Local Lao lady prepares me Iced coffee in a bag with ice. 1/4 cup dark black grounds, 1/4 tsp tamarind, 1 cup sweetened condensed milk, and 1 large bag of ice. 5,000 kip ($0.75). A n hour earlier I ordered the same coffee at the same place for 10,000.
Many bordering countries are so similar that if it weren’t for the border you would never know that you were in a different country. Most of Europe is like this, however I remember Albania being a third world country in the middle of modern Europe. Once out of China, I found Laos to be quite different. Development ceased, roads became narrow; full of mud and pot holes and residences became jungle huts; devoid of electricity, built of bamboo and straw. Chinese villages are full of electronic shops selling cellphones and boutiques selling knockoff Levis, now I find the villages full of naked children playing in roadside runoff, and elders carrying dirt and sticks on water buffalo carts.
Meals usually consist of the plentiful and tasty glutinous sticky rice, (the rice is squeezed into a ball with your hand then dipped into the other dishes) and “jungle stuff”. The other day I was invited to an afternoon meal and the “jungle stuff” was the following: roasted rat, boiled river snails, BBQ toad, and wild mushrooms. (Roadside vendors often sell roasted bat, squirrel and bags of live insects for frying).
The road brings me up and down steep mountains, occasionally passing steps of rice paddies. The jungle comes right up to the road and is so full of life. Each night I camp and I find my stuff completely engulfed by insects, ants, and rats. Midnight usually brings a storm and by morning there is nothing left untouched. My clothes, panniers and pretty much everything I own, never seems to dry and is spotted with black mold. Even the inside of my hat and handle bars are spotted. The heat too takes its toll making my skin red and itchy, and turning the few vegetables and fruit that I do find into mush.
The roads are empty during the hottest hours of the day, locals lounging in the shade or bathing in the rivers. I pedal on trying to cover ground and my sweaty clothes begin to feel like a wet suit. The cash in my pockets can be “wrung-out” with sweat and my skin dries with a layer of salt. As tough as it is I feel privileged to be able to cycle every day with enough food and water and even a tent for camping in the jungle. I have found that a bottle of mineral water ($0.75) costs more than most villagers make in a day, and each day I drink 4-5 bottles. I see children with bellies swollen from starvation, and kids going through garbage looking for food to eat. Suffering is completely out in the open here.
The Mekong River begins at the boarder of China,Myanmar and Laos. The river sweeps south, designating the border with Myanmar, then Thailand before finally cutting through the country. In the shape of a snake, it makes its way north east for a while before heading south again. It is in this snake-like loop where the river meets a tributary creating a small peninsula which became a historic city called Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang has an almost island feel with palm trees and a cool river breeze. Historic colonial buildings, crispy French baguettes , and brick paved alleyways can be found between ancient Buddhist monasteries. Each day at dawn the Buddhist monks living walk the main street barefoot seeking alms. The city is quiet, peaceful and has been a good resting place the last few days. Yesterday I bonded with a couple from Chile, meditating in the monastery and practicing yoga in the park.