Today was a shortish cycling day – not too far and not too much climbing, and thus a chance to spend the afternoon exploring a town in Northern Laos, Luang Nampha.
We were on the road by about 7.15 and the day dawned with a thick mist – covering the road and surrouding areas. It made cyling tricky as it easier to hear oncoming lorries than see them. The mist was much thicker than on previous days and stayed around until about 10.30 – far longer than previous morning mists. It meant we did not see much of the valley that we were cycling through – just the mist and occasional steep slopes with rubber trees. There are extensive rubber tree plantations in Laos and many new trees have been planted in the last 20 years, feeding the former seemingly insatiable demand from industrial China for rubber. It used to be known as “white gold” but there was a crash in the rubber price in 2011, when the price fell from $4.82 per kilo and is now as low as $1.20 per kilo in late 2022, recovering a little to $1.44 at the moment. I think that is becasue synthetic alternatives are now preferred to rubber, and they can no doubt be produced at a fraction of the price. I mention this because, once the trees are planted, the farmers in these remote communities have little practical choice apart from tapping rubber and selling it on, but they are at the mercy of a hugely fluctuating world price.
We were moving from an area where there appear to be virtually no tourists (or Western travellers) and into an area where the economy is partly funded by tourism. That did mean we saw our first proper coffee shop for several days and it was too tempting to pass by – and the coffee was very good indeed.
The enthusiasm shown to greet us as we pass did not seem to be affected by whether we were in a tourist area or not. Westerners – collectively “falang” – have a reputation here for being somewhat miserable (or so we are told). The Lao people are naturally exuberant and this comes out when they see us as we cycle by – and I think they expect us to be just as exuberant back to them. But here is the rub – they do it once when we pass their village but we experience this hundreds of times a day. The cries of “sabaydee” (a form of greeting), “hello” or even “goodbye” ring in our ears as we pass through every village – because we are pretty unusual for them. There are not too many falang on trikes along this road! We can feel a bit overwhelmed by needing to respond every time but, to some extent, we have chosen to do this and have to live up to the choices. That means calling out in return, waving and being as enthusiastic as we can in the brief seconds before we move on – partly out of respect and partly so as to scotch the miserable foreigner tag.
The AR3 road – the only road – was good in places. At times the tarmac was fine but there were fairly long stretches with no tarmac at all – just stones and dirt. We did two major climbs and were making good progress but then hit a section of about 10km with bits of tarmac and bits without. This is one of the few major roads in Northern Laos, and is a major through route for lorries going from China to Thailand, so the lorries have the same challenge but they ride over the rough stuff better than us. Sometimes we were struggling to pick our way through the dirt sections enveloped by dust from a lorry that had passed the other way. But they never lasted that long and the joy of smooth tarmac (with potholes of course) soon returned.
Despite the quality of the surface, the ride was fantastic through a valley which was beautiful with steep sided mountains coming down to a lovely river which wound its way through a cultivated valley floor.
We arrived at the town of Luang Nampha for a late lunch. We checked into our guest house – spurning the “VIP room” at 250,000 kip and settling for the standard room at 150,000 kip (i.e. £7.50 for both of us). Perspectives change and the extra £5 for the higher quality room did not seem a good deal – ridiculous really in any objective sense. Then to the market for “pho” – soup with loads of fresh vegetables; and then picking up provisions for the next few days when we may have to camp.
Luang Nampha is the largest town we have seen in Laos. We passed huge motorbike sales pitches with hundreds of bikes for sale (it would not be right to call them showrooms) and also places to buy agricultural machinery – tractors, JCB equivalents (all Chinese of course) and implements for doing all manner of things to soil. This seems a fairly thriving area, with a bit of eco-tourism on top – trekking, rafting and the like. It is very different from the subsistance farming villages we have been passing through for the past few days.