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.
A dark and bumpy road
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.
The perfect ending
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.
Peddaling through the heat
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!!
A few more days in Thailand
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!
Songkran water fight
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.
Assaulted with a hose
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.
On the road again
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.
Return to the red capital
We went to Bangkok for a day trip, on the nation's bloodiest day for two decades.
We didn't really want to go back to Bangkok, but just when we think we're leaving Ayutthaya, our bank card ends up inside an ATM again...
Oringinally we were told it isn't being opened until Monday 19 April due to the New Year holiday. Luckily the nice Thai girl at the bank could sense my panic and managed to arrange for the ATM to be opened this Monday. Thank goodness for that kind girl!!
Yesterday we took the opportunity to return to Bangkok to buy a replacement battery charger for our video camera. We had planned to just see if we could find one along the way (no luck in Ayutthaya) but since we had time and it was just 90 minutes on the train, we thought, why not?
We bought third class tickets that cost us 15 Baht each (50cents) as compared to the 40 Baht we paid for the Tuk Tuk to take us just under 2km to the train station. The trip to Bangkok was uneventful and we arrived in time to eat and walk about 2km to the Sony store.
Well, walk to the address given online. When we got there we found a bustling local clothing market stretching as far as the eye could see, but no Sony store. Some further investigations led us to a different address - 7km away. The first taxi driver we spoke to said something about red shirts and wanted far too much money so we kept asking drivers til we found one that could take us there.
Our visit to the Sony customer repair centre proved that the charger was not working, but they couldn't sell us a new one as apparently it was a national holiday and might be for the next week or so... So back in a taxi to the MBK shopping centre.
The taxi driver promptly placed on his head a hat with a an extra bright red band and proudly pointed to the red items that adorned various parts of his car.
On the way to the shopping centre we passed through a road block and group of protesters. Everything we'd heard on the news always talked about peaceful protests, plus we had the word of the dishonest taxi driver from last time we were in Bangkok that they only wanted to talk. So we weren't worried. In fact, we wound down the windows to wave and shout out with all the people streaming into the streets wearing red.
The driver loved it... But we did notice an unfamiliar, almost eery tension in the air, and although we may have denied it at the time, instinctively it felt as though something important was happening. This feeling only intensified when we stopped, got out of the taxi and saw riot police everywhere, it looks as though they were gearing up for battle, Sam mused, and we both wondered why there were so many of them about looking 'so serious.'
We weren't to know that this was actually the day when the normally peaceful Thais would break into violence, and 20 people would die. Bizarely I pointed out to Sam some Government soldiers were standing under a red tent, desperatly trying to avoid the searing 40 degree heat.
We ended up finding our battery charger after a long and protracted search (a MUCH cheaper fake) and returned to the station, with a train due to leave in 10 minutes. Perfect.
An hour and a half later our train finally arrived and the crowd waiting on the platform had now doubled in size to that waiting at its so called time of departure. Our platform was packed and lots of hot, hungry, tired people were waiting to get on. In third class there is no allocated seating, it's just first in. Usually though this isn't too much of a problem as there aren't many more people than seats.
Luckily, Sam was first in. But after a few minutes (when the train was full) one of the guards motioned that we couldn't sit in that seat. We quickly found two more seats but they they were given to second class passengers that had paid extra (ten times as much) for a guaranteed seat. We were standing up with masses of other people.
For half an hour they kept jamming more and more people into the train until there was no room to move. At every station, another platform full of people tried to force their way into the carriages. Some were strong and forceful and got lucky, but most were left stranded. There were lots of people wearing red and pink shirts in the train... coincidence maybe?
Strangely, just before we arrived in Ayutthaya a little man pushed his way through the tired, thick, sweaty crowd, and without a moments thought opened up the carriage adjoing ours. He then proceeded to yell something in Thai excitedly. Although with confusd looks on their faces, passengers standing body to body, leg against leg, began a mad dash for the empty carriage next to ours. We still don't know how that happened...
We arrived at Ayutthaya at 10pm, two hours after we were meant to arrive, and read on the news websites about the true nature of the violent protests that subsequently ensued.
As of Monday 11 April 1am Australian Eastern standard time there were 20 confirmed dead and more than 800 injured.
We've been in Ayutthaya a week now. It started as a short stop so Sam could get some dental work done, and then the inevitable sickness returned, and the dental work took longer than expected as new mouth plate had to be made (much cheaper than in Australia)... So we'll finally be leaving here tomorrow.
The temperature here has been HOT. It's been over 40 degrees for the past four days. I've been trying to get out at 6 or 7 in the morning to go for a run before the stiffling heat sets in, and we're glad we're staying in a room with air-con and wifi. We can understand better now why the streets are so much more packed once the sun has gone down.
Much time has been spent researching the next leg of our journey, through Laos and China. Working out where border crossings are, downloading maps onto our phone (free Ovi maps with Nokia), reading about others who have ridden through Tibet, and debating how to go about the Tibet part of the journey - do we pay for an expensive guide (the legal way to do it) or attempt to go it alone?
We've been plagued for the past few days by the same music playing over and over repeatedly - with a booming voice speaking over the top from time to time. Our investigations led us to a big festival right near where we're staying. It runs from about 5pm - midnight every day, but the music and booming voice run from 9am. It's like a cheap version of the show - with a couple of rides and games and lots of food stalls. It is running for two weeks as part of Thai new year celebrations. We went there one night and had lots of fun at the shooting and darts games, and tried some food including sweet corn off the cob (sweetened even further with condensed milk and sugar we discovered), omelette, noodles and barbequed eggs in shells on a stick.
This morning, as I was site-seeing during my morning run, I was convinced to buy a set of postcards from a young boy. He was so adamant, and looked at me with eyes that seemed to say "You have everything, and I have nothing"... The set had 12 postcards and they ended up costing only Aus $2... (about 4 pounds lately I think). The postcards are not the nicest or best quality you will see, but I felt like I was supporting this young kid. And at least he was offering a product, unlike many children who simply beg.
Sam and Shanna Evans are from Melbourne, Australia