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.


S said...

I was expecting to see loads of comments on the fact that you have at last put a picture of yourself on here - but as there were none I thought I had better mention it. Was it a mistake???

Caff said... that John? I didn't recognize him - he's all brown and slim and got exceedingly good finger nails!!!!! And I love the headgear, very becoming!! :-)