Luang Prabang to Kiewkacham; up, up and … up some more. Day 16

I woke up with a strange feeling today — a kind of lethargy and sluggishness that I had never felt before. It hadn’t been a particularly restful night, and I worried that I might have contracted something awful. Dengue and Malaria were still the scourge of the country and, having been a victim of dengue more than a year ago back home, I knew first-hand just how devastating it could be for me if I was indeed infected with it.

Not one to dwell prematurely on negative thoughts, I hauled myself out of bed and got ready to leave Luang Prabang. Today would be an 80 km ride to a mountain-top town called Kiewkacam and, from my notes, there would be a long and nasty hill waiting for me.

After a breakfast of Pho and coffee at my favourite shop, I stocked up on riding fuel — 2 freshly baked baguettes, one filled with cheese and salad, and the other, generously spread with chocolatey Nutella. Add to that an orange cake I had bought the night before and I was ready to take on the mountains today.

As always, the road was very agreeable as I left town; it was flat and easy, and as I started warming up, so did the day. Before long, the sun was beating down with fiery enthusiasm. 27 km later, at the townlet of Xiengnguen, the road started climbing — gently at first, then slowly but surely the incline began to inch upward — for a good 15 km.

The road is always easy when you start out from town...but not for long.

A welcome stop at a roadside waterfall.

And the competitor on the opposite side of the road. This was actually the first stall I stopped at but the owner was nowhere to be found. Later, I saw her walking casually back from the waterfall, all wet and fresh from a dip in the cold water.

Vitamilk, from Thailand is very popular in Laos. A blend of soymilk and cow's milk, it makes for a refreshing drink, and for staving off hunger.

"So where did you say you were from again?"

Halfway up the first climb, I met Thomas and Renee from Germany going in the opposite direction. This was their first time in Asia and they were obviously a little inexperienced as can be seen from the heavy backpacks they were toting on their backs; not a common feature among cycle tourers, as they tend to add unnecessary weight on the arms.

Thomas and Renee from Germany. We were surrounded by an appreciative audience who listened intently to our conversation as we stopped there by the side of the road.

A little later, I met another pair of cyclists. They were on their leisurely way to school but upped the pace to accompany me for a short while.

Then, for 15 glorious kms, gravity took over and I rolled down the mountain, occasionally whooping with unbridled delight as I negotiated the bends. Traffic was very light, and the mountains were getting more splendid by the minute. Obviously, the anti-climax of heading skywards would be happening soon. When it hit, I consoled myself that this would be the last climb of the day … only 22 kms.

What a 22-km uphill ride it would turn out to be.

The mountains were getting bigger. It was a fine, wild landscape all around … green and craggy; with  ridge after ridge mounting into the distance — for as far as the eye could see. Clouds drifted in huge masses above, drawing billowy veils across the sky. Here and there, great shafts of light broke through the clouds illuminating the peaks and valleys below with heavenly grandeur. All I could do was stop and draw in an appreciative breath, as another of God’s masterpiece unfurled itself in animated brush-strokes of shadow and light. I could feel such life in these majestic mountains.

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(click to enlarge) The scar across the mountain is the road that I had just rode up on.

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(click to enlarge) Here, the poor are blessed with the richest views money can buy.

The mountains would continue to get higher and higher, and the climbing continued without respite. I was actually winding my way from ridge to ridge, traversing the mountain tops.  It was blazing hot when the clouds parted to let the sun through; and to compound it, I was riding with a slow wind that was blowing in the same direction I was heading. In effect, since I was moving at the same speed, it was windless. There was no luxurious cooling to be had from the drying of perspiration; and worse, I was hungry. I had already eaten my 2 baguettes and the orange cake, and I was now down to only water.

I was hungry, but I had my fill of cheers from the kids I met along the way. It never fails to charge me up when I come across Lao kids. This bunch was more than happy to pose for me when I whipped out my camera. But even more priceless were their screams of delight when I showed them the result, and they would become even more enthusiastic in their posing when I continued shooting them.

Even the mother happily posed for a shot.

Simply precious -- babies taking care of babies. Life is very hard for these Laotians who live on whatever they can eke out from the land. These two were likely tasked with the important job of taking care of their siblings when their parents went out to work the fields.

See how steep and hot the long and winding road is? I took numerous such breaks, if only to enjoy the solitude in the coolness of the shade.

Finally, after what seemed like forever, the milestones indicated that Kiewkacam was near. And yet, it never stopped climbing, and I felt as if the ride would never end. I had been on the road for almost 11 hours. The sun was setting over the mountains, and the clouds were beginning to look angry.  They were also heavily pregnant with rain and threateningly on the verge of discharging its contents. When I rolled into town, the temperature was falling rapidly and I could feel the chill in the wind that always preceded a thunderstorm.

I rode up to the first guest-house I saw — Kioukacham GH, run by sweet and ever-smiling Mrs Phonsovan, together with her daughter. Actually, there is no other guest-house here. So, when they said it was 50,000 Kip for a room, I just smiled and said ‘ok’.

Fortune was with me that day. I had just barely arrived and the skies opened with a vengeance and deluged Kiewkacam with big heavy drops of rain.

Not much to shout about. This is all there is to the little hamlet of Kiewkacam.

On the right is Kioukacham guest-house.

The lobby and reception of the GH. Housekeeping dept was busy with its duties. The rack by the side was full of local music selections...no royalty was going to be paid, obviously,

The presidential suite for cycle-tourists. Tiny, but clean. Air-conditioning runs 24/7 and the temperature can dip into the teens early in the morning.

The toilet and shower was just next door to my room. For 50,000 Kip, I would have thought hot water was a given. So it was rather inconvenient to find out that there was none. Kiewkacam was 1430m high and fully exposed to the elements, so one can imagine how cold the water was. It was one of the fastest baths I had ever taken in my life. Shivering with cold, I finished and ran for my room, clad only in my towel with the cold biting wind of the thunderstorm nipping at my heels.

A garbage bin in the room was normal, but a spitoon? Yuck! I just can't imagine cleaning up the room after a sickly and asthmatic guest has just checked out.

After the extremely refreshing bath, I headed for the cafe next door (also owned by the GH) for some serious carbo-loading. The rain had slowed to a drizzle but the whole town was smothered with a light mist which crept right into the cafe. The chilly wind was still blowing and I moved deeper into the cafe to get away from it. A big plate of piping hot fried rice with an extra egg on top never tasted so good. Even when washed down with cold beer, I could feel the warmth coming back to my weary body.

As I ate, I couldn't help noticing some stickers on the drinks fridge. Obviously, Kiewkacam is a popular stop for cyclists.

At the front of the cafe, inside a small food pantry, forlorn looking parts of a chicken sat on a plate waiting for poor buyers. As I had observed, nothing edible goes to waste in this country; in this case it was an assortment of head, feet and innards all tied up neatly in a bundle with intestines.

Dessert was a cup of hot Lao coffee after which, feeling more human again, I whiled away the evening in the quiet cafe updating my journal; not that there was anywhere to else to go. I retired early, and sleep came easy. It was cold, but snug in my sleeping bag under a thick comforter, with no raucous karaoke or the sound of engines to rent the air, it was the most restful night of the trip thus far.

Next: Kiewkacam to Kasi; from cold mountain-top to a warm hotspring.

———————————————————————–

RIDE STATS:

Luang Prabang-Kiewkacam – 80km

Total ride time – 8 hrs

Total ascent – 1750m

Total descent – 705m

Max elevation – 1430m

Total distance to date – 845km

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