Almost a week has gone by since my last blog, and yet as I sit in the comfort of my hotel room, I can still sense the sounds, sights and scents of the superb ride down to Luang Prabang. Freewheeling for 15km was such a joy that the next uphill 15km felt easy, knowing I’d reap the reward with a further 20km downhill.  You can perhaps imagine at the start of the next descent how my exclamation came aloud,  ‘Wheeee! ’

How can I explain the joy of my journey through the mountain villages over the past few days? Passing through at bike speed becomes the perfect way for a few fleeting moments to become almost a part of the village, as if climbing on stage while a drama production is underway.  With the chill of a misty mountain morning on my cheeks, I hear a prize fighting rooster crowing from under it’s giant basket coop, then I catch sight of a circle of villagers squatting on the sunny side of the road to chat. With the scent of wood smouldering from a tiny fire, I watch children being readied for school huddled for warmth outside a tiny mountain house.  As the sun rises in the sky, there are men as well as women washing clothes at the pump, in the stream or on the banks of the river, and other mothers head out to collect wood or work the fields, small baby strapped to their back, and a child only slightly larger carrying a basket or farm tools up to a steep bank geometrically planted in banana palms or covered with straggling vines of dusty water melons.    Then there’s the children heading home from school, side-saddled elegantly at the back of a friend’s bike, the fathers on mopeds, their young child seated between their arms, and a boy with a slingshot tailed by a group of small admirers,together they make up the unfolding play through which I, the audience, am privileged to cycle quietly past.

After days on the road through the mountains, the shock came in being once again confronted by city traffic, noise and the dust, oh the dust.  As in Vientiane, navigating the traffic at the ‘every man for themselves’ junctions becomes a matter of confidence.  Then there’s the funnelling through a narrow space created by a double-parked trucks, the evasion of a deep pothole amidst nose to tail vehicles, or passing a tuk-tuk randomly disgorging passengers.  After a long day on the road I’m only just up for it so I’m thankful I have pre-booked a hotel;  thanks to Google Maps I only lose my way once before almost falling off my bike in my enthusiasm to finally dismount. It’s a French hotel, very French, and I’m highly aware of my dusty dishevelled appearance and my elderly zip-off pants, but the young couple managing the delightful complex are most welcoming and insist on wheeling my bike for me as they show me past lotus-filled fishponds to my air-conditioned room.

Luang Prabang turned out to be the most delightful of cities. Imagine Laos gentle civility fused with French culture, add in the history and daily life of Buddhist temples, a riverside location and World Heritage status and perhaps you can begin to understand what makes it so special.   I booked for 3 nights, but stayed for five.  I confess that the first evening, after a blissful swim in the hotel pool I crossed the bamboo bridge to town, opting not only for steak and chips and an ice cream, but a chocolate pancake as well, then back in my room I finished a half-eaten packet of Oreos.  After that, just like the Very Hungry Caterpillar, I felt much better!

The first day  I spent just resting and enjoying wandering the city, sititng to watch the sun go down over the Mekong River whilst indulging in an ice cold Beerlao and a plate of exquisite crunchy waterweed and chilli jam. One of those delicacies I guess you need to try before you can understand its wonders!  I couldn’t resist a day white-water kayaking on a river two hours north of the city, and then attempted to master the challenges of Lao food at a day’s cookery class.   In between times I visited the Traditional Arts and Culture Centre, attended an evening performance of Laoitian dance and music and returned on two consecutive evenings to a candlelit restuarant by the river. Imagine my surprise on the second evening in discovering my waiter is from Paihia, the son of Steve and Kartini, whom I’ve known for years!

Yesterday I cycled out to the famous Xuang Xi waterfall, a round trip of some 65km along a country lane through a river valley which was reminiscent of my Oxford childhood until the memory was rapidly dispersed as I took avoiding action past three water buffalo wandering the roadside.     Despite the number of tourists also visiting, the waterfalls were truly exceptional: a walk through the forest up tier after tier of turquoise pools to reach the high cascading falls, a swim in the brilliant blue fish-nibbling water, followed by a simply barbecued river fish delightfully stuffed with lemongrass, before a hot but fast downhill ride back to the city.

Now the roosters are crowing, dawn has arrived  and I can hear the monks chanting as they begin their walk around the houses collecting alms. Its time to set off back towards Vientiane.    I’m heading across to the west, via Sayabouri, a route I haven’t been able to find out much about. I’m hoping it’ll work out okay….



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