I awoke early and was excited to explore Vientiane. Sam was still asleep, so I quietly grabbed the camera and slipped out the door. It was 6.30, the temperature was cool and the streets quiet.
When we arrived the day before I had found the city quite pretty, and as I walked the streets in the morning I realised how beautiful it was. There were no big ugly skyscapers, the highest buildings were maybe 6 stories, and there weren't many of them. Most of the multi story buildings seemed quite old, and quite European in stylye - perhaps a remant of the years of French colonisation. There were bakeries and cafes everywhere, and I was almost able to imagine I was walking through a French village.
The brief time I spent looking around I loved it – my favourite city so far. But then again, we were there for less than 24 hours, so maybe we look more fondly on places we wish we could spend more time in.
We checked out of our hotel and decided to give the bikes a quick tune-up and shed some more weight before heading out into the hills of Laos.
In the early afternoon we rode out of Vientiane, sorry that we didn’t have enough time in Laos to stay for another day. Just outside the city we stopped at a roadside stall where we ate a delicious French style bread stick with salad and meat. We sat out of the sun and while we ate the owner tried to fix my sunglasses, which had snapped, with super glue. It was an immediate reaction to the situation that was to become typical of our experiences with the Laos people.
It quickly became apparent that riding in Laos wasn’t like riding in other countries. Everyone we passed smiled at us and wanted to wave and yell “Sabaidee!” (Hello). We passed many people having parties together that invited us in to dance with them. And as we got further from Vientiane the scenery became increasingly beautiful. I spent the whole afternoon smiling.
Late in the afternoon we sailed down a big hill into a small town with two guesthouses. One was right at the busy intersection in the centre of the town and looked very noisy, so we made our way back to the one at the start of town. It was dark when we got there. The room was cheap, 50000 Kip (less than $7) but was pretty dirty and only had a small fan. We realized we’ve been spoiled for great, cheap accommodation in Malaysia and Thailand. In Laos it was back to basics, Indonesian style.
We walked about 1km back towards town in the dark to the nearest food stall, and ate some noodle soup with an unidentifiable meat component. We didn’t think about what kind of meat it might be, as we needed the energy.
Back in our small room the power went out and it was like a sweat box. A truck driver pulled in for a break and it sounded like he was rebuilding the truck with all the banging and hammering going on. Somehow Sam managed to fall asleep despite the noise and heat, and eventually, when the power came back on, I drifted off to sleep too…
Today we said good bye to Thailand crossing the Lao/Thai friendship bridge in the early morning.
At the crossing we met a couple of other cycle tourists that we chatted to for awhile and then followed into the capital of Lao, Vientianne.
They got a little lost and couldn't find there hotel so whilst they were figuring things out we took the chance to grab some food, we were starving by this stage, from a small local noodle shop. We chose this place because, one- it was very busy, two- there was no tourists or foreigners in there. It was a good choice and we were rewarded with some good cheap chicken and rice noodle soup.
After this we cycled around the city, trying to get our bearings and to grab a glimpse of the mighty Mekong river that runs through much of South East Asia.
Well I just lost the following 1000 words I wrote (and this is about the tenth time this has happened. So before I type the rest of the blog does anyone know a good website host. At the moment we are using weebly.com so anyone other than these guys would be great. Please let me know if you have had any good or bad experiences, and who these have been with (tearing my hair out!!!...)
Anyway, in the afternoon we spent a some time looking for a bicycle shop owned by a Frenchman, reportedly the only proper bicycle shop in Laos.
It took us a while but we finally found it. But looking up at the shop's facade I soon realised that it was closed, and reading the opening hours saw that it wouldn't be open again until Monday, two days away. We didn't have time to wait until Monday so we sat down and wondered what to do. If we weren't able to by new tires now then we may not be able to find any again until we get to Tibet or Nepal, a long way away I mused.
Just at that moment I saw a local Laotian on a racing bike speed past and give us a wave, seeing that I wanted to talk to him he slowed down giving me time to run up to him. He didn't speak English but I managed to learn that there was actually another bike shop in Vientianne, about a kilometre down the road.
We rode there as fast as we could. It turned out to be our lucky day, they were open and they had what we needed!
We spent the next hour or so cycling around the beautiful city looking for somewhere to stay, that was cheap and quiet, a tough combination to find here with all the drunk, noisy backpackers around (a bit embarrassing really). We found a nice one for about AU $20, and more tired than she realised, Shanna fell asleep within minutes.
Today we needed a bit of a rest so we rode a few less kilometres than the last few days.
We only rode about 40 k's, but part of this was because we lost each other going through the city of Udon Thani.
I didn't realise that Shanna had been stopped by a Tuk Tuk and kept on riding. When I realised (maybe 200metres away) I stopped to wait for her. Ten minutes later and still no Shanna. Then I started to get a little worried so I began riding back down the street (we made no turns through the city) towards her to see what had happened, but no Shanna.
After riding up and down the street a few times, trying to ask people on the side of the street if they'd seen a falung girl go past on a bicycle and waiting in my original position for a few minutes getting more and more concerned, I decided to ride past were I had originally stopped to wait for her.
Five hundred metres later and still no Shanna, What the?!
At this point I had no idea what to do as we only have one mobile phone and I don't know the number of it (Thai number, not as easy to work out as you might think).
So I kept riding. Fast. And then slow. And then I would stop to at bus stop's or shops to ask if they'd seen her. (Thai people, being so nice an' all will tell you anything so it can be hard to establish if they know what you are talking about. But, I did get some encouraging signs that they had seen her.)
So I kept riding, but still no Shanna.
By this stage I was getting pretty damn worried (and so was Shanna). And I was starting to think that it was extremely unlikely that she had continued on riding without me for so long.
So I decided to turn back and do another recky (as cyclists call it).
But just as I turned to head in the opposite direction two women on a motorbike stopped and grabbed me, pointing me back in the opposite direction ( were I had been headed only moments ago) towards Nong Khai. They did a short charade and I understood immediately.
Another kilometre down the road and I saw a thing ahead in distance that looked like a bicycle with bags on it, I was sure, it must be I mused to myself. A second later and the relief flooded over me, it was Shanna and she was talking, tears stained on her face, to two local Thai girls who appeared no have no idea what she was saying.
Being the impatient bastard I am I was angry (why did you keep on riding without me...blah, blah....), and exhausted. And after I'd had time to buy a drink, and get a little frustration out (sorry Shanny) I, should say we, relieved but still amazed that we could have ridden past each other on the same road, hugged, made up and headed off into the late afternoon.
Just as it was getting dark we found a nice little hotel and then the thunderstorms began. A moment later and the power was off- no power, no fan, no windows, hot as hell!
So I went down to the lobby to buy a drink. Apparently they couldn't take my money because the computer was down (strange for Thailand...!) so I went up to bed.
9 pm comes along and despite the heat and the sweat pouring from our bodies we've both fallen sound asleep when all of a sudden there is a knock at the door. It seems he now wants the money, so I go and get my wallet. But by the time I get back to the door he's gone. I'm half asleep so I fall back on the bed and within a minute or so I'm once again unconscious.
Ten pm comes around and another loud bang on the door wakes us both up. Another one of the hotel staff is at the door, this time a woman, demading payment. I go get the money, but she has no change, so I close the door and say I will get it in the morning.
This time it took us a little longer to get to sleep.
We awoke to the sound of a cockerel, so we got up early to front the media that had surrounded our small room. How did you do it they asked me in chorus, all throwing micropohones in my face at once. Well, a lot of grit and determination I explained, winning the worlds most grueling sporting event wasn't easy, and without the fans I couldn't have done it.... 'Sam, Sam, your alarm is going off,' and with that that dream had ended and I was back in the real world, a little less than 200 kms from the Thai/Lao Friendship bridge.
Even at 6am it was hot but it was much better than the heat at 11am when we stopped for a few hours to eat and have a short kip on the side of the road whilst the trucks roared by.
Before we knew it, it was almost 3pm and time to get a move on so we picked up the pace in order to get to Udon Thani before it got dark. But just as we thought we where making good time out runs three men in red shirts with huge machetes whose blades glistened in the light of the evening sun. They said we were mongrel falangs supporting the currupt military backed dictatorship and decided to take us hostage... At ths point I was feeling a little delirious and my mind was imagining some fascinating scenarios, as you can see.
So for what really happened. Well Shanna got another flat tyre (her seventh so far to my nil), a slow leak caused by a piece of glass lodged in her tyre. We fixed that but now we were running a little behind and realised that it was going to get dark before we made it to the next town. Pulling out the lights we got them ready and got going again.
Rght as the darkness was approaching things were going well and we only had another 30 kms to go. But then the road dramatically changed into a minefield, no lines with huge bumps and divisions everywhere caused by the road being previously ripped up for re-surfacing. Generally in the past this had only lasted a few kilometres, but today was a different story, as the mess just went on and on.
With just under ten kilometres to go to the town we (Shanna) noticed a sign on the other side of the road saying there was a resort down the road. Hmmm, that sounds expensive but the sign was in English so we thought maybe they'd know where a budget hotel was. Riding down backstreets in the darkness with a whole lot of frothing, ravanous dogs and finally, after havng ridden past it twice, we found it.
Out came an English man with no shirt on, he told us the price 400 baht, about $14 and took us past the pool to our little room. His very nice Thai wife made us some Chicken and vegetable noodles and so while he drank spirits we polished off the food, politely excused ourselves and went to bed.
We successfully pulled ourselves out of bed to get an early start and enjoyed riding in the relative cool temperature for a couple of hours.
Despite the flat terrain and good condition of the road (most of the time) I was finding it hard to keep up with Sam. He seemed to fly along the roads while I felt like I worked for each kilometre we travelled.
The heat seems to be getting worse each day, which is apparently what happens as the Thais wait for the wet season to begin. Songkran marks the start of the wet season so we've been told to expect it at any time. For now though, we continue to push on through the heat, drinking copious amounts of water and electrolytes as well as the occasional soft drink.
When we arrived in Khon Kaen in the mid afternoon we were both exhausted from riding in the heat. The first hotel we spotted, we stopped at, and decided to stay even though it was a bit more expensive, almost double ($26) of what we'd been paying on average. We justified it though because it had a pool, breakfast, was clean and quiet, and had English TV channels - and lots of them!
As I was flicking channels I came across coverage of a womens bike race in Belgium, and we excitedly realised that they were showing the race Cadel was going to try and win that day. We went and got some food and came back ready to watch the race.
We were so tired, but it was great to sit in the air-con comfort and watch Cadel beat Contador to convincingly win the race. I realised that if Cadel can find the strength going up that insanely steep hill, I can push on a bit harder in the coming days.
Today we left Rune and Arun's' fantastic hotel (M Inn) in Korat, Nakhon Ratchasima. We said our fond good-byes to our new friends and promised to meet up with them in Norway so that we can sail with them to Scotland.
We got off to a little bit of a late start and by the time we were on our way the heat was oppressive. Another 40 degree day and soon we were covered in sweat from head to toe. Despite this we enjoyed being on the road again and feeling our legs working.
Because of the recent setbacks we have had we are in a little bit of a hurry to get to China before our visas run out, so we'll aim to cycle a little further than usual over the next two weeks. Laos will be a big 'getting ready for mounatinous Southern China and the Himialayas' challenge as the terrain there is also very mountainous, quite different to Thailand.
If you get the chance have go to google maps and type in Laos. From here click on the icon on the right hand side for topography and you'll see what I mean.
Anyway, that night we finally found with some difficulty a small motel style place to sleep. It was located down a dirt road in the middle of nowhere so we were a little lucky to find it. Settling in for the night and the mosquitoes started biting. Within a matter of minutes I had already accumulated four bites so we turned on the lights and set about finding and exterminating the mozzies in the room.
This is a fairly common occurance in cheap (and sometimes not so cheap) accomodation in South East Asia (particularly bad in Indonesia). Around an hour later we had killed 8 and decided it was now safe to go to bed - (Shanna has become and expert mozzie killer!).
We lay in bed, exhausted but happy to finally be crashing and decided that we were already missing Rune and Arun and M Inn, the hotel we have decided was the best value of our entire trip after almost three months of cycling through South East Asia!!
We arose early to make the 55km to Nakon Ratchasima (Korat) before it got too hot. It was the third and final day of Songkran, but the Thai people were still in bed resting when we arrived at our destination. It was too early to check into a hotel so we spent some time on the internet.
Around lunchtime we started looking at hotels, getting drenched yet again by a barrage of kids as we moved around the streets. We alternated who inspected the hotels based on who looked the cleanest, but soon we both looked like sewer rats and it didn’t matter who went it. After looking at about six hotels we chose one called M Inn – it was clean, cheap, on a quiet side road, had Wifi, English TV channels and the owners spoke English and were very nice! – perfect!
We cleaned ourselves up and headed back out to find some lunch. The streets were alive again and we soon realized we shouldn’t have worried about cleaning up. All of the restaurants were closed for the holiday, so we trusted the cheap rice and scrambled eggs being offered along the side of the road. As we hungrily gobbled them up we were smiling and waving at the utes going past. One group of young people motioned for us to jump in the back with them, and we thought, why not? So we jumped in and rode with them through the water fight.
Although they spoke little English, and we spoke even less Thai, we laughed together as we threw water over passers by, danced on the road when traffic came to a standstill, and politely refused the potent smelling spirits that were being passed around. They were wasted alright! We rode with them for a few kilometers but they turned off the road to head to someone’s house. Then they started to get roudy so we jumped out next time they stopped. We had a long way to walk back, but it had been an experience to be part of the action from the attacking vantage, not just being drenched!
As we walked back we tried to find quiet side streets – in this town they were fond of putting ice in the water they were throwing – or even putting ice straight down your shirt – so it was often painful when the water hit. Plus, after three days, we were over being chased and drenched. In one of these side streets we met up with some missionaries who were also trying to stay as clean and dry as possible. But they were drenched and covered in clay like everyone else.
We made it back to M and cleaned ourselves up once again. We would stay here for a few days – enough time for Sam to get the train back to Ayutthaya (almost an 8 hour return journey) to have his tooth checked again and for us to make friends with the Thai owner Arun and her Norwegian husband Rune. I can’t speak highly enough of how they treated us, especially looking after me when Sam caught the train back for a couple of days to tell the dentist his tooth was not fixed, and that she had to fix it. Arun and Rune made sure I didn’t get lonely and gave me lots of tips for Northern Thailand and Laos.
We became so comfortable at M that it was difficult to drag ourselves back outside to ride in the heat. But our China visa expires soon, and we’ve still got to make it to the border!
Distance - 61km
We stayed overnight in Pak Chong, where the streets were filled with people of all ages enjoying a massive party.
We slept in and decided to ride later in the day, when the temperature dropped. The bulk of the day was spent enjoying the festival with the locals - getting water thrown over us, clay rubbed on our faces and clothes, and watching people dance in the streets.
We laughed so much and had such a great time - it was definitely our best day in Thailand.
The day just got better as the air was cool as we rode out of Pak Chong, and we even had a tailwind for the 55km we rode before it grew dark. We rode up some great hills, had a magnificent view of a lake as we sailed downhill, and all the while we waved and laughed with the Thai people we passed.
Today we were shot at many times. So many I lost count. Not only that but we were held by several women and soaked from head to toe with a hose, fully clothed and fully shoed.
Around 11am, cycling towards Pak Chong and yet another hill appeared. This one was bigger and steeper than the rest, or maybe we were just hotter, sweatier and a little more exhausted.
Pushing the pedals as hard as I could and for a second I thought I would have to stop before the top, when all of a sudden I took a shot to the back of the head from a young kid followed by hysterical laughing and I just knew that I had to keep going. That and the water helped cool down my hot head.
Finally the crest of the hill arrives, my lungs are gasping for air, my legs are crying in pain and I haven't felt this good in ages. I stop for a moment to watch Shanny coming behind me when I'm set upon by three Thai women with a hose. The first holds my handle bars, the second turns a big hose upon me and the third watches the scene, a little amazed at the spectacle of a foreigner on a bicycle yet laughing at my willingness to get a thorough soaking.
A minute later and Shanny approaches. By this time I had moved off to the side of the ride and motioned to the girls to get her when she got to the top. A few giggles and squeals later and we are both soaking wet, our shoes squelching, two drowned rats, our helmet hairdo's destroyed. We set off again wet and cool in the hot Summer sun, laughing and smiling.
Finally Monday came and we headed back to the bank in central Ayutthaya.
We had been given no indication what time the man with the special ATM opening key would arrive (and as many shops were closed we feared he might not) so we got to the bank at ten when they opened and prepared to wait for a few hours, maybe even make a bit of noise to ensure they'd want to get rid of us. It was New Years Eve and the bank would be closed for the next four days.
The day before the tooth I'd had work done on at the dentist here began sending painful shock through my mouth any time I took a drink or a bite of something.
Being a Sunday the dentist wasn't open so I figured I'd go back on the Monday whilst we were waiting at the bank- it's next door. I wandered on over and saw a big sign on the door in Thai. I couldn't read it but it was easy enough to work out that it said they'd be closed until Saturday. That throws yet another spanner in the works...
2:30am and the key man turns up- sweet, at least we've got the card back.
So we wondered, what do we do now... As much as we loved Ayutthaya for the first few days, we were now thoroughly sick of it and desperate to be on the road again. But at the same time my tooth felt as though it was gradually getting worse and we're headed to Laos, Southern China, Tibet and Nepal next, and not a whole lot in between. So what to do... We ummed and arred for a while and then just decided to go.
Back on the bikes and the sun is streaming down onto our white skin, there's no relief, and we'd truly forgotten how hot it is to be on the bike for a long time. It also doesn't help that April is the hottest month of the year in Thailand and it's 40 degrees. Over the following 4 hours we drink about four litres of water each and only make about 60km on the bumpy roads.
But it feels great, finally our muscles are hurting and the sweat is poring off us again. And when we find a nice little hotel on the side of the road, with wifi, a nice clean bed and beautiful cold shower we smile and think about how much we'd been missing this life.