The Mighty Mekong

During our ride from northern Thailand through Laos and across the north of Cambodia we have ridden alongside, criss-crossed and been ferried across the mighty Mekong and its many tributaries. 





 We have enjoyed breakfasts and afternoon drinks watching its quiet waters slide by, carrying boat loads of people, goods and animals. Many a morning we have woken to great views of the river at dawn from our little room.





The Mekong is mostly a shallow, wide river, but between southern Laos and Cambodia it splits into numerous channels around the area known as Sipandon or 4000 Islands.  



Between some of these islands it becomes a raging torrent, cascading down limestone gorges.  This area of waterfalls is not navigable by boats and has frustrated many including the French, who so wanted access up the river to China that they purpose built a short railway just to cart gun boats, river cargo boats and eventually commercial goods around the waterfalls. 



We spent a few days island hopping in this region. We nearly didn’t go as it is a known tourist hot spot, but we were so glad we did as it proved easy to evade the tourists and see a very different part of Laos. 



There is the natural beauty, the French historical remains, but mostly an ancient agriarian culture that hasn’t yet undergone major change. Todays teenagers can and do still fish and farm just as their great great grandparents did. Only small changes to traditional technology and simple machinery are apparent. 



The most obvious being mobile phones and satellite dishes which impact on people’s world view. And, unfortunately, plastic rubbish is everywhere, including in the river.



Riding the small tracks around the islands that still don’t have cars was a joy.  The tiny boats between islands (often operated by women) make island hopping easy, and at least three islands have guesthouses.





The people living on the banks of the Mekong drink, wash and rely on the waters to grow their staple foods.  Surprisingly, given the number of nets used, they also manage to catch a surprising array fish and aquatic life of all sizes – for now.   





Rare Illawaddy dolphins are hanging onto life in the river by their fin tips but are threatened with extinction. 



The last time we crossed the Mekong near Strung Treng in northern Cambodia it was at least 1 km wide, shallow and slow moving again. 

As we said our farewells to it we reflected on it’s importance as a waterway for millions of people. But it’s overuse, what ends up in it and the talk of new dams are all threatening to destroy this important resource.



It is a great river and has supported the growth of  human cultures for thousands of years. Hopefully we can change our ways and ensure it is there for the next few millennia.

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Luang Prabang

Crossing the confluence of the Mekong & Nam Kan

Crossing the confluence of the Mekong & Nam Kan

Luang means Capital in Lao, and Luang Prabang was the former capital of Laos until Vientiane became the capital under the French late in the 19th century. Luang Prabang wears it’s

Inside Wat Xieng Thong Buddas

Inside Wat Xieng Thong Buddas

French architecture and orderly gardens like a grand old lady.  In addition it has World Heritage status for it’s Buddhist heritage including over 30 temples.

 

So it’s an interesting place. But we felt a bit guilty enjoying it because it didn’t feel like Laos: cleaner streets with gutters and footpaths; shops with lots of European food choices (bread!); traffic organisation (Laos style) including large vehicles being banned in the centre etc.  Of course just a couple of ks down the road the real Laos returns with all the fumes and noise it can muster.

 

Buddhism and monasteries are still core to the people of the town and one of the most moving sights is before dawn every day, when hundreds of saffron clad monks walk the streets in single files, silent except for chanting blessings as they accept alms from the townsfolk. Women sit and some men stand on the footpaths with big containers of sticky rice (or other food) and place some in each Monk’s bowl as they file past.

Early morning Alms

Early morning Alms

Waiting in line!

Waiting in line!

Some, in fact many from rural temples, are only 12 or 14 years old, still tiny in stature. By becoming a monk they can continue with schooling that otherwise their parents couldn’t afford. We have met several men who were monks for their teenage years. It is a disciplined life for a kid.

 

We visited a couple of the temples, poor compared to Thailand where a lot of new money has flowed in recent years, but perhaps because of that less Hollywood-ish, although still vibrant with colour and art work on every available space.

 

Royal Palace Temple.

Royal Palace Temple.

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Amazing relief carvings.

Amazing relief carvings.

The former royal palace is also the home of many important buddhist and animist artifacts as well as a wealth of gold and jewell encrusted regalia.

 

Underneath this though is the story of war. Laos is still so poor largely because of wars, and in particular the horror inflicted on it by the USA during the American war in Vietnam (known here as the Secret War, because for seven years America denied it was active in Laos). More bombs were dropped on Laos than were dropped in the whole of WW11, and it is the most heavily cluster-bombed country in the world.  

 

78 million cluster bombs failed to explode, and over a decade of trying to clear away unexploded ordinances has resulted in less than half of one percent being cleared.

 

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photo 11

The Unexploded Ordinances Museum made me cry. A truly horrible war crime still being perpetuated on poor villagers who can’t use their land any more, or risk losing limb or life if they do.

 

On a lighter note the living crafts centre, a private company that supports women weavers and craftspeople, was outstanding in what it achieves and the quality of their service and products including an excellent cafe with very happy, loyal and chatty staff.

 

Fried River Weed Sheets with Chilli & Buffalo Skin Jam.

Fried River Weed Sheets with Chilli & Buffalo Skin Jam.

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We also loved the massages at Red Cross, who train masseurs to do a great job. And the traditional storytelling accompanied by an ancient musician whose smiley wrinkles wrapped around his Laos bamboo pipes and made beautiful music.

 

Our guesthouse was wonderful (Pongkham Residence for anyone coming this way) and Wan and Janellee have arranged for us to homestay in Janellee’s village on our way south.

 

Altogether an interesting and friendly place.

 

Total 2246k since leaving Bangkok


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A few days down the Ou. 

25 – 27 February 2015

We learnt from other travellers that the River Ou, or Nam Ou, in the North of Laos, is known for its beauty.  In addition by taking a boat down the river instead of riding route 13, we missed out on about 150k of bone shattering road under construction.

So it was that we gathered at the boat landing at Muang Khou, near the Chinese and Vietnam borders, with a small group of other travellers on a cool misty morning. 



 Our bikes were loaded onto the roof of our long narrow slow boat for the journey down river to the little village of Muang Ngoi.  It was a very scenic and at times exciting ride down this amazing river gorge.  We passed many small villages and settlements, growing corn and other vegetables and raising cows, buffalo, pigs, chickens and ducks.  We dropped down numerous rapids, causing water to splash over the front passengers and creating a bit of excitement.  As we got closer to Muang Ngoi the river wound its way through tall steep limestone Karst outcrops.  Everywhere villagers were using the river for finding food or for washing. At one stop on the way a fisherman produced a huge fish he had just caught – big even by Cape York standards.

We disembarked and found ourselves a little bungalow overlooking the river. Later that afternoon we met another couple our age, British and American, who had just started into a year long ride similar to ours.  We enjoyed a beer with them swapping stories as they had come from southern Laos and were planning on going to Japan.

The following day we enjoyed a huge buffet of western food and we couldn’t help but gorge ourselves.   The  rest of the day was spent  riding in the hills visiting tiny villages and a large cave used by villagers to hide from bombing raids.

Next day was back on the long boat to finish our voyage at Nong Kuiew, a spectacular voyage spoiled a bit by a very loud outboard motor on our boat and equally loud smoking french tourists (they are everywhere).

Feb 23 Luang Namtha to Oudomxai. 120k TOTAL 2004k.

Today was a brilliant day’s riding. The north of Laos has to rank as one of the best sealed road rides, and today was a top section. The first half was rolling ups and downs through agricultural land and small villages. Then we hit a long up, taking us to the highest point we have reached in Laos so far at 1125m. The gradient was even and not too steep so it was heaps of fun, especially along the high ridge line with views towards China in the north and mountains as far as you could see to the south.
A smooth and fast descent brought us to Oudomxai, a busy, heavily Chinese influenced town on the crossroads with China and Vietnam, with a fairly decent guesthouse and a great restaurant recommended by our friend Jane.

China’s influence in this region is very evident. Huge new warehouses and industrial buildings look empty but have big billboards announcing joint Laos Chinese projects. Much of the agriculture is Chinese investment, in particular rubber plantations. These unfortunately require large scale clearing of rainforest. We heard of one village where farmers were offered $400 a unit for rubber, but after the first year of production (when it was too late to go back), the price paid dropped to only $100. By then they have lost their rice and other food growing capacity and have to buy food with whatever cash they can get. The Chinese also invest in corn, sugar cane and vegetable oil plants in the region.

Japan also has a profile here, investing in apple planting and other crops. We met one of six young Japanese who are volunteers here in Oudomxai, in activities from handicraft sales and marketing, to soccer coaching.

Tomorrow we leave the Chinese-built Route 13 (the only sealed north to south route) and head towards Vietnam just for 100k, hoping to then catch a boat down the apparently beautiful Nam Ou River. You can see ride map and details at: http://www.gpsies.com/map.do?fileId=pyugjpuofyprmmzr

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Crossing from Thailand to Laos.

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Surlys enjoy a rest in Laos.

Surlys enjoy a rest in Laos.

Some steep long climbs.

Some steep long climbs.

10:18 am Quite a hilly ride from Chiang Saen to Huay Xai across the Laos border. There were several really steep sections crossing a pass through the ranges, Andy actually had to get off and push. At the border as bike riders we had to go through the walking processing section rather than with cars, which meant our bikes had to be loaded onto the transfer bus for the two KM crossing into Laos. Apparently this is the rule from both sides, but seemed crazy after having ridden on the road from Bangkok. It was a nice easy 10km ride from the border to Huay Xai, apart from the fact that they drive on the right side!! Laos is definitely poorer, everything is smaller and less developed. People are very laid back, and no where near as efficient and business minded as the Thais. Huay Xai seemed a chaotic place, but it had one street that was quite a tourist Mecca. The street was lined with tourist friendly guesthouses, restaurants and booking agents. There is also a lot of young backpackers, many seem to be travelling in groups. We checked into a nice guesthouse and enjoyed a meal at a local restaurant that supports Laos women.