane airport wrapped the Specialized in cardboard for 33,000 Kip.
Houey Xai is just plain flat ugly, and full of tourists transiting to and from Thailand, forming queues in front of the Gibbon Experience office. There are restaurants offering continental breakfasts, or muesli and fresh fruits, Internet cafés with miraculously fast connections. I went into town to buy my plane ticket back to Vientiane and thought it was really funny when the girl told me to check in two hours ahead of time – I knew 15 minutes would be enough, and so did she. But that’s the sort of mind-fuck you get used to.
I couldn’t wait to get out of there and so didn’t even visit a food shop to stock up on trekking food like dried fruits. Big, big mistake.
North of Houey Xai the Chinese have built a monster casino with a good road leading there. I bypassed the nightmare, of course, but was able to see the golden dome shimmering in the heat mist. That whole part of the trip is flat. The traditional farms have been evacuated to make way for massive banana plantations with Chinese plated cars parked there, the signs are in Chinese. You know who The Man is up here. My reading material for the trip was The Grapes of Wrath, by Steinbeck, which was perfect reading for going through a land in transition, a land used for cash crops and farmed by people who do not own it.
A propos of nothing, it was wonderful reading American literature again, and it made me want to re-read Mark Twain and Walt Whitman – all those fabulous writers who remind me that America wasn’t always the shithole you see on Jerry Springer Live; it wasn’t always a country full of tearful emotive vegetables suing each other every time they twist an ankle. America really once was a land where an independent spirit could soar … but I digress.
It’s my blog and I’ll digress if I want to, digress if I want to, digress if I want to… when you are on that bike and bumping along those shitty roads, always climbing you would digress, too, if it happened to you. To the left was the Mekong and Thailand and further up Burma.
The land was wrapped in either mist or smoke from slash-and-burn agriculture. Huge fires burned in Burma and in Laos – bits of charred ash would float down onto the road and forest. The air was alive with the smells of honeysuckle and flowing streams and bamboo groves; animals I could not see called to each other from the hidden intimacy of the jungle.
No motorbikes went by. No pick-up trucks or tractors. I was alone in the world. Once that good Chinese concrete ribbon ended the road, the real road began.
Few names are more evocative than that of the Golden Triangle. It brings up memories of the opium wars, British rule in Burma, smuggling through misty mountain passes and tribal life lived as it has been for centuries.
The land is vast, as broad as the eye can see. Of course on a bike I was chained to one small part of the landscape: the ribbon of dust and loose gravel called ‘road’. And since I was not trekking I could not see some of the even more remote places.
The road up the Mekong is magic and rough. I started the trip riding north; with Thailand and later Burma on my left thinking that a road following a river should be easy going so I could ease my way into it slowly. I was so very wrong.
We are not in France anymore and the road was carved out of the hillside above the river, obviously to keep it out of floods’ way. The road was hilly and uncontrollable, made up of either very fine sand my tires could not grip or loose gravel they would slip over.
You cannot gain speed by going downhill quickly to make it up the other side: downhill means thanking good fortune for the Specialized hydraulic brakes and at the bottom of the hill there are often little streams you have to ford. The distances between villages are great. The road is empty.
You are alone in the world.