With the descent amongst the ranks successfully quelled by another day in Pakse it was finally time to get back on the bikes. The next stretch of our journey was to rejoin us with the Mekong, and take us further north, heading towards Laos second city of Savanakhet, where three none to strenuous days would hopefully have us there in time to celebrate a Lao style new year.
The truth of the matter is that, having survived a Laosian Christmas we were more than happy to sit new year out altogether. Our bed times are now heading south of 10 o’clock, and so even managing to stay awake until 2013 was going to be tough. Before that though there was roughly 260km of cycling to do.
[So far, if there is one bit of advice that the Cycle My Bicycle Team would give a prospective cycle tourist it is “check the prevailing winds before you go”. This is because it turns out that the whole of South East Asia, (at various times between the months of November and February) enjoys a warm, dry and (crucially) north easterly wind. This weather pattern has meant that for pretty much the whole of the last two months we have been cycling into a head wind, all the way from Southern Thailand.]
For the first day the head wind was pretty bad, but manageable, and we were able to push on relatively well. We cycled past of hotel at about kilometre 60, which Jess then grumbled about not stopping at for the next 50kms, until we finally found at a very nice lake side motel on the outskirts of a town that we hadn’t even notices we were cycling through.
[If there were two bits of advice that the team were to give, the second would probably be “take a kindle” (which they would then reword to “take an e-reader” in an effort to quell the rumours of product placement). Sam’s kindle had already been hard at work while in the home stays of Cambodia, where happy evenings was spent learning Khmer phrases, and it was to come into it’s own upon arrival at tonight’s accommodation.]
We were greeted by a very friendly man who not only spoke absolutely no English, but seemed to speak absolutely no international sign / arm waving either. (And, rather bizarrely, wasn’t able to work out what we might conceivably want from his clearly labelled guest house.) After a couple of abortive attempts to communicate our desire for a room the kindle came out, and after a certain amount of button pressing we were able to bag ourselves a lovely double room overlooking the lake, for a price that seemed to continually be getting lower.
[At this point Sam feels he must air a particular grievance he has about the Lonely Planet South East Asian phrase book he’s downloaded. Why is the “meeting people” section (which is the only place you will find translations for little used phrases such as “Hello” not until page 28!) tucked carefully underneath a list of toiletries! And who writes a dictionary for South East Asia that doesn’t include the word for “rice”! (Fairs fair though, it was the only one he could find that was available to download, it has all the languages of the region (minus Malay) and was only about £4… and it has been very very very (very) useful…)]
Yet again we had found a motel that doesn’t have a restaurant, and here there wasn’t a convenient hospital for us to go and eat at. The wife of the owner however was willing and able to throw us together a very nice sticky rice and fish dinner, and while we waited the 4 year old daughter impressed us with her recital of the English alphabet, rivalling Sam’s own ability (Sam is putting this down to more practise..). While we were eating the owner came over with a rather scratty Lao-English phrase book of his own and the rest of the evening was spent trying to learn each others language. (After much discussion and arm waving we discovered that he was a hotelier, and that this was his daughter… amazing!)
The next day was shorter and easier. In the 60km we did we passed 7 other cycle tourists going in the other direction and enjoying a delightful tailwind. The first two where a Belgian couple who had cycled from Belgium. They had originally planned on only going as far a Hong Kong, but had been three months ahead of schedule, and so had decided to box off South East Asia as well… and why wouldn’t ya?… (Find there blog here: http://opnaarhongkong.weebly.com/) The second was a German/Scandinavian man cycling along topless (who we have since Christened Rambo). The fourth and fifth were a pair of Italians who had decided to tackle rural central Lao on there Italian racing bikes, and were now regretting it (mostly because they had decided to go as far off the beaten track as they could on 23mm tires and racing gel saddles, and now neither of them could sit down without weeping).
The final two were another Belgium couple, this time slightly older, and if anything slightly more experience cycle tourists. We met them in the town we were planning on staying in, and then said our good byes to go and find a guest house.
Lao has a bafflingly large number of guest houses, and even in the middle of nowhere you are never more than a couple of yards away from a very nice, very clean (normally pink) roadside motel, although they don’t seem to have anything other than double rooms. Our theory for the reason behind this the fact that all their houses are made of wood…
We wandered back up to town to find dinner, and after sitting for a few minutes, the second Belgium couple wandered into the restaurant as well, and a very enjoyable evening was spent listening to tales of their previous cycle adventures and amazing tales about the amount of holiday you get if you a Belgian civil servant.
Our final day was a bit more interesting that the last two. We headed off the main road and into more rural pastures. We were hoping to see something refereed to on the first sign we saw for it as the “stone house”, but then when we saw the second sign it was pointing us 16km back in the direction we had come. The rest of the day was spent cycling mostly along dirt tracks through some fun looking Lao villages, made more fun by the fact that they all seemed to be setting up huge speaker system in preparation for their new year festivities.
It was a long, quite tiring day, and although there was enough party in us to want to do something, the prospects of us pushing each other through to midnight were slim. That is until we happened to bump into a couple of American Cyclists who were staying in the same guest house, who were willing to go to dinner with us, the company of which meant that we were still very much enjoying ourselves by the time the countdown for midnight started.
At the strike of 12 the street erupted with hundreds of locals all coming out to launch fireworks(… from their hands… often in the direction of passing vehicles,) and then complete effect was brilliant, if a little scary.
True to new year form we woke up with hangovers, and so it was clear no cycling was going to be done. It turned out that nothing else was going to be done either, because everything in town was shut for New Years day. This was especially sad because Savannakhet is reported to have a particularly good dinosaur museum, which we walked to the outside of, but could go no further.
In the end we spent the whole day resting and trying to plan the next leg of our journey.
Day 1, Pakse to a place that Google calls Ban La Khone Pheng…
Day 2, that place to Pakxong (not to be confused with Paksong on the Bolavan Plateau)
Day 3, Pakxong to Savannakhet