Life

It's Better to Wander than to Search

And other musings while traveling the back roads towards (I'm pretty sure) Xang Kong.

By Steve Burgess 24 Feb 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess wraps up his latest travels in Asia with this dispatch, but is already planning the next.

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Misty hills in Laos: and only one camera pointed their way.

In a foreign country, nothing is better than wandering. Nothing is worse than searching.

I'm in Luang Prabang, Laos, or near it at least. I've rented a cheap bike and set off in search of a little artisan village. "It's just a few kilometres down the road," assured Newt, co-owner of my cozy bungalow abode. The last milepost I saw suggested I am now 16 kilometres from town. I am starting to suspect I may have missed it.

Luang Prabang is a charming place, albeit sporadically. They make a mean bowl of noodles, if you can just ignore the swarming flies. "Fly Laos" is not so much an airline slogan as a description of the average restaurant.

The town can appear sleepy and rustic. Then one street over you're in the familiar everywhere-and-nowhere Asian tourist district of which Bangkok's Khao San Road is the prime example -- bars, rows of travel agencies selling adventure treks and elephant rides, restaurant menus full of Western food or local dishes for twice the price asked several blocks away, children hawking trinkets and pleading with passers-by, all to the tune of "Hotel California" drifting through the air. Not all the familiar sights are here, though -- in Luang Prabang at least, there is not a McDonald's, KFC, or Starbucks to be found.

Every second vehicle seems to be a tuk-tuk advertising tours to waterfalls. Boat excursions head down the Mekong to far-off caves full of Buddha statues. Before sunset people pay a small fee to climb the hill in the centre of town and watch the sunset from the Phou Si temple. Very pretty, marred only by the fact that with the crush of camera-poised tourists crowding the small temple patio, it is like watching the sunset from a Tokyo subway car.

Happily, escape is close at hand. Many local businesses rent bicycles. Mine set me back a cool 10,000 kip. That's about $1.20 CAD., and considering the equipment the price was just about right.

Which way to Xang Kong?

My chariot is what we used to call a girl's bike, with no crossbar, and no extra gears. Even with the seat raised my leg describes a 130-degree angle when fully extended. No lights, no helmet. A bright Lycra outfit covered with sponsor's logos would be nice, but no luck there either. Nonetheless it's sturdy and it works. I cross the Nam Khan River on an iron bridge with wood flooring, suitable only for two-wheeled traffic and flanked by sketchy plank walkways that even locals walk with trepidation. Vendors line the road across the bridge. I already have my favourite -- the little stand that sells twisted ropes of dried beef, small spicy sausages, along with packages of sticky rice and bags of peanuts. Fourteen thousand kip and I'm fully provisioned. On to Xang Kong.

Or not. I've read many road signs announcing many villages as I bike along the shoulder of the two-lane highway, but that name has yet to appear. I haven't been looking very hard though -- too much to see. Covered markets, road-crossing goats, skittering chickens, wallowing buffalo, tin-and-bamboo shacks offering displays of food or promises of repair, men in small workshops, children in trees shouting "Sabaidee!" If the road is for the most part mercifully flat the sun is less kind, pumping out 30-plus degrees through a scattering of white clouds. The patterned sky is the unique fingerprint of a new day, but it's our curse that sometimes this degree of novelty is required simply to recognize that truth. It's why we travel.

Caged and free

At a thatched roadside shelter I stop to pull out some of those picnic supplies. There's a tree full of kids not far away, and my presence draws them down like mallards to a duck call. Refusing my offers of food, they instead gift me with bumpy brown pods of tamarind seeds, a local treat.

A few kilometres further on I come again to the Mekong at a high crossing called the Namxeung Bridge. An old-fashioned stone mile marker on the other side of the road tells me Luang Prabang is now 16 kilometres away. This was not what Newt had in mind. But among the serendipitous discoveries of this accidental day is how wonderful a can of cold, sweet coffee can taste when relaxing in a shady, riverside perch. Below me kids are fishing and swimming in the Mekong. The breeze on my face must surely have started its journey in Heaven. I can't help but notice though that not everybody in the neighbourhood is having such a swell time.

Beside the road that leads down to the river a large monkey is being held in a small chicken wire cage. He paces back and forth neurotically, no more than three strides each way. It's hard to see the point -- he's not prominently displayed for public amusement. I feel a little helpless. But I do have those tamarind seeds. I hand him the pods one by one. The monkey scarfs them down like a shipwrecked sailor and stares at me for more. I wish I had something else to offer. Wire cutters, perhaps.

It's 16 kilometres and at least three cold cans of coffee back to Luang Prabang. A few days later I finally find Xang Kong, a short 10 minute bike ride down the road. That turns into a nice day too. Planned, though.  [Tyee]

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