Day 37: Saturday 11th February: Muang Hiam/Vieng Thong to Sam Nuea by bus.

So we have reached Sam Nuea, just 80km from the Vietnam border.  It is a town with a “soviet” feel to it with a monument to the victory in the last war (against the Amercians that ended in 1973).  It is the last major place in Laos and we soon we hope to cross into Vietnam to start our third country on this tour of South East Asian countries.  And then, after visiting Hanoi, start to work our way south towards Ho Chi Minh City.  After that it will be a flight home and back to Shropshire for the spring.  That is still a month away but the time has flown by and it is weird to be thinking about the last leg of this amazing journey.  But, to put it in perspective, we still have more than double the time people get for a 2 week holiday – so no complaints at all.

However, today is a chance to reflect on what we have seen and experienced over the last few weeks.  So this is a blog with some reflections on Laos.

The bus journey today took us along a road we would have loved to cycle but the gradients and the remoteness were beyond us.  The road followed a ridge with spectacular views on both sides.  It would be unfair to the views to say it was “more of the same” mountain views but it was both fantastic and not that different to the mountainous views we have enjoyed over the past week or so. We passed two heavily laden touring cyclists on mountain bikes going slowly near the top of one of the climbs.  They looked much younger than us and, although we both had a touch of envy (as it would have been a beautiful road to cycle), we felt that we made the right choice in bypassing yet another set of serious climbs on roads which were a toss up between tarmac and sand.

Getting the folded trike on to the bus

The road took us through a series of villages – with huge numbers of children on the side of the road.  Life in Laos happens out in the open.  It often seems the job of children under 10 to look after the babies – both boys and girls – as we saw young children with babies stapped to their backs.  There also appears to be under-employment on display, with lots of adults sitting around, especially at this time of year.  I suspect the countryside will spring into life in the wet season and everyone will be in the fields.  But at this point in the annual cycle, there seems less to do and there is lots of sitting around open fires, at all times of the day.

Travelling through the mountainous jungle areas here shows up a tension between the needs of the growing population and the needs of the fragile jungle environment.  Laos has about 7.5 million people, and the number is growing – by about 1.4% per year.  In crude terms, the population is growing because, for 1000 people each year, 23 children are born and only 6 people die.  

Although this is a poor country, its economy is said to be growing at about 7% a year and the number of people in poverty is slowly falling year by year.  The Lao government claims 100% of people have access to electricity which may be a slight exaggeration, but power pylons followed every road we cycled taking electricity from village to village.   However there is no system for waste disposal and the constant levels of discarded plastics are an obvious problem.

As we cycled we saw areas of the jungle being cut back to provide new farmland, probably to grow vegetables and fruit (mainly oranges and bananas).  It was depressing to see columns of smoke as new areas of jungle were cleared.  We wonder how much natural jungle will be left in future decades, but there are large national parks and their presence may be stopping localised deforestation in those areas.  The jungle we have cycled through is home to a wide variety of species of birds and animals, and is also part of the earth’s lungs to counter effect global warming.  But we suspect Laos gets only very limited benefits from the wider good that its forests deliver to the world.  That is something where there are different perspectives in international climate change conferences, but it really comes home to us here.

Laos people are some of the most helpful, friendliest and most welcoming we have come across anywhere in the world.  When they see our trikes, huge smiles spread across the faces of both children and adults.  They may well be an element of them laughing “at” us, because what we are doing must seem utterly bizarre to them.  I can imagine them thinking “Where is the engine?” or “Can’t they afford a motorbike?”  But equally we are made very welcome cycling through their country, and there is an appreciation of the physical effort involved in cycling – lots of thumbs up and “very goods” called out to us as we pass.

Finally, a canine observation.  Lao dogs are the most laid back and least territorial we have come across.  Some lie in the road on hot tarmac and will not move for anything, so the traffic has to steer round them.  Others amble around the villages as pets but none have been aggressive to us.

We will leave Laos with fond memories of a country with a tragic history of conflict, that is struggling to make progress and bring its people out of poverty but has enormous human, economic and environmental challenges ahead.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s