After a fried rice and fried noodle breakfast this morning, during which a very pregnant mama kitty yowls non-stop at us for food (we obliged), we hop on our bikes to ride out of town. Just like it was the day before yesterday, this road, dubbed by some, Lao's "Royal Road", is a veritable mecca for cycle tourists.
We meet a pair of Chinese guys as we're climbing one of our many hills, and later, a middle aged German man, who cycled 40,000 kilometers in the last two years (nearly twice as much as we have). When we ask if he keeps a journal, he smiles sheepishly and says, "No, I'm too lazy for that." Boy oh boy do people have differing ideas of what "lazy" means!
We spend the morning ascending and descending, a hundred meters here, two hundred meters there, up and down the spectacularly beautiful landscapes of northern Laos. In the early afternoon, as we approach one of the many mountain villages in this area, we hear a most unexpected thing—the bouncy, cartoonish melody of a 90s dance song! I haven't heard the Venga Boys since high school!
In one of Lao's ubiquitous snack shops, a teenage girl is blasting a battery powered stereo into the countryside. Her cheeks are white with makeup, her eyes dark with mascara, and her hair is board-straight, as if she flat-ironed it. She looks as though she'd like to be hanging out in a mall, if such a thing existed out here.
Meanwhile, in front of the shop, a group of little kids sits on the ground, crowded around a big bowl of peanuts, chatting and munching nonchalantly, as if they were all hanging out in a bar. They bob their heads, smiling, laughing, grooving to the music, and popping peanuts into their mouths. A very cute, roly poly puppy vies for their attention, but he is mostly ignored.
I'm not sure what the festivities are for (does there need to be a reason?), but everyone is in such a cheerful mood, that we simply have to stop and buy some snacks and hang out for a bit. We're given glasses of water, which we graciously accept as we sit down at a little table, tapping our feet to the beat. After a few minutes, we've finished our bags of chips, so we thank them for the water, bid everyone goodbye, and take to the road once more, climbing.
Eventually, we're rewarded for some of our climbing in a long, glorious downhill. But like all downhills, it doesn't last forever, and soon we're at the very bottom, and a series of long sweeping switchbacks is visible ahead. It is looking like we'll top 1,000 meters of climbing today! A powerful headwind begins to blow, buffeting us about, as we inch our way towards Phou Khoun.
Wanting the climb to be over, Tyler zooms ahead of me at a breakneck pace, sprinting up the pass into a wall of wind. I'm left to ascend at my own speed, feeling surprisingly tough in the face of the gales besetting me. When I make it to the top, a good fifteen minutes later, I find Tyler sprawled out on his back, still huffing and puffing.
With a grin, he greets me, then slowly gets up and shows me our camera, eager for me to look at a picture he took. The landscape doesn't look amazing, just some of those grassy reed things and a dark, mossy mountain view, but then Tyler zooms in, honing in on the center of the frame. And there I am! A tiny speck in the middle!
And with that, we both hit the road once more, cycling up, up, and out together, finishing the last of our Laotian mountains. We did it! It should be downhill or flat from here on out!
Rolling into Phou Khoun for the third time on our Lao adventure, I feel comforted by our return; it feels homey and welcoming and pleasingly familiar. We go to the same guest-house, and though I'm not sure if the owners will remember us, we are welcomed warmly once more. I needn't have worried; Tyler's flag is a dead giveaway, causing the family to giggle and laugh, recognition showing on their faces.
Climbing the stairs to our room, we're surprised to see that the small guest-house in this tiny mountain town is packed with cycle tourists. There are two French Canadian girls who decided that cycling would be better than backpacking, so bought a pair of mountain bikes in Chang Mai and have ridden them unloaded ever since. And then there's a French guy too, who seems keen to ride with them.
Over the next hour, more people filter in. There's a hardcore-looking cycle touring team, one guy from Spain, and one from Bulgaria. And finally, an Italian couple arrives on their tricked-out Vespa, complete with racks and knobby tires. What a cool idea!
Once we're settled and washed (after having to wait a long time for the one and only shower, thanks to five other sweaty cyclists!), Tyler and I go out for dinner (noodle soup instead of dog and rat), then get some smoothies and bananas, beer and chips. When we return, there's a party going on outside on the deck, a bubbly mix of two-wheeled travelers all telling their stories and comparing outrageous tales of their misadventures.
Perhaps nearly two years of living almost entirely in our two-person little world has rendered us a bit insular and anti-social, as the last thing we want to do right now is join the party. Instead, we prefer to stay in, snuggle up alone, and watch a few episodes of Edwardian Farm before retiring to bed early. I feel old.