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Cycling Plus

Cycling Plus #8:
Laos: Chill Out Zone
1/7/99

Fifteen minutes across the Mekong River is all it takes to enter another world. Sharing the boat with fruit, umbrella and electrical appliance-laden Laotians, we stack the bikes up front and chug over from Thailand. It's a hot afternoon; the sky is a pure blue. The palm leaves glisten with recent rain and crumbling architecture fringes the red dirt tracks. Arriving in Savannaket, Laos, is like taking a stride back into 20s colonial France.

I'm joined by Trystan, a friend from sponsors Wheelie Serious Bicycles. 'Sabadi!' is the friendly Laotian welcome called out and children reach out their hands, not for money, but for us to shake them. Used to the Laotian bow, the Western greeting sets off peels of laughter and happy faces. By night, the town shuts early and is thrown into darkness by regular power cuts.

Our route heads east to the Vietnamese border, a short but remote stretch. Storms have brought all-day rain to the area and cake us in a layer of red mud. On this bumpy and jarring 'main' road barely a dozen trucks pass by in either direction. Instead we overtake a stream of cheerful Laotians riding two to a bicycle, enormous water buffalos led by stooped old ladies and naked children calling out incessantly. Villages, clusters of wooden shacks on stilts, offer sticky rice, bananas and Coca Cola. We are put up by the mayor of the province in his office - signing the guest book, I notice almost all his visitors have been cyclists on journeys of their own.

The rough conditions have made me glad that I changed Possum's setup in Bangkok. Gone are the drops, replaced by straight handlebars and a new Softride stem, giving a more upright riding position. I've added XT thumb shifters, simple and reliable, and padded bar ends. Both the chain and the rear cassette have been replaced in readiness for China, where parts may be hard to come by. A few patches on the Ortlieb panniers and Possum is as good as new; glitter balls hanging from the handle bars draw admiring glances from the children.

Life is simple in Laos. The people, not yet weary of tourism, watch foreigners with a mixture of reserved curiosity and unabashed openness. It's hard to imagine such a peaceful and rural country has such a dark past. During the Vietnam War, blanket bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail made Laos the most bombed country per capita in history. Today's only visible clues are leftover craters, and old artillery shells used to prop up houses. It's the hidden remnants which still plague its people - in the area we cycled through, farmers die every month from unexploded ordnance of a war fought over 20 years ago.

Our ride across Laos has only given us a glimpse of this gentle and warm hearted country. But for now, we reach the dusty border town and find a satellite- dished guesthouse. Squeezing into a shoebox room, we admire the plywood partitions and the sagging four poster beds. With a long day ahead, we hit the sack early; blissfully unaware. An hour later, the mike in the adjoining restaurant hums to life and we are treated to a memorable night of Laotian Karaoke. Where's that power cut when you really need it?!

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