Tuesday 19 March 2013

Hot As - Southern/Central Laos

Current Location: Vientiane, Laos (click on Where We Are above, to see map)
Tomorrow's Predicted High: 38 Degrees Celsius
Distance Cycled: 9,297 km
The sun climbs into the morning sky, and so does the temperature.
Ahead two figures stood in the road. A long way off, a truck was coming towards them. We were closing on them as well, at 20 kph plus on a slight downhill. I figured we would all meet about the same time.
The figures became a woman and a girl of perhaps, 10 years. As the gap closed I could see the woman spraying liquid from a plastic container onto the road. The girl stood watching, in a world of her own.
The truck was bearing down on them rapidly and at last the woman moved from its path to the safety of the edge. The girl was in the centre of the road - still doing nothing - and I willed her off the road. At the very last moment, she seemed to rouse herself and began walking slowly away from the truck and directly into our path.
Judy escapes into the shade of a farmer's shed in central Laos.
I yelled, “look out” and the girl halted. She seemed to shrink and her hands came up over her chest. She wasn’t looking at us, but her manner was submissive as if waiting to be struck. I had the brakes on hard but we had barely slowed before we swept by. A miss is as good as a mile, they say, but this was too close. As we passed, I glimpsed what looked like a damaged motorcycle helmet on one side of the road and a motorscooter on the other.
When the tandem was under control, we looked back and they were tiny figures again, stationary in the road. I thought of going back to make sure they were ok, but our glimpse of them suggested they weren’t physically injured and not in need of first aid. And what other help could we offer? With no Laos language skills we would probably be more nuisance than help.
Farmer and his three sons on the roadside, central Laos.
We continued on, asking ourselves what they had been doing. Had they had an accident? Or had friends or relatives had the accident? Somehow the latter seemed more likely and mother and daughter had gone to the scene afterwards. Whatever the answer, the image of that child with her arms folded and her head bowed will stay with me for a long time.
We rode into a day heating up rapidly as the sun burned through the haze. We figure the temperature has been in the high 30s/low 40s lately, and for the first time we have really been feeling its effects.
On our ride off the Bolaven Plateau what should have been a pleasant downhill jaunt became an endurance test made worse by not enough to drink. We reached Pakse hot, thirsty and so exhausted that I took myself off to bed almost immediately - leaving Judy to dine alone.
One of the highlights of our stay in Vientiane has been meeting two other
tandemists, Steve and Kat. Their bike is a Thorn, similar to ours, and they
tow a trailer. Their principle goal is to see as much of the world as they can
over a couple of years, but another goal is to try to break the tandem
touring distance record which stands at more than 38,000 km. Their story:
The next day I struggled to get out of bed, almost too tired to move. We took a day off and held a brief strategy meeting to decide how we could change our tactics to deal with the heat. The plan goes like this:
·         Start earlier and aim to be on the road by 6.15 am at the latest.
·         Reduce our daily distances to about 70 kilometres.
·         Ride first and breakfast later, so we cover some kilometres in the early morning cool.
·         Aim to be at our destination as soon after midday as possible, before the heat really kicks in.
·         More drink stops, but keep them shorter so we don’t lose too much time.
We’ve given it a try, and it seems to be working. And it’s pleasant cycling in the cool of the morning until the sun lifts through the trees. The real test will come in the days ahead as we cycle from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. It’s over 400 km, the days are getting warmer and the route is very hilly in places. It’s also said to be extremely beautiful and we are looking forward to nudging our way up into the mountains.

As for that young girl and her mother, we’ll never know what was going on there. It will have to remain another of life’s little mysteries.
Small niches house 2000
Buddha images at Wat
Si Saket, Vientiane.

Wat Si Saket, Vientiane - images mostly from the 16-19th

This is Patuxai, Vientiane's most prominent landmark. Loosely
modelled on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, it is made
 of cement which according to Lonely Planet,
 was given by the Americans for a new airport. LP says it is
sometimes called the "vertical runway". A sign inside the
building admits it looks like a "monster of concrete".
The sign outside the Laos immigration
office in Vientiane includes a sinister
line: Foreigner Control Department.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Cool As - The Bolaven Plateau

Total Distance Cycled:  9,292 km
Flat Tires in SE Asia: Two
Bus Rides with Bike: Five
Distance by Bus: approximately 1,050 km

View from the balcony of our villa - a night of rare luxury,
at Tad Fane.
Through the haze created by heat, dust and smoke we could see the land ahead tilting upwards: hills at last. Wanting to cycle uphill might seem like madness coming from a couple of 60 something tandemists, but hills promise two things: variety and more importantly on this occasion, the chance to escape from the hot and humid lowlands.

We pedalled steadily and by about 600 metres above sea level (masl) we sensed the change: suddenly the breeze that had been following us all day had an edge to it, a slight coolness, subtle but definitely discernible.
Judy prepares to dive at Tad Fane waterfall.

We stopped for the night at Tad Fane, a local beauty spot with a waterfall and a resort built into the surrounding jungle.
At US$30, our villa was well outside our usual  budget but we wanted to luxuriate in the surroundings. It was delicious. The restaurant overlooked the falls, the air was cool, almost chill, and as we snuggled into bed the rain set in, the pitter patter reminding us of rain on corrugated iron roofs in New Zealand.
Cessna 0-1 Bird Dog, the type of plane used by the CIA
to lead fighter-bombers to their targets in Laos.

The next morning we lingered as long as possible, then cycled the 12 k to Paksong (1,235 masl), where we stayed the night in equally cool but less salubrious surroundings. Paksong is a dump. It bills itself as the “coffee capital of Laos”, but it is nothing more than a straggle of shoddy buildings and stalls either side of Highway 18. We ate a bad meal at a deserted restaurant next to our guesthouse and retired early.
Paksong is one of the bigger centres on the Bolaven Plateau, but was pretty much destroyed by bombing during America’s “Secret War” in Laos during the late 60s/early 70s. There is nothing attractive about the rebuild, although the surrounding plateau is rich in coffee beans on land that has been cleared of the debris of war - UXO, unexploded ordnance.
Coffee beans growing on the Bolaven Plateau.

It looks like the poisonous
plant Datura. We spotted it
all over the Bolaven Plateau.
Keep the kids in the car.
The next day was a cyclists’ dream – 65km of gentle descent through coffee plantations and villages. We hardly pedalled nor braked. Part of this section of our route (from Tha Taeng to Teymeybeng) has been sealed in recent years, making it even easier for cyclists to ride a loop on good roads from Pakse, the nearest big town, which lies to the west. Our night’s rest was at another waterfall, Tad Lo, where competition was helping keep prices down and our room built on stilts cost US$8.00.
Guesthouse at Paksong. The town was a dump, but the
guesthouse provided an escape.

With the descent had come a rise in temperature. It was still pleasant, but not for long. The next day we completed the descent through rolling countryside back to Pakse, where it was as hot and uncomfortable as ever.

The one place we found we could get a decent cup of coffee
in Paksong - Koffie's Coffee. Just don't ask for milk. They
target purists only.  

Now this was more like it. At the Suan Sinouk Coffee Plantation (1,000 masl) 35 hectares is growing coffee beans. The public can stroll the grounds and there's a restaurant serving excellent coffee (latte included).
Footnote: A gripping account of America’s intervention in Laos can be found in “The Ravens: The True Story of a Secret War” by Christopher Robbins. In it he says 1,600,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Laos, considerably more than was dropped on Germany during World War 2.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

The Mighty Mekong

Sam Brockie negotiates a traffic hazard on an island in the
Mekong, near Kratie, Cambodia. 

We have been following the Mekong River for weeks now, crossing from one bank to the other as we make our way upstream from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We’ve cycled an island in the middle of it near Kratie, stayed at a backpackers hangout at Don Det, Laos, and drunk cold beer as we watched the sun go down at Champasak.
It’s a river that’s grown on us as we’ve realised its importance to the communities alongside it. For landlocked Laos it provides a plentiful supply of freshwater fish and its flood plain grows pretty much all the rice the people of Laos can eat. Tourism adds another dimension - an income for some but a threat to the way of life of others who find their villages overrun with visitors.
Water buffalo on the "beach" as we await a boatman to take us off Don Det Island, southern Laos.
One of the disappointments though has been the lack of passenger boats ferrying people on the Mekong. Some ferries do exist, for example from Phnom Penh into Vietnam. But rapids block parts of the river making it too hazardous for boats, and newly improved roads mean it’s quicker for people to go by bus than by water. Most of the services on the Mekong seem confined to taking people from one side to the other.

Crossing the Mekong near Champasak,

Children at play, Don Det Island, Laos.
Dolphin spotting near Kratie, northern Cambodia.

Crossing to Don Det Island, southern Laos.
A  drink maker, Mekong River, near Kratie, Cambodia. US$0.25 c
buys you a delicious sugar cane drink with ice.

  A German schoolteacher told us, “it’s a lifeline”. For us, it’s a cycleway leading us gently northwards.
Yes, the inevitable sunset shot: this time at Kratie, northern Cambodia.

Is it Cheating to Catch a Bus?

Little Red Rooster

The little red rooster saw his chance for freedom and took it. He hoped out of the minibus, scuttled under it, darted across the road and then realised his owner was in hot pursuit. The bird staggered into the air, but he was off balance and swung back in a semicircle to crash land beside the vehicle. 

Suddenly there were 22 of us in the minibus.
Those of us inside the minibus were laughing at the entertainment, but several people outside soon had the poor bird cornered and he was taken back into custody. His owner trussed him up and dangling him upside down, passed him in through a window to his wife. The owner clambered in through the same window and suddenly there were 22 of us squeezed into the minibus. (We've since heard of someone who found themselves in a minibus with 27 people on board - surely this must be some kind of record).

Unlike the rooster with its desire for freedom, we were happy to be cooped up inside even if it did mean we sat in rows of four sharing three seats, and our bikes were tied awkwardly onto the back. This was a way to cover some kilometres through a hot, dry, dusty and uninspiring landscape.
We arrived in Kratie (northern Cambodia) in less than two hours. To have cycled the route would have taken two days. Before long we had found somewhere to stay, showered and ordered our first beers. But the satisfaction of being at our destination - the last significant town before the border with Laos - was tempered with the feeling that somehow we were cheating. After all, this is meant to be a bike tour not a bus ride.

On the road in southern Laos. Hardly any traffic, a good surface and flat.
Over the next couple of days we rested up, took a boat ride on the Mekong to spot rare Irrawaddy dolphins and cycled an island in the river. Then it was time to farewell Sam (Mike’s son) and our young Dutch cyclist friend, Femke - we were going our separate ways from here.

Judy and I climbed into another minibus, again 22 people were squeezed into it, and we set out for the border. The road was more of the same but worse - with lots of broken seal, potholes and road works, and the weather remained hot and humid. We were grateful not to be cycling but once again I was disappointed that we were taking the easy way out. At the border we reassembled our tandem and resumed cycling on a blissfully quiet, flat and fast road to Don Det, a relaxed backpacker haunt on a Mekong island.

Angkor ruins at Wat Phu, Champasak, Laos.

From here we will head north onto the Bolaven Plateau where we should escape the humidity and high temperatures of the lowlands for a couple of days. But the feeling of cheating will persist with me, if not Judy. When people ask, ”where have you cycled from?” the answer won’t be straightforward.

“We began this leg of our travels in Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia, through Thailand, Cambodia and now Laos. But to be honest, we’ve taken a bus for some of it.”
Somehow it just doesn’t feel right.


Total Distance Cycled: 8,861 km
Bus Rides with Bike: Four
Distance by Bus: approximately 600 km


"this is divine...."

Judy the Stoker contemplating a detour to the Bolaven Plateau, southern Laos:  “Usually our side trips are navigation mistakes. It would be nice to do a planned one for a change.”

Judy the Stoker: “It’s pretty bad when you say ‘this is divine’ and you’re having a shower in one of the worst bathrooms you’ve been in in Asia.”

Judy the Stoker: “Mike, you don’t have to drink that beer all at once.”
Mike the Captain: “I must, the phone might ring. It’s a learned response after all those years in a tv newsroom.”

Left: Cool. Right: not so cool.