Market life was in full swing when we arrived for our early morning breakfast. Women were bent over woks, busy dishing out the food the crowds had gathered to consume. The crumbling city rampart provided the backdrop as the four of us polished off our meal before hitting the road. Four you ask? Yes, we continue to be the catalyst for people to experience the beauty of cycle touring. The new addition to our posse is Viktoria, who we met at the meditation retreat and she jumped (literally) at the chance to cycle a section of our journey with us.
The morning found us cruising the small roads that meandered along the Ping River and its tributaries. Flower gardens and vegetable patches dotted the countryside. These gave way to the forested hills of elephant sanctuaries as we joined highway 107 heading north to Chiang Dao. At a crossroads just outside town we ran into Kiva, a Canadian we had previously met who is also cycle touring S.E. Asia. He led us to the base of the mountain that dominated the landscape and into the hippy embrace of Shambala – a Japanese/Thai electro-folk festival. That evening we filled our bellies with mashed potato, red curry and green tea; we danced in the moonlight to a ska band from Laos, and were serenaded to sleep in our tent by tribal drumming.
As the rising sun coloured the mountain red, fried eggs on rice and cups of coffee/tea were consumed. The suns rays warmed us, especially Marita and Vika as they had been woken in the night by water flooding their tent. With spirits raised we pedaled north and into the first hills we have seen since the Cameron Highlands. Still recovering from my illness, my riding was not up to its usual standard and I found it a struggle to keep up with the ladies. Frequent rest breaks were required and numerous snacks were taste tested for quality (and calories). On one such break I laughed at my co-traveller’s obsession with their smartphones, when the owner of the small shop let us know that she had free Wi-Fi. Having ‘survived’ 30 hours without the internet they were glued to social media sites for the next hour.
Every Thai town has a night market and the one in Fang is my favourite. The main street was closed down as hundreds of street vendors pedaled everything from street food to skinny jeans. Always the foodies, we feasted on papaya salad, noodles with mushrooms and chilli sauce, and sesame filled dumplings in a ginger broth. I bought myself a travelling hat and we celebrated a great days cycling with beers and sodas at a bar.
Being a fan of ‘big’ things I was excited when on the way to Thaton I spotted the ‘Big Orange Juice’. In between taking photos and drinking fresh orange juice, I managed to squeeze in a game of mini golf too. Mulling over the random nature of life on the road, the mornings ride passed quickly. To save some kilometres, a little afternoon excursion was arranged and our bikes were loaded on to a long boat. For three hours we cruised along the Kok River where buffalos, monkeys and children provided the occasional distraction from the serenity of rice paddies and jungle. The other distraction was the occasional rapid riding and boulder dodging that our driver managed with precision.
In addition to our usual forage through the night market in Chiang Rai, we entertained ourselves with the spectacle of the giant clock. Set in the middle of the main roundabout, every hour there is a music and light show involving a huge golden clock, which we attended not once but twice that evening. They do love their bling over here.
In the morning I discovered that my Thai pronunciation was not as good as I’d hoped, even after spending over two months here. Feeling the craving for a sweet hot tea, I tried to order it in the best Thai I could muster. The lady behind the stand looked at me, the other patrons looked at me and the woman next to me repeated what I thought I said and I nodded. Next thing I know two parboiled eggs in a glass were placed in front of me and everyone looked at me expectantly. I obviously looked surprised and the lady who served me asked in perfect English “what did you want?”. “A hot tea”, I answered and there were belly laughs all around. After a lesson on how to drink the parboiled eggs with seasoning sauce and pepper, I also drank my delicious hot sweet tea.
This was to be our last day of riding in Thailand as the Laos border was within cycling distance. Heading east we cycled through some lovely backcountry and were excited to see the mountains of Laos ahead of us. But thanks to another Google Maps fail we ended up spending three hours bush bashing through a never-ending banana plantation with six river crossings thrown in for good measure. After the path disappeared completely we finally admitted defeat and for the first time this trip we turned back. In retrospect we figured out that the path marked on the map was in fact the river itself, incorrectly coloured. Three hours behind schedule, exhausted and hungry we were a sorry sight.
We pedaled on hoping to make Chiang Khong just after sunset, but it was not to be. After a day of mostly flat riding the hills began again and they sapped our remaining energy. As the others did not have a tent as yet, we had to scout out some accommodation before nightfall. In the middle of a little village we spotted a sign to a resort. We followed the signs for another couple of kilometres and were greeted with the view of a lake backed by peaks as far as we could see. The resort had everything you could possibly want bar one major thing – food. Why a resort in the middle of nowhere would not provide meals is beyond me. Marita, Jude and I cycled back to town hoping to catch one of the food stands still open, but again it was not to be. We rummaged through the only shop open and our last dinner in Thailand consisted of lukewarm 2-minute noodles, cashews, sweet biscuits, a carrot and avocados. Luckily we had some Ovaltine, an enjoyable nightcap for all.
Watching the sunrise over the mountains with cup of tea in hand, I had no idea that this would be the highlight of my final hours in Thailand. Food availability continued to be dismal. After cycling through numerous villages and being waved away from a handful of restaurants, we eventually found a lean-to where a lady agreed to make us breakfast – spicy crab-flavoured papaya salad on cold rice noodles. The remainder of the morning found us marveling at the variety of Buddhist paraphernalia present in temples. The most dubious were the large reclining Buddha with red toenail polish, big green disco ball Buddha in sitting pose, a sparkle horse, and many animal guardians with evil eyes and protruding genitalia.
And the fun continued at the border where we were denied the freedom of riding. Thai bureaucracy dictated that we pay to catch a bus for the four kilometres over the Friendship IV Bridge. Not very friendly. Needless to say what could have been a 10-minute ride became an hour of angst as men tried to load 4 fully laden bikes into a space that wasn’t designed to carry them and we were shuttled over the quietest border crossing I have experienced thus far.
Luckily Laos made up for it all. It may sound odd, but Laos feels good. It’s palpable in the air, and from the earth and the people. Happily on the bikes and half way along the road to Houei Xai, we stopped for the local specialty roughly translated as ‘big hair noodle’. The girl working there took us through the numerous steps of building this soup dish ourselves, and it was delicious. While eating we relaxed and watched life go by. There were chickens digging in the yard, cows meandering down the road and women riding motorcycles holding umbrellas above their heads. Who couldn’t love this country?
Houei Xai is a bustling border town catering to large numbers of tourists that catch a two-day slow ferry between here and Luang Prabang. Having secured a room with a view of the Mekong and Thailand, we set about preparing for our slow ferry sojourn the following morning. Business completed, we aimed for a sunset beer at a riverside bar. Scouting for a venue we narrowly escaped with our eardrums intact, as locals belted out their favourite karaoke tunes at full volume. Wanting a more subdued location, we were approached by a lady spruiking for a restaurant that provides small business and tourism training for economically disadvantaged women. Tucked up in a tree-house, we feasted on wood-fired pizza and tried our first (and second, and third) Beer Lao.
Arriving early at the dock the next morning, we were able to stow away our bikes and panniers before the crowds descended. When the crowds did arrive, they kept coming, and coming, and coming. You know something is truly wrong when the captain of the vessel begins to look like a sinking ship. Close to two hundred people had booked tickets for a boat that has a safety capacity of 120. This is what happens when three dozen different agents around town sell tickets. Luckily the decision was made to sail a second boat and my elaborate plan of how I would escape a sinking ship and save the dirty salmon was not required.
A slow boat down the Mekong is as romantic as it sounds. Sipping beer from teacups while watching the scenery pass by is a lovely way to spend an afternoon. In addition to the joy of such an adventure, we chose to travel for a day by boat as the road to Pakbeng was reported to be in poor condition at best. Compared to the sleepy villages we had seen on the Mekong, Pakbeng is a thriving town purely funded by tourism. With such a constant flush of money, people sometimes forget to ask or listen. Before we had a chance to arrive, four men jumped on the roof of the boat and carried our bikes up to the car park and then despite our refusal, attempted to assist us in putting our panniers on. They were not happy when we refused to pay the sum they requested in ‘porter’s fees’. This is still a difficult thing for me to do, as I’m torn between wanting to pay for a service provided (though $10 for four bikes is a bit steep) and standing my ground on the basis that we did not want or ask for their assistance.
Due to a blackout, candlelight emanated from all the guesthouses and restaurants, making town look like a fairy wonderland. After a dinner of Laotian dishes, we treated ourselves to a dessert of the biggest muffins I have ever seen. There may also have even been some chocolate danishes and carrot cakes consumed too. We call it carb loading for cycling.
I knew something was wrong the moment I woke up. Not wanting to miss a days riding, especially in Laos, I ignored the first few stomach cramps and bouts of bum water. But by the end of breakfast, the fever had set in and I was doubled over on Jude’s lap. I’m lucky to have such great travelling companions, as they quickly found us a lovely guesthouse and made sure I had adequate amounts of drugs, water and toilet paper. I slept for the next 24 hours waking only for dashes to toilet. The girls spent the day relaxing and watching how the locals lived when there were no tourists around. From all accounts it’s a different world.
Weakened from another bout of dysentery, we decided that the best course of action would be to catch the slow boat to Luang Prabang. The second float along the Mekong was just as beautiful as the first, and I was able to forget how unwell I was and how much fun we were missing by not riding. Luang Prabang is a beautiful city to explore between recovery sleeping and eating. Being a former French colony, baguettes, croissants and good coffee were back on the menu – much to Jude’s delight. Sightseeing was done in the early morning or late afternoon, to avoid the searing midday heat. Despite temple overload in Thailand, I enjoyed the Wats in Luang Prabang, especially the ancient Vat Xieng Thongratsavoravihanh.
Our new friend Heather hired a bicycle and joined us for a day trip out to the Kuang Si waterfall and bear sanctuary (30km one way). The bears were super cute and when they stood on their hind legs they really looked like humans in bear suits. I wanted to take one with me to Scotland. After the disappointment of the waterfalls in Thailand, we weren’t expecting much. So when we arrived at pools with glacial blue water and an actual small sized waterfall we were stoked. We went for a dip and relaxed by the waters edge eating lunch. Before heading off we decided to follow the path that led upstream. Much to our surprise there were more waterfalls, pools and cascades, which culminated in the grand finale of a spectacular full sized waterfall. Despite the heat and a sore bum Heather loved the cycling and I’m sure we have another convert to life travelling on two wheels.
Talking about life on two wheels, it is time for us to hit the road again as the mountains of Laos await.
All my love,