Cycling in Asia forum
Following the Mekong on a bicycle
13th June, 2008
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Nong Khai to Ban Thadokkham
Saturday, May 3, 69 km (43 miles) - Total so far: 69 km (43 miles)
First it was the plane. Next it was the train. Being late that is. It arrived in Nong Khai a bit before 11am, about 1 1/2 hours later than scheduled. I wouldn't normally be bothered but I had about 50km to bike and some errands to attend to.
The first errand was finding an optometrist in Nong Khai who could fix my clip-on sunglasses. I had put them in my pocket when doing the Chinatown walking tour and preditably one of the lenses had parted company with the frame. The optometrist made an attempt at putting it back together but I have to treat them as a fragile piece of equipment. As I should have in the first place.
Crossing the border was a breeze. I asked at several places whether it was ok to bike over the Friendship Bridge as I know some cyclists have been told off for doing so. In fact, everybody just waved me through. They have finished working on the train tracks so the train will go all the way to Laos soon.
It costs US$30 to get a 30 day visa on arrival in Laos plus US$1 for an overtime charge. They accepted my 10yo photo so I obviously haven't changed too much. Is that a good thing? It was lunchtime when I was cleared and I couldn't help feeling a little bit excited. This is where the adventure really begins.
I wanted to change some money in Vientiane and I knew the BCEL bank would be open til 3:30pm so I decided to continue straight away and not stop for lunch. This soon became a Race Against the Rain (which I lost). I'm thinking of changing my journal name to this as I see it will be a common experience for me on this trip. I told myself that if it started raining I would stop and buy a drink and maybe some food. Eventually, the heavy thunderclouds made good on their promise. By the time I stopped I was soaked and the rain was easing. Lesson: stop sooner.
I noticed that the road from the Friendship Bridge into Vientiane is more developed than last time. It is similar to Thailand. Except I think the Lao people have more style when it comes to their houses than the Thais do. I knew there was a turning onto a road which would take me to Lane Xang Avenue close to where I wanted to go. But I hadn't reviewed the route and couldn't recognise it so I ended up biking in the long way (from the north past the Patuxai Monument).
I found the bank and decided to use the ATM instead of changing a traveller's cheque as I felt a bit grubby to be gracing the doors of the bank. Especially in a country where cleanliness and appearance is important. That was the last of my errands and again I felt a bit of excitement. Now I explore unchartered territory (for me).
I followed the directions to get to the Rivertime Ecoresort on the Nam Ngun River - 10km north of Route 13 South, turn right at Don Noon junction (still on Route 13) then left after the 19km marker. I like these markers. Instead of counting down to the next town, these markers are counting down to a different town each time. First it was Thabok, then Paxan, then Pakkading etc. Since this is my route it's srt of fun to know it's 220km to Namthone.
Another 10km down this side road is the Rivertime Ecolodge. The scenery was more interesting down this side road with glimpses of rural life. I was raced by two girls on bicycles at one point. It's good practice for them as next year the SEA Games will be in Laos and the velodrome is being built in this location.
The Ecolodge is fabulous. My bungalow (I reserved a cheap Community bungalow but ended up in a private one at the same, lower, price) has a balcony with views to the Nam Ngun River. It has a private courtyard and the best bathroom I've ever had while travelling. Dinner was on the floating restaurant where I watched men casting nets on the other side of the river. I'm glad I have an extra day to spend here.
What a fantastic day! First was breakfast on the floating restaurant then a forest and a boat ride and village walk on the other side of the river with Rivertime staff. The village walk was most interesting as I was able to observe people going about their daily life. In one yard a woman was threshing rice by hand. For most rice they use a machine but she was threshing the rice which was to be used as seed. At another house we saw a man making a fishing net. Each house has to be virtually self-sufficient for its needs. So the people are farmers, fishers, gardeners, house builders etc. The woman who weaves traditional sin cloth wasn't at home but we took a look at ther loom.
In the afternoon, Rivertime staff took me to a nearby village which was having a rocket festival. This was great fun. If the rocket doesn't go up into the sky then the people who built it are rolled in the mud. Some went very high. One exploded without going anywhere. There were a lot of young people trying to look cool.
We watched the rockets for awhile then on our way out were invited into a home to have some noodle soup. It is customary for the villagers to give hospitality to anybody who asks for it when they have this festival. In this case they asked us into their home so we went for a short time. It was a traditional wooden house on stilts, much cooler than the concrete houses.
Ban Thadokkham to Thabok
Monday, May 5, 88 km (55 miles) - Total so far: 157 km (98 miles)
Another glorious day. The weather was warm and sunny and a little bit cloudy too. I ate breakfast at the Rivertime Resort and soon after was on my way. On the way back to Route 13 I struck the school traffic ie hundreds (a slight exaggeration) of immaculately dressed boys and girls, most on bicycles themselves. Lots of 'sabaidees' and smiles were exchanged.
I really enjoyed today. I stopped every hour, even if only for a short time, to drink, eat or rest. I noticed a couple of new guesthouses in Ban Hai about 62km and 65km from Vientiane.
I found the T&M Guesthouse in Thabok and chose a fan room for 40,000kip. It was a nice guesthouse. I sat by the road and wrote in my journal. About 4pm when it was a bit cooler I walked around the town. It didn't take long. I did wander to the wat and say hello to a monk or two. I was amused to see young boys playing shooting games with guns using the temple buildings to shelter behind. Seemed a juxtaposition to the peaceful ways of a Buddhist temple.
I also went to the market where I caused a stir simply by being there. One unfortunate woman got so excited when I showed some interest in the clothes she was selling. She so wanted to sell me something and I couldn't communicate that I didn't want to buy anything as I was travelling by bicycle. She did have some shorts I might have bought otherwise. I came away with a bag of rambutan and a photo.
Thabok to Pak Kading
Tuesday, May 6, 56 km (35 miles) - Total so far: 213 km (132 miles)
It rained heavily during the night. I decided to take my chances and set off from Thabok about 6:15am. I got 4kms down the road and it started raining. There were thick grey clouds in all directions. A chance to try out my rain poncho. Another kilometre down the road and I paused. Did I really want 93kms of this? Not really, I am on holiday after all. So I turned around and headed back to Thabok. Back at the guesthouse I waited for a bus. The first one didn't have room for my bike but the second one did. I bought a ticket to Paxan 54km down the road. As I sat on the bus looking at the now dry road I agonised over whether I'd made the right decision. I always like to do things 100%. Approaching Paxan it began to rain again. Perhaps I did make the right decision.
At Paxan I changed a traveller's cheque at the Lao Development Bank for a hefty commission. I'd calculated I'd probably have enough to get me through to Thakhek but I didn't want to penny-pinch if I cut it fine. Next I had a bowl of noodle soup for breakfast and rode around looking at the town. It's the biggest town since Vientiane. I found the Post Office and (surprisingly to me) some pretty nice postcards. Then I found an internet place. The weather seems to be clearing so my plan is to continue to Pakkading later today.
Again, I enjoyed the ride to Pakkading. I stayed at the Phetpathoum Guesthouse which is the one other traveller's have stayed in. But there is a new guesthouse now and I wondered whether I should have stayed in that. There was a funny smell in the bathroom and it took me awhile to realise it was the Universal Dead Animal smell. At first I thought it was something in the drain or under the floor but when I was washing my clothes there it was staring me in the face. I went and found the girl. I didn't have the Lao to say 'there is a dead gecko squashed between the mirror and the wall and it's stinking out my bathroom' so I just showed her. She removed it and sprayed the bathroom with smelly stuff and all was well.
Later in the day a couple of vehicles rolled up and out popped some Lao folk. They are having a conference-seminar on diseases like malaria and dengue fever. One man told me that malaria is not really a problem now. Infection rates have dropped to 2% but dengue fever is a big problem. I showed them my map of Laos and they spent ages poring over it trying to locate one man's hometown. They decided it was new map, old data.
I took a walk down to the river in the evening and watched kids swimming and fishermen fishing. The Pakkading river joins the Mekong here and I could look over and see Thailand.
Pak Kading to Na Hin
Wednesday May 7, 2008, 93 km (58 miles) - Total so far: 306 km (190 miles)
I set off early, as is my wont. After an hour, when I had just left a village it started raining again. This time I decided to ride through it (with my styley blue poncho on). I looked for shelter but there was absolutely nothing for another hour or so when the rain had cleared and I reached the next village. That's about 3 points to the rain and 1 to me.
I stopped for breakfast of two fried eggs and sticky rice. My Laos phrasebook is so useful. And pointing is good too. Also, nodding when somebody says something to me. It all works so far and my phrasebook (thanks Katherine) has helped me have a more varied diet that I might otherwise have.
I did my 50km to Namthone by 9:30am. It was my aim to get there as early as I could because I knew there was a 'killer hill' in the next section. Travelfish was right about Namthone - it is only a collection of shop houses. Not a very interesting place. I bought some rambutan then turned down Route 8 to Na Hin. Immediately the scenery was more interesting than Route 13. Karst outcrops, rugged forest and picturesque villages made for a spectacular ride. My first interesting sight was two cages full of puppies. Destined for somebody's dinner table no doubt. Sad.
Sure enough there was a killer hill. The sign said 'steep incline agead' and they weren't kidding. I stopped at the kilometre 4kms from the top so I could stop puffing and get my heart rate down a bit. I managed to bike the rest of the way as after the next kilometre the gradient eased off a bit. At the top is a sala viewpoint and I admired the view even though it was a bit shrouded in cloud. A van full of Vietnamese rolled up and it began raining heavily. When they left the rain did too and I had a great descent to Na Hin only a few kilometres away from the bottom of the hill.
I stayed at Mi Thuna Guesthouse. When it was cooler I took a short ride around the town but it was nothing special so I retreated back to the guesthouse for a ton of food - homemade fries (just because I could), rice and fried veges and mango and sticky ride. I couldn't finish all the rice.
Na Hin to Ban Phou Ngeng
Thursday May 8, 2008, 57 km (35 miles) - Total so far: 363 km (225 miles)
I took the Travelfish recommendation of having the Full English breakfast at Mi Thuna Guesthouse. I had a short day and didn't know where I could get food on the way so it seemed like a good idea to stock up while I could. The directions to get to Ban Konglor, about 40km away was to go go 3km back down the road, take the dirt road for 5km and turn right 20m after the bridge. I did so and found myself on a freshly paved road that looked like it continued to Na Hin but maybe at the other end of town than the Mi Thuna Guesthouse. The road was so new the markers didn't have anything written on them yet. In fact, I felt it was a lonely ride as I was heading to an even more remote place than Na Hin and there was nothing to tell me I was on the right track. There were big pylons at the side of the road and I knew there was a new hyrdo dam being built nearby. What if I was in advertently heading there? All the Laos people passing me going the other way would think I was very strange to head to a dam. I passed a few villages, none of which were named in English, like the ones on Route 13. At one some young people had a kind of road block. I stopped and a girl pinned a plastic flower to my shirt. Apparently they are having a rocket festival tomorrow.
The road had gone through a couple of transformations - to red dirt and back to seal and eventually I came to the sign pointing to Auberge Sala Hin Boun. This is where I chose to stay for the night. I dumped my panniers and headed out for the final 8km ride to Ban Konglor. The road finished in the middle of a jungle and a dirt track headed a few hundred metres to the boat landing. Here I handed over my 100,000 kip for the boat and 5,000 kip for entrance fee to Tham Konglor (Konglor cave). this cave is 7.5 kms long and takes about an hour to go through by boat.
My boatman and bowman (I don't know what you call the man who sits at the front of the boat) led me across a bamboo bridge to the other side of the Hin Boun River and into the mouth of the cave. They leave their boats moored here. We got in and entered more deeply into the cave. As my eyes adjusted I could see the huge cavern. Sometimes the roof was lowish and sometimes quite high. We stopped a couple of times to get out at shallow places and once the boatman took me on foot up to a large platform to see impressive stalagmites and stalactites and columns where they've joined together. After an hour we exited the cave and continued up the river for a few minutes to another landing near Ban Natan. It was a parklike setting but I couldn't see the village without walking a distance and I didn't know how far that was.
A family put-putted up on their tractor and the kids said 'falang' and looked curiously at me. I get that a lot. But I am sometimes surprised because, for instance, this village must get several falang a day who come through the cave, especially in the high season. So I thought they'd be used to falang by now. Some even do homestays in the village. But we are obviously still a curiosity to them. As they are to me.
After returning through the cave I ate some noodle soup at 'Salay Restaurant'. This is actually a shack but the woman cooking the food seemed very pleased to have me as a customer and the noodle soup was pretty good. She taught me how to say 'hot' as the sun had come out in full force and it was indeed very hot.
Back at Sala Hin Boun I relaxed by the river in very peaceful surroundings. Ann and Ken from the US, but living in Pnomh Penh, arrived which gave me my first English-speaking company in days.
Ban Phou Ngeng to Tha Khek
Friday May 9, 2008, 54 km (33 miles) - Total so far: 417 km (259 miles)
When I was at Mi Thuna I asked Mon to write in Lao some phrases to help me arrange a boat from Ban Na Puak to Songhong on Route 13. But because there was no English sign for the villages I completely missed the village where i was supposed to ask. It turned out to be the one having the rocket festival so perhaps the boatman wouldn't be available anyway. When I made enquiries at Sala Hin Boun they offered to take me from there. Cool. So the arrangement was to have breakfast (fried eggs and bread) at 6:30am and leave at 7:00am.
Just as we left it began raining. The pattern at the moment seems to involve raining for half the morning, clearing for the next half and hot in the afternoon. That's what happened today and I became quite cold sitting in the boat under my ever present rain poncho in the pouring rain. My teeth even began chattering. But apart from having to wriggle around on the seat a lot I was having a good time.
The river was fairly narrow here and navigation was a little difficult. There are lots of submerged trees, logs and rocks. We passed many villages with several women fishing. They use a net attached at the corners to bamboo poles that are attached to a long bamboo pole that they hold. I waved and smiled at them and they generally returned the same. The middle section of the river involved being surrounded by high rock outcrops. Very impressive. At 10:30am it had stopped raining and we stopped at a small cave for lunch (fried rice). Now we were back to villages in the jungle then villages in the more cultivated land. I caught glimpses of recent clearances. By 1pm we had arrive at Songhong. This was good for me because we thought it would take 8 hours but it was only 6 hrs so I had plenty of time to get myself the 50km to ThaKhek. The local people were quite intrigued with me carrying my panniers and bike up the steps at the landing, putting everything together and riding off. They would have been even more intrigued if they'd known I'd changed into my cycle gear 100m down the road in a petrol station toilet.
It was a hot 50km to Tha Khek and not many places to stop. I stopped at the side of the road a few times to eat a rambutan and drink some water and that gave me the energy to get to the town. I found my way to the waterfront and to the Mekong-Khammouane Hotel. I have tv with English language channels. Yay! Though it's sad the way I think BBC World is more interesting than the movies. When I look over the Mekong to Thailand I see Nakhon Phanom and say to myself - that's the town I didn't go to on my cycle trip of Thailand.
Saturday May 10, 2008, 10 km (6 miles) - Total so far: 427 km (265 miles)
Today my plan was to do a day trip to the Limestone Forest. I highlighted which caves I would go to. I decided not to visit the ones 'several kilometres from the turnoff' as I wanted this to be an easy day. But as I got ready it began tipping down. So much so that I could barely make out Nakhon Phanom across the river. I changed back out of my cycle gear and decided I would do fluffy errand type activities instead - like internet (yay!) and massage and go to the Post Office. If it clears I might still head out to the Limestone Forest. I'm a day ahead of my itinerary so I might stay here another day and try again tomorrow if I don't get a chance today.
Well, the massage - ahhhhh! It had stopped raining by the time my massage was over but I felt so relaxed I decided it would be a waste if I rushed off on a big bike ride. Instead I had a quiet cruise around the town. I went to the Tha Khek Travel Lodge where I met a couple of young guys heading off to Konglor Cave. I imparted my information and one shared with me about the Bolaven Plateau. I found that Tha Khek really isn't all that big. It doesn't take long to find the borders of town and a rural atmosphere (about 5 min bike ride north or south of the Mekong). I found some people threshing rice at the side of the road. I was surprised because it was still a grey day and I thought they need dry weather to harvest.
This morning I had a three chilli somtam. It was hot!
In the evening I was strolling by the river and two young men called out to me. This happens a lot but this time I went back and we spent the evening with them practising their English and me learning some Lao. It was good fun.
Sunday May 11, 2008, 63 km (39 miles) - Total so far: 489 km (304 miles)
My sustenance for the morning came from 'fried yellow noodles with meat'. They also had veges which was good. Fried eggs and bread only lasts a couple of hours and I thought the noodles would keep me going longer.
It was a nice morning as I headed out of town on Route 12. The first cave I visited - Tham Xiang - I visited three different times by different routes each time. Only the first time did I actually go into the cave. The other two times I was just enjoying riding along red dirt tracks. This is when having a mountain bike is ideal. There are plenty of mud puddles to dodge.
At the next cave two young boys took it upon themselves to be my guides. They showed me one cave on one side of the river and then another cave on the other side of the river. More precisely it is probably different entrances to the same cave. This cave has a river flowing out of it and I think you can wade through the river to have a proper look at the cave. But the water was muddy brown from all the recent rain and I wasn't game enough to do this by myself. Just enjoy it from the entrance. The boys and I disagreed on how many gears I have on my bicycle. They counted 8 at the back and 3 at the front and got 11 whereas I got 24. They insisted on 11 but given a language difference they may simply have been counting what they saw rather than gears. On the way to the second of these caves the boys began collecting yellow mushrooms for soup. Would Kiwi kids know how to gather food like this? Even I don't know how to get food from the NZ bush. I bought a pepsi for myself (a pepsi a day keeps the stomach bugs at bay!) and a drink each for the boys. One shared his with the other kids in the shop - it's great how they look out for each other. The other boy was still collecting mushrooms so the first one wai'd his thanks to me and raced off to his friend.
At the next cave I couldn't find it so I continued to the last cave. There is an entrance fee for vehicles but I didn't have to pay 'cos I was on a bicycle. The first obstacle was a river. I couldn't tell how deep it was so I started wading in, pushing my bike. A couple of metres in and the bike started slipping away from me. And the surface became slippery underfoot. I backed out, left my bike propped up against the place where you pay the fee and jumped in the back of a ute that was conveniently entering the park at the same time. At the cave entrance I had to pay a fee to enter the cave. But my wallet was back with my bicycle. The girl wouldn't let me in so I wandered around looking at some animals in small and dirty cages. Very sad. They would be whisked out of there in a hurry and the owners would be facing charges for animal abuse etc if it was New Zealand. But this isn't New Zealand. So, what do you do? Nothing.
I walked back out to the road where I had to cross the river again. I tried just wading in but I struck the same problem - it was slippery underfoot and I was in danger of taking an unplanned swim. I tried again in barefeet and had the same problem. Third time lucky when a man restoring a bridge helped me across. Whew! But a write-off for my experience of the 'biggest cave'.
Travelfish had said the cave I hadn't found was 'not to be missed' so I took another crack at finding it on the way back. I followed a faint trail in the vegetation to find the entrance. This one also had a pool in it. And some Buddhist flags. And bats.
I cruised back to town for a cleanup and leisurely afternoon. Lunch was somtam (two cillies and still hot) and sticky rice and two other dishes (a vege and bamboo shoots I think). A couple of grubby kids watched me intently while I ate. This is an uncomfortable feeling but they were polite about it. When I'd finished they wasted no time in eating what I'd left behind. Good for them.
Next I found a seat by the Mekong and read my book and ate an icecream - my first such food since leaving home. It's nice to have good weather for a change. I hope it continues tomorrow for my long ride to Savanakhet.
Tha Khek to Savannakhet
Monday May 12, 2008, 144 km (89 miles) - Total so far: 633 km (394 miles)
It was all about the kilometres today - 130 from Tha Khek to Savannakhet (plus a little extra to traipse around town). I made Xeno, 100km from Tha Khek, around lunchtime. A late lunchtime of 1pm ish. The ride was pretty good - rolling hills turning into a fairly constant slight uphill. Not much in the way of scenery - a few villages, rice paddies and plantations.
It was good cycling conditions today. The weather was hot, but not too hot. It was windy, but not too windy. After a day in the sun-cloud my arms are the colour of the dirt roads I was riding yesterday.
I was able to indulge in a fried rice for lunch, which I prefer over the noodle soup. Then I faced a further 30km to Savannakhet. Other cyclists have said its all downhill from Xeno but 'mostly downhill' would be a more accurate description. I stopped after a few kilometres to buy a pineapple. Little stalls were selling the biggest pineapples I have ever seen. This road was well sealed and it looks like it's transmogrifying from trees to industrial.
Some people don't like Tha Khek and like Savannakhet. Some people don't like Savannakhet and like Tha Khek. My money's on Tha Khek. I had a happy couple of days there and now I am in a bustling, dusty city where I have been chased at and barked at by at least three sets of dogs in a fairly short time. I am also coloured by my accommodations which aren't as nice as Tha Khek - not the kind of room you'd want to use as a retreat from the world. Oh well, I am only here one night and then I move on again. Another three days to Pakse. At least this guesthouse is by the Mekong and I can look over to Mukdahan where I spent a couple of nights on my last tour.
Later... Well my feeling about Savannakhet improved slightly after a good dinner and finding a bicycle place where the man cleaned and oiled my bike. He said I would have a 'good feeling' riding it. But I think the gears don't change as smoothly as they used to.
Savannakhet to Paxong
Tuesday May 13, 2008, 89 km (55 miles) - Total so far: 722 km (449 miles)
I travel through two Paxongs on this trip and this is the little-known one on Route 13 heading down to Pakse. The other one is on the Bolaven Plateau.
Breakfast this morning was a baguette from a vegetarian shop and some of yesterday's pineapple. The baguette was quite good so after going to the bank to cash a traveller's cheque I returned for another one (for the road). Both times I have tried to cash traveller's cheques which have had the corners nibbled by Jasper (the rabbit) the bank staff have decided they can't accept them. Naughty Jasper.
The woman in the vegetarian shop had very good English which she learnt at Teachers Training College. She told me she had taught for one year but stopped because she wanted to learn how to cook vegetarian food. She first became vegetarian for health reasons then because she doesn't like the killing of animals. I had a fresh lemon/lime juice from here as well. This is like the bush lime I had in the Solomon Islands. I find it quite refreshing and It's my drink of choice.
I sent some postcards off at the Post Office and posted the key (that I'd inadvertently stolen) back to Rivertime Resort. I think it's best to post my mail at these bigger towns. I saw a post office in a little hick town yesterday but I thought if I sent my postcards from there they might not make it to their destinations. Rachel and Nigel are still waiting for the postcard I sent them from Chiang Dao last year. I think it's made a trip to Europe.
I am internetting on my way out of town since I don't know when I'll next see an internet place. Maybe in Pakse in a couple of days.
Later... The ride out of Savannakhet to Lak 35 was a bit tough. It was a gradual uphill with a stiff headwind. I found the riding from Lak 35 to Pakxong a bit more enjoyable. The scenery is same-same as previous days - people, villages, animals, fields etc.
There are four guesthouses in Pakxong. I stayed in a brand new one about 1.5 km down a side road. The man didn't speak any English but we managed to sort me out a room (80,000 kip for air-con or 50,000 kip for fan) and a place to do my washing. They had a washing machine but he said something about shirts so I washed my clothes by hand. I didn't understand much of what he said and we had to get by on signs, nods and smiles. It all worked out.
For dinner, I biked back into town but found it difficult to recognise a good place to eat. Many places have a single table out front and I couldn't tell if this was for the family or for customers. I chose a karaoke place where somebody rustled up some rice and veges for me. Afterwards, I went next door to share some beer lao with a family who were having their meal. They seemed quite chuffed to have me and one woman kept beaming at me.
Pakxong to Kong Sedone
Wednesday May 14, 2008, 119 km (74 miles) - Total so far: 842 km (523 miles)
On my way back to the main road I stopped at a small roadside stall for breakfast of noodle soup. The simple hut was divided in two. Out back was a bed with a mosquito net over it. This took up the whole room. In front was the kitchen and two tables for customers. The front area only had a roof - no walls. I was introduced to the wife's mother and daughters while the man made the soup. Again, people were pleased to see me and a few neighbours came for a look too.
The cycling was a little tough today. Mainly because it was sunny and hot. I realised mid-morning that I should take on more fluids so I tried to stop more often to do that. After 50km of riding my noodle soup ran out and I needed to take on more food. Another roadside shack provided two fried eggs and rice - always a good standby when there's nothing else around. This time it came with sliced cucumber too.
Kong Sedone is 1 km down a side road. I rode down to have a look. It was quite a nice little town with the shop houses very close to the road giving it a frontier-town feel. There was some event on with people dressed up and dancing and eating. I waved as I went past. There were no guesthouses down here. Instead I was directed back to the main road where there is one around the 64km marker - but down a track and parallel to the main road. The guesthouse was dingy and not very clean. The mattress was so thin it may as well as not be there. And the pillows were fat and solid.
But what should I see? Another Marin bicycle. It belonged to Sally, a UK person who had ridden from the UK to here across Russia and Mongolia and through China, Vietnam and Cambodia. (She took the train 4,000 km across parts of Russia too as it is such a large country.) She had stayed in Pakxong too but at a different guesthouse to me. We walked back to the markets to buy some dinner - the old fried rice standby - and snacks for tomorrow's ride.
Kong Sedone to Pakse
Thursday May 15, 2008, 66 km (41 miles) - Total so far: 908 km (564 miles)
I have finally arrived in Pakse! It is nice to hit a sizeable town after a few days in the boondocks.
Sally and I rode together today. We began with noodle soup and stopped twice for water and snacks. Sally rides faster than me so she pulled me along to Pakse at quite a quick pace. After a snack she rode off to Champasak and I settled in at the Seng Arun Hotel. This is a spotlessly clean Thai-style hotel in the centre of town. It is my reaction to the grimy hole I stayed in last night.
I ate fried noodles for lunch and was spotted by a man who had seen me at Tham Konglor. This guy is a Kiwi from Auckland, travelling with his wife for seven months on their way home from the UK. They had both been sick recently so were spending a few days in Pakse recovering.
I've decided that after 5 big days on my bike I need a complete day off so I'm changing my plan to have a rest day here tomorrow where I do mothing much. Then I will head to the Bolaven Plateau but maybe on a shorter trip than my original itinerary listed. I like Pakse after only a few hours here. There is lots of services for tourists - internet, eating places etc. I hope to have a happy time just wandering around and looking and gathering information for the next few days ahead.
Where are my emails from friends and family telling me what you've been up to? Is it too cold back home to use the computer? It's been pretty hot here the last few days.
Later... I wandered down to the Sabaidy Guesthouse to see what was happening there and see if they had advice on the next part of my journey. In the evening I took another walk past the wat and out to where the Se Don River joins the Mekong. Its a nice spot at sunset and full of locals but no foreigners. The foreigners are concentrated in the main street and dont seem to venture far from there. At dinner time I invited another lone traveller to join me. Pascal is French-Canadian and travelling for two months. I commented to her that I saw more white faces at the neighbouring table than Id ever seen in one spot in Laos before.
Friday May 16, 2008
I eat yummy food, walk around town, take a massage. No riding today.
Pakse: Kayak Trip
Saturday May 17, 2008
I hummed and hahed over whether to do this trip, or not. I felt like I ought to be biking. But I thought the opportunity may not present itself again.
The trip was through Green Discovery and primarily for it's employees and their families to make up for working at the Laos New Year. There was one other falang - Lana, an American woman who is now resident in Pakse and speaks a reasonable amount of Lao.
After many stops in the songthaew we made it to Ban Saphai. The villagers there were intrigued with the preparation of the kayaks and raft. I was glad I was no longer the sole object of their curiosity. We had about 4 inflatable kayaks and 4 sit-on kayaks. I started in one of these with Lana.
We criused down the Mekong having a lot of fun, splashing, falling in the water, joking. We stopped at an island for a bbq lunch on some rocks then continued for another hour or so to where the Sedone river joins the Mekong in Pakse town.
Kids on the way were curious and came down to the water to look at us and wave.
In the evening I returned to the Green Discovery offices for dinner and a party. Lots of beer lao was passed around and there was loud music and dancing Laos style - not much body movement and you wave your hands in little circles. I made my excuses about 8:30 so I could get a good night's sleep.
I was glad I did this in the end. And I'm also looking forward to getting back on my bike tomorrow. I hope the weather is nice for the climb to Pakxong.
Pakse to Paksong
Sunday May 18, 2008, 63 km (39 miles) - Total so far: 971 km (603 miles)
I knew this ride was uphill all the way but it wasn't too bad. Sometimes the road was steeper than other times but entirely manageable. The Lonely Planet cycling guide had mentioned the blacksmiths so when I heard a rhythymic banging I stopped to take a look. Two men work together to beat a lump of metal into a blade. They take it in turns creating a regular bang-bang sound. These guys are strong! They are hefting pretty heavy hammers.
Around 32 km from Pakse I saw a sign for Tad Etu waterfall. I followed a dirt track for about 1 km to a parking area at the top of the waterfall. The man there told me he is developing the area into a resort. He has bungalows being built and I could see the restaurant also under contruction. These falls spill over a bowl-type cliff and are quite scenic. Rickety concrete steps lead to the bottom of the falls where a wooden bridge crosses the river. You can follow a path to the base of the falls for swimming.
A few more kilometres along Route 16 another side road leads to Tad Fane. These are probably the most well-known falls on the Bolaven Plateau. Here two streams fall into a deep bowl. There are viewing points at the resort but you don't get close to the falls unless you take a trek. I had a 7-up at the resort restaurant before continuing on my way.
The third set of falls are Tad Yuang. I felt a bit tired by now so decided to miss them. When I reviewed my notes in the evening they said they were good falls and should be seen. Typical. They have a picnic area and are popular with locals.
Paksong is a market town,the highest on the plateau at 1300m. It's cooler but you can still wear shorts and t-shirts. At least at this time of year. I was surprised at how many falang there were - 11. One was an Aussie who has been working in Laos for three years drilling for bauxite. He was drunk when I sat down to talk with him but loads of fun. He says the Vietnamese are illegally logging the area. Gradually the other tourists arrived and we just about took over the place.
Paksong to Tad Lo
Monday May 19, 2008, 81 km (50 miles) - Total so far: 1,052 km (653 miles)
A fantastic day - downhill all the way! The first section from Paksong to Tha Teng was sealed and I covered the 37km in record time. From Tha Teng to Ban Beng it was 20km of dirt road but still downhill. Great scenery. At Ban Beng I turned left and pretty soon was at Tad Lo where I settled in to a guesthouse where my room opened onto a verandah overlooking the river.
I stayed in my cycling clothes so I could explore the waterfalls. The nearest one is Tad Heng and it can be viewed from the bridge or resort on the other side of the river. The second one is Tad Lo. First I visited it from the true left bank then I biked back to the other side and visited the resort of the same name on the true right of the river.
Next was Tad Suong which is 10km away - that is if you go all the way to the top. I didn't as I was hijacked by village kids. Three boys took me on a path which involved clambering over rocks to the bottom of the falls. Best not done in cycle shoes. There wasn't much water in the falls but it was a nice area. It started raining while we were there so we sheltered under a small cave. Luckily the rain passed quickly. I was going to buy the boys drinks again but the oldest one told me 10,000 kip when we got back to my bike so they got the money to spend as they pleased.
In the evening I made friends with some of the other travellers. You keep bumping into the same people - French Canadians, English Canadians, French, more French, Kiwi.
Tuesday May 20, 2008
A lot of the people I met last night were moving on today. But Gerard, a Frenchman, was not. I suggested an elephant ride. There are two elephants at Tad Lo resort. Old girls of 50 and 60 years old obtained from the elephant village at Ban Khiet Ngong.
The ride took us along the true right side of the river heading upstream. It passed through a small tract of jungle still remaining on the verge of the river. There are loads of tracks through here for people too. After passing Tad Lo falls our elephant started crossing the river. This was an exciting part as she needed to step down steeply into the river. And then climb up steeply on the other side. Afterwards I pointed out the waterline on her trunk and belly to Gerard. It was fairly high up.
On the true left side of the river we passed through an ethnic village. This is the same as any other kind of village except the buildings are more rustic and the people are ethnic. I guess ethnic means 'belonging to a particular tribe' because everybody has some kind of ethnicity. We started heading back downstream and then had another exciting encounter when our elephant crossed the river again to return us back to the resort. It was a fun way to spend the morning and Boomwan was amptly rewarded with an enormous bunch of bananas.
Tad Lo to Pakse
Thursday May 22, 2008, 95 km (59 miles) - Total so far: 1,228 km (763 miles)
What a tough day. My toughest. It didn't start out well when I woke with a squiffy tummy and a bout of diarrhoea. I was wary of eating in case I needed to be sick so skipped breakfast but bought a vegetarian (baguette) sandwich from Jom's Restaurant to nibble on during my rest breaks. The road was up and down hilly, I had a head wind and it rained a couple of times (persistent drizzle) - I was going pretty slowly.
After struggling along for some time I came to the turnoff to Tad Pasuam so thought it might make a good place for a rest. The land around this waterfall has been developed by a Thai man into a resort. It has a restaurant overlooking the falls and an ethnic museum and village where local people wander around in local attire and do traditional things. I didn't go to this part as there was a barrier over the path to the ethnic village and as I couldn't read the notice I didn't know whether the 'no entry' applied to only verhicles or people too. I guess I could have tried to go down the path and somebody might have stopped me but I didn't really have the energy for it.
I was glad to finally come to Banana Junction - only 21km into Pakse and most of it downhill. I didn't need to pedal for the next 5 km. I stopped at the Green Discovery offices to show them how muddy I got from the ride, settled in at my hotel (they are quite helpful) and made a beeline to an eating place - fries and a lemon shake. I hope that means I'm feeling better.
Pakse to Champasak
Thursday May 22, 2008, 81 km (51 miles) - Total so far: 1,228 km (763 miles)
Champasak is less than 40km from Pakse. So how come my kilometres for the day are twice that? Well, I took the long way to get there. Instead of continuing down Route 13 like most people do, I turned off in the centre of Pakse and crossed the bridge over the Mekong heading for the border with Thailand. After 18km I turned left on to a side road which signposted Champasak as 57km away. That's about 50km of dirt road. Not a nice dirt road like the one between Tha Theng and Ban Beng but a rutted muddy dirt road which required a bit more care in navigation. Just a quick wave to the kids in the villages as I needed my concentration for weaving around the mud puddles. Still, it was fun and I was intrigued by the 'Welcome to Champasak District' sign in the middle of nowhere - how many visitors do they expect down this road?
At Don Talat I encountered a couple of kilometres of sealed road. Bliss! But that sooned turned to an even bumpier dirt road. Thankfully for only a few more kilometres before I hit the last 8km of sealed road between Wat Phu and Champasak town. Instead of visiting Wat Phu today I delayed it until tomorrow to do as a day trip.
In my guesthouse this evening I met an Irish couple who were doing an offroad motorcycle trip with Green Discovery from Vientiane to the 4000 Islands. It sounded like they were having a great time.
Champasak: Wat Phu
Friday May 23, 2008, 39 km (24 miles) - Total so far: 1,267 km (787 miles)
I headed out early and stopped by the Tourist Information Centre for a breakfast of omelette and tea. Just as well as it poured down. I waited it out and by then the Tourist Information Centre had opened so I took a look. It had some pretty good displays on Wat Phu and the surrounding area. There was also an ancient city at the point where the road to Wat Phu curves away from the Mekong. It had three walls but they are difficult to see now.
As I was biking along the road through Champasak town I passed another guesthouse where who should I see sorting out a bicycle but Gerard, my French friend from Tad Lo. We rode together out to the Wat Phu site stopping to take photos of water buffalo munching their way through water-filled rice paddies.
After paying our entrance fee we prepared ourselves by looking around the exhibition hall. This is quite well set out with displays in Lao and English. There are buddha statues, lintels telling Hindu stories (becuase Wat Phu was originally Hindu), linga and other parts of the temple.
And so Wat Phu. The oldest parts of the site date back to the late half of the 5th century. But these things are often a work in progress for many years, even centuries, and most of the site now dates from the 10-11th centuries. There are three levels. The first is an approach on a promenade with marker stones with a pond on either side. The second level has two buildings (which the Frenchman from my guesthouse who is managing the site says they are about to start restoring). The third level, backing onto the mountain, has a small temple with a cell at the back which used to hold the linga. A linga is a kind of round topped stone. Water was channelled from a spring from a cave behind the temple to constantly cover the linga and purify it.
On this third level are also a rock with a stylised image of a crocodile carved in it, another rock with an elephant carved into it and a trimurti - a rock with three deities carved into it. There are also good views across the plain to the Mekong, not so far away.
We ate lunch at a nearby restaurant and met Sacha, A Belarussian also staying at my guesthouse. The first I've met. My afternoon was spent lazing away in a hammock watching the Mekong slip peacefully by.
Champasak: Don Deng
Saturday May 24, 2008, 35 km (22 miles) - Total so far: 1,302 km (809 miles)
My travelfish guide reckons Don Deng is a very authentic Laos village experience. It sounded promising so I organised a boat to take me and my bike to the island and find out. My conclusion is that it didn't differ much from my other village experiences but certainly the people seemed more welcoming. More kids nopped (wai'ed) me. Previously they would yell sabaidee, falang, hello or goodbye. But here they added the extra bit of courtesy with the nop.
I stopped in at the new French resort to pick up a map of the island. Then I worked my way through several villages to the tip of the island. Almost. I had stopped to watch a game of takraw when two young lads rolled up on their bicycles and they took me to just about the very southern point on the island. This involved biking until the road ran out then continuing along a track, through several bamboo gates until we had to stop and walk a bit. I really didn't need to go that far along the track but it's hard to communicate these things sometimes.
On the way back they invited me into their house for some refreshments. I contributed some peanuts. While having our snack they decided it would be a good idea to watch a new music cd they had. As I am not a 19 year old Laos male I didn't find the video with sexy Laos women in the background appealing. And the music isn't great to western ears. I was a bit worried about having to spend the whole afternoon watching music vids so I made my excuses and backtracked to the cross-island track. This passes a forest temple and rice paddies to the eastern side of the island and through a community forest and a couple of villages back to where I started. I splashed out with lunch at the French resort. The manager was trying to get a nice photo of the staff for the website. They looked smart in their uniforms with red shirts and pretty sin.
My afternoon was spent lazing in the hammock in my guesthouse watching the Mekong float by. Again.
Champasak to Pakse
Sunday May 25, 2008, 38 km (24 miles) - Total so far: 1,340 km (833 miles)
I had a quick two hour ride back to Pakse. Crossing the Mekong was the most exciting thing. We had a bus on our ferry (three hulls strapped together).
Back in Pakse I caught up on some of this journal, watched a movie on tv and had dinner with the Irish couple who have now finished their motorcycling trip.
As I am nearing the end of my trip I am having funny feelings about finishing. I am looking forward to my tourist Thailand leg and to going home. But I have enjoyed my Laos cycling and it's sad to be leaving.
Notes for other cyclists
I started my trip taking notes when I came across things that I thought might help other cyclists eg where the accommodation was. As I progressed my notes became fewer. I realised that there is accommodation every 50-100km so you don't need to plan your stops if you don't want to. There is a lot of construction, especially leaving Vientiane and new guesthouses/hotels are springing up all the time.
Here are a selection of guesthouses/hotels I noticed on my way (besides the obvious ones in the larger towns). I didn't stay at them so can't vouch for comfort and cleanliness etc but some are brand new.
62-65km from Vientiane in the village of Ban Hai is the Khamanee Guesthouse and the Khounbolin Hotel.
203-205km from Vientiane there are about three guesthouses. The last one on the left heading towards Pakse is still being built.
225km from Vientiane is the Bousavanh Guesthouse, about 100m off the main road.
8km east of Namthone is the Skyline Nature Resort. It might be a better option than the guesthouse in Namthone which is supposedly a hole. The route to the Skyline Nature Resort is slightly hilly, but quite scenic. I read in the Thakhek Travel Lodge of another pair of cyclists who stayed here and enjoyed it so stayed two nights.
There are four guesthouses in Pakxong (the one before Pakse, not the one on the Bolaven Plateau). I stayed in the one about 1.5 km down a side road. It was brand new and probably the pick of the bunch though the owners don't speak any English and you have to go back to town for food.
The guesthouse 67km before Pakse at the junction with Route 15 (which goes through to Salavan) looks newish and is probably a better option that the hole I stayed in at the Kong Sedone junction.
There are four guesthouses in Paksong (the one on the Bolaven Plateau). The new Savanh Guesthouse next door to the Paksong Guesthouse has bungalows and rooms in a separate building. The bungalows are probably ok but were all full when I visited. The rooms don't have any outside windows.
**Vegetarian** I chanced across a vegetarian restaurant in Thakhek not far from the Thakhek Guesthouse but it wasn't open when I went past.
There is a wonderful vegetarian restaurant in Savannakhet on the main road. The woman who runs it speaks excellent English. I ate my best baguettes here.
Basically I had a great time. Some cyclists might find the route a bit boring but I enjoyed it. The people are friendly and my side trips meant the scenery didn't become tedious. I realised I needed to schedule in rest days every 4-5 days which meant I needed to change my original optimistic plans. As a result, I ended up with a slightly slow trip towards the end. As I was on a shortish holiday I felt that I achieved a good mix of cycling and holiday-type activities.
In terms of equipment, my most useful items were my phrasebook and rain poncho (even though we had disagreements from time to time). I didn't need to use my tools apart from taking apart my bike and putting it back together for the plane trips.
If I get a chance I would like to cycle around the north of Laos. But my next adventure might be walking the North Island along the Te Araroa trail.
#1 Posted: 11/7/2008 - 11:28
OK, this looks like a great report, which I'm going to read after my morning coffee.
I'll also reformat it a little so it's easier to read.
#2 Posted: 12/7/2008 - 06:40
Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Plan on doing a similar trip myself in December beginning around Loei. Was a bit hesitant about going onto the Laos side as I was there about 11 years ago and found the services nearly non-existent. Apparently, this has changed. Great.
Thanks a lot for taking the time to post this.
#3 Posted: 16/7/2008 - 00:40
18th October, 2006
Messaging not enabled.
Great post Agarlao, sounds like you had a fun trip. Just one question from me - can you tell us how much you paid for the boat from Auberge Sala Hin Bun downriver to the Songhong (aka Hin Bun)? That would be great.
Khawp jai lai lay
#4 Posted: 1/8/2008 - 12:40
12th July, 2005
Actually, this was my bicycle trip. You can check it out on www.crazyguyonabike.com where you can see some photos too. If agarlao is from Rivertime EcoResort then I gave them permission to post my report.
I paid US$80 for the boat trip down the Hin Boun. I thought it was good value since the boatman would have to return upriver the following day. It was a small boat and you could fit two people comfortably in it. Lunch was provided.
#5 Posted: 2/8/2008 - 13:01
6th June, 2009
Great report, incredible bike ride. I can ride about 25 klicks before my ass tells me I am not riding anymore.
#6 Posted: 8/7/2009 - 01:12
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