Day 26:  30 January :  Huay Xai to Baan Donchai :  73km and 1200m of climbing

Today was back on the trikes, a day involving 50% more climbing than any other day on the trip so far and our first significant “loss” – namely the top of Bernie’s flag which must have bounced off at some point on the bumpy Laos roads.  We retraced our steps for a few km after I discovered it was missing, but it must have come off some time earlier.  So someone in Laos has become the proud owner of a plastic flag pole with a Union Jack and an EU flag.  We will have to replace it when we get to the next major town, which will probably be Luang Nampha.

This is my bit of road – and I am not moving for anyone!

The day started with us failing to get going quickly, despite waking early.  I have no idea why some mornings we bounce out of bed and are on the road in no time and on other mornings we raise faffing around to an art form as we delay getting on our bikes. Today was a faffing morning but we were still on the road soon after 7.30am. 

Our route took us through the town and then along Highway 3, going North East into Laos.  There was development along the road for miles and miles, and it must have been 20km before we were really in the countryside. Planning rules would prevent this in the UK and Europe, but things might be different here.  

The road climbed into the countryside, as we knew because we had been driven along it 2 days previously to get to the start of the Gibbon Experience trek.  After 32km we reached a village that signified the start of the first major climb of the day – about 400m upwards.  It was marked as over 12% on our maps but actually was between 9% and 10% most of the way up and was not too bad.  The views at the top were hazy, as we looked over a mixture of jungle and parched farmed land.  The fields are only used intensively in the rainy season and look a bit sorry for themselves for the rest of the year.  

There is deep jungle to the North of the road and some agriculture to the south.  The jungle goes more or less all the way to the Chinese border, with most of it being a national park.  The battle between creating enough farmland to produce food for a growing population and maintaining the virgin forests is a perpetual battle.  We are not sure who is winning overall, but the intrusions into the forest do not appear significant in this area and tourism, which depends on the maintenance of the forests, is a big industry.

We swooped down from the top of the first climb and had an early lunch which we cooked up at the Gibbon Experience roadside shack – noodles, chopped tomatoes, boiled eggs and sticky rice.  We were warned that getting fresh food in Laos is difficult – with noodles and eggs being mainstays of the diet.  Our dinner might be remarkably similar.  

Bernie and the helpful chap at the Gibbon Experience Shack

We were soon off and into new territory, with the road winding through verdant forests.  No one appears to have told the road engineers that it was OK to have a flat section – it seemed always to be going up or down and we were clocking up the climbing metres.  The road was quiet with only the very occasional Chinese registered lorry.  They gave us a wide berth, and often the co-driver was hanging out of the window with his mobile phone to video the strange vehicles that they were passing. 

We passed through small villages which mainly consisted of small shacks with rattan walls with the occasional concrete house. Here we generated vast numbers of smiles, waves, “very good”s and thumbs up.  In one slightly bigger village with a primary school we could hear voices ringing out ‘Falang, falang’ – the universal word for a white foreigner in most of SE Asia. Children sprinted along to get a good look at us. We must have seemed very odd to them (as indeed we appear very odd even in the UK!)

We did not see another long distance cyclist all day, despite this being the only road.  So we are intrepid or foolish – maybe both.  The scenery continued to be delightful all afternoon.

A few more significant climbs and then we reached the village of Baan Donchai where there was reputed to be a “guest house”.  We confidently expected to be the only guests and were not disappointed.  It was very basic and the room had the hardest bed that we have encountered – and there is quite a competition for that accolade. However the room was huge so we could park the bikes inside, there was electric light and even a shower with hot water……at least Bernie had hot water, it ran out half way through David’s shower.  One of life’s unfairnesses!

As soon as we arrived we were surrounded by small, grubby and happy children who, on discovering the astonishing fact that we could not speak Lao, started to tell us words!  They were fascinated by everything about us and everything we did, and had no concept of interpersonal space at all.  Hence Bernie had 3 children draped around her as she tried to catch up with messages from friends at home on her phone.  This was delightful and frustrating in equal measures but we certainly don’t need to go on a trek to see Loatian village life – it is here and up close and personal.  

Our teachers

Overall we were pretty pleased with our efforts today.  We climbed over 1200m, much of it steep (but not punishingly so like the other day) and started to experience rural Laos – basic and poor but not starving.  A good day even though we are both tired now and wonder how our 60+ year old bodies will react in the morning.

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