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.



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.


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.


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.


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!



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.


Saying goodbye to Ian


The Patuxai Arch


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.


February 27 – March 8, 2013

We had a long wait in Vientiane while our visa applications were being processed. We didn’t do a whole lot besides eat, read and watch a few shows on the laptop before going to sleep. Every morning we went to the Scandinavian Bakery, where we get the same big breakfast and spend some much needed time catching the blog up. We spend the afternoons reading at our guesthouse and eating plates of delicious noodles covered in spicy lime sauce at the Three Sisters restaurant.


Delicious noodles

The highlights from the week in town: We found a wonderfully quiet guesthouse run by a very friendly family. When we pay for another night each morning, they always give us bananas or watermelon or corn. Every evening, when we arrive back in the courtyard, there are some strange little chickens to greet us. They sleep up high, on top of the fence where we park our bikes.


Creepy chickens


Beautiful moth

The big news was that we got our Chinese visas! We really had no idea if we would be approved, especially after we talked to a couple that had been denied. We are very excited for the next part of our journey. I had read on the Indian Embassy’s website that they processed visas in Vientiane in 8 hours, but turned out, it takes 5 days. Quite a difference. The Indian visa turned out to be more of a pain than the Chinese one- we had to fill out an online application on a really clunky website that lost all our data 3 times. So, we ended up spending 12 days or so in Vientiane, and have been off the loaded bikes for almost two weeks, but it was a good place to be stuck, and a nice break from riding.


Outdoor group fitness

We visited the COPE visitor center which was the highlight of our touristy ventures in town. COPE makes prosthetic limbs for victims of unexploded ordinance (UXO). Before and during the Vietnam War, Laos was heavily bombed by the US both near the Laos/Vietnam border but also much deeper in the country as part of a CIA-run clandestine bombing campaign against communist forces. Many of the bombs, including small cluster bombs, about the size of a baseball, did not detonate. Lao villagers salvage the UXO for scrap metal or for the explosives themselves using cheap metal detectors. Obviously this is a dangerous enterprise which often results in injury or death. Many people also detonate the bombs by inadvertently stepping on them, cooking over them or otherwise accidentally disturbing them. People injured in rural areas often make do with homemade crutches or fake limbs made of wood and scrap metal. COPE provides injured people artificial limbs of high quality constructed by technicians with internationally recognized certifications. COPE has a small but well done information center with examples of UXO, artificial limbs and several films set up. It was pretty sad, but also uplifting to see the films of people’s lives being changed for the better through the efforts of the people at COPE.


Cluster bomb


Chan testing bicycle wheelchair

We also stayed with our first warmshowers hosts, Ian and Aine. (Warmshowers is a website similar in concept to couchsurfing, but aimed at cycle tourists) They are an Irish couple who just moved to Laos a few weeks ago. Ian recently completed a huge ride from from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina. We had a fun time with them and they got us really excited for cycling in Ireland. The real treasure of our stay with them, was Aine’s banoffee pie. I could probably write an entire post on how amazing her pie was. Chandler and I have even been discussing how we can make banoffee pie on the road. Great stuff.


Ian, Aine and banoffee pie

Happy birthday Chandler!

February 26, 2013

The bus arrived at the Vientiane station a little after 5am. It took us about 20 minutes to get the bikes back together and get on the road. The bus station is a couple kilometers outside of town so we road in as the sun was rising.

We had breakfast at a nice café and waited until the Chinese embassy opened at 9am. We arrived along with a few other foreigners and chatted about the visa process. Everyone else was there for round two or more after finding out they were missing some critical piece of paper. A French guy told us that they were put through the ringer a bit more than other folks apparently because of a row resulting from a controversial state visit to France by a certain regional leader in exile…

The embassy opened at 9am and we handed over our applications and our photographs. We read that they would want two copies of the applications, which we had, but they actually only wanted one. The official quickly looked through all our paperwork, gave us a receipt, instructions to go to the Chinese bank for payment and told us we could pick up our passports on Friday morning. We walked out a little stunned as the whole process only took about 3 minutes. Now we wait, and hope that our applications are in order.

We found the bank on the main road into town and made our payment ($140 each since we’re American, $32 for everyone else).

We found a nice guesthouse and spent the hottest part of the day inside relaxing. For dinner we went to an Indian restaurant and ordered a feast.


Birthday feast

After dinner, we went bowling. We used to go bowling in the winter in Anchorage, so it seemed appropriate. It was so much fun, but we were both a little out of practice. The best part was the bowling alley here played the same American dance music as back home. Because it was Chan’s birthday, I let him win all three games.


Goofy shoes


Like a pro


Laying down another strike

We fell asleep quickly and early as we hadn’t slept well on the bus. Around 2am, we are both awoken by a dog, directly outside our window, howling. The guesthouse owners had about 5 or 6 dogs that they fed and kept in the courtyard. The howling lasted a few minutes before a staff member came out and started hushing the dog. The dog then started running around the courtyard howling. The person was eventually able to quiet the animal down to only have it start humping another dog. The humping continued until we both fell back asleep. Then for the remainder of the night, the dog started howling every half hour or so until 5am, with someone continuously and futilely shushing it. It was by far the worst night sleep we’ve had on the trip. Although the place was really nice in every other way, we had to find another place where we could sleep!


February 25, 2013

Savannakhet does not have a lot going for it. Many of the restaurants advertised in our guide book were closed for the day or completely gone. The town felt like it was hanging on by a thread. After two or three attempts, we finally found a place for breakfast, which left much to be desired.


Street of Savannakhet

We knew we would be in the capital of Laos, Vientiane, for a week while waiting for our Chinese and Indian visas, so we decided to take a night bus that night to Vientiane. We wanted to make sure we had enough time to cycle to China and heard the route from Savannakhet to Vientiane was nothing to write home about. Our plan for the day was to go to the dinosaur museum, but we had already missed the morning hours and had read online that it normally doesn’t open for the afternoon hours. So, we checked out of our hotel room and hung out in their courtyard until dinner. Chandler started working on our Chinese visa applications while I read.

Chan had done some research on the Chinese visa application process, and was a little worried. He read that the various Chinese embassies had recently started enforcing the submittal requirements more strictly since the fall 2012. He wasn’t able to find any recent information about Americans who had successfully obtained tourist visas outside the US. He did find a number of posts about people who had given up and changed their trips dramatically because they couldn’t get their applications together to the satisfaction of the Chinese officials. He was able to figure out that the embassy at a minimum required:
-The application (form A),
-A supplemental form (form B) since we were applying outside our home country,
-Photocopy of our passport photo page,
-Proof of exit from China, which in our case was a confirmed flight to India,
-A day by day itinerary for the duration of our stay, done up in Excel,
-Hotel reservations, not sure how many are required, we had 3 total at the beginning, middle and end
-A copy of a recent bank statement showing that we weren’t broke

Some posts also mentioned the specter of a required “letter of invitation” issued by either a Chinese friend or a tour company. We didn’t have this or any means to get one so we hoped it was only required for longer stays…

Chan put in a few hours filling out applications, booking hotels in China and getting all this stuff together, then printing it out to pdf. He found a local shop that then printed the documents out and made copies. This turned into a disaster as they somehow only printed about half of the pages out which he didn’t realize until he got back to the hotel and double checked everything against his list. He ended up having to go back to the shop two more times as their printer and copier kept losing pages of the application. Exhausted from his drawn out clerical duties of the day, Chan was starving. A French woman at our hotel recommended a restaurant that served pizza and had some interesting outside décor.


Working on the visa


Our company at dinner

With nothing to do until our bus left, we biked around town until the sun started setting. At the bus station we had a couple of beers and Chandler had some soup while we waited. When the lights on our bus turned on we headed over to make sure our bikes got on first.


Soccer match under the moon


Bus station

When we pulled up to the bus, the driver took one look at us and shook his head no. “No bikes.” We showed him our tickets and said “yes” and “no problem” while beginning to take our panniers off our bikes. Chandler then picked up his bike and began loading it under the bus, while the driver stared at him in disbelief. He made a panicked phone call to someone, littered with the word “falang” (just an inoffensive word for “white person”) which Chan heard and repeated a few times to the baggage man. The guy thought it was pretty funny which lightened the mood a bit. At this point they must have realized the bikes were coming with us no matter what and started to help. He insisted we take our front tires off and motioned for Chandler to step aside. Just like that, both bikes and all 8 panniers were loaded on the bus. The driver didn’t even ask us to pay him extra as we had been expecting.

We loaded the bus about an hour later. We were on another sleeper bus, but of a different design. Instead of individual beds, this bus had a bed on either side of the aisle that two people would then share. I could imagine this would be a little awkward if one was traveling alone and had to share the bed with a stranger. The bed was about 5.5ft long and 4ft wide, a little too small for Chandler and me to share comfortably. I accidentally hit Chan in the face a few time while trying to roll over, only there was no room to roll over. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most restful night’s sleep. Little did we know it would be more restful than the next night…