All posts for the month December, 2015

Although our surroundings were pristine and magnificent, it was a less than stellar night’s sleep with the constant rush of the waterfall, lights left on in the restaurant and dining area all night and local people coming at all hours of the night and morning chatting and checking out our tent as they passed and disappeared into the Forrest.

We only had a short ride today into Luang Prabang, so we wanted a late start to the day….but any real attempt at a lay in was relatively short lived, and we found ourselves up and about by 8.00am. Between the 4 of us (Mike, Aad, Vince and I) we had a cooked breakfast of creamed rice (Mike) and fried bananas (Me) and Vince boiled water for the drinks of Ovaltine, Coffee and my last lone tea bag…or was it Diet Coke (called Coke Light here)?

We were finishing the remnants of breakfast when a couple came out of the Forrest and rested a short distance away from us, at the bottom of the hill ( this seemed to be a natural stop for all the foragers as they descended). I made eye contact with the the woman and she returned my smile. I sang out the local greeting to her which she also returned….so I grabbed my camera and headed over for some closer interaction. She spoke no English but it was soon made clear she wanted me to try out lifting her basket…very heavy! In fact with the head strap in place I couldn’t lift it, if I just used the arm straps I could but it was filled with turnip looking vegetables and very heavy! Vince and Aad tried in turn and had the same difficulty….in fact Vince looked like he was going to blow a fluffer valve and Aad looked like he was fixing to give birth… that made me feel much better about my poor attempts! We have seen many people all over Asia carrying these baskets….they start them young….children really…so I guess their neck muscles must be very well developed. We all praised the woman’s strength…flexing our biceps at her and she just laughed. The man with her joined in the interaction and it was very special to share with them.

We slowly started to dismantle our camp and drya out the inevitable condensation and dew from out tent and fly…thankfully all I broke this time was a nail not an arm!

Before we knew it lunch time had arrived and we ordered the same meals as last night…..we thought it safe as at least we knew what to expect….the menu board was in Laotian with only a few items in English and some of these simply said “Fried”…. No indication of what! Can’t remember what dinner/lunch cost us but it was reasonable…maybe 30,000 Kip/LAK.

There were quite reasonable toilets available but no showers or hot water. Vince had stayed in some cabins last time but these were not available so we just camped this time.

We finished the last few bits of packing on our bikes and were all soon back on the road after lunch for the 40km journey to Luang Prabang. The trip there was picturesque some of the way and a bit hectic in traffic at others…..just on the road into the town a scooter from a side road wasn’t watching and just shot out directly at us …….almost crashing into our right hand side but Vince managed to avoid him and I did a bit of vocalising and shaking my camera at him in disgust. Mike led us via the GPS to our original accommodation but it was fully booked out….Aad and I checked out two others nearby but they were also booked out! Vince took us to the Luang Prabang Bakery, just around the corner from where he stayed last time he was here, to use their Wifi. It had moved upmarket and was now very expensive …a Coke was 15,000 kip (usually 5,000)….but at least it let us use their wifi to try to find alternative accommodation….Vince and Mike walked to where Vince had stayed last time, but it too was booked out. We eventually found somewhere and headed a few Km out of town……it was difficult to find even from the coordinates we had…..we saw another place and stopped to check it out….they had rooms available but it was more expensive and very basic….we decided to backtrack down the road again in search of somewhere and eventually found the right one (120,000 kip/LAK per night).

After unpacking the bikes we freshened up with a hot shower…..pressure not great but it’s the first proper hot water we have had in weeks! Vince even helped me wash my hair! We even had sheets that we could use…..for weeks we have had to use our sleeping bags as the hotels have either not had sheets or towels or they have been too disgusting to use.

Dinner was at the Indian place…we road the bikes due to the distance and the traffic was manic…it reminded us of being in India…as Vince parked the bike he broke my minion but it was only his leg so we can glue that back on. It was very stressful having dinner….people kept touching the bike even after we asked them not to….again like India….we decided won’t ride in again…..both Vince and I had a really bad feeling on the road that night but luckily we were all OK.

I think the plan with Aad and Mike was to be on the bikes for 7:30am – as a surprise Karen and I were ready about 07:00am for a change – packed, loaded, lights washed clean to remove the dust and grime, and water bottles refilled, so we headed off and stopped out the front of the UXO Survivors Office to get some information and then rode the short distance back to Nisha’s Indian to meet the guys for breakfast. We’d met Francios – the French guy in his Toyota camper – here the night before, and also Andre and his wife (they are from Tasmania), and we’d next bump into Francios in Luang Prabang a few days later – what a small world it is !!!

My chocolate chapati was different and very oily to eat, but the Lao coffee was nice. Aad, Mike and Karen all had eggs & baguettes which they enjoyed. After a quick fuel stop (my 22L cost about AU$30 so no cheap fuel here in Laos – and this fuel would cause me problems later in Luang Prabang when the bike stalled a couple of times at slow speeds in heavy night traffic) we were heading out of Phonsavan about 08:30am, bound for the Kacham Waterfall, about 255km away or so.

The 125km road from Phonsavan to Phou Khoun is a fantastic ride – I’d commented when writing about my previous ride along this road in 2011 in the reverse direction that everyone should ride this road at least once, and my earlier comment still stands. The road twisted through the hills – at times you could see through five or six curves ahead, and this encouraged a nice quick pace, only tempered by the frequent cows that stood either slap bang in the middle on the road, or right on the edge. I had toyed with the idea of taking a small detour to show Mike the old abandoned airfield at Mong Souy but I got completely sidetracked with the riding – the first time I stopped I realised that I’d ridden the whole section to Phou Khoun and the airfield was near the other end back towards Phonsavan, so that will have to wait for another trip.

Karen and I grabbed a cheap and cheerful meal at the Phou Khoun Restauarant – whilst we watched the minivans full of pack-packers and tourists pulling into town for a break. I don’t think there’s much to see or do here, except have a leg stretch and bite to eat on the trip from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. Lunch finished, we headed north towards LPB, with the road deteriorating in places and the traffic becoming heavier and more stupid.

We stopped at a roadside stall and bought some bananas, and went halves with Mike to buy some spring onions to add to our noodles. We saw some cooked rats hanging up but couldn’t be tempted.

Aad and Mike needed fuel, and I wasn’t anticipating that we’d be able to get any food at the waterfall, so we stopped in Xieng Ngeun. The last few downhill km into town was a bit hectic with tour minivans clinging to the bikes, trying to make us ride faster. I’d pull to the side and let them go through as there was nothing to be gained by holding them up, a few times I was concerned that the other guys were going to get rear-ended by an over-ambitious van driver.

A few years ago the road south-west from Xiang Ngeun had been unsealed but its recently been paved and it didn’t take us long to cover the 18km down to the waterfall. The track into the waterfall itself was unpaved, but reasonably good. The park boom gate was up and no one was in the ticket booth – which meant there was no one to speak to regarding arranging one of the small chalets there. I rode up to the end of the track to where the waterfall and restaurant were, and chatted to a man working there who said that we could pitch our tents on the grass there. Yippee !!!

It was about 04:30pm at this stage so we worked fast to get our tents up – Karen and I are still battling with trying to inflate our air mattresses – and as the sun went down on another great riding day we were all seated above the waterfall pool, enjoying a drink and stale crisps. Whilst we had planned to cook dinner the restaurant – whilst empty of patrons – was open, so we ordered dinner from there as a way of saying ‘thanks’ for being allowed to camp at the waterfall. Karen ordered a beef steak and had high hopes for it, but it was served all sliced up and quite spicy – so she had some of my chicken fried rice and the beef was shared between Aad, Mike and myself.

We were all early into bed, listening to the sound of the waterfall and occasionally hearing local people walking past our tents late into the night as they headed up the steep forest track into the mountains for a moonlit night of hunting and foraging.

We started this morning with breakfast at “Craters”…a local cafe we had dinner at last night, that has bombs and other war stuff as decoration. However, breakfast was expensive (78,000kip) and COLD! Not wanting to make a fuss we ate up our luke warm eggs, cold bacon, and not even and attempt to heat up baked beans, and were on our way. Today was a very special one, Vince took me to see the Plain of Jars.

Along the way we saw the usual animal life of chickens, goats, cows and water buffalo. Mike and Aad had skipped breakfast and gone ahead and when the ANIMAL pulled into the Plain of Jars site 1, we were surprised to see their bikes still there. We paid our 15,000 kip each entry fee and a little golf cart took us out to the bottom of the hill leading up to the Plain of Jars.

Plain of Jars Site 1 covers 25 hectares. It has 334 jars with the biggest (Kings Cup) having a diameter of 2.5m and being 2.57m high. The area had been cleared by MAG (Mines Advisory Group) removing 127 UXO (unexploded ordnances) from the site, including bombs, rockets, artillery shells and mortars. They also removed 31,184 scrap pieces.

Laos was heavily bombed with a mission every 8 minutes, 24hrs per day for 9 years by the Americans. 580,000 bombing missions with 2 million tons, of mainly anti personnel cluster bombs were dropped on Laos. Over 270 million “bombies” were dropped, up to 30% failed to detonate so over 80 million live bombs remain undetonated. Each cluster bomb shell contained hundreds of individual bomblets or “bombies” the size of a tennis ball. There was a cluster bomb on display in the Visitor Centre and I had a hold of one of the “bombies” ….a very somber experience. Vince had told me previously that today many children pick these up and play “catch and throw” with them thinking they are a ball and then it goes off!!!!!!!!!! Tragic!

Site 1 is the most investigated of the 33 sites (only 3 have been cleared by MAG). Archaeological evidence from Neolithic to 19th Century has been uncovered. Inside the jars they found bones and teeth, and around the jars, charcoal and glass beads. Burial pits are also around each jar containing bones, teeth, metal objects, glass beads, stone and pottery. There could be in excess of 2500 burials at this site. The large white stones (quartz) serve as gravestones. It is thought that cremated remains were put into the jars, and a second option was for whole bodies to be put inside and left until just bones remained and these were then removed and buried. Lids were thought to have been of perishable material such as bamboo. The stone discs on site are not lids, but another type of grave marker. Over 2000 years of history leaves questions?

Phukeng Mountain is the sandstone and conglomerate quarry used for the stone jars. The site was a strategic military post during the 1964-1974 War and the hill still has trenches and foxholes as well as bomb craters. The Plain of Jars was thought to be a cross roads for trade. French Archaeologist, Madeleine Colani, investigated the cave in the hill and found evidence of cremation. Some people think it was a kiln to bake the stones instead. However, the evidence suggests the jars were actually carved out of stone, not made and baked.

Only one jar has a decoration….the same decoration as two stone discs in Xiang Khouang and another in Assam (India). The jars of Laos are not the only ones of this kind found…similar sites are recorded in Indonesia and North East India.

We met up with Aad and Mike, who were waiting to resolve a traffic situation, but that’s a whole other story! So all 4 of us set off together for site 2…..yet another hill climb but into a forest this time….very picturesque and tranquil. MAG cleared 17,390 sqm and cleared 26 items, with 11,770 scrap pieces found.

We went back to Phonsavan for lunch… a local cafe……with the exception of Vince, none of us thought much of our food…..bland, tasteless and not what we ordered!

Mike and Aad went off to do some food shopping whilst Vince and I went to the UXO Survivor Information Centre….we were going to see the MAG Centre but it was closed until 1.1.2016. Whilst we were there we met Chansemone, who is the Administrator for the Quality of Life Association (QLA). The Not for Profit organisation was established in 2011 and provides support to UXO Victims, their families and UXO affected communities, it operates only in Xieng Khouang province in northern Laos. We watched a video titled “Surviving Cluster Bombs in Laos”. It was very moving, and I have to say a bit distressing for me to watch. Vince and I decided we wanted to offer support in the form of making a purchase of a handcrafted item (they provided training in embroidery and weaving silk) of which 30% goes to the victim or their family. We chose a beautiful woven silk tablecloth. We also decided to make a donation which helps in any of the following ways: Annual education supplies for primary school, Grant for primary school including uniform, backpack and bike, Grant for secondary school, Annual cost to attend university in Vientiane, Costs to study weaving at the Laos Disabled Women’s Development Centre, Costs for medical care, Costs for children’s discussion group (psychosocial support), Livestock (chickens, pigs, goats etc) and Vaccines for Livestock (training is given).

In addition we purchased a copy of the DVD, which I want to share with the Perth Motorbike and Sidecar Meetup Group….in the hope to raise some funds for the association when I get back home. More people need to be made aware of how UXO are affecting innocent people’s lives, especially children (40% of all casualties in the past decade are children).

Back at our hotel we ran into an Irishman called Mick (44yrs), who gave us good “Crack” on the courting procedures in Laos (apparently that is what the traditional dress and ball throwing we have seen is all about) as well as his recent engagement to a girl from Laos (a whirlwind romance of just 2 months), she can’t speak English and is only 20 years old….best of luck to them.

Aad and Mike joined us for dinner at Nisha’s (Indian), where Vince had eaten on his previous trip and could highly recommend it, and then we went to the ATM…. as we had spent most of our money today and need to sort out our accommodation bill in the morning before we move on….

The weather forecasts that Aad had consulted hadn’t said good things were coming, and when I checked it looked like rain was going to be with us most of the way to Phonsavan, 267km south-west of Vieng Xai. It had taken Aad and Mike nine hours to travel this route yesterday with only 2 X 5 minute breaks along the way, and Aad reporting thick fog and thick mud in places, with his Triumph sliding sideways through the mud at times. Yippee – bring on an adventure ride !!!!

I’d set the alarm for 06:00am but when it went off Karen was keen for a bit more of a sleep-in so it was about 07:00am when we got up. I wanted to leave Vieng Xai no later than 08:30am as I wanted to get to Phonsavan before dark. We packed the bike – the front locking-latch on my pannier wasn’t co-operating so a whack with a piece of timber sorted that out.

Karen returned the unused condom (still packaged) and 300,000 kip to our host, making it quite clear with him that she didn’t think much of his room-cleaning service, and walked the 100 metres or so to the Indian restaurant we’d discovered whilst I rode the bike there. We met the young Finnish guy there who is back-packing around SE Asia and enjoying local herbs and other plant products as he does so. He chatted about his travels along Australia’s east coast and spoke highly of Nimbin 🙂

Breakfast was banana pancakes for us both, tea for Karen and a Lao coffee with condensed milk for me. Just as we were getting ready to leave – we were taking photos of our Indian chef actually – the young Italian couple wandered in. I need to check their Facebook site or website – Cycling Around Asia dot Net from memory. A lovely couple – full of energy and enthusiasm.

It was 08:29am when we left the Indian Restaurant on the bike, careful not to drop it in the thick mud that had caked the rocky parking area out the front. I needed to maintain an average speed of 30kmh to make Phonsavan by nightfall, and our first target was Xam Neau, 27km away. The road was shrouded in mist but we chipped away carefully and consistently. The earth movers that had delayed us a few days ago had moved away from the road and whilst their work area was still a muddy slick we didn’t have any problems getting up the hill – these Karoo 3 tyres are handling mud quite well at this stage (but they whine a lot and they are giving Karen the willies – on our first day with them she was ready to slash them to pieces so we’d have to go back to our old favourites – the Continental TKC80’s – and I must agree that I much prefer the Conti’s. With that said – when choice is limited the Karoo’s do a satisfactory job).

Approaching Xam Neua the mist became much heavier – so thick that I was riding with the hazard lights on to make the bike more visible, and I was using the GPS to show me which way the curves were going, and what radius they were describing. It was absolutely freaky – whilst oncoming traffic wasn’t heavy they would just appear out of the mist, usually without any lights on at all and very difficult to spot early. It was almost impossible to look out for potholes as the road surface was obscured by the swirling mist. I rode with my visor open and the windshield of the bike jacked up high – this arrangement allowed me to see the path ahead in its clearest form, as every time I pulled my visor down it would cloud over with water droplets on the outside.

We didn’t stop in Xam Neau but pushed straight on. The steep hill on the far side of town was a muddy shitfest of a road – this is where Aad had been sliding sideways yesterday. I got pinned down by a girl on a slow motorbike ahead so dived to the inside into the thicker mud to try and get around her but quickly discovered that the road surface on this line was all corrugated under the mud and so Karen and I had a very bumpy and slippery drive up the hill – but we nailed the slow bike and I had fun along the way 🙂

South of Xam Neau the mist didn’t improve and if anything it got even worse as we climbed up to about 1,400 metres above sea level. We carried on in the cold and the mist – I was warm enough in my riding gear with my inner layers in it, but Karen was feeling the cold in her unlined suit, even though she was wearing a bright yellow poncho she’d bought yesterday that made her look like a big Minion. We pushed on, dodging the oncoming traffic that appeared out of nowhere and just aiming to keep the bike on the road because at times I couldn’t see the road ahead of me.

We had a short break as I needed a leak, so I found a safe spot to park the bike and whilst I watered the plants a couple of inquisitive cows strolled down the road to check us out. Back on the bike we were quickly back into the mud, but this time it was largely dry and had formed hard ruts and ridges that we needed to negotiate in the low visibility.

To keep our spirits up I started chatting about food (a frequent strategy we use), and our discussion about hamburgers started us getting hungry so when saw some roadside stalls selling banks we pulled over to buy a few. Karen got off the bike and negotiated with the banana woman to buy four of them, whilst I stayed on the bike as quite frankly it’s a bitch to try and park it on the side of the road most of the time. As we are riding on the right hand side of the road I try and park on that side, but usually the verge on the right side of the road is sloping to the right and the BMW is too upright – frequently I need to turn the bike completely around so that I can get it on the right angle.

Anyway – Karen had a short walk along the market stalls we’d stopped at and took some photos of the dozen or so rats hanging up by their tails from one shop after she had bought her bananas. A lot of the ladies had come down to see us and Karen tried to get them into a group photo shot but some of them turned away every time she lifted up her camera.

One village we passed through looked like all of its inhabitants were gathering for some form of tree planting ceremony, as they had gathered in groups along the roadside with small saplings and digging implements.

Whilst our bananas were nice it didn’t take long before we started thinking about food again, and as we couldn’t see anywhere to eat in Pho Lou we pushed on past this junction town about 6km further south and saw our first place to sit and eat since passing through Xam Neau a few hours earlier. We ordered two bowls of Lao noodle soup and we wolfed that down, Karen trying to extract some heat from the small brassiere nearby. Once we’d eaten and warmed up a bit we chatted to a Californian couple in the restaurant that are riding two push bikes from Myanmar to Tajikistan via SE Asia and China. They’ve got 15 months for their trip, which had just started a few weeks ago. Full credit to them – I’ll keep to my motorbikes and sidecars thanks !!!

For the first five minutes of our next riding leg I was able to enjoy the bike at its peak, playing with the dynamic mode and eating up the curvy mountain road, but it wasn’t long before we were back into the thick mist, with the bike backed off into its more forgiving rain mode and the hazard lights flashing eerily. We rode through roadside villages like a ship in fog, passing people walking along the edge of the road and barely being able to make out their shapes. It as a draining, surreal experience, not helped by some of the trucks that seemed to spring out of nowhere right in front of us as they used up all the road and more.

Eventually however we dropped down from the mountains into a wide valley below, leaving the mist behind us. It was on this last mountain descent that we had the worst scare of the day – having successfully negotiated all of the challenges thrown up already in terms of mist and mud we were faced with an idiot in a four wheel drive overtaking a slower mini truck bearing down upon us at great speed as he tried to get in front of the truck. I’d blipped our loud horn when I saw him pull out but that just spurred him on I think so next we were hard on the brakes trying to give him more room and I’d swear he just managed to shave in between our bike and the truck as we passed each other. We’d seen some quite considerate drivers today – most often the big truck drivers – but this wanker in his 4×4 was right at the other end of the scale.

Approaching Phonsavan we passed through a number of villages in which we saw two lines of traditionally dressed girls and guys throwing tennis balls backwards and forwards to one another – a mating game from what we learned later from Mick the Irishman (more about Mick in tomorrow’s blog).

I’d been aiming to arrive in Phonsavan an hour earlier than Aad and Mike, and still with 200km of fuel in the tank, so it was a juggle between speed (which is somewhat relative as we didn’t exceed 66kmh in the whole day) and fuel efficiency. As it was we pulled into our guesthouse car park around 4:45pm – cutting about 45 minutes off their trip, and with 220km worth of fuel onboard. The big fuel tank on our GS Adventure – 30 litres – is reason enough to pick this bike over the standard GS with its smaller fuel tank, as with less frequent refuelling stops required we can push on if we want to.

A lot of our evening chats with Aad and Mike revolve around what is or could be the perfect adventure bike – and I’d have to say that our big BMW really earned its stripes today. Out of the box it had everything I needed to make today’s dangerous and at times quite scary ride more manageable – auxiliary headlights on the crash bars, hazard lights, heated grips so I didn’t lose the feeling in my hands, the adjustable windscreen, variable riding modes, GPS that allowed me to ride via instruments, tractable engine performance from down low right through to 7,000RPM and above that allows predictable power delivery, ABS and traction control, and a comfortable seating position that doesn’t induce fatigue even two-up. Ultimately the best adventure bike is a personal choice and there is no one correct answer, but I wouldn’t want to have been riding anything else today. With Karen riding pillion my number one priority is always safety and the big BMW – ungainly and unsightly as it is – just ate up the crappy riding conditions without a hiccup. Credit also to Karen as she did a great job today on the back of the bike. All pillions can exert a big influence on a bike as its being ridden, and in the tricky conditions today Karen never flinched once, allowing me to concentrate on the job I needed to do on what has been one of our toughest riding days on the trip (nothing will beat Albania though!!!)

Dinner was a hamburger at Craters Restaurant, along with Aad and Mike. I’d enjoyed a couple of meals here last time I was in Phonsavan – 2011 I think – and Helge Pederson and his riding mate stopped here when they were riding around SE Asia to make the documentary ‘Globe Riders – Indochina’. And the chocolate icecream they served for dessert was delicious!

There’s a sombre collection of large (and defused) bombs on the verandah of Craters, remnants of the 1964 – 1973 war – the secret war that the USA waged against Laos without ever declaring war or telling the American people about what it was doing. Tomorrow we’ll go visit the Plain of Jars and the Mines Advisory Group office just across the road, and we’ll learn more about this war and the devastating impact it has had, and continues to have, on this country and its people.

Viengxay Cave Tour

Today Aad and Mike have decided not to join us in a tour of the local caves….they will head South instead and we will catch up with them in the next few days.

So after a breakfast of banana pancakes at the Indian place where we had dinner last night, Vince and I walked back to the hotel to see the boys off….including the three sided kiss goodbye they do in the Netherlands! We quickly got ready in our bike gear and headed off to the Cave Visitor Centre in time for the 9.00am tour (the next one isn’t until 1.00pm).

It was raining so we got a bit damp but most of the time we were inside the caves. We had to be careful as there were sloppy muddy inclines as well as thick slippery moss to content with. The audio guide was very informative and included testimonies from people who were actually involved at the time. I found it very sad but a unique opportunity to share an essential part of the history of Laos.

Viengxay is a small town located in the northern part of Laos, just 52km from the Vietnamese border. Houaphanh province hosts magnificent limestone mountains which include natural caves that were extended by hand and dynamite for people to hide inside during the bombing of Laos. From 1964 to 1973, over 400 caves sheltered more than 20,000 Lao nationalists offering protection from the heaviest bombing ever carried out in history. More bombs were dropped on Laos by the Americans than were dropped on all of Europe in WWII, at a cost of 2 million dollars per day! The Pathet Lao people developed an underground city complete with a hospital, school, shops, government offices, a bakery, a printshop, radio station and even a theatre. It is considered the birthplace and spiritual home of the Lao PDR.

Today, Viengxay is a small remote town frequented by many Western bicycle or motorbike riders, there are hot springs close by as well as many small villages with differing ethnic groups (Tai daeng, Yao, Kamu, Hmong) and some of the finest silk and cotton weaving you will ever see!

The cave tour we took today is part of a joint project by the Laos Government with European donor assistance to bring development to this very poor and remote region through sensitive tourism development. The audio tour was developed and managed by a private Australian company  and ends with these words:

“The war is still having its effect on children born decades after the conflict ended. UXO – unexploded ordnance (that didn’t detonate when fired or dropped) – contaminates the whole country and prevents people from using land. UXO might be hidden under a school playing field or a house, or in fields…. When they are disturbed, by digging or often by children picking them up and playing with them, they explode.” It is estimated that UXO kills and injures one person a day, every day in Laos and that it will take another 20 years to clear them.”

The price we paid (60,000 Kip each, A$10) for our tour funds guide training, research and conservation of the caves and the artefacts. This directly contributes to the historical conservation of the site, and helps get the people of Houaphanh out of poverty. So we were happy to have helped out just a little bit!

What can I say….we are in Laos, a Buddhist country……so Christmas is literally a non event here……I tried to download a Christmas Movie from iTunes to watch last night but the wifi is useless so that was no good! Apart from a few messages on our Facebook and our quick telephone calls to family in Australia today….we wouldn’t even know it was Christmas. We just spent a quiet day in the hotel… it poured with rain, was freezing cold…….so nothing much going on here!

We had a late lay in ….sleeping last night was difficult in this disgusting room (it hadn’t been cleaned, bathroom was filthy with cigarette butts in the shower, and we found a condom in our bed – thankfully unused but no less offensive….GROSS…..we had three people try to come into our room after midnight……so we had very interrupted sleep and were very tired!

We had a late breakfast of scrambled eggs and beans cooked on our Dragonfly, we skipped lunch and dinner was with Aad and Mike at a local Indian place…the only restaurant we have found here.

Just another day in paradise!

24th December

The plan was to be down at the bikes at 7:30am so I’d set the iPad alarm for 7:00am but in Vieng Thong you don’t need to set your own alarm apparently as the local authorities take care of that by blasting out an ongoing stream of news announcements, public information messages and rallying songs over the town’s PA system from 6:00am onwards. Karen was less than impressed as the loud speakers seemed to be right outside our bedroom window and the sound was almost deafening.

On coming downstairs Aad and Mike had already started to load their bikes, and Stephanie (One World – One GS rider) was looking over her 100cc bike she’d bought in Vietnam, so Karen chatted with her whilst I brought the rest of the gear down. Stephanie shared a few tips and suggestions with Karen on how to ride a tall bike – she starts up the bike, puts it in gear and starts to move off as she swings up onto the seat. Karen had a sit on her small 100cc bike and managed to reach the ground – maybe she will switch to riding rather than pillioning one day! Stephanie also explained to Karen how she broke her leg during a demonstration trial on the GS, falling from a couple of metres onto the ground below, and how after the original surgery was botched up she required two years and another four operations to fix her leg. She spent most of that time in a wheelchair, and wasn’t supposed to be riding a motorcycle on this trip to SE Asia, but got bored of backpacking around 🙂

Breakfast itself was purchased from the shop across the road, water and chocolate biscuits for me, Coke and chocolate biscuits for everyone else. About 8:30am we were on the road heading towards Xam Tai, about 170km away.

The road climbed higher up into the mountains – peaking around 1,400 above sea level, mainly hovering between 1,100 and 1,200 metres. The road itself closely followed the mountain ridges, switching from side to side occasionally, sometimes running right along the ridge so you could look down into the valleys far below on either side. Some of the valleys had clouds inside them, and we could look down upon the tops of the clouds.

Arriving in Pho Lou I signalled to Mike to see if he wanted a drink, and we both pulled off the road just short of the only intersection in this little village (most villages here in northern Laos don’t have any intersections so this three way junction was a big thing). Aad was a couple of minutes behind us and we thought he was joking a round when he rode straight past us – even as we stood next to the road and waved our arms madly – and stopped in the middle of the intersection, looking to see which way to turn. We yelled out to him and he turned around and rode back to us, less than impressed with our corner-marking system 🙂

Mike and Aad both needed a small amount of fuel to get them through to Xam Neau, the largest interim town on today’s ride, so they each took onboard 5 litres of fuel from a 44 gallon drum of fuel that was being hand-pumped by a middle-aged lady. We pushed on to Xam Neau, carefully negotiating the mud-slicked hill leading down to the town, and stopped again to refuel. Karen and I had seen a big pig strapped to the back of a small motorcycle a short while earlier and this passed us as we refuelled. We rode into town and whilst I’ve been here before (years ago) I got my bearings wrong and hence took us to a restaurant that had been a dismal failure on my last trip, but fortunately today the fried noodles with chicken I ordered, and the chicken fried rice everyone else had was very tasty.

I watched over the bikes as the others went looking for an ATM and food supplies – coming back having found an ATM but no food, so we remounted and rode around town for a while before finding a small shop to get some supplies from, as from memory Vieng Xai didn’t have too much to offer.

From Xam Neau it was another 27km out to Vieng Xai, with a small delay thrown in when we were halted by some roadworks that we’re going on, with two large diggers shovelling sand from one side of the road to the other. A large number of motorbikes and cars were banked up on either side of the roadworks, and it was a mad scramble when the diggers halted their work and traffic was allowed through. The road itself had been dug up and was a muddy quagmire, and this took some effort to ride through safely, made harder again with all the other bikes and cars pushing ahead.

Arriving in Vieng Xai we rode to the co-ordinates given by booking dot com for our hotel, just to end up a few km out of town towards Vietnam and surrounded by jungle. We rode back into town and with a small amount of guesswork found our hotel, set back from the road and surrounded by a fence. We unpacked our gear and both Karen and Aad got stuck into the man running the hotel – our bathroom hadn’t been cleaned and no lights worked in Aad’s room.

Dinner this evening was cooked on the dragonfly on the open entrance foyer of the hotel – a nice noodle omelette. Pots washed up, Karen tried unsuccessfully to download a Christmas movie to get into the mood for Christmas, but either the Internet or iTunes wasn’t co-operating and so instead we turned to one of Mike’s movies – “Wild Target” – a quirky dark comedy starring Bill Nigh and Emily Blunt, which we were enjoying but I was knackered from the riding and constant concentration the riding demanded today, so we stopped the movie about 2/3rds in. And so ended our Christmas Eve 🙂

127km day today, and yes you’ve guessed it – it’s been another stunning riding day in Laos 🙂

We had a lazy start to the day today with Karen and I surfacing about 08:10am to be greeted by Mike preparing a pot of porridge for us all to share on the balcony overlooking the river. We didn’t have enough UHT milk for porridge and ovaltine so after we’d had breakfast and packed the bikes I led Aad and Mike back across the Nong Khiaw bridge to Delilah’s cafe for a hot chocolate which was a bit of a mistake as it took ages for our order to be taken and then even longer for our drinks to arrive.

It was 10:15am or even later when we finally rolled out of Nong Khiaw and started on our 167km ride to Vieng Thong, which would be made more interesting as Aad and Mike didn’t have sufficient fuel to ride the distance and we weren’t sure if there was any fuel along the way.

Just like yesterday we took the opportunity every now and then to stop and say ‘Sabidee’ – ‘hello’ to local children as we passed by, and snapped a few photos. In one village we passed by the primary school just as class finished for the day (it was the middle of the day) and all the kids came running out of the school yard to say hello and to see the bike – or perhaps take a closer look at the Batman Minion we’ve cable-tied to the crash-bars.

We also stopped for a drink and some just out-of-date biscuits at a little stall, staying a little longer as Mike wasn’t feeling too good. Aad and I put on a bit of dance to try and cheer Mike up but this impromptu entertainment failed to impress.

Despite not feeling 100% today Mike was loving the riding as the road surface had been ripped up in many places and we had a fair bit of unsealed crap to ride through. In one place Karen and I had to dodge between some earth-moving equipment as they worked on the road – no such thing as flag marshals or safety procedures here !!!

My GPS showed a fuel stop ahead so I pulled into that, with Mike and Aad not far behind. The girl who pumped the fuel was a bit gobsmacked when she filled the bike – and it only took on 10L of its full 30L capacity, as the little scooters here in Laos have much smaller fuel tanks that can be filled much much quicker.

A bit further down the road we saw a sign for a restaurant so we pulled in there and ordered lunch, but the chicken, sticky rice and soup that was served up didn’t appeal to either Karen, Aad or Mike, so by and large I ate my lunch whilst they just picked at theirs and they left as hungry as they had been when they arrived, and at this stage it was about 3:15pm and we had approx 70km still to ride and two hours before sunset.

I picked up my pace a bit and when Mike pulled over to take a photo we slipped into the lead position on the road and we didn’t see the other guys again until they arrived at the designated guesthouse in Vieng Thong. Karen and I had a six minute lead over Aad and Mike, but Mike explained that he’d lost a bolt from his chain guard after hitting a big pothole in the road, and he’d spent a few minutes fixing that with the help of Aad. Karen and I had hit the same pothole earlier and she had hurt her arm in the process so neither of us were too happy about that – we’d managed to weave and duck around every other pothole today, but this one was laying in wait for us – perfectly camouflaged and stretching the width of the road. We ground out our centre stand on it, and I was thankful we didn’t get a puncture.

Just after we arrived at our guesthouse a young couple – an English lady and a French guy arrived on two clapped out 100cc motorbikes they had bought in Vietnam and had ridden across the border. Karen was chatting with them at it turned out that the lady is Stephanie Rowe – a participant in ‘One World – One GS’, and Vincent – who races his GS in rallies in Europe.

We went out for dinner with Aad and Mike about 6:30pm but it was black outside and most of the shops were closing for the day. We walked back to the place next to our guesthouse where we ordered some meat and noodles, and shortly later Stephanie and Vincent joined us, unable themselves to find anywhere else to eat. We had a good chat about bikes and riding with them before retiring early to bed as tomorrow will be a long day and we’ll need an early start.

Nong Khiaw Downday

Vince and I started the morning with a walk to the bridge to see the early morning light on the mountain…followed by a latte and hot chocolate at a little cafe called Delilah’s. The had some eclectic furnishings and interesting offerings….such as Lao Lao Whiskey (which I have still yet to try) with added benefits of centipede and scorpion or if you prefer snake!

I took some nice shots of the Nong Khiaw Resort (the nice place with four poster beds where Vince said last time…..we had hoped to stay there but it was booked out) from the bridge. There was the odd bit of boat traffic on the river but most of the action was in the local wildlife…a cat on a motorbike and a very vocal Cockerel!

We had a very quiet day and just had lunch at our hotel….we went back to the bridge in the early evening to try and get some good sunset shots. Dinner was at a local Indian place and was very tasty!

Stunning ride today. 113km of awesome riding roads and fantastic scenery.

Breakfast was scrambled eggs at Souphailin’s Restaurant about 8:00am, and then we were on our bikes and heading out of town with just a quick raid on an ATM to make sure we could pay for the next few days.

Just south of Oudom Xai we passed through dusty Houaylin and turned eastwards up into the mountains again, and immediately the road started to twist again as it followed the contours of the hills. Very quickly we were riding into the mist that clung to the top of the mountains, and this provided some eerie sights as we followed Mike along the road.

Yesterday I’d slowed down a lot as we passed through the many villages dissected by the road so that Karen could photograph people and places but even at low speed some of the photos hadn’t been as clear as we’d hoped, so today’s plan was to come to a complete stop. The little children in the villages here in northern Laos are very friendly and often run out to the road verge and wave at us as we pass by, and Karen was keen to get some good photos of these tikes. One village we stopped at had some young ladies dressed in traditional dress and playing catch with a ball – Karen alighted from the bike here and joined Aad to take some close up photos.

The next village along the ridge had a number of little pigs running around which delighted Karen as she took their photos, and a big porker that snuffled up to us to have her back scratched. Aad bought some drinks from a roadside stall here and I could see that the next stall along was selling a squirrel and some small colourful birds, all tied up and hanging from the roof.

In many places the road was being repaired or upgraded and we had to contend with some quite slippery and muddy riding conditions.

(Beer Lao is stifling my writing here so to conclude ….)

Rode into Nong Khiaw across the bridge, stopping briefly to enjoy the river scenery below. Followed Mike down a rocky road to our guesthouse, the Mee Xai Guesthouse, and carried our gear upstairs to our near new and adequate if sparsely furnished room. A late lunch was had at the pizza place at the eastern end of the bridge where I’d enjoyed a nice pizza five years ago – in 2015 it took the restaurant about two hours to make and serve a cheese and ham sandwich for Karen, a burger for Aad, and a pizza each for Mike and myself 🙁

Just after sunset we went for a stroll across the bridge and watched the remnants of a lovely sunset, and then wandered down the main street on the other side of the bridge, soaking up the atmosphere as Nong Khiaw tucked itself to bed for the night. Dinner was had back at our guesthouse – chicken fried rice eaten on the balcony overlooking the black Nam Ou river.