Archive for the ‘Laos’ Category


Why kids in SE Asia need your support

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

Why we are supporting Child’s Dream…

We both care about children – Chris works with vulnerable young people and children in crisis, Liz volunteered for a charity called Home Start which supports families with children under 5.  So we are both passionate about supporting children and their families, to give them the confidence, knowledge and belief that they can improve their situation or make changes in their lives.

Sustainability

We both want to work with a charity whose projects are sustainable… ‘give a man a fish and he can feed his family for a day, teach a man to fish and he can feed his family for a lifetime’. Child’s Dream goes one step further than that and works with the communities to find out what they need…is fishing the best option? Do you even want to fish? The projects provide infrastructure, community development and resources, building both sustainable school structures and lasting relationships with the villagers. The communities are actively involved and ultimately have ownership of the projects, with a vested interest in their survival.

Risks to children in Southeast Asia

In the UK we are very aware of the suffering of children in Africa and it’s easy to forget that there are other children in the world who live in equal poverty. South East Asia is one of the poorest places for a child to grow up. The risks children face include child trafficking, being force into the sex industry, forced resettlement or displacement, as well as a lack of basic healthcare and clean water, often living in families surviving on just a few dollars a day.

Despite the vast array of 24hr news channels and newspapers online, there is very limited coverage or reportage about this region and the lives of the people who live here. No one hears much about the lives of children living in Thailand, Loas, Cambodia, Burma or Vietnam. No one tells their stories.

Globalisation – cheap goods and cheap labour

Here in the UK we enjoy buying cheap products from linen shirts to DVD players that cost just £30, we expect to eat a wide variety of food all year round from king prawns to mangos.  What we forget or don’t know is that many of the foods and products that we want, come from South East Asia and the people who grow, produce and manufacture these things for the west, live in poverty. There is a human cost, if not a retail cost!

Whilst globalisation has benefited some, it has also led to a change in the way of life for many. With increased urbanisation and industrial development, people are under pressure to go to the cities to earn more money, moving away from their families and working and living under harsh conditions. As few are very well educated, the only option open to them is factory work, manufacturing items or processing food mostly for export. Even the governments in this region focus on the development of natural resources for export, not on the development of communities.

Surely we can’t just keep taking? Surely it’s time to give something back?

Education and a future

Education is key to the children in this region. Whilst some may consider the idea of Europeans arriving in countries and prescribing education as the answer, as arrogant or may argue that it undermines their way of life – subsistence farming and agriculture – we don’t believe this to be true or fair. Their way of life has already been undermined and changed forever by the impact of globalisation and urbanisation, by our demand for cheap goods and cheap labour, and their governments’ policies on trade and export. If farming is no longer a long term option, then education will give children a chance to learn skills and equip them with knowledge to understand the world they are growing up in. Education gives people choices, the children may have little in terms money, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have aspirations to grow up and do something interesting with their lives, or at the very least earn enough money to be able to support their families.

Education and a school environment also provides stability, where perhaps there is little elsewhere in their lives. It gives children self-esteem and self-belief, empowering them to learn and grow with confidence. School isn’t just about learning, it is a place to find  out who you are and what you can do, you may be musical or artistic, or good at sport, good with other children; a place where people listen to you and share with you.  Why should we deny any child access to education, everyone deserves the choice and the chance to become who they really are.

Child’s Dream are giving children and their families that choice.

To make a donation please visit:  http://childsdream.org/donate/ and let us know too so we can add you to our grand total.  We really value your support, thanks!

Why we are supporting Child’s Dream…

We both care about children – Chris works with vulnerable young people and children in crisis, Liz volunteers for a charity called Home Start which supports families with children under 5. So we are both passionate about supporting children and their families, to give them the confidence, knowledge and belief that they can improve their situation or make changes in their lives.

Sustainability

We both want to work with a charity whose projects are sustainable… ‘give a man a fish and he can feed his family for a day, teach a man to fish and he can feed his family for a lifetime’. Child’s Dream goes one step further than that and works with the communities to find out what they need…is fishing the best option? Do you even want to fish? The projects provide infrastructure, community development and resources, building both sustainable school structures and lasting relationships with the villagers. The communities are actively involved and ultimately have ownership of the projects, with a vested interest in their survival.

Risks to children in Southeast Asia

In the UK we are very aware of the suffering of children in Africa and it’s easy to forget that there are other children in the world who live in equal poverty. South East Asia is one of the poorest places for a child to grow up. The risks children face include child trafficking, being force into the sex industry, forced resettlement or displacement, as well as a lack of basic healthcare and clean water, often living in families surviving on just a few dollars a day.

Despite the vast array of 24hr news channels and newspapers online, there is very limited coverage or reportage about this region and the lives of the people who live here. No one hears much about the lives of children living in Thailand, Loas, Cambodia, Burma or Vietnam. No one tells their stories.

Globalisation – cheap goods and cheap labour

Here in the UK we enjoy buying cheap products from linen shirts to DVD players that cost just £30, we expect to eat a wide variety of food all year round from king prawns to mangos.  What we forget or don’t know is that many of the foods and products that we want, come from South East Asia and the people who grow, produce and manufacture these things for the west, live in poverty. There is a human cost, if not a retail cost!

Whilst globalisation has benefited some, it has also led to a change in the way of life for many. With increased urbanisation and industrial development, people are under pressure to go to the cities to earn more money, moving away from their families and working and living under harsh conditions. As few are very well educated, the only option open to them is factory work, manufacturing items or processing food mostly for export. Even the governments in this region focus on the development of natural resources for export, not on the development of communities.

Surely we can’t just keep taking? Surely it’s time to give something back?

Education and a future

Education is key to the children in this region. Whilst some may consider the idea of Europeans arriving in countries and prescribing education as the answer, as arrogant or may argue that it undermines their way of life – subsistence farming and agriculture – we don’t believe this to be true or fair. Their way of life has already been undermined and changed forever by the impact of globalisation and urbanisation, by our demand for cheap goods and cheap labour, and their governments’ policies on trade and export. If farming is no longer a long term option, then education will give children a chance to learn skills and equip them with knowledge to understand the world they are growing up in. Education gives people choices, the children may have little in terms money, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have aspirations to grow up and do something interesting with their lives, or at the very least earn enough money to be able to support their families.

Education and a school environment also provides stability, where perhaps there is little elsewhere in their lives. It gives children self-esteem and self-belief, empowering them to learn and grow with confidence. School isn’t just about learning, it is a place to find  out who you are and what you can do, you may be musical or artistic, or good at sport, good with other children; a place where people listen to you and share with you.  Why should we deny any child access to education, everyone deserves the choice and the chance to become who they really are.

Child’s Dream are giving children and their families that choice.

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“We don’t need no education!”

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

As we’ve cycled through these mountain villages in Laos we’ve seen children dressed in dirty, ripped, ragged clothes and no shoes. Babies with just a holey to-shirt on, crawling around in the dirt, or naked. The villagers live right next to the dusty road, and although there isn’t much traffic, whenever a truck comes through a big cloud of dust is blown up into the air, not to mention the exhaust fumes. None of the kids were in school and we couldn’t see any school-like buildings. Yet the children all seemed very happy, running around with their friends, free to play wherever they like, alongside chickens, piglets, puppies and kittens. With make-shift toys, sticks, tyres and elastic stings to jump in and out of.

2010-10-20 2010-10-21 001 016

My initial concerns are that they are all so scrawny, dirty and not in school, but it’s warm here in Laos and kids not wearing clothes isn’t necessarily an issue. As they live amongst the red dirt of the mountains and hand wash all their clothes, I guess they can only get them so clean. Nappies are not used here (from what we can see) so maybe it’s easier to let the little ones go naked and then just wash them down.

Most of the families are rice farmers, living off the land, with no ‘income’. We see them walking home from their land in the later afternoon, back again at 6 or 7am. Many have their children with, accompanying them for a days work in the fields. The children learn from a young age, with skills being passed own to each generation. There are many children and people seem to have quite large families. All the women we see have a baby strapped to them, with a traditional cloth sling. Girls as young as 17 seem to have babies, but so do older women, who look old enough to be grandmothers (maybe they are?). It’s hard to gauge the age of the women here, the young girls are very beautiful, with pure looks and long black hair, but quickly this hard lifestyle takes it’s toll and older women have many lines on their faces, making it hard to guess how old they might really be.

The sense of community and shared responsibility in these villages is evident, as they gather in groups with children and babies around them. Everyone takes care of the babies, who are happy to go to anyone and seemed to be loved by all. Older children are expected to take care of their younger siblings and it’s common to see a toddler being carried on the back of an older (although not much) child.

The women wear traditional sarongs and the men, baggy trousers and a mix of khaki, army style jackets, all brightly coloured and neat. Everyone wears a wide brimmed pointed hat to protect themselves from the heat. It’s also common to see people wearing full balaclavas and neck coverings,which at first can seem quite intimidating. Everyone carried a machete style knife, usually strung around the waist, vital for chopping bamboo, wood, trees, plants, bananas… before this trip the word machete conjured up horrific images of Rwanda, genocide, mutilated bodies and violence, in short a weapon. Now I can see that for many people in the world it is first and foremost, a tool. As we’ve cycled in SE Asia for some time now, we are used to seeing trucks go by packed with balaclava’d, machete’d people sat in the back of the pick-up. If you didn’t know any better you’d think the countryside was full of bandits! They are simply protecting themselves from the sun, dirt, dust and fumes, carrying their tools.

2010-10-18 2010-10-18 001 015

The houses here are basic, wooden structures built on stilts. This provides some escape from the dirt and heavy rain (flooding the ground). Windows simply have wooden shutters and most villages have no electricity, although they use generators to provide some. They sleep when it gets dark and rise when it’s light.  Everyone cooks over open fire, with big blackened pots and sticky rice is the staple food here. Washing areas are communal, with water pumps at the front of the houses, where you see girls and women wrapped in sarongs washing their hair and themselves at the end of each day. The little children running through the spray and laughing in the cold water. Clothes are also washed here. We also see people washing in the rivers.

2010-10-17 2010-10-18 001 013

To us their lives seem slow, traditional, remote, simple, hard and repetitive, yet rewarding, honest, uncomplicated, stress-free and family based, with none of the trappings of western life. They farm to grow food to eat, they live and watch their children grow, pass on their knowledge and grow old. The people seem very stoic and we wonder what do they do for fun? How do they relax? What does entertainment look like in these villages? Is the idea of entertainment a western idea anyway? They don’t earn money to buy things, they don’t appear to aspire to have belongings and material possessions like we do. The desire to keep improving things and make them straight, nice, pretty,  and ornate doesn’t see to exist, life in these villages is much more practical.

So the killer question for us is where do literacy, education and modern ideas fit in with this way of life? Should the kids be in school, learning to read and write, is education relevant to them? On the one hand if the children continue to work and live of the land as rice farmers, staying up in the mountain villages, how will reading and writing help them? There is a strong desire amongst people to preserve this traditional way of life.

kids

However it is very easy for us to romantise their lives and ignore the low literacy levels (30% of the population is illiterate) and high child mortality stats (out of 1000 live births, 61 will die before their 5th birthday, compared to 6 /1000 in the UK. Source: Unicef data on Laos from 2008). Other challenges include kids suffering from serious malnutrition and being severely underweight. On a diet of rice, with no vegetables, fruit or protein, many under 5s are malnourished. The World Food Program (UN) delivers midday meals to 88,000 schoolchildren throughout Laos, for some this is the only meal there will get each day. Along side lack of immunisations for preventable diseases, too many mothers dying in childbirth, lack of blood and oxygen at the hospitals… it’s a fairly depressing description.

Thing change, cultures are always evolving. Now in 2010, when these villages are no longer isolated; there are regular buses to the main towns, with traffic tearing through their once peaceful villages, children today know that there are possibilities and opportunities outside of village life. Thai TV, fashion and music is having a strong influence on it’s poorer neighbour and many young people in Laos aspire to be like their Thai peers. If this current generation of children choose to leave their villages and look for paid work elsewhere, they will need an education, however basic to help them on their way.

I think these villages need schools with decent teachers and facilities. Some kids may choose to stay in the villages, others may leave to find work, either way all of these children are entitled to have that choice. Without some education their choices are greatly reduced.  I also believe that school lets you find out what you are good at, lets you try new things, things you never even knew you could do! School can also opens your mind to the world outside, to new ideas and widen your perspective.

The other factor is healthcare. Yes there are traditional, natural medicines and herbs used for treating illnesses, but the number of babies and children dying before their 5th birthday is too high. Preventable illnesses and minor conditions that if left untreated become more serious, are all too common in remote villages. On one short bus journey, from the mountains to the town I saw a young girl with a horrible eye infection, with her eyes all gungy and streaming, a baby coughing, very congested, and breathing in a laboured way, and adults with chesty coughs and eye infections too. Many of them got off at the hospital once we reached the town.

Access to education and healthcare will have an impact on this traditional lifestyle, yet I hope that it can be introduced and embraced without eroding the traditions and quality of this mountain village way of life.

Unfortunately for Laos, the government invest little in schools and hospitals, it is an underdeveloped third world country, dependent on aid and foreign investment, and corruption is rife. The work that Child’s Dream are doing in Laos, means that schools are being built in rural, remote areas where children would otherwise have no access to education. It costs approx £20,000 to build and equip a school for 200+ children, allowing children from the surrounding villages to attend and get an education.

chris with village kids We are cycling to raise funds for Child’s Dream and now having seen them, we really want to build a school for these kids more than ever. These village children could have the same opportunities as other children around the world.

Please help us to raise the money to build a school here in Laos: www.bikeabout.co.uk/charity/charity.shtml £5 buys 110 bricks…

To find out more about the situation in Laos visit Child’s Dream’s website:

http://childsdream.org/how-we-help/situation-in-laos/

http://childsdream.org/projects/laos/

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A lasting legacy for Laotians – American’s Secret War

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

We visited the COPE visitor centre in Vientiane, Laos and this is what we learned…

Between 1964 and 1973 the US bombed Laos continuously, despite Laos being a peaceful, neutral country and despite the US never openly declaring war on Laos. Even the American people didn’t know it was happening. This was of course the time of the Vietnam war and the threat of communism spreading in SE Asia caused great fear in America. The Ho Chi Min Trail ran through southern Laos and was a supply line for the Vietnamese, as a result this was the original target in Laos. However the whole of the eastern border ended up being bombed, as well as the northern area of Laos where many north Vietnamese were believed to be hiding. Every red dot on this map represents a bombing mission:

2010-10-25 2010-10-25 001 012

The weapon of choice was the cluster bomb. These are fired and then the casing opens releasing many small sub-munitions, known locally as bombies (a name that sounds far too affectionate for my liking). The bombies are scattered indiscriminately across a wide area and the estimated number dropped during those 9 years, is in excess of 260 million!

2010-10-25 2010-10-25 001 005 The problem with bombies, apart from their indiscriminate use and lack of target, is that there’s a 30% chance they won’t explode on impact, a 30% known failure rate.  That’s 78 million unexploded bombies just left lying around Laos. Whatever the politics of the time, the fact is that now in 2010 pretty much all of that unexploded ordnance (UXO) still litters much of the Laos countryside. To date the number of sub-munitions painstakingly cleared and destroyed to date is 387,645 or 0.49%.

Laos is a poor, rural country where the majority of the people are subsistence rice farmers. Most people live in small villages, in wooden houses and farm the fields. As the bombing campaign against Laos was secret, the US did not adhere to the Geneva Convention which states that civilian areas can not be bombed. Many people lost their lives during those 9 years. However it is the lasting legacy that is an even greater problem for the people of Laos. These UXO are everywhere…. you may be ploughing your rice field and hit a bombie, walking in the forest looking for fruit and a child picks up a yellow bombie that looks like fruit, kids find a bombie and think it’s a ball and start throwing it to each other. Other stories include a woman cooking over a fire (as is the norm here) and heating the ground below her, causing a bomb buried below to heat up and explode.

Many deaths and severe injuries, leading to amputation and blindness, happen each year and have done since 1973. Some of these injuries are as a result of handling UXO (trying to move them or unearth them, or transport them to sell as scrap metal!?!) and many are involuntary (a farmer hitting one in his field). 50% of deaths and injuries are to children, who despite more widespread education on the subject, still pick them up and don’t see the danger. % of deaths cause by:

1.Handling of UXO (24%)
2.Farming (22%)
3.Forest products collection (14%)
4.Lighting fires/cooking and other domestic activities (12%)
5.Playing with UXO (11%).

santaroperation copy COPE stands for Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise and they provide prosthetics and mobility devices for those people who require them, free of charge if they cannot afford to pay for them.

COPE is the only provider of prosthetic, orthotic and rehabilitation services in Laos. Established by POWER International in 1997, COPE is a joint venture between the Ministry of Health and a number of NGOs (Non-government organisations). 

COPE not only provide help to UXO victims but also to those who have lost limbs through accidents (like Santar left), and they work with parents whose babies and children suffer from the condition known as club foot.

The visitor centre is well worth a visit and they screen a number of films on the subject, including ‘Bomb Harvest’, fantastic and shocking film showing the work that MAG (Mines Advisory Group) are doing to clear bombies and what they call big bombs, as well as the training programme they run to teach local people the skills need to clear bombs. Another is ‘Bombies’, with stories from survivors and old villagers who remember the bombing campaign.

The work that COPE do is amazing and gives hope to many people who would otherwise be forgotten and left unable to provide for their families. Their outreach programme allows them to identify people in remote areas, giving those people chance to access the services and support COPE have to offer.

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Whilst their work is very positive, I still left the centre feeling very shocked and angry really. How come I didn’t know about this before? Sure everyone knows about Vietnam, but hardly anyone (my age) knows about Laos being the most heavily bombed country in the world or this terrible UXO legacy. And angry because Laos is so under developed that it doesn’t have the infrastructure or resources to deal with the casualties… A little boy goes with two classmates to play in the woods near their village, one finds a bombie and picks it up, it explodes, the two classmates are killed outright, this little boy was further back so was injured but alive. His parents have to find someone with a vehicle to take him to hospital. Several hours later they arrive at hospital, but the hospital has no blood or oxygen and can not help him. They go to the next hospital, but they have no blood or oxygen either. So with no other help available, they take their little boy back home and a few hours later, he dies.

2010-10-25 2010-10-25 001 006

1 August 2010, the Convention on Cluster Munitions came into force, banning the production, use and stockpiling of cluster bombs. As of Nov 1 2010, the UK enters into this legally binding law (thank goodness!). 108 countries have signed the convention, however many countries have still not signed up, including the US, Russia and China, and work continues to stigmatise the use of cluster bombs as a weapon. Read more here www.stopclustermunitions.org

Also see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-10829976 

lao-female-deminers-size-2 UXO Laos all-female clearance team. Laos will host the First Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Nov. 2010. Photo credit: Stanislas Fradelizi/CMC.

Visit the COPE website: http://www.copelaos.org

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Travelling by bus in Laos – 4 experiences

Friday, November 5th, 2010

And it really is an experience! Good Luck!

Bus 1 -  Vieng Phoukha to Laoung NamTha.

Local bus 1.5 hr 20,000 kip (plus 20,000 for the bike and panniers)

After our long hard ride through the mountains in northern Laos,  and feeling sick again, I took a local minivan the final 60km. It’s a 10 seater minivan, however by the time we collected the last passenger I counted 20 people, including 2 babies, a toddler and a little girl. This is the only transport available to most people between villages and towns. It was a squash, but ok for an hour or two. There are no seatbelts, but Laos isn’t too hot on health and safety to be honest. The driver put my bike and panniers on the roof and strapped it all down well. It was a good journey all in all.

20102010374 Bus 2 – Laoung NamTha to Vientiane.

Local bus 22 hrs ( advertised as 17hrs) 160,000 kip 8.30am – 6.30am following day.

We paid for a VIP bus and the guesthouse arranged a tuk tuk to take us the bus station. The bus stations are always about 10km out of town for some reason (we reckon to keep the tuk tuk drivers in business). When we arrived our bus had already left! Great. So the tuk tuk driver chased after it and we caught up to where it had stopped to wait. Bus driver not very impressed! It turns out that it was the local/regular bus not the VIP. Oh well. We got on and there was plenty of room. We sat near the back. Seats are fairly generous and comfy. The windows open so it’s cool, although very rattley. We manage to buy 3 baguettes, some sticky rice and pork before we left, plus some bottled water.

The route is  Laoung NamTha -  OudomXai – Pakmong – Laoung PraBang – Vang Vieng – Vientiane

The road between Laoung NamTha and OudomXai goes through the mountains and is a very bad quality road, no tarmac just gravel, corrugated in places (it looks as though it has been skimmed to allow for re-surfacing but no visible signs of road works anywhere). It is also very bendy with many twists and turns. The driver goes as fast as he can despite the road. It’s ok though, but local people around us were quite travel sick, vomiting out of the windows. The driver stops every couple of hours or so on the road, for a toilet and smoke break. There aren’t toilets, unless you stop in a town, so you just go on the road or behind a bush.

Around 3pm we stopped at Pakmong. Here the driver takes a proper break to eat. The bus station has several food stalls and cafes to eat in. The driver doesn’t really communicate or tell you what’s happening. The other breaks that day had been short, 5 mins max, so we hurried to buy food to take away. Turns out we were stopping for an hour and half, so plenty of time to eat.

Most of the toilets charge 1000 kip, so have some change.

The bus is really full by now and everyone has lots of luggage, sacks or rice, bedding you name it, so the isle if full of bags, an interesting assault course to navigate in the middle of the night to go for a wee. From here it was about 2.5hrs to Laoung Prabang where we stopped for another half hour. Then onto Vang Vieng, arriving at around 2am! Not sure how you find a guesthouse at that time…

We finally pulled up in Vientiane around 6.30am having managed a few hours sleep. It’s 10,000 kip tuk tuk ride to the centre of town from the bus station. The driver doesn’t swap with anyone although he does have another guy who help with the passengers, luggage, tickets etc. So not sure how safe it is to drive 22 hrs straight through with only a  few breaks, but that’s what happens.

Bus 3 – Vientiane to Laoung Prabang

Express Bus 10 hrs 90,000 kip 6.30am – 4.30pm

Well we got to the bus station the night before at 8pm having paid 50,000 kip for a tuk tuk. But there was no bus, we had been given the wrong information, there was no 8.30pm bus. Luckily there were rooms available at the bus station, 60,000 kip, slightly dungeon like (no windows) but comfy bed. We got up early, had sticky rice and pork for breakfast at the bus station and board the 6.30am express bus. A step up from the local bus, less rattling but still bouncy with interesting suspension.

Most of this journey is a blur I think we slept, listen to our ipods and generally relaxed. The road wasn’t too bad and there was plenty of chance to stop and go to the loo.

The last two hours dragged on though and the road was very windy and bendy, making me feel slightly nauseous. The driver was obviously keen to get there too as he drove really fast through the towns and villages beeping at everything in his path. As Chris said, probably best not to look! By 4.30 pm we arrived and got a tuk tuk for 10,000 each to the town centre.

Bus 4 – Laoung Prabang to Laoung NamTha.

VIP Bus 10 hrs 120,000 kip 7pm – 5am

We paid for a VIP bus as it has a toilet on board. Having just had an upset stomach I was anxious about the toilet situation, so paid to have the VIP. However when we got to the bus station and checked with the driver he said ‘no toilet’! No point getting cross though, that’s just how things are here.

It was pretty cramped and we had less room than the other buses we had taken. We did get a free bottle of water each though and blankets.

Driver was nice and stopped plenty of times for loo breaks, still drove very fast and I was a bit motion sick to begin with, but gradually lolled off to sleep. And the bus has suspension.

Bus broke down in the mountains. No information but it was the middle of the night and most people were sleeping, or trying too. No idea what the problem was but after about an hour we got going again. Bus was very cold, due to the outside temperature and I wore socks, a fleece with my hood up and had a blanket and was still cold. At 5 am we arrived at Luang NamTha, it was dark, misty and cold. After a 10km tuk tuk ride to the town we then waited 2 hours for a room in a guesthouse (the one we chose and had left the bikes at was full). All I can say is take warm clothes with you!

Tips for travelling bus in Laos

  • buses always take longer than advertised
  • they are likely to breakdown
  • the roads are bad and the drivers go fast
  • have 1000 kip notes for toilets
  • take plenty of food and water with you
  • take toilet roll and anti-bacterial hand gel
  • take a pillow or bag of clothes to use as a pillow
  • take a warm top (hoodie or fleece) and socks
  • take an ipod or mp3 player
  • er… cycle instead??

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‘Aint no mountain high enough!’

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

As countries go, Laos certainly seems to have more mountains per square mile than any other place I’ve been. The whole country is like a giant version of Tellytubby land, covered with high roads, criss-crossing the ranges. It’s beautiful though.

After our night in the bamboo shelter, we got back on the road and having decided that I felt ok, I wanted to make it to ViengPhoukha that night, where there would be a guesthouse or two and food (of the meat variety)! It was 60km away and we had reason to believe that there were some big mountains in the way:

image

Map my ride elevation map of the some of the route

However, it started ok and we were on empty gravel roads, mostly heading downhill, including an area with a spectacular view of the valley and paddy fields.

valley

We passed through a small village where there were little kids on oversized bikes by the side of the road. Chris cycled by them on the part tarmac / part gravel road.

chris on gravel with kids by roadside (2)

The road meandered for a few miles, mostly flat through more villages with waving kids. I was beginning to wonder if we would be more tired from waving and shouting ‘Sabadee’, than cycling, by the time we reached the Chinese border. In one village, huge swathes of kids above us on the hill sides waved and screamed to us, amazing, I was beginning to feel like a celebrity.

The road quality deteriorates quite badly in places and becomes a bumpy, potholed mudfest. I know that hearing cyclists moan about road surfaces is fairly dull, but with no suspension, riding on a rough surface can make for an uncomfortable, slow ride. Chris, however, would argue that it’s good training!

road quality

So we finally reach a hill, which looks ok, but steep. The road is curving around the hill, so you can’t see how far the climb is, in some ways this is better as it is less daunting – one step at a time. We agree to meet at the top and set off. At first I keep up with Chris, but it’s not long before the gradient kicks in. Our paces differ greatly on the hills, even though Chris actually cycles at a slower speed with more weight. With shorter, weaker legs, I have to pedal faster to keep the bike moving and me from falling off, so it appears that I am exerting more energy in shorter bursts, meaning I get tired out quicker. I wish I had greater stamina and strength. So I pedal, aiming for a certain tree, post or pothole up ahead. I get there and rest for 30 secs, then continue to the next point. It’s slow going but breaking it down into sections make it achievable. We round a corner and continue up. I can now tell that this is going to be a big climb and there is no obvious ‘top’.

After a while, i stop for a few minute to catch my breath properly. On the hillside I can hear voices and chatter coming form the bushes and trees. I can’t see anyone, but it sounds very close. Finally some shouts of Sabadee arrive and I see 4 young women. They climb down and come over to me. In my best Lao I explain that I am going to Laoung NamTha and say how steep it is. They agree and ask me if I am on my own (Nung?)  Meaning: just you? (Shake head, Song!) No two! I say and motion ahead of me to indicate Chris. Ah they nod and look happier. I drink from my water bladder and they are intrigued, as is everyone in Laos, about this contraption. ‘Nam’ I say (water). They are very happy about this. I ask them what they have in their bags, they show me bamboo shoots. I nod and smile, pleased for them. Bamboo shoots are used heavily in cooking.  I set off again, but it’s really steep and I keep stopping – the women must wonder what I am doing, or more to the point why I am doing this at all. How strange for them. I wonder if they think all western women ride bikes up big hills in far off lands. I also think that, at this rate, they may catch me up on foot, however I turn around and see that they have disappeared back into the trees, continuing their hunt for food.

As the climb continues I reach a patch where the tarmac has been dug up leaving a very rough surface. Ahead, I see diggers, trucks and roadworks. By the time I reach them, the road is so bad that I have got off to push. Huffing and puffing as the trucks and machines move up and down, covering everything with clouds of dust. Me included. Then one of the workmen says hello, where are you going? I say Hi but continue, am too out of breath for a chat! A minute later he reverses his machine up the hill and stops just ahead of me, getting out the cab. He’s keen to talk so I stop. His English is good and he is from Thailand. I explain what we are doing and how we spent time in Thailand. Turns out we cycled through his home town, which he is delighted about. I guess not many tourists would go there as it’s not really a big tourist destination. I turn to go now as I know Chris will be waiting. The man rushes into his cab and brings down a big bunch of bananas. He gives them to me. I suggest that I just take one or two, but he insists that I take them all. I take them, very gratefully and thank him for his kindness. I wave goodbye and cycle on up the rest of the hill.

It’s boiling hot now and I am still climbing. No sign of Chris yet so I can’t be at the top. As I go round the corner I see it continue to climb and bend, not as steep but still up. Eventually the road surface improves and it levels out. Chris must be near, so I ring my bell a few times to let him know. Finally as I reach a bamboo shelter by the road I see his bike. Turns out he’s also been meeting people. A couple popped up by the shelter, sat with him for a while chattering away and gave him some freshly picked rice to chew on. We are both amazed at how friendly the people are here, so unfazed by our presence. Sure people who speak some English in SE Asia are usually friendly and come and chat to us, but here in Laos they are happy to sit and chat even if they speak no English and we only speak 10 words of Lao. It’s lovely.

We scoff some bananas and look at the road ahead, there’s more to go yet. My ears are blocked up at the moment and when I yawn I hear them crackle. Despite the difficulty of the climb, I’m buzzing. Those endorphins must be working their magic.

liz mountain top

We get going and the hill goes up up up some more until we finally level out and cycle for a few kms along a plateau. All we can see for miles around are hills and mountains. It’s spectacular (not that photos do it justice!). I’ve been pouring with sweat for hours and the prospect of a nice long downhill is exciting.

hills everywhere for miles

Then we whiz downhill for ages, maybe 10km, finally stopping at the marked boundary for Bokeo/Luang NamTha Province. We are both starving and Chris is particularly low on sugar, I know this as he is pretty grumpy and short tempered, always a sign of hunger.  So we pull out the tarp and I order him to sit down and eat the rest of my chocolate crisp things. I set up the stove in record time and boil some water for noodles. We only have one packet left though and a tin of sardines in tomato sauce. It’ll have to do us for now. Whilst all this is happening, a bus stops full of tourists, who proceed to get out the bus, saying hello and then walk off into the bush. We’re in the middle of nowhere, we think, where can they be going, they don’t have backpacks or anything? However after the number of people we’ve met today popping up here there and everywhere i guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

The coach driver comes to talk to us, turns out they’ve just stopped for a lunch break and have gone to eat their packed lunches. He sits with us while I cook and we ask him where the next village or shop is, what the road ahead is like etc. He’s a nice guy. The tourists come back, they are Dutch but speak good English, as most Dutch people do. We chat with them for a while before they climb back aboard and wave goodbye.

We scoff some more bananas, both feeling better for food and look at the road ahead. The driver reckons there is 3km of climbing to do before we reach the real final top. Then downhill for 20+km to Vieng Phoukha. So we continue up. In one place it’s too steep and I push my bike for the best part of a kilometre. Even the trucks coming past are going really slowly. At this point I tend to daydream and no longer focus on the hill or the difficulty. Having got this far, your know your body can do the work, so your mind is free to wander elsewhere. That said, it’s rare that I achieve this, especially on hills!

At the top top, after passing through a village, we find a small shop and stock up on water, which we were very low on by now. We also buy coke, orange juice and 4 packs of biscuits. One of the men form the village asks to have a ride on my bike. I ask him to trying lifting it first just so he has an idea of how heavy it is. Then I agree he can have a go. After a wobbly start ( it’s in the two lowest gears after the hill) he gets the hang and does a small circuit before handing it back. It’s now 4.30pm and we still have about 30km to do. It’s cold up here in the mountains and rain looks possible, so we start our descent. What can I say, we literally go downhill for 20km! We wind through hills and villages, passed rivers and cows. In many ways the Laos landscape reminds me of New Zealand.

wooden huts at start  of each village

The road eventually flattens out into a valley and we are not far from our final destination. A few more ks, but the last 5 are hard, my legs are very tired now and as the sun starts to set, I just want to get there. The town is meant to be a good size, yet out here it is hard to believe that just round the corner is a big town! We cycle along, side by side, taking the mickey out of each other with daft banter, both in high spirits and attempt to race the last bit. A couple more small hills get thrown in just for good measure and as we reach the brow of the last one, we see the town below us. Hurray, high fives all round. We whizz down and stop at the very first guesthouse sign we see. It’s called Mountain View Lodge and guess what, it’s up another flippin’ hill!

We check in to a small bungalow with views over the town. There is no electricity, but the bed is nice. I take a cold shower in the dark bathroom and wash away the layer of sweat, suncream and road dirt. I’m a bit too cold to face getting my head wet, so my hair stays unwashed. After feeling ill and weak the previous day, I was surprised that I was able to do this today and come to the conclusion that I am either not as ill as I thought or am stronger than I knew! Tomorrow will tell.

We head out to get food and order far too much, but are happily full when we return to our bungalow. The generator is on when we get back so we have some electricity (ie lights). We decided to watch a movie on the laptop. A few minutes into it, the electricity cuts off and shortly after that, despite efforts to keep my eyes open,  I fall fast asleep, shattered but content after a challenging ride through the mountains. 

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