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May 9th: Savannaket to Muang Phalan, Laos

Leaving Savannaket, Highway 9 rises and falls over the hilly countryside. Surrounded by forest, the road is smooth and quiet, and oddly enough covered with tiny black butterflies. Cloudy skies keep the temperature down - it feels good to be back on the road, the rushing wind clearing the cobwebs. We pass by a couple of villages where people wave and call out 'Sabadi!' by way of greeting. Moped riders crane their necks round to watch the strange sight of two unusually tall people whizzing along on their bicycles. 'What's the rush?' they must wonder. For Laos is a land where people don't so much as walk, they float.

But it's not long before the road loses its smoothness and becomes, at times, nothing more than a series of potholes. The sky has been threatening rain all morning and finally it arrives with style. Winds buffet us around and rain saturates our clothes within moments. We stop to throw on our waterproofs to keep warm, and munch on dried instant noodles and bananas, our provisions for the day.

Villages we pass are nothing more than clusters of wooden shacks on stilts with greying banana leaf thatch covering them. Some are strikingly simple - families huddle around small fires burning in their centre. It's the children who give them life - with their parents working the land, they seem to overrun the houses. We are always spotted from afar - cycling by, we hear the squeaking of their voices calling out greetings. They peep out from beneath huts, through doorways and dangle from trees. The baton is passed on as each 'lookout' catches sight of us and a new set of children begin their chanting, in turn sparking the next house into action, and the next, creating an endless round. Added to this is the stereo effect as these calls bounce across the road. Like a hotly contended tennis final, we swing our heads from one side to the other, trying to acknowledge these enthusiastic outcries. Their openness and friendliness is incredible, but after a few wearing hours on the road, guiltily we crave a little peace and quiet...

As the road stretches on, we spot dung beetles rolling their produce laboriously as we swerve around enormous Vietnamese pot bellied pigs and swaying mud caked water buffalo, finally arriving in the village of Muang Phalan. This village has no electricity, yet TV antennae' protrude from huts and the odd satellite dish casts a different kind of shadow - batteries keep people in touch with local Thai news and the all important soaps.

The vast cyclist's grapevine has informed us, by way of two French Canadians I met in Bangkok, that a friendly mayor puts up wayward cyclists for the night. After various hand gestures and a few helpful sentences in French, the mayor is sent for from the rice fields. He sets about organizing accommodation for the night. This wonderfully friendly man speaks French and English, having fought in the Laos Civil War (on both sides!) and been trained by the Americans in the States and by the French in France. But he is proudest about his discovery of a set of dinosaur footprints by the river which he shows us, along with letters sent to him by the French Government in recognition of their importance. We go for a walk around the village, watch the kids fishing and visit the Buddhist temple, complete with a tiny Eiffel Tower on its spire!

Meanwhile, his wife's plans to put some bedding in his office have been confounded by the brother-in-law losing the key. The hours roll by as we munch on dubious sticky rice and grit, washed down by sponge cakes and coca cola. Trystan helps a lady to fix her bike, to the amusement of the villagers. But the biggest joke is saved when a truck almost runs down a tired and dying old dog - the Laotians are almost rolling in the aisles.

Night falls and at last the key is found. Beds and mosquito nets have been put up - it seems the mayor and his wife are keeping us company in the office too. We chat over cups of coffee and read his guest book - a list of cyclists passing through, each entertained in the same way, each on journeys of their own. We add messages to the collection and the following morning a photo is taken of the three of us for the album.

Tracking down a bunch of bananas and some cold noodles in the sparse market (specialising in live frogs) we wave goodbye to the multitude of eyes following us around, and resume our bumpy ride. What a night! Certainly one we will remember: a taster of life in a typical Laotian village and wonderful hospitality from a kind hearted man.



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