Couple of days in Oudomxay

March 20 – 21, 2013

We ended up spending a couple of days in Oudomxay while Jenny recovered from a fever. Our guesthouse was comfortable and had good wifi, so it wasn’t a bad place to regroup. I spent most of my time exploring town while Jenny lay in bed waiting for ibuprofen to kick in. There were a couple of restaurants with English menus in town but there wasn’t much else geared towards tourists, which was OK with me.

There were two major markets that I came across. I spent a while searching through the Chinese market fruitlessly looking for a pressure gauge for our tires. One of the more maddening things about searching for something in a market like this is that there are about 30 different shops selling the exact same stuff with some very minor variations. This required me to describe a pressure gauge with my hands over and over again resulting in a full range of responses from complete bewilderment, mild hostility, to earnest helpfulness, though the closest thing I was offered was a low pressure gauge for a paint sprayer. The other market was a pretty large produce and meat affair, including at least one dog on offer. I was able to find bananas, sticky rice and some bread to provide Jenny with some nourishment.

image

Veggie market

The highlight of my wandering was finding a small cycle touring operation, Samlaan Cycling. There was a friendly guy there who dug up a spare Schwalbe tire that was much better than the spare tire we are carrying. He let me borrow their big floor pump which made it easier to swap Jenny’s front tire to the rear and put the new tire on her front wheel. I rode back over with the pump in the afternoon and when he saw my bike he said he had seen us way back down by Phoukoun a week earlier while he and his boss were scouting out touring routes. Pretty random! We had a good chat then I rode off to find an “herbal sauna” I saw on the local tourist map.

At the top of a short but very steep hill I found the sauna/massage spot run by the Red Cross. For a couple bucks I had the sauna all to myself. It was more of a steam room, with a boiler of sorts perched above a fire fed by long logs. The boiler had two pipes running to the separate male and female steam rooms. At first the wall of steam was overwhelming, but I was able to relax and take in the steam which was infused with local herbs. Quickly I was soaked in condensation from the steam, so I stepped out onto the porch which overlooked a small river. A man came in with a gigantic metal kettle of scalding hot herbal tea. The light breeze quickly dried me off and was a little chilling, so the hot tea was nice. I had a couple more rounds of sauna, then headed back to see how Jenny was doing.

image

Sauna fire

The next morning I climbed a flight of stone stairs behind our guesthouse which led to a small plaza where a number of university students were studying. At the end of the plaza was a large building that served as a local museum. I walked in and was greeted by a young man who knew a bit of English. He turned the lights on for the exhibit hall upstairs, as I was the only guest, and walked around with me briefly describing things. The exhibits seemed a little bit random, but were interesting regardless. The first few items were a collection of pottery, drums and other ancient artifacts from the nearby Beng District. Next, there was a display of several dozen firearms from the period of armed conflict in the middle of the last century. There were also a few handmade rifles used by villagers for hunting small game. The rest of that side of the museum was an assortment of artifacts from the period of time that Oudomxay was a Chinese military base, including some typewriters (which were curiously QWERTY) a large projector from the cinema, and a collection of a Lao alphabet lead printing type for a letter press printer. Tucked in another corner was a collection of villager tools, clothing and ceremonial items, including mousetraps, wooden platform shoes used for walking on muddy fields and vertical banners attached to poles used to celebrate the birth of a child and to promote good luck. Nearby were a couple of bizarre homemade contraptions that turned out to be machines used to crush poppies for the production of opium. I left the museum and wandered around the eastern part of town where a new large concrete stadium was under construction.

image

Bamboo sandals

image

Close up of child's birth announcement banner

image

Opium machine

image

Letterpress type

When I got back to the guesthouse, Jenny was feeling a little better and decided to go back with me to the sauna in the evening. We both indulged in a Lao massage first, which was only a few dollars, then had a bunch of rounds of sauna. The place got really busy by the end, and a little weird. There was one Lao girl who kept pouring milk all over her skin, so the whole place ended up smelling a bit like rotten milk, then a crew of backpackers rolled in. One of them didn’t bother to observe his surroundings, dropped trou and started walking around stark naked in front of the locals, including women and young girls. This resulted in a pretty awkward moment, as the local people were clearly embarrassed and a little offended. We chose this exact moment to make our exit- hopefully avoiding any perceived association with this band of idiots. We were both feeling pretty good and went back to the guesthouse to put together a plan for leaving Laos.

image

Sweaty Chandler

image

Sauna makes everything better

Way to plant Jenny

March 19, 2013

Distance: 44.7 miles        Climbing: 2890.4 ft           Descending: 2385.2 ft

I was feeling slightly better when the morning came. Chandler let me stay in bed as long as possible before convincing me it would be better to be sick and rest in Oudomxay than in this weird sooty town with the squat toilet and no running water we were currently in. Eventually, I got up, dressed and waited downstairs as he carried all the panniers and loaded both bikes.

We biked out of town before stopping so Chan could make us breakfast and I could have some time being sick in the bushes. After eating a little for me and a lot for Chandler, we headed off slowly. Chan quickly got ahead of me, but stopped several time so I could catch up and take a break. I had zero energy for biking and just wanted to lie down on the pavement to snooze. We didn’t have far to go with a small 300m pass and a big downhill into town, but it could have been 1000 miles for all I cared.

This little piggy went to school

Small hills today

At one point, I was lagging far behind and when I caught up to Chan, I noticed he was eating ice cream. I asked him if he got me one and he looked surprised and asked me why I didn’t I get one from the ice cream motorcycle guy who had just passed me. I couldn’t handle it anymore and burst out in tears that I didn’t have any money and felt really bad. Chandler immediately apologized and pulled out the second ice cream he had bought for me. I didn’t have much of a sense of humor at this point.

Even fake ice cream can cheer you up, sort of.

The “ice cream” (actually frozen taro flavored water in a soggy paper cone) perked me up a little and we were able to climb the pass pretty quickly. The trees shading the road and slight breeze also helped. Soon enough we were at the top and sailing down the other side.

Lots of banana plantations in these parts

Larry the bird

About 10km outside of town, there were a number of short, steep hills. Chandler cruised right up them, but I had no energy left and walked me bike up most of them. We crested the final hill of the day and started descending through small villages. Eventually, I was peddling through the dingy outskirts of Oudomxay and still had not caught up to Chandler yet. Since there was only one road he could be on, I assumed he was waiting for me at the first hotel he came upon. When I passed two hotels next to each other and came to an intersection, I knew we had become separated.

I did what I was taught to do as a child, and sat down on the curb and waited. (Way to plant Jenny). I knew Chandler was probably looking for me and it would be best if I just stayed in the same spot instead of biking back to where I had last seen him. I did decide that if he didn’t find me by 5, I would find some internet and email him my location. Luckily, he rode up to me, completely out of breath, 20 minutes later. He had stopped at a store in one of the villages on the descent to buy me a sprite, and while his back was turned paying for the sprite must have continued past him without seeing him or his bike. When I didn’t show up, he biked all the way back up to the top of the last big hill where he last saw me and started keeping an eye on the ditch by the road in case I had crashed or gotten sick again. When the ditch turned to gravel parking areas of town, he booked it into town.

Somewhere around this point I realized that my rear tire had a bulge in it. On closer inspection we realized the sidewall had split after the outer sheathing tore next to the rim. Not good. Looks like Chan had a project for tomorrow…

Jenny’s tire bites the dust.

As we biked together looking for a hotel with internet, we were happy to discover we had come up with similar plans about finding internet and emailing the other if we were separated for a while. We found a nice guesthouse near the center of town and once again, Chandler took care of everything while I lay in bed. I immediately went to sleep for the evening while Chandler went out in search of food and ibuprofen.

Back on the road

March 18, 2013

Distance: 50.1 miles        Climbing: 3553.1 feet     Descending: 3054.5 feet

We had no problem waking up early after a few days rest and were eager to be off when we saw cloudy skies. We stopped in at an open bakery where Chandler ordered the set breakfast of eggs, fruit, bacon and bread, while I had my standard bread and an omelet.

The road immediately started up hill and I could tell what kind of day it would be, a tough one.  The sun burned the clouds away and we were quickly baking in the heat. We passed through dense jungle and small villages. We both had an incredibly hard time finding a rhythm. We would descend down short steep hills only to have to immediately shift gears and sweat our way back up another hill. These hills always seemed to occur in villages where people would wave and ask question. It is quite difficult to interact with the locals while trying to huff and puff up a hill.

Trying to catch up

Little piggy

Misty Jungle

At one point, we passed through a high valley where the locals were practicing some slash and burn agriculture. We have become used to ash snowing down on us or smoke clouds billowing into the sky, but this area was different. We felt like we had entered some post apocalyptic war zone.

Slash and burn

The heat became unbearable around 1230pm, when we decided to duck into a small restaurant to get out of the heat. Chandler was able to get some soup which came with the pile of greens that he added to the soup and would eat bits of periodically, mirroring the actions of the locals. I was able to convey that I’m a vegetarian, so the owner fixed me up some eggs. The eggs tasted a little funny, but I was hungry so I ate them anyways.

Super safe bridge

Around 300pm, we still had a ways to go to get to Beng and got back on the road. About half an hour into the ride my stomach started to rumble. The road mellowed out and we didn’t have to go up and down so many hills. By the time we got to Beng, I was crying and in serious need of a bathroom. Chandler got us the first guesthouse we came to and carried all of our panniers up the stairs while I was sick. It was a pretty basic place, with clean sheets, but it had a shared bathroom with big barrels of water hauled from the creek and a squat toilet. Squat toilets are not ideal when emptying one’s stomach.

Chan and a stupa

After spending some time getting to know the lovely shared bathroom, I was able to lie down and snooze while Chandler went out to find something to eat. He went the wrong way the first time, and walked about a mile to the other end of town without seeing anything that resembled a restaurant. He did see a group of young kids rooting around in piles of burned trash along the roadside picking up pieces of melted metal. The whole town was actually covered in a dark haze from burning trash somewhere on the hill beside the town. While the people were friendly this was a particularly dirty spot and the first place we’d seen people scavenging so desperately.  He came back to the guesthouse and asked the owners where to eat and they gestured in the other direction, where Chan found two roadhouses within 100 meters of where we were staying that he somehow missed on the ride in. He ordered the only food he knew how to say in Lao, “feh” and enjoyed his second bowl of noodle soup of the day along with a pile of leafy greens.

The slow boat

March 17, 2013

We got up pretty early today so we’d have enough time to pack, find breakfast and get to the ticket counter a few minutes early. I sat with the bikes while Chandler waited in line, getting cut by little old ladies who poke their heads sideways into the ticket window as if to ask a quick question then slowly push their whole bodies in front of the person there. This sort of thing happens all the time and Chandler has learned ways to deal with the situation. Usually this involves getting uncomfortably close to the person in front of him (pretty much vertical spooning) and then putting his hands on his hips creating a little old lady barrier with his elbows. Eventually, he got our tickets and we headed down to the boat.

A boat like ours

Our bikes were loaded onto the roof of the boat and lashed down, while our panniers were piled up inside with everyone else’s luggage. The people aboard the boat were a good mix of locals and tourists, with one person per seat. This was nice to see, because that meant nobody would be sitting in the aisles or wherever else they can fit. A few straggler backpackers were relegated to the luggage area though and were a lot more cramped than the early birds who snapped up the reused passenger van seats set up in the front, away from the engine room.

Confluence with another river

Village on the Mekong

When everyone and their gear were loaded, the boat was pushed out into the current using long bamboo poles. The captain started the engine and we were off, traveling up the Mekong. We had an 8 hour boat ride ahead of us, so we got comfortable with our Kindles, alternating between reading and watching the landscape pass us by. Surprisingly, the boat went through a couple sections of pretty good rapids (nothing the Seahawk II couldn’t handle). We made a few stops at small village landings along the way to drop off locals who had obviously been down in Luang Prabang shopping.

The necessities, beer and a roof to drink it under

Sunset on the Mekong

We got to Pakbeng around 500pm and checked into the first hotel we came upon. Since it was St. Patty’s day, we figured it would be semi-sacrilegious not to celebrate. In the spirit of things, we decided we should have some black and tans. With only Lao beer available, Chandler purchased a regular BeerLao and a dark BeerLao. Hoping they would do the trick, Chan mixed them together, only to find that light rice beer and dark rice beer have pretty much the same specific gravity and eventually mixed despite how carefully he manipulated his spork. Slightly disappointed, we enjoyed our beverages anyways. Erin go Bragh!

Landing at Pakbeng

Attempt at a black and tan, Lao style

The longest day

March 15 – 16, 2013

Distance: 58.8 miles

We woke up with our alarm feeling refreshed and in excellent moods. We made a quick breakfast of oatmeal and instant coffee before lugging everything back down the hill. We noticed some Hmong ladies bathing in a creek near our campsite the night before and headed there to filter some water and wash dishes. When we had finished up and were all ready to go, a solo female bike tourist rode up to us for a chat. She had stayed at the same hotel as Tony the night before and knew who we were. We talked for 20 minutes for so about the route before saying good luck and starting on our way.

Attempting to get my bike back on the road

As we made it to the top of the first big hill we saw a guy sitting in the ditch on the side of the road with an AK-47. He wasn’t a soldier, just a guy in normal clothes with an assault rifle. We’d seen several people in villages with hunting rifles, homemade looking long arms that looked like they were .22 caliber or smaller, but this was a lot different. This was a little scary, but we didn’t seem faze him, so we just kept on moving. A short while later we are stopped in the road in the middle of a village by some sort of parade. At first glance, I thought it was a funeral and Chandler thought it was a protest. Then we noticed men playing instruments, people dancing and young women at the front of the line holding large picture frames, which looked like they held certificates. We decided the parade must be a part of some sort of graduation ceremony. As we exited the other side of town there was another armed citizen, this time he had what looked like an SKS. We weren’t sure why a graduation ceremony needed to be protected by the local militia but weren’t interested in finding out. Sorry no pictures of the security!!

Parade dancers

The honorees?

We only had 20km to get to the next town with guesthouses and restaurants, but they were all up hill and took us over an hour. Even though we had just eaten, we decided to get a second breakfast of omelets and sticky rice. Properly fueled, we were ready for another big climb. But first, we had a 20km descent, losing all the elevation we had gained the day before. While I much prefer going downhill, I also dread it. The big semi trucks go slower than us down the hills, so that means we catch up to them and either pass them, which is scary, or inhale their exhaust for several miles.

Chandler goofing off

I now assume that all down hills lead to big up hills. We had about 1km of flat at the bottom of the valley before we had to start climbing a 15km long pass gaining another 600m. And on top of that, guess what time it was? 130pm, hottest part of the day. Sometimes I think we subconsciously try to sabotage ourselves. We got lucky though. There was shade most of the way and Chandler stopped by a creek at 215pm so we could dunk our heads and cool off. The climb wasn’t too bad, but I was tired of forever climbing and just wanted an easy day, so it seemed much worse than it really was.

At 400pm, we reached a town we can’t remember the name of which was our goal for the day and a place with a guesthouse. As we rolled through town, we saw that the guesthouse on the main road looked like a dump, plus there was a wedding in full swing which can continue late into the night with music blasting. Laung Prabang was only 25km away. The sun would be setting at about 6pm and we knew the last 10km were all downhill. We decided to go ahead and continue on.

Another Hmong village

More beautiful scenery

Chandler and I got a second wind and the kilometers flew by. There was one tiny little pass to climb and we ended up catching up to some other bike tourists from France that had passed us the day before. We all sailed in Laung Prabang together as the sun was setting, but split back up when the guesthouse search began.

We found a decent little place next to the Mekong River, near all the action. After the past couple days being especially challenging, we were taking a day off. We didn’t do too much on our rest day. Laundry, bike cleaning and errands took up most of our time. We walked through town, looking at the beautiful temples and everything for sale in the market. Chandler was brave and ordered the local specialty, river moss. It was basically river seaweed dried, fried, topped with sesame seeds and served with a tomato dipping sauce. It was tasty but not very filling.

River weed

Chan has a helper cleaning his bike

Hidden Buddha

We also made an important routing decision which was to take a boat up the Mekong to Pakbeng, in order to avoid the pass to the east of Oudomxay. We had read and been warned that the road over the pass was steep, unpaved for major sections, heavily damaged by traffic and flooding and loaded with trucks. Going upriver to Pakbeng wasn’t going to make our route any shorter, but it did promise good asphalt and no major climbs. It was kind of a no-brainer to take the boat, but it takes extra planning for the bikes when using alternative modes of transportation. We found out that it was significantly cheaper to buy tickets for the 8 hour boat ride right at the boat landing (110,000 kip or $14) than to enlist the “help” of one of the travel agents (170,000 kip or $22). We settled back into our guesthouse, downloaded some shows and drank some Beer Lao.