Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Day 342 - Kampong Cham

Well, after a rough arrival to Stung Treng, the departure was better. I was awoken during the night to more rain and when I got up it was still drizzling, but it had stopped by the time I left. Soon enough I was heading straight for the centre of a thunder storm, but thankfully managed to miss it, or so I thought. As it began to brighten up, the few spots of rain soon turned to heavy rain, but I was warm a quite enjoying it, making a change from the relentless heat. It rained for a couple of hours and I was soaked. 35k before Kratie the signs pointed down a little road, but before long I was right beside the Mekong. I stopped to take a photo and was soon surrounded by kids, one of the girls speaking very good English. She aked me 'Do you have wine?'', a bit of an odd question I thought, but it was followed up by 'Do you have a girlfriend?'', so obviously I had misheard her. First impressions here are that far more people speak English than in Laos. The ride beside the Mekong was good, always through houses with kids constantly shouting out 'HELLO' at the tops of their voices. The houses were all on stilts and reached from the raised roads by bridges, some very long. Also unlike Laos there are bustling markets in the towns and most of the guest houses can be found somewhere around them. In one I found a bike, then found it's owner, James from Canada. He had cycled up north from Phnom Penh, so was able to give me some good imformation on the route, very rough and very dusty.

It had rained again over night, but it didn't look to bad so I still made for the dirt road that followed the Mekong. To start with it was fine, it even looked like a road (photo), but bits had roadworks and with the rain it was a quagmire. Soon enough there was a nice long stretch of tarmac. I stopped to eat and have a cane juice right beside the river, bliss, especially as James I told me by this point I was over the worst. Once the tarmac went the road got worse and worse. The rains had made the top slippery and all the two wheeled traffic aimed for the same narrow bit of road that had been flattened by use and was easy to ride. It became bumpier and much slower, then it became narrower and no longer looked like is should be on the map as a main road. Then I hit a section that was just pure mud, some you could get around by going through peoples gardens, other bits I just had to push the bike through, but when my feet were in the mud and water it was lovely and warm. At last I got through that bit which had been painfully slow and hard work heaving the bike out of deep mud, but I was now of decent fast gravel with only 25k to go, there was more traffic, so I was home and dry, ha! I celebrated by having more cane juice. The crowd of women around could not speak a word of English but I still understood the same old question, ''Are you married?" Once on the move again there were little juntions, choices to be made. I always stopped and asked and was confidently pointed the way. The track again got small, muddier until it reached a smaller river with a broken bridge, which was easy to get around, but now my directions were getting very odd. I was now on footpaths, then I was pointed through somebody's garden and across a field that was reached through a boggy patch that clogged the mudguards up so much it stopped the wheels turnings. Due to recent rains the field was really boggy too, I decided this direction was wrong, so went back, another clogged up wheel another cleanup job, only to be told by others I had to cross the field. Back I went, cleaned up the wheels yet again, only for it to repeat the process about 3 more times before getting across the field, I was getting a tad pissed off. I reached the river again which at least told me I was going the right way, but it was just a footpath. I was picking up more and more mud and stopped alarmingly quickly when I stopped pedaling, but despite the rubbing noises I ploughed on. At last I reached decent gravel again, but this time I expected it to get bad again, but soon I could see the bridge over the Mekong to Kampong Cham, the ordeal was almost over. I reached the town in exactly the distance that James had said, 125k, but each time I stopped at a guest house I left a pile of mud. For James the main problem was dust in his eyes, for me it was mud over the ankles. I think we did the ride in very different conditions, but now is the start of the wet season. After a shower I went out for dinner, but the heavens opened again, I am just glad I am not on the road tomorrow, it'll just get worse and worse.

Tomorrow I think I will stick to the main road to Phnom Penh, it's a little longer, but far more predictable and oh so much easier.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Day 340 - Stung Treng (Cambodia)

Heading out of Pakse were some of the busiest roads I have been on in Laos, but still nothing when compared with the UK, and it only lasted a few k, then it was nice and peaceful again. In fact heading south it became so peaceful that as I was running out of water I decided I ought to stop the next time I saw water as I might not see it again. Soon enough I found a basic place and stopped, might as well get something to eat as well. As I walked across the little bridge I was offered barbecued pork on a stick, hang on, is that really pork? Closer inspection revealed them to be bugs of some description (photo). Now given the fact that I would probably run away from them if they were alive, why on earth should I want to put them in my mouth just beacuse they are dead. On the other hand it would be nice to have some just for the pleasure of seeing 8 or 9 or the horrible little things with sticks up their bums and roasted on a fire. Perhaps you are supposed to put them in the loo to ward off other buggies from wandering in. Oh no, they don't have loos! I did take one stick for a closer look and they all mimicked me and laughed as I exclaimed 'Ooooooo, Ooh!' I only wanted a packet of buscuits! I have probably mentioned before all the outlines of accidents I have seen, well just a few k further on I saw what I assume was probably a very serious accident, but it was hard not to laugh (photo). I didn't fancy the persons chances given the ambulance I had seen further back. It had bikes and a stretcher strapped to the roof, then I thought, if there is not enough room inside the ambulance for a stretcher, what will they do when they return with a victim? Of course most people here are happy to travel on the roof, so may be they strap them on the top and tell them they are going to hospital by air ambulance. Further on I turned off the main road and headed for Khong Island, yes, even in land locked Laos you can chill out on a peaceful island, in the middle of the Mekong river, which is pretty big down here. The area is know as the 4000 Islands, funny that, as my map only shows about 12! Once I reached the boat landing I was told it was a whopping 20,000 to get across, I hung around a while haggling for 15,000, but with only one boat owner and only one person wanting to get across, there was only ever going to be one outcome. He could have charged double that and I still would have gone.

The following morning I had a lovely long sociable breakfast by the river with Birgit from Denmark who was the only other person staying in the lovely teak guest house that I was also staying at. Breakfast didn't finish until about 11:30, then rather stupidly at 13:00, the hottest part off the day, I set off to ride the 45km around the island, to make things worse the best views of the river were from along the front of Muang Khong where we were staying. On my return I met up with Trevor and Jane from the UK, on an around the world trip starting roughly the same time as I did, but going the other way. With Birgit we all had a very sociable evening, really nice beside the river that I have been following for so long and seen so little of.
We all had breakfast together this morning, then bought bottles of the localk wiskey for 60p each just to use up the little money we had left over. They then departed for Cambodia on a minibus and me on my bike, though we met up again at the ferry and also briefly at the border, where I got my visa issued in about 10 minutes flat, so what was I worring about? From there it was about 55km to Stung Treng with very little to look at other than thinned out forest vegetation and lots of new growth. There were no villages to speak of and I had to ration my water to get me there, I was very dehydrated on arrival, almost fainting as I waited in the hot reception of the guest house. I was desperate for a cold drink, but there is no sign of a fridge anywhere in this little town. As I approached the town there is a big new bridge closed off by barriers at both ends and watched by guards. At both ends I and other people moved the barriers out of the way and replaced them once through, the guards just laughed. I couldn't quite see the point of the barriers, though in the centre of town the small vehicle ferry was still doing a roaring trade. I recovered in front of the tele watching yesterday's Premiership matches and will continue to recover tonight watching the live matches, it's a tough life.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Day 337 - Pakse

Well, a few days have passed since I last posted and I am now way down in the south of Laos. There are very few tourists and I have not seen a single cyclist since Vientiane, but I enjoyed the ride anyway, even if it is not as spectacular as the north.

I had a good plan when I left Vientiane. There is a Buddha Park that I wanted to visit, it's 25km SE of Vientiane, so I decided to visit it on my way out rather than make a 50km round trip, I expected it to add about 20km onto my first day. I found the Buddha Park without any trouble, the road was easy to follow as it went under the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, a major border crossing, after that things went a little downhill as the tarmac disappeared and it became very sandy. Still, I got there and wasn't over impressed with it, so I was pleased not to have made the 50km trip. There I met a Swiss family who had waved to me on the way from the back of a tuk-tuk. They have been travelling for almost a year and were really nice, the guy even slightly changed my opinions of people with tattoos, though only slightly. They have been travelling with their 6 year old daughter and 2 year old son, now that is a challenge! From there on the road got worse and worse, still I knew it would only be about 30k, ha ha! After about 30k I stopped for lunch, knowing the main road would be just around the corner, it wasn't. I t just never seemed to arrive, I even flagged a car down from the opposite direction and their response was 'What main road?', they had never heard to highway 13, really the only road heading south. I resigned myself to the fact that this must be the main road (photo) and it would be like this for a few days, then joy of joys, there it was, nice smooth tarmac after 60k of sand and gravel.
From there on in it was decent road the whole way. I stopped the following day at Pakkading after a pretty uneventful ride, but was amazed to find a really good guest house in the tiny town. Heading south away from the tourist areas I had expected to be staying in dives, but not at all, they have been far better and at the same price, excellent value. 10 minutes after I had arrived I wasn't so sure about the excellent value as a cockeral was doing it bit non stop just aoutside the window, I had a pretty good idea that I wouldn't oversleep the following morning. It must have been a much loved creature as I was ready to wring it's bloody neck after 10 minutes. Also it suddenly got very dark, then the heavans opened with a thunderstorm, I had just timed it right and hadn't even seen it coming, it must have been sneaking up behind me. I had dinner at the restaurant next door served by a lovely looking lady.
I was right about the cockeral, it put on a show at 23:30, then from 3am until I got up at 6am. Amazingly as I was about to leave, so was the cockeral. I couldn't believe it, they stopped it from trying to escape, if it had been me I would have sent it on it's way with a hefty kick from a size 12 boot up it's backside. I don't even take size twelve, but would have happily bought a pair just for the job. I had breakfast next door, but the lovely looking lady from last night didn't look so lovely first thing in the morning in her pyjamas. No that doesn't mean I spent the night with her, it's just that life here is one continual circle of work. Shops and restaurants are family affairs and the living area is open for all to see at the rear of the business. It's rather strange to take your shoes off to go in a shop and after a couple of row of goods to see sofas and people watching television, or lying around in bed. The floors are generally tiled and some even park their cars inside. What I want to know is once they have parked the car in front of the tele, do they then take off their shoes to get out of the car, it just doesn't make sense to me, very odd. The days ride was once again very hot, but could have been so attractive with hills to the left, ruined by roadside power cables, and the Mekong river to the right, hardly visible due to high vegetation, I just had to use my imagination. By now I was off the bananas, but I am clearly hooked on sticky rice. Can you overdose on rice? I normally try and get some for breakfast as the noodles just don't give me the energy, then I also buy extra to take with me. I feel so much better when I can feel the globules of the stuff coursing through my veins. Although it is the same stuff as normal rice when squeezed into balls in your hands it is a very different texture to eat, nice and chewy, great stuff.
I left Thakhek without having breakfast as the choice was only noodle soup. I kept an eye open for sticky rice as I passed through the villages, eventually spotted people eating it at a table and stopped and ordered some, along with a cane juice. Clearly they thought this was a very odd order, but as I waited I realised this was only a little shop with a couple of tables outside, those I had spotted inside were just the family having their breakfast, still they gave me breakfast that included an omelette and all for barely nothing. I found another good guest house that evening but their spelling here is worse than mine as I was staing in a 'Guest Houes', a couple of days ago I stayed in a 'Quest House'.
Yesterday I set off not really knowing where I would stay as I didn't expect to find a guest house at all. I passed some early on, but far too early to stop. During the afternoon I looked for places to camp, but it was hardly ideal, dried rice paddies with cattle on. I stopped at a couple of villages and asked if there was anywhere to camp, they said no, but probably had no idea what I was on about. I stopped at a shop for drinks, I was oh so thirsty. This was very much a general store as whilst I was there somebody wanted medicines. Pills and capsules were all kept loose in a blue bucket, single shot liquid medicines were in the green bucket and money was kept in the pink bucket, not that it would have been very heavy as there are no coins here. As I sat at the store I asked the guy about camping, but he told me there was a guest house 20k further on. Oh well' I might as well plod on. After 21k I arrived at a village and stopped and asked a group of women how far to the guest house, I was told by 3 of them 2k, 4k and 5k, I guessed it was going to be the 5k. After 5k at last I arrived at a town, but no sign of a guest house, I asked again and was told it was another 4k, this could go on forever and it was rapidly getting dark, yet it is oh so close! Why is it that people always under estimate the distance, they never seem to say 20k, only for it to be 15. At last I arrived, to be met at a guest house run by a man with no legs, yet he was very able bodied. I was amazed at his agility as he swung in and out of his wheel chair. As I carried my bike into the room the door swung shut, but in a flash he was there to hold the door open for me, an amazing man. There are lots of places here called Lak, so many in fact that they seem to number them, I passed through Lak 35, 70, 90 and 12, today I passed Lak 58. Looking at the map last night they don't seem to have got it quite right as there are 2 Lak 12's! I pitty the poor postman! (They have postmen here?) With the guest house being out of town I had to ride out in a fantastic electrical storm for dinner. The first place I stopped at only had noodle soup on offer and showed me a bag of dried noodles, complete with a large cockroach. She wasn't the slightest bit bothered when I pointed it out to her, she probably thought I wanted in the soup. I moved on! The next place was fine, others were eating there too and a group of teenagers even gave me a glass of beer. A pot-bellied pig came in and barged it's way under the tables, needless to say that once again nobody batted an eyelid, it was probably the family pet, to be eaten in a year or so.
So after cycling far to far yesterday it at least left a nice easy ride into Pakse today, which gave me time to have a good look around, read sit around and drink wonderful banana shakes. Today I had the wind behind me which made it fast and a doddle. I also had it behind me for the last part yesterday, which I can't understand as prior to that I have been heading into a slight headwind the whole time. I have another long ride tomorrow, let's hope it's behind me again.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Day 331 - Vientiane

Well, I set out nice and early for the 156k ride to Vientiane, but I chose the wrong day. This was THE day, National Waterfight Day, not a day to be cycling on, let alone cramming two days worth in one. It was clear from about 8am that it was a National Holiday as groups of people had breakfast together with plenty of beer in evidence, and the constant smell of barbecues. The route remained a bit lumpy for the first half as the road wound its way through what was left of the mountains. I reached Phonhong by about midday, from then on the last 70k was a bit dull and flat. There were now houses on each side of the road almost all the way to Vientiane, gone were the traditional houses of wood, bamboo and a thatched roof, to be replaced with, well, untraditional houses, you know the type, concrete and tiles. There were still a few large wooden houses, but even those had tiled roofs. From mid morning onwards I was getting a pretty regular drenching, if the villages weren't enough I was also getting them from passing vehicles. I discovered that if I slowed right down at the drenching points the water was more or less poured over rather than thrown with force, it then became almost enjoyable. There was far more action today though. Practically every vehicle on the road was a pickup, full of people and water. They would drive along drenching the likes of me, then stop alongside a roadside group, they would have a big water fight with everybody ending up soaked, then the vehicle would move on and the process would start all over again. The roadside groups had loud music playing and whilst they waited for action they would dance and drink. By the time I reached the edge of Vientiane clearly some had had way to much of the latter. I group completely blocked my way, then threw water bombs as hard as they could from point blank range, one hitting me really hard in the chest that really hurt, it is still painful now. Let's just say that I wasn't best pleased. Heading into the city was a nightmare. I was wanting to keep reasonably dry so as not to be dripping water when I checked out guest houses, but hundreds of people lined the streets as pickups cruised the roads. The roads were littered with the plastic remains of water bombs. I then discovered that if I made no eye contact at all I would keep off about 9 out of 10 'attacks'. Then I reached a junction with traffiic lights. I needed to go straight ahead into a one way street but the roadside was completely lined with people and pickups were static, two abreast, and the biggest water fight I have even seen was taking place, it was a bloody war zone! I took a diversion. I found a few quiet streets with a few guest houses. I wanted to look further afield but each attempt to get out of the area was met with more war zones, so I cut my losses and checked into one I had already seen, not ideal, but better than trying to find another under the cirmumstances. I am on the fourth floor, overlooking the national stadium. That's a national stadium? It is oval with about 8 rows of tatty terracing around it, clearly sport is not taken that seriously here. In Bangladesh you would get more people around a television watching the cricket, or more people in a cafe watching a cyclist. In the evening the were still sparadic outbreaks of conflict, so I didn't stray too far.
Peace had returned by the following morning. After a leisurely breakfast I made my way to the Cambodian embassy, it was firmly shut. It is very quiet around town, I think it is another holiday, probably National Dry Yourself Out, Sober Yourself Up Day. I pootled about town on the bike looking at a few sights, but it is hard to believe this is a capital city. True it is very different and bigger than anything else I have seen in Laos, but there are wide boulevards and no high rise buildings anywhere, it just feels like a provincial town. I guess when the whole country has less than half the population on London that the capital is never going to be enormous. By evening I was totally amazed, there has been a complete unconditional ceasefire, you can walk the streets in safety and peace, wonderful. I seem to be rapidly turning into a grump old man, don't I? The thing is, I am sure it was all great fun if you are involved and armed with water yourself, but when you are on the receiving end the whole time, it was a bit of a nuisance.
Today I made another trip to the Cambodian embassy and they had thoughtfully put up a sign saying they are closed today and tomorrow, why couldn't they have put that up earlier? I did manage to speak to somebody though who said I could get a visa at the border, which contradicts what I have heard from everywhere else, but I checked in a travel agent and they confirmed it, hopefully that is the case then. I will set off for Pakxe in the south and try and get more information as I go, it will probably take me 6 or so days to get there, and that is where I will need to make my decision, either to continue south to the Cambodian border with Laos, or cross into Thailand again and cross into Cambodia from there where I know for sure that you can get a visa at the border. I have been around a couple of other sights today, but really I am taking it pretty easy here, it's a nice relaxed place, so I am making the most of it.
I keep seeing people here that I have seen elsewhere, some I have spoken to in the past, some I haven't, I just recognise them. Some I am please to see again, some I am not. I keep seeing the rather loopy Scotsman that I met in Luang Nam Tha and who tries to sell me drugs, I keep making out I don't see him so that I don't have to talk to him, I expect the feeling is mutual. I have also just bumped into David from Huddersfield who I met in Chiang Mai, it's a some world.
Aren't maps wonderful, you can look at them before you have been there, then look at them again after you have been there and they have a completely different 'feel' to them. Mystery is replaced by knowledge, though in my case with the memory span of a goldfish, it all too quickly returns to mystery! Mystery is replaced by knowledge, though in my case with the memory span of a goldfish, it all too quickly returns to mystery! Mystery is replaced by knowledge, though in my case with the memory span of a goldfish, it all too quickly returns to mystery! It doesn't seem to matter what the map is either, it seems to be the case if it is the map of a whole country or a street map of a town, the 'feel' of the map changes. You don't get that with a GPS.
I have uploaded a few more photos, there is even another one of me, I am with the young monk that I wrote about a while back, but I think it shows better how much weight I have lost, and that is despite eating up to 5 meals a day at times. For some strange reason on the shorter cycling days I seem to be overcome by hunger and as I have the time I eat more, I do, sometimes 2 lunches and 2 dinners, I only ever seem to have one breakfast though, may be I should look into that.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Day 328 - Vang Vieng

Only 3 days since the last post and nothing much to report, so I will keep it short and sweet.

The day out of Luang Prabang was a toughie, only 2 climbs to speak of, but they were 15k and 21k, I seemed to be climbing all day, but with the scenery getting better and better all the time I had no complaints. I met 3 pairs of cyclists coming the other way, so stopped and had a chat with all of them making it quite a sociable day. I got on really well with the last pair and could have happily travelled with them, a shame they were going in the opposite direction. By afternoon there was no end of traffic going the other way, mostly posh Toyota pickups and people carriers, very much the status symbol in Thailand, so I guess the same here. They were all heading for the Pii Mai festivities in Luang Prabang so I think I am glad to be away from the place, it will be heaving. I warned the cyclists about lack of accommodation, but said they would find something eventually, but having seen all that traffic I am not so sure they would have done. There was hardly anything going in my direction. My mid afternoon it was clouding over and started to threaten a storm, they weren't empty threats either. It started to rain lightly but with very big, very cold drops, then a heavy shower which I luckily found cover from, then steady rain. I got wet! The temperature dropped from a sweaty 40 degrees to and icy cold 22. I found a couple of guest houses and gladly took refuge, only covering 78k but climbing 2000m. The guest house was a bit basic so showering was throwing more cold water over me from a large metal barrel, still, it made a change from the villagers doing it for me. It remained much colder over night. Normally I just lie on top of the bed with nothing covering me, but it was so cold that I even covered myself with a duvet for a full 15 minutes before I started sweating and threw the thing off.

The next day was a wonderful dawn (1st photo), just great as I was already high up, the mountians looked stunning and clouds hung around in the valleys. The road rolled along for the first 50k with better views than normal as the storm seemed to have cleared the air. Then came a nice big descent. I saw a couple of cyclists having a rest on the climb so stopped for another chat. They had only just started their trip and this was their first hilly day, they were finding it tough. I was surprised to find a decent guest house just outside Kasi, so made the most of it, but regretted it later as there was nothing else around, and it made for a really boring evening.

Another storm overnight meant another clearish day today, with more fantastic mountain scenery with abrupt limestone cliffs rising striaght up (2nd photo). It has been a short day as I wanted to stay in Vang Vieng for some reason. The past 3 days has also been spent dodging the water from the locals and to be honest it is wearing a bit thin now. Getting soaked is one thing, but having people throw buckets full of water with as much force as they can from about one metre away is hardly my idea of fun. Vang Vieng is a backpacker's playground with nothing of interest in the town, but dozens of guest houses and restaurants. The activities on offer are biking, trekking, kayaking and by far the most popular, tubing. Tubing is floating down the river in a larger lorry innertube, here it is the in thing. Most backpackers are young and rowdy, most also have big water pistol things and everybody is walking around soaked. There is one road I refuse to walk down as there are constantly about 10 people of either side of the road and nobody walks through and remains dry. I shall be glad when the Festival of Throwing Water is over, but I can see it dragging on for a few days yet.

Highway 13 from Luang Prabang to here seems to be a stretch of road that has been troubled by shootings in recent years, not aimed at tourists, but they have been caught up in it a couple of years ago. Now the road all the way along has armed 'guards', though most just seem to be ordinary young men carry semi-automatic weapons. I never felt threatened from either side, ignorance is bliss!

I have no intention of staying in this place, I hope to be out by 6:30 tomorrow morning. I have a long ride of around 156k to Vientiane. I want to get there tomorrow to have a realistic chance of getting a visa for Cambodia by the weekend. Typically the place I want to cross the border is the only crossing that they don't issue them on the spot.

Oh, that headgear. It may look silly, but it is brilliant. It stops my head, ears and neck from getting sunburnt, but unlike a cap never gets blown off. It also absorbs alot of the sweat so there is less going into my eyes, and it dries really quick, just perfect. It also converts into a beanie, very useful for the cold nights in Nepal. It also converts into a headband and a scraf, both of which I have used it for at times. It also converts to other things too, but I can't remember what.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Day 324 -Luang Prabang

Whilst in Luang Nam Tha I had a new eating experience, you could try this at home. I saw baguettes, proper bread for the first time in about 6 months, I couldn't resist it, so I bought on. In Laos they are eaten with condensed milk spread thickly in them...yum, yum!

Heading along Hwy 3 continued to be great, but I soon had to turned off onto the road to the capital, Vientiane, some 600k to the south, I was greeted with gravel, oh shit! Thankfully it only lasted about 5k and even that had patches of tarmac in it. The road was much narrower now and very twisty, good on the climbs as you can't see how far up you have to go. The afternoons now seem to have a bit of a theme with ground clearing by burning the hillsides, it does nothing for the views or my eyes.

I left Oudomxay the following morning and had some company for the first 15k of a climb, in the form of a young monk on a bike. I realised right from the start that he was only there for one reason, to get as much out of me as possible. He started with "I am alone in Oudomxay and my family are far away, I have no friends. I am studying but I have to pay for my own education and I just don't know how I am going to pay for the next term" etc, etc. He spoke good English but each time I changed the subject he wasn't interested. Seeing I wasn't giving him the response he wanted he changed his plans and aimed a little lower and over the course of the conversation he wanted me to give him my shoes, cycling shorts, shirt, bike oil, books and finally just cash. He was a little bit subtle, "Oh my bike is so uncomfortable, I need some cycling shorts, it would be so much more comfortable with cycling shorts. I can't get them in Laos though. How many pairs have you got? You don't need 4 pairs you could give me a pair". Anyway, who in their right mind would want a pair of my used cycling shorts? It became a bit tiresome, so in the end I cracked. I gave him my email address and sent him back to Oudomxay. The day was a toughie, ALOT of climbing, added to that I had no idea if I would find a guest house. After 80k there were a couple at Pakmong, so I decided to stop. They were both a bit grotty, but as I was about to check into one a girl cyclist arrived from the other direction and told me there was another place just out of town. So she took my room and I went to the other one which was much better. We met up again a bit later and exchanged info. She was Gulie from Paris, on her first trip alone and her first on a bike, brave girl.

The following day was 115k to Luang Prabang, much easier as it followed the rivers. I met Johanus from Germany going the other way. He was cycling from Germany to the Olympics and had followed a very similar route to me but took a flight from Kathmandu to Bangkok. A few k further on I passed another couple on bikes but didn't stop this time. It is approaching the festival of Pii Mai, the Lunar New Year with the main festivities here in Luang Prabang. It is celebrated by people drinking lots of beer and throwing water over anybody that moves. Consequently as I rode along I got totally drenched. I was surprising how quickly I dried out, but not surprisied by how quickly I became drenched again. Anybody on a motorcycle was dripping wet, but everybody takes it very light heartedly and some even slow down for a soaking. Another consequence of all this was that all the Guest houses were fully booked. It's a popular place here at the best of times, the prices of everything double what I have paid elsewhere and the guesthouses were doubling again for the coming nights. I had wanted to stop longer, but I could only get 2 nights, so I am on the move again tomorrow, no rest for the wicked. the guest house I am staying in offer free bananas. I didn't tell them that I have been known to eat 20 in a day, but since I have arrived they have hidden them.

Luang Prabang is a lovely places though, a little peninsular pointing out into the Mekong river, an old colonial French town with lots of lovely old wooden buildings, mostly turned into delightful looking restaurants and guest houses. There are many fine wats too. By the afternoon the water throwing had started again, so by the time I returned to my room I was once again soaked. Perhaps I will be glad to move on!

Now here's a thing. As soon as I crossed the river from Thailand to Loas the people are very different in their approach to cyclists. In Thailand you are generally ignored, but here through every village people call out and wave, the children getting very excited. I am glad to be away from the dogs in Thailand too, they were agressive little things, always chasing and barking at me, even when I was on foot, though they never tried to bite. But the dogs here couldn't care less about me, they don't bat an eyelid. How does that work then? It's only 100m across the river, yet even animals behave differently, I can't get my head around that one. Other cyclists have agreed with me too, but have no explanation.

You are right S, I did put the picture of me in the last post to see what reaction it would have and I too was surprised by the lack of comments. there were probably none in case I did it again! Actually people often tell me they have trouble posting comments so some don't even try anymore. Sadly there is nothing I can do about it.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Day 320 - Luang Nam Tha (Laos)

I went to eat dinner at the night market in Chiang Rai, but after seeing such delights as roasted intestines, and deep fried crickets and maggot type things, I rather lost my appetite. Actually, that's not quite true, I went elsewhere and had dinner, still felt hungry so went to another restaurant and had a second dinner, then went to a third and finished it all off with ice cream.

So as to get an early start the following day I bought a huge bunch of bananas for breakfast, can you overdose on bananas? There were so many options for the route to Chiang Khong that I kept changing my mind on the way, a real novelty in itself as for so long there has been only one obvious route. I managed to follow minor roads all day which made for a really pleasant ride. I only had about 15k to go but the sun by now was once again making my right toes really painful. I at last found a bit of shade at a bus stand to give them 5 minutes rest. Whilst I was there a woman from a nearby house called across and asked if I wanted water, so I took my water bottles over. They came back full. She also brough with more ice cold water and a glass, then off she went again and brought back bananas from the garden and a water melon, so I rested and chatted at the table on the patio. I was a bit sick of bananas by now, but I politely ate them, the cold water was perfect. There was nothing much at Chiang Khong, it's just a border town with Laos, a two minute boat trip across the Mekong river. I whiled away the evening watching football and playing pool with a young guy from Jersey, he had some interesting stories to tell about life on the island.
I was at immigration at 8am the following morning as it opened. There was a 5 baht charge for being a Sunday, but he accepted 4 for cash which nicely used up all my coins. The boats to ferry people across are Thai long boats, wide enough to sit two people across and long enough to almost reach the other side of the river. After formalities on the Loas side I was off. I had suspicions I should now be cycling on the right, but the only moving vehicle gave no clues as it drove directly down the middle of the road, but as I cycled on the left a motorcycle closely whizzed past me in the opposite direction which rather gave the game away. I don't know, you just cross a river and whilst you are not looking everybody switches to the other side of the road. As I left town I saw a kilometre stone saying it was 119k to Vieng Phukha and I guessed this would be the first place with a guest house, I was right. Also, as I guessed my book was incorrect and the stated 250k to Luang Prabang turned out to be signposted as 475k. I had feared that this road through remote northern Laos would be a really tough gravel road, but I needn't have worried at all, it was a really tough tarmac road. I read in the paper a few days back that it has just been upgraded, mainly through funding from the Chinese to complete an overland trade route from Kunming in China to Bangkok, it had just been officially opened by the Chinese, Lao and Thai Prime Ministers. It is pretty useless as a trade route to Bangkok at the moment though as there are no vehicle ferries across the Mekong. The Chinese are also funding a bridge which hasn't been started yet, so in the meantime there is a wonderful road with no traffic on it. To be honest it didn't look that new, the roadside terracing looked new (photos), but the surface looked as though it had been there for years. Once again there was an immediate change from life in Thailand, people here are very poor and villages are built of wood and bamboo and walls of wicker, all very attractive to me, but I am sure very tough living conditions for the locals. The road was a real roller coast, very tough to ride and progress was painfully slow indeed. There were constant climbs, nothing more than about 5km but horribly steep in places, then followed by a 5 minutes belt downhill at 60+kph, to be followed by yet another uphill struggle, give me the longer gentler climbs any day. I was running out of water so had to really ration my supplies as villages were few and far between, but when I did find a village I was amazed at how expensive everything was compared to Thailand. As I stopped to take a photo I was aware of a loud noise behind me, then turned around to see the forest being burnt, these fires were to stay with me for the rest of the day, showering me with black ash and making the whole area smokey, ruining the views and making my eyes very sore. I stopped for more food with still 27k to go, I wasn't sure if I would make it before dark, but thankfully at last the road was generally heading downwards, so much faster. I arrived just before 6pm and thankfully had a choice of 4 guest houses, all with bamboo or wooden hut accomodation. I went for the wooden huts, flipped the light switch only for nothing to happen. "7pm" came a voice from behind me, oh poo, I am back in the vast land of powercuts. Sure enough it came on at 7, then went off at 9pm, it's amazing how quick I had got used to the luxuries and comforts of Thailand. I was pretty shattered but was thankful to find that despite things being more expensive here that at least dinner portions are suitable for hungry cyclists. Sticky rice is the thing here, it's great, eaten with the fingers and broken of in lumps. Strangely enough it doesn't make your fingers sticky.
After more sticky rice this morning I was off for a few more hills, but they were far less severe today and with only 60k today it was a relative breeze. I somewhat lacked any real power or pace going uphill today, I guess I didn't eat or drink enough yesterday. I saw my first 2 cyclists, a couple of recumbents going the other way as I raced down another hill. The people here are very vocal, all calling out 'Sabai Dee' the local greeting, the kids getting so excited, but everybody seems ready to smile and wave, I like this place, I feel very comfortable with it.
It's another 3 days to Luang Prabang where I will stop for a couple of days, but I suspect I will lose the good road surface tomorrow and from what I have heard it's a tough ride through bigger mountains, but depsite the hard work I am enjoying it, I just hope the half day today has restored a bit of energy to me.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Day 317 - Chiang Rai

After a day chilling out in Chiang Mai which rather turned into a day of doing chores and included a trip out to the Post Office, one of my least favourite jobs, I am back on the road again.

I left Chiang Mai early, not a backpacker in sight. The road was excellent, busy, but nothing compared to Britain, and really good quality. After about an hour I stopped for breakfast, no chance of eggs on toast here, it's noodle soup or nothing, "I'll have the noodle soup then please". If you are going to have a strange breakfast you might as well go the whole hog, so I followed that up with icecream, well it was getting hot already. Breakfast was timed to perfection as the road then started to climb through the mountains and the temperature climbed through the roof. Typical isn't it, you hang around for a few days and it's cloudy and cool, then as soon as you set off again the skies are clear and it's a scorcher. By the time I hawled my way to the top at over 1000m it was 44 degrees, I had worked up a sweat. Pay back time was great, a good road with sweeping bends meant I could just go without using the brakes and I reached 76kph, the fastest I have been on the entire trip, the previous fastest being on the first day on a road heading towards London. Once through the mountains I stopped for lunch, there are no shortage of place to eat here, and what's more they have food. I lost count of the times I stopped at cafes in Myanmar where there was total inactivity and when I asked for food they just laughed. As I sat cooling down, miles away from the nearest tourists, three Brits turned up and sat with me. They were from Kirby Malham in Yorkshire and were bellringers, a few minutes later the place was empty, so we bellringers still have the knack of boring everybody out of the place. The final few kilometres to Wiang Pa Pao, where I stopped the night were nice and flat, though it looked like a storm ahead which soon turned into a very strong headwind, my fault for talking to long at the cafe. I stopped and asked about a guest house and was pointed down the road, I asked further on and a few minutes later I was at a homestay place. So easy, bliss after Myanmar. I had a very large room with just a tap for a shower. Soon bottled water and a big bunch of bananas were brought in, just the job.

I left early again this morning, but not early enough to miss the next bunch of bananas that was given to me. The road rolled along for a while and once again I was whizzing down hills at over 60kph, the trouble is it also means I have to grovel up the steep hills as well. I passed an amazing wat on the way (1st photo), near Chiang Rai but on its own. I was a pretty hideous thing really and reminded me of winter, a sort of frozen waterfall. I don't think it was finished as inside two of the walls were just plain concrete. I made good time and reached Chiang Mai before the afternoon heat, though it was still 40 when I arrived. Like Chiang Mai, there is not alot to see other than a few more wats (2nd photo), but I like the place. I am quickly aclimatizing to Thialand, the thing that I really appreciate is it's cleanliness compared with the last few countries I have travelled through, no litter beside the road or dumped in town centre, cafes and restaurants are hygenic and look safe to eat at, a welcome change.

So tomorrow is my last day in Thailand for the time being, as I cross into Laos. I don't know what facilities will be like, especially as I head through the northern mountains, so don't expect an update too soon.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Day 314 - Chiang Mai (Thailand)

I am sure my family will be relieved to hear that I am safely in Chiang Mai, a place I have been looking forward to for some time and a place that I wanted to visit when I was last in Thailand some years ago but never made it, but I don't like it here, there is no pleasing some people.

Just as I was leaving the Inn at Yangon I met two girls arriving, one from Norwich, just off the Unthank Road very close to where I used to live and the other a Dutch girl, a cyclist. I spent about an hour talking to Esther, the Dutch girl and got as much information off her about Laos as I could. Amazingly she is doing the exact opposite to me. Her trip finishes in a couple of week as she starts a job with Cap Gemini, my trip started with me finishing at Cap Gemini.

The Myanmar curse stayed with me to the bitter end. Just as I was removing the pedal it suddenly freed itself and my hand went down hard on the chainring making a deep cut in my right thumb, a fitting end as I managed to cut myself whilst setting the bike up when I arrived here. Heading through immigration was not a problem, but I had to pay US$9 as I had overstayed my visa by 2 days. At the airport I once again met up with Roger and Brian from Canada, we also met in Mandalay and Bagan.

It is only a short one hour flight to Chiang Mai in Thailand, but what a difference an hour makes. Even as we flew in over Thailand I could tell I was entering a very different land, there were signs of comparative wealth everywhere and few signs of poverty. The first thing that I noticed as I left the terminal building was a large Tesco store, that was even before I had got on the bike, even before I had noticed the large storm clouds overheard that would make me wet before I had covered the 5km to the guest house. Chiang Mai is a moated city which made navigation very easy and I got to the guest house that Roger and Brian were heading for without even having to look at the map. Again the differences were all too clear to see, big smooth road, big cars and building with fancy fronts. Once I had checked in and had a brief chat wih R & B I went out for something to eat, more shocks were in store. The streets were full of hotels and guest houses, English pubs such as The Half Moon with pool tables and happy hours, all with enormous screens showing English football. There are fancy shops, streets full of neon lights and restaurants. I have never seen to many ATMs is such a confined space, but at least money is available when needed. I even have coins in my pocket now. Myanmar only had notes 1000 being the largest (50p) and 5 being the smallest (1/4p). Incidently the 5 Kyat note had Keepy Upy on the back, there is a photo of it in the Myanmar album. There were tourists everywhere. I have been so used over the last few months to seeing just the odd traveler that we generally make an effort to talk to each other and compare notes, but here you are just ignored. I feel like a country bumpkin going to the city for the first time. To make things even worse I found it really hard to find dinner for under a pound, crikey, you could easily blow 3 pounds without even trying! As I sat eating dinner I soon noticed the number of men with a Thai women on their arm, many of them far older than me, so clearly people are not just here to see the historical sights and go trekking in the mountains. To be honest it was all a bit of a culture shock and I didn't like it. I made my way back and had an early night.

The following day I had breakfast by the pool, it was all very nice but there was not enough of it and by the time I had finished I was ready to eat another. I went out on foot with the intention of staying within the city moat. Once again I was very disappointed with Chaing Mai. I had expected to see an old city with nice architechture and little streets to explore, but not at all. It was just an ordinary city with straight streets that would be difficult to get lost in. Really the only things of an interest were the wats and with 300 to check out I could easily be watted out before I even leave the place. It remained cloudy all day and started to rain at about 4 to I made my back to the hotel. In the evening I went out to dinner with Roger and Brian, thne we went to a pub and played a bit of pool, I lost every game, I was terrible.

Today I decided to have breakfast else where but as I walked around the streets at 8:15 all the cafes with signs that said 'Breakfast from 8 onwards' were most definately shut. I took the bike out and had a trip around some of the wats a bit further from the centre, I was disappointed again. I now understand why Nick didn't want to come back here when I traveled with him around Thailand.

There is one very good thing about being in Chiang Mai and that is that the annoying little flights that I have had to take are now over with. I have free run all the way down to and through Indonesia. It is also the end of cycling around in circles, something I feel as though I have been doing since the beginning of December. Having said that I am still not taking the shortest route as I want to visit Laos and Cambodia whilst I am in the area, infact for the next 3 days I will be heading north before turning east, but at least I don't have to return to anywhere, or be somewhere by a certain date, that makes me feel much happier.

Tomorrow I am just going to chill out, do nothing other than sitting by the pool and read a book. Thursday I will set off across the mountains to Chiang Rai, then another day to Chiang Khong, across the Mekong river into Laos. I am really looking forward to Laos, everybody says how good the mountain scenery is and even the backpackers tell me that there are alot of cyclists there, so I should have a bit on company from time to time.

For those of you with time to kill, I have upload a number of photos from Myanmar as well as starting off the Thailand album. I am not very happy with the Myanmar photos, they are all a bit samey amd lack imagination.