His name was Dong Muan and he sat enthroned by the carcasses of dozens of 12 foot-high bombs that stack up as the grimmest of rural furniture in this part of central Laos. Following years of nigh-on incessant fly-overs by US B-52s, dropping their payloads on the population of Laos, the landscape left behind has taken on the identity of a true lunarscape. Pock-marked with countless deep craters, many of which still retain deadly Unexploded Ordnance (UXO).
Dong Muan had spotted us wolfing down fried rice in the dusty market town of Muang Khoun and with a broad grin, joined us for the chance to impress with his entirely broken French, learnt decades ago, long before the Americans and their war against the communists of North Vietnam came to town. The “Vietnam War” may be the name by which we will always remember the US military aggression in this region between 1964 and 1973, but to use this name risks forgetting that this Second Indochina War had far-reaching and devastating consequences for neighbouring Cambodia and Laos too.
The consequence of Laos’ fraternal stance to the North Vietnamese, permitting use of its territory for the flow of supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, was that Laos became the most heavily bombed country per capita in history, with more ordnance tumbling from the skies onto this small country than all the bombs dropped during the entirety of the Second World War. Of the 270 million bombs that the US dumped on the country, (a B-52’s contents falling every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day for nearly 10 years and delivering a shocking 500kg of bombs for every man, woman and child) Xiang Khouang province was the most heavily hit. And with Muang Khoun as the principal town of the province, you might say that where we sat with Dong was, to borrow a term, Ground Zero. The most heavily bombed area in the most heavily bombed country ever. And little survived, but Dong certainly did.
As his life-story made its way through his difficult-to-follow French, extraordinarily, he was able to laugh and beam and chirpily describe the instinctual response of running into the surrounding jungles when the drone of B-52s sounded above and the rat-at-at-tat of gun-fire from the heavens echoed. He survived those years and even managed at times to teach his students and local militia how to read and write.
Although we have started with tales of the central heartlands, our time in Laos had begun much earlier, more than 500km away in the north-east where we criss-crossed bright and lush undulating hills, and paddled our bikes on rickety canoes across swollen muddy rivers that had overtaken the poor old highways. Highways that wrapped their way around hilltops and unfortunately had to dip into and out of countless steep valleys.
Our meandering through the numerous huts-on-stilts villages, peppered with never-ending salutations of “Sa-bai-dee” and absurdly excitable, friendly kids whose energy levels we fiercely envied, eventually brought us out into the gem of Lao tourism, the enduringly charming town of Luang Prabang. Dotted with tranquil Buddhist temples (Wats) and protectively enveloped by the mighty Mekong River and its tributary, we found the ideal idyll – lazing away the days and restoring ourselves generally. It was a strange experience for Sam to be back here after almost 14 years, having visited as a very wide-eyed teenage lone traveller. The town, and Lao’s increasing appeal on the tourist trail, has since turned this sleepy place into a major tourist haunt. Friendly opium dens replaced with fancy patisseries, now laden with life-giving cakes.
It proved difficult to leave Luang Prabang. Just one more BeerLao, just one more tarte au citron…etc etc. And when we did manage finally to pack the bikes and bags and prevaricate until we could no more, we met Justin and Emma (Kiwis cycling from London to NZ) and Philipp and Valeska (novice cycletourers - having only cycled for 6 years and across 75,000km!). The result was that the bikes were leant up and chins began to wag. To our great credit we did wrestle ourselves away the next day only to bump into Marc and Chris, a delightful couple from Belgium who were merrily pedalling around SE Asia.
Little did we suspect that when we shared our first BeerLao (“het is zoals een engeltje dat pist op je tong”) with these plucky retirees one night at fork-in-the-road Phoukoun, that we would end up sharing the next 10 days adventuring through the back-waters of Laos together. But they were more than game to put their city bikes to the test and outpaced us with such an infectious positivity that we ended up taking on some of the worst broken roads that Laos could throw up, crossing river after river in search once more of highways that would simply peter out. Staring up 20% hill-climbs on truly shitty roads induced no fear in these two and cajoled us onwards. As three of us gritted our teeth in the heat of yet another arduous ascent, Marc would whisper, “what a great life we have!”
And it propelled us onwards through the truly extraordinary 7km long Tham Kong Lo cave, whose skinny motorised canoes were not accustomed to our heavy touring bikes but delivered us nonetheless into the lonely jungles on the other side and what promised to be a brisk 15km cycle to the highway and civilisation.
60km and 2 days of devilish pedalling and pushing later, we emerged off the most demanding of tropical forest trails, having consumed frogs in their entirety just to survive. Well something close to that anyway.
With over 80 million of those 270 million bombs that rained down on Laos left unexploded and scattered on the hills and plains, the current population has inherited fields pregnant with danger. More than 50,000 people have been killed or seriously injured due to UXO accidents since the ‘bombies’ (cluster munitions) began falling in 1964 and continue to claim lives on a daily basis. In light of the above statistics and the robust advice we were given, our camping days – much to Francesca’s great disappointment – were limited to roadside pitches. Peace of mind and a good night’s sleep, however, entailed resting up in one of the many friendly guesthouses that have sprung up all over Laos in recent years.
The hard but wonderful roads of Laos had put us through our paces just when we thought we had escaped days of gruel. It was joyful gruel that took us through the curious ancient Plain of Jars, and gruelling joy that took us finally over our last few hillocks and gave us our first broad views of the flatlands of the Mekong, which would allow us to flow alongside this heaving mass of murky water all the way to the south of Laos and the border with Cambodia. That was to be the plan anyway.
A mental clock is now ticking for us both. One we always envisaged as being so far off, yet the tocking is irritatingly and discernibly getting louder and time is running out on this Odycycle. With this in mind, we have exited Laos prematurely and raced the diagonal through Thailand to enter Cambodia and pay homage to its (and the World’s) gem that is Angkor Wat. A visit to see Sam’s colleagues working in Phnom Penh is on the cards too, but more of that next time.