This first day on National Route 13, which connects the country's two largest cities, went well. Most of the 82 kms through wilderness were a low grade, 5-10% climb on a well surfaced road - paved for only a few years. Climbing with an occasional downhill, from 500 to 1,400 meters, I ended the day in thick fog in Kiu Kacham, at a pair of guesthouses cum restaurants (actually roadside 3-dish cafeterias) and little else. These facilities had been reported by a cyclist in an internet essay, so I knew what to expect. Dismounting, I met two Swiss cyclists, just arrived from the south, ending their day as I, anticipating a hot shower (actually water boiled on the stove, mixed with tap water, worked just as well).
The Swiss reported having met numerous touring cyclists and explained why: Lonely Planet, responsible for numerous backpacker bibles, had just published a cycling guide to Lao, Cambodia and Viet Nam. The floodgates had opened. Indeed, for the rest of this trip, I daily encountered a half dozen other cyclists, most of whom carried LP's cycling guide, some following it chapter and verse. One veteran cyclist I met complained to me that Viet Nam also was crawling with cycle tourists. The northern loop which I had done 3 years ago is now almost entirely paved, and whereas I had then come across only two touring cyclists in my 8 weeks in Viet Nam, now the place is like the Tour de France, I was told. The LP says do a, b and c, says stay at x, y and z, says eat at 1, 2 and 3; the sheepish cyclists do as instructed. (Perhaps I am a bit harsh; I would have probably have bought the book if I had known about it. Baaaah, baaaah.
Here in Lao I've met the gamut of cyclists: a lot of Dutch (who's watching the dikes?), Swiss and Belgiums, cyclists on tandems, cyclists on mountain bikes, cyclists of bikes bought in Lao - Chinese-made without granny gears for the hills, a cyclist pulling a cart with gear, a cyclist with a GPS, one on a recumbent, even the legendary Trackster Man , just about everyone but a unicyclist and the gal on rollerblades who pushed her pram across Australia. I suspect that LP and its competitors are largely responsible for tourism's expansion in south-east Asia. They make travel so damn cheap and easy.
The next day I had some ups and downs and then a long descent to end a 95 km ride in Kasi, where I met 5 other cyclists. Not to miss the tourism boat, Kasi, still off the backpacker circuit and perhaps desperately wanting to be on it, can boast a good restaurant with English-language menu (something rare in Lao except in tourist haunts) and a hotel that might just be the best value accommodation on the planet. For 30,000 kip (sounds like a lot? $3!) I had a 3m x 8m room, large comfortable bed, with almost virginal sheets, with attached bath - hot water shower, seat flush toilet, a/c, towel, clothes closet with hangers, desk with chair, soap and a free bottle of drinking water. Just short of perfection - no shampoo. And the water didn't drip, the mosquitoes did not find holes in the screens, and the lights and locks all worked. This are things not taken for granted in budget tourism.
More downhill the next day, into Vang Vieng, backpacker central in Lao, where even a relative recluse like myself is virtually guaranteed to meet someone he's encountered elsewhere in Lao. I met fellow cyclists, with whom I had been communicating on the internet, folks from the ferry, and several French-Canadians from a motorcycle pack which had been stranded in foggy Kiu Kacham after a day of accidents, flat tires and mechanical mishaps. Vang Vieng is banana pancakes, fruit shakes and chilied-down Lao feed (for sensitive Euro palates). Toss off the backpack, hop on a rental bike - push or motor - and tour the countryside in search of the 'real' Lao.
Vang Vieng is the darling of the backpacker set, like Hoi An in Viet Nam or Chiang Mai, Thailand, or Da Li, China. Laid back, satellited in Premier League football. Caves to explore, rivers to innertube. Something for the whole family.
The penultimate leg of the ride overnighted me at Thalat, near Nam Ngum Lake, a vast artificial dam/electricity- generating/potential tourism complex, a tropical Las Vegas just waiting to happen.
Then I cycled on to the capital, where backpacker tourism peacefully co-exists with the suit culture (actually jeans here) of the multi- and non-governmental organizations. Their money and development ideas dominate both town and country. At present Lao profits from its status as Asia's poorest country. But the roads are getting paved as the country is overtaken further by tourism, and Lao may eventually lose its ultra poor status.
No argument that tourism can be the country's future. What with 1.3 billion Chinese next door, with more and more spendable income and a penchant for gambling. Yet I find backpacker tourism - at least the extent of it, quite disconcerting. The charming country we read about in the guidebooks has been replaced by people reading the guidebooks about it. True, you can still trek in the bush and see the 'real' Lao, but with an ever increasing number of adventurous trekkers, won't just about everywhere in Lao change into something different from what it was. Yes, I am part of the problem. But I think I and my fellow tourists here are getting an underpriced experience. Third world tourism, in my mind, should be about wealth redistribution, and I feel we the wealthy should be paying more. A dollar or two a day for a visa is a small fraction of what the Lao experience is worth. On a daily basis we pay more for our fruit shakes and banana pancakes, not to mention beer and cigarettes, the latter two which backpackers inhale in vast quantities. Why not charge us more (three times more seems reasonable) and direct the fees into rural development, social services and cultural maintenance?
Yes, Lao is still good cycling. Off the backpacker route, through the villages I pass, folks wave and shout 'sabaidee' (meaning hello) and 'good-bye' (meaning hello) and even 'hello' and 'good morning.' And their smiles are the most genuine I've seen in the world. But if I were asked if I would recommend cycling Lao, I reply: no, go cycle in Hokkaido, where you can still find the real Japan, few foreigners and little backpacker culture, absolutely no banana pancakes and fruit shakes. Alas, let's just pray that Lonely Planet doesn't plan "Cycling in Hokkaido" among their forthcoming titles.
Veng Chan, Lao PDR