My personal preference for tackling hills is to do whatever it takes to get to the top in a single go. On an incline, I don’t particularly enjoy the effort of getting going after stopping, both mentally and physically. From the base of the hill, I pushed hard with my lungs ready to burst even though the pedals were barely turning. As I neared the summit, I discovered that it was only the first bend of a much longer climb. This one was going to require a different strategy. I stopped immediately, caught my breath, and waited for Matt to catch up. Thereafter, we both managed to ride for maybe five to ten minutes at a time followed by a break equally as long.
Meanwhile, the big trucks kept honking as they passed us only a few miles per hour faster. At first I was annoyed; we were already far over on the shoulder of the road and they had plenty of room. I kept my head down, concentrating on the climb, but one passenger in the truck's cab caught my eye as he casually hung an arm out the window with a definitive thumbs up. These were honks not only of encouragement, but of comradeship. No other vehicle on the road could empathize with our situation; only the trucks were “feeling" our pain. After that, I watched the trucks carefully as they passed. At least twice, the honks turned out to be an alert that the cab passengers were attempting a water bottle hand-off, one of the few instances where the novelty of it superseded our principle of abstaining from disposable plastic bottles. We developed a strange affinity and mutual respect for the trade trucks plying this route only because it's the shortest distance between China and Thailand. We were extreme opposite modes of transport, yet shared the characteristic of being equally poor fits for the nature of this road.
Despite the extra water weighing us down even more, we eventually made it to the top in time to take in a vista of endless layers of green hills bathed in subtle evening light. As we descended down the other side, we began to scout out a campsite for the night, which proved difficult on the 10% grade interspersed with sharp curves. After losing as much elevation as we had gained, we rolled in to a basic village and noticed a soccer-cum-grazing field with a convenient water tap. As we debated whether to go for the very public spot or keep looking, curious villagers gathered around us. We asked permission to camp amongst the cow patties, but one man beckoned us over to his house instead. He showed us to a stilted shelter of woven bamboo and thatched roofing. It served as their kitchen and storage area, while his large family ate and slept in a much bigger and sturdier stilted wooden house with a corrugated metal roof.
While we were getting situated in the storage room, he made eating gesticulations and pointed over to the main house, then disappeared. When we joined the family a few minutes later, they were finishing off a pot of simple noodle soup, but we weren't offered any. We weren't offended, we were just confused. To make matters even more awkward, the son-in-law kept pointing towards the community bathing room, so we took a hint and took our leave for the night. We took refreshing bucket showers and fired up the camp stove for our old standby of instant ramen, then crawled into our sleeping bag to fall asleep to the sound of cicadas mostly drowning out a neighbor's blaring TV. We were essentially camping without setting up our tent.
We awoke at five in the morning to the sounds of women starting a fire in the open hearth to prepare a batch of sticky rice, presumably their only breakfast item. Again, it wasn't clear if we should partake or not, so we erred on the side of caution and made our own breakfast of oatmeal porridge instead. Matt attracted quite a crowd of onlookers as he cooked in the shade of their main house. We shared some dried fruit and instant coffee with our spontaneous audience while we ate, then left a small donation with our host family, who seemed genuinely pleased with our visit in the end. After stocking up on plenty of water at the public tap, we hit the road early, but it was already plenty hot.
It didn't seem practical to buy cellular data for just the few days we would be in Laos and there was no wifi advertised in the simple, non-commercialized villages we were passing through. Of course, we at least had a basic map and generalized information about our route from a pirated copy of Lonely Planet we picked up in Bangkok, but we lacked the usual level of detail of exact distances between towns and an all-important elevation profile. The absence of technology obviously enhanced the sense of adventure, but it also illustrated just how influential the beast is on our day-to-day experience. Without having means to anticipate what lay ahead, we simply had to take each moment as it came. You know, what travel used to be before the age of hyper-connectivity.
However, after surviving several respectable hills back to back, we were also reminded that it is just as possible to dread the unknown as the known, at least when it comes to elevation. We operated under the mostly correct assumption that each hill would only lead to a bigger and steeper one, on and on for eternity. Under the harsh mid-day sun, it took us several hours to tackle a single particularly arduous climb, including the hour when I fanned Matt with a small plastic cutting board under the only bit of shade while he presented symptoms of minor heat exhaustion. The occasional "gentle incline" provided as much relief as if it was perfectly flat terrain. We also caught ourselves braking more than necessary on downhills as procrastination for the inevitable next uphill awaiting us at the bottom.
Along with the masochistic satisfaction of surviving the challenge, simply the beauty of our surroundings inspired us to keep going. The word "pure" frequently came to mind. Pure hills, pure villages, pure life. Refreshingly little litter lined the road, a direct correlation to the sparse population, but also an indication of minimal means for consumption. I suspected the Red Bull cans and junk food wrappers were largely tossed out by Chinese truckers rather than the local residents. Children dropped whatever they were doing to run to the side of the road as we passed through their village. They would shout, "Goodbye! Goodbye!" long before we reached the spot where they were waiting for us. We sung phrases from the Beatles song in return, "You say goodbye, I say hello...Hello, hello...I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello!" One time, we spotted two 4 or 5-year-old boys running down the road at the fringe of the village. They were both completely naked and there was not an adult in sight. In America, this would be cause to call the police, but there, it seemed just a normal part of daily life.
Our second night in Laos, we struck gold with the first spot we scouted for camping. It was a rare flat spot cleared for what looked like parking big vehicles, but none were there at the time, so we claimed it. We even had a perfect little creek nearby for rinsing the layers of sunscreen and crystallized sweat off. A lovely light show starring an abundance of fireflies provided our evening entertainment. We weren't capable of breaking camp before the locals were out and about the next morning. Everyone who passed by on the trail down to the creek was certainly surprised to see us, but nobody seemed to mind that we were there. Some came over to check out our gear and others just stared from afar.
We were treated to a mostly downhill ride into the market town of Vieng Phukha where we skipped the barbecued rodent and dead songbirds, but did pick up some funky fruit for the onward journey. We traversed the Nam Ha National Protected Area, which continued with the theme of attractively simple villages and green forested hills. While an agricultural corridor along both sides of the road was still commonplace, there was a marked decrease in deforestation within Nam Ha's bounds. Swaths of cleared and burned land frequently sprawled across the landscape during our previous days of riding, especially in areas located conveniently close to the road.
Rounding a sharp bend, we screeched to a stop as we encountered not one--but two--semi trucks flipped over on the side of the road. Fortunately, we were far from the first ones on the scene. Based on the remnants of Chinese bananas rotting amongst beat up cardboard boxes, one southbound truck had crashed a few days prior, obliterating the very type of guardrail that Matt and I often rest on at the curves of steep climbs. The second truck was headed north with a load of Thai mangoes. A crowd of people surrounded this truck, some transferring crates of salvageable fruit to another semi sent to rescue the cargo. Others just picked through the chaos and carried off bags of mangoes for their own enjoyment. As soon as our presence was noticed, a couple of ladies insisted on giving us juicy slices that they expertly cut, then "gifted" us four tremendous mangoes, each weighing several pounds. Just what we needed to lug around on Laos's crazy roads. We nestled the mangoes into our Chacos on the front rack of our bikes and strapped them down. We continued on our way, curious to know the full story of the accidents, but unable to find out without speaking Lao. Having also passed by a different flipped banana truck the day before, we wondered just how often these major crashes occur, and if we would come across yet another one the next day.
Luang Namtha was a sharp contrast to the landscape we had been immersed in for several days, even though it was still a relatively calm and pleasant city. As the regional base for hill tribe trekking tourism, we actually enjoyed its mellow backpacking scene for once, perhaps because it was the only time we met other foreigners in Laos. We had hoped to stay with a Warm Showers host, but the communication became convoluted and we ended up in a comfortable traveler-oriented guesthouse instead. The availability of Beer Lao Dark persuaded us to stay an extra day, making it our first rest day since leaving Chiang Mai. Thanks to reconnecting with the Internet, we felt confident we could make the Chinese border before our visas expired in three days time.
Five days in Laos was a lovely taste of a country that we still long to explore more thoroughly on our journey. In fact, we neglected to change our remaining kip at the border, just to give us additional motivation to return.