Sunday, April 19, 2015

Six Days to Paklai

For all and in all I had six days.

Between a visit from my sister and brother-in-law 

from France and my wife’s trip to Hanoi with her 

girlfriends I had one day to get to the middle of 

nowhere, four days to cycle around nowhere and 

one day to get back.

A short trip with no wiggle room.

I decided to take the bus the Sanakham for the 
second time: 

and take another route.

This time I hugged the Mekong until it slipped up 

into Laos and then went along the Thai border till 


From there, the dirt road to Paklai. In the old days 

it was said that there used to be a boat service 

from Paklai to Vientiane, but like the bouilleur de 

cru in France, this little bit of romance has gone 

the way of the vespasienne.

So it was the bus back.

This trip is a short tale told in four entries:

Sore Everywhere

Bless the Lao Police

Blinking of the Eye, and

Back to the Mekong

Sore Everywhere

          The bare bones of the day were that I woke up early in Sanakham and had my breakfast, an omelette mixed with green herbs and served on a small mountain of steamed rice with a bowl of soup. I always find the people in this part of the counry so amicable! It is the same in France where people from the West, locked to the sunset, are nicer than anywhere else.

          So, the bare bones of the day were that I covered 65.25 km and cycled for a total of 6 hours, 2 minutes and 33 seconds.

          As soon as I left the Mekong to hug the Thai border on the Nam Heung River the road became very difficult. Before that, though, I had to cross the Mekong by river craft; two canoes planked together and an out-board motor. I loved the crossing and standing there on the plywood plank that was the deck, I felt all at once the exhilirating beauty contained in the possibility that one can decide to change one's life from one moment to the next. How simple and how horribly complex are homo sapiens! Standing there, jostling for balance amid the tame Mekong waves, I looked to the left and the right. It was an overcast day, one of those days when a mist of delicate white hugs the earth until the tree-tops, leaving the entire spectacle of mountains and fields in a lightish blue haze. Distances were cut off from my view by this haze which had settled deeply on the Mekong herself. Mountains rose, large hills rather, as round and full as pregnancy and there I stood playing with the changing perspectives of the Great River east and west.

          Yes! Surely the was a good day to change a life! Certainly these two changing perspectives were the ones telling me to get out of the haze of illusion and see desperately flitting reality for what it was; the time had come to cancel the debt on the past and embrace truth.

          As easy as that sounds, the river crossing was the beginning of the second half of the journey. The roads, less used, were in hideous disrepair and crevices had been allowed to form, crevices the size of minor valley systems. The road on the Thai side was paved, and a marvel of modern surveying techniques: where I had to climb ungrateful hills and clumber down unstable descents the road on the other side rose and fell gently, coaxed as it were by soft asphalt. Still, I would have it no other way.

          Leaving Sanakham I was delighted to smell the air. After living in Vientiane, the air around the fields, with the river just off to my left, smelt like honey.

          Like honey, which is to say that it was rich and deep, of a cleanliness perfumed by orchards and fields. The early morning fires had died down and the brisk ash lingering in the air gave all of space the delicious humect of fresh tea.

          It was not always so. In the land by the river, between where the Mekong drops off like a muscle deep into Lao territory and the Nam Heung, sits an expanse of land where bananas are grown in groves along with man ton.

          The whole place, this entire arm of the country, is a large thick band of fertility. The soil is dark and the river runs red like the Mississippi, although surrounded by hills on either side. Unlike other places in Laos, there are no steps down to this river. It is not wide and it is a border. From the Lao side, at least, no life emerges from it. No steps, no paths, just great forbidding jungle; no vegetable gardens flatter her banks.

          The agriculture in ths place is also very thick and intensive. Many of the surrounding hills have been burnt bare by the peasants with man ton planted row by row like Flanders Field. All throughout the fields of them men and women were hard at work clearing. Their features were covered against the dust and soot by  knitted face masks and they wore heavy clothing despite the heat. Machetes, axes and hoes went up and down battering the soil and remaining tree trunks as though the earth were something to be punished. When I cycle by, the workers stop and shout, cheering. In fields where this work had already been completed, I could see a solitary worker – also heavily dressed – and carrying a yellow tank on this back, spraying. All over this pastoral setting seeped the unpleasant chemical smell of diffused poison.

          At one point I had to clear over an expanse of road under construction made muddy by watering. The mud of it got into every pore of Charlene and ripped the lubrication off her chain and gears. I stopped at a halted lut tai ( that had a bottle of motor oil in the carriage and waited for the owner to descend from the hill to ask him if I coul take some oil for my gears. "Is this motor oil (nam man)?" I asked.

          "No", he answered and used a word I did not know. So I took up the bottle to look inside and there I saw the milky liquid and could smell all the horrifying ramifications.

          Inside was the sticky white water, the poison male gift unforgivingly given to a forgiving Earth. Deep in the horrifying bowels of a factory somewhere, a human masticating machine with tubes and pipes and clock-ins, in a place designed to pervert the dreams and lives of its workers, deep in such a place this deadly sperm was being enacted. Man had found another way to rape the land; it was no longer enough, no longer economically satisfying, to abuse nature on a small scale. Now an entire system had to be implemented so that some people could have their daily orgasm, their exploiting discharge as money clattered into the bank.

          I never thought cycling would turn me into a feminist.

          To make a long story short, the air stank with it.

          The rest of the way to Kenthao was rough, especially when I passed kilometre 50 on the speedometer. I had calculated with Google Earth that this was a distance I would do that day but of course I cannot take every gully and tire distraction into account. The bottom line is that km. 50 is some sort of psychological barrier for me.

          There were no places to eat along the way, either, so I had to make do with industrial noodle soup in a shop. All this meant that I was weak and stretched. Every inch forward was like climbing the Everest. I was losing control of my body.

          In mid-afternoon the blanket haze had given way to a dull warm sunshine, but as I climbed the last painful crest to Kenthao thunder clouds began to gather and threaten over Thailand. The river below rushed red and furious in its shortened banks and tiny rain drops began to hit the fine yellow sand of the road, creating miniscle moon craters on its surface. The rain at that point was not heavy enough to turn the track to mud and just light enough to flatter the air with freshness.
          When I entered the town and the road became asphalt the rain began in earnest and drenched me.

          It was all delight, a joyeous undertaking, a limpid exhilaration: I was wiped of the day's dust by that one act of grace.



Bless the Lao Police

          People who know about muscles and stuff will tell you not to work out streneously two days in a row. The first workout pushes some sort of acid out of your unused muscles while tearing them. If you don't give your body a chance to rest then all kinds of damage can occur. So after yestday's gruelling 65 km I got up and did another 25. This was against my body's better judgment and it protested.

          The sun, even shortened by the clouds, was extravegant in its pain and I was perspiring so profusely I thought that every vital fluid was leaving my body. After a horrid lunch of fried garbage balls I went to siesta in a Vat in Ban Nahin (see photos).

          I thought I was nice and refreshed after a doze and a coffee, but I was just wrong! A few minutes back in the saddle were enough to prove that I simply wasn't going anywhere.

          But this silly country! There is no shade anywhere! On the cut-off from the N4 to the dirt road leading to Paklai I fell into a heap of unconciousness on the outdoor wooden bed of a service station and there I lay and could move no more.

          I was simply shattered. The view was an ugly road and some petrol pumps. I would have wished for a more romantic view of rolling hills, but that is what I got stuck with. After a tiny rain I got back on Charlene and half way up yet another gruelling climb I was stopped by the police.

          The police in this country are in a league of their own. After a bit of friendly banter they asked to see my passport and even took a photo of it with a smartphone. Luckily I speak Lao well enough now to present well, as a teacher in Vientiane. They gave me a bottle of ice-cold water and offered to take me to the next village.

          They finally dropped me 10 km up the road and introduced me to the nai ban. They wouldn’t let me take their photos, but now we’re friends on Facebook!

          I washed up and walked to the temple. A rain and violent wind started up and all the earth smelt of goodness from the sky; I was tired, so tired.

A Blinking of the Eye

Ban Pakkem

          That night ended a lightning storm right over Ban Pakkem accompanied by rain of deluvian proportions.

          Someone in the nai ban's house was snoring monumentally at about 23:00, and rather than go squeeze his nose or make noises like Louis Funèse in "La Grande Vadrouille", I put in my industrial strength Canadian Shoppers Drug Mart ear plugs and went back to sleep.

          Sleep. A sleep as sweet as death, this slumber was a never-ending descent into a timeless restfullness; a heavenly repose, a lithe and supple dream time perfumed by only sweet memories. I had opened the window of my room on the stuffy top floor and the cool star-filled breeze was collecting itself in patterns of joy all above and throughout the mosquito net provided for me by my hosts.

          I could feel my thigh muscles relaxing, almost breathing like lungs.

          At about 5:00 a thick and deaf rumbling began to pound its way through the ear plugs, as though a thousand drummers on a distant hilltop were trying to breach the distance and establish contact with the village. I opened my eyes in the dazed nether-light of my forgotten dream and it occurred to me to take out my ear plugs.

          When I did, the truth of the situation hit me. A rain, a big one.

          Just to place this in its correct and entire context: this was to be my last cycling trip on the back roads before the monsoon hits and turns the entire country into a river of mud. I have another big trip planned for May on an asphalt road out of Oudomxay, but this was meant to be my last gasp into the heartland of Laos while I could still pedal before the  ຂີ້ຝຸ່ນ (dust) turned into ຂີ້ຕົມ (mud).

          And now it was raining. And not just raining! The tin roof of the house was like a sound box, exaggerating every single sound, every one of the millions of droplets until the depths of despair. Lightening, followed in rapid succession by thunder, first cut the air and then propulsed it. The building actually moved. The storm was right above our heads.

          I got up to look out the window, visions of my head struck by lightening never far from my imagination, and there saw the entire village and valley beyond beset by the staccato blinking of the Universal Eye.

          Out there, to the right, there seemed to be a mountain. The base of it was lit from the interior, as though it were built of a florescent transmitting rock. It was only later that I realized that I was looking at the crown of the Buddha tree growing in the back of the Vat garden I had visited that very night.

          Indeed, that night after dinner and after darkness had descended over all the land I walked down the path to the Vat and wondered through the grounds shining my flashlight on the temple frescoes:

                   A woman took an arrow shot into her flank by a monkey-monster;

                   People crossing a river carry a musical instrument;

                   A pair of masks in horrifying and morbid black and white;

                   Buddha is being born – gods are smiling, and Krishna is too. A heavenly woman showers the baby with flower petals: the Universe, at peace, is finally facing redemption.

          But now in the total darkness punctuated only by lightning throngs the Vat was black invisible and the tree looked like a mountain lit from within.

          As much as I loved the sound and smell of the rain and the deep throat-filled rumbling of the thunder, I stood there cursing my luck. I turned my flashlight outside to get a view of the village and the rooftops but the beam was halted within a meter or two by a wall of heavy drops.

          Even if the rain stops immediately, I thought, it will take hours for the sun to dry the mud. But the rain did not stop immediately at all. It carried on with a vengeance well until 8:00. It carried on while the children walked to school in their uniforms: white shirts for all, black trousers for the boys and a dark sin with silver trim for the girls. It carried on while the village dogs sat with their ears held back. It carried on while the roosters crowed to the invisible fleeting sun.

          The sun cleared the slogging earth just enough to let it compact under the early morning load of trucks and public transport. It was neither ຂີ້ຕົມ nor ຂີ້ຝຸ່ນ, and the air smelt as though it had been pulverized with a fine mist composed of mountain honey and citrus flowers. All along the path the immediate vegetation was pristine and collected as if the evening’s storm had forced it to control its contrasts, paradoxes and get a hold on itself.

          Rain laden leaves, thick with slated thirst, flittered in the wind. I could almost hear their untroubled voices this morning calling victory and vigour against the cruel fate that had littered the sides of the road with other, less fortunate debris.

          The distant hills still stood hidden and alone, as if lost in thought, meditating on the futility of expectation.

          I myself was reminded of a beautiful contradiction in which I found myself just the night before when I went for my constitutional around the temple grounds: I had come across a fresco of the Buddha locked in a state of meditation, protected by the seven-headed cobra which symbolizes to my mind the serendipity brought by nature when all is going well. He sat there, the Great Man, with his eyes partly closed and all the Universe serendipiting to help him out of the jam of existence and longing. On his countenance he wore the kind of satisfied smile that quite frankly infuriates everybody.

          I found myself in the following paradox: I saw for the first time that the real peace proposed by Buddha was liberation from desire and its evil twin brother, envy. At the same time I found myself desiring to be in that state and envying anyone who was in that state. The envy, the jealousy I felt in my heart was so great that I think that if Buddha would have rolled up to me then and there I probably would have smacked him out of sheer annoyance!

          How dare he be free of envy while I am stuck in the mire of desiring to be free of desire?




My last cycling day took me from Houaybouha to

Paklai. 48.36 km on roads worn just wet enough 

to be comfortable by the rain.

Charlene, you see, don’t cycle in the rain, so I had 

to wait for it to stop. It drizzled for hours. If I 

could have jumped on a pick-up truck or tuk-tuk 

going my way it would have been with pleasure.

When it finally stopped raining at about 13:00 I 

got on the saddle, and all the way to Paklai, at 

least until I hit the new paved road between the 

city and the Thai border, not one conveyance 

passed me.

Paklai is a sweet enough little town. The 

guesthouse recommended in the Rough Guide no 

longer exists and the only place with a view on the 

Mekong was a humidity stained dump with a 

bumpy mattress and extremely fickle hot water 


Still, that view! The sheer and utter majesty of 

that River! The power and light it radiates gives 

life and meaning to the land! 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Of Mice And Men

The plan, as you can follow on the map, was to fly into Sam Neua, cycle up to the Nam Ma River and follow it to Mouang Et, then follow the Et River down to paths leading back to Sam Neau.

It didn't exactly work out that way after Nouang Et since the road down the Nam Et River lead to a big fat nowhere and the mountain roads were rough, really rough.

There are eight blog entries to this trip:

Cast A Giant Shadow

By The Waters Of Sam Neua

Lao Pastoral

Sop Bao

Mouang Et

Enough Is Enough

Indian Food, and

Sugar Loaf Mountain.

Thanks for reading.

Cast A Giant Shadow

There are many things to love about living here, in Laos. Your entire being can sing rhapsodic over the country roads and the ancient temples, the fine smiles on the faces of incredibly honest people. I have often delighted in the full view of fruits in a market or a mountain range at my feet. One of the lesser sung delights of life here are the airlines.

If you can survive them, flying around is wonderful.

Getting information is a joy in itself. First of all, you never know which airlines flies to which destination and what the name of that destination is. Looking for flights to the Sam Neua airfield was easier once I had figured out that the tiny airport was called HuaPhan, after the province. The same holds true if you wish to fly to Phonsavan, which everybody calls Xiangkhoang.

Then, there was the discovery of an airlines no one had ever told me about, Lao Sky. I went on line to book my flight, but on-line payment was impossible. Just click on the 'Pay Now' icon to watch your Visa card information dissappear into cyber for an indefinite period of time. Luckily there is a cancel button. No travel agencies in town deal with them. On their web-site is a number to call, which I did; and here the true miracle began.

A woman speaking very good English answered, she took my information and within seconds we were making arrangements on WhatsApp. Payment was simple with my BCEL debit card, although they got my name wrong on the ticket and made the ticket out to one Miteklhel Syijimnn, clearly a Serbo-Croatian refugee of undetermined status.

The true miracle of living here is the people. I had no idea just how small the plane was and arriving with Charlene at the airport I was met with the fatal, 'bo dai' (cannot) so familiar to ex-pats. But smile, just smile at the Lao, and watch those doors open up. When I showed them that the back wheel could be taken off they found a large clear plastic sheet in which to wrap her and the deed was done.

Another miracle of the Lao is how they deal with regulations. Baggage allowance was 15 kg, with a tiny carry-on. Charlene is 12 kg without the racks, but my saddle bags weighed a tragic ton, so when they asked me to weigh them I just smiled and said, 'no problem, carry on'. OK, no problem. Big smiles all around. Carry on. Try bending those rules anywhere else!

The airplane was small. Tiny. Was it an airplane or a flying scooter? No overhead compartment. No overhead anything. No toilet even, so if you're flying on Lao Sky, I suggest you piss before you board.

Let's talk about both flights, there and back. I had left the clear plastic sheet at the airport in Sam Neua for my return flight and it was waiting for me. It wasn't even sure I could get a flight back because it had been foggy the day before and in case of fog the plane cannot arrive from Vientiane. Seems someone had neglected to put lights on the sides of the runway. So, no flights in fog, no flights at night ... if there is a real problem in Sam Neua you may be up shits creek with narry a paddle.

The morning of my flight back I received a message on WhatsApp confirming they would fly that day. The flight back was rough. Turbulance in a big bird is bad enough with your Bloody Mary firmly in your hand and a stewardess smiling reassuringly but up there in a flying contraption made of rice paper you can really measure that plunging into that green expanse of mountain would not be a friendly experience.

We entered a cloud bank over the centre of the country and the pilots started playing frantically with their GPS and weather systems until they finally gave up. The co-pilot said something to the pilot and pointed to his left. 'Fuck it, turn that way', was probably the gist of it. He turned left and I lived to tell the tale.

A bit of philosophy. A friend asked if I had prayed and I answered that I saw no point in troubling God with my petty problems. She asked, 'I thought that was what God was for?' I really gave this a lot of thought, up there. After all, the hand of God could just as easily have tipped the wing of that aircraft and sent us all plunging to our earthly deaths. I told my friend that trees are for giving shade, meaning that the function of trees is to exist – their shade giving is a fortunate by-product of that existence, nothing else. These thoughts were really on my mind as the little craft bounced and tossed upon the clouds up there. For a while I thought I was really going to die, but even then I refused to pray. What is the point of insulting the millions of true believers who went to their deaths as martyrs with a useless prayer on their lips? I much prefer the image of the Chassidic court in Poland that went, on masse, dancing into the gas chambers since their belief system had convinced them that resistance was futile. What is the point of inulting a deity who, if It had the time, should be busy curing bone cancer in children or stopping the civil war in Syria? My thoughts turn to a recent thing going around Facebook: a little boy in Syria whose dying tortured words were, "I'm going to tell God everything". His accusation and threat were more than poignant – he was going to tattle on all those fanatics and tell God what the real scoop was. His anger and indignation left a lasting impression on me. What is my prayer, then, in the shadow of his young despair?

Instead, I decided to enjoy the ride and – if possible – enjoy my death. What the hell, I thought, do I have to gain by not enjoying my death? It's the only death I'm going to have: I might as well go for it. 

By The Waters Of Sam Neua

I sat down and wept.

It was very easy taking the back wheel off Charlene, but the truth is, I had never done it before. I imagined putting it back on and slipping the cogs onto the chain while pulling the derailleur back would be as easy as it was when I was a kid. Remember those Simplex derailleurs?

It was not so easy. In fact, it was impossible. The Shimano XTR is a wonderous thing, light as air and as smooth as silk but a total bitch if you don't have three hands.  Sweating, covered in dirt and surrounded by giggling airport staff I gave up and called Sara Melki.

Sara Melki is a crazy French girl who bears an uncanny ressemblance to my daughter, Cléa, and they are the same age. Sara is a cycling freak, worse than most, and she built her own mountain bike out of bamboo – with the help of Willy at Top Cycle on 47 Don Palan Street in Vientiane. Fine, anybody can build a bicycle out of bamboo if they are insane enough, but Sara then rode it, solo, from Vientiane to Marseille.

So you can see that Sara was just the kind of fanatic I needed then and there. Luckily for me she lives in Sam Neua, of all places, working on a project having to do with ... bamboo, of course! Sara didn't answer, so I put poor Charlene back together as best I could and walked her to the hotel.

It took Sara about 1.7 seconds to put the wheel back on, giving me that look that says, 'old imbecile', and of course she was right. What kind of mad person goes traipsing around the middle of nowhere on a bike he can't even maintain?

Sara's blog:

The nicest thing about Sam Neua is the road out of it. On the road to Vieng Xay I came upon a party of H'Mong school kids.

After a phô I left the main road to make my way toward the Nam Ma River. I was once again in the homeland of my heart: blue skies and comfortable temperatures with Charlene humming perfectly along dirt roads. The air was pure, so pure that when a motorbike did pass I could smell its exhaust for long minutes. Pauvres de nous who breathe in city air day after day.

Lao Pastoral

    The bare facts of the place, a smoke-filled hamlet made of bamboo and wood. Women cut roots outside their homes. This close to the Vietnamese border and already nobody smiles and people pretend you aren't there.

    A short walk through the village and every shade of wood. The village air is filled with cooking smoke and the smell of rice whisky. Wafts of it radiate around the seemingly old structures.

    I find refuge in the nai ban's house. He has a sound system he is very proud of, ripped speakers and all. The villagers must know I am already taken care of and that there is no danger in smiling at me now and so old women with lacquer blackened teeth line up to have me take their photos.

    Children fight over a toddler as if it were a rag doll, one foot pulled here, an arm pulled there amongst general hilarity; the toddler is as passive as a palm tree.

    Climbing the hill out of the village on foot pushing Charlene I am accompanied by two children who walk at an arm's length. They are well behaved, not trying to provoke with 'hello's and 'whatsyourname?'s. They talk gently among themselves, their light banter going back and forth in tones as fleeing as skipping stones.

    They are rebuilding the road. Huge earth-moving machines have made it up here and are tearing walls out of the hillsides, creating sheer cliff faces in the place of slopes. The smell of the freshly bared earth reminds me of the scent of newly turned earth in my old garden in Burgundy; you can almost scent the earth worms wiggling in their galleries burrowing calm moisture.

    The intercises caused by the machine leave a cross-section of the planet visible; you can clearly see that the top-soil is a tiny, a really tiny layer of brown upon which we live. We owe our livelihoods and good fortunes to a few centimetres of humus stuck between the air and the hard ungiving rock.