Around the world by bike
(897km - 33days)
2 September- Bangkok – Nang Khai, Thailand – Vientiane, Lao - 25 km
I had a good sleep on the train, and we arrived in Nong Khai at around 7h00. I walked the three kilometres or so back to Mut Mee Guesthouse. There was nothing more for me to do in Thailand, so I loaded the bike and headed for the border.
It was an uneventful crossing, and I cycled across the Friendship Bridge into Loa. From there, it was a short cycle ride to the capital, Vientiane. On my way in, I first stopped at the Chinese Embassy to enquire about a visa and to collect the forms; to my surprise, I found that a visa application takes two weeks! That I did not expect! There is not much one can do, so I headed into the city where I found a room for 40,000 Lao Kip ($5) at the Dhaka Hotel, and as it is infamous for bedbugs, I first gave it a good spray before unpacking.
I did what I normally do in a new country; I drew local currency from the ATM and sorted out the SIM card for my phone. Walking down the road, I heard someone call my name, and lo and behold, it was Ernest! Now that was truly a voice from the past. We shared a beer together and chatted away about where we have been and where we are heading.
The time passed slowly in Vientiane. There is only so much one can do in a small city. In the meantime, I moved to Christian’s place. Christian is a warmshowers host who hails from Germany and who has been working in Lao for a few years. He has a lovely place right on the Mekong River, and I had a bedroom all to myself; a good thing as well, as Christian is as neat as a pin, and I, it will suffice to say, am not in the same class. It was real nice to have someone around to chat to and share a meal with.
12 September – Vientiane – Ban Vang - 105 km
The river spread big and wide in front of me as I slowly made my way along its banks past numerous rural villages. The sweet voices of children shouting, “Sawadee, falang” (hello, foreigner) mixed with the sounds of cow bells and the bleating of baby goats, bringing a smile to my face. The 19th was still a week away, so I decided to head upriver, not by boat, but by bicycle.
It was a most brilliant day on the road. The scenery was sublime with typical Lao cloud formations and low-lying fog over the mountains. The road was dotted with indigenous markets selling a meagre collection of banana hearts and bamboo shoots. The first 65 to 70 kilometres were on a smooth and fairly flat road, after which it was back onto the old narrow road winding up hills and snaking through tiny villages where one had to dodge both chickens and piglets. It was obviously not an area frequented by “farangs”, as kids giggled and pointed, and dogs scurried away to the safety of their owners' yards.
After 105 kilometres, I spotted a guesthouse, and, as I had not seen one all day, I thought it a good idea to make it my nightly stop. It also had the advantage of a basic roadside restaurant across the road, selling the usual noodle soup, beer, water and sodas. It was my kind of place, despite the bed being rock hard!
13 September – Ban Vang – 50 km
The day did not start as planned. I stepped out of bed onto a scorpion. Fortunately, it was already dead, but it still gave a painful sting, and I jumped around on one leg, like a crazed woman holding my foot as if that was going to help! I did not think that there were any deadly scorpions in Lao so did not wait for blurred vision and palpitations to set in.
Soon after leaving Ban Vang, the road changed to a dirt road, making for a rather bumpy and slow ride. I slowly crept up the steep little inclines and could not even make up for it on the downhills as the rutted and potholed road did not allow for any such pleasures. I longingly looked over to Thailand on the opposite bank of the river, knowing that they had a nice paved road on their side. Nevertheless, it was still a beautiful ride along the river with stunning vistas of the mountains in the distance.
There were hardly any villages along the road, just the odd buffalo looking up in surprise as I sped past. In the process, I received a few emails in connection with an apartment I’m in the process of purchasing and wanted to reply, and called it a day at around 14h00 as I spotted a rather comfortable looking guesthouse along the road. The fact that Paklay was another 50 kilometres and over a rough-looking set of mountains helped make up my mind for me.
I might have been in too much of a hurry to leave Vientiane, as I needed to print, sign, scan and email a few items. Arghhh, my impatience always gets the better of me.
14 September - Ban Vang - Vientane - by bus
I woke to the crowing of cocks and cackling of hens and loved it! With all that still had to be done, I decided to bus myself back to Vientiane and do what must be done. I cycled the 10 kilometres or so back along the road I came since I had seen many minivans outside one of the shops the previous day.
This short ride was a fascinating one as it was early morning and people were out doing what they normally do. Kids were going to school, farmers were on their way to the field, women were shopping at the market, and others coming from or going to the temple. I guess that is what I love about travelling!
Once at the taxi stand, it was no problem getting the bicycle on the roof carrier, and although no English was spoken, the people clearly understood what I wanted. Generally, these minivans waited until they are full before departing, so I had a delicious plate of noodle soup while waiting. Eventually, it was time to get going, and I was happy that I was not cycling back as it was pouring with rain by then, and the road was a muddy mess. On arrival in Vientiane, I headed back to Mixok Guesthouse and then slowly started organising myself and getting everything in place for what I wanted to do the following day.
When travelling by bicycle, one of the most important things is food! I can easily spend the entire day eating! Today was one of those days.
15 - 18 September, Vientiane
On my way to the Buddha Park, I stopped off at the remains of the old city walls. Originally, three brick walls surrounded Vientiane, but in the middle of the 16th century, the city was destroyed by Siamese troops and all that remains today is a small section of the original wall. I'm quite sure that most people don't even know it exists, let alone visit the site. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Then it was off the Buddha Park, which I thought was quite a bizarre setup. The park is filled with reinforced concrete Buddhist and Hindu sculptures of all shapes and sizes, including a gigantic reclining Buddha. Apparently, the park was built in the late 1950s by a priest/monk/guru/artist that combined the Buddhist and Hindu philosophies in his own peculiar way. He subsequently left Lao (as he did not agree with the communist view of the government) and settled across the Mekong River in Thailand.
19 September, Vientiane
Oh, what a busy, busy day it was. First thing in the morning, I was off to the embassy to pick up my long-awaited Chinese visa. Afterwards, I made a few copies that had to be certified so I could scan and email it back to South Africa for the purchase of the flat I'm in the process of buying. I popped into the hairdresser and came out looking much better than going in. Then I was off to look for someone to certify the copy of my passport, which turned out to be much harder than expected. I could not even find a police station anywhere -- LOL. I then, at that late hour, got news from the attorneys that it could only be done at the South African embassy or a Notary Public. Firstly, there is no South African Embassy in Lao, and secondly, trying to find a Notary Public (who could speak English) proved far more challenging than I had expected. I was more than slightly peed off as I have repeatedly told the attorneys my situation, and not once did they come back to me mentioning the details. Of course, I could have it done in Shanghai, but it would most likely take about two months to get there.
20 September, Vientiane
I was absolutely astounded! I could not believe my eyes when I received an email from the attorneys with no less than seven documents that had to be signed and certified! It was not the amount or that the documents had to be signed and certified that shocked me, but the pure incompetence of the so-called professional people in South Africa. I have been in Vientiane for more than two weeks and have sent the attorneys various emails stating my situation, emphasising that I needed all the documents before 19 September as I’m leaving for China and I may not have the internet once there, let alone find a Notary Public!
The sad part is that they don’t care if they cause one to miss a bus or flight, or if they cause one to incur any additional cost. They know they are needed to do a transfer, and they, therefore, don’t need to provide a service. On top of that, they charge an astronomical amount for their so-called service; I was livid, to say the least.
At 9 o’clock I was at the Office of the Supreme People's Prosecutor of Lao PDR to find a Notary Public to certify the documents (it did not come cheap). Then it was back to the internet to scan and email all the documents back to the attorneys. It was late afternoon by the time I finally got back to my room. By then, it was too late to leave, so I paid for another night at the Mixok Guesthouse and carried all my bags upstairs again. What a pain. By now, I have changed my plans as I have wasted so much time in getting the Chinese visa and doing the legal stuff that I feared it was going to be far too cold in the north of China for me. It's better if I cycle to Vietnam and then cross into China just north of Hanoi and cycle coastal China. We will see if that pans out! Whatever happens, tomorrow I’m out of here!
21 September – Vientiane – Thabok – 97 km
“Are you really leaving us?” the guy at the reception asked with a smile as I was packing up, as I have gone through this procedure a few times already. Mixok Guesthouse was starting to feel like home, but I was more than ready to cycle out of Vientiane, not that I have anything against the place. It was just time to move on. I had breakfast while waiting for my laundry to return, and then I was on my way.
I had a huge grin on my face as I cycled down the road and saw Vientiane disappearing in my rear view mirror. I am truly happy when on the road; it is like a curse—a nice one, I must add. I stopped at the baguette stall to pick up some food for the road and then proceeded together with school kids on bikes down a country road. Even though I had cycled this very route not too long ago, I was once again in awe as I cycled past ladies in conical hats, selling their wares from shoulder poles, and old ladies sitting, bent over weaving brooms from dry wild grasses. The roadside markets are always fascinating as that is where they sell everyday things that people need—brooms, woven baskets for steaming rice, charcoal stoves made of clay, and woven mats for sitting and sleeping on. I even passed the motorbike salesman selling live goldfish in small plastic bags.
It was easy cycling, and the weather was good, although, it was hot and humid. On reaching Thabok, there was a very convenient guesthouse right on the road, and I took that as a sign to use it as my overnight stop. (Ha-ha, I'm only kidding; I was going to stop there anyway.)
22 September – Thabok – Pakkading – 100 km
“Sabaidee falang,” small kids shouted as I cycled down the road, and grownups looked up in surprise asking the by now familiar question, “Where you go?” I responded with a wave and a smile as there is no point in explaining. The visibility was poor, and I expected it to start raining any minute, but fortunately that never materialised.
This part of Lao is as rural as it gets, and I will never tire of watching ladies lead their buffalo to greener pastures or lone fishermen sitting on a long, narrow boat patiently waiting for the fish to bite. The rice fields were still luminous green and looked even more so under a cloudy sky. I watched kids jumping off bridges into the river below and was happy to see that the kids here still do what we did as kids so many years ago. The last part of the day I caught a nice slipstream behind a two-wheel tractor (or at least that is what I call it). Not only is it the most versatile machine one could wish for but it also provides a perfect slipstream at a steady 20 kilometres per hour.
I reached the sleepy village of Pak Kading early, but it made a good stop at the confluence of the Mekong and Kading River, said to be one of the most pristine rivers in Lao. I walked around town, and a trip up river sounded more and more enticing.
23 September - Pak Kading – Aomchay Guesthouse, Ban Thangbeng 106 km
I left Pak Kading in a slight drizzle, and it continued to drizzle all morning. It would not have been so bad were it not for a stomach problem I had. Arghhh, there is never a dull moment; it's no fun looking for a bush to hide behind in the rain. Fortunately, the weather cleared around midday, and although still overcast, it did not prevent a nice cycle.
Around 15h00, a rather looming, dark sky appeared, and although I had only a few kilometres to go to the next village, I doubted I would make it. No sooner had the sky turned dark than it started pelting down, and I had to find cover in a hurry. There was nothing to do but sit it out and wait for the storm to pass.
Three kilometres down the road, I found a guesthouse, and I was more than grateful for the hot shower as, by then, I was rather cold. It was a nice room, and I did not mind stopping there as it left me with only 50 kilometres to Thakhek in the morning. After putting on dry clothes, I headed out to the small restaurant around the corner and was amazed at the quality of the food, which was absolutely delicious. In no time at all, and in the most basic of kitchens, they can whip up a dish so delicious that one will reminisce about it years later.
24 September – Aomchay Guesthouse – Thakhek - 54 km
It was a short but stunning ride. The weather had cleared during the night, and it was a perfect morning as I pedalled off. I came upon a traditional market selling illegal wildlife for eating purposes. I say illegal as they did not want me to take pictures and hid some items under the table (like a baby deer and a furry-looking catlike animal). I still sneaked a few shots as what they were selling was just too weird: iguanas, squirrels, rats, bats, and what could be guinea pigs. Even the fish looked unknown to me.
Just before Thakhek, I stopped again at what is known as the Great Wall of Lao. This wall fascinates me as it is said that the wall is actually a geological phenomenon caused by fissures, but its physical resemblance to a man-made structure has given rise to Lao myths about its origin. Others claim that it was built in the Sikhottabong Empire in the 19th century, but no one seems sure about its purpose. Historians claim that the wall served as a defence system; others believe it functioned as a dyke to stem rising flood waters. I cycled into town, found a good room right on the Mekong River, and headed straight for the market to get some food.
25 September -Thakhek
I stayed in Thakhek the following day as well as I wanted to visit some of the nearby caves. I packed all the camera gear, hailed a tuk-tuk and set off to the Buddha Cave. The reason I did not cycle there was that I heard the road was in bad condition. Bad condition was an understatement, as it was one muddy mess. We bounced along, over potholes and mud holes. It, in fact, became so bad that I had to get out and push!
Eventually, we arrived at the Cave, a bit muddy and shaken but all still in one piece. The entrance fee to the cave was 5 000 Kip, but they wanted an additional 5 000 for the rental of a traditional Lao skirt. A fee I did not pay, as it does not say anywhere that one needs to pay for the use of the skirt. The biggest surprise came once inside the cave, as there was a large sign that no photographs were to be taken! Bummer!!! After all the effort of getting there.
The cave, nevertheless, has an interesting history. It is said that it was rediscovered in 2004 by a farmer hunting for bats. Inside the cave, he found 229 bronze Buddha statues, believed to be more than 450-years-old. The Buddhas are thought to have formed part of the royal collection hidden there when the Thais ransacked Vientiane. The hills around Thakhek are littered with caves, but I did not want to spend more money so we headed back to Thakhek. What an unsuccessful day!
26 – 27 September - Thakhek – Savannakhet – 125 km
I stuck to the river road but it, unfortunately, soon came to an end. I did, however, find another minor road that also ended up running parallel to the river. It was a pleasant ride past many rural fishing villages. The road deteriorated somewhat, and both me and the other vehicles slowly snaked our way around potholes on a bouncy gravel road. I could not believe my eyes when I saw big storm clouds heading my way, and soon it started bucketing down. I found a shelter and waited out the storm, which took forever to pass, with the result it was after 18h00 that I arrived in Savannakhet. As usual, I made a B-line for the night market.
The following day I handed in my visa application for Vietnam, which in fact, turned out to be a very easy process. It was only a one-page form, and I could pick it up the next day. I love visa applications like that! I had the rest of the day at leisure and as it was a stinking hot day I stayed in my room and sorted out my many photos, a job which has been long overdue.
28 - 29 September - Vientiane
September was not a good month for Aries, and I am pleased to see the end of it. Mercury has been retrograding since the beginning of the month, and although it was supposed to have ended on September 22, I’m, for one, still feeling the after effects. In short, the Mercury retrograde means communication is fucked up, and everything is delayed. (Think Chinese visa and legal documents coming through in drips and drags.)
In Savannakhet, I received an email asking for two more forms to be signed and verified! Give me strength! To find a Notary Public is not an easy task, especially one who owns an English stamp! Early morning, I hopped on a bus back to Vientiane, where I knew I could find one (as I had the previous documents signed there). The bus, however, took far longer than expected, and I only arrived in Vientiane after 17h00. There I thought I could have the forms signed and catch the night bus back to Savannakhet.
The reason for me being in such a hurry is that my Lao visa expires on the 1st of October, and it is still about a two- or three-day ride from Savannakhet to the border. There are certain things one can do nothing about! (Smile and breathe deeply.)
First thing in the morning, I was at the immigration office to extend my Lao visa, but once again I could only pick up the passport the following day, meaning another day before heading back to Savannakhet. (Smile and breathe deeply.) Then it was off to the courthouse to have my documents verified, but I was told that all were in a meeting and that I could return after 14h00! (Smile and breathe deeply.) At the end of the day, the forms were verified, stamped, signed, emailed and DHL-ed back to the attorneys! All that remained to be done was to pick up the visa extension at 10h30 the next morning, then take the bus back to Savannakhet where I would collect the Vietnamese visa (the following day), and finally head for the Vietnamese border. The tide is changing – I hope! Time to relax: sit down, have a beer, and enjoy the sunset.
30 September - 1 October - Savannakhet
At 10h00 I was at the immigration office to collect my Lao visa extension, after which I headed straight for the bus station and on to Savannakhet, where I only arrived after 21h00. The next morning, I was up early and took a short walk to the Vietnamese consulate to collect my visa, only to realise that it was Saturday! LOL. There was nothing to do about it but wait for Monday; hopefully, then, I will finally be out of here.
Although Savannakhet is a small town, it is a pleasant enough place to spend the weekend. I walked around the old quarter, now just a shadow of what it was in its heydey. Buildings over 100-years-old made for great photo opportunities at sunset and the riverfront with its many food vendors was a perfect place to pick up a bite to eat or try my hand at some panning shots. I ended up at the night market, and as I sat down to have a beer, I realised that I did not have my handlebar bag/camera bag with me! I nearly had a heart attack; not only is the bag very valuable to me, but it also contained my passport and other important personal documents.
In a great hurry, I retraced my steps (the hassle of applying for a new passport flashed before my eyes); there were only three places where I could have left it. I swung by the old quarters, but there was nothing there. Then I headed back to the busy riverfront, and even from a distance, I could see my bag exactly where I left it. Surrounded by locals enjoying the sunset, and to my great relief, the bag was untouched, and its valuable content was intact.
I wonder in how many places in the world one can leave a bag sitting in such a busy area and return later to find it still there. I thanked the people sitting next to it - they looked at me as if they did not know what I was thanking them for - and I took a walk back to the night market where I had left my beer, and except for the ice that had melted, the beer was also exactly as I had left it. I think I’m moving to Lao.
2 - 3 October Savannakhet – Roadside Guesthouse - 115km
Hurray! I finally left Savannakhet, and at 7h30 I was at the Vietnamese consulate to collect my visa. The guy behind the counter was really nice and dated it from today's date instead of the date I handed it in. Then there was only one last hiccup to sort out. As I woke this morning, my phone was dead as a doornail. I swung by the Samsung office and fortunately the culprit was only a faulty memory card. Phew!! I felt good as I headed out of town and in the direction of the Vietnamese border.
Along the way, I stopped at one of the old war relics. The CIA operation, which ran from 1961 until 1975, became known as the Secret War because, unlike in the well-known Vietnam War, the fighting was done not by American soldiers but by the CIA’s mercenaries. During that period, 2.1 million tonnes of ordnance were released over Laos. COPE (in Vientiane) is an organisation whose goal it is to provide Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) and to ensure that people with physical disabilities have local, free access to quality, nationally-managed rehabilitation service. I got the following off their website.
SOME STATISTICS TO REMEMBER:
260 million - Estimated number of sub-munitions (bombies) from cluster bombs dropped over Lao PDR between 1964 and 1973
2 million tonnes - 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
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
300 - Estimated number of new casualties from UXO incidents every year in Lao PDR
Sources: NRA Annual Report 2009/NRA Website
Fortunately, the rest of the day was in a lighter mood although I still want to read “The Ravens”. A book about the men who flew in America's Secret War in Laos. I intend downloading it as soon as I have a better internet connection. The section between the Mekong River and the Vietnam border is rather rural with vast stretches of natural forest, and I understand that there are still communities living mostly off the forest. The rice fields were slowly starting to change colour, and instead of the luminous green, it was now a much softer yellowish brown. After cycling about 115 kilometres, I spotted a guesthouse and thought it a good time to call it a day.
4 October Roadside Guesthouse – Ban Dong – 120 km
It was my last full day of cycling in Lao, and I savoured it. The area is still as rural as I remember from seven years back. Just as then, it reminded me of Africa, with its bare-bum kids running amok, playing with old tyres, and heavenly smells drifting across the road from women cooking on open fires. Chickens and goats seemed to have the run of the road, and in each village, my arrival was announced by a shrill “falang, falang” from small kids.
All day long, serious-looking mountains loomed ahead, but nothing came of it, as the road cleverly snaked around them, making for easy cycling. As harvesting of rice has begun in all earnest, women were selling bunches of dried bamboo slivers for tying freshly-cut rice into bundles. It was an especially scenic area with green valleys and misty mountains, none of which I managed to capture on film. I even met two other cyclists along the way, the first in many a month! We had a long chat, but as they still had a way to go and so did I, we soon parted ways. I continued for another 20 kilometres or so, found a convenient roadside guest house, and immediately ordered a large bowl of noodle soup!