Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sloop John B

If I would have thought about it more clearly I guess I could have figured it out for myself. As it is, I had to learn the hard way: there are several different types of roads in Laos, some of which deserve to be avoided.

There are the tiny little red dirt roads leading in and out of picturesque villages full of happy people. Women sit under their stilt houses weaving ethnic scarves while men are engaged in manual labour. Children call out “falang! falang!”, running out of the protective shade to wave at you.

The views are sloping terraced rice paddies and field salas. You don't mind the dust because life is flourishing so beautifully all around you.

Doesn`t that sound nice?

To get to roads like that you often have to take major roads, largish paved things with bits of macadam chunked out of them. You have to negotiate the bike between the roaring diesel dams and the gravel. The sides of the road are littered with filth.

There are also paved roads that are surprisingly pleasant, like the road between Hinheup and Ban Tha.

But the road I took after Ban Tha, the one leading down to the Mekong was really a shithole's shithole. Paved in parts, hot dry and dusty in others, it was a major artery with major road dust inconvenience.

In fact, I had planned to leave that road and climb West over a cordillera to another very minor road, but Charlene's dérailleur began to malfunction and I felt I couldn't take a chance with it. So I just kept heading toward the Mekong.

The area was filled with unfriendly people, some of whom were thieves since they tore the speedometer off Charlene when I was enjoying a lovely meal of 'steak Lao', morning glory and sticky rice at a local eatery. The meal was pretty nice, actually.

When I complained to the 'guest house' (closed concrete boxes, malfunctioning fans, spit marks on the walls...) owner she called the police who came post haste. The next morning I was invited to the police station to make a formal complaint and admire the cobwebs and dirty dishes. To give the guest house owner credit, she proposed giving me 1,000 Bhat to compensate my loss, although this I refused.

This was indeed a strange part of the country. For the first time since being in Laos I was also physically threatened, as kids in the bamboo houses behind the guest house threw rocks on the roof of my room. I showed the police the guilty houses and explained to them that the people therein were in a perfect position to see when the falang was going out and coming back. They looked at me and smiled.

To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, 400,000 Kip went up in smoke.

And the road went on. Dust and trucks, roadside bordellos and restaurants. Imagine visiting France and being stuck in Châteauroux or Vierzon or visiting the United States and only seeing Buffalo and you will get an idea of my state of mind.

The natural beauty of the landscape was made all the crueler by its destruction. Large machines were eating into mountainsides, garbage was either strewn on the side of the road or being burnt. You could close your eyes and know you were near a village by the smell of burning plastic...

All this time I was able to consider map reading, trying to learn my lesson: Small roads through ethnic minority areas – yes. Larger roads providing the only single arteries through an otherwise unserved area – no. Roads with ratty guest houses and roadside bordellos – no. Areas with no tourist accommodation other than the kindness of strangers – yes. Bolaven Plateau type places with comfortable resorts, clean sheets and bacon and eggs for breakfast – yes.

This trip left me with the impression of being in a country that was slowly raping herself and I felt the urgency of seeing her while she still existed.
Re: The photos on this update. I have decided to spare you the roadside attractions...