The big climb

** Sorry for our little hiatus! We are now in China and while we can see our website on the net here, the great firewall of China has so far prevented us from uploading and updating the blog which needless to say has been a little frustrating. Chan’s brother has graciously offered to post stuff for us, so we can start chipping away at our backlog. It is a cumbersome process though, so things may be a little sporadic for the next few weeks while we’re in China. Sorry about that and thanks for reading! **
Meanwhile back in Laos…

March 14, 2013

Distance: 35.2 miles

Our original plan was to be up and out the door at 4am, but that didn’t come close to happening. It was more like lounge in bed until 645am, then slowly make our way to the restaurant. Order our usual double omelet breakfast while chatting with Tony and Kat. We finally hit the road at 830am.

The road started out on a steep downhill which was a little demoralizing as we knew we had a day of climbing to do. We had looked pretty extensively at some plots of the route topography, so we knew what was coming, but we soon realized it is much better to be blissfully ignorant in some cases. We would spend the next 3 hours climbing uphill for 20km straight to reach a total elevation gain of 700m. This would be our biggest single hill to date.

Luckily, the grade was mellow enough, we were able to get into a solid rhythm and just grind away at it. The scenery was absolutely beautiful, the road was in good condition except for a few unavoidable rough patches and it wasn’t too hot. There were also a few very brutal moments, for me at least. At one point, I thought we had reached the top when we came to a bus stop overlook, only to find that around the bend there was still a lot more uphill to go.

A long way to go

Beautiful enough for you?

At the top of the pass we hit the outskirts of the village of Phou Khoun village a handfull of guesthouse, so we had a decision to make. I wanted to stay because I was tired, hot and just wanted to start over early the next morning. Chandler wanted to continue because we had only gone 20km or so and if we stopped we wouldn’t be able to get to Laung Prabang the next day. With days on our visa running low, he wanted to keep us close to our schedule. A heated debate ensued and Chandler won. It helped that Phou Khoun wasn’t exactly a destination resort.

The remainder of the day was spent climbing short rolling hills through Hmong villages. It was interesting how different each village was from the next.¬† In one village, everyone would say hello or wave, while the next village couldn’t care less if we were there.

Hmong village

Hitch hiker

The highlight of the afternoon was when we hit 1000 meters of climbing on the day, which was the most we’ve done so far. Chan’s mom had sponsored a bag of Cheetos we found way back in Vientiane, to be eaten only once we hit this milestone. They were much enjoyed, although we must have looked a bit suspicious with our hands covered in neon orange “cheese” when a couple of French cyclists rode up for a chat after our victory snack…

Cheetos!!

The sun was setting and we only had 20km left until we would reach Kiewkacham where we knew there was a guesthouse popular with cyclists. Unfortunately we were only a third of the way up another 300 meter climb and there was no way we would make it before it got dark. The road wasn’t heavily trafficked but there were bursts of big Chinese trucks hauling electric substation components flying along and we didn’t want to be on the road with them at night. Chandler caught sight of a small structure on top of a hill overlooking the road and proposed we sleep there. I wasn’t so sure, but he went up anyways to take a look. He came back down, told me it was perfect and offered to carry everything up the hill. I was sold.

The structure he found are all over Laos. They are little huts with a thatched roof and a raised bamboo platform inside for woodcutters and other workers to rest in, off the ground, in the heat of the day. We pitched the inside of our tent without the rain fly on the platform which kept us away from the ants, snakes and who knows what else.

Our campsite

Stealth spot

After our last camping experience in Vietnam, we were both a little worried about having “friends” see us and come up for a visit. We went into super stealth mode. We made dinner before the sun went down so nobody could see the light from the stove. After the sun went down, we only turned on our headlamps when there were no vehicles on the road below us. We also whispered the entire time, because the motorbikers will usually turn off their engines when coasting downhill and had potential to hear us.

It worked out really well in the end. We both fell asleep by 8pm because we didn’t want our lights to attract anyone, so we got excellent rest.

FYI Going To China

We are planning on crossing the border from Laos to China tomorrow. There is and has been a few days lag between where we are now and when we post on the blog (it takes a bit of time to write things out, sort the pictures, etc) so this may seem like a big jump forward, but we’ll be filling in all the details of where we have been in northern Laos as we can.

We’re just not 100% sure how the internet will work once we are in China, so if you don’t hear from us, don’t worry! We’ll figure out how to keep things updated.

Bicycle tourists party

March 13, 2013


Distance: 49.6 miles

We told the woman who showed us the room the night before that we would be leaving at 530am in the morning and could we pay right then. She said no, pay in the morning, she would be up. When 545am rolls around, we begin to wonder where we should leave the money. Under the door leading to the kitchen? Also, we didn’t have 30,000 kip, just 10,000 kip and a few American dollars. Just when we agree how much USD and kip to leave, a groggy young man comes up to receive our payment.

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Early morning start

Finally, we set off through town. Nothing is open until we reach the bus station. We notice several restaurants that have clearly been open for hours and pull in. A young girl understands enough English to figure out we want omelets and rice. Knowing we have a big day ahead of us, we order seconds.

The morning started out with a pretty strong headwind, but we escaped it when we went over a small pass and the road turned into another valley. The road to Kasi was challenging, but incredibly beautiful. The mountains reminded us of movie scenes. Shear limestone walls in some parts, others with just a shallow enough pitch to support dense jungle plants and trees. There were a number of steep climbs, where there was absolutely no breeze and I was almost wishing for the headwind again.

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Mountains

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Lovely scenery

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Interesting looking birds

In a small village we ran into another cycle tourist, Ivan from Serbia. We had a nice chat about routes and road conditions. He offered to host us at his house when we go to Serbia and gave us some helpful suggestions on biking through the Balkans. Talking to him had us looking forward to that portion of our trip.

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Ivan

We made it to Kasi in good time and stopped for lunch. Chandler ordered fried noodles with chicken, while I ordered fried noodles with vegetables. When the meals arrived, we were surprised to learn fried noodles with vegetables just means noodles with less chicken than normal. Chandler was willing to eat both meals, so I tried to order another one with really no chicken, but she just pointed at my dish and said no chicken over and over despite the small pile of dead bird I had excavated and set aside.

When Chan finished his double lunch, we went to another restaurant to find me something to eat. I showed the cook my vegetarian sign and he nodded like he understood. He then brought me out a soup without any meat in it, but filled to the brim with chicken broth. A lot of people don’t seem to make the connection that soup broth is made from animals and therefore contains meat. I looked at Chandler to see if he would help me, but he was completely stuffed. So, I pulled the noodles out of the broth and told myself it was vegetable broth over and over and over.

We had read online that there is a hot springs and guesthouse 20km outside of Kasi, so we decided go ahead and go there. What we didn’t know was that it was going to be uphill the entire way. And, of course, we were doing the hardest part of the climb in the heat of the day. Chandler and I began making jokes about how good we are at our timing.

We finally made it to the hot springs a little after 4pm and we excited to see two other bikes all loaded up outside one of the bungalows. We headed over to the restaurant and had the pleasure of meeting Josh and Kat. Josh, an American, and Kat, an Aussie, had been teaching in China for the past couple of years and were exploring SE Asia on bicycles before heading to Australia. A short while later, another cyclist joined us, Tony from Germany.

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The hot springs

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Kat and Josh

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Tony

We spent the next 5 hours in the restaurant eating and drinking way too many beers. Our little cyclist party was so much fun. It actually got a bit chilly later on in the evening, which seemed impossible after how hot it was during the day. We ended the night by taking a soak in the hot spring together and wondering how in the world we were going to manage the next day.

Caving

March 12, 2013

Vang Vieng turned out to be such a nice town, we opted to stick around for a second day to explore a little more. Our hotel didn’t turn out to be as great as expected. The wifi wasn’t available in our room and neither was breakfast. The bed was uncomfortable, so Chandler didn’t sleep well. After one more dip in the pool, we left to find something a little cheaper.

On our way to cross the river, to find some cheap bungalows, we ran into two Korean bike tourists. They invited us to a bonfire that night at the very bungalows we were going to. Looks like it was a good idea to leave the other hotel.

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Our bungalow for the night

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Bulls fighting

After checking out the bungalows (30,000 kip/night less than $4), we dropped off our stuff and headed out to one of the many caves in the area. We traveled along a very bumpy dirt road for 7km before reaching the Tham Phu Kham cave and the “blue lagoon” which was actually kind of brown. We paid an entrance fee of 24,000 kip or $3 USD and had access to both attractions.

The blue lagoon was a nice looking swimming hole with areas to jump from and rope swings. However, the scene was like a frat party, with a hoard of backpackers drinking and admiring themselves in their bikinis. Not something Chandler and I were interested in joining. We headed to the cave instead.

To reach the cave, there is a short, but very steep climb up the side of a mountain. The rocks were slippery but there were rickety bamboo poles to hold on to the whole way up. When we reached the cave, there was a cool breeze coming from the entrance, which was much appreciated.

The cave starts out open and lit by sunlight coming in a couple openings. There is a scramble down past columns to an open chamber with a reclining Buddha. Besides the Buddha, this part of the cave was kind of boring with no interesting features. We brought our headlamps and decided to head to the real cave. We had to climb over some big rocks through an opening and suddenly it was dark and we were reminded of when we went to Carlsbad Caverns.

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Buddha in the cave

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Cave formations

The cave was beautiful, full of stalactites, columns and stalagmites. It was interesting to see the differences between a cave which had been preserved, Carlsbad and one that had not, Tham Phu Kham. We noticed where the rocks had been smoothed from so many people touching everything. While some of the columns were sparkly and beautiful there were no really intricate or delicate crystal formations. There was also quite a bit of graffiti, mostly in english, which we thought was sad that people would deface such beauty.

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Graffiti

We did turn off our headlamps to check if it was dark and it was pitch black. We were surprised to see bugs down in the cave where no light was penetrating. What do they eat? They were super creepy, like cricket spiders. There antennas were about 6 inches long, so we assumed they had grown to adapt to the darkness.

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Extra creepy cricket spider

By the time we exited the cave and climbed back down the hill, the sun was beginning to set. We made our way to our bikes through girls posing for photos in bikinis and guys throwing footballs. We rode back to town for a quiet evening around a fire. There were 6 Koreans including our cycle tourist friends and a Japanese couple. Everyone spoke some English, so we had good conversation and ate potatoes and corn they had cooked on the fire. We went to bed pretty early as we had plans to leave at 5:30 in the morning to beat the heat the next day.

Into Vang Vieng

March 11, 2013


Distance: 37.5 miles

We slept in knowing we had a short ride of only 35 miles or so ahead of us. The woman running the kitchen didn’t speak much English, but she knew coffee, omelette and bread. Magic words to us. While we waited for breakfast, she brought over bananas and a pot of green tea. Chandler and I began discussing ways to convince her to follow us and be our cook.

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Breakfast

When we finally hit the road, we were in excellent moods and excited to reach Vang Vieng. There were a number of steep hills to climb, but we paid them little attention because was so beautiful.

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River and mountains

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So scenic

There was little traffic, just a few buses and motos. They gave us plenty of room on the road. The road conditions were also good. A few pot holes, but nothing you couldn’t avoid. We did hit a few road blocks of cute baby goats and herds of cows. But, those are my favorite kinds of traffic jams.

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Stampede

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Goats

At one point in the day, we passed a group of kids out on their lunch break. They all lined up and gave us high fives as we cycled pass them. I felt like the star athlete on a sports team, it was awesome.

We stopped for a break shortly after being cheered on by the students. Chandler got some soup and I just had a soda. We chatted with another tourist from europe exploring Laos by motorbike and were back on the road after 30 minutes or so. It was hot and hilly, but not too bad, but we both hit the wall. The next 30km took us forever. We were beginning to become grumpy with each other when we hit the edge of town. Seeing the name of the cave advertised had us laughing and lightening up.

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Must be a typo

Vang Veing has a reputation of being a major party town, with lots of drugs and drinking. The Laos government recently cracked down on attractions promoting bad behavior. We were pleasantly surprised to find a subdued town in a beautiful setting and decided to get a hotel in the center of things. The first hotel was priced at the high end of what we were willing to spend, but they had wifi. So, Chandler went to check out the room. He came back and said one word: POOL!

Chandler does not like swimming pools, so the fact that he was willing to swim in this one was very exciting for me. We spent the next hour playing in the refreshing cool water until dinner. Everywhere in SE Asia should have a pool.

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I love swimming