Saturday, 1 January 2011

Phase 2 - Laos to Vietnam

Week 7  - ChiangKhan to Muang Ngeun  212kms cycled.

Highlights: Huge 70cm long papaya, great scenery, friendly people.

Low blows: Relentless uphills, ruptured tyre, dusty roads..

Music of the week: Road to nowhere – Talking Heads


Turns out I cant get the supplies I need in this town (must be only town in Thailand without a 7/11 or Top Charoen) so needed to go back to Loei. Owner of GH and her mates went into Loei in morning so I got a lift with them. Very humid today and looked like it was gonna rain at one point. Got songtheaw and back in CK by 3pm. Found a cheap place to eat on water front for sunset then went for a beer outside a shop on main road. Must be the scene for all local drunks cos a completely pissed border policeman (so he proudly announced) joined me for a while before paddling his motorbike into middle of busy main road and wobbling off up road with no lights on. 10 minutes later another gh owner out off his face sat with me and mumbled for a bit before I got up and left. He told shop keeper I was buying his beer but I was having none of it. Back to gh and chatted with owner and other customers before bed. V heavy rain at night and roof leaking all over.

Sunset over the Mekong

Chiang Khan to Ban Pak Huai 58kms
Got up 6:30 but didn’t get going till 9:30. Annoyed with owner cos the breakfasts she’d been pedaling as if they were freebies were 50 baht plus 10 baht per coffee (crappy nescafe too). Only had bloody toast this morning so not full and a rip off. Overcast day. First 20kms along Mekong, some crappy patches and a long compact sandy stretch but no big deals. Was gonna go and see a ‘big buddha’ 1km off main road but after 1km there was a massive hill so turned around and had noodles in a house instead. Road after that mainly smooth and undulating. Next 10kms starting to climb, then 40kms onwards mostly downhill, Very nice scenery, lots of farmland, rice paddies, tamarind trees, tapioca, rubber, bamboo lined road in places. Some parts of view just all shades of green with the light grey strip of tarmac. Decending big hill. View down over golden paddies and in background high peaks of silhouetted mtns. Quite hot ride and water stops few and far between.
Arrived at Pak Huai after 1pm feeling tired. Ate fried rice with egg and had a big pepsi. Dogs and cats sitting around for scraps. Found a resort with brand new bungalows, big rooms and balcony- 300baht. 2 blokes on bikes staying there too. Showered and had a spin round village, Laos just 15m across the river. Bought a huge papaya, about 70cms long, from market 15 baht and delicious. Back at gh chatted with blokes and went for dinner at night. Started spotting just as we left the resto and completely pissed it down, with lightening and quite windy too. Rain eventually stopped. Hope this roads gonna be ok tomorrow and not a swamp! We shall see…..

Ban Pak Huai to Sainyabouri 18kms by bike, the rest by songtheaw
Misty start to day. Local noodle shop hadn’t got the water hot yet so packed then went back at 7:30. No coffee to be found either so got an ‘energy’ drink – I figured the bottle with a tiger on should give more power than the bottle with a sheriffs badge on it. Started to feel perky soon after.
Easy 6kms to border- a quiet bridge in middle of nowhere. Thai immigration said I should check with Laos immig to see if it was ok to cross. Chatted with Laos official and he said it was ok so checked out of Thailand and back across bridge to Laos. In the meantime, Laos official had checked with his boss who said I couldn’t go on my bicycle cos the road was too bad. Nice of him to wait till Id checked out of Thailand! Explained it was a mtn bike etc etc. He said road was under construction and it was too dangerous.
Eventually persuaded them to let me put it on a bus, so he then escorted on his moped me to the bus station 6kms up the road. I joked with him about being a VIP with a motorcade. Bus turned out to be a large open backed van / songtheaw. Driver was gonna strap my bike to a rack on the side, but I envisioned it getting smashed to bits so eventually got him to lay it on top of the tarp covering everyone’s stuff – a bit of cushioning at least. Immigration bloke had bagsied me a cosy spot in the front with a pretty Laos girl, petite but wide shouldered- should keep me packed in place during the ride then. I ate the half papaya I had stuffed in my camel pack and we set off on the 10 am bus to Sainyaburi at 10:30 – 70,000kip (300 baht)- expensive.
I planned to ignore the policeman and get off up the road in the village of Pak Lai and cycle. Chatted with driver about the road. He said it was really bad and soon enough it became un-tarmaced quagmires made sloppy by the last few days heavy rain. Turned out it was like this a lot of the way so I decided to stay on the bus and was very glad I did. All the way up there were roadsigns of ‘slow men working’, but there was no sign of men working at all! Just a completely mashed up road of thick red mud for miles and miles.
Turns out that loads of trucks transport corn to the Thai border and this heavy traffic hadn’t helped matters. One truck laden with gravel had sunk and almost tipped over at one section. Felt sorry for the villages being cut in half by this new road, earth movers had cut right up to the front of some houses. Our driver was good and controlled the van as it slewed about sideways this way then that, in the mud.
Had lunch at Pak Lai (foe), Late afternoon sky hazy with stubble being burnt off. A few cockerels decided to run across the front of the van and then change their minds at the last minute changing direction and getting splattered. Eventually arrived at my destination after dark at 6:30pm. Glad Id been made to skip this section as scenery not that great and only one really pretty Hmong village with a great fat splodge of widened mud along the way. Bus stop is 3kms south of the town so got eaten by ants as I put packs and lights on the bike in the dark.
The town turned out to be one of these sprawling provincial hq’s in a backwater (thoughts of Sekong entering my head). Chugged along till I saw a gh that looked ok. Big room with fan, tv , hot shower etc 60000 kip (25000kip = 100baht). Showered and went in search of food. Glad I had bicycle to cover the 500m to were small restaurants were. Had bbq fish , 2 sausages, sticky rice and a Beer Lao for 35000.. Food is expensive in Laos but beer cheap – opposite of Thailand. Had another beer back at hotel, really nice people who run it. They didn’t have cold beer so sent the boy out to get some. Rained in the night and pretty cool here.

My bike on top of the van

Claimed by The MUD

Great for pigs and hippos

Old logging truck

Bikes that didnt make it

Local transport

Big steaming bowl of Foe and Laos coffee for breakfast. Got a Laos sim card for phone then popped up to market for a look about – the usual stuff in the market including bulls balls in the meat section. Had a spin around the town, some nice but pricey restos next to river. Theres a big ridge/mtn to the east of the town, quite a pretty location. Ate fried rice at a cheap place in town for lunch. Went dark in afternoon and actually rained a bit. Had a look at an old temple late afternoon and then went to a riverside resto for sunset. They didn’t have a menu and the girl couldn’t tell me what they had. A local bloke helped me and I ended up with hacked bones, grissle and chicken with mixed vegetables. That plus rice and beer cost me a wopping 65000! Pah.

Sainyabouri to Hongsa 95kms
Big steaming bowl of Foe and Laos coffee for breakfast again, stocked up with 3 litres of water, then off by 8:30. A cool start with jumper on! First 10kms of road paved then turned to clay and gravel. Good it’d rained as it kept the dust down, but really sticky in places. Worried about busting spokes as bouncing around and bag coming out of slots occasionally. Steady ups and downs. Really nice farmland- dry rice paddies, and later some wet new rice being transplanted. Enjoying the ride, some sections pretty bad because of trucks. Tarmac appeared again at km 20 for a while then intermittent from then on.
Had Foe in the last village on my map at km 30 Ban Namon. Chatted with a pretty school teacher who also worked with her realtives in the shop. A young boy was curled up in a quilt with drip in his arm and all upset cos it hurt. His moms breast feeding quietened him down.
 Hills getting bigger and better for the road as having to follow a more pronounced route along hillsides and through valleys, rather than just ups and downs. Soon heading into the mnts and along thin valleys, rivers running in the bottoms and small villages along the way, some hillsides clad with beautiful jungle. Some kestrel like birds of prey circling about hunting. Locals (mostly women) humping huge bamboo poles or piles of firewood along the roadside. In a narrow gorge construction of road still going on with earth movers digging out the shales and rock of the cliff face, had to quickly push bike past a truck being laden as digger wasn’t going to stop for me! Stopped of at km55 to admire a pretty river running through the bottom of the gorge and then cracked on.
Then started the uphill section, Id be warned by a guy I met last week that there was a 20km uphill and it was no exaggeration. It went on and on and on and on. Had to push a lot of the way up these steep sections as just as fast as riding it. Glad it was over cast or things would’ve been so, so hot. But the dirt road just kept going up! Very tiring.
Eventually came to a hilltop village and the road was paved and followed the ridge still climbing with a few small downhill dips. People disinterested in me. Only really realized the extent of the ridge when I looked back to see the hilltop village now below where I was and far along the ridge. Great views over the surrounding mtns but this road seemingly never ending and always going up! Completely knackered, eventually ran out of water. Talking Heads, road to nowhere came on ipod and made me laugh. Fuelled only on the peanut brittle Id got in Thailand I carried on. Getting quite cool by 4pm but expelling plenty of energy to keep me warm enough.
By 5pm road started to go down, and eventually there was a nice long downhill section. A lot of lorries kicking up tons of dust on this narrow road and jeep drivers bombing along not making the journey any more pleasant. Whizzed through a Hmong village and eventually bottomed out in a valley by night fall. Decided to rest and get lights on bike. Had a tin of sardines in tommy sauce which perked me up a bit. Now riding in dark and overcast sky blocking the fat moons rays. Some lads had told me there was one more uphill section before downhill all way to Hongsa. Pushed for half an hour, then got on for the downhill, slow going because I didn’t want to have an accident and there was lots of potential for that  - piles of gravel dumped at side of road, big holes where road had fallen into valley, other holes. Better to go at a reasonable pace then crash on the final furlong. Saw a shop and got some water, they said Hongsa was just 1km up the road – my odometer said it was further but I then realized it wouldn’t have registered the steep sections I was pushing up. Knackered. Town was already dead by 8pm. Found a gh, which had food already on table – perfect timing! Ate, showered, chatted a bit and bed.
10kms of tarmac and then this

Tok Tok takes people into town

Locals humping firewood along a lovely smooth section of tarmac

Views like this make it all worthwhile

Two lads pose in front of 'The Digger that stops for no-one'

Happy to break at another beautiful spot just before the BIG uphill

Looking back down the gorge and about halfway up the hump

Its a miracle! The road starts to go down

Delirious with fatigue, joy and disbelief as still going downhill

Didn’t sleep very well in early hours as wired up from ride. Mini farmyard behind room also making noises intermittently with dawn chorus going off at 5am. Chicken soup tonight! Showered then went to market and had fried egg baguettes and 2 coffees for 25000kip. Not much to see at the mkt. Declined an offer to see an elephants will being broken today. I don’t fancy seeing summat like that, reminded me of when I saw the performing horses in Spain and could only think of the amount of ‘training’ with whips they must have been through. Gave my spare map to a couple who were driving around Laos in a 4x4 and camping on a specially constructed sleeping platform on the back. Great idea! They only had a crappy map. Did some laundry, had a cycle round the town and drank some beer.

Bell at a local temple made from an old artillary shell

Hongsa to Muangngeun 41kms
Cold and overcast this morning. Stomach felt full and a bit spewy and Ive got the runs. Went to mkt for brekkie although it took some will power to eat my seemingly greasy eggs. Took photo of a bamboo rat in market ‘Ta-on’ 15000kip. Set off, bit of confusion up the road cos a new opencast mine (lignite of all things!)  and power plant are being built so all roads a bit buggered, although not as buggered as people’s health will be in the coming years. Asked directions to Pak Beng from an old woman but she thought I was asking for a type of vegetable (pak) and said she didn’t have any. Equally puzzled results from girls up the road so went back to construction site and asked some English speaking blokes there. About to set off and then another asked me where I wanted to go and gave me directions to Hongsa.(He thought I wanted the bank when I said Pak Beng). Eventually got it all sorted and set off on right way. This whole road under construction (it’s got workers and everything!) and easy to ride on, mainly clay and gravel, not too steep either compared to the big mtn of the other day, but feeling very tired and dodgy, sweating a lot and weak. Very forested around here. Quite dusty when pick ups and trucks go past.
Last 20kms noticed had a bulge growing in rear tyre, kept speed down as similar to a buckle and didn’t wanna break anything. Limped into Muangngeun about 1:30. Sun had popped out about an hour ago and was now very hot. 2 GHs in town but only one worth staying in with a lovely lotus pond in the front full of purple flowers.
Had a wash then took tyre off to discover it was ruptured inside – not tough enough for weight going over rocks and stuff. Took tyre for a tour of every tyre repair shop in the town, eventually found some that had mtb tyres but they only have 24inch ones here. Felt really weak all afternoon and tried not to shit myself. The very last shop at the end of town called his mate and said they had a 26 so he went and fetched it but it turned out to be a racer tyre so no good to me. Said sorry and thanked him for trying to help. Even asked a bloke who had several mtbs in hjs garage if he had a spare tyre but to no avail. Everyone says I need to go to thailand to get a new tyre. So plan is to go to Huay Xai and see if shops have one there… 
Had a look at a really old temple, with huge trees outside. At night chatted with a Japanese woman who is researching textiles here. Still feel crap and I managed to eat a small plate of rice after about 30 minutes, Feel exhausted.
Bamboo rat for sale in local market

Elephant on its way to work

The start of an open cast lignite mine and soon to be built power station - thats this area f**ked then

Wooden tiles on a temple roof

Massive trees

Beautiful lotus pond outside my room

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