Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Week 16 Carry on Up the Mekong. Mukdahan to Phon Pisai 422kms cycled

Highlights: Religious festival at That Phanom
Low blows: Flat tyre caused by a tiny tiny thorn
Music of the week: I Got Mine – The Black Keys

Rain eventually stopped by sunrise – at least it’ll wash all the dog crap off the streets. Spent most of the day in an internet shop. Overcast all day. Went to scruffy market in morning had pinapple and some fresh coffee (2nd stalls coffee tasting much better than the first), lots of muddy puddles about around mkt. 2 jumpers on today and thinking back to DBP and how cold and dull it was there! Had a nap later and went for a wander as sun finally appeared from the murk about 5ish. Groups of rickshaw drivers sharing a grilled fish and getting sozzled on nasty factory made lao lao (declined their offer of a slug).

Mukdahan to That Phanom 49kms
Stopped to watch a group of poor looking Thais having bf in bus carpark as some of them were playing a traditional Keane pipe flute and guitar type instruments while others danced around. They looked to be enjoying themselves (and drunk at 7am!). Set off a bit later than planned as chatting with an old Italian bloke in reception.
Nice quietish road mostly along the river. Land well irrigated and in production. Didn’t know if I was gonna stay in TP or not but on arrival I discovered there was a big festival underway so had something to eat and then went in search of accommodation. Found a place on small road where Id entered the town, after an hour of looking and 400baht with ac a snip as all other places 700 up and most full anyway.
Wandered through the streets lined either side with food, clothes, pop the balloon with darts and other fair games, vcd and toy stalls, an impressive arsenal for sale in one plastic guns shop and loads of kids wandering around with M16s or passing by in the back of pickups touting pump action shotguns. Eventually arrived at temple, an impressive gold and cream stupa in Lao style and hundreds of people going around it with flowers and insence sticks. Best of all were groups of pilgrims at the head of which was their own band banging drums, clashing cymbals, a cart bringing up the rear stacked with PA system and live bassist and guitarist noodling Lao licks as they walked along. Behind were others bringing gifts of pillows, robes and blankets for the monks. A short gap of 50m and then another group would commence their round of the stupa.
Meanwhile monks chanting coming from loudspeakers, photographers vying for trade, visiting monks taking photos of each other, bells ringing 3 times on small towers at the corner of the inner sanctum, inside which people knelt and prayed with insense, from which the air was thick with scented smoke. Lots of people also camping within the temple grounds amongst the buddhas seated around the walls. Great to see all this going on. Wandered through the streets - a bloke with lots of snakes on display brought out and put back in boxes by teenage assistants, fairground rides and everyone clutching a gift, souvenir, or bargain theyd picked up from one of the stalls.
Had a beer in a quiet place near the river. Ate at night had another wander, big sermon in the temple with hundreds of people kneeling and praying, people still going round temple (no bands tho) and some crashed out on mats (mainly old people). Must be big opportunity for locals to make some money, loads of blokes waving cars into patches of land with red flags. Water on sale at double price etc etc.
Back at the gh, the friendly old man who’d set me up with the room was now pimping out young women sat giggling in a seated area across the street. I told him I was tired which he thought was hilarious.

Monks do the rounds at That Phanom

And the band goes round

Budha keeps a watchful eye over the campers

Cleansing and blessing with water

Photogaphers vying for trade

Pilgrims pray

Amongst the stalls choosing a mask

That Phanom by night

That Phanom to Nakhon Phanom 54kms
Bloke in resto asked if I wanted beer for bf, I said who drinks at this time and he said Thais start at 5am/6am – don’t care about time. Suppose there is a festival on! Straight forward ride on good tarmac, bit boring really. Stopped off for a pinapple and chatted with coffee stall holder. Buffalos cooling off in big muddy wallows. Rolled into NP which was a lot bigger and busier than I remembered. Found cheap gh 170 fan room, showered ate and went for a spin around town. Beautiful scenery along the riverfront, the limestone peaks across in Laos hiding in haze. A few colonial buildings in town but that’s about all, big wide streets and a sprawling place, pretty chilled out though. Market a bit scruffy. Walked along promenade at night, kids break dancing on polished floor under Vietnamese clock tower, red Chinese/Viet lanterns surrounding it. Funny to see a toddler copying the older kids and he could do some of it too! Big tokay lizard outside my room on the wall.
Tokay lizard waits for it's dinner

Nakhon Phanom to Ban Pheang  95kms
Up almost too early for the town as stalls only just getting started at 7:30, eventually found some food then coffee at 7/11 which I took to riverfront only to find a mobile ‘coffee car’ doing café bolans – damn!  Drank it and set off. Good tarmac and some of road alongside river. A new bridge in progress across to Laos so should be finished in a year I reakon as almost done. Some nice tree lined parts to road, lots of buffalos about munching grass and wallowing in water.
Picked up a big pinapple on the way then ate it on river bank in Tha Uten town halfway. Bloke had left 2 big nets full of tiny frogs caught along the banks of the river, on the table, all of them hopping about in panic inside the net. River very low with sand bars and islands, blokes off boats wading too. Wanted to stay along river so followed the concrete road through local market – lots of people over from Laos selling wild food – tiny barking deer, normal deer, wildcats, pink armadillo type things hacked up, porkupine meat and other oddeties. Got through mkt then along river, a temple with stupa similar to one yesterdays but compound not as fancy. Further up massive bays set up with conveyors extracting pebbles from Mekong which is then JCB’d into back of a truck and away to a storage yard further up river, 5 bays going on at a quick pace. There’d been quite a few sand yards a few days ago too.
Small road eventually joined back to main road so along that. Hot day and few places to refuel on snacks. Stopped for lunch at a small town also having a festival, 2 old boys the worse for wear stumbling about (one fell over and couldn’t get up again), young lads getting drunk, wailing Karaoke coming from a big sound system on the stage, expect it would really get going at night! Woman cooked a big plate of pad kapow moo kai dow, and continued to multi task, cooking, helping run the nearby shop and filling cars/bikes with petrol – busy lass! Chatted with farmer bloke who came for a bowl of noodles. Very Hot.
Passed a sala with Swiss blokes crashed out in it! Carried on. 2 drunk women on a moto chatted with me for a bit and then weaved off up the road, just like the car driving girl from other day, really irratic and random careering about and speeding up slowing down. Stopped off at a small quarry where dinosaur footprints had been discovered. Had the place to myself and interesting to see the small birdlike prints in fossilized riverbed, crack marks of dried mud and ripples of sand clearly set in stone.
Got to small town of Ban Pheang by 3:30. Found a resort (300bt ac nice room) and into shower to cool down. Fields around here planted with large crops of corn, and tobacco. Down at the river ladies making brooms from big reed things bought in Laos as cheaper. Only a small functional frontier type shop on banks of river and nowhere to sit and admire the view. Almost full moon in sky. Lots of small flies/midges around here annoying to cycle in after dark. Very Laos type people here.

Reeds imported across the river from Laos and made into brushes

A smokers dream - tobacco as far as the eye can see

Ban Pheang to Bung Khan  86kms
Surrounded on both sides by noisy Thai family in morning so got up as it was 6:30 anyway. Was about to go for bf but discovered flat back tyre so changed inner – a tiny thorn had just managed to penetrate the tyre wall and nick the tube. Pumped it up enough to ride and went in search of food. Hard work filling big tyres to right pressure.  After going to mkt and up and down, eventually got directed to a place and had chicken on rice. A lot of women in the town waiting in rows to make merit with passing line of monks. Set off 8:30. Good tarmac so fast going. Lots of flies/gnats immediately decending on me each time I pulled up, very annoying. Saw Swiss blokes going other way so maybe theyd left summat behind somewhere? Had a break in a gas station with neat flowerbeds and orchids, a small boy ran off shouting falang falang and brought his gang of mates to see me , still shouting falang falang evertime he saw me, even when I left 20 mins later. Funny. Passed 2 cyclist blokes going other way and looking a bit puffed going up the hill and later an older bloke in full racing gear, cheery enough. Ate lunch, chatted with lady from shop and suncreamed up, but by time I got to Bung Khan was feeling a bit frazzled – factor 20 not quite up to it! Had an icecream and bag of peanuts the was directed to cheap accom by a bloke I asked. Fan room 180baht, clean neat room too. Internetshop till 5 then up riverfront, heat coming off of road and still toasty. River very low, a vast sand bank of a few hundred meters towards the Laos side. Tons of tomatoes being grown in neat rows all along the riverbank and Id been passed by 2 trucks full of toms earlier today. Had a beer and observed the scene, lots of annoying gnats here too  Lots of small restos putting out tables and chairs or mats to sit on. Big full moon. Ate a small portion of food earlier and was gonna get more food from nightmkt but all  finished by 7:30 so had a sweet pinapple.
Fertile banks of the Mekong in full production 

Sunset view over the Mekong into Laos

Bung Khan to Phon Pisai 92kms
Slept well. Went to mkt and had probs as I have had in al these Isaan riverside places of finding a resto – what do these people eat? Air and grass? Only had take away so got a carton of chicken on rice and sat in coffee place . Woman looked after me giving me a metal spoon and putting my plastic bag of soup into a cup. Shame her coffee was watery. Bought juice in 7/11. Today is an exam entry day so loads of students buying ridiculous amounts of junk food.
Set off, quiet country lane to start but soon joined up to main road which was shaded by lines of trees, but petty much a boring ride. Annoyed by swarms of gnats everytime I stopped for a Pee or snack. Felt sorry for the buffalos getting pestered by these flies. Just cracked on, (had lunch in place Id considered stopping at but nowhere to stay) and got to Phon Phisai by 3pm. Only 3 places to stay in town- ended up in English blokes place. Had whole place to myself, bought some beers from shop then sat looking over Mekong drinking beer reading my book and sipping Sang Som. Local kids running up and down mucking about and nice to see 2 teenage lads go over to the mobile monk truck that was passing and get blessed and Wai the monks inside. In eve found a riverside place to eat a delicious fish steamed in lemon, chilli and garlic.
Phon Pisai to Nong Khai 46kms
Easy ride to Nong Khai, last 10kms on a quiet road along Mekong and then along the stretched out town and through the massive market until I found a cheap place to stay. The town is a pretty much a tourist circus  filled with some of the sleaziest farang Ive seen in a long while. Apart from that there was a nice new promenade along the river and some reasonable places to sit and eat avoiding the wrong-uns. Good food at the night market along the road and I got a huge bag of pinapple from a ladies van stocked with ripe pinapples outside the hospital.
21st Century variation of the Bobby Charlton sweep

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