Day 19 – Cycling up Route 13

Once more I didn’t get up at dawn, and anyway a bit bad-tempered after being woken up and kept awake by noisy neighbours, but still haven’t put a face to the din.

I rent a mountain bike, as yesterday’s one-speed heavy iron thing was useless for rough roads and hills. After buying some stuffed beyond capacity baguettes for breakfast and a picnic later I ask at tourist information for a good local map. What I get is useless and pointless.

Ive read about Route 13 and I missed it on the bus as it was dark. It goes all the way to Vientiane, which is 384km, but I’m not going to do that. It winds gently up the mountains and for a main road it is rather low-key, poorly finished and with no markings.

After about 30 minutes I come to a turning marked Tadhong Waterfall and take the steep dusty mud road/track, passing a couple of locals with sling shots, searching for food, some small houses and a boy doing something with large planks of wood, possibly preparing them for seasoning. It’s hot and I’m not sure how far I will have to go, but 20 minutes later I descend to a pond and a cluster of buildings labelled Snack Bar. Nobody there, just a local standing on the crumbling brick bridge.

The surroundings are beautiful, mountains all around, lilac coloured bushes a waterfall gently falling over the rocks. A woman appears from the shacks and sells me a ticket for 10,000 kip, which seems a lot just to stand at this clearing but she explains there are more falls higher up.

I take the wrong path immediately, and find myself climbing the side of the mountain through semi-cultivated slopes and past the workers’ shacks. As ai limb the view becomes more dramatic. The trodden path (not well beaten) takes me higher into the forest. There are hundreds of twisty vortex-like spider webs at knee height in the grass and bushes, and some spiders too.

Many types of butterflies, yellow, dirt colour, a red and white one the size of a child’s hand, 15cm long green dragonflies, blue-black ones near the water courses, and dirt coloured jumping cricket-like insects about 6cm long, hopping all over the place. And no people, just me.

Over the top of the mountain the path flattens then descends a little leaving the forest and I see it doesn’t lead to a waterfall, but a village, I later learn is called Ban Huay Ton. Seeing this remote village brings a moment of excitement. It looks just like the places I read about: remote, undeveloped, poor and not used to falangs.

I hesitate about proceeding, knowing I will be stared at and feel like the stupid whiteman looking at the natives, but I know I cant miss this opportunity. The approach is strewn with waste and on the edge of the settlement a small girl of about 6 or 7 is crouching and learning to weave the grass panels that are used for the walls of the huts. Her sister works behind her.

The village comprises about 25 similar houses with thatched roofs and grass panel walls, on stilts with wood stored underneath. This space is also used for keeping animals and has a platform for sitting on in the shade. There is a lot of sitting around: 4 boys are being taught something by a teacher: a woman standing on a small mound in front of them. Kids playing in an empty oil drum, another with an old bicycle tyre, some chase a skinny half-plucked chicken.

They are all shoe-less and have old dirty, some ripped, clothes. There is a gathering of people, mostly kids watching a truck unloading some stone. 2 monks also. Smoking. I know this is taboo. The place has 2 stores, which are just houses with big open window counters holding soft drinks and tissues.

Only the kids call out Sabaidee, the adults respond to me, but I’m tolerated rather than welcome. Anyway nobody objects to being photographed. There is electricity and there are a few satellite dishes. There is a dust road and motorbikes. I don’t think these people travel far, and I wonder what they make of and feel about the world they view on their TVs. I regret not having anything to give the kids. That was titillation, and leaves me a bit sad and awkward. Like going to a zoo.

The route back over the hill takes me through more forest and I’m passed by some locals who are not very responsive. Eventually I find the initial goal: a series of pools linked together by little cascades, sparkling in the dappled light shooting through the canopy. Its soothing, beautiful, peaceful.

Back at the Snack Bar pond area, a man is fishing with a rod, and a couple are wading the stream searching for something with a large net.

I return to Route 13 and carry on up the mountains away from Luang Prabang. It’s a joy to have a good bike. I’ve never ridden a bike that makes such big hills effortless. After passing through a number of villages and 30 minutes later, I decide that I should turn back..though, to be honest I just wanted to keep on going. The scenery is so awesome and the watching of everyday life so engrossing.

Back in town I go to the UXO visitors’ centre. This is an information centre run by UXO Laos, who are an NGO who are systematically removing all the unexploded ordinance left over from the Second Indo-China War. Laos had more bombs dropped on it than the total number of bombs dropped in the entire Second World War. The poorest areas were worst hit and the carpet bombing and use of chemical weapons is still having a significant effect on the people there. Lives being taken, children being maimed, livelihoods lost. Last year there were still 300 incidences of injury or fatality. This is 4 decades on and there are victims who weren’t even alive when these things were dropped. One of the biggest problems are cluster bombs. These are now illegal. The Americans dropped thousands of these. The casing breaks apart in mid-air scattering 400-600 mini-bombies, brightly coloured (nice for kids) and the size of a grapefruit. 30% of these never exploded. When one goes off anyone within 30m of it faces injury or worse. These are being dug up, found almost day by day..in school fields, paddy fields. I read that it will take another 100 years to completely remove all these bombs. Another problem is that poverty drives the locals to trade bombs and bomb casings as scrap metal. This is out-lawed but not enforced. This trip was really emotional and it made me angry to see that the USA isn’t more involved in righting this affront to humanity.

Another evening of shakes, crepes, and cycling in the cool dark evening. Ive found this part of the trip a bit solitary. Couples here, groups of friends with money, families, retired people. Anyway, I’m doing what I want to, and I was getting bored with the traveller’s chat: where are you from/where have you been/where are you going next?

I’m looking forward to being with someone: Cyrus and wonder how he will respond to this kind of travelling. 7pm here feels like 1am!

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