For three days we cycled on Laos Highway 13, the major highway between the capital Vientiane and Luang Prebang. We covered a grueling 220 km (120 miles) and climbed 2700 meters (almost 9000 feet). Although the first two night’s lodging left a lot to be desired, each days’ million dollar views far exceeded the discomforts of concrete walls with peeling plaster and squat toilets down the hall, to bamboo mats sloping to the center defined as beds. The juxtaposition of stunning- some of the best I’ve ever seen in my life – scenery with people living in 3rd world – some of the poorest and least developed I’ve seen in my life – left conflicting emotions that I won’t forget.
Here is a summary of the things we saw:
Laos National Highway 13 – This two lane road narrowing down to one whenever the other lane has fallen off the edge of the mountain and slid down the steep ravine like an avalanche, is a winding, climbing, twisting, snake of a road with little traffic except for occasional overloaded 18 wheelers, intercity buses with motorcycles strapped to the top, motorcycles laden and piled high with fresh vegetables, hundreds of students on bicycles especially when school is starting and ending and cycle tourists. (We’ve seen more cycle tourists in the past two days than the past two months combined from places like Russia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Germany, South Africa, Thailand…who would have thought all these people would want to punish their bodies for such a great view.)
As one point on the highway, there was so much mud from half-completed road construction projects that we were sliding down the road like skis to snow. Tractor trailers were struggling to keep their traction and their loads from sliding sideways off the hill. A honk from a trucker said to me, “Get out of the way…here I come and I’m not stopping.”
The road is very hilly with steep, long, granny-gear-for-thousands-of-kilometers climbs. The reward is fast, long, downhill rides with the added fun of dodging obstacles such as large pot-holes, chip seal, gravel, chickens, pigs, ducks, and children. Think “mountain biking” with 25 kg of packs rattling and bouncing with each obstacle.
Poverty with very happy, carefree children – Nestled against this highway were tiny villages consisting of a few thatched-roof bamboo huts, an occasional cinder block house, or house covered with sheets of tin, and very infrequently a beautifully painted purple house. There were tiny shops selling soda bottles of gasoline (for the motorcycles), a few bottles of water (one we swear had the flavor and smell of dog urine), some bruised bananas, and several bags chips and/or cookies. In some of the more developed villages, someone might be squatting in front of the store grilling a few pieces of chicken over a wood fire.
But in every village, we were greeted by children waving and yelling “Saw Ba Dee” and giving us high-fives or running along beside us. The children were playing with sticks, empty tires, long blades of tropical grass (this looked like a game similar to bocce ball), digging in hills of dirt, sitting and splashing in wash tubs with their friends, or walking hand-in-hand down the highway chatting.
Life without indoor plumbing – Each village had several water spigots. Some even had hoses attached to the spigots. The more developed villages had a spigot tall enough to create of shower with a concrete floor and surrounded by a bamboo fence. Four teenage girls were giggling bathing together at one of these “showers” on the side of highway. Women were doing their laundry on rocks next to natural springs or beneath the village “showers”. Truck drivers bathed and laundered in the local hot springs and hung their clean shirts on hangers dangling from the front grills of their trucks. Tourists could pay 2000 kip (about 5c) to use “toilets” built at the edges of villages dotted along the mountain.
Million Dollar Views Around every bend, at the top of every hill, and in each valley, scenery could have been pictured in a National Geographic Magazine photo contest. Every color of green, steep mountains rising up through the clouds, jagged cliffs peeking out from the dense foliage, ribbons of steep road winding around, up and down the mountains, and colorful fields of rice and vegetables growing in dark, brown rich soil kept our minds off the difficulty of the ride. It was beautiful and more than any picture, especially one taken with my inept photography skills, could capture.
I couldn’t help but think that all of the villagers with houses along highway 13 would be millionaires if their property were in coastal California, Italy, Southern France or the Pacific Northwest. For the children, it seems like a pretty good place to be a kid. The babies feel safe and loved strapped to their parents until they can toddIe around. The children play in the rice paddies, under the houses, in the trees, on the dirts hills, and at school. They seem happy, friendly, and curious especially when compared to children who are glued to computers and cell phones all day.
I wonder if the villagers wake up each morning and appreciate the beauty of their setting. Or, if, like most adults, they are preoccupied with surviving the day, feeding their families and hoping for a better future for their children.
I know that I am grateful for the opportunity to soak up and experience this beautiful country and kind people, and hope that, as tourism and private enterprise continues to develop, the people can afford the luxuries of development and still appreciate their “million dollar views.”