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Sunday, January 19, 2020

Life in Laos

It wasn't the easiest ride getting out of Vietnam. The road to the border was narrow and had interspersed sections of smooth, rough, and really rough. At one point early on, the road turned to a broken mess, and I went through a flowing pool of mud. My bike is still caked in dirt from that moment. I kept expecting to hit the last Vietnamese community before the border, and yet there kept being just one more. A sign that had the English words, "Frontier Area" let me know I must be close. Seeing a couple more guesthouses I hadn't known existed, I found myself wishing I had gone further the day before, if I'd just known.

When I did pass the little village, I soon began the switchbacked climb through the mountains. With the narrowness of the road and the lack of visibility around many turns, getting passed by traffic was often worrisome. Thankfully, this being a road up a mountain to a remote border crossing with nothing in particular on either side, there at least wasn't a lot of traffic. The bad part is that most of that traffic was big trucks transporting goods across the border. At one point I had no choice but to pull off and get the heck out of the way (luckily there was a place to do so) as some construction happening on the road ahead had caused a jam up of semis vying to go in both directions. I waited ten minutes for that mess to resolve, as they lurched forward and backward, turning inch by inch, to clear a path for themselves. There were a couple other moments when vehicles came whipping around corners from the other direction, completely in my lane. It was a climb that was often quiet, taking in the beautiful tree covered mountain scenery, punctuated by nerve-wracking moments as traffic suddenly materialized. I kept checking my Garmin, looking at how close the border was as the crow flies, yet how far with the winding road.

It was a real relief when at last I reached the border. Just my luck, right as I was about to get my exit paperwork done to leave Vietnam, there was a sudden power outage. It really wasn't that long, but I felt like I waited forever before power came back and I got my exit stamp to go on my way. On the Laos side, I filled out my paperwork, waited for what seemed another age but really wasn't, got my photo taken, paid my $39, and got my stamp. I asked what I do now, not sure if there was anything more involved. The immigration officer smiled and said, "You go to Lao." Those were the four best words I heard all day. There was another truck jam at the border, but seeing no movement at all, after getting emboldened by a couple women riding through on scooter, I roo rode right between it, and coasted downhill free and clear on the surprisingly smooth road along a river valley this side of the border. I squandered some of my traffic free time taking pictures by the river, but it was well worth it.

It was easy, scenic riding from there to Lak Sao for the night. I got a little nervous when the first couple ATMs didn't work for me, but thankfully the third did. My hotel was really quite nice for the night. I went to a restaurant that should have good food for me, sitting down in the large space devoid of patrons, with a couple workers cleaning. One handed a menu, then continued cleaning, ignoring every attempt I made to signal I wanted to order. Then they were both outside and I was alone in the huge space. Eventually I went outside, talked to someone else, and they handed me a menu. I asked if I could order...and they said no! There was no one working. I was really hungry and was more than a little annoyed to be handed a menu, twice, without explanation that ordering was in fact impossible. Thankfully there was another spot nearby, and I was able to get my usual vegetable fried noodles, hopes of variety dashed.

It was an eventful 67 mile ride the next day. That morning I woke to find the karst mountains that had the previous night looked like a cut out dominating the skyline of the town I was in had vanished, into endless white. It was very foggy, and I had my tail-light flashing bright to make sure drivers could see me through the haze.

About twelve miles in I arrived at Dragon Cave. For a small admittance fee, I got to explore the cave and surroundings, having the place all to myself. A wide but short passage that required me to duck opened up into a large open chamber that made for an incredible sight. I spent about half an hour exploring the cave. A combination of man-made stairs and natural rock led out another exit from the cave. It was then a fun trek through the jungle, that involved things like walking over a wooden plank between boulders and using a bamboo pole as a hand rail while scrambling down rocks. It was fun I should say, except for all the mosquitoes, that swarmed all around me at every step. After making it back, I got brunch served at the restaurant next to the cave.

After that, it was fast, easy riding on the flat or gradual hills, while karst mountains jutted up on either side. I saw the signs for Kong Lor Cave, and with great struggle, continued straight. I had really wanted to see the cave, which apparently a boat takes you through,u basically an underground river through a mountain. But I just wasn't sure if I could afford the extra day it would take to see the cave the next day. It made me resolve that I would have to come back one day and do this area, called the Thakhek Loop, seeing all its many caves. It was all easy going until I hit the big climb of the day not long later, wickedly steep and switchbacked, forcing me into my lowest gear with sweat dripping into my eyes. But when I finally reached the top, there was a great view, with a viewing site where I was able to get a couple drinks, and where I took selfies with some folks at the observation area. Then of course there was the blazing, thankfully straighter, descent. There was one more, much lesser, climb after that, and then I was free and clear on the flatland (which was good, because I was getting low on daylight). That night I got a roughly $6 room in a speck of a town called Thongnamy. I would learn that was standard price for a fan room at a guesthouse in Laos, which is hard to complain about. The cleanliness though left a little to be desired.

For some reason, maybe the wind, I was riding the struggle bus a bit that next morning. I got passed by a family on an old school tractor of the sort I became accustomed to seeing in Cambodia, and usually that goes the other way around. But after I got some breakfast in me from a mini mart and the road changed direction, things turned easy again and my pace picked back up. It was a very exciting moment for me when I reached the Mekong River, the highway running right along side it for awhile. The Mekong marks the border from Laos to Thailand. I looked out across that river and could see, now three countries later, the country I started this trip in, even if a part of it I have never been to. I have in fact crossed the Mekong once already, far downriver from here, in Cambodia, the day I left Phnom Penh. Going across the Tsubasa Bridge to ride high above the river was easily the most memorable part of that day, and it felt fitting that meeting the Mekong was the biggest part of today too.

Soon I arrived in the little town of Paksan. I got a cheap room at a guesthouse and an expensive meal (but one that had me bursting to the gills) at a bar/bistro by the river. The owner, who apparently lived in the US, chatted with me a little, and kept coming over to make sure I was good. The owner of the guesthouse was really nice, but the room was less than clean, but I figured standards had to change when in a small town in Laos.

I felt a little differently when I got bitten in the night. It was not a good night's sleep. I got on the road in not the best mood that morning, but then I had an experience that turned it all around. Eli here. I am glad that I set out that day with a short distance in mind (just 36 miles) in order to stage myself about 60 miles from Vientiane for the next day. It worked out quite well as I ended up with something other than biking to do that morning. While I was visiting a temple in Paksan, right at the start of my ride, a monk approached me. We talked for a little bit and he asked me if I wanted to come with him to see his school. Of course, I said yes, and so we walked the short distance just across the road to Phianchalern College. The monk, Bosca, spoke to his teacher, and then soon showed me into the classroom of second year English students. I spoke English conversationally with them to help them get practice with a native speaker. I don't know if I did a very good job of it (actually I think I can say pretty well I didn't), but it was a fun, unexpected experience.

Afterward, Bosca briefly brought me into the first year class, and then we chatted for awhile outside. I learned about him and his country, and he even taught me some useful phrases in Lao. He gave me some snack food for the road too as we parted. I hope someday we get the chance to meet again.

The ride itself today was fairly uneventful. I rode through some pretty country and saw some more beautiful temples. Toward the end, I did run into some other bike tourists, who made my trip look quite small. There was British couple who had started in Australia, rode Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, and were now on their way to Vietnam, ultimately planning to ride all the way back to their home in the UK. And then there was a man who said he set out from his home in Africa (he didn't say where in Africa), and had been on the road for four years. It's always good to remember that a trip like mine is very minor in terms of what a lot of bike tourists do.

I got what I thought was a nice guesthouse that night. I also got a good meal (getting to put what I learned from Bosca to use in the process), though with flies getting all over it at every moment, which I can't say I enjoyed. ...The guesthouse room turned out to be more superficially clean than actually clean, and worse than that, or the cockroach I saw on the wall, was that I again woke up with bites. I have been practicing smart moves to keep bed bugs (which is what I guess they were) from getting on my stuff, but everything is getting quarantined when I get home.

Yesterday I rode to Vientiane, where I spent the day off today. I saw a lot of temples, both on my way to the capital and within it. At one of the temples I stopped at, a Buddhist monk struck up a conversation. He gave me water and corn on the cob, and we ate together while making our best effort at communicating. He asked for a selfie and we shared contact info. As nice as taking pictures of the beautiful wats and stupas is, the even better part of visiting temples is the friendliness of the monks and getting a chance to talk with them.

Riding into Vientiane was quite easy and stress free. The highway became divided and gained a shoulder closer to the city, and traffic was still relatively light. I felt far safer riding into the city than I have on the highway in the countryside, where cars often come by fast and close. Once I arrived at the hotel and got checked in, I went wandering about a little. Vientiane is a very small city, especially as a capital, with a population of only around 800,000, and it has a quiet and peaceful feel to it compared to most cities I have been to. It has wonderful sidewalks and little traffic by Asian standards, making it extremely walkable. I went to a halal Indian restaurant (there is a small Muslim population here), and got masala and naan. It was not only delicious, but a a very welcome variation to my usual meal. I checked out a few temples. I walked along the waterfront, seeing a children's carnival of sorts, many restaurants, an outdoor dance class, and all sorts of fun things as the sun got low. Then I wandered through the night market and splurged $3 on a t-shirt as a practical souvenir (though not that practical, since now I am up to five shirts and not as many of anything else).

I was so excited to do laundry this morning at the laundromat I have known to be in town since I was in Vietnam. I had read the reviews, and found to my delight I had the baht coins needed for the dryer and wouldn't even have to buy them at a loss from the owner. I was so ready. I waited impatiently to get breakfast at the hotel, and afterward I put on my rain pants and rain jacket as my pants and shirt, feeling ridiculous, and walked to the laundromat to launder almost all my clothes. ...Only to find it closed. It was majorly disappointing, with how much I had built up the idea of using a washer and dryer in my mind. I had the hotel do my laundry instead, for a little more money, and knowing it wouldn't go through a dryer, but needing it done. I then wandered around the city, enjoying the low traffic, and marveling at the crosswalk buttons, which seemed so novel after not seeing one for so long. Much of my time was spent checking out some of the city's many beautiful temples. I also saw Patuxay Monument, which is beautiful and offers a great view of the city, but it feels strange that its interior is filled with stalls selling trinkets. I hit up a Buddhist vegetarian place for lunch, which was quite good, though I was disappointed their buffet wasn't currently going. And I wandered the peaceful Chou Anouvong Park. Then I headed back to the hotel to just chill in anticipation for the big ride tomorrow, which looks like it will be nearly 90 miles out of necessity to reach a guesthouse. Oof. But we are getting close to the end now!