Down-time up the Mekong

Trip Start Jul 01, 2010
Trip End Aug 08, 2011

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Flag of Lao Peoples Dem Rep  ,
Sunday, April 24, 2011

At long last I had arrived in Luang Prabang. The driver of the songthaew indicated I might want to alight, so I did. I'd have been wiser to hang on though, as we were then only on the outskirts. I pushed my crippled cycle several kilometres in the already barmy morning heat before reaching the backpackers' area near the centre.

I had the good fortune to meet another Frenchman (Laos is crawling with them!) on my way, who complimented me on my bicycle as he rode past, unaware of the fact that it was destined to be scrap-metal! When I replied that it was broken, Brice stopped and we got talking a bit. He pointed me in the direction of the cheapest guest houses, of which I found the cheapest with Wifi and unloaded with relief.

To my surprise and delight, the Internet told me that almost all Trek bikes come with a lifetime warranty on the frame. I got a message away to an acquaintance in Bangkok who owns a bike shop, and he contacted the local Trek distributor who in turn suggested I contact Trek USA directly. Trek were most helpful, and on finding there were no suitable frames in my size in Bangkok, they couriered an entire new bike out, and a substantial upgrade on the original! I simply had to bus back down to Vientiane to collect it from Probike's agent, but no hurry as the bike had to be freighted USA to Bangkok, and then to Vientiane.

So I passed the time, seeing Brice and his wife Marie regularly. They gave me a long-overdue introduction to tropical fruit, and we found we had a remarkable amount in common. They were nomadic IT professionals, with Brice supporting several websites on 24-hour availability from whichever hotel he happened to be in. I guess towns without Internet would be off the itinerary though!

They were also cycling enthusiasts and living car-free for some time, possibly the influence of the radical intellectual Ivan Illich (after I posted some Peak Oil propaganda on Facebook, they sent me a link to his essay Energy and Equity).

I admired Luang Prabang's temples, for which the city is famous, their gilded stupas dotted throughout the city's compact centre. The night market's food tables were good for meeting fellow tourists, and the odd bit of table-surfing (local children and myself alike). Knowing I had a long wait though, it was easy to put off really seeing the sights, and before I knew it it was time to move again.

I bused back down to Vientiane, arriving the day before the Pee Mai Lao new year festival. And while I applaud the logic of celebrating the new year at the Spring equinox, on this occasion the timing was about as inconvenient as could be for me. The new bike landed in Thailand the day before but was held up in customs, and then everything was shut down for the waterfights...

Meanwhile, in reading up on the new bike I found that, fancy though it was, there were one or two show-stoppers with regard to my journey. In particular, the front fork of the snazzy new bike was carbon-fibre and hence could not safely bear the load of my front panniers and handlebar box. At this point I reluctantly decided a return to Bangkok was in order, where there would be the best chance to find a workable solution.

As a result of the new year, though, I would have to wait a full week to obtain a Thai visa. A little stranded, then, I managed to reclaim a little of my self-discipline and got into a very good meditation routine through the week. I also read Kropotkin's 'Mutual Aid', an unexpectedly fascinating account of examples of naturally-occurring symbiotic relationships, in the animal kingdom, as well as amongst indigenous peoples and even amongst the civilised.

Water, water everywhere! For the five days of the new year holiday and weekend, venturing out of the hotel would entail a pretty thorough drenching, as nefarious groups of younger Laotians stood on every street corner with buckets of icy cold water, hoses, water bombs, squirters and big sound systems. There were also roving groups on the backs of pick-up trucks who battled other pick-up trucks and the street-side soakers. Some enterprising bar-owners tried to soak and then snatch hapless falangs who passed by, with the attractions of pretty Laotian girls, beer and loud music.

In going about I resorted to trying to approach each soaking squad stealthily. They would feign lack of interest until the last moment, then all would spring into action - I'd try to deflect their buckets, splash them with their own and run for it, but usually with very limited success. All of the mutual splashing and grins all round really seemed to surmount the cultural divide, and in the heat my clothes would quickly dry. Running barefoot through the streets left me with enormous blisters on my soles. In summary, it was more fun and abandon than I'd had in a long time!

I also visited Wat Simueang, where the celebrations were more orderly: barbeques smoked, and in a ritual denoting the origins of the soakathon going on outside, people splashed statues of Buddha and various other spirits, made offerings. In a corner a live band played a style of traditional Laotian music that very much resembled dub reggae, and I joined the others dancing Lao-style.

And then normality descended on Vientiane once again, and at last, on receipt of my new Thai visa, I was on the next bus back to Nong Khai, before catching the cheap overnight bus down to Bangkok.
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