There were a number of options for how to get between Savannakhet and Vientienne, and according to the research that we did they were all boring! For that reason we decided to go for the quickest one, which was to take a direct beeline through Thailand. This had some advantages, namely… Thailand.
In Thailand there are lots of magical and mystical things that are often taken for granted, such as supermarkets, post offices, pharmacies and bike shops, all of which we were hoping to make use off.
From Savannakhet, Thailand is literally a stones throw away across the river, and in case your throwing arm isn’t good enough the Ozzys have even helped fund a gigantic bridge. Finding the bridge was easy, however getting onto it, (since we had left our grappling hooks at home) wasn’t quite so straight forward.
After our last Lao border crossing experience we were a little apprehensive about the prospect of giving our passports over to the man behind the desk. In fact we needn’t have worried because this border seemed to have an almost English-esque desire for things to be done by the book, and protocol was obeyed religiously. The protocol that caused us the biggest hassle was that you aren’t allowed to cycle over the bridge and the only provision that has been made for this is that would be cyclists have to flag down a pick-up truck as it goes through border control.
The only real problem with this is that the traffic volume over the bridge can be approximated to zero, and so it was possible we were going to have a long wait on our hands. The border officials were very sympathetic to our plight, recognising the slight absurdity of the situation, and even brought us some water while we sat in the sun waiting for a potential lift.
Eventually a pick-up did come past, Sam jumped on the driver and the man still seemed in a slight puzzled daze as to what was happening as he helped load our bikes into the back.
Most people in Thailand seem to drive huge pick-ups! Massive, with more than enough space for an army of bicycles and cyclists. Sadly we had found the only man in the country who had decided to “go eco” and have chosen to down scale, and so we had to cling on, with our bikes hanging somewhat out the back cruising along at 70kph. Whether this was safer than cycling over the bridge is questionable, but we survived.
Back in Thailand and we started smashing the kms like pros!. It’s not hugely exciting countryside, but the month and a half in the very poor countries of Lao and Cambodia meant that we took great joy from the periodic posh coffee shops.
There is an old Thai trick played on cycle tourists. Essentially what happens is, someone will buy a herd of ostriches and then position them by the side of the road. The honourable cycle tourist, coming along, minding his or her own business, is then so completely distracted by this that they veer off the road and come flying off their bike, at which point the Thai person in question has a bloody good chuckle at their expense. Called The Ostrich Shuffle it’s a trick played mainly on the road to Udon Thani and sadly Jess fell right into it, coming spectacularly off her bike and flying into the road. Fortunately no cars were overtaking at the time, and although she caused a minor traffic jam, the pick-up behind did stop to check she was ok.
With some new scrapes and cuts we were able to finally make some proper use of our first aid fit (although sadly all the bandages had already been used covering up Jess’s sun burn) and we were quickly on our way again.
We covered quite a lot of ground on our first Thai day, finally stopping in the town of Sakhon Nakhon, where we got a very cheap room in yet another huge hotel! It was so big that our bikes even got their own room! Here still everything seemed completely shut, and the only place we could find to get dinner was a quite smart Vietnamese restaurant, where rather than having a menu they showed you pictures of potential dishes on an iPad. The only down side of this was that food came to four times the price of our hotel room… a whopping £15.
The next few days flew by, racking up kilometres faster than you can say “Is that a herd of ostriches?”. We stopped briefly to see the occasional interesting religious watsit, and had a very nice drink with an old Australian man, who gave us quite a bit of an insight into the (surprisingly large) community of ex-pat Europeans who have moved to Thailand and married Thai women (people we have code named ‘Spatulas’). Initially, this bloke didn’t inspire us, having now lived in Thailand for two years, not visited any further a field than the town in which he lived and not having picked up a word of Thai. He then however turned out to be both interested in and knowledgeable of Thai culture and people, and we enjoyed a very interesting hour or two chatting, by the end of which we felt guilty for a previously being so judgemental.
The next day was a short one, and brought us into Udon Thani, which it turns out is quite the metropolis. We made it there by lunch, which gave us the whole afternoon to do some to-dos, which was good, because there were quite a few challenges we had to complete before we thought it would be safe to go back into Laos.
Keen observers will have noticed that Jess has in recent photos has been sporting a very fetching bandage round (first one, then) both her calves. “Is this what they’re wearing on the catwalks of Phnom Penh?” I hear you ask, well no! (In truth, we don’t actually know about the catwalks, but in Phnom Penh, as throughout Cambodia, most people seemed to wear pyjamas pretty much all the time. The only reason we have been given for this is that it is because they are both colourful, and matching. Can’t argue there…)
The reason for Jess’s bandage is a to cover up a horrible and disfiguring rash that has started to form. We think the rash is caused by the a mix of the sun, and the doxycyclone anti-malarial drug we are both taking, and so the bandage is there to both protect the area, and to stop such disfigurement scaring the children. Since Thailand’s health system is both efficient and cheap we thought that this was a good place to get the rash looked at by a strong stomached medical professional. So we headed to Udon Thani General Hospital.
At this point it would be convenient to have some terrible story about how awful the hospital was, how dirty, how they kept trying to convince Jess that the only cure would be the application of leeches, as this would obviously make for a much better read. Sadly the hospital was both clean and efficient (hence why we’d chosen to go there) and so we were in an out in double quick time with Jess having received a check-up, antihistamine jab, pills, and new lease of life, all for the princely sum of 96 Baht (£1.92). The nurse agreed that it was almost certainly the doxy and that Jess must stop taking it, Jess than asked what she should do instead to prevent getting malaria, to which the response essentially was “Don’t go to Lao”. Very helpful stuff.
Udon Thani is a very vibrant and interesting city. After the hospital we went for a walk around the lake, sat down (on the floor) at a very trendy market side eatery which did us a lovely salad which tasted amazing right up to the moment you got hit by a huge wave of spice, completely eradicating your taste buds and making you scared to have another mouthful.
We were then attracted by the sound of music, and stumbled across the Udon Thani Love Music Festival! Which was free! The music was rubbish (well… Thai), and there was little chance of getting caught up in a mosh pit, but other than that (oh and the zero tolerance to alcohol policy) it was practically indistinguishable for Glastonbury.
We left Udon early the next day, Sam got chatting with a man who gave him a home brew receipt for pepper spray (for the Thai dogs), and then we were out on our last section of Thai highway. We stopped at a cafe where you could buy probably (no, definitely) the worst garden ornaments in the world, and before we new it we were at yet another friendship bridge.
In theory your not allowed to cycle over this one either, but the guards weren’t looking, and the signs weren’t very large so we went for it, and won! We then even got a receipt for the $1 over time charge on the Lao immigration! Amazing!
After that it was a very short cycle further along the river before we got into Vientienne city centre where we eventually managed to find a hostel that wasn’t full, and then a bar with an amazing view of the Mekong, just in time for sunset. Gruelling stuff!
Day 1 from Savannakhet to Sakhon Nakhon
Day 2 from Sakhon Nakhon to Sawang Dea Din
Day 3 from Sawang Dea Din to Udon Thani
And last but not least, Day 4, Udon Thani to Vientienne