Location: Kuala Lumpur
Miles on the clock: 13,180
I left the town of Luang Nam Tha (in northern Laos) during the Pii Mai (New Year) festival and rode west towards the Mekong. Evening celebrations struck up in the villages. People set off homemade fireworks, danced to loud Laotian music and drank plenty of Laolao (strong rice liquor). I was beckoned to a party and plied with food and drink for an hour. We ate from large communal plates of pork fat with spinach and bamboo shoots. Every few minutes a different person would work their way around the table pouring water down the back of each person's neck. This gesture is done slowly, and surprisingly tenderly, using the spare hand to gently pat the person’s chest while muttering the words "Sabaidee Pii Mai" (Happy New Year). The water is to wash away the demons of the old year.
There was one awkward moment when a toothless 50-year-old man (who looked over 70) asked threateningly if I was "falang". The word is commonly used in South East Asia and means foreign. It's thought to be a bastardisation of the English due to Asian difficulties with pronunciation. However, this crowd used it to mean French and they evidently weren't keen on their Gallic ex-colonisers. The momentarily tense mood eased when I assured them I'm from Ankit (England).
It was getting dark when I continued and the road was busy with swerving motorbikes, each carrying two or three singing drunks. I soon spotted a large Buddhist monastery with a high and steep corrugated iron roof. Asking if I could sleep there, my request was ignored and I was ushered by several drunk monks to another party. I was fairly light-headed and before I knew what was happening I found myself thrust onto an open bamboo palanquin and being paraded around the party at shoulder height by a troop of topless monks for a few minutes. I soon stumbled back to my bike and rode a couple of miles before fumbling my tent up in a parched rice paddy.
In the afternoon’s searing heat, the small road became a bumpy mud road and I accepted an invitation to join an endearingly sedate new year party consisting solely of geriatrics. A day later I reached the village of Xieng Kok on the Mekong river. On a slight whim I brought three tractor tyre inner tubes with the plan of building a small raft and floating downstream. I pumped the tubes up by hand and was about to go down to the water when a man warned me that the river was dangerous for the next 20km but that I could safely start from another village in the jungle 50kms away. I strapped the bulging tubes to the back of my bike and rode into the trees with my cargo bouncing and clapping together on every bump.
"Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish."
The house was typical of all Laotian villages. Built of wood, it stood on sturdy 8ft stilts among which is the communal area. The partitioned kitchen is also on the ground. The bathroom, in a separate hut, contained a hole-in-the-ground toilet and a large concrete trough filled with water for washing. Upstairs is one simple bedroom. I was just nearing sleep in this room when the audible nearby new year party burst into the room in the form of four elderly women. Each was more pissed and belligerent than the last. Chanting and stamping their feet as then did so, they grabbed my host, his son and I and began slapping us on the arms, backs and legs. After two minutes of septuagenarian assault, I was released when one granny fell to her knees in the corner and loudly emptied her stomach. The others left her and danced out into the night. The room reeked of alcohol-induced vomit so I stood in the doorway for a few minutes and watched two monks dancing around a burning tree branch I saw them plant in a pile of sand earlier. I felt a little like I was in a mad house but my host (who resembled an Asian Forest Whitaker) put a reassuring hand on my shoulder and offered me a calm, knowing smile. I returned to my floor mat and fell asleep with the granny alternately snoring and retching a yard from me.
In the morning, after a filling breakfast of sticky rice and chilli sauce, I explained my water borne intentions before walking my bike down to the river bank. As I was about to unload and build my raft, a man ran down and frantically begged me not to go on the river. After much gesticulation I finally understood when he said "Myanmar. Police. Bang, bang, BANG!" For the last three words he clasped an imaginary rifle and jolted it at me threateningly, but with pleading in his eyes. This stretch of river acts as the border between Laos and Myanmar and border police would assume I was either a spy or a smuggler. My only option, short of risking gunfire, was to reload my bike and ride south, cutting across hilly jungle to the point where the river no longer borders Myanmar. With regret, I deflated the tubes, thanked my kindly host and delved into the trees once more.
Although still a mud track, the path was wider and occasional cars evidently struggled along it. The sun's heat was aggressive and often amplified by large patches of vegetation being ruthlessly slashed and burned for future cultivation. I panted past large hillsides engulfed in a thriving frenzy of flames and others which were a ghostly, soot-covered aftermath with a few sad stumps rising above the blackened earth. These apocalyptic fields of fire were sometimes 200 yards long and I felt faint after holding my breath against the smoke. Ash clung to my sweat-embalmed body and I began to resemble a survivor from a house fire.
Thunder and lightning threatened for a few hours one afternoon and a vengeful storm - the first of the monsoon - broke and quickly turned day into night. I cowered in a leaky, deserted hut for two hours and rode on when the downpour eased. It was dark and the track's hard-packed mud had become a slippery, sloping quagmire. The cloying mud jammed my brakes and the wheels turned reluctantly. Sloshing on, often pushing with bare feet buried ankle deep in brown sludge, I searched for a flat spot to pitch my tent. I continued striving up a long hill in a thick and murky moonlit mist. At the top I lost patience and camped on a relatively dry patch of track. Luckily no vehicles came in the night.
My journey back to the river took three days and brought me through several small, simple villages. I was upset to notice children bursting into tears upon spotting me and mothers hurriedly gathering up their babies and running inside. I devised the theory that a bicycle is so quiet that the villagers were shocked to so abruptly discover a hairy white man in their midst. So, for the next village I approached honking my klaxon, waving, shouting and singing loudly. The reaction was instant and overwhelming. Crowds formed along the roadside and cheered; big smiles accompanied vigorous, unabashed waves; and children lined up to give me passing high-5s.
By the following morning I was able to laugh at my aborted attempt as I boarded a two-day slow boat to cover the same stretch of river. There were about 50 tourists, fresh from Thailand, and I made some friends who laughed good naturedly at my futile efforts of the previous day.
The boat was a bizarre experience. I went from linguistic isolation to a boat load of English speakers swilling whisky and laughing uproariously. Watching the riverside drift endlessly past, I regretted my failure as I saw countless pristine beaches where I pictured myself washing next to my moored craft and pitched tent. At the end of day two, with a less than clear head, I spilled out of the boat along with the other passengers who quickly fanned out in small groups searching for the cheapest accommodation. The rush soon abated however as the town's beauty and slow pace of life made its impression.
On my last day a few of us visited Kwang Si waterfall near the town. The fall tumbles 50 meters into a large pool which then overflows, via a series of small waterfalls, into several smaller swimming pools. The warm, turquoise water, dense surrounding greenery and dappled sunlight give the place a true paradise-on-earth appearance, almost as if a living place has been photo shopped beyond perfection and is being played back as a video in live 3D. We spent the afternoon lolling in the shadows and hurling ourselves out of a tree with a rope swing.
The climb continued for 50 miles leaving a luxurious 60-mile downhill the next day. Heavy morning mist slumped, slug-like in the valleys and minivans of tourists eased past me when I slowed to navigate the sharp curves. I always imagine tourists to be laughing vindictively when they overtake me on uphill slogs but the bored faces of cramped Europeans looked positively jealous as I zigzagged my way to the valley floor.
During the afternoon of my first 100-mile day since Hungary, I followed a tributary of the Mekong which flowed down a flat-bottomed valley walled with sheer limestone karsts. They looked like vast, jagged arrowheads dropped from the heavens and stuck deep into the fleshy earth.
The tubes were surprisingly expensive so we went to the river without them and joined the throbbing party with droves of other tourists in swimwear. There was hardly a Laotian in sight. Locally-brewed whisky is free and fast flowing but anything to mix with the foul tasting liquor is costly. Many people clutched little buckets of a Red Bull equivalent which contains amphetamines.
Plentiful alcohol and a cocktail of drugs are not usually considered a perfect accompaniment to a fast flowing river with a bed of jagged rocks but anything goes in Laos. A certain number of inebriates die here each year but that seems to be viewed by most visitors as a reasonable price. There are also a variety of rope swings, zip lines, diving boards/platforms and a high trapeze. The river was unseasonably low when I was there and I quit before I got too far behind after a crowd-pleasing belly flop from 12 meters high.
The next morning, as I ambled stiffly down the street, I passed a man on crutches and several people with bandages. I noticed that most people had a limp but all wore a vaguely satisfied smile as they floated along. I had enjoyed myself too. It was a tourist experience, not a cultural one.
On day two, Kat unfortunately lost control on an unexpectedly tight corner and we hit the barrier. After an instant of airborne grace I ploughed into the ground and tumbled a couple of yards. Luckily my face broke my fall and I was largely unhurt. I hurried over to Kat who had landed on her front and had her head in her hands, shaking with shock. Everything happened quickly. The others arrived and bandaged a wound on Kat’s calf while I tried to calm her. The two of us were soon on the back of a pick-up truck headed for a “hospital”. The sky was ominously dark and often splintered with vivid forks of lightning. The storm broke just as we were dropped off at a village clinic. Kat was evidently in a lot of pain and was racked with a guilt exacerbated by the blood dripping from my face. She couldn’t walk so I carried her through the heavy rain and put her down on a dirty cot inside. Two men asked me to remove the bandage from her leg and I was horrified to discover an angry, inch-deep gash running for four inches down the top of her calf. Muscles, tendons, flesh and much blood were all visible.
Kat had a momentary panic and was worried about the cleanliness of the clinic.
“Is he even a real doctor?” she asked in a shrill voice as one man held her leg and the other prepared to stitch.
“Of course he is. He’s got a stethoscope” I foolishly replied as he moved in.
After the needle was first pushed alarmingly deep into Kat’s flesh, she resigned herself and bore the pain (still without chemical aid) unbelievably well. I think I probably squeezed her hand with empathy and disgust harder than she squeezed mine with pain. After nine stitches the drama subsided and the rain had begun to ease. Our friends arrived and an exhausted Kat (still unable to walk) and I hitchhiked to a village on the main road from where we could return to Vientiane for an appraisal from a more vocal doctor as our needle man hadn’t uttered a word.
It was Friday and clinics in the capital would be closed until Monday so I guiltily abandoned Kat for a day and got back on the scooter to accompany the others to Kong Lor cave. Five miles long and with a river running through it, the cave was spectacular. We charted a couple of wooden long boats and flashed our torches around illuminating snatches of ancient and gnarled stalactites and stalagmites. Eerie dark water, endless blackness and the lonely splutter of out boat’s motor.
Some nights I stayed at the Buddhist monasteries and others I lay in my tent oozing sweat. The heat in that enclosed bundle of canvas was unbearable and inexplicable. I would drink more than a litre of water before sleeping and sweat so much that there was no need to urinate in the morning. I camped amongst the tapped trees in rubber plantations, on a pineapple farm, in fields and by a lake in a national park. The mosquitoes were aggressive.
The change upon entering the country was immediate. Large Tesco hypermarkets sprawled near the highway and 7Elevens marked every street corner. The people lived up to their country’s epithet as ‘The Land of Smiles’. Photos of the beloved King and Queen adorned walls, billboards, road signs, factory gates and almost any available space.
I slept badly each night and rode all day with only an hour’s break for lunch. One morning I watched my odometer clock up 12,500 miles and I smiled as I had just cycled the equivalent distance of half way around the world. Not a huge feat but certainly the biggest of my life.
Disappointingly, a tourist sneak thief stole 150 pounds worth of Malaysian currency from me on my last day but that’s no taint on the country. Another four days on the calm, ordered roads brought me to Kuala Lumpur and the home of my friend William.