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.

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Idling in idyllic Moung May, Laos. Day 11

Waking up in a soft, clean bed, with not a hint of cacophonous honking in the background that was so typical of Vietnam, and the soft cooing of pigeons from a coop just behind the guesthouse … this was a few degrees short of heavenly bliss, and more so when my legs had just about reached their limits.

I didn’t care what the time was; it was early and the sun had just risen — and I wasn’t going anywhere today. By this time into the tour, my body had already  adjusted itself to waking up early; but today, I had the luxury of languishing in bed without having to think about packing up and getting ready to hit the road before it got too hot.

Nothing soothes tired a body more than a good night’s rest. Never mind that Moung May’s electricity supply only came on from 6pm to 10pm (Moung May was that rustic). While the power was flowing, Amphon guest-house was a like beacon in the night. No other property could compare with it in terms of the number of lights it had blazing. It was undoubtedly the pride of the town.

Muong May’s remoteness also ensured that the temperature was very agreeable when the sun sets. So, even when the power had gone off and there was no fan to keep the air moving, it still made for a comfortable night.

Eventually, hunger (you’re almost always hungry when you’re cycle-touring) forced me out of bed. As I walked out into the dusty street, the sun had just risen over the horizon although it was hiding behind the clouds. The air was cool and a light mist was slowly dissipating over the town. Some of the townspeople, small baskets in hand filled toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and towels; were on their way to the river to carry out their morning rituals.

After a not-so-hearty breakfast of Pho (what else), I went about exploring this little 2-street hamlet. The main street led to the river where one had to cross to continue one’s way to the next town. Some of the houses were decrepit and ramshackle, and some were a little better off, especially those engaging in some form of trade.

Early morning in Moung May…cool, misty, and peaceful.

Main street, Moung May. Amphon GH is on the left. The road continues on, a short distance away towards…

… a junction leading to the market, and about 150 metres straight ahead is the river.

Ahead the road ends in the river, and across was the road continued towards Muong Khua, the next town about 40km away.

My favourite hangout in Moung May was the cafe on stilts at the end of the road next to the river.

The best place to watch Moung May unfold. I lounged here for hours reading, or doing nothing, but always, my camera was ready…

when little kids came to frolick in the shallow river…

or when vehicles crossed the river. There weren’t many. It was also the only way for 4-wheelers to get into, and out of, town. This Chinese-made truck was similar to the one I hitched a ride on the day before.

Other interesting sights soon glided into view…like this fellow who had cleverly lashed bamboo poles together and floated downriver to his house, located just to his right on the bank, behind the bamboo fence.

And then there were little fishermen. In these parts of the world, as soon as you were able, you had to do your share of putting food on the table. This boy of about 12 years, carried himself with such a determined and confident manner, you knew he wasn’t doing this for fun.

The footbridge (also for motorbikes) a little downstream from where cars crossed the river.

Almost all the townsfolk did their washing as well as bathing al fresco.

Once, I happened to walk by the same washing place and saw a girl cleaning something that looked suspiciously like a rat…

IT WAS. I couldn’t imagine what it tastes like. One thing was for sure — I wasn’t going to be caught accidentally eating a rodent.

At the bridge crossing the river — these 2 girls were on their way home after washing in the river, but stopped in their tracks when they saw me with my camera.

A popular spot for washing clothes. Cars would cross the river precariously near them

Moung May’s police station, open only in the morning.

One of Moung May’s many convenience stores.

Kitchen ware, hardware, tyres …

The night before, as I was checking in, I had noticed a dozen or so mountain bikes in the courtyard and thought they must be cycle-tourers as well. I was too tired to find out then and I decided to talk to them in the morning instead. It turned out they were Thais and were following the exact route I had taken, in reverse, and going all the way to Hanoi.

These bunch of friendly matured guys were doing it a little differently from me — they didn’t carry their stuff with them; they would instead hire someone to take them ahead to the next town. In this case, they hired the guest-house boss and his Hilux to transport their stuff to Dien Bien Phu. And they would do the same again for the Dien Bien-Moung Lay leg. I though it was a pretty nifty idea.

The Thai riders who called themselves simply ‘The Gang’.

The oldest member of the group was 76 years old! More power to him!

Next: 140 km to Oudomxai without pedalling a single stroke….

A city called Hanoise, pt 1. Days 1-3

Hanoi assaults the senses like no other city I’ve ever been to in Asia. It is anything but a quiet city; and yet, it is an orderly chaos that rules the streets. If you’ve been in one, you know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t, well…you’ll need to experience it first hand to appreciate the fear that freezes you to a spot in the middle of the street, not daring to cross because the stream of motorcycles, cars, trucks and cyclos just never seem to end.

So how does one cross a typically busy Vietnamese street?

You just do it. You would also need to ditch your mother’s advice about first looking left and right. You then step away from the pavement and onto the road — and the traffic simply avoids you as you make your way across. That’s all there is to it. I’ve tried it on foot and on my bike and its quite a thrill the first few times you do it. After that, and after riding WITH the traffic, I decided to try what every sensible Vietnamese does.

I rode INTO the traffic. The result is not pretty; with the instant chorus of a thousand horns erupting into your ear.

This is actually a less busy street...

Mind you; you only do this very, very briefly to get to the other side. Actually, I had no choice – I’m a right-hand drive Malaysian road-user. I lost track of the number of times I slowly but surely drifted to the wrong side of the right side of the road. But the beautiful thing with Hanoians is that nobody ever loses their temper. They just honk at you and they carry on with their lives.

How can anyone not love the energy of this city? The people are so animated in whatever they do. I love the colour on the streets, I love the even more vibrant colours that clothed some of the Vietnamese women — fashion faux pas be damned.

Matching pants and seat? She probably has a wardrobe of scooter seat-covers.

Hoan Kiem, Lake of the Restored Sword, adjacent to the Old Quarter, and a popular hangout for locals.

There weren't tourists. They were a group of all-female professional photographers who would capture your digital image for a price if you didn't have a camera handy.

The living takes great pains to ensure that the dead are well-remembered.

Ladders made from one of nature's most versatile materials.

Even weighing machines come to you. You'd always know when one was coming your way -- they all have built-in speakers that only played Mozart.

And this was only my first day in Hanoi. At the airport, I had acted the dutiful tourist, paying USD15 for me, my bike and my panniers to be transported by a cramped-to-the-brim mini-van that dropped me off at a USD10 hotel room (which I thought was cheap, from what I saw of the photographs) that I booked from an agent of sorts in the airport’s arrival hall. It was raining and I had no wish to ride 45 km to the city, then start looking for the Old Quarter (where I intended to stay), and then look for a hotel.

It was hard to believe a room this nice was only going for USD10...untill the jackhammer next door started its jarring song

It's hard to believe a room this nice was only going for USD10...until the jackhammer next door started its jarring song

I realised why USD10 got me such a newish, nice and clean air-conditioned room complete with cable TV and free Internet downstairs. It was 4 flights of stairs up and … next door was a 4-storey buildiing under construction. Welcome to make-a-fast-dong-when-you-can-Hanoi.

The next day, I checked out when i found new digs smack in the heart of the action in the Old Quarter. It was a small hotel; the room was clean, old, but not run-down. Even the taps looked like they had been used since French colonial days. It looked liked how a room in the Old Quarter should look like. Charming.

Next: The mystery of the skinny Vietnamese…


Vietnam-Laos. Planning and preparation…

When Ramadhan ends, my Vietnam/Laos adventure will roll off – on the eve of Aidilfitri, to be exact.

My trusty old Giant is ready. My spanking new Ortlieb panniers arrived from US some weeks ago, complete with handlebar-bag. My legs are ready (I hope), although I could do with a bit more training. I’d also just recently bought a new Casio Protrek on eBay to replace my leaky, 5-yr old Suunto Vector. Ah, the joys of retail therapy.

Hanoi is the first on the itinerary. I will spend 3 days soaking in everything Vietnamese. I will be fascinated for sure. I will be ripped off for sure, too. These Viets are as enterprising as they come. Apparently, everyone has an ulterior motive when they come into contact with you – usually to make a fast Dong. I shall be sparing even with my smiles – who knows, the person behind a reciprocating smile might just charge me for it.

The itinerary:

Hanoi to Sapa – by train (after which the biking proper starts)

Sapa to Dien Bien Phu on the Vietnam/Laos border

Cross the border into Laos, head to Luang Prabang

Vang Vieng , then Vientiane, then home.

1,000 km. 21 days. But in all honesty, I have only just roughly mapped out my route. I have not made a single booking for accomodation of any sort. After all, that’s part of the fun in travelling alone – check out a place; don’t like it?… hey, I’m on wheels, remember? — no heavy backpack on my back. I can roll hither and thither as I please.

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