An early-morning ride in Laos. (Photo submitted)

Quesnel Bikers find friendly people in southern Laos

Chris and Heather Hartridge invited to join a community Buddhist ceremony

When we last updated you guys on the status of Quesnel Bikers – Good Neighbour Tour of SE Asia, we were getting ready to arrive in the Communist country of Laos. We had been following the Mekong River eastward in Thailand, starting at the city of Chiang Khan. We continued along the river for 17 days and loved being exposed to the local culture, meeting the people and, of course, eating lots of the food!

Heather and I had originally planned to continue the adventure eastward across Laos towards Vietnam, but two cycling sisters from the Netherlands gave us a better idea. We met them en route, and they suggested we continue riding south on the Mekong in Laos, all the way to the southern border so we could visit the area called “The 4,000 Islands.” It was a 400-kilometer ride and promised to take us through an area filled with unknowns. Would there be food and water available along the way? Where would we stay overnight? What was the terrain? Where would we go after the 4,000 Islands? These are all things we love to confront — for us, it’s part of the adventure.

We entered the country at the Laos city of Savannaket. To get there, we crossed the “Friendship Bridge” by bus from the Thai city of Mukdahan. The bus is the required method to enter Laos at this point. For us, that meant arriving at the bus station in time to take the bikes apart so they would store under the bus — all for a half-hour trip. Bus drivers in SE Asia can be grumpy, and this guy was no exception. When we originally purchased the bus ticket, we understood there was no need to pay for the bikes even after we asked. It was another story for the driver. When he solicited an exorbitant amount of money for the bicycles, Heather questioned him. His rebuttal suggested we’d be kicked off the bus if we didn’t pay. We gave him the money and chocked it up to experience.

As soon as we entered the city of Savannaket, we could see evidence that Laos is one of East Asia’s poorest countries. It’s suggested that the country is very dependent on foreign aid, with 80 per cent of people working in agriculture, primarily in the production of rice. We stayed over Christmas in the city meeting locals and expats, learning a bit about its history as a French colony and trying to find some good food. We were soon ready to leave the smoky, dusty town and continue our exploration down this side of the Mekong.

Upon leaving, the biggest challenge was dogs. Savannaket has many packs of dogs that, as a group, definitely raise a little hell. We could hear them from our bed in the hotel — barking all night long. On the way out, we met up with some. We both had sticks, and when the pups came out from nowhere, we stopped, yelled at them, and when sticks are raised, they typically backed off. At least we had the sticks if they had approached.

As we headed south through the savanna-like countryside, the air cleared and the dogs weren’t quite so angry. We passed through many small towns and started to see the real side of Laos. Most exciting to us was the greetings we received from all the children along the way. As we rode into their neighbourhood, they would start yelling “saw-bai-dee” (hello!) at us as they ran closer. Their smiles made our hearts soar!

In one little town called Lak Honsi, we found a comfortable guesthouse. As dinner time approached, we set out down the road to find the restaurant we understood to be open. It was NOT. There was nothing else close by, so we turned and walked the other direction in our typical optimistic way. For a while, it wasn’t looking good for two famished cyclists. Maybe we had to resort to our stored rations? Right then, we walked by a celebration of some kind. To us, it could have been a wedding … As we humbly approached, a lovely young lady came up, and we asked her about getting and paying for some food. She understood but said “no money” and promptly sat us down at a table where food quickly appeared in front of us. Soon, multiple people were bringing more food, and others were asking where we were from. And then a precious little child named Fanta appeared. This sweet little girl liked us and kept bringing her friends to meet us. And then, an elder man came up, put his hand on my shoulder. The language barrier didn’t matter, he made us welcome. He said it was a Buddhist ceremony for the community. Again, we offered to donate to the monks, but he said no. We shook hands, and the world felt like a much smaller place. After the dinner, we slowly walked out, saying goodbye and thanking those that helped us continue to believe in humanity.

Looking back, our journey in Laos was very fulfilling. We visited ancient ruins like Wat Phou — a UNESCO Heritage site since 2001. It’s an incredibly interesting Khmer Hindu 11th-century temple complex that dates back many centuries. The buildings and the ruins around them are frail, but their presence is still profound. We learned the road to Angkor Wat in Cambodia leaves from here, which gave the place a deep connection to the most well-known and enormous Khmer site in SE Asia. We also stayed at a very special homestay on one of the small islands in the Mekong. We felt humbled to be welcomed by Mr. Phonephet, a Lao man who is committed to helping his family and neighbours by building a business that can benefit everyone. His WordPress website describes it like this:

“Dear all visitors. Please come and visit authentic and smile village on unique island. Our homestay is located on the island called Donkhamao. It is new one of 4,000 islands (Lao southern part). You will enjoy during your stay with Mr. Phonephet, which öwas a Monk over 10 years and English speaking, he will introduce you to the Island, Lao culture, Lao lifestyle and Buddhism. He provides you free activities. So if you are ready for a real adventure and you want to have the new experiences to live with local Lao people on the island, this is your right place to visit.”

We left the little island thankful we had the chance to stay. We continued south and eventually ended up at the far southern end of Laos on a little island called Don Det. It is definitely a backpacker’s haven! With our southern route fulfilled, we made a complete about turn and took a bus to the town of Pakse north of us and then another bus to Da Nang, Vietnam. Both these rides were stories unto themselves, but safe to say, the only thing we were missing on the buses was the chickens! Till next time!

We’d like to thank the Quesnel Cariboo Observer for encouraging us share our stories with you. If you’d like to see more photos and read some daily stories, please visit our blog at Till next time!

— Chris and Heather Hartridge

Quesnel residents Chris and Heather Hartridge are spending five and a half months cycle touring around South Korea and Southeast Asia on their Good Neighbour Tour. The Quesnel Bikers, as they are known, will be sharing their journey with the community by sending periodic articles and photos to the Observer.

READ MORE: Quesnel Bikers find many Good Neighbours in Thailand

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