Day 184 to 189 – Laos

5th October
Day 184
30 miles cycling

The food at the complex was expensive, probably more than the Vietnamese money we had left, so we ended up making some noodles in our room and had an early night.

We slept surprisingly well all things considered and were up early and set off on our last day in Vietnam.

We had hoped to get breakfast in the local village but unfortunately all we could get was some nut crackling (nuts in toffee) and some water. Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem because villages are placed close together but on this occasion we knew there would be no food for a further 10 miles and that 10 miles would be all up hill.

The climb to the border was challenging but no where near as hard as we thought it would be. At the top there was a cafe so we stopped for some food and drink. We didn’t realise just how hungry we were until the food came out and we devoured the lot. We are now experts with the chop sticks and soon finished off the meal and several drinks. Probably not a pretty sight to see two ravenous cyclists but it felt really good to have food in our tums.

The border crossing was fairly straightforward, we got our passports stamped to say we were leaving showed them to a border control man and we left Vietnam. We cycled down a hill to the border crossing, completed some simple forms, handed over our photos and money (36 dollars each) and hey presto we were allowed into Laos. We have a one month visa which should give us plenty of time to play in Laos.

Gary; No queues no fuss, far easier than airport hassle. Fill in the forms, hand in a passport photo and pay $70 one month visa done.

The ride into our first town was a little disappointing the views should have been beautiful, we cycled down a hill, with forest clad mountains either side of us and a river flowing down below us unfortunately this was spoilt by lots of rubbish thrown down the embankments.

Gary – We cycled down from 2500ft to 1800ft to follow a pretty stream with wooded mountain sides al around us, it really was a nice ride. Ginette however apparently concentrates on the rubbish.

Ginette – In fairness, it was not the odd bit of litter, the landscape was covered in discarded bottles, nappies and junk as we turned one corner a man was routing in a pile of discarded waste, it looked like an unauthorised council tip.
The first few towns we passed through looked very poor, houses in the first town were made from corrugated steel and in the second some were made from wood on stilts. The people looked at us suspiciously and even though we smiled and waved hello they did not respond.

Ten miles in and the people warmed a little and started to shout hello. We also noticed that the houses seemed to be more sturdy and on the outskirt of the towns there were some colonial houses, quite grand but seemed out of place when compared to the rest of the village

We’ve noticed the road signs are in both English and Laos, this was not the case in Vietnam and should make navigating a little easier.

About 6 miles from our final destination the heavens opened, so for the second time in 3 days we arrived at our accommodation wet.

Our hotel was one of the better ones in the town and at £10 for the night not bad.

We spent the afternoon uploading the blog and sourcing credit for the phone, batteries for the head torches and finding our bearings.

We had a drink in the bar opposite the hotel but Gary didn’t want to eat there as he could see the woman cooking the food and he didn’t think it looked very hygienic. We found a market like stall which made ordering dinner easy and ordered rice (very sticky and dry), fish, vegetables and an egg dish along with a bottle of beer this came to approx £4.

We returned to the bar opposite our hotel for a drink whilst we were discussing our route for the following day and trying to access the internet a local man with a learning disability approached us, we’re not sure what he wanted but he gesticulated a lot, we initially thought it was a language issue but we later saw him doing the same actions with another group and they also couldn’t help him.
Day 185
Oct 6th
35 miles

We both had a restless night and we’re wide awake at 1.30am!! we both struggled to sleep and just as we’d dropped off we were woken by a loud cock (a bird not Gary) This led to a leisurely start to the day, we looked at the routes and agreed although it was tempting to go North to see some well known tourist sights it would mean a lot of climbing and we may run out of visa time.

We had breakfast in a local market, noodles again.

The local women do not seem to be as concerned about covering their arms as they were in Vietnam, the majority of women we’ve seen have either been wearing a wrap a round skirt with a band of fabric at the bottom, pedal pushers and tee shirt or pyjamas, most with their arms are uncovered. But the umbrella and conical hats are still being used to shade the face from the sun.

Before we left the town we filled up our petrol bottle as we didn’t know whether we would have to camp for the night. We could not find any accommodation on any search engine or map. This has become the norm and we have to take a leap of faith that we will find somewhere on route. Although we have the camping gear we have been advised not to camp as there are still a lot of unexploded bombs left from the Vietnam war.

The first half of the day was really hard most of it was off road cycling and although we passed through a couple of villages these were very sparse. The villages we did pass through were very poor. Children who should have been at school (it is compulsory for 5 to 16 year olds) were playing in the street or in the local rivers and ponds. Although education is free, the transport to access the schools is expensive and many children in rural areas do not attend on a regular basis..

The average life expectancy in Laos is 66 which is a big improvement on 20 years ago but it does mean that only 5% of the population are currently over the age of 60! A shocking statistic but it is easy to see why when you see the impoverished conditions they’re living in.

Some of the countryside was really pretty we passed some really green wheat fields and some fields which looked like they were growing marijuana – check out the photos

We are a little bemused by one sound that we’ve heard whilst cycling in South East Asia it sounds like frogs with mobile phones? any ideas what this. It is not a gecko or a cicada as we can recognise both of these.

I found the day hard, it was hilly and if I came out of my cleats because of the rubbly roads it would take me several attempts to get back on (Stu you would have been in stitches).

We have a new sun cream which I don’t think was very effective as I managed to burn my arms and hands. It was hot and dusty not my type of cycling.

Fortunately the off road section only lasted for about 20 miles, then without any warning it changed from off road to a perfect road it was really strange. It looked like the off road section had been stripped and prepared for tarmac but never finished. The surfaced road was a little eery. We saw very little traffic perhaps 10 cars/bikes in the 10 miles we cycled. There was a man built lake either side of the road with dead trees standing tall but there didn’t appear to be any wild life. You would have expected to see wading birds but nothing, very strange and rather tragic to think a forest had been cut down for a road that was hardly used

Gary; This road was a weird experience for us but it must be even stranger coming the other way when the tarmac ends and a single track muddy rutted road is your only option to continue.

And as for the swamp like scenery I am just glad I didn’t hear any banjos playing.

We were both really thirsty and hungry and were pleased when we came across a village with a restaurant (with an english menu) and accommodation we agreed to stop for the night which was a wise move because as we tucked into our burgers we could hear thunder in the distance..

Gary; This place is a great find its called “Sabaidee” which means hello in Laos, the village of Thalang is not on any of my maps.

After changing, showering and washing our clothes we had a game of boules, Gary won 7 games to 5. I could have beaten him had we played longer but the bar called and I’m weak what can I say.

In the bar we met two girls again both travelling independently but had met up in Cambodia after both had been scammed by a bus driver. They were riding the Thakary Lopp on motorbikes, we hadn’t realised that we were cycling this route in reverse. One of the girls was from New Zealand and one was from Florida. We had a pleasant evening exchanging travel stories. I really miss being able to share information with people, don’t get me wrong Gary and I do talk but it is great to hear someone else’s experiences and hear their points of view. We had a lovely piece of apple pie for supper yum yum

Gary; I have spotted an aluminium boat by the river, I have heard that they use the fuel storage tanks from shot down American bombers to make these boats and this one would fit this description.
Day 186
Wednesday 7th October
65 miles
Lang to Thakhet

Really good breakfast poached eggs and tomatoes with crispy bread yum yum

Very hilly start to the day, up and down good surfaced roads for about 10 miles. We passed through several villages which again seemed very poor. We stopped for a drink at a shack between villages, there was a lady was asleep on the floor, 3 children looking dirty and unkept a man and several stray dogs. The children were really sweet but did not appear to have any toys, they sat and watched us as we had our drinks. When it came to pay, we were unsure about the currency but I think Gary tried to over pay but the man was having not of it, we left waving goodbye to the children but not for the first time I wish there was something we could give them or do to make their lives better.

Gary; the first 15 miles was cycling alongside what was now a large shallow lake that had been man made as you could still see the trees. we dropped down about 800 ft to the lower plains,on the descent we were treated to some fantastic views of the limestone nature park we were headed towards. at the bottom of the hill was a power generation plant using the flooded plateau above to drive the turbines, this area was flooded in 2005. this explains the new roads we have been cycling on.
We stopped at the visitor centre, which was really informative about the dam in the area. It was difficult to read the information without an element of scepticism. The posters would have had us believe that the forests had been cut down and very few people had been moved and no animals harmed in the process. The mere fact that elephants had been moved and were now being protected suggested this was not the case. However on what appeared to be a positive there had been some recent investment in the local areas as there was a new school and health centre so it was likely that the villages had benefited but at what cost we couldn’t say without speaking to the villagers. I some how think even if we didn’t have a language barrier they wouldn’t talk to us as this is a communist country and they’re not allowed to speak negatively about the government.

The villages we cycled through after the visitor centre appeared to be more prosperous than those up stream from the centre although amongst the newer houses there were still a number of wooden shacks. The majority of properties in these areas seemed to have satellite dishes which had not been so noticeable in the areas we’d passed through the previous day. I couldn’t help thinking that some families may have used their compensation money for satellite dishes rather than new homes.

After a noodle lunch we stopped at a food market by the side of the road for some drinks, as I was getting the drinks Gary disappeared, he returned a few minutes later to tell me he’d seen some dead animals for sale the size of foxes with black fur but the vendor didn’t want a photo. Many of the other stall holders were happy to be photographed with their live and dead goods which included birds, turtles, crickets (buckets of them) snails, frogs, catfish – one of the nearly dead wading birds tried to escape from the table, but the lady behind the counter simply grabbed it and placed it neatly on the table. What looked horrendous to us was the norm for them, we smiled sweetly, thanked them for allowing us to take some photos and left. We have to remind ourselves constantly that we are seeing the world through a European/British lens.
Gary; This was really surreal, most of the animals were still alive, so a big bucket of moving frogs, a bucket of crickets all trying to escape, even one of the wadding birds which I thought was dead jumped off the table at my feet, it was a very un-appetising market.

It was a really hot day and we could feel ourselves getting burnt, we’re not sure if this is because of the anti malarial tablets we’re taking (it is listed as a possible side effect) or whether the heat is different in Laos. Either way we did the sensible thing and covered ourselves up with long sleeve jumpers. There was nothing I could do to protect my hands and lips and I ended up burning both.

The scenery was stunning with lime stone rocks and beautiful countryside but if I’m being honest most of the day I had my head down listening to my iPod, I was happy in my own little world and would look up occasionally to take in my surroundings. I was treated to some lovely sights including very young piglets they only looked a day or two old. As we cycled through a village I would turn the iPod off so that I could listen to the children and the sounds of the village.

We arrived in Thakhet late afternoon, we were tired and a bit saddle sore , we stopped at the first guest house in the centre of town but it looked naff and as were intending on spending two nights
Gary went off to look for other accommodation, I agreed to wait as I didn’t want to get back on my bike I was really sore. Not long after Gary cycled off the heavens opened, I found cover but did feel for Gary as he would have had no cover. He returned wet through but with good news that he’d found a hotel by the Mekong river within our price range. We tried to find a bar to keep dry in without success and ended up cycling in the rain. Once changed we headed out for some food and drink, we even managed to find a cafe to have some chocolate cake and wine, I think I like Thakhet.
Day 187
8th October
Day off

We had a leisurely breakfast in a local cafe and hired a motorbike to do some sightseeing. I am glad we only hired the one motorbike because there was a lot of off road riding, which was exciting but also very scary.

It was a good day out but not very relaxing we saw the Buddha Cave and the Great Wall. We also trekked to another cave, I was a little wary as we were off the beaten track and the signs for the cave had disappeared, there are still a lot of unexploded bombs in Laos although the area did seem to be inhabited, we had seen women and children foraging and men fishing in the area. I think the girly side of me got the better of me I only had some ballet shoes on and it was also very muddy, hot and full of buzzing bugs so I let Gary explore whilst I stayed in a copse in the shade and watched the beautiful butterflies. It is amazing the variety of butterflies we’ve seen on this trip and to think we paid to go into a butterfly farm in Rhodes.

Dinner out in the same cafe we’d had breakfast this was not planned but as they had good internet access we were having a drink and working on line to agree our destination for the following day when we noticed Tracy was on line after a couple of messages we agreed to Skype her and Gary’s mum. Until this point we were sktype virgins, it was great to see Judy and Tracy but I think it will take a couple of attempts to get used to the delay which you encounter when using the service.

Day 188
9th October
Thakhet to Xeno
64 miles

Gary’s diary
We had breakfast in the same place we’d had chocolate cake and wine mine was eggs, sausages, bacon, tomatoes and a baguette, Ginette ordered a cheese omelette but was informed they couldn’t do that so she ordered a eggs and cheese sandwich, obviously a language barrier.

Cycled following the Mekong river south on our way we passed a monastery we had aimed to visit the previous day, although we could see it we didn’t have time to stop as we had 60 miles of cycling to do.

Ginette – As we’ve been cycling through the villages we’ve seen a number of Buddhist temples and Buddha’s

The ride was very flat with some long stretches at times it reminded me of cycling up a long drive to a stately home but without the stately home at the end.

Ginette – it should be easier to cycle long flat stretches but they’re really hard on the body, your arms go numb and you’re constantly moving in your seat. Don’t tell Gary or Stuart but I think I prefer the hilly roads, as long as they’ve got a good surface to them.

We crossed a few bridges with scaffold planks 3 to 4 wide with big gaps so a bit hairy, if you did come off you wouldn’t have gone have fallen through the bridge but still a little difficult to cycle. Ginette cycles across these without a care!

Ginette – the iPod takes all the credit, I was in the middle of a really good drama and wasn’t thinking about the gaps in the planks.

At lunch time I had a right meat fest, chicken skewers, some sort of spicy ‘beef’ stew’ the bones were tiny so I am not sure what animal I was eating. Ginette struggled to order a veggie dish so I had to grab a bowl and fill it with vegetables and point to the wok for the ‘chef’ to cook, they got the message and she ended up with a nice veggie stew.

Ginette – I’m not sure I would have got away with this – very macho.

After lunch we cycled passed lots of school children on their bikes one group of girls burst into a fit of giggles when I said hello, a type of giggling that only teenage girls can do.

Ginette – I am sure they were laughing at the way he said ‘hello’ as we’ve said previously Gary learns a language by associating the words with words he knows so Sabaidi the word for hello in Laos in Gary’s head has become Zebedee from the magic roundabout.

About 10 miles out side of our Xeno we were passed by a long thin dragon boat on a trailer, we had been informed in Thaket that they have a dragon boat festival on the 25th October it is shame as will be well South by then.

We stopped in a guesthouse (2nd one on the list as the 1st was very poor quality), although the one we chose was better the electrics and plumbing were awful. The shower power switch was bare and just above the shower head, the sink had no slapped it just emptied onto the floor to drain away.

Ginette – we are getting wise to the fact that the first room we’re shown is usually the worse room and we have to ask if they’ve got any other rooms. However on this occasion at the first guest house all the rooms were naff, the bathrooms were really dirty and the rooms were very smelly. I think if Gary was travelling on his own he would either use his tent or book into the first guest house he came across. He has been really patient with me but in fairness why settle for something cheap and nasty if you can choose something a little better?

In the evening we went in search of food, we could see lots of meat stands all displaying various meats on skewers over BBQ’s it took several attempts to find a stall that wanted to help us with a veggie option in the end a pregnant lady offered to cook us some Pad Thai, I had mine with meat, both meals were delicious and only came to £4 with two beers.

Ginette – I am not sure if the stall holders were being rude and difficult because of the language barrier, because I wanted a veggie option or because Gary had a New York teeshirt on. Either way it was a bit bemusing to be refused food even though it was there in front of us.

Day 189
10th October
20 miles

We had read that the route down to Savannakat was down hill so we agreed to have breakfast/brunch once we had checked into our hotel in Savannkat.

However as with all best laid plans the day did not quite go as planned, for a start before we could set off we had to fix a puncture on Gary’s bike, this was our first front wheel puncture. Two local lads were keen to help him and they seemed to know what they were doing so I stepped back and took some photos.

With a delayed start we looked forward to the ride to Savannaket but it was not all down hill in fact it was a busy undulating road which took longer to do than we’d hoped. We arrived very hungry and with a flat tire. Fortunately as we were examining the damage to the bike an Australian guy stopped on his bike and asked if he could help. He gave us directions to a bike shop and to a local guest house, he also asked if we would like to meet up later for drinks with his house mate Helen. We accepted the drinks offer but found alternative bike and guest house options. This was because it was easier to put the bike into a garage across the road to be fixed whilst we had some breakfast and rather than looking for a specific guest house we simply knocked on a couple of doors.

It was a wet day so most of the day was spent in the room, updating the blog and doing more research on where we will go next. Gary managed to get his bike fixed it cost less than a £1 for the puncture and a new bolt for his front wheel.

In the evening we met Helen, she was good company she treated us to a lovely meal in a local restaurant. Over dinner we exchanged travel stories, Helen had travelled to lots of countries so had a lot of experiences to share. She had also been living in the area for several months so was able to share with us some local information about Laos. After dinner we stopped in the local market for an ice-cream yum yum.

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