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Laos (Emile)

(494km - 14days)

 

11/05 – 24/05/2018

 

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11 May – Nong Khai – Vientiane – 25 km

The train was very quiet, and we slept well. By the time we woke, we were nearly in Nong Khai and only had time for a cup of coffee before we arrived. Upon arrival in Nong Khai, we discovered that the train carrying the bicycles was going to be two hours late. It was not a train smash, so to speak, and it gave us a few hours to explore Nong Khai.

 

After a bowl of noodle soup, we hopped on a tuk-tuk to visit Buddha Park. It is a bizarre sculpture park built by a shaman over a period of 20 years after he was exiled from his native Laos, where he had made a similar park. The park consists of an array of weird, gigantic sculptures. Afterwards, Emiel had enough of all this weird stuff and returned to the station while I went in search of more unusual things. I found only the Nong Thin Public Park, which claims to be the largest park in the province.

 

Upon my return to the station, I discovered that the bicycles had arrived, and we could load up and cycle out of Thailand. In the process, I also discovered a broken gear cable and wondered if someone might have taken the bicycle for a ride, as there were substantially more kilometres on the clock than when we had left.

 

We checked out of Thailand and, after purchasing a Lao visa at the border, we cycled into Vientiane. It was hot, and we were happy to reach the Mixok Guesthouse. Emiel went in search of food, and I took the bicycle to the Lao Bike Shop to replace the cable. That evening, we strolled along the riverfront and ate at one of the restaurants along the river. As always, the food was excellent, albeit far too much for the two of us.

 

12 Mei - Vientiane

First thing in the morning, I went for a lovely jog along the riverfront, always a pleasure in Vientiane. On arrival back, I found Emiel was enjoying his breakfast. I had a very much needed shower after which we went in search of a Loa SIM card, a process that took longer than expected. We also took a walk to the COPE visiting centre. Since its creation in 1996, COPE has worked in close partnership with Lao Ministry of Health rehabilitation centres to provide physical rehabilitation services. Thanks to COPE, thousands of people with mobility-related disabilities, including UXO survivors, have received prosthetic and orthotic services free of charge, allowing them to regain mobility and dignity.

 

Some statistics taken from their website:

  • 270 million - Estimated number of sub-munitions (bombies) from cluster bombs dropped over Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973.

  • 2 million tons - Estimated ordnance dropped on Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973.

  • 580 000 - Estimated number of bombing missions flown over Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973.

  • Between 10% and 30% - Estimated failure rate of sub-munitions under ideal conditions.

  • 80 million - Estimated number of sub-munitions that failed to explode.

  • 1,090,228 -Estimated number of unexploded sub-munitions destroyed by UXO LAO from 1996 to December 2009.

  • 40 - Estimated number of new casualties from UXO incidents every year in Lao PDR.

 

On that sad note, we left and paid a visit to the Sisaket Temple, a 19th-century Siamese-style temple housing thousands of small Buddhas. Built between 1810 and 1824, Sisaket is believed to be Vientiane's oldest surviving temple. It is a beautiful and relaxing place to stroll about. It was still early, so we headed back to the guesthouse, hopped on the bicycles and cycled out to view a small remaining part of the old Vientiane city wall, believed to have been constructed in the 16th-century. I was firmly under the impression that I was the only person who knew about this bit of history (LOL), but apparently, that was not the case. On arrival, we found a small exhibition/celebration. I was pleasantly surprised to see food stalls and Lao ladies dressed in traditional dress, as well as conventional implements on display.

 

On our way back, we stopped at a small supermarket, and on returning to the bicycles, a found my bike had a flat tyre. Under normal circumstances, this would be no problem, but on this day, I had no spare tube or pump with me! Emiel suggested we flag down a tuk-tuk, which was a brilliant idea (I guess he feared I was going to say we had to walk the bikes back). After quite a pricy tuk-tuk ride (he saw us coming) and back at the guesthouse, I discovered that the puncture was on the rim side of the tube. Fortunately, “Lao Bike” was only about 100 metres down the road, and they very quickly fitted a new rim-tape.

 

After all that drama it was time for a cold Beer Lao, and we took a walk along the riverfront to find a suitable bar with a view of the Mekong. Our rumbling stomachs soon drove us back to the restaurant area, and although Emiel had his mind set on the Japanese restaurant, I was more in favour of the Indian food. I took advantage of his good manners, and we ate Indian! Shame on me! I surmise he is going to catch on to this very soon!

 

13 May Vientiane

The reason for hanging around Vientiane was not only because it is a lovey and relaxed city, but it was also so I could apply for a Thailand visa. As it was the weekend, I had to wait until Monday to hand in the application, and usually, one can then collect it the next day. I went for my usual morning jog, and then had breakfast at our guesthouse with Emiel. We lazed about, and that evening we strolled along the night market and riverfront. As Emiel remarked, the town comes alive after sunset. It is by far the most pleasant time to be out, and we sat outside enjoying a beer and solving the world's problems. Even if I say so myself, I think we made quite a dent in it!

 

 

14 May – Vientiane

I was up early and cycled to the Thailand Consulate to apply for my two-month Thai visa, just to find that it was a public holiday! I was gobsmacked; it was the start of the planting season, and it was the ploughing festival! There was nothing I could do but return to the guesthouse and wait for the following day. I found this immensely frustrating, but there was nothing I could do. Instead, we decided to cycle along the Mekong River for a few hours.

 

It was a lovely ride, and one could hardly believe that we were only 20 kilometres outside the city. We watched people peddling their wares by boat and drank ice cold sugarcane juice from a roadside stall, just the thing we needed in the heat. The temperature average at around 34/35 degrees C, something that always sounds much cooler when you are indoors. Even the flower offerings being sold outside the temples looked wilted. We did not intend on going very far, and soon it was time to backtrack to our guesthouse.

 

15 May – Vientiane

It was “take two”, and off I went to the Consulate to apply for the Thai visa. This time they were clearly open as the queue was nearly out the gate. The fun part of waiting in the queue is that in no time at all you will start chatting to the people in front and behind you. We were all in the same boat, and if someone wanted to get water or an application form, they would bring for everyone. It took hours before we finally reached the front where I, to the great delight of my new friends, was told my photo was “too sexy”, and I had to have a new one taken. I should have asked if I could have that in writing.

 

By the time I left it was after midday and already sweltering hot. I returned to the guesthouse and spent the rest of the day in the coolness of my air-con room. Poor Emiel must have been bored out of his mind. Fortunately, he seemed to have taken a liking to Vientiane. We went shopping for a pair of sandals for him as he only had flip-flops and they don’t make for very comfortable cycling. After looking around, we eventually found a pair that seemed suitable, but the shop just had one shoe and could not find the other one!

 

16 May - Vientiane

After breakfast, we cycled to the Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe, or Victory Monument. I love the story behind it and that it was built with cement donated by the USA intended for the construction of a new airport, hence it is now referred to as the “vertical runway”. If one climbs to the top, there is a beautiful view over the city. After that, we cycled to Pha That Luang, a 16th-century Buddhist stupa believed to have been built on the remains of a 13th Khmer-century temple, which in turn was built on a 3rd-century temple.

 

After midday, I cycled back to the Thai consulate to collect my visa, a process that once again took a few hours.

 

With visa in hand I returned to the guesthouse, and by that time it was already time for a beer. That evening we also met up with my friend Christian and his lovely girlfriend for a pizza, something I have not had in years. It must have been a Belgium-owned restaurant as they had quite a good selection of Belgium beers. It was a lovely evening.

 

17 May - Vientiane - Thabok- 98 km

Finally, we cycled out of Vientiane!  It was an excellent day on the road as we had a slight tailwind and it did not feel the predicted 35˚C. It did not take us long to clear the city limits, and soon we were in a more rural part of Laos. Kids shouted “Sabaidee falang!” as we slowly made our way in a southerly direction.

 

Although this is not the most scenic part of Laos, I was happy to be on this familiar road as we cycled past numerous temples, rice fields, markets selling woven products, and the odd broken-down truck. It is the beginning of the rice planting season, and we watched subsistence farmers under straw hats sowing rice seeds in small fields next to their homes. We passed kids on bicycles going to school and stalls selling small fishes in plastic bags or individual tropical fish in bottles. We passed a Buddhist funeral procession walking down the road in the blazing heat, and it appeared that people from the village joined in along the way, as the procession steadily became longer as they made their way to the crematorium.

 

Emiel did well on his first day, and he set a fast pace, to such an extent that we went past the village where we originally planned on staying for the night and continued for another 20 kilometres to the small settlement of Thabok.

 

We found a lovely guesthouse with spacious ground floor rooms and clean bedding, always a bargain. The best part was that there was a restaurant directly across the road for us to eat and have a beer.

 

18 May – Thabok – Pakkading – 100 km

We left Thabok in the company of two-wheeled tractors (for lack of a better word) pulling homemade wooden carts, loaded with jovial ladies in conical hats. The scenery became denser and greener the further south we headed, and we cycled across a multitude of rivers all flowing into the mighty Mekong. Water buffalo, enjoying the abundance of water, and canoes lined the shores. The road followed the Mekong river, and from time to time, we cycled flush with the river, and at times, the road would run slightly inland only to return to the river a few kilometres further. The road was lined with stalls selling dried and smoked fish and other exotic nibbles, all wrapped in banana leaves.

 

As I've said before, this is not a very scenic part of Laos, but from time to time, we would see the mountains in the distance, and it was really quite lovely. Small children shouted the code word “felang” (foreigner), and it seemed that the entire village would come running along to wave and shout “sabaidee” (hello). As soon as we stopped, however, to take a photo, they would run for the safety of their mother's apron. Others would stand stock-still, allowing one to take a picture, and then shyly retreated to their homes.

 

Temples and Buddha statues abounded, as well as small roadside stalls where we could get a coconut juice or barbequed duck. We regularly stopped to fill up with water or to get out of the blazing sun. We reached Pakkading in good time and found a comfortable-enough room for the night. We immediately headed for a cold beer, which disappeared remarkably quickly.

 

19 May - Pakkading - Vieng Kham - 45 km

Although it was a short day on the road, it was no less enjoyable. We left our humble abode and cycled across the Pakkading River via the Russian-built bridge that commemorates the first person in space. Yuri Gagarin was a Soviet pilot and cosmonaut and was the first human to journey into outer space when his Vostok spacecraft completed an orbit of the Earth on 12 April 1961. What a brave man!

 

We stopped to see if we could spot any truck drivers stopping to light a cigarette before crossing the bridge and then tossing the lit cigarette into the river below, to appease the water serpent believed to live in the river mouth.

 

We shared the road with buses, trucks, ladies pushing wooden carts to the market, men driving 2-wheel tractors and kids (no older than six-years-old) riding motorbikes - four up! Along the way, we stopped for watermelon, which the lady peeled and cut up for us, all for 5,000 LAK (about $0.50). There is no shortage of food in Lao, and once again we cycled past a multitude of roadside stalls selling fruit and vegetables, as well as homemade knives.

 

We made it a short day to give Emiel's backside and knees a rest, and we found a roadside guesthouse for 50,000 LAK a room; it was no Taj Mahal, but it did us just fine for the night. The interesting part is that in most of these establishments the beds often have an unusual placing as they believe that it is unlucky if the door faces the bed. This room was no different, and we found the beds facing inwards even though it was, clearly, not the best place for it.

 

20 May - Vieng Kham - Hinboun – 53 km

Ordering food when you don’t speak the language is always an interesting process. This morning it was no different, and we received a plate of rice with pork and two fried eggs, instead of two plates of food. The mistake is quite understandable as most people in Southeast Asia will share food and it is somewhat unusual for people to order their own plate of food. We, therefore, received one plate of food with two sets of cutlery. To their astonishment, we ordered another plate of food!

 

Well fed, we ambled along across large rivers, and I was pleasantly surprised to see men on a boat cleaning up the river, not something one sees in this part of the world very often. We were in a very rural part of Laos, and it was not unusual to see ladies tending the cattle or kids driving goats to better feeding grounds. As has become the norm, we cycled past modest Buddhist temples and kids on bicycles who found it the highlight of their day to give chase. They came cycling past us at high speed until one lost a flip-flop or a pedal comes off, to the great delight of the other kids.

 

At times there were more trucks and busses than we cared for, but fortunately, it was a Sunday and the traffic reasonably quiet.

 

We found a roadside guesthouse and relaxed during the heat of the day. After sunset, we took a walk down the road to the local restaurant where they served “Seendat” or Lao Barbecue. Seendat is an interesting meal that you cook yourself at your table. The table is fitted with small fire pit, and the seendat pan is placed over a bucket of hot coals. We were served:

 

Thin slivers of beef and pork, eggs, and pork fat for greasing the pan

Leafy green vegetables such as celery leaves, mint, Thai basil, lettuce and cabbage

Thin rice noodles

Clear broth for the soup

Peanut dipping sauce

Garlic, limes and chopped chillies

When all these things arrive, you:

Grease the grill with the pork fat and grill the meat on it.

Pour some broth into the moat and fill it with vegetables, noodles and eggs.

Customise your peanut dip with as much garlic, lime juice and chillies as you want.

Eat and do the whole thing again!

 

21-22 May – Hinboun – Thahek – 53 km

We left, intending to have breakfast along the way. We stopped at a rather interesting roadside market that sold all kinds of unusual animals. Emiel did not take well to the enormous cockroaches, dried frogs, grilled squirrels, and cut-up monitor lizards for sale. I must admit that seeing those lizard feet on a plate was somewhat uncomfortable.

 

Soon afterwards, we stopped for a noodle soup, but by then, Emiel had lost his appetite. The reason might not have been the lizard feet, but also that the lady making the noodle soup was cleaning a buffalo carcass at the same time! I guess that was enough to put most people off their food. In hindsight, I should have taken a picture of that carcass!

 

We ambled along, keeping a lookout for the “Great Wall of Lao”. This kilometres-long Kamphaeng Nyak wall is actually a geological phenomenon caused by fissures, but its physical resemblance to a man-made structure has given rise to Lao myths on its origin. “Based on local legend, it is an animal trap built by ancient people who had large bodies like giants and stood as high as the sky.” Some say that it was built as a defence system, and others say it was built as a way to stem the flood waters from the Mekong.

 

Afterwards, we cycled into Thahek, found a room, and had a rather interesting lunch of Beer Lao and dim sum. I was rather impressed that Emiel ate a “100-year old egg”. Despite the name “smelly egg,” there was not much of a smell. The taste was almost the same as a hard-boiled egg except that there may have been a slight scent! The fact that the egg was black both inside and outside may have been more off-putting to most.

 

The following day we spent a well-deserved rest day in Thahek, not doing much expect laundry and the usual eating and drinking. Thahek is a lovely little village with a riverside setting, crumbling old French colonial buildings and quaint restaurant/coffee shops. It was a pleasure to wander along the riverfront, watching men fish in longtail boats on the Mekong River. We sipped our coffee watching ladies peddling their woven ware from shoulder poles, and we chatted to friendly monks at the temple.

 

That evening we had supper on the river bank while looking across the river to where we could see Thailand’s lights reflecting on the water. A storm came in, and we moved into the restaurant where we waited until the worse blew over.

 

23 May - Thahek – Savannakhet – 120 km

We loaded up the bikes and then had breakfast at one of the riverfront restaurants before heading out. The road was covered in small mangoes that blew from the trees during the previous night's storm. At first, the plan was to make it two short days to Savannakhet by following the river road.

 

It is a lovely ride along the Mekong through small villages where people make their living from fishing and farming rice. We passed interesting temples, ancient ruins and markets, which were selling their meagre supplies of woven rice baskets, bananas, and eggs. Most of the people along the river live simple lives and live in basic wooden houses on stilts where they keep their animals under their homes. Most people are subsistence farmers, and each house will have a mango tree, banana plants, a boat for fishing, chickens, goats and cattle as well as a small piece of land for planting rice.

 

We dodged the potholes, chickens and goats as we slowly made our way south. People in this part of Laos are still unaccustomed to seeing tourists and are eager for you to take pictures of their children; it is very different from western cities. Roadside restaurants were humble, corrugated iron structures where meals were cooked on a one-pot clay charcoal stove and slivers of meat were drying in the sun, hanging from washing lines.

 

We passed a few guesthouses in the morning, but by the time we started looking for one, there were none to be had. There was nothing we could do about the situation but carry on to Savannakhet, making for quite a long day on the road. We stopped as often as we could to fill up with water and to enjoy the local fruit along the way. From a wooden cart, farmers were selling the fruit from the sugar palm, which they cut open for us and then dug out the juicy jelly fruit inside.

 

On arrival in Savannakhet, we found a guesthouse, had a cold beer, a shower, and then took a walk to the night market.

 

24 May – Savannakhet

Another well-deserved rest day after such a long day the previous day. We hardly did anything but the usual eating and drinking.

 

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