Over the Misty Mountains

We ended up stuck in Luang Prabang longer than expected since Matthew got a throat infection, but since it presented as a fever and body ache the more exotic possibilities sent us running to the local hospital. Although it’s one of the bigger hospitals in Laos, and was constructed by the Chinese, the facilities were not encouraging. The doctor was pleasant, professional, and spoke good English so the trip wasn’t all bad. A prescription of antibiotics and paracetamol cured what ailed him within two days.

So we were back on the road and headed for our next destination, the hedonistic backpacker’s favorite, Vang Vieng. There was about 150 miles and a mountain range in our way. Not wanting to kill ourselves, especially after such an extended break, we took it slowly over four days. The first day was spent climbing to the top of the range, which was about 5000 foot of ascent… probably our most intense day yet. The second day was spent going up and down ridges and valleys to cross the mountains, and the last days we slowly biked back down to near sea level.

As usual, we passed through many small villages along the way. The effects of outside aid can be seen in many of these villages, with many ‘sponsored’ by NGOs and charities. Most towns have wells, standpipes and reservoirs provided by World Vision Australia or the French Red Cross. The schools also seem to have been built fairly recently, and also with outside aid. However, the more we pass, the more it becomes evident that in a lot of these schools it is always play time. Perhaps there is a shortage of qualified teachers in Laos…certainly we have never seen one.

The vast majority of tourists to Laos visit only four or five major sites, including Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Luang Namtha, Vientiane, and Huay Xai. When we cycle between these main sites, we see no other tourists except for occasional other bicycle tourists. The towns are barebones with one street (the highway), one or two seedy guesthouses and a couple of restaurants that appear to have been designed for lunch stops for buses, though are always empty. The fact that most foreign tourists stay in just a few areas accounts for the excitement of the children in every village we cycle through. Even just a few kilometers outside of the main tourist cities, they are unused to seeing foreigners, and seeing us is a big event.

The places where tourists go are clearly richer, and are benefitting from the foreign money. This wealth is sometimes apparent in villages very close to the touristy areas, but just 5km outside of Luang Prabang, with its French villas, boutiques and fine dining we saw some of the poorest and most run down villages we have seen. The contrast is somewhat shocking.


~ by Elephants on November 26, 2010.

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