Saturday, 1 January 2011

Week 8 - Muang Ngeun to Xieng Kok 186 kms cycled

Highlights: New tyres, awesome scenery, the night sky, friendly people.
Low blows: Uphills, (but then again, big uphills = big downhills)
Music of the week: I remember (vocal mix) – Deadmau5

Feeling better. Had omelet and rice for brekkie. Went to visit a pottery village in morning. Easy enough to find but finding where they make pots a pain. Eventually went into local school and a teacher took me over the back to where they were made. Nobody there and the kiln sealed up with pots inside already – they leave them in there for a week. Had a look at old temple, when I came out all school children were gathered round the door watching me, so had fun teaching them some English and then walked around the village like the pied piper with a gaggle of kids following me until they dispersed into their respective homes. A funeral going on in one house so lots of people paying respects. Lots of looms and weaving under houses. On way back people all weeding and taking care of a plot of corn, the plants only about 8 inches high. Hot sun.
Lunch was a big steaming thereaputic bowl of chicken soup with turmeric. The woman here is a really good cook. Had a wander down to the bridge to watch the early evening scene of people tending vegetable plots, cows munching grass, blokes shoveling sand from the river banks into back of a truck, and a few people having a wash in the river.

Food - the best medicine

Local veggie plots

Muangngeun to PakBeng by bus
Went to bus station for 10:30 and waited around with everyone else until time to go at mid day. Bike loaded on top and bags inside along with other passengers sacks and other bits n bobs. Only about 8 other passengers. Very steep ups and downs and glad to be sat in bus rather than pedaling over these hills! Hot sun. After an hour and half arrived at Mekong river. Crossed over by small ferry and then carried on up road where I got dropped at a junction. Cycled downhill and found a nice looking place. Cleaner said it was 500 baht, but I persisted and she found someone who could give me room for 70000kip (300baht) which was more like it. Went and had food and beer in a resto overlooking Mekong. Watched the big pools of water rising up from the depths of this mighty river. Must be impressive at full volume! Drank beer and mooched about. Locals setting up stalls for imminent arrival of Farangs, when slow boats from Huay Xai and LuangPrabang turned up around 5:30, changing the town from quiet into moderately busy.
A great view to drink beer to

PakBeng to HuayXai by boat
Slept well. Went to see if I could get a boat ticket early but no one doing anything till 8am. Had mediocre breakfast, then mozied back to room. Loaded bike and walked down to river picking up a chicken sarnie and expensive bananas for the boat along the way. A fancy cake shop, packed with farang, and Pringles and other expensive luxury junk available for sale. Humped stuff down bank and onto boat. A big boat with bus seats inside and room for my bike at the back. Up river is definitely the way to go as the other boat packed and they laid another one on as so many people. Ours had spare seats on it.
Set off 9ish. Misty over cast sky for a long while and quite cool but I feel feverish and a bit out of sorts again. Steep sides to river corridor, some beautiful forested gorges occasionally appearing and going off to one side. Small streams gushing white water over rocky banks into Mekong. Strange rock formations in the river itself, with bubbling surges and whirlpools. Large sandbanks, some collapsing with the sound waves from the noisy engine of the boat as we passed. Villages few and far between. Clothes market set up on the banks near two villages drawing a large crowd. Eventually a lot more farming along the banks, corn mainly, and locals panning for gold. At one section, the boat passed near the bank they were panning on and sent them all scrambling for their baskets full of their days haul as the bow wave from the boat washed up the shoreline.
Going upriver
Pleasant boatr ride up until 2 pm but rather laborious after that just because sat for so long. Amusing to watch a German couple ignoring each other in front of me for the whole journey and some funny Russian? blokes behind me who got really excited saying "speedboat speedboat" dashing off to take a photo everytime a jetboat went past, which was quite often  – why they didn’t take one themselves I don’t know. Couldn’t help wondering about how it would’ve been to try and cycle from Pak Beng to Thinkeo which was a potential route if the boat had been too expensive – the hills look huge!!
Villagers humping sacks of rice down to barges on the river and a lot of big boats full of sacks of rice making their way along. We picked up and dropped off locals at various points along the way. Passed one big boat almost full of motorbikes and lads were wrestling the remaining few down the high sand bank and onto the boat. Really fed up after 4pm. Seemed close but didn’t arrive until just after 6pm, the driver having to barge his way into the jetty cos loads of other big boats all lined up. Boats already there quite fancy looking and owners all came out to push and protect the roofs of their boats as we slowly maneuvered our way into position. Unloaded and then rode into town staying at place where I used to buy sarnies for tours. Chatted with a couple off the boat at night. Everyone always seems to be rushing about and having ‘no time’. Shame for them.

On board

Shopping at the local mall

Contemplating lignite fuelled power stations and the potential damage it could cause one's respiratory organs 


Panning for gold

Huay Xai
A puppy wining and a cockerel in the yard below my window annoyed me for a lot of the night. Managed to get hold of a pair of descent 2nd hand off road tyres from a bloke that ran a garage for 700baht. Well pleased to have a good set of tyres at last! Got some Tinidazole for my stomach as still don’t feel right. Did some laundry then put tyres on bike – right chunky beasts, should help with the load too. A happy bunny J. Chatted with 2 ozzie cyclists at lunch. Theyd come down from Yunan via XiengKok. Said the overland road was a killer and had given up half way, then waited 2 days for a lift! – Reakon Mekong route is the way to go then! Had a crappy haircut by a cute Vietnamese woman near mkt then cycled over to where boat pulled in last night for a brief wander on riverbank. Some old boats marooned on sand, one with washing strung out on a line above the deck, and a small vegetable patch in front of it.

View over to Thailand

Thar be green stuff portside Cap'n

Ban Mom to Ban Padam 65km
Mom and kids in hotel were up and showering at 5:30 and the echoes from their bathroom nearby woke me up. Earlier a cockerel had also been adding its efforts and one of kids was crying downstairs so decided to have an early start. At 6, wandered down to market in search of food, but absolutely nothing there and only one shop opening it’s shutter.-selling plastic tricycles and other ‘fancy goods’ ie crap,  Back to gh. The maid girl was around so asked her if there was any food, no she said. Told her I was hungry and then went through a list of things they might have. Was shown into a kitchen and offered last nights dinner under a plastic fly cage. Need summat warm as its nippy. Eggs? yes. Surprised to see a mirowave in corner so I got scrambled eggs on the go. Had that with sticky rice and a coffee appeared on request too. The 2 kids that lived their watched all this with endless curiosity. Mother appeared. Bought some water and sticky rice, paid for room and was off by 8, stopping off at a corner shop/ house that sells things (not yet open but they’d left their front door open so I stuck my head in) to get 3 cans of sardines in tom sauce.
The pebbly wide road soon turned into a smooth sand/gravel narrow track, easy to ride on but tyres kicking a lot of fine grit onto me and the chain crunch crunch. Road wound its way through the countryside, over wooden bridges and through villages. Later turned into smooth clay, so easy to ride on. A couple of steep ups, but not too long and soon following the Mekong river. Scenery absolutely beautiful and so happy to be riding along here- what a great xmas present! Track basically same all the way, a lot of ups and downs later on, vegetation close in on both sides, wild bananas, giant ferns and rattans, the lilac weeds, views of the Mekong every so often through curtains of foiliage, stream crossings (that my chain wasn’t happy with at all once gravel got chucked up onto it again crunch crunch) and several small villages along the way. One village had fancy bamboo roof tiles with a curve cut into the bottom part. Usually around villages the land would open out and with fields for crops to be planted (rice and some corn). Occasionally a tok tok truck loaded with people flying the other way, and motorbikes passing infrequently.
30kms in stopped at Ban Tang O and persuaded a lady making pancake things to make me some food as I didn’t fancy her suggestion of instant noodles from the shop. Her husband brought me 3 big chunks of salted dried pork and a huge lump of sticky rice. Ate that and chatted for a while, delicious. While chatting a jet boat guy appeared and asked if I wanted a boat to Xieng Kok. I thought he’d said it was 35000kip I actually considered this bargain price, but on checking he wanted 3500 baht! Turns out all the villages up the Mekong use Baht as 1st currency. Stocked up with 3 litres water, local shop keeper not passing up this opportunity to fleece me – (3000kip a bottle of water, the boy had said 7 baht, then she appeared and said 10 baht per bottle , but her conversion rate was rubbish so ended up paying 12baht each). Creepy guy with slick black hair and black jacket also hanging around with a 45 holstered on his shoulder, he turned out to be a soldier. Thought their might be a problem cos Id been warned that 2 motobikers got turned back along here 2 months ago. He set off ahead of me with his mate on a bike in my direction. Thought he was either going up ahead to talk with some soldiers up ahead or set up an ambush and rob me, but I never saw them again. Maybe problem before was due to Myanmar election time?
Rest of journey was great, track became less used and didn’t see anyone for a long while. A 2 meter long slender olive coloured snake with a small oval head, came out of the undergrowth just ahead of me in hot persuit of a cricket hopping like mad to evade capture. I stopped. The cricket hopped past me and so slithered the snake, just a meter to my left. (Looking at its head Id decided it wasn’t deadly poisonous but Im no expert). The snake hadn’t seemed to notice me but it’d lost its prey and come to its senses. I made to set off and it flew off into the bushes.
Carried on. Long 3 meter sections of split bamboo drying in the sun – wall material? Eventually the track opened up a little bit and I arrived at a large Kamu village. Tried to ask if there was somewhere to stay and a young boy was summond who spoke Laos. He said village further on. I confirmed this with a bloke on a motorbike too. Carried on, track now has electricity poles running alongside it, and eventually arrived at a smooth new flat gravel track which was lovely to ride on. I fantasized Ban Padam to be a large place with guesthouses adorned with marble floored shower rooms, golden taps, lavish saunas, a pizza restaurant, wine. As I had to cross a river I gave the bike a quick wash, much to amusement of 2 kids bathing with their mom upstream, she confirmed this was Ban Padam. Ok! Asked a few people where a place to stay was. They all sent me down to a building at the end of the village. Wandered there and asked the lads on the door. They said this wasn’t a Ban Pak and didn’t know why everyone in village said it was. I asked if I could sleep on floor of out building. After a while chatting (one lad said Ban Xieng Dao only 25kms more but already 5pm) they woke up their boss who was having a nap and after a chat he said I could stay. Got my own room in some sort of government office/information centre for farming? Very basic but just the job. Had a mandi shower in back yard then ate fresh beans from their garden, bamboo soup, sticky rice, and the sardines Id donated, spiced up with a few chillies. Chatted a bit, then left the lads to go and relax. I had a wander outside to look at the amazing stars. Shame we cant see them in big cities because it is so beautiful and brings home you are stood on a planet in the middle of a solar system. Only 8:30, but tired and bloody cold here, so into bed. Called home to wish merry xmas and talk about this lovely ride, everyone at home sounding tipsy and getting the Christmas dinner ready. Thought about the feast at home, listened to a bit of music then bed.

One of several wooden bridges along the way

A more open section of the track early on

Village along the way

One of many peeks at the Mekong through the bushes

Later in the day

Corn, mountains, lilac flowers, marvelous

Ban Padam to Xieng Kok 55km
Bloody cockerels! At least the clock works inside this one and it was actually sunrise. Got up 6:30, cold misty morning. Head bloke already had fire going and prepared breakfast – basically what we ate last night, plus a delicious mash of rattan inner stalks and chillis, very tasty. Packed, thanked them giving 50000kip ‘beer money’ and off I went. Despite them saying there were no hills, after 5kms the road deviated away from the river and started to go up, climbing pretty much for the next 8kms. Mist wafting over the landscape of newly planted rubber trees. Fed up of pushing and eventually made it to top of hill – view behind now clear, the orange dirt trail descending the hills into the distance, a long layer of cloud hanging over the length  of the Mekong.
A long downhill , over a few streams, then up again and into an Akha village perched on top of the hill. All people friendly here and one bloke came to greet me and we had a chat. Bought some water from the local shop- fridge stocked with beer and 1 bottle of water which I bought (3000kip – fair enough up here), woman decked out in traditional headdress. Some sort of ceremony? was going on with several patches of burnt leaves or something on the ground. All the men gathered together and inviting me to come and drink. Politely declined as I knew it wouldn’t be just one drink and carried on the way they had shown me to XiengDao. Downhill section until arriving at a fork. A bloke sat on his motorbike didn’t know the way either so he called his friend who said go right. Id decided to have a rest so plonked bike on the triangular turf island in the middle of the junction, had some sticky rice and put on shirt, hat and suncreme. During this time an old woman had walked up and she said I should go left. This was later confirmed by some guys on a motorbike who’d got a barking deer’s severed head (imagine Bambi) and meat, and then later a bunch of blokes walking up, all with pieces of fresh deer meat skewered on hoops for carrying. Apparantly only 5 kms away so zoomed over the track, flat area with rice paddies and into Xieng Dao. Realised it had been a good decision to stop last night, a) because of big hills and I was already tired, and b) cos would’ve probably gone wrong way in the dark with no one to ask. Had bowl of instant noodles with some sardines chucked in, a sprite and a M150 (caffiene drink) at a small shop. Chatted with locals there watching TV and then headed to last stretch.
Turned out to be a newly cut, smooth wide track through the jungle, easy riding and nice scenery. A local tribe cutting down loads of long bamboo poles, then another group cutting and splitting them into meter long sections, stacked into neat piles- roofing probably. This section had a lot more small streams to cross and the track hugged the gully sides too so a lot more twisty windy. Stopped at an old girder bridge for a break. It spanned a gorge with a small river tumbling and cutting its way through the grey rock below. Small thatch hut up on the hill has to be one of the best locations ever, they’d also made a small cabana overlooking the Mekong. Next section was un-modified and like the bits of path I was on yesterday, although this very close to cliff edge in parts. A few passing motorbikes with amused locals on the back (everyone has been really friendly since I left Huay Xai) and eventually I can see XiengKok through the foliage. A long downhill section on smooth gravel to finish, over a small stream and then onto tarmacadam.
Arrived in XiengKok and got a place in a resort up on the hill over looking the Mekong. View just as I remembered it 10 years ago, almost to the day! Had a cold shower, got a beer Lao and then danced about on my porch.. Great to have done this stretch of river and really the best cycling Ive done so far. Really happy. Ate in gh at night and had more beer, chatting with a slightly odd Italian bloke.

Misty morning

View back down the hill, a bank of cloud sits above the Mekong

Akha village on top of a hill, really nice bloke

If in doubt, wait for a local to turn up to give directions

Happy kids at the corner shop

Another peek through the bushes

Stacks of fresh cut bamboo, possibly for roof tiles

The mighty Mekong

HuayXai to Ban Mom 66kms
Set off 8:30, mist hanging over Mekong and surrounding hills, smells earthy and good. Loads of spider webs covered in dew in the roadside grasses and hedges. Saw a beautiful weaver birds nest hanging down from a large tree beside the river. Mist eventually cleared and getting hot by 11. Stopped for a break at a shop in a small town. Had 2 oranges and a packet of peanuts. People really friendly around here and everyone saying hello, including loads of giggling school kids who were going home. Local currency along the Mekong is Baht, but you can pay in kip thankfully. Pleasant to be cycling along the Mekong river, road good and gentle hills.
Road eventually became cement blocks which was smoother than the tarmac road and headed inland away from river and really wide too – could easily land a small plane on it. So many herds of buffalo munching on the grass in the dry rice paddies. Stopped off for lunch in a rice paddy hut. Had the cheese salad baguette Id brought with me and dozed for a bit as nice and cool under the thatch roof. Might end up camping in one of these soon!
Soon reached the end of the roads construction, which was headed into the distance where a gaudy looking casino had a big crown on its roof. Surface now sand and pebble- basically river bed material from Mekong. A big hill now in half as diggers cut it up for sand, further on, rock being quarried, and at the foot of the quarry a crushing machine making different grades of aggregate for the road to be. Several Chinese cars with no number plates and a few that had zooming around, so probable the Chinese are making the casino. Last 15kms hard work and lots of dust kicked up by any vehicles passing by. New tyres feel good over this surface, but a bit harder going on tarmac though.
Arrived in the one horse town of Ban Mom at 2:40, just spread out houses along dirt roads and lovely grass area along river bank which is where the hotel is located. Had a shower then down to local pool hall in market for some fried rice – the only place doing food in town. Bloke that cooked it was Burmese. Wandered along the river a bit, befriended by a young dog until other dogs chased it off. Nice place here. Sky very clear here at night, so many stars and I saw a shooting star too!
Rustic lunchstop

Yet another variation of tok tok

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