Down to the Mekong Valley

After leaving Vang Vieng we were also leaving the last big hills behind us and pedaling towards Vientiane and the Mekong river.

In the area around Vang Vieng, the people cultivate rice and to a large extent cabbage. As we cycled past the fields, hundreds of little white butterflies were flying around the cabbages

They are large whites (Pieris brassicae), or cabbage butterflies and typically lay their eggs on plants of the brassicaceae or mustard plant family, such as the cabbage. Their larvae then feast on the cabbage leaves and after a couple of weeks, beautiful white butterflies emerge. Seeing so many of these insects in agricultural fields can only mean one thing: the people don't use pesticides! And unlike in Thailand, we haven't seen the use of pesticides nor the aggressive advertising by the road from chemical firms like syngenta and co.

We continued cycling south and after about an hour arrived at the northern tip of a big reservoir lake. Fish is plentiful in the lake and so were the stalls selling dried fish along the roadside.

Route 13 then heads around the reservoir and winds through rubber plantations. Along the roadside we saw people selling honey and seemingly large rice. When we took a closer look however, the rice turned out to be the eggs and larvae of ants! Not exactly what we had in mind for lunch...

These ants are large, red weaver ants and make impressive nests in trees out of leaves. To construct these nests, the ants work together to bend twigs and leaves toward each other and form a ball like structure. They then use the silk of their larva to tightly glue the leaves and twigs together.

Still hungry, we continued and soon found a restaurant which served, as always, noodle soup. In the villages and most restaurants we have encountered along the road, the people mainly eat this soup called foe (pronounced something between few and foe). (foto 2411)

It consists of a self made broth poured over rice noodles. The type of veggies can vary from sprouts, tomatoes, morning glory and cabbage. A dish of fresh salad, mint and lime accompanies the soup. On some days we end up eating foe twice a day. Only for breakfast we make a big effort to find something else, such as sticky rice. Its actually surprising that the restaurants offer so little variety of dishes, as the markets are full of different kinds of vegetables, herbs and spices.

About 70km south of Vang Vieng, the rolling hills turn into flat rice land. In Thailand, we always saw lots of shore birds and egrets in the rice paddies, so I wondered what birds we would see here. To my delight, shortly after cycling along the rice paddies, a flock of black-winged stilts appeared in one of the flooded fields. Just as I took out my camera, they flew off.

It was getting late and we had cycled 90 kms already. The guesthouse was only five kms away when we heard a loud hissing sound. Sera's tire was punctured by a nail and quickly losing air. Fixing the tire didn't go unnoticed by the locals and one of the spectators even brought us some water. A quarter of an hour later we were back on the road, waving good bye to our new fans.

The next day we cycled to Vientiane, the capital of Lao. We hoped to see the reservoir lake and cycle past it, so we left the main Route 13. We encountered a short dusty road bit, nice women at the market, a different kind of traffic on the road, but never saw the reservoir.

Cycling into Vientiane was a relatively easy ride and traffic was surprisingly calm. The capital is relatively small and generally quite laid back. It is located directly on the Mekong river, but unlike western cities, the promenade along the river is actually located about 100 to 150 meters away from the water's edge. Now that's smart flood protection!

On our way through the city we cycled past some of the beautiful temples. In front of several of these wats I saw women selling small ornaments, flowers and birds (I think they are munias). These birds are not sold to be taken home however. They are meant to be freed as a "merit release", a sign of kindness and compassion. But for the birds, this practice can be deadly, as they were taken from the wild, shipped to a foreign place where they completely disorientated on their release and often end up dying. I'm sure that's not exactly what Buddha had in mind.

It was getting hotter, but we continued to cycle. We knew today would only be a short cycling day, as our destination lay just across the river. We pulled out our passports, cycled across the first friendship bridge and ended up, once again, in Thailand! Somehow I get the feeling we will still be on the road for a very long time if we always end up going back to the same country...

However, the main reason for crossing over to Thailand was not to indulge on great Thai food, sleep in a cheap but fancy guesthouse or enjoy the fast internet connection, it was to conduct a so-called visa run and extend our Lao visa for another 30 days.

We found a guesthouse right along the river, owned by an enthusiastic cyclist who eagerly sat down with us to hear our stories over a great cup of coffee. In the evening we walked along the river and enjoyed the sunset over the Mekong.

For breakfast we gave in to one more authentic phad thai and then whizzed across the border again with our 30 day visa stamp in our pockets.

We decided to follow the road along the Mekong, instead of the route 13, in hope for less traffic and a better scenery. After roughly 10 kms we passed Xieng Khuan also known as the buddha park, an area filled with buddha statues crafted by Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat in the late 50's and 60's. The statues are not your typical temple buddha and after the revolution in 1975, the artist fled to Thailand, where he build a second statue park. (foto 2357)

Not taking the main road meant lots of off-road pists and dust. Its a scenic ride and in the afternoon dozens of school children cycled towards us, smiling and waving at us. It was definitely worth choosing the smaller road.

Our last day of cycling along the Mekong was also one of the hardest. We had no choice but to cycle on route 13 and trucks and buses whizzed by us frequently. Much worse was the strong head wind though. Our goal for the day was to reach Paksan and meet Ben Swanepoel, an employee of the Wildlife Conservation Society. We arrived at 5 o'clock in the evening, quite exhausted but eager to hear Ben talk about conservation and rangers in Laos. It turned out to be a very friendly and informative encounter and we thank him for meeting us on a Saturday evening. Coincidentally Ben is also a passionate cyclist and the next day we saw him again, as he took his fancy road bike out for a ride.