By Lorie Ann Cascaro
Perhaps his words were lost in translation before they got to me.
Last Thursday, I had a very brief conversation with Khek, who tends a bike shop at Dongpayna in Vientiane. He only speaks Lao. As far as my Lao language competence could grasp, what I understood was that he invited me to join him and other cyclists to bike from the capital to Vangvieng on Saturday. He pointed his finger to February 15 on a small table calendar, looked at me and said, “Hok mung sao! Yu Patuxay.” That’s easy! It means six o’clock in the morning at Patuxay Monument.
Trying to squeeze more details, I asked him how many people would join. He didn’t have any idea but said that the group would be a mixture of Lao, Thai, falang (European and American expats) and other foreigners. I expected 20 persons at the most and imagined that the pacing would be like how Jerome Villanueva, my cycling buddy in Vientiane, and I biked with our English friend Suzie last January. We cycled from Vientiane to Nam Ngum Lake in Thalat and vice versa for a total of 200 kilometers (km) in one day. That was crazy! But, we stopped several times to eat, take photos and for toilet breaks.
Vangvieng was our next challenge for about 160 kms. And, Khek’s invitation was just timely. Jerome was also invited by a Lao friend during one of their meetings. He was only told about the date, assembly area and time. We learned later that some cyclists from Thailand would join us but had to wait till the Lao border at Nong Khai opens at 6 a.m. Thus, the call time was delayed for an hour.
When Jerome and I arrived at Patuxay, nobody was there. We thought we’re already left behind. Suddenly, an old man in bright orange overall riding a motorbike approached us. A huge print on his back says “Marshall” which gave us an impression that the cycling tour was going to be a bit formal. Without saying a word, he led us to Chao Fa Ngum Park where the assembly area was transferred.
The sight was a bang! King Fa Ngum’s statue turned into a mere black stone against more than 150 cyclists clad in bright-colored dry-fit shirts and bike pants. The bare concrete ground was painted with bionic green, fiery orange, glaring red, dark blue and celeste (which according to Jerome is the iconic and traditional color of bicycles in Italy).
I saw Khek, who was also in biking wear but holding a camera, and gestured to me that we need to register. Nobody speaks to us in English. The registration form was in Lao language. We filled it out as much as our reading skills could muster. It was a race, indeed.
“We don’t have to compete with them. All we need is to survive and arrive in Vangvieng today.” Jerome and I agreed. Before pedaling towards the starting line, we had our first meal for the day – a bowl of rice porridge, courtesy of the race organizers.
After about 10-minute warm up from the park, everyone stopped along Road No. 13 at quarter to 9 a.m. Then, a marshal raised a red flag to signal the start of the race.
The first batch was those who were riding road bikes. These are bicycles with thinner tires and lighter frames, designed for speeding up on concrete or asphalt roads. I was on a hybrid bike, whose tires have the size in between that of a road and a mountain bike. I registered for open category.
But I followed the cue of the first batch, assuming that the next ones on mountain bikes would pass me by as soon as they’d begin. True enough! Only 30 minutes later, one by one, team by team, had gone ahead. I didn’t feel any pressure though. I was confident to arrive in Vangvieng before midnight. I was also hoping that Jerome would wait for me somewhere for lunch break. Unfortunately, he was drafted by the pack of road bikers and finally caved in to the race.
The day was perfect to dilly-dally and maintain an average speed of 15 km per hour. The traffic at Road 13 as one gets away from Vientiane is friendly in the morning. In Laos, nobody honks at anyone on the road, but only to herd of cows. Sometimes, a driver honks to a fellow motorist as a reflex only in a split of second before an accident could actually happen.
Being on a bike intensifies my sense of sight and hearing. For the lack of side mirrors, I have to listen carefully to figure out a vehicle coming from my back. And by quickly turning my head, I could glance at my hindsight to confirm it. Then, I would yield to them, especially before sharp curves downhill. The road to Vangvieng was 60 percent uphill and winding.
A story to tell
Two hours after the race began, I felt the need to refuel myself and thought of fer (rice noodles soup) with beef. I stopped at Ban 52, which is literally 52 km from Vientiane Capital. To my surprise, I saw a fellow Lao racer buying steamed corns at a small market.
On his mountain bike, Mr Khamkeun Kheomanivong, 62, a retired public agronomist, had almost everything he needed for the journey. Balancing on top of the rear wheel were two black bags that contained his clothes, repair tools, spare tubes and lubricants. Tied on top of the bags were a spare tire and a big air pump. Yes, the big one that has a base to step on while pumping.
It was my lucky day! And so was his. We agreed to make it to Vangvieng together. “If the hill is so steep, I will walk. But you can go ahead,” he said, adding that we should make a stop before climbing the highest hill to prepare ourselves.
Then the road slowly rises towards Phou Pha mountain, where there is a small spirit house. Most travelers in private cars or motorbikes stopped to offer some candles, food, drinks and prayers for a safe travel. Surpassing our first steep hill ride, we also stopped there for Mr Khamkeun to pray for our safety. Then, we consequently cherished the downhill moment like a reward for a won battle.
The following hills seemed to be steeper and longer as our legs and arms were wearing out. We had 31 kms more to go before darkness would envelop the entire Mekong Region. Mr Khamkeun wore his headlight to prepare for the night. Although, the road became better and easier 25 kms more before Vangvieng, we drove slower to avoid potholes with only our beams to guide us. The government, he said, has not enough budget to light up the long stretch of Road 13.
It was already 7 p.m. Mr Khamkeun thought of giving up. His legs were complaining. “Let’s ride a car and I’ll pay,” he tried to convince me. But, my mind was already set to arrive there by my bike so I said it’s alright if he goes ahead. A little bit more of arduous pedaling, he stopped for water and to answer a phone call. He told his friend and Jerome who finished the race four hours ago that we were on our way.
This time with revitalized energy, he said, “It’s my first time to bike this long after less than a year of cycling around Vientiane. I’m doing this for once in my life. At least, I will have a story to tell my children. I will eat a lot and sleep a lot tonight!”
Finally, we reached the arch of Vangvieng at 7:45 p.m. Papaya salad, barbecue and steamed rice with Beerlao made a great reward. On the next day, we received our trophy for finishing the race. Jerome was one of the first 25 racers who arrived. Not bad for a first timer. He got his first trophy as well.
The Lao National Team won champion. Out of 156 racers, only 100 made it, according to Mr Phaythoun Mounsena, one of the organizers. It was the second race that they organized following the first that was held last year in the same month. He said the race also aimed to pick a representative for the next Southeast Asian Games.
Everyone went back to Vientiane by car or bus, while Jerome and I rode on our bikes again. This time, it was like in a tour. Children in every village never fail to wave their hands and greet us “Sabaidee” and “Good morning” even until dusk. They and the beautiful sceneries are priceless awards for winning our own race.