Between attacks by bonafide land leeches, sweating to death on climbs with a fully loaded bike and wondering whether or not the green papaya salad eaten at lunch might kill you, some people might wonder, why bike tour at all? Well… after yesterday, I don’t have a solid answer. But bear with me for a few more days, I’ll come up with something.
Yesterday the sun beat down harder than an oppressive Communist regime and we spent so much time on our bike seats that our general butt areas resemble something like ground hamburger — or, to use a local term, pork larb. On our long journey from Vienne Phuka to Huay Xai (on the Laos side of the mighty Mekong river) we climbed 1800 meters (6,000 feet) over 120 kilometers (about 75 miles).
The day started early in the one-water buffalo town of Vieng Phuka. The resigned but kind lady at the clean restaurant next door opened her nonexistent doors (restaurants in this part of the world are commonly open air, sometimes no doors or walls) for us early at 6:30 a.m. Under the soundtrack of an overly enthusiastic rooster, we feasted on vegetable omelets, vegetables and potatoes stir friend with ginger and of course, rice. And then, we were off into the misty morning.
Instead of waiting until around noon to burn off like it usually did, the mists parted around 9 o’clock. We got one stout climb out of the way before the thick, humid heat covered us. Then Tyler, consulting George Paul Santos (our GPS; Italian Lisa calls hers Garminio) declared we had about 26 kilometers of downhill awaiting us; we all rejoiced.
What actually happened was a thigh busting 26 kilometers or more of terrain that resembled a serrated knife, replete with soaring downhills and steep, short-ish climbs. Ouch. A couple of us were enjoying the stomach distress which often accompanies Southeast Asian food in a Falang (slang for white person) gut. Although Lisa and I — despite mowing down traditional cold Laotian green papaya salad the night before — were feeling great. It was a small miracle; it came drenched in a mysterious sauce with little dried crab legs sticking out more obviously than the fact that we probably shouldn’t be tempting fate the night before a 120km ride.
But by noon, we’d all made it about halfway, thanks in large part to LWT (Laotian Water Tactics), or taking off our shirts, attracting the attention of the entire village, soaking our shirts and putting them back on (aaaaahhhh). And then, we’d enjoy some more of what we began to refer to as the Laotian welcome committee:
After a much-needed ice cream stop, where we spotted an amazing loom (which Laotian village women still use to weave their incredibly detailed embroidered skirts), we embarked on a long, steep climb. By now, we were in the thick of the intense heat, which was probably around 90 with equal the humidity. We each inched along, in our own special pockets of suffocation and suffering. At one point, as I sweated, grimaced and cursed choosing to drag my bike, clothes and what was left of some cheap Laotian vodka up the hill, another giant truck pulled along side me. The driver rolled down the window and, with fist pumps and much enthusiastic shouting, cheered me up another steep slope.
After the top, I laid down in an ant-infested cool ditch, the same ones which had been accompanying us through Laos. But they never looked so inviting before…
Tyler, Anne and I stopped to replenish our water stores (because of course, tap water in these parts is instant peeing out the butt) at a tiny store in exactly the middle of nowhere. As usual, the store made up the front and the living quarters the rear. An overly cheerful man met us, using all the English in his repertoire; to the right, the rest of the family shucked some sort of mysterious star-shaped pods and tiny, tired kittens wandered about. We asked the man what they were but he couldn’t quite describe them. He dissolved into giggles.
“Sorry,” he said, hanging onto the “y” like a climber to a cliff. “I am drinking much Lao whiskey.” He dissolved into giggles again. Lao whiskey, aka Lao Lao explained the happy-crazy routine. We’d been “warned” in Luang Namtha that Laotians who get into their whiskey get a little too “happy.” Overly happy happened to us our first evening in Luang Namtha at a nearby bar called Bamboo which had two-for-one Lao Lao cocktails. We’re still laughing about Lai (seated) and his overly “happy” comrade Bo:
Once we disengaged from our new friend at the store, we had one more brutal climb which was unforgivingly steep at the top. Lisa referred to it as “The Fang.” This one definitely bit us all in the now-sore asses. At the bottom, Anne, Lisa, Tyler and I stopped for noodle soup with egg. It was either stop and eat or probably fall off our bikes and die in the same ditch I’d earlier used for a siesta. Kate had already gone ahead — nobody had seen her in hours.
On the other side of our noodle soup was a glimmer of hope that we might actually make it to the Mekong (which means “the mother”) river and Hjay Xai, the town on its banks. We arrived, truly zombies with full panniers and empty stomachs just as the unforgiving sun dove below the horizon. After borrowing internet from a guesthouse, we sat on the tiles outside, still hot from the sun, and located the missing Kate. Afterwards, we moved our sad carcasses to another nearby guesthouse, settled in and washed off the sunscreen, salt and what was left of our dignity.
At a riverfront restaurant nearby, we gorged ourselves like stereotypical fat Americans on: chicken spring rolls, shrimp spring rolls, sautéed morning glory with massive amounts of garlic, fried pork ribs, fruit smoothies and four plates of pad thai. And then we slept for about ten hours.
Now — and rightly so — you might be wondering: how do land leeches fit into all this? And what are land leeches?
So it went like this: Once upon a time, in Luang Namtha (three days ago now) we had a “rest day.” I put these two words in quotations because Anne (bless her adventurous soul) talked us into an all day kayak and hike jungle excursion. It started with double breakfast (the breakfast e paid for at our guesthouse and the one included in the tour). We arrived at 8 a.m. to re-gorge ourselves and loaded up in a Tuk Tuk (a small truck with a roofed, open air bed and seats — the Laotian taxi) to drive about 45 minutes to the put-in of the kayak section.
Two hours, two village tours and several mellow rapids later, we arrived at the lunch spot. Our three guides — young Pang, Soan and the nameless one — set up a finger food lunch buffet on a high table lined with banana leaves. There were ten of us in total, but the five of us polished off every spec of edible material on our half of the table. Surprise? I think not.
After that we were all more ready for a nap than a two-hour sweaty jungle hike, but that’s exactly what we did next. That is, after I slid into the river up to my ribs — that’s what I get for wearing new age Croc jellies. Then it was mosquitos, spiders the size of my palm, lots of ducking for branches, stream crossings and, of course, leeches.
Sometime after the first stream crossing, Lisa exclaimed with some alarm, “Something is biting me! Ouch! What is it?!?!” To all of our alarm, it was a f*cking land leech the size of my pinky finger but skinnier and it was sucking blood from her foot like a newborn on a tit.
“It’s better not to stop walking,” said Pang, calm as the day was hot.
Stopping wasn’t really a problem for me because I wanted to run screaming out of the forest. Instead, I developed a routine of obsessively checking the sides, top and bottoms of my feet — especially after finding one latched to the bottom of my foot, another to my ankle and countless others trying to cross the wasteland of my shoe to get to my skin and suck my blood like vampire maggots. Tyler started calling them the Devil’s inchworms, which I find quite fitting.
By the time we reached the apex of the hike (at a massive old growth tree) we were all so over it we may as well have just flown ourselves back home, at least in our collective minds. We kayaked back to where the Tuk Tuk waited for us, bandaged our wounds in the parking lot (especially Kate, who had quite a gusher from a Devil’s Inchworm she hadn’t noticed for awhile) and bounced along on dirt roads all the way back to Luang Namtha.
Back in the tour office, we sprinted from the Tuk Tuk basically before it stopped moving — as if chased by Tyler-sized Devil’s Inchworms — to the safety of our air-conditioned rooms, it was 6 p.m and I did not feel rested. The next day, we rode 65 km to Vieng Phuka; yesterday was the 120 km Death Ride.
As far as I’m concerned, unless the next jungle adventure comes with air-conditioned astronaut suits, I’m out. I will happily live the rest of my life without seeing another land leech leering from the moist ground like killer spaghetti with a mouth. I’d rather ride another 240 kilometers with 12,000 feet of climbing — but don’t let Tyler (the Energizer Honey) hear that!