May 6th: First Impressions of Laos, Savannaket, LaosA quarter of an hour's boat ride across the Mekong River is all it takes to enter another world. Along with the fruit, umbrella and electrical appliance-laden Laotians, the boat we take sits precariously just above the water line; we stack the bikes up front in the bow, and chug over to the other side. Arriving in Savannaket is like taking a stride back into twenties colonial France. In the hot afternoon, the sky is a pure blue, the palm leaves glisten with recent rain and crumbling French colonial architecture fringes the red dirt tracks - it's Louisiana in 'Angel Heart', albeit with colourful 'Jumbos', three wheeled motorbike taxis.
'Sabadi!' is the friendly Laotian welcome called out to us as we take a tour of the town, looking for somewhere to stay. Savannaket may be one of the country's main towns, but the pace of life is unbelievably calm and tranquil. Sedate. A lot more people seem to cycle, on a mixture of old Chinese bicycles to modern mountain bikes. In many parts of Thailand, a 'farang' (foreigner) barely holds a glance. Here, children reach out their hands, not for money, but for us to shake them. (my cycling partner is 'Wheelie Serious' Trystan Cobbett) Compared to the Laotian bow, the handshake is still a real novelty to them. In the evening a posse of kids insist on holding on to our hands and walk us some of the way home, chattering and laughing away.
We go out for supper for our first taste of local food. Sticky rice is a traditional dish - the rice is rolled into a ball and dipped in a spicy sauce, served with charcoal chicken. Sitting in a little shack on tiny chairs, overlooking the Mekong, we concentrate on swatting flies while the sun sets. There are a few restaurants in town catering to Westerners' 'needs'. Sampling one, the coffee is the the colour of tar and getting on for the consistency of crude oil. Below its viscous jet-black surface lurks sweet condensed milk - the secret ingredient added to almost everything here. The Laotians have a very sweet tooth, ingrained in them from the earliest age - we even saw condensed milk being added to a baby's bottle...
By 10.30 on a Friday night, food stalls are long gone, and bars and restaurants are pulling down their shutters. A few mopeds, dim headlamps reflecting in the misty rain, clatter along the part finished roads. That evening, an electric storm strikes suddenly and with ferocity. When it rains, it really rains! Power cuts throw the town into darkness.
Speaking French has been very handy - finally my degree has come into good use!... Fresh French bread rolls, 'Vache Qui Rit' cheese, and European art deco architecture are all distant echoes of its colonial heritage, lending the town an elegance and timelessness, despite the run down state of most of the these buildings. Indeed, many of the older generation speak French and at the Vietnamese Consulate, where I have had to get my visa corrected, I was able to chat myself out of being overpriced, as most foreigners are.
All around are the unexpected sights that I have come to expect from Asia - I know there'll be something, just not exactly what. Today, we saw two goats on top of a motorcycle taxi. Yesterday we asked directions from a guy with a powerful Honda Shadow; he answered in biker English - 'Hey man, haven't heard of that place!'
Trystan and I are staying in a hotel overlooking the main road - currently half-dug up to be resurfaced. Kids and dogs play in the sand piles; mopeds weave up and down the narrow concrete road. Although the room is a small box, the hotel itself is airy and spacious, wood and tile flooring, with high ceilings - a bargain at a little over a pound a night, including western toilet! The rain continues to pound down intermittently throughout the day. When we dash out to grab some food, all eyes are on us. Down at the market, old ladies in conical hats sell mangos, jackfruit and fresh bread. In other parts of the market, flies swarm around chunks of meat and fish. The locals sit amongst them swatting at the flies. Most of the meat is pretty unrecognisable, but I spot some pigs' trotters leaning up against a wall and a row of tongues hanging from some string - the smell is strong. Within the market, anything can be bought, from bicycle wheels, baseball caps, Chinese medicines to cheap watches. We spot a few other travellers ambling around the town, but most of the bars and little restaurants seem deserted. I'm sure this is set to change. This year is 'Visit Laos Year' and entering the country is a whole lot easier than it used to be - I wonder how it will alter this very peaceful atmosphere.
The general impression I feel is how much more rural it is here than the fast developing Thailand. The streets are dirtier and most of the buildings are run down, though now, intermingled with brand new constructions. It feels a lot poorer, but the people seem more open. Everyone smiles - they're not tired of tourism yet. The older generation are incredibly active, leaping up into the back of bicycle taxis, sitting cross legged peeling a mountain of garlic cloves and fishing in the tributaries of the Mekong. I know that the road we are taking to Lao Bao, on the border with Vietnam, is a relatively short stretch, and will not show us a grat deal of Laos - but it's very remote with few villages along the way, so it should be quite an adventure...