Thursday, May 2, 2013

Cycling Journal #2 - Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang

April 17- Chiang Mai to Hot Springs. 
Songkram is finally over, allowing us to take care of the errand list we’ve been patiently saving up. It’s been a fun few days of water fights and easy living, but we’re eager to get back on the road. Our bikes aren’t going to pedal themselves. Before we can leave, however, I need my camera shutter fixed, and we need new rear tires for both of our bikes. We tackle both errands quickly (saving ourselves enough time for two trips to the coffee smoothie lady) and are pedaling away from our four day mini-vacation before noon.

It’s a sweet ride through the mountains, up through national parks and into undeveloped jungle. We also pass a goat farm that serves goat milk ice cream collected from a very curious herd (see picture). Unfortunately, our late start comes back to haunt us and dusk finds us far from any town. We realize our predicament too late and try to get off the road before dark, but the pickings are slim: either $150 for a cabin at an upscale honeymoon resort, or a spot on the floor of the national park staff lodging. We’re hoping the park staff are eager to help us out, but it’s obviously awkward so we choose to pedal into the coming night. It’s a little nerve-wracking biking on a dark highway with minimal shoulder, high speed traffic, and dinky lights, but it turns out to be a fast and exciting 10 km cruise all downhill to the next guesthouse, and we make it in 2 pieces (1 piece each).

April 18- Hot Springs to Chiang Rai. 
The rest of the ride to Chiang Rai is pretty flat and we cruise effortlessly into town. Chiang Rai itself is nice, and much less of a scene than Chiang Mai, although it has a surprisingly big backpacker ghetto compared to what the Lonely Planet has to say. I’m starting to feel like the guidebook is consistently outdated even though it only came out last year. I'm also starting to wonder if Lonely Planet has a good business plan for staying relevant in the age of smart phones and wifi, as way more people are checking their phones than are pulling out their guidebooks.

There’s a great night market here, selling mostly hot pots, beer on tap, and fried food. The market is set up in a large square, with all the vendors around the outside encircling a huge courtyard seating area, complete with a stage and live entertainment. Is it entertainment if the singing hurts your ears? Most of the patrons are Thai, and we see some eating a mushroom dish that sets Abby to drooling. When we inquire as to the name, we get a mouthful of gibberish which we then mangle, so one of them gets up from his dinner, walks us to the vendor, and does the ordering for us. He hits a home run and we waddle home stuffed full of fungal love.

April 19- Chiang Rai to Phaya Meng Rai. 
We leave Chiang Rai late, just before noon. It’s really hot by now, but the leisurely morning is worth it to eat a good breakfast and allow Abby time to determine if she’s up for the ride. A spot of bother hit during the night, so she’s a little apprehensive about the bike ride. Luckily, it’s only planned as a short day, so we press on, to Phaya Meng Rai. We take our time to travel the easy 60 km and end up at a quaint little cabin with air-conditioning and a fridge, just on the edge of town. The fridge is nice because it means we get to start the day with cold fruit (our standard breakfast) and cold water. One blog we found recommended the place, which is odd in retrospect since it’s the only place in town. And the only town for miles. He also mentioned that it rented by the hour and sure enough, there’s a sign posted right on the wall explicitly stating that hourly rentals “must be out of the room in less than 2 hours.” No romance here, just do the deed and be done!

One hour and fifty-eight minutes after we check-in, we leave for dinner. We’re both starving, a now-permanent element of our bike tour. We hit a local rice restaurant, and afterward discover that neither one of us brought any money, so I convince the owner to let us out on bond. I assure her that I will return, and though she gives me a bit of a grimace she seems more focused on the karaoke going on next door so it’s no big deal. She waves us away impatiently. When we get back to our little love shack, Abby’s insides are still a little undecided but mine are proclaiming their continued hunger, loudly. She stays behind, to soothe her internal conflict, while I solo into town, pay the rice lady, and cruise by the night market.

Sadly, the “night market” turns out to be a table with two women selling home-cooked meals in plastic bags, so I take a pass. Not so sadly, I’m waved over to a group of Thai women and am offered a shot of local whiskey as they get patently drunk. It’s surprisingly good, but I have a hunger that can’t be ignored, even for free booze. I’ve also got a sick wife who wouldn’t be thrilled if I showed up hours after planned, wasted. I hit up the noodle man beside the 7/11, and make both him and me happy by ordering two bowls of soup which I then devour loudly while watching Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing) with the locals. It’s fast, violent, and awesome. I return to my wife, full, and discover her smiling and content. Tomorrow, we head to Laos.

April 20 - Phaya Meng Rai to Huay Xai.The trip to the border is completely uneventful, except for when we stop at a roadside vendor to buy a pineapple. Their pick-up truck is overflowing with beautiful, impossibly fragrant fruit, and our bikes roll to a stop without so much as a conscious thought. The lady makes a point to pick out the best one, and then cuts it into slices and hands it to us in a bag. She uses a technique we’ve never seen before, grasping the stem like a handle, and carving long strips in a circle until she's holding nothing but the core. We devour the whole thing - it’s quite possibly the best pineapple we've ever tasted.

The border straddles the Mekong River,and you need to take a boat across. We make a final stop on the Thai side to spend our remaining Baht since the coins will only weigh us down once we cross into Laos - every ounce counts! Really, I just want a snack. Thankfully, there’s a 7/11 on the main drag so we get a bonus blast of a/c in addition to an ice cold Big Gulp. We wonder if 7/11 has invaded Laos yet, and agree that the unfortunate answer is likely no. When the refreshments are done, we head down to the river, load our bikes onto a little ferry boat, and enter a new country. The first thing confronting us once we set foot on shore is a big poster at the entrance to the customs post. It’s a cartoon with different boxes that graphically illustrates the Do’s and Don’ts for invading foreigners. Basically, the entire poster is a warning to dirt bags to not be dirt bags. This could get interesting.

For the first time ever, I end up paying more for a visa than Abby. In fact, I end up paying more for a visa than anyone from any other country in the world. What could Canada possibly have done to piss off the Laotian government so much - carpet bombed the hell out of the country for a decade in an illegal secret war? Oh, that wasn't us? It's really weird, but it's only an extra ten bucks (plus a dollar for crossing on the weekend), so it's no big deal. We are granted a month stay.

April 21 - Boat ride from Huay Xai to Pak Beng. 
After crossing into Laos yesterday, we take a day off from biking and spend the day cruising down the Mekong River on the slow boat. This is good, because our new tires are now four days old, and have a combined six punctures. The patch kit we bought in Chiang Mai is mostly used up and it’s become clear that tires are not a good place to save money.

We're both ecstatic to be on the water all day as it’s been ages. The boat is called a long-tail, and is shaped like a dart. It’s long and lean, and seems rather tippy but the luggage gets stowed below and the stability improves. It’s surprisingly full of gringos, with only a few locals sprinkled in for seasoning - we were expecting the slow boat to be the opposite. Before we push off, a Lao man with a badge around his neck gets everyone’s attention and launches into a safety briefing. It seems legit until he starts sounding dire about the situation at the place where we’ll disembark - it’s “dark, very dangerous, and full of aggressive touts.” He then announces that he has access to guesthouse reservations, so “who needs a room?”. To our astonishment, a bunch of people fall for it and end up paying twice as much as they should. He steps off the boat just as the lines are thrown, money in hand, and we push off into the current.

The Mekong is big, fast, and diarrhea brown. I wanted to describe it as “chocolate brown”, and in fact even had it typed out as such, but my conscience wouldn’t let me get away with it. It’s not an attractive color. Aside from that, it’s really nice. It’s much more rugged than I imagined, and reminds me a lot of the Copper River back home, but busier. There’s constant traffic in both directions, with barges being towed upstream and little speed boats zipping between the bigger boats and the rocks. I try hard to get a picture of one of speedboats, but they’re too fast. They make an odd sight, the little cabinless outboard ski boats rocketing along, drivers and passengers protected from wildlife and water by full face motocross helmets. Apparently, they crash a lot.

Pak Beng, where the boat spends the night, is indeed a bit of a gong show, but a very manageable one. It’s a single strip of road that’s packed wall-to-wall with guesthouses and restaurants, all catering to the daily influx of boat passengers. Most people continue on to Luang Prabang on day two, but we won’t be continuing with them, and instead will pedal inland and take three or four days to arrive at the same destination. The boat disgorges passengers just before dinner, and everyone rushes up the road looking for a cheap place to stay, then eats dinner and crashes out. In the morning, everyone grabs breakfast and snacks, and reboards the boat to continue their voyage south. No one is here to visit, so the poor villagers deal with the exact same cheap backpackers looking for a deal (dirtbags unite!) every single night. Tonight it’s our turn, tomorrow a new group. We agree it would get really old, really fast, but spirits seem high amongst the local guest house owners. Good for them.

Listening to dinner conversation turns out to be the highlight of a full day. The potential couple at the table beside us is trying to feel each other out, and animatedly discussing the appropriate emotional attachment to a one-night stand. He’s 21 and got the world figured out. She looks a little bit older, and has a slightly bemused look on her otherwise eager face. He’s adamant that what happens between the sheets should stay there while she is much less certain. After the bill, they leave together; either he’s looking for more or she’s looking for less. By the time WE leave, also together, although in an old and married for seven years kind of way, the main drag is full of drunken mayhem.

It’s really our first taste of this element of the backpacker scene since leaving Seattle in January, and it makes us feel old. We got a taste at Songkram, in Chiang Mai, but it was only an accessory to the local party. Here, it’s its own traveling roadshow, and it’s a harsh reintroduction. It mostly consists of youngsters discovering themselves at the expense of the local culture. Self-discovery is a wonderful and worthy thing, as is a good piss-up, but the party is completely removed from its surroundings, untethered to the lives of those making it possible. It’s annoying, and crass, and I want to tell them to go to Cancun, or Goa, or better yet stay at home if all they want to do is get drunk and fuck. We agree they must not have seen the poster at the border asking them to restrain some of their dirtbaggedness.

April 22 - Pak Beng to Udomxai. 
We wake up at 5 am to the staccato sounds of a downpour on the tin roofs of the town. We’re planning an early start but the rain makes it an easy call so we roll over and go back to bed. The rooftop music stops too soon, and our guilt becomes unbearable as we try to sleep longer - our bikes beckon! Thanks to the precipitation, the weather is delightfully cool for a change, and the ride is a fast one up a long river valley full of farmland, mostly bananas. It’s also corn planting time, with groups out everywhere. One person walks slowly along a straight line, pacing carefully then poking holes with a long wooden stick. Others follow behind, seed bags draped over a shoulder, dropping a kernel into each divot. We’re surprised when the planting proceeds up the steep side of the valley but trust their judgement. They seem to know what they're doing.

We get to Udomxai just as night is falling, and take one of the first places we find. It's a little expensive for our price range, but we’re not eager to keep searching in the dark and anyway, it turns out to be a bargain! It’s got brand new owners from China, and they’re excited to host a pair of foreigners traveling by bicycle. They invite us to their family dinner (fresh noodles cooked by mom), and then on to beers and karaoke for dessert. Mom is bashful at first but is eventually convinced to sing a song. She starts off well but quickly gets tongue-tied at a tricky part, fumbles again, and finally is too embarrassed so hands the mic off to the receptionist. The receptionist is obviously used to the limelight, and has everyone looking up admiringly from their iPhones after the first few notes. Abby and I are encouraged to sing, but the Lao subscript poses too much of a challenge for even free beer to overcome. It’s a very good evening in a town our guidebook told us to give a wide berth.

April 23 - Udomxai to Pak Mong. 
We start the day with a long climb up into the jungle, with the sound of insects ripping through the still air like chainsaws.  I never knew they could be so loud! It's a beautiful ride with lots of tree cover and even a few small springs to cool our heads.  The road is beat up and tough going, which gets old the longer it goes on. The black top is broken every couple hundred meters, making for a mentally draining day since you can never relax for more than 20 seconds at a time. We occasionally pass through Hmong villages throughout the day, their bamboo huts lining the road on both sides. 

We finally meet a fellow biker, at dinner in Pak Mong. We were starting to wonder if we were the only ones out here in the heat. We’re excited about our accomplishment thus far, so we tell him about it. we've done over 1200 km in less than 3 weeks, things are going well, our first real go at bike touring, we’ve still got almost six more weeks, blah blah blah, etc. HE informs us he's been biking around the globe pretty much continuously for the past 19 years. He heads home for a few months every 6 or 7 years, checks on his house and renters, kisses his mother, then leaves again. He’s totally cool about it, and not pompous or a braggart, but we stop telling him about all the wonderfully discoveries we’ve made on our little mini-vacation. Thankfully, he unwittingly throws us a (very) small bone when he tells us he has a 72 kg bike, enabling us to regain a small measure of pride since we’re likely faster up the hills.

 Our room comes with satellite TV, so we’re trying to take advantage of it, in vain. Thai TV is terrible - 142 channels of junk. Not a single word of English to be found anywhere, and 90% of channels with either a cheesy talk show or Thai infomercials for aphrodisiacs. It turns out, you can buy sex pills on the shopping channel here. The abundance of useless programming sucks me in and I spend the next two hours flipping hopefully through all 142 channels, hoping for the elusive lost magical channel to suddenly appear. It never does.

April 24 - Pak Mong to Luang Prabang. 
Another day of hills, but on a much better road than yesterday, so we get some benefit out of the climbs in the form of long, fast downhills. At one point we have a 12 km downhill, uninterrupted. It's awesome, but seems too short when we reach the bottom and the inevitable climb back up. I've figured out that my bike has a speed wobble over 45 km/hr, where it starts shimmying and I have to hold on with both hands to keep it in control. It goes away somewhere around 60, but I haven't had nearly as much chance to dial in the upper threshold. So far my top speed for the trip has been 60.7 km/hr, and it seems really hard to get going any faster. As it was, I had to crouch aggressively over my handle bars, tuck my ass in tight, and will the hill to get steeper. Abby is content to let gravity do all of the work without any extra help, and often discourages it by throwing some additional friction at it. I don't understand.

We reach Luang Prabang and are reunited with the Mekong. It's much bigger, and less brown. It also forms the boundary of the city, which is a beautiful, leafy old colonial town. It has a thriving backpacker scene which is catered to by the locals. We gorge on fruit smoothies as we wander through the streets, feeling like we're no longer is Asia. Except for the heat. Sadly, e power of architecture does not extend to cooling climates. For dinner, we find a vegetarian dinner buffet which lets you heap a plate full of as much as it will fit for 10,000 kip (~ $1.35). The plates are those half plate/half bowl contraptions which help with the task, but early on I realize that strategy is important. I start out too eager, and am setting myself up for disaster so I step back, collect myself, and channel my inner engineer.

I put the heavy, solid foods around the edge and then slop the softer things inside. On top go the dense, solid items like spring rolls and deep fried tofu. The plate gets higher and higher and when it seems like it's getting TOO high, I start make eye contact with the owner every time I add another scoop, looking for a disapproving glare, or a sign to quit while I'm ahead. He doesn't blink, in fact I think he enjoys this part of the game and I have to walk slowly back to the table Abby has claimed to avoid spilling anything. I sit down with a proud smile on my face, very pleased with myself, and then a tiny little wisp of a girl sits down at the table beside ours with a plate mounded even higher. Abby openly laughs in my face, spewing vegan meatballs from her mouth in the process. I am humbled. Dinner is very good. For dessert, I buy half a chicken on a stick, and wash it down with another fruit smoothie. Everyone's happy.

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