Laos - of all the South East Asia countries we are going to visit this time, Laos is probably the one we know least about, but one of the countries we are most looking forward to.
Currency = kip. 1 pound sterling = 19500 kip.
Saturday 5/03/05 (Paul writes...)
The Laos side of the border is a lot smaller than the Vietnamese side. We had already got our Lao visas when we were in Hoi An, but I noticed a office with a sign on the window saying 'Visa on demand', and checking with the gentleman behind the desk, found we could have bought our visa there for US$30, instead of the US$42 we paid in Hoi An. Oh well, what's $12? About 25 bottles of beer in Vietnam!
Had the usual entrance form to fill in, standard questions like name, passport number, sex (they never have a 'Yes please' box to tick for that one). Once the forms were completed and handed over, our passports received another 4 rubber stamps (yes 4, 1 to indicate the visa had been used, an entry stamp, and two date stamps on the entry stamp) and a sprawling signature. Then we were off.
Our cycling guidebook said the road surface we would be cycling on for the next 4 days varied in quality from atrocious to even worse, but it also indicated that plans were afoot to upgrade the road. Luckily for us, those plans had come to fruition, and before us stretched a brand spanking new highway, barely touched, it appeared. We just hoped that they had completed
the upgrade all the way to Savannakhet, our intended destination in 4 days.
Speeding along the quiet, smooth road, with very little other traffic, there were several big differences from our last 15km out of Vietnam this morning. Apart from the already mentioned superb road (I can't praise it enough), and the quietness, the houses we came across in Laos tended to be congregated in small village groups, with long stretches in between with scrubland or dried-up paddy fields. This being the dry season, it was sometimes difficult to discern where the scrubland ended and the paddy fields started, they blended into a landscape of all shades of brown, with the occasional green leafed tree breaking the monotony. The villages consisted entirely of wooden build houses on stilts, most with grass roofs, but the occasional one with corrugated iron. Unlike in Vietname and Cambodia, where each house was usually surrounded by a small cultivated plot of land separated from their neighbours by a fence, the houses here were grouped more tightly together, with no separating fences and just patches of bare earth in between. I guess it is more of a sort of commune set up, where the villagers share the work and produce of the fields around them, and live in a tight-knit community. I must find out more!
One other welcome difference was the way people greeted us as we cycled by. In Cambodia and Vietnam, it was usually 'Hello' that was called out to us, sometimes 'bye bye', but extremely rarely anything in there own language. Now, in Laos, they were not shouting hello or bye-bye. After listening to several people calling something out to us and waving, we consulted our guide book and reasoned they were saying 'sabaai dii', which in Lao, means greetings/hello. It also happens ro mean goodbye, how are you, and I'm fine. What a useful phrase. A bit like the Hawaiin Alloha, I guess, but I'm no linguist, as my spelling will testify.
Of course, this is something we should have though about and prepared for before we arrived in Laso, basic civilities, but we just wandered across the border completely un-prepared. Still, I don't think we hurt anybody's feelings, and with 'sabaai-dii', I think we're ready for anything now!
As we sped along, waving and shouting sabaai-diis to anyone we spotted, and getting a good few enthusiastic ones in return, I reflected on how a simple sabaai-dii, smile and wave seems to bring so much pleasure to most of the people we meet for a few fleeting moments. It really makes the cycling seem worthwhile, and gives us a good feeling inside. Even if what they are really thinking after we've gone is: crazy poor foreigners, they can't even afford to travel by bus and they're murdering our language, but we'd better smile and wave, they might be armed.
We made good time and after 65km arrived at Sepon, our intended destination for the day by 11:30, a tad early to call it a day maybe, but we stopped for another bowl of noodle soup and the first (or do I mean thirst?) beer of the day.
I know what you're thinking, noodle soup again? It happens to be the most common dish in Laos, and besides, its one of the easier dishes to order and doesn't (often) give us a dose of the fast and furious. And we refuse to eat the usual travellers fayre of pancakes or bread and jam!While we were dining, a Swiss couple cycled in to town, from the opposite direction. They had come up on a terrible road from Cambodia and were heading to the Vietnam border, then on to China. The had joined our road at Muang Phin, 34 km in fron of us, but had been riding into a headwind from there.
Suitably refreshed, and now knowing that the road to our destination for tomorrow was as good as it had been all day, and with a bit of a following wind, we set off to Muang Phin to complete tomorrows ride today.
Two hours later we arrived in Muang Phin. We found the guesthouse that the Swiss couple had mentioned, checked in for $4 for a fairly nice room. The town is fairly small, with a small market place which held our attention for all of twenty minutes. In the town, there is also the remains of the fuselage from an American helicopter from the Vietnam war, which had spread well into this part of Laos. The fuselage had recently been moved to the centre of the town, next to a huge monument called the Friendship Memorial. I thought that was a bit ironic.
There were only a few small eating places in
town, saying restaurant would be stretching the word too much. We picked the cleanest looking and took the plunge. I had read about an allegedly delicious Lao traditional dish called Laap. a spicy salad made from minced beef, fish sauce, small shallots, mint leaves, lime juice, roasted ground rice and lots of chillies. Having already had two potentially dodgy bowls of beef noodle soup from roadside stalls today, I thought what's the point in holding back now and ordered Laap and sticky rice. Rita was slightly more reserved and order a portion of rice, which didn't turn up, so she had to have some of my dish. The Laap was excellent, probably the best meal I've eaten for a while, since Hoi An anyway. Sticky rice is quite interesting, eaten a lot in most of Laos and Northern Thailand, its a strain of rice that does exactly what it says on the packet. When its cooked, it sticks. To eat it, you grab (more like tear off) a small amount, about the size of a walnut, roll it into a ball, then dunk it into whatever main dish you are having. Great fun, try it sometime.
After a couple more Beer Laos, we hit the sack. Big day tomorrow, another 100km, just hope the roads remains as good and the wind doesn't change direction. Not a lot to ask.
6/03/05 Muong Phin to Savannakhet
We were in luck. The road remained fabulous all day, and the wind stayed pretty much behind us most of the way. Best of all, the sun came out and we had a great day cycling.
Stopped in Muang Phalan after 60km for lunch. There's a big bridge there with a bit of a tourist attraction just up the river bank a little way, some 'indistinct dynosaur footprints', according to our guide book. We didn't bother making the short trip, 'indistinct' didn't sound too impressive to me, plus, apparently, just to make sure you didn't miss them, some bright spark had painted white circles around them!
Because of this big tourist attraction, there were a number of roadside eateries in town, near the bridge. We tried to find one that would throw us together a bowl of noodle soup, but struggled until somebody pointed down a small dirty alley next to the market. Down there, we were to surprised to find a clean looking noodle cafe, and the girl doing the cooking spoke quite good English as well, so we managed to get a lovely bowl noodle soup with vegetbles, served with a large plate of lettuce leaves and raw green beans.
The last 36km of the day took us another two and a half hours. The scenery hadn't changed very much over the two days, but it was still keeping our attention, especially with so many people to shout sabaai-dii to.
We were supposed to be staying in the town of Dong Hene, in a government run guesthouse, but that appeared to have closed down. The only alternative we could find was a dingy windowless room in a backstreet wooden building, resembling a cowshed but without the charm. It looked like the sort of room more used to being rented out by the hour to local 'business ladies', so after careful deliberation, we declined there generous offer, and wandered off looking for other options.
The next town, Sepon, was only 32km away, but having already cycled 100km today and stupidly having got sunburn on my forehead, I didn't fancy any more cycling, so we hitched a lift in the back of a pick up truck. My eyes lit up when I saw there was a stack of beer crates in the back of the truck, but they went out again when I realised they contained empties.
45 minutes later we were stood outside the first hotel in Sepon, which also had the appearance of being shut down. Aside from the big lock on the gate, the smashed windows also gave us another clue.
Cycled towards Savannakhet, thinking there's bound to be another guesthouse soon. After another 3km we got bored and hitched another ride, this time as fare paying passengers on a sawngthaew. Basically, a pickup truck with a high roof and bench seats down either side in the back. The bikes went on the roof and we we clambered in the back.
The sawngthaew dropped us near the bus station in Savannakhet, a couple of kilometers north of the town centre. We struggles to get our barings for a while, we had a map but we were off the edge of it and although the map had street names on it, none of the roads were signed. Figuring the town must be south and near the river, the Mekong, we cycled off and with the help of helpful bartender (we had to buy a couple of beers, of course) we found our way to the Nongsoda Guesthouse. 120000 kip a night, with aircon, en-suite, and a fridge.
7/3/05 (Rita writes...)
Well we arrived in Savannakhet last night as Paul says - in and out, up and down, by hook or by crook we made it. Ok when we got there we were starving - me in particular so I decided to splurge as I nornally do and we ate a delicious meal of hot and spicy fish salad including prawn,shrimps and crab with a rich wasabi sauce (I think), with lettuce, mint cashews and chillis, plus chicken in spinach soup, plus fish baked in garlic and pepper - ORGASMIC. Cost was 130.000 kip roughly ten dollars about a fiver then - hardly too much for a cracking meal.
Today after two 100km days cycling we are having a relax - laundry etc...and despite the rumours I still only have 3 tops (exactly the same as Paul). We decided to walk round town to begin with - have a little snack for breakfast in a recommended little french restaurant called Paris cafe. Dissapointed with limited menu but more so by the abrupt hospitality - leaving after our french bread and jam we came across another establisment and ate a huge plate
of fruit salad and a wonderful tuna salad., now set up for the day we wandered back to the hotel to pick up bikes and do further exploring.
Not a great cultural centre this place but a fabulous market along the river front - the great Mekong, with shedfuls of vendors and fruit stalls. Lao is not a rich country and the poverty is obvious- they have tv share here, not too many people begging -but all the buildings are old and french and shabby and falling down - the best buildings of course are the religious ones ie the huge Wats in the centre of town, all beautifully decorated and painted georgeous bright colours. Tuk Tuks are every where here too - also very brightly coloured, as are the monks in their orange gear!
Caged birds are a common site in Lao and Vietnam and there are plenty at our guest house, twittering away like mad made sure we were up bright and early again. Along with the birds is the noise of the thousands of Scooters zooming around - everyone has a scooter - when we come again we will travel this country by scooter, likewise vietnam, cars are relatively rare and those you see are usually blackened windows ie diplomat cars or charity organisations
running 4x4s. Despite the shabbiness of the place internet cafes are all over the place, as well as t shirt vendors. Very few of the locals wear original costume, mostly just the silk skirts- the elder women that is .
Still there is still a french colonial feel to the place and we like it.
08/03/05 (Rita writes...)
Today we travel to the capital on the back seat of the bus - It all happens on
the back seat of a corporation bus!!
We were up at the crack of dawn to cycle to the bus terminal in Savannakhet where we had arrived some days earlier. As ususal on our arrival we sussed out the provisions and invested in water and only heaven knows why - chocolate biscuits!
Surrounded by hoards of people as usual while we dismantled the bikes - fascinated by them - they went on the roof this time much, looked safe enough when tied down.
The bus was aircon (i.e windows open and we were unfortunate enough to get the back seat - how bad is that - worst place of all to sit when not sure of the roads. If they are rough we get thrown from here to kingdom come - know what I mean?!!
Paul on my left in the corner, I had on my right father,mother and baby -oh what a pleasure!! Also father was so proud of bably he decided to face it towards me - how thoughtful - it was a boy. they are big into babies here as I think we have told you and obviously assumed we are too.
The road was pretty damn good as we had experienced all over Laos so far and all fine for the first couple hundred kilometers. Around this distance at about midday when the sun at its hottest the sky became very smoggy with the big smog that hangs over India through to Thailand and beyond - every year - pollution from vehicle exhausts. We stopped for a lunch at a roadside cafe for around fifteen minutes- just a pee stop really - we couldnt identify anything to eat - you think Im joking - so guess what we had a beer.
But here were street vendors flogging Steamed sweet corn and I asked the mother to get me some - we can bank on getting a fairer price if she buys it for us through the window of the bus - they were delicious, although Paul found what looked to be a maggot in his - at least it was whole!
The father had got off and back on us with a bag of goodies - I was interested to see what he was snacking on - thinking I would have a go - Kindly he offered me what looked like black chews but was actually dead beetles - I couldnt see the legs to begin with, without my specs on - I declined, but offered his baby one of our choc biscuits - big mistake - it came back up later. Father's teeth were red with blood!!
The bus followed the route of the Mekong for much of the way - this great river which my geography teacher told us about all those years ago. Ahh!
Plenty of fat wallowing warer buffaloes along the route, mind they are the only thing that is fat in this country.
At about 2pm we called into a mechanics shack for a puncture repair, this took an hour and we had a couple of beers. On we go - but the other thing about the back of this bus is that is where the engine is. The father and I are getting extrmely hot round the legs with heat from the engine - it is steaming hot outside too. At a further pee stop we are offered some fruit, through the window, prepared in plastic bag, peeled and with sugar - ah a papaya - very nice. A few kips thats all.
The journey was due to take 10 to eleven hours - we started at 7.30 that should take us to 4.30, but with puncture at 5.45 we got into the capital Vientiane - jumped off, got our bikes together, tipped the loader and cycled into the centre to the orchid guest house, which had a goodish write up - In the trendy part of town they wanted 15 dollars for the room and although I tried to barter with the gay receptionist - he would not give in and we moved on to another place called Sasyulat which had a large room with bbc tv, air con and secure place for bikes for 12 dollars - fine. Then scrub up - legs on (trousers that is against mossies) and off for a curry at Fatimas which we had read about - It is entirely appropriate to eat a good hot and spicy curry after a long and hot bus trip.
After our meal and drinks we walked up to the side of the Mekong which flows through Vientiane where in the evening - the whole area is given over to hundreds of candlelit dining tables and looks very romantic, and you can sit there and have a beer and get bitten to death by the mossies if you like. We didnt stop long. Off back to guest house and crashed.
Since we were trapped all day yesterday on a bus - today we are up with the lark looking forward to the delights of Vientiane and hoping for an indian breakfast of Masala Dosa - which if you havent tried is absolutley scrummy - but this was 7.30 and restaurants of indian type not open til 10am. We ate stir fry noodles and fruit for breakfast at a nearby cafe which was open early then cycled to the most impressive Wat in the whole of Laos, allegedly out along embassy road (always useful to know where they are incase we get mugged or the like).
The That Luang Wat is a huge tourist attraction and people flock to it from all over the country - it is a must at least once in your life. When we arrived there were already hoards trooping in and out of the entrance. Paul decided to pay the dues and went in while I guarded the bikes and watched the monks on the outside adjusting their robes for this important occasion before entering. Plenty of tourist stalls around the Wat were selling t shirts, and all sorts of replicas of the Wat and since I am running short of T shirts I bought one for 20,000kip - very good price.
We cycled round the area and took pics of all then cycled back to wards the centre along the embassy road towards their equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe called Patuxai built in 1969 to commemorate those who died in the revolutionary wars - dead heroes. They have plenty of dead heroes as Lao has a history of being constantly invaded.
We went back for lunch at Fatimas - for the aforementioned Masala Dosa - an indian breakfast (although it was now midday)of curry, wrapped in a rice pancake with side dish of spicy radish and chillis.
While there we met a couple of real cyclists who were from France and New Zealand - they had custome made bikes and also a website called rideround - it is good have a look at it. They were cycling from Singapore to France.
After lunch and a visit to the bank on Embassy Road we made our way along the Mekong towards the Don chan Palace Hotel - which as it happens was looking deserted - so we thought to help them out by popping in for a beer. This hotel is extremely posh out of all comparison with others in town and was built for the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations)summit in November 2004. Now it is very quiet as no one can afford to stay there. Two small beers worked out at six dollars - mind the service was great - a waiter each and one more besides, all looking for something to do. An all you can eat buffet for 25 dollars was laid out - good for looking at - together with some classy french wine - but sadly very few diners.
We cycled on to base and after a wash and brush up - we decided since there were two curry houses in town -we would try out the other one Nazims, it was fine - veg and beef vindaloo, excellent.
After another long hot day we got up to date with world news back at the guest house. We watched a little about the trials of many of the adult population of the town of Angers, France who are charged with paedophilia offences. I remember staying in a room above a bar in Angers when on a touring holiday in France in 1973. It was a miserable and scarey place and my friend Liz and I stopped awake all night thinking someone might approach our room, us brave policewomen too!!!!
10/03/05 As far as journeys from hell go - this one from Vientiane to Luang Prabang rates about 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. THE journey from hell is the bus from Arrequipa to Puno!!!
While chewing over our Masala Dosa yesterday I had read that Luang Prabang was the place to visit in the whole of Lao and should not be missed - a tourist heaven - well, we dont often go for those descriptions but decided we had enough time to do the trip up by bus and be able to get back in time from this World Heritage Site for our onward flights. So early today we got up to catch the bus over the mountain.
This mountain is only for real cyclists.
Over 80 kilometers of twisting roads up through the smog, with the driver hell bent on going as fast as possible round bends with precipices at every one. I found it impossible even to read a book hanging on for dear life to the head rest in front. Paul managed to wedge himself in his seat and ignoring what was going on, continued with his book. It seemed endless and we were delighted to eventually arrive in the late aftenoon. With it being a World Heritage Site for its fabulous french colonial architecture - it attracts lots of folk and when we cycled into town to check out places to stop we were not alone - loads of back packing students and the like had got there b4 us on the tuk tuks from the bus terminal about 5 kms from the centre. Eventualy we found one with large room, single and double bed, aircon and landlady agreed our 10 dollars reluctantly.
Another hellish journey called for a few beers and some good nosh which we found later on at the vegetarian restaurant on the edge of toursty area. I ate fish in Garlic with a beautifully presented Lao salad and Paul ate a Lao speciality called Lap Beef.
A short walk after the meal around town on the main street we came across the night market - now this is some market. Almost 300-400 yards long laid out in four rows across the street, with each vendor area individually lit by a single light bulb. Selling in the main all things made of Silk from Lao, Vietnam and Thailand as well as crafty goods from woodand jade, mobile phone cases, shoes, and food stalls at the far end and much more. There were hoards of tourists of every nationality along this stretch and we decided to leave them to their bartering for this that and tother.
With its World Heritage status the whole town is under a building upheaval and the drains are rather pongy, but it is being tastefully rebuilt and the shabby back lanes from the main drag are all lit at feet level with pottery planters, very pretty. Too many tourists around for us so we head back to our hotel for a few beers - end of another great day.
11/03/05 Luang Prabang (Rita writes....)
On our walkabout last night we noticed a couple of indian restaurants and determined we would again have one of our favourite masaala dosas for breakfast - I must recommend you try it if you like a kick to get you going in the morning -some people use coffee but we dont!! By the time we made it up to the restaurant the place was open but staff looked like they couldnt be bothered to serve as it was around 9.30 ish a little early for this place - things here get going around 10.30. We have tended to stay with the light hours for our sleeping pattern to make best use of the days.
We chilled over breakfast as it was terrific and we noticed there were few other people doing much here - the night market is the big attraction here.
we decided to have a chill day and spent some time on the internet - but the speed of things was too slow for us to make up our backlog and we decided to leave for another time.
We enjoyed further delicious meals at another restaurant furhter along the main drag from the indian and since the journey was so hellish yesterday we booked a flight back to the capital which was a bargain - 40 minutes of luxury replaces 11hours of hell - good deal.
Dinner time came we found a cheap place that did excellent Thai green curry and bbq prk ribs and chips - plus some really good french red wine. Does it sound like we are always eating - well yes it seems like that to us too sometimes - but it only seems that way cause we arent cooking and every meal we have is some foreign delicacy and a delight.
Hi, to the brits from Brum we met here and chatted with before giving up our table to them. This town is simply full of travellers and has no other business but tourism, sadly.
We later spent a while at the night market which is absolutely huge and selling allsorts - but many one man/woman vendors selling very much the same silk, wood carvings touristy nick nacks etc which gets a bit repetitive after the first 200 yards! Paul lashed out and bought a T- shirt to extend his wardrobe.
The following day (12/03)we decided to take a cycle to a local attraction the Quangxi falls, this turned out to be a trek and a half by rugged roadways and lanes mostly up hill for the first 10-15 kms, but turned out to be blissfully down hill for the last 15-20 kms before arriving at this little oasis waterfall with obligatory cafe and bar for the tourists.
There was an ASEAN delegation in town yesterday and today we find they have follwed us to the falls but we got there earlier than they and were able to get the pics. Shedfuls of fine butterflies around the falls as well as bougainvilea and lilies, scores of ferns and cordyline plants.
Adjacent to the falls on the way out is a small zoo and although dont agree with captive animals in this enclosure - we found an indonesian tiger which had been saved and after loosing its mother and twin to poachers aswell as wild brown bears and wild boars.
By lunch time in the intense heat we made our way back to town by tuk tuk transport. We cycled to the airport around 3 before flying out on our return to Vientiane - this was definitely one of Paul's better ideas - he can do no wrong!!!
We ate stir fry noodles with hot chilli sauce lovingly prepared by a young girl over pottery burner, nothing sophisticated you understand but great taste, just the ticket.
We made the long trip from Vientiane to a town just this side of the lao border before cycling over the border into Thailand(13/03) - the border officials were very friendly and the crossing took no time at all. We cycled into the nearest town for an overnight stop at Nong Khai at a guest house called Mut Mee - which was a delight. It was extremely friendly and laid back and our room, a cabin was basic but very nicely done with matching blue mossie nets with tie ribbons, and a natural soak away for shower area also painted midnight blue with pebbled floor - that sort of touch to show someone has actually thought about it. The receptionist Petra, a german girl, speaking very good english was exceptional and told us we had the honeymoon suite, well it wasnt that grand!!! But the atmosphere here was so friendly and there are vacancies here for english speakers. We thought this would be an ideal location to consider when we start living abroad!! The town although friendly is rough and typical of a border town. Lots of restaurants and bars and women of the night, but basically a mix of ethnic Lao and Noerthern Thai people all trying to grab a piece of the tourist action.
We took a river trip along the Mekong which runs at this point past our guest house and between lao and Thailand forming the border and took pics of the sunset.
We ate geng masanam - a curry stolen from malaysia icluding peanut, potato and pork with brown rice and garlic bread - another great meal.
The following day (14/03)we were off early for our soft seat journey by train at 9.05 to Bangkok. We prepared in advance for this one another 10-12 hour stint, by getting books and water and snack plus dining at the roadside vendors before the trip on stir fry noodles and other stuff we didnt recognise - we regretted this move , later with those stabbing stomach pains which let you know it wasnt the most hygienic of places to eat.
It was an immmense trip - not like the number one journey from hell between Arrequipa and Puno, SA for 22 hours by bus, but tedious in the extreme, hot, hot, hot and open window air con and very barren countrside. We were extremely glad to get into Bangkok 5.30 ish and get to a guest house smack in the centre of the action adjacent to Siam Square.
Paul started with a toothach on the journey and on our arrival I was delighted to spot a private dental clinic in our same street which turned out to be a bit of a blessing.
the following morning -straight in there for and investigation and purchase of painkillers( dont you just love them) also a prescription for antibiotics - Paul very grateful indeed and the dentist obliging and friendly, mind they normally are when you are paying, I find.
After the medicinal part of the day we were able to make it for a late brekkers in the Tesco / Lotus (all Thailand businesses are 50%/50%owned by the Thais, how wise) food court. wow what a selection of Thai, vietnamese, chinese, Lao, and malaysian food - HEAVEN!!!!! not to mention the Tesco shopping experience adjacent.