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.

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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

Chicken

March 10, 2013


Distance: 49.9 miles

We got up at 530am to get an early start and get out of creepy town. We had everything packed up the night before, so we were able to get on the road pretty quickly. We were hoping to find a restaurant in the next town, but nobody appeared open yet. We passed through a few more towns stopping and making an eating food motion with people just shaking their heads no. Once Chan and I started snapping at each other, it was obvious we needed to eat or the ride was getting to become very unpleasant.

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Sunrise

Chandler bought some eggs and we decided to make breakfast on the side of the road using our stove. Before the trip, we purchased a new stove that could run on gasoline or diesel fuel and this would be our first time using it. It took a few minutes to figure out how to prime it and get it going. Soon enough eggs were cooking.

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First time using the stove

With breakfast out of the way, we were ready to bike. The road was in good condition and relatively flat. The scenery was beautiful as usual. Chandler saw a ferry across the river that would cut out 10 or so miles from the ride. The ferry was just a floating metal platform with an engine, but it was quick and only 4000 kip or $0.50 for both of us.

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Waiting to cross

We tried to go to a restaurant on the other side of the river, but they only had soup. We had a couple of sprites to cool down. Further into town, we found a restaurant miraculously with an English menu posted outside, but they were closed for the day to clean. Eventually, we spotted a donut stand and stopped for a few. There were two flavors and because I didn’t know what either kind was, I bought a few of each. The first donut was filled with condensed milk and were delicious. The second was filled with dried fish with the consistency of yarn and not delicious. After, we bought more of the Laos Krispy Kremes, the man working the stand gave us a melon for free. The melon was small and green, like a mini honeydew but had a texture similar to an apple. It was interesting and we really appreciated the man’s kindness. We figured our snack would hold us over for another hour, when we would get to Phon Hong where were planning on staying.

We made it to Phon Hong in good time and were hoping there would be a guesthouse on the north end of town. When Chandler spied a cafe, we u-turned and headed over. As we pulled up, so did another man on a moto. The sign in from of the cafe was written in Vietnamese, so Chan ordered a cafe sua da, and the girl working at the stand nodded. Then, the man asked me what we wanted, then repeated our order then told us the girl didn’t speak English (duh). Then he indicated he spoke english, which was a bit of a stretch. As we sat down, the man sat down between us introducing himself as Chicken. We were pretty tired at this point and not interested in entertaining our guest. His body language was a little strange, but he was asking us normal questions so we went along with it. After the some small talk, he left, saying wait here for him. Our coffee wasn’t even out yet so we weren’t going anywhere.

Our coffee arrived and we began to relax, but the guy comes back- he had changed and was now stinking of cologne which barely covered up the booze on his breath. Chicken sits down, tells us we need to follow him out of town to a restaurant. We lie and tell him we already ate in town. This seems to annoy him so he picks up Chan’s coffee and take a really gross gulp with backwash and everything. Chan is stunned, and pissed of course. He tells him we’re not going anywhere, that we are trying to relax and he needs to chill out. Chicken keeps handing Chan his coffee saying “let’s go, me take care of you.” He takes another swig of Chan’s drink as if this will help the matter. Chan is just staring back into the cafe with his arms crossed ignoring him. Finally, he tries to guilt us into following him by saying “fine, I just go alone”, which is fine with us. He takes off on his scooter with the kickstand still down. Good riddance.

Now that our coffee break was ruined, we waited a few minutes to ensure the drunk guy is far enough away from us, before hopping back on the bikes. We didn’t want to stay in town with only one guesthouse, it would be easy for our “friend” to track us down if he really wanted to. We passed a dive of a guesthouse and one that was closed. Then we saw a pretty nice sign for an eco-resort, which was a few kilometers down a side road. It looked like it was probably an expensive package tour type place so we decided not to risk a potentially fruitless ride out there. We pressed on.

It was hitting 2pm, the hottest part of the day and there was a large pass in front of us. We found a shady spot and sit down for a snack of Oreos and almost immediately a guy on a moto coming down the pass u-turns and rides back up towards us. We scramble back onto the bikes with our mouths full of cookies and take off without saying hello. When we reached the top of the pass, we both felt really bad about blowing off the guy who was probably just curious. We still had our guard up big time after the incident with Chicken.

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Smart guys staying out of the sun

We continue cycling through beautiful scenery, saying hello to friendly people, hoping to see a guesthouse. The back side of the pass was markedly less traveler friendly, but we did find some cold water and a pepsi when we really needed it. I was getting desperate to end the day at this point but had begun to mentally prepare myself for another 40km of riding. Just when I was about to lose it, another cyclist rides up to us headed the other way. We stop and chat about where we are from and where we are going. He was from the Boulder area in CO, and had just packrafted a few days down a river starting near the Chinese border. Pretty cool! The best news the cyclist gave us was that there’s a guesthouse only 2 miles up the road in Hinheup! Horray!

Sure enough, guesthouse and restaurant appeared where we were told they would. A clean bed, hot water and a safe place for the bikes. We were so hungry, we ate dinner before taking showers and putting on clean clothes. They cooked us up a huge pile of stir fried vegetables with rice and an egg, a perfect meal!

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Dinner

When we were in Vientiane, Ian transferred all his movies to our computer, so we spent the rest of the evening laying in bed, relaxing watching the Big Lebowski.

Back in the saddle

March 9, 2013


Distance: 25.2 miles

We were completely unmotivated to leave Vientiane early. It might have had something to do with staying up very later or having a few beers, but maybe not. We didn’t end up leaving Ian’s house until 1030am. We then had to stop by Three Sisters for one last noodle dish, finishing lunch around 1130am. On the way out of town, we stopped by the Patuxai Arch and the That Luang Stupa for a few photos. We finally made it out of town a little after noon.

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Saying goodbye to Ian

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The Patuxai Arch

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An Alaskan and the Stupa

The ride out was not really interesting, because we were just cycling through industrial suburbs of the city. After a while we ended up on Highway 10 which was a more quiet meandering road than Highway 13, which is the main route north.

We started looking for a guesthouse after about 20 miles. We followed a sign on the main road and after a kilometer or so, found a brand new looking building with nobody around and the gate locked. We kind of stared at each other and the gate for a minute, thinking about what to do when a girl on a motorbike drove up and let us in.

Another man drove up a short time later and told us the price was 30,000 kip, but raised it to 50,000 kip when he found out we wanted to sleep there all night long. Then he raised it to 80,000 kip. What should have been a pretty simple transaction took well over five minutes with the man and the girl chattering back and forth (flashbacks to Vietnam), and for some reason seemed to be very confusing for them. Clearly, we were getting ripped off, but we were not in the mood to find another place to stay, we agreed to the price. Now the man wanted us to eat chicken at his house. We said no, and he said yes chicken, and we said no and went inside.

Sometimes we joke, but with some seriousness, that we like to stay at crappier places just because it gives us some extra motivation to get up and get going early the next day. This was a “motivating motel”.

We spent the remainder of the evening doing some much needed laundry in the sink and reading. I had a bit of an encounter with a couple local kids and their kitten. Animal cruelty seems to be everywhere in Asia, and these children were no exception when they picked up the kitten by it’s hind leg to swing it around. I really didn’t know how to react to the situation. The kids and I don’t speak the same language and I couldn’t take the kitten away for very long before they had to leave, so I just tried to set an example of being nice. I couldn’t handle watching the poor kitten get harassed, so we left to find dinner in the market.