Luang Namtha, Laos
Final spurt. Suddenly I am in Southeast Asia. My last days in the People's Republic went by very fast as I was hiking for two days through the stunning Tiger-Leaping-Gorge near Lijiang, then cycled south to Dali, China's hippie-center next to the wonderful Erhai-Lake, where I lived in a commune for a day. After a few more cycling days I took the bus to the Chinese-Lao border because (1) I was meeting up with Julie, a good old friend of mine, and (2) my Chinese visa was slowly coming to an end anyway. I entered the bus with good memories of the last 81 days in this vast and interesting country and left it with the smell of vomit in my nose, since the whole bus seemed to have a rather light stomach.
And now I am in Southeast Asia. In Laos, the biggest difference to China, besides the now clearly visible poverty in the villages, is the number of foreigners. It appears to me that during my first day here I already met more Westerners than during the whole three months in China. This canges the local population to some extent: Here in Luang Namtha, three sisters from the Akha-tribe travel every day to the city to sell their marijuhana and opium to tourists. Furthermore, the villagers I passed so far didn't seem as warm and welcoming as before, only the children were happily shouting their sabaidee's (hello). But maybe I am just disappointed by not being the center of attention anymore, like I was in China.
I am in Southeast Asia and this means that my journey is slowly, very slowly, coming to an end. The last two months of this cycling trip could therefore look like this:
Now, my dear readers, it is time for me to wish you a Merry Christmas and a lovely time with your family and friends. A big thanks to all of you who supported me along my way and cheered me up when I was having a hard time. An even bigger thanks to those who supported the Raintree-Foundation by donating! If the Christmas-spirit has reached you and you would also like to make a donation, just click here or on the 'Donate'-Button at the top of my homepage.
Merry Christmas everyone,
Vang Vieng, Laos
Red dirt, happy children. As you probably have noticed in my previous blog entry, Laos didn't really win me over from the beginning. Suddenly seeing dozens of Tourists and Backpackers and experiencing the effects that can have on the local population kind of shocked me. This has changed now. Slowly I got used to the backpacking scene once more. My travel from now on can be a great mix between lonely cycling through remote villages and longer stays in backpacker hubs where I will have the chance to mingle with people and drink a beer or two in good company. Or three.
But what really made me fall in love with this country is the happiness of the children. Whenever I ride my bicycle through one of the small villages with its dusty roads of red sand and its simple wooden buildings I can be sure to be greeted by a thousand 'Sabaidees!' Often these kids line up in long rows to give me a high-five when cycling past them, while the older sisters have to hold back their younger brothers so that they won't run onto the street out of excitement. At the end of every village I have a big smile on my face.
Laos is probably the poorest country of my entire journey. Villagers have to take showers right next to the street where fresh water sources run down the mountains. Muddy children amuse themselves by pushing wheels with sticks in front of them or sliding down hills on banana leaves - this is maybe one of the last countries where kids don't need to sit in front of a smartphone to be entertained. The main means of transport are bicycles which students use to cover long distances to the next school. Most cars that pass me are either tourist buses or Chinese visitors.
Life here is simple. This sounds very romantic at first. Then you realize that Lao people could really need a bit more of everything. Many parents can't afford sending their children to school. Those schools as well as many wells are built by humanitarian organizations from all over the world. The communist government of Laos apparently doesn't have the money to care for its citizens. Everyone seems to be equally poor.
The part from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng was one of the most stunning cycling I've done so far. The hills are more than steep but the landscape is rewarding. Prime forests, waterfalls, hot springs and the nicest sunsets imagineable made me forget all the uphill, all the sweating by more than 30°C.
And than there were these odd experiences. Like that one time when I was entering a private Lao home, assuming it would be a restaurant, and ask for food by doing the international eating gesture. The woman looked at me a bit confused and then gave me a pot of rice. Halfway through the pot I realized that - wait a minute - this is not a restaurant. So I thanked that woman profoundly and then left. Just the next day it somehow happened again (Lao homes sometimes look exactly like restaurants). This time an old lady offered me some eggs and said I could cook them myself on the gas stove in their kitchen. So I did as I was told. At the end, I washed my dishes, gave some money to that friendly grandmother and moved on.
One last story. On my way along Route Nr. 13 from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng, I found the perfect camping spot. An abandoned house at the side of the road with a magical view of a green valley. The sunset in front of me, this resembled paradise for me at that moment. Now I read on the homepage of the German ministry of foreign affairs that this year there were some incidents along this route involving armed robbery of tourists. But I thought the ministry warning is a bit exaggerated. That's why I decided to put up my tent next to the abandoned house, even though you could see it from the street.
After I had eaten my dinner, four guys on motorcycles approached me. They made a weird appearance with their camouflage outfits and rifles around their neck whilst wearing sandals. The leader was soon getting off his bike, walking towards me, both hands on his gun. Friends or enemies? This was the thought running through my head that moment. But his genuine smile soon made me relax and in good English he told me, that this is not a good place for camping. I should rather sleep in the next village. So the four sandal soldiers escorted me back to tha last village I crossed where I was able to get some rest in the community house. I therefore had to trade a truly beautiful camping spot for two wooden tables put together. At least I was safe (if there ever was a threat).
300 days on the road. Yesterday's Christmas I spent in the backpacker town of Vang Vieng with people from all over the world. It was nice but of course not the same. Because what is Christmas if you can't spend it with your family? Just another day of the year.
Slow Down. Happy New Year 2017 from Vientiane, Laos. As you are thinking about changes for the upcoming year, I would like to propose you one thing: Slow Down. This deceleration process could not only bring more happiness to the life of every individual, but also the society in general would benefit from it.
There is this story where a tourist, seeing a fisherman relaxing on his small boat, asks the man why he doesn't try to catch more fish. In his logic he could then buy a bigger boat and catch even more fish. In the end he will be a rich man who doesn't have to work anymore but can relax. The fisherman's answer is simple: I am relaxing right now.
Of course this story is an oversimplification because the labour market doesn't allow for relaxation. Many people are trapped in their work. The economic dogma is endless growth accomplished by an ever rising production and work efficience. Tell your boss that you would rather take it slow and this will probably be the last exchange of words with him as an employee.
But at the same time the answer of the fisherman reveals a truth about our society: We have lost our sense for time. Time is money. This utterly wrong slogan is the source of a fatal paradox: Many people choose jobs they don't like in order to make money because they think it will bring them freedom. But if you are working from 8am to 5pm you roughly spent three quarters of your day feeling miserable. And that probably counts for every day of your life for the next 40 years. At the end you will have lots of money but you hadn't had time for the nice things in life.
Then again, I never really worked hard in my life so far. And I don't have a family to support. You could even call me naive. Nevertheless, I would like you to think about the following options to slow down your life, appreceating the moment. One simple thing I can come up with would be to choose a job you can identify with, even if the payment is little. Or try cutting down on working hours - work half days and use the free time to socialize or involve in organizations. If these things don't apply to you then try to slow down other aspects of your life. Ride your bicycle to work instead of taking a car for example. This way you can reach your apartment much more relaxed. (This is based on my experience that I met nice people all over the world but once they enter a car they suddenly become stressed and angry).
Here's a list of deceleration measures I came up with. Maybe you want to try out one or two of them in 2017:
As this list already reveals, a deceleration of every individual would also have a positive impact on the whole society. Slow travel produces less emissions and staying away from mass tourism will bring more money to the locals who really need it. Buying locally will also trigger a de-globalization process that will slow down the unnaturally fast movement of capital and goods all over the planet.
The journey is the reward, so travel slow. At the same time the work should be the reward, not the money. So slow down and think again about the value of time.