Vang Vieng to Vientiene; at tour’s end. Day 19

If you love Cha-Cha, you’d definitely love it here in Laos. Cha-Cha, as the dance, that is. That’s because Laotion pop music seems to be permanently composed in that groove. Catchy as it may be, after a while, it gets under your skin. Which was precisely what happened last night.  I had gone to bed early in the hope that I would wake up fresh as a daisy the next morning to tackle the 150 km to Vientiane. But it was not to be, thanks to some local Karaoke enthusiasts nearby who were going great guns at it until well after midnight.

Cha-cha-cha, cha-cha-cha…..aargh!

As expected, Peter was too sloshed to join me the next day. He had slipped a note under my door in the middle of the night saying something to that effect. Well, regardless, I was still going to Vientiane, and it would be my last day of serious cycling here.

Another thing about Vang Vieng; the town generally stirs to life well past sun-up. I found that out when I got ready to pay and leave at around 6am. There wasn’t a single soul manning the GH. They were all still fast asleep! These people are simply too trusting.

Finally, after knocking on some doors, a sleepy-head appeared and I managed to settle my bill. Then, after a quick meal of rice porridge at a stall down the road, I was off to Vientiane. It was 7am. The road was empty of traffic and the morning was cool, but I knew it was going to be a long, hot day of riding ahead …

Out of  Vang Vieng, the road is gently undulating except for some bad patches similar to the ones I encountered before Vang Vieng.

Roadside entertainment -- 3 little clowns on a baby buffalo

Just before Phon Hong, about 40 km away, another cycle-tourer appeared at my side. And, as coincidence would have it, he was another Kiwi who was also riding a Surly LHT, just like Peter. Andrew, that was his name,  was heading towards to Vientiane and was due to be in Bangkok in a week. He had started in Japan 8 months ago. Well, finally, I had somebody to talk to on the road. But, to my dismay, it wasn’t for long …

Andrew from NZ...8 months on the road and still counting

Andrew was fully loaded and he estimated his total weight to be about 40-something kgs, what with front and back panniers, a tent, a full-sized Thermarest and a real bad-ass bike lock that was about 6 feet long. Even so, he had started an hour later than me in Vang Vieng and had caught up with me before the halfway point.

After a quick stop at Phon Hong, we set off together and as it was still undulating, I was finding it hard keeping up with him. First, his heavy weight made roll him down the declines at twice my speed. Secondly, I was unable to shift to the biggest gears to pedal at higher speed. I had lost 3 of them in my crash riding from Oudomxai to Pak Mong.

The only picture of me on the road, thanks to Andrew.

Pretty soon, Andrew was totally out of sight, and I was all alone again. The good thing was, it was really easy going now — the elevation was permanently at zero degrees.

This little piggie went to market ... At one stretch, I was following behind this vehicle and the weirdest thoughts crossed my mind -- what does a pig's fart sound like? and would it smell as bad as a human's? ... Such were the deranged ramblings of a cyclist who was in the sun for too long...

By this time, my legs were weary, my butt so sore I had to stand up every few km to ease the pain, and worse; the road was hot, dusty and heavy with traffic — expectedly so, as one gets closer to the capital. Along the way, I stopped at the slightest excuse — a Magnolia ice-cream vendor cheered and charged me up with a cold sundae. A stall manned by 3 giggly girls selling roasted bananas was equally welcome. And so it went on …

Arc de Triomphe ... not. Vientiane's most endearing French-influenced structure called the Patuxay Monument. In 1968, the Lao govt was given the funds to build an airport but decided that this monstrosity was more worthwhile instead.

Finally, at dusk, I rolled into Vientiane. It was almost 6pm and I had been on the road for 11 hours. I made my way to the backpacker district, checked into the first decent-looking hotel and luxuriated in the cool air-conditioning of the room.

It was a strange feeling that came over me. The end of a long tour (well, it was  long tour for me); almost 1,200 kms, and alone on the road for almost 3 weeks. Even though a part of me was glad to be able to go home to my wife and kids, I felt a strange sense of emptiness. It was only for a fleeting moment as I sat there in the hotel room peeling off my dirty clothes, socks and shoes.

As I looked into the mirror, the person that stared back at me was almost unrecognizable. Hair disheveled and badly in need of a trim, face tanned as never before and cheeks a little sunken. I guess it was a feeling that came with the end of every bike tour – when purpose is achieved, and knowing that tomorrow I would not be on the road again, looking forward to the next destination, and seeing everything with new eyes ….

Tomorrow, and the day after, I plan to chill-out big time — eat, drink, see the town and just be lazy.

Next: Checking out Vientiane

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RIDE STATS:

Vang Vieng to Vientiane — 154km

Total ride time -11hrs

Total ascent –

Total descent –

Total distance to date – 1162km

Ride description:

Relatively flat and easy out of VV, gently undulating hills until after Phon Hong, after which is flat and straight all the way to Vientiane. Plenty of traffic.

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Kasi to Vang Vieng; unhappy in a happy town. Day 18

Bor Nam Oon offered nothing in the way of distractions other than the hotspring. So, with nothing to do, or see, at night, I was off to bed early after dinner. And with only 2 cafes there, you don’t have much of a choice either. Fortunately, I had company for dinner — 2 college boys on their customary see-the-world-after-graduating holiday. They were on motorbikes hired in Vientiane and were due to return the bikes the next day.

Bor Nam Oon is a lovely place to wake up in. Although it’s next to the main road, there wasn’t much traffic at night to wake me up. It wasn’t as cold as Kiewkacam but it was cool enough to ensure a good night’s rest.

The karst mountains near the resort.

The road to Kasi, about 20 km away, was a quiet one. At that hour, I was the only person on the road. A few km after Bor Nam Oon, my reverie was disrupted by the sight of a couple of cyclists heading towards me. As with all cyclo-tourists who shared a common bond, they waved excitedly and I could see that this was a very friendly couple … so friendly in fact, that they crossed the road to meet me before I could do the same.

Pius and Margrit Jorger, cycling into retirement.

Pius and Margrit Jorger are a couple in their late fifties who are cycling into retirement. When I met them, they had just broken camp a few km down the road in some Lao farmer’s backyard. They were as seasoned-looking as their panniers and bikes and were totally at ease and unhurried in their demeanor…. Continue reading

Kiewkacam to Kasi, cooling off at Bor Nam Oon hotspring, Day 17.

I woke up early today. It was a chilly morning.  At 5.30am, the skies were just beginning to flicker into life, and as I breathed in the cold mountain air, it had that unmistakable freshness that just seemed to just open up your lungs when you draw it in deeply. But one thing was for sure …

I wasn’t taking a bath this morning.

As I made my way to the cafe next door for breakfast, Kiewkacam was still smothered with a thick mist but it was beginning to clear as the sun’s life-giving rays warmed the mountain tops. The town was slowly stirring to life, and as I sat there eating my steaming hot Pho, I saw a rather comical sight across the street… Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Living it up in Luang Prabang. Days 14-15, Pt 2

Undoubtedly, being awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO does gives a destination a very big plus point. With recoqnition comes fame, followed by fortune in the form of tourist dollars. Unlike so many cities that suffer the inevitable decline into more glitz and kitzch than the tourist can handle, the likes of Luang Prabang will, hopefully, stay the same, thanks to the strict guidelines that UNESCO insists upon.
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And so, with thoughts of enjoying this lovely town, I took an extra day off and roamed the streets soaking in the rich culture and heritage that it had to offer. Of course, there was no better way to start the day than with an excellent local breakfast ….

Breakfast Pho -- clear tasty soup with strips of tender pork garnished with crunchy bean sprouts, spring onions and pungent coriander leaves, accompanied by...

...sweet, thick Lao coffee. Quite often, coffee came with a complimentary glass of light but flavoursome Lao tea, possibly to balance the strong taste of the coffee.

This nice lady ran the shop I had breakfast at on both days I was here. It's just a few doors away from the tourist information office, and opposite the day-market. One of the boys who was playing with the oil lamps at the temple the night before turned out to be her son; I recoqnised his mischievous face as he was getting on his bike to go to school.

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The tourist belt of Luang Prabang -- guest-houses, shops, Internet cafes, laundry and more

An obviously French remnant of Laos' colonial past in excellent running condition.

As far as Buddhist temples are concerned, it’s a been-there-done-that thing for me, having seen my fair share of them across Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.  Still, I did a quick tour of a few that were located in town. Monks were, of course, a common sight and they are much revered. Every morning at dawn the faithful laity would wait reverently for the monks to come by, earning for themselves valuable karma in their present life.

But today was different. It was the Buddhist Lent, a kind of celebration after the rains, and the town was in a celebratory mood…

Brightly coloured flowers were sold everywhere on the streets; to be used as offerings no doubt.

Patiently waiting for the monks. Patience is a virtue that seems to be prevalent among Buddhists in these parts of the world, unlike the Vietnamese who worshipped mainly Chinese gods.

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The saffron parade making its way across town.

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One of them seems to have a disdain for the rice that was being served

This was a scene outside of town. Monks, as far as I know, weren't supposed to desire anything worldly, let alone money. I had no idea what this bed-like structure was all about. I suspect it was used for the faithful to show their faith.

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A little later, they took the whole thing apart, and of course, the money.

Even monks chill ... with a ciggie. no less.

One of the many Buddhas residing in serene splendour on Phu Si hill.

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A elaborate paper boat waits to be launched into the Mekong that night.

A beautful example of Lao temples. This one was an elaborate work of golden art.

This temple, the name of which I can't recall, is very old, and wasn't as fancy as the modern ones.

Besides Buddhist attractions, Luang Prabang has its fair share of oddities, like this one: located inside the grounds of a museum, these petrol pumps stood forlorn against the greenery that surrounded them.

And the popular potent brews of deadly reptiles that never ceased to amaze me. Unlike the ones in the night market which sold whole bottles of the stuff, this stall located on the banks of the river offered to cheer you up for only 5,000 Kip per shot.

That afternoon, I decided to contribute a little more to the tourism industry. I had read about the cave of a thousand buddhas and I was fascinated. It was called Pak Ou caves and it was located about 20km out of town, half of it on a rutted country road. Earlier, I had also bumped into 2 fellow Malaysians and we all decided that it might be fun to check this place out. After some typically Malaysian-style bargaining, we headed out to the caves on a tuk-tuk, or 3-wheeled taxi.

After a bumpy, bone-shaker of a ride, we arrived at the village facing the caves on the other side of the Mekong. To get across, one had to hire a boat.

It wasn't often that I was on the other end of the camera. This was shot by my Malaysian friends as we were crossing the river to Pak Ou.

The entrance to Pak Ou caves

Just as I had feared, it turned out to be an over-hyped attraction and, in my book, a tourist trap. The entry fee was 20,000 Kip, and together with the tuk-tuk's 180,000 Kip which was shared among the 3 of us, and the additional 10,000 KIp each to cross the river, I didn't feel it was worth it. It was nothing more than a cave filled with retired Budhha idols. The story behind it was fascinating, but then again it would still be as fascinating just reading about it.

... I guess I was just a little bored with one Buddha idol too many.

Next: A long ride up into the mountains of Kiewkacam

Oudomxai to Pak Mong, Overnight in a trucker-stop/brothel. Day 13

I crashed today. It wasn’t serious but it did provide the only respite to an otherwise dull and ho-hum ride.

I had started early today; and as I pedalled out of Oudomxai, I stopped to buy a couple of dumplings from a little Chinese shop which had its steamer outside on the sidewalk. A little further down the road, I also bought sticky-rice-in-bamboo, one of my favourite riding fuel. I was in high spirits, today being the first proper ride in Laos … but, it turned out to be quite anti-climactic instead.

There were no beautiful terraced rice fields to mesmerise me, there were no rugged gorges with wild flowing rivers to awe me, there were no inspiring mountain ranges to capture my imagination. The scenery was, for the most part, green yet colourless without any character. To compound it all, the climbs were not as easy as I thought it would be. 7 km out of town, I cranked up my low gears and started climbing, for 18 km. Then came a 10-km downhill after which, the gradient pointed up again.

This installment would go on for another 18 km until I reached the 1300m altitude mark. According to my notes, this was going to be the start of a long, sweet downhill all the way to Pak Mong. Well, I’m cool with that. It had been a hot, windless day, and I really hated climbing at snail’s pace without any wind to cool me down.

That was when I took the silly tumble.

I had just started rolling downhill, and as usual, I would turn around quickly to check that the loose items were all still there — the 1.5 litre water bottle, one of my sleeveless jersey that I wore on top of another jersey to ward off the cold air in the morning, and my shoes. They were all secured with a bungee cord, so a quick feel would reassure me that everything was still there.

This time, as I did the same, I had somehow inadvertently steered the bike to the left and as I turned back, it wasn’t the familiar road that faced me but a shallow ditch. It was all over in a matter of seconds. I went down with the bike, crashing onto my right side, and my right shoulder. For a few seconds, I just laid there in the  ditch a little dazed, I cursed myself for being so careless while negotiating a bend.

The right pannier had come off the rack and the handlebar was facing backwards. Thankfully I only suffered a slight bruise to my shoulder, but my confidence had taken a more severe beating. After I recomposed myself and put the pannier back, I did a quick check and everything seemed to be ok. I pushed off, still cursing myself. Then I noticed the rear derailleur shifter seemed to be a bit loose as if the pawls inside were broken. Oh shit … I couldn’t shift up to the smaller gears. Luckily, it was all downhill from here so I could still ride to Pak Mong. Looks like I’d have to get my hands greasy later.

Pak Mong was another disappointing looking town. All the action is focused at the main junction. I stopped at a Chinese restaurant which doubled as a guest-house with its rooms located upstairs. It didn’t pass inspection, so I went to the one opposite which doubled as a convenience store. It was just as bad. Besides, neither of them could have promised a quiet night due to their location. I decided to ride further down the road in the direction of the town I would be heading to the next day.

The busiest part of Pak Mong

500m later, next to a petrol station, I saw a sign for a guest-house — the Keo Savang GH. It wasn’t much better than the other 2 but at least it was quiet. After I checked in, I went in search of food. The owner of the guest house, one Mr Keo Savang, was already in fine form, face ruddy with the effects of one Beer Lao too many from entertaining his trucker guests who were all gathered at a table outside.

Mr. Savang loudly invited me to join them and even hinted that I need not be alone that night as he gave me that sly, pimpish look and pointed to 2 Lao girls sitting with the truckers. I quickly extricated myself from his friendly hold on me and made my way to the cafe next door for my lunch/dinner. It seems Keo Savang guest-house wasn’t just a guest-house after all.

After the usual game of charade to communicate my lunch needs, I was served fried river fish, fried eggs and a huge helping of sticky rice. It never tasted better, especially when you’ve been on the road for many hours. A bottle of Beer Lao helps in unwinding, too. Again, as usual, I slouched there for a bit while I reflected upon the day’s ride, and also to update my notes.

After my meal, I went back to the room and got down to work on the rear derailleur.

The prognosis was good. I would still be able to make it all the way to Vientiane without any problems. The shifter was partly busted and was good for only 5 indexed shifts (I was running an 8-speed cogset). The solution was simple, I loosened the cable and after a few attempts, I realigned the derailleur so that my biggest gear was now only #5 but my bottom gear would still be the same 32-teeth cog. Thank God for that. Relieved, and after some fine-tuning, I finally settled down to unwind and by 9pm, with ear-plugs firmly in place; and shoulder still sore from the crash, I was out like a light.

Keo Savang Guest House (shot taken the morning after), located about 500m from the junction. The building on the left is the guest-house while the cafe is on the right.

The honeymoon suite at Keo Savang GH. The bare cement floor was covered by a piece of woven mat, the bathroom and the room shared the same fluorescent lamp, the bath water in a tub was piped in from the river, and the bed didn't seem that clean either. At times like this, I'm thankful for my sleeping bag.

Next: The World UNESCO Heritage town of Luang Prabang …

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RIDE STATS:
Oudomxai-Pak Mong, Laos – 85km
Total ride time – 6hrs
Total ascent -1160m
Total descent – 1380m
Max elevation – 1300m
Total distance to date – 640km

Flat and easy for 7 km out of town
Climb 18km then down 10km
Climb again until 54km mark then downhill all the way to Pak Mong.