Welcome to Sabaïdee! The land of smiles

Welcome to Sabaïdee! The land of smiles

The bike is ready the day of my departure from Hanoi. Finally almost... It turns out that the luggage rack of my old bike, which I had brought back to replace the broken one in China, is not compatible with my current bags. So I have to go back to the store to change. Then I need a new pair of headphones, an object that has become indispensable to support the ambient cacophony and the oppressing horns. I leave the capital quite late so. But I spotted a host couch surfing at the exit of the city in the case of a late departure precisely.

Tri welcomes me with ease. Young a little lost who spends his time on video games, a real plague. But he is happy like that and he manages to clear some money to survive. Difficult to give lessons therefore, although I remain convinced that he would have much better to do his free time, starting with resume his studies. The advantage of traveling is that I am faced with all types of people and all walks of life. I think it's important to interact with people who are radically different from us in order to foster our personal development. Being welcomed at the stranger and provider of meetings from all walks of life, even if some are less pleasant than others.

Early start after Tri has returned from his night in front of the screens. I am quickly immersed in noise, an audio book to entertain my mind. I leave the city and slowly reach the mountains. My route winds its way between the limestone mountains ripped open for their rock and the factories that abound, probably for the cement factory.

After lunch, the sun pierces the protective cloud floor until then. The progression becomes hot and difficult. Then a puncture occurs on my front tire. The first after sixteen months of travel. I have not had any of my travels together and to be honest, the repair is not very effective. I ended up changing the tube to repair later. And better not to count on the brigade near which I am stopped who will spend all the time in the hammocks. I take the road and the landscape is progressively more agrarian, I find the countryside that is dear to me. Few tourists in the area that's for sure. After spending the last time in tourist places I become the foreigner of passage that arouses curiosity, looks, smiles ...

I found a homestay at the end of the day, for just two euros. I have more expensive food, beer included. In Asia, fruits and drinks are relatively expensive compared to food.

I take the road along the waterfalls along the road. Quickly I fork for a secondary road and along a river. Life is in full swing and I am greeted with great fanfare by the children and their parents. Children are generally devoid of gene, cultural barriers fall into the smiles they offer.

I arrive at the edge of a college in full exit classes. Teens greet me too, excited by such a meeting. But this is more of a challenge between them, because often followed by choked and embarrassed laughter. I pass a rib and border the hypoglycemia. After a sugar break, I go down again and arrive at a village for a meal worthy of the name. Mistrust set aside for a long time in this country, I dislike when paying the bill. The price is easily double that practiced in general in the country. I can not argue, the meal is consumed. It is customary to ask the price beforehand to avoid this kind of bad surprise. But the country being generous and honest, I had lowered my guard.

I continue to a hostel in town that I spotted. The next day I leave after a good night's sleep. I walk along the stream in a morning light. Then I fork to attack an arduous coast. I enter the mountainous terrain that I will leave only ten days later. A nice descent allows me to dry my T-shirt soaked in sweat. It may be early, the sun is already hot.

I continue up and down towards the border. Towards eleven o'clock new class, teens again. Many greet me politely but they are quickly names of birds that fuse, including the famous and trivialized "f *** you" accompanied by the gesture that goes with it. They are hilarious and I do not even know they understand the meaning of their words. In the benefit of the doubt I prefer to say no. I continue, disappointed by the image they give of this country yet so welcoming.

I arrive in a small town and take the opportunity to stock up on food, eat a bit, and let the end of the hot hours pass in a cafe. I attack the last piece before the border, about twenty kilometers then a nice climb, where I intend to sleep at the top, before going down the next day to change country. Rolling is nice despite the difference in altitude. No kids in sight, just the bright smiles of kids and even their parents. The houses are wooden stilts and roofs mainly foliage. It is the Thai ethnic group that dominates the region and women often have black and lacquered teeth, a criterion of beauty before. The evening falls while I am in the middle of my ascent. I find a path leaving the road to reach three households away. J ' had spotted a shelter from afar and hoped to squat it for the night. In the end one of the owners, offers me hospitality. He is alone in a battisse more than summary. It turns out that it is a secondary house where he has his cattle.

We find the family home in the village for dinner. Here live his parents (or those of his wife) and his two children, aged eleven and twelve. We share a meal made of duck, vegetables and larvae, which children swallow at full spoonfuls. My host looks at me with a smile, making me a sign that I am not obliged to force myself, but I do honor to the dish all the same. Everything is accompanied by sticky rice. 

At the end of the meal I am taken back to my apartments after a few magic tricks to the children. I leave them in front of the semi final match of the Asian Cup, Vietnam-Philipines (Vietnam won the cup).

I am awake before the daybreak by the rooster. Do not believe the volatile sing only in the morning. Moreover if I have a tip to give to bivouac: stay away from the roosters! Then very quickly it is the whole barnyard that puts in addition pigs. I have no choice but to get out of bed and leave while the sun is still up.

I reach the border in the middle of the morning. I leave Vietnam in less time than it takes to say. In Laos, the officer claims $ 40 for the visa. A quick call to the consulate allows me to check the current rate ($ 30) before engaging in negotiations. I knew I could be subject to this kind of slight overshoot, and had prepared the exact sum. I apologize with a broad smile, and give them the official amount. No history, my visa is already affixed and stamped.

I walk along a valley for a moment, without much interest if it is the dense vegetation that surrounds me. Then the landscape opens up and becomes more inhabited and cultivated. Laotians very often build small cabins along the rice fields. I take one of her for lunch and rest during the hot hours. Having no way to get money before the next city, so I have full bags to be fully autonomous. I left after having frightened against my will young girls who wanted to cross the field near which I stopped. I attack a long climb. I have to push my bike sometimes. A few mudslides oblige me to push into the loose earth that workers are trying to clear. Fortunately it does not rain and the earth is hard enough to carry me relatively. After descending I reach a beautiful valley that extends as far as the eye can see. Very cultivated with rice terraces. We are in the middle of the dry season and the fields are already very dry. At the time of harvest, the charm must be quite different.

Children in Laos is another level. They come near the road, greet warmly with a "Hello" or Laotian, accompanied by a vigorous sign of the hand. Welcome to Sabaïdee *! The land of smiles.

* Hello in Laotian
I find another hut to squat for the night. I spent a day without a horn! I had forgotten the effect that it did. I also forgot how much a boundary can change the behavior on the road. It had been the same thing when I visited Greece after Albania. Drivers are highly respectful in Laos, often waiting months to overtake, which is utopian in Vietnam.

I take the road again after letting through the morning showers. The weather is cloudy and I sneak between the drops all day. I find sleeping dry at Xam Neua after a short day of cycling, but I'm starting to feel the effects of the recovery after more than a month without pedaling.

The road goes uphill and downhill for the next 180 kilometers, so I'm getting ready mentally. Nothing transcendent about the landscape, the low ceiling giving a feeling of oppression.

Welcome to Sabaïdee! The land of smiles

The road is uncrowded, which is nice. Always so many smiles and "Sabaïdee" thrown on the fly. Children are on their thirty-one. It turns out to be the Hmong New Year, the majority ethnic group in the region. The Hmong live in northern Laos, northern Vietnam and southern China. They associate the end of the rice harvest with the beginning of the following year. Thus the new year varies from one village to another. I find where to camp on the edge of a village when the night has already fallen.

The second day will be substantially similar to the first. Even when I find where to sleep, my procrastination makes me set up a makeshift camp at night. This time it is in an empty house on the side of the road, which serves the people of passage. It spares me to pitch the tent. but I do not dry so quickly, wrapped in a cold and wet fog. Winter settles in the mountains of Laos and at that moment I regret my warm down that I thought good to be able to leave for a lighter.

After a few kilometers in the morning, I am caught by two French speakers. Violaine and François left Belgium in July, but this year. It must be said that they have not cured but have also taken some trains. We naturally have some knowledge in common and we spend the days chatting. Night in an inn trying to dry our things. We continue our journey the next day together, also in the company of a Russian cyclist met at the hostel. We spend the day in the rain, which personally attacks my mind slightly as I feel the tiredness of the days of cycling that accumulate, having accumulated ten thousand meters of elevation gain in one week. I am very happy when we arrive at Phonsavan.

I leave my companions the next day. No stop by the plain of jars which seems the inevitable of the region. I want to reach the south of the country for the end of the year and it's still a long way to go. I leave the city under the onslaught of a headwind, it was a long time. But that remains bearable. The weather is better and along the way the groups of Hmongs continue to celebrate. Often young people play to throw a ball, which aims to promote social interactions between them and therefore marriages. I leave the mountains definitely after a nice descent to reach the plain.

I find a place to camp in the margins of a village after having restored. Beautiful blue sky in the morning. The road is paved but not very busy. The atmosphere is totally different with the return of the sun, the landscape takes a less austere scale. On the contrary the colors are completely revived. A beautiful bike day that ends with a camp near the river. It is not always easy to find where to camp in this dense vegetation. I ended up near fruit trees whose rotten fruits macerate at the foot of the trees in a fermenting odor.

I arrive near Paksan the next day in the early afternoon. Khamvone is the cousin of relatives in France, Tata and Jasmine for Briançonnais. I had already met him during my previous visit to Laos. So it's very nice to be three years later. She welcomes me one night before I go by bus to Vientiane to try to meet some physiotherapists for my project.

As often, interview planning has been quite laborious with a lot of time and energy for first contacts. As I am often asked the question, I mainly use the internet to get in touch: rehabilitation center, private practice. This is the first time I have to use the phone but fortunately my interlocutors are very understanding and I get the direct numbers of the various protagonists that I am trying to reach.

I meet in particular Suresh, Indian physiotherapist and director of the physiotherapy department of "COPE", the main rehabilitation center of Vientiane. In addition to general rehabilitation: orthopedic, neurological and pediatric, the center supports people who have lost a limb following the explosion of an explosive device. A very interesting little museum has been erected in the center and can be visited freely. The numbers are just edifying:

- Laos is the country that has been the most bombed in the world compared to the number of inhabitants.

- 580 000 bombing missions representing, put end to end, a bombing every 8 minutes, 24h / 24h for 9 years.

- 30% of mini-bombs contained in cluster bombs did not explode, about 80 million at the end of the war.

- 25% of villages in Laos are still contaminated

- More than 20,000 people were killed or injured as a result of unexploded ordnance between the end of the war (1974) and 2011

- 13,500 lost a limb

- 40% are children

- 100 new cases are identified every year nowadays

And for information: 24% comes from the handling of explosive devices, 22% of agriculture, 14% of work in the forest, 12% of campfire (we usually cook on an improvised fire) or other domestic activity, 11% of people playing with.

Suresh takes me on a tour of the center, the various departments and gives me some time to explain to me how physiotherapy works in Laos. I continue with the meeting of Maxim Chevalier, Dutch physicist who works for the French clinic. Passionate about his job, he traveled the world via various humanitarian missions. It's a real source of inspiration. Her skills and knowledge go beyond physiotherapy with acupuncture and other traditional medicine practices from various countries. Finally Benoît Couturier, director of the Laos branch of Handicap International, welcomes me to explain their actions in the country. 

I take the road for Paksan the next day and arrive at the end of the day. I meet Khamvone and we dine with his daughter and her friends. Our way of traveling opens different doors and social interactions. A couple will not have the same perception of a country as a solo traveler, male or female, or family. And tonight, it's girls' night, which is not common for me.

I take the road early in the morning, I plan to join the plateau of bolovan, located in the south of the country for the holidays. The calculation is simple, I have to align five days to more than one hundred kilometers. I'm just recovering from riding 12 consecutive days. I take the main road. The road looks like a national in France, but not too busy. So it was pretty good to align the terminals. Drivers are generally respectful, except for a few buses.

During these five days I stop at noon for a few hours, rest and let the hot hours pass. I stay in a restaurant or cafe sipping iced coffee. In the evening I camp, either in the tent or in the huts bordering the rice fields. Some notable experiences though. One night it's a tan of passing ant that wake me up. The noise is such that it seems to me a moment that it started to rain, until I realize that the noise comes from the ground. Another night they are micro ants who decided to interfere in a tiny opening at the zipper. Everything is invaded, especially bags of food and it will take me a hell of a moment to clean up. Another night while I am in a Laotian hut come to meet me. One of they have a rifle and I understand they are looking for a beast. Another calls (probably the police) but in the end they let me spend my night. I am always warmly greeted, the "sabaidee" punctuating my days. I pass a cap on my meter!

The last day, I fork for 40km of track before reaching my destination. Here for sure the tourist is not common. I cross this portion under the amazed eyes of the inhabitants. After a last long day, which ends at the front, I arrive at Mr. Vieng's coffee plantation where he also built a hostel. I spend the evening with some French. The next day I visit the coffee plantation.

I then drive a few kilometers to reach Tad lo. This is where I decided to spend Christmas. I got this address from friends traveling to Laos a few months ago. Palamei Guesthouse has the particularity of organizing a family dinner in the evening, where everyone shares the meal with the family. And this Christmas Eve night the table is complete. Great atmosphere with a mostly French speaking band.

I bubble a few days, with as usual this mania to extend the duration of my stay. I must say that I also need to ask myself and rest. I take the opportunity to visit the surroundings, including waterfalls.

Welcome to Sabaïdee! The land of smiles

At the turn of one of them, I come across two majestic elephants coming out of the bath and feeding peacefully. If the scene was all idyllic, a quick investigation tells me that these same elephants do not really have a dream life. Chained most of the time or used for walks. I can only deplore the treatment of animals, all countries combined, and invite to avoid this kind of attraction (dromedary ride, elephants, but even on horseback ...). These animals would be much better off in a protected natural space as can be seen from this scene capture at the edge of the river.

The last day I have the chance to live an original experience. Mathilde, who works for the hostel, wants to open a new trek through the jungle. I am therefore invited to the test day to see what can be done with the locals. It begins with a visit to a temple in the forest, near a tree probably millennium. We continue with a hike through the jungle, where a guide shows us the plants they use, often for medicinal purposes. We end with a cave where the air is saturated with carbon dioxide and therefore almost unbreathable. A few seconds suffice to hyperventilate and it is therefore disadvised to linger. We close the morning with a meal with the inhabitants of the village. These would be much better off in a protected natural space as can be seen from this scene capture at the edge of the river.

I take the road on the small loop. The Bolovan plateau is a classic southern Laos that is often traveled by motorcycle. I finish at Tad Muang, one of the main waterfall of the tour.

The next day I quickly reach Pakse. Leaving the karst plateau, the road descends for nearly thirty kilometers. After a hearty meal I go to Champassak. I planned to go for a meeting physio but seems abortive for lack of response. I find several travelers Tad Lo.

In the evening I attend the local shadow theater. Before the revolution the stories were told through shadow play via puppets and a screen. Forbidden and abolished following the seizure of power by the Communist Party, monks had kept some puppets in a box. For ten years, a Belgian has brought this show up to date, not without difficulty facing the refractory government. If the show is authentic, it remains a bit difficult to follow because in Laotian, and the audience is mainly foreign. I would have loved to see him played in a village in front of an assembly of excited children, as the director describes it.

I leave and visit Wat Phu temple in the morning. The pre-Ankorian temple overlooks the plain and the Mekong on the horizon.

Then I take the road on the right bank of the river to avoid the main road. The first thirty kilometers are easy. Then the asphalt disappears for a dirt track. Despite some delicate passages the road remains rolling and I reach the edge of the Mekong late afternoon. A small village along the river makes me spend the night.

The next day I cross the Mekong to join the main road. While I have lunch on the side of the road, I'm joined by Cyril and Maxime. Met before the eve of Champassak, they are also heading to the 4000 islands for the new year. So we spend the day together chatting, all three abreast on the road to the delight of motorists, and ours! The conversation is going well. I had planned to cross again to reach one of the islands where I had spotted a guest house a little out of the way. The three rooms being complete we camp in the garden and dine with the other travelers present.

I leave this beautiful world to go to Don Det, the tourist point of the corner. I find other travelers met before to spend the New Year's Eve. Don Det is the tourist point of the surroundings, and we are a few hundred on the beach for the passage of the new year.

I return to the guest house in Don Som to enjoy a few days of rest. Time takes a different turn here. The days start early with the sunrise. But the pace is like idling taking advantage of the very local atmosphere. I try some activities with the children of the village, but finally the funniest is the moment of bathing in the late afternoon and the contest of the throwing of children in the currents of the Mekong. In short, a little stop to recharge your batteries. It is therefore from this little corner of paradise that I finish my epic Laotian and that you send my best wishes for the new year

I am preparing for my part to take the road towards Cambodia to continue the adventure.

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