I close my eyes and breathe in a deep breath of fresh air, and as I reopen my eyes I can’t help but smile. Before me is a scene out of a National Geographic magazine. Perfectly flat green rice fields stretch out in front of me until they reach the sheer cliffs of the tall limestone karst mountains that tower over them. It’s a cloudy day, but the dark grey rain clouds that hug the mountains only add to the dramatic effect of the scene. It’s rice planting season in Laos and the farmers and rice field workers are out in the fields, ankle deep in muddy water busily planting the seedlings in an almost perfect pattern. It looks like back breaking work, spending all day bent over like that, all for the most meagre pay that you can think of. Still, this is life here in the rural countryside around Vang Vieng, and I’m smiling because I’m receiving that true dose of reality that I love.
Hopping back on our bikes, Veronika and I keep peddling along the rocky dirt road. It’s a road that I’ve travelled before, two years prior – a road that I remember well from when I first discovered this beautiful part of the world. I remember cycling through a village further along the road where kids smiled and waved at me. I remember one who ran beside me laughing as he raced me down the road, almost beating me despite me being on a bicycle while he was on foot. I love that being back in this place only brings back happy memories, and I wonder if it is all still going to be the same.
As we cycle through the village, those smiling and laughing children are no longer there, though I do notice houses and shops that I remember passing last time. The village itself is quite empty, but I wonder if that is because I’m here at a different time of the year, while all of the people are out working in the rice fields, and perhaps the children are either at school or out helping their parents in the fields as well.
As we climb to the top of a rise in the road, I let my legs rest and let gravity take me down the other side of the hill. I’m flying by the time I reach the bottom but have to suddenly slam my breaks on, my back tyre skidding along the loose gravel on the road. A young girl has run out on the road in front of me smiling and waving. Her house is a bamboo hut on the side of the road, sitting above some rice fields where I can see people, probably her family, busily planting rice. “Sabaidee” I say to her with a smile, and the smile is brightly returned. I point to my camera and ask if I can take her photo. She nods shyly and poses while I take a quick snap. She’s off again before I can even show her the photo.
We’ve been riding for ages now, but it hardly feels like we’ve gone far at all. The scenery around us is just breathtakingly beautiful, and I don’t even care how far we’ve gone or how long we are taking. I feel as though I could do this forever.
After some time we finally arrive at our destination at the end of the road – the ever popular Blue Lagoon. It’s a lot busier than it was when I first came here two years ago. Back then I basically had this cool refreshing swimming hole to myself, apart from a few locals who had come down for a dip. I look around and estimate that there are at least 25 foreigners here this time, mostly half naked backpackers and a larger group tour who had arrived by songtheaw. The Lao people are quite conservative and the women swim fully clothed, so I guess it’s unlikely that they would come here for a swim now. I’m hoping that they’ve found another swimming hole to go to that will be kept secret.
It may be a lot more crowded this time, but that doesn’t take away the amazing feeling of sliding into the cool fresh water of the swift flowing stream. It’s instant relief from the heat and humidity and the sweat that we had worked up during our bike ride. As I float around I close my eyes again and pretend that there’s no one else here, and once again a smile comes to my face. It’s been another amazing day in Vang Vieng, Laos. I love this country and I love this place. As I float around deep in my thoughts, I wonder what it will be like the next time that I visit. And I wonder when that will be.