6 February 2014

This section from Luang Namtha to Mengla 勐腊 is the forty-fifth instalment of my bicycle loop through South-East Asia from Yunnan – if all goes according to plan. Titled “Slap the Belgian!”, it is simultaneously published on Crazyguyonabike.com, where you’ll find a map with the itinerary and many other bicycle diaries by me and others. I hope you’ll enjoy.

Morning Luang Namtha!
Good morning Luang Namtha! Now where does this come from.

I feel grungy. Yesterday’s outing with the Belgians took us past a pizza establishment where beer flowed abundantly and where I had an extra spicy “hot head” pizza with Lao sausage and random chunks of chilli pepper scattered over the surface. It was quite good but now I’m bearing the consequences. I roll over, put ear plugs in, take my clothes off (yes – it’s one of those nights) and sleep another three hours.

After my extra snooze time, I go down to munch on slices of cold pizza that people hadn’t finished yesterday. Together, they form one whole pizza and a lousy breakfast. Yet I still eat most of it before mounting the bicycle. The Yuranan hotel staff have been absolute grumps so I don’t even smile at them when I kick the kickstand away.

This rickety bridge takes me across the Namta river. Wish I'd seen more Laos like this. Perhaps I should get my tent out and do an offroad-only loop.
This rickety bridge takes me across the Namta river. Wish I’d seen more Laos like this. Perhaps I should get my tent out and do an offroad-only loop.

Strange – Thailand had been the land of smiles. A smile in Thailand doesn’t necessarily mean friendliness, but a smile’s a smile and it’s always nicer than a frown. Lao seems to have been the land of frowns. The only people you risk getting a beaming smile from are the kids. Everyone else just looks bored, puzzled or annoyed.

The hotel guys belonged to the latter kind: when I pointed out that locking the hotel from the inside isn’t only inconvenient for those coming home after 11, it’s also seriously dangerous in case of fire, he just reacted “OK fine you want me to open the door and everything gets stolen?”. Just having a door that opens from the inside and someone around to open for late guests apparently hasn’t crossed his mind. I just get this a lot from Lao people in the tourism business. No smiles, all frowns, taking your money without speaking a word and then minding their own business (which generally takes place on their phones) again. Somewhere in this process there will be gross overcharging. I’ll be glad to be out of here.

Approaching highway 3
Approaching highway 3

On Google Maps, I find a small road out that connects the backpacker district with the highway to Na Tuey and Boten, my destination. There’s supposed to be a bridge across the Namta river – and there turns out to be one. I only didn’t expect it to be a collection of wooden sticks, laid out horizontally on barrels in the river. Riding across is pretty tricky and I almost land in the water when a hole catches my wheel.

Suddenly I’m in a part of Laos that I enjoy so much more. Dirt roads, people washing themselves and their clothes in the river, field work … I feel regret that I’m leaving already without trying more of these roads. Perhaps I should come back – with camping gear and food – and just head off the paved ways. Of course, then there’s a safety issue because of unexploded ordnances.

The morning fog hasn't burned off everywhere yet.
The morning fog hasn’t burned off everywhere yet.

After a pleasant amble on highway 3, I reach the village of Na Tuey, where I spend my first night in Laos. This is my last chance to go to Vientiane, but I firmly turn my handlebars towards Boten, the Chinese border crossing. Two years ago, I rode the same stretch. What I cannot remember, however, is that there were so many towns and villages and so many modern houses on the way. Are they new? Most of the more luxurious houses are probably Chinese. I find evidence for that in the empty boxes of fireworks lying around (Lao don’t celebrate New Year when the Chinese do) and the increased use of characters.

Traffic is also a lot more intense, with the obligatory Chinese motorists taking their share, but also Thai tanker trucks and a lot of Lao private cars. It looks like things are really changing here in Laos.

This is seconds before a big fight broke out among the motorists (in a heavy Kunming accent) about who gets to stand where. Ah, China.
This is seconds before a big fight broke out among the motorists (in a heavy Kunming accent) about who gets to stand where. Ah, China.

When I get to the border, I’m happy to notice that they’re no longer using a bamboo shack to check passports but they’ve actually started using the temple-looking building. As I stand outside giving my friend a call, I am passed by a massive gang of Chinese tourists who fill up the passport check before me. I’m pretty much the last one to get his exit stamp. Half-way through, a bitchy verbal fight breaks out between two women who are arguing about their place in the queue in Kunming dialect. It’s pathetic to watch and they only settle down when a Lao official raises his voice.

When I finally reach the other side, the mob has moved into the China immigration building and I’m afraid I’ll have to wait again. Fortunately, the nice immigration helper man takes pity on me and opens another line. A racket starts at the other lines as everyone dashes to the newly opened line. Still, I’m Last in First out.

Beautiful old G213, completely devoid of any traffic
Beautiful old G213, completely devoid of any traffic

Back in China, I put some good distance between me and the motorists and take a right onto the G213 national road, which is no longer in use after the Xiaomo highway 小磨公路 opened. It’s a great pick: while a bit more hilly and few kilometres longer than the highway, it’s a lot less nerve-wrecking or boring and a lot safer. From the safety of my fenced bridge, I loudly pity two Chinese tourers having a crappy time on the highway below.

I’m glad to be back. The smiles here are genuine, the cheeriness is abundant, the puzzled stares endearing and I feel at ease for the first time in several weeks. I will get to a hotel or a shop and I won’t have to worry about the price being too high or about hawkers trying to sell their rubbish.

The section through the natural reserve is really beautiful and quiet.
The section through the natural reserve is really beautiful and quiet.

After a mostly undulating road with only one minor climb, I roll into Mengla and find a hotel at Mengla Bei Lu. It’s called Anda hotel, it has both Wifi and wired internet, a flatscreen tv (not that I watch any tv), a great bed, a worryingly clean bathroom, towels and soap and a friendly welcome for only 50 RMB. Now _that_ is value. I’m astonished to find out that the internet is even quite fast – unlike all those Thai and Lao hostels boasting Wifi, as long as you keep your door open and sit upside down on a ledge by the window at 6 am.

After a shower, I get a recommendation to eat some xiaocai 小菜 (stir-fried whatever-you-pick-from-the-fridge) at the 北路小菜 restaurant, 50m north. It’s closed, but 美食美客 (“good food, good customer”) also serves up a filling meal of zucchini flowers, fried peanuts and stir-fried eggplant, and a beer. After all this time in Laos, it tastes great and costs only 30 RMB (160 baht) – although I know the spice will takes its revenge later.

Sunset over Mengla.
Sunset over Mengla.

Down to the bar area for a sip of cold Harbin, I end up talking to a young kid whose dream it is to become an artist and drive all the way to Belgium. At only 8 years, he’s pretty bright – brighter than his father – and I wish his teachers weren’t teaching him English pronunciation through hanzi. No worries, Chinese government, your educational system will get him still.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *