Archive for June, 2007

Bangkok Convalescence

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

Back in Bangkok! We arrived yesterday without much trouble on the two day journey here. For the first leg, Luang Prabang to Vientiane, we hired a private minivan for $140. The tourist VIP buses would not allow us to bring our bikes on board, and the public buses would have been a 12 hour, 100 degree, sweat and vomit filled nightmare. So we were very willing to pay an extra $100 to avoid that experience again. We were joking that we’ve already been worn down by the third world enough that we’d rather throw money at a problem than suffer through the “experience”!

From Vientiane we had to cross the border into Thailand before boarding the night train we’d reserved to Bangkok. A mini-bus picked us up, threw our bikes on the top without tying them down, and whisked us away to the start of the Friendship Bridge. We had to get out here and walk through the checkpoint which took us a long time because we had to reassemble our bikes and panniers. At the other side of the checkpoint, we were supposed to meet another mini-bus for transport to the train station but because we were so slow we got abandoned by our tour group. So, we rode across the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong and into Thailand. It was more fun than riding over in a bus like everyone else!

Next we boarded the night train to Bangkok. We reserved a 1st class sleeper unit which turned out to be a nice surprise in terms of comfort. It had two beds in the compartment, air conditioning, a little sink, and a waiter that would bring you dinner, beer, breakfast…and he would also rip you off a little bit if you weren’t careful. We weren’t careful enough and ended up getting overcharged for breakfast. We paid for everything and also gave him a tip because he was such a nice guy, and then as soon as he left it dawned on us that we had just been ripped off! Practically every time we take public transport this happens; it is very frustrating. We can’t decide if it is a cultural thing and he thinks it is OK to cheat us because we’re rich westerners, or if he is just an unscrupulous character. Anyhow, we left Nong Khai at 6:30pm and arrived at Bangkok at 6:30am. Jamie kept saying that our compartment was just like a jail cell, but I was so comfortable and happy with my books, snacks, and A/C that Jamie decided I’d actually enjoy jail as long as I had enough books and food to last me through the years.

In Bangkok we found a guy at the train station with a pickup truck to take us to our hotel. We were instantly covered in exhaust residue as we whizzed through the dirty streets; Bangkok Fingernail is about to make a comeback!

As soon as we got to the hotel we checked email and were very happy to find that I’d gotten an appointment at Bumrungrad Hospital for 1:30 that afternoon. We went to the hospital a little bit early and hung out at the in-house Starbucks to people watch while we waited. We were amazed at the number of different nationalities milling around in the hospital – people must fly in from all over the world to get treated there. We saw people representing maybe 40 different countries waiting to get treated; it was definitely a high grade people watching experience.

The actual doctor appointment involved lots of waiting, as usual, but the facilities were all very new and modern. When you arrived at the hospital you filled out one form with your information and got your picture taken with a digital camera. Everything was then input into the system and sent ahead of you wherever you went to check in. The picture idea is ingenuous because when the Thai staff attempt to call out names from 40 different ethnicities it is very confusing. I was “Miss Sadah Cat-ee” instead of Sarah Kathleen, which I found quite difficult to realize was me. But because they had a picture of me they’d just walk right over and pick me out of the crowd and lead me to the doctor.

After asking me a few questions and squeezing my arm a bit, the doctor decided I needed an x-ray and sent me over to that department. As soon as I walked into the radiology department a man materialized out of nowhere and said “Hello Ms. Sadah. You need an x-ray on your right wrist? Please follow me.” The system was flawless and efficient – I was impressed. Everyone in the hospital spoke perfect English and they also employ interpreters to cover almost every other language in the world. Wow! I got one funny question as I was sitting down to get my x-ray. The technician asked me, “So, what is your problem?” It made me laugh and I wasn’t sure what information he actually wanted from me, so I just said “I fell of my bike and hurt my wrist.”

As for the final verdict on my bird bones, the diagnosis is pretty good. There is no big fracture, and the scaphoid bone is unharmed. Yay! There is a crack in my radius and lots of swelling around it, but the doctor thinks this will feel better in about two weeks. He also said that sometimes you can’t see wrist fractures right away and so he wants me to come back in one week for another x-ray if the wrist is still hurting. He gave me a wrist brace to wear for the next week to hold everything still which is great – I was not looking forward to the possibility of a cast in this hot humid climate. I am sure my arm would be covered in green fur after 6 weeks in a cast! This is all good news because now we know that we most likely won’t have to stay here for 6-9 weeks waiting for it to heal and I don’t have to have surgery! The cost of my appointment and x-ray was astounding, especially considering how nice the facilities were. Here is what my bill looked like:

Facility: $3.62
Doctor’s Fee: $15.10
X-Ray: $8.15
X-Ray Radiologist’s Fee: $3.93
Medicine: $6.65
Wrist Brace: $37.60
Total: $75.05

So, it looks like we’ll be here in Bangkok for about two weeks and are trying to decide what to do next in terms of our trip. We are considering sticking to our original plan of China and then India, or going to India right now and attempting to cycle the Himalayan region of Ladakh, or maybe flying to Eastern Europe to do some cycling there during the summer months.

Bird Bones

Friday, June 22nd, 2007

We’ve spent the past three days in the stunning city of Luang Prabang. During our ride here from Vientiane we were in the mountains at elevations high enough to feel cool, but now we’re back to asking each other “Are you feeling hot?” and then laughing hysterically because we look something like this:

One of the reasons Luang Prabang is so beautiful is that it is almost completely made up of historic French Colonial architecture. It is a nice change to be in a city that completely lacks billboards, neon signs, cement highrises, and luxury resort hotels. All the shops and guesthouses have been built into they city’s original refurbished buildings.

The city also has quite a few ancient Buddhist wats which are full of brand new novice monks at this time of year. They walk through the city streets for the alms ceremony each morning, and then the disobedient monks hang out in the internet cafes in the evenings when they’re supposed to be meditating. There is a lot of controversy over the fact that all the tourists flocking to Luang Prabang could be corrupting some parts the religious lifestyle; for his part, Jamie gets mad at me if I walk too closely to a monk on the sidewalk. They are supposed to keep their distance from women!

The city borders the Mekong river. It is beautiful at sunset:

Now for the details of the crash. I read tons of books and blogs about cycle tourists before we left on this trip and if any of them got into an accident that resulted in pain they were either super-humanly able to ignore it, or glossed over it in their journals. Maybe that’s just a part of the trip you don’t want to remember in detail. Either way, I’m not going to gloss it over – you get to hear all about it right here, right now. Jamie says that’s because I’m a whiney person by nature; my brothers would probably agree. I roll my eyes to that!

We were cruising down the pass at somewhere around 20-25 km/hr when I locked up my front tire on the slippery pavement and crashed. It was extremely frightening which I think is mostly attributable to: the speed at which we were traveling, the quickness with which the accident happened, the fact that we were on mountain roads with no shoulder and sheer drops of 1000 ft, and the feeling of total loss of control. I hit the ground and skidded for a ways, Jamie collided directly with me and somehow actually flipped over me, and the main thing I remember seeing were the bananas strapped to the back of his bike rushing towards my face. I really wish we had a video of the crash so I could see what happened!

Both my knees were thoroughly scraped and bruised; same for both elbows. My left hip is road rashed and has a giant bruise surrounding the raw area. Every knuckle of every toe also got all the skin scraped off – I guess that’s what you get for having really bony feet. I have a line-shaped bruise on my butt which I assume is from some part of a bicycle frame. I hit my head on the ground pretty hard, but my faithful helmet completely prevented any injury there. The foam in Jamie’s helmet actually cracked during the crash. I don’t remember landing on my wrist at all; I’m not sure how I managed to injure it. When I woke up the next morning I felt like I’d been hit by a bus – everything on me hurt including parts that showed no sign of hitting the ground. I have been taking lots of ibuprofen; we officially used up the supply we brought with us and had to restock yesterday!

All this happened only 6 km into our 50km day. We were literally in the middle of nowhere and had to pick up and keep riding. It was terrifying for me because I was practically riding my bike one-handed and didn’t have enough control over it to feel comfortable. After the second crash of the day, which thankfully took place in slow motion on a 10% grade, we started walking our bikes on the downhills. This made for a long and tedious day – not fun at all.

One of the worst things about having open sores on a ride like this is the flies. They are like sharks – they can sense one tiny drop of blood from miles and miles away. As soon as we would stop to eat or drink I would have nasty little flies sucking away at all my wounds. I was worried they were going to try to lay their nasty little eggs on me so I never rested and focused all my energy on swatting them away!

As for my wrist, things are not looking good. Today is the fourth day since the accident and it hasn’t improved much at all. Medical care is basically nonexistent in Laos, so tomorrow we’re going to start looking into getting back to Bangkok where I can visit a doctor and get my wrist x-rayed. If it is actually broken Jamie has decided that my new nickname has to be Bird Bones (I once broke my elbow by falling off my bike at a complete standstill). Once we know the state of my bird bones we will figure out the next part of our route. We were originally going to ride north from here into China. We might skip that now. Other destinations under consideration are Eastern Europe, Northern India, and possibly South America in the fall if we can find tickets that aren’t too outrageous.

Overall this incident has been pretty depressing for both of us. We had all our plans figured out nicely including visas, Chinese maps, routes, etc. Now everything is up in the air because we’re not sure how long my arm will take to recover and where it will make the most sense to go at that point. Heading back to Bangkok is also psychologically difficult because we’re backtracking for the first time on this trip. Life sucks when you fall off your bike!

Limping into Luang Prabang

Tuesday, June 19th, 2007

We woke up this morning and Sarah’s wrist was still in rough shape. She could wiggle her fingers a little more than yesterday, but she still couldn’t rotate her wrist easily and it hurt a lot to put any pressure on it. On her bike with her right hand incapacitated, she would only be able to use her front brake, so rather than risk another fall, we decided to take a bus the remaining 79 kilometers to Luang Prabang.

We spent the morning waiting for a bus outside our guesthouse and around 11am an open-air minibus pulled up and we secured a ride to Luang Prabang for 80,000 kip (~US$8.00). Our bikes were tied up on top and we were loaded onto the side-facing benches with the other locals. The fact that we were facing the side combined with the twisty mountain road made for an extremely sickening ride. After about 20 minutes, we each took some Dramamine to prevent ourselves from puking. Here is Sarah at one of the stops with her barf-bag ready.

As we neared the city, the road flattened out and we were dropped off at the bus terminal about 5 kilometers outside the city center. While loading up our bikes, we met a couple of Australian bicycle tourists who led us to into the city. Luang Prabang is a UNESCO World Heritage City which means that the entire city is full of quiet, car-free streets, gorgeous wats, and beautiful French colonial architecture. We found a quiet guesthouse with a secluded courtyard for 70,000 kip (~US$7.00).

We are going to rest here for a couple days at least to gauge how quickly Sarah’s wrist recovers.

An Unlucky Break?

Monday, June 18th, 2007

Phou Khun to Kia Kou Cham
50.33km, 5:17:38, 9.5km/hr

We didn’t get the good weather we were hoping for this morning. We set the alarm for 6am but were woken up not by the ringing of the alarm, but by pounding rain on the metal roof of our guesthouse. We dragged ourselves out of bed and had a breakfast of noodle soup, strong coffee, and green tea. Luckily during breakfast, the rain stopped and after packing up our gear we were on the road by 7:30am. The day started with a short climb and then we were cycling up and down along the ridgelines of the lush mountains. The rain and clouds were so thick visibility was close to zero and I was pretty disheartened that we were missing out on the views.

We had only been riding for 6 kilometers when we had our first accident. We were on a descent and the road was wet and slick. Sarah was in front of me and all of the sudden she locked up her wheels and started to skid. She lost control of her bike and hit the deck. I was too close behind her to swerve out of the way and I flipped right over her. I landed on my back and wasn’t hurt, so I quickly got up and started dragging our bikes and gear off to the side of the road where Sarah was huddled. We got everything into the ditch and assessed the damage. Sarah was pretty shaken up and started to cry. Luckily, we were going pretty slow and there were no cars on the road around us at the time we went down. At first, we thought we had both escaped without any major injuries but then we realized that Sarah’s wrist was sore and was starting to swell up. She could still rotate it and wiggle her fingers, but we weren’t sure if it was broken or sprained. We decided our best option was to keep riding towards Luang Prabang and see how her wrist felt later in the day before deciding what to do.

We still had a lot of climbing and descending to do, which was a problem because now Sarah couldn’t use her rear brake with her right hand and she was also freaked out about falling again. We tried to go slow, but on the next 10% grade descent, Sarah locked up her front wheel again and went down sliding on the wet road again! I heard her go down behind me and tried to stop too fast and before I knew it I was sprawled out on the tarmac too! When we picked our bikes up off the road for the second time we almost fell down again immediately. The wet surface of the road was so slippery that we could barely walk on it! What was wrong with us today? It was like we had forgotten how to ride our bikes! After the second fall, we walked our bikes down the steep descents when the road was wet.

It rained off and on today and it was a strange feeling dreading the descents and looking forward to the climbs where we could feel safe that we would stay upright. When it was clear, the views were beautiful.

We arrived in the small village of Kia Kou Cham around 2pm and were both starving so we lunched on fried rice with pork, fried noodles with egg and vegetables, and stir-fried mixed vegetables. The vegetables here are grassy, leafy greens that you see growing all over the side of the road. The scenes in the Hmong villages were very interesting again today. We saw dirty children hauling giant buckets of water, two women working a giant mortar and pestle that was about three feet high, a woman chopping up a pile of ginger root that was taller than she was, a child throwing a temper tantrum by lying in the middle of the highway while her grandma looked on and chuckled, and lots of village men and women bathing nude in the center of the village.

After lunch, the restaurant owner asked us if we wanted to sleep at her guesthouse and showed us the rooms. They were simple and clean, so we took one and she gave us some hot water to use in the Thai-style bucket shower. That made it much easier to scrub the dirt out of our road rash. After getting cleaned up, we asked the woman if she knew where we could get ice. We wanted to follow the R.I.C.E. treatment for Sarah’s injured wrist. The woman didn’t have it, but said that in Laos they use hot water to treat injuries. She gave Sarah a bottle of hot water and we bought some cold water bottles to use as an ice substitute.

We plan to get up at six tomorrow and see how Sarah’s wrist feels and make a decision on what we are going to do.

Cell Block Number Five

Sunday, June 17th, 2007

Kasi to Phou Khun
44.89km, 5:04:01, 8.8km/hr

We woke up fifteen minutes earlier than usual today. Normally I wouldn’t be too happy about that, but today we were going to have bread and cheese for breakfast instead of riding on an empty stomach like we usually do. It turned out to be a bust though because the bread was spongy and to top it off it was infested with ants. We have become so used to ants in food here in Laos that we picked as many off as we could and ate it anyway.

We basically just grinded up the mountains all day and enjoyed the views. The first 8 kilometers were flat, and then the next thirty kilometers were a constant climb into the mountains. We climbed at a steady pace for 4 hours and topped out at 1500 meters. I went slow to stay with Sarah because I didn’t want to get too far ahead of her on such a long climb. Our average climbing speed is 6-7 km/hr. At the lower elevations, the hills were entirely covered with corn. It was amazing how steep the slopes were that had corn planted on them. There was a thick cloud cover the entire day, so we couldn’t see all the mountains, but the clouds did keep us cool. I was a little depressed at first that we weren’t going to get to see the mountain tops, but I think we got the idea. I wonder if it is pretty rare to have no clouds up here anyway.

We went through half a dozen Hmong villages where the kids usually went nuts greeting us and the adults were very friendly too. One strange thing we saw was a lot of kids with blonde hair, but no adults. We also saw a lot of young men carrying AK-47s around. I’m not sure if they were with the government and fighting Hmong people or if it was the other way around. Some people were wearing one piece of the traditional dress like pants, a vest, or a head-wrap, but no one was in the full garb. The kids were usually filthy.

We also saw a young boy playing guitar in front of his house, which was on top of a big hill overlooking the valley. There were steep stairs cut into the dirt leading up to the front door. We stopped to listen for a while and then gave him a round of applause before taking off.

More mountain views from the ride:

We arrived in Phou Khun around noon and had lunch of noodle soup. We thought about going on to Kia Kou Cham, which was 50 kilometers down the road, but then the weather took a turn for the worse and it was so cloudy you couldn’t see anything so we decided to wait until tomorrow and hope for better weather. Our room was basic: cement floor, no running water, and a shared squat toilet. We dubbed our room “Cell Block Five”.

We both took “showers” in the bathroom. It was already pretty cold outside (like a wet day in Seattle in February), but we had to dump ice-cold rainwater on ourselves from a giant bucket, soap up, and then rinse off. Sarah just rinsed off, but I did the whole shebang. After the initial shock it wasn’t too bad.

We then spent the evening hanging out on the guesthouse balcony and watching people below. Every time a bus pulled up, the women selling vegetables would run after it and try to sell something that looked like leafy grass to the passengers. There were a bunch of little girls selling corn too. It is sad to see the kids working, but they looked like they were having fun.

Misty Mountains

Saturday, June 16th, 2007

Vang Vieng to Kasi
58.87km, 4:08:49, 14.2km/hr

We set our alarm and woke up early today at 5:30am. It is always a pain getting up early after taking a day off. When we don’t ride, we sleep in until 8 or 9 and getting up to ride the next day is never fun. Our hotel in Vang Vieng had free coffee (Nescafe) and breakfast (cookies), so we each had a cup before we set off. When we checked out of the hotel, the price of our room changed from $8 to $9. We’re not sure if the guy who checked us in forgot to write down the price we bargained for, or if the plan was to charge us $9 the whole time. We bickered for a bit but then ended up paying $9. We’ll have to remember to get the price in writing in the future.

Today was a rare day where it was actually raining when we left in the morning; usually the rain comes in the late afternoon or evening. It was relatively flat leaving Vang Vieng and to our west we had huge karst formations draped in mist and clouds. It was some of the most beautiful scenery we have seen on our trip and it was impossible to photograph.

There were several river crossings early in the ride and we saw a Lao man fishing with a cantilever net. Normally I don’t take many pictures of people. The children who eagerly greet us in the villages seem to like having their picture taken, but I am more hesitant to take a picture of man or woman going about his or her daily activity. It makes me feel like I am treating the people like zoo animals. Sometimes you miss great pictures though; today I saw a family of waterbuffalo huddled together under someone’s house on stilts. I wish I would have taken a picture of that. This Lao man didn’t seem to mind the photos and we watched him for several minutes. He seemed to be watching the flowing river for fish and would pull up the net when he thought he had one. The river was so muddy, I’m not sure how he could see anything. We saw him pull up the net three times and he caught one small fish.

Right after crossing this river, we stopped for breakfast of foe, the Lao equivalent of Vietnamese pho. It is pretty much the same thing, except the broth doesn’t have as much of a cinnamon flavor. I like mine with a lot of lemon squeezed in. Today our soup had beef and then a type of sausage that tasted a little like liverwurst. Not surprisingly, Sarah didn’t touch any of the meat. She has resorted to trying to get all of her protein from soy milk. Good luck with that honey!

Every time we ride through these herds of cattle on the road, I have an overpowering desire to slap one of them on the ass. I imagine it would be like slapping an enormous rump roast. I’m not sure of the reaction I would get though.

As it got later and later in the day and the clouds didn’t burn off, we began to get worried that we were going to miss out on all the spectacular mountain views. Eventually it did clear up, but I don’t think it mattered anyway because once the dramatic karst peaks were behind us the terrain flattened out and we passed through many hillsides where villagers where growing large fields of corn.

We had some decently long climbs today but the steep sections were short, so it didn’t feel very tough. Out of ten, I gave it a four and Sarah gave it a five. The 57 kilometers went by very fast: probably due to the scenery. About a kilometer before Kasi, we stopped and had lunch at a roadside restaurant. The young girl whose family owned the restaurant spoke a little English, but we used our guidebook to order in Lao. First we tried fried rice. They didn’t have it. Our next request was steamed rice and vegetables, but that too they couldn’t make. She told us they had soup, but since we had that for breakfast it didn’t sound too appetizing. After a couple of seconds of deliberation, we fell back to our old standby of an omelette and sticky rice. It’s simple, tastes good, and reminds us of the breakfasts we used to eat in Thailand. During lunch, a couple of chickens ran into the restaurant and caused a ruckus as they knocked over some pots and the girl chased them out. Afterwards, she said “Sorry!” about three times. I’m not sure what she was sorry about though. With all the loose farm animals living amongst people around here, I wouldn’t have been surprised if a pig walked into the restaurant to order some noodles.

We rode into Kasi and found a room in a guesthouse for $5. There are actually only two guesthouses in the town so we didn’t have much of an option. On the other hand, there are half a dozen of restaurants catering to all the buses that stop in Kasi on the way to Luang Prabang. We followed our usual afternoon routine of showering, reading, and resting until about 4:30. Then we headed out to the market to get some fruit and snacks. Kasi has a really small market and the fruit selection was pretty pathetic. We purchased some rambutans and bananas. Watermelon is by far our favorite fruit here in the tropics, but for some reason some towns have it and some towns don’t. No one in Kasi likes watermelons? I just don’t get it.

We also looked around for cookies and crackers, but couldn’t find anything. It’s hard to shop here. The shops are small and dark and the owner usually is either sleeping on the floor inside or else is awake and will follow you around the store looking at everything with you and suggesting you purchase certain things buy shoving them directly in your face. I don’t think the notion of “customer service” exists here.

After dinner we bought some snacks for tomorrow. I don’t know why there are rumors that there is overcharging in some of these southeast Asia countries but not others; it exists everywhere. Laos has official price-tiering for foreigners on some services like bus fares. How could you not expect the business owners to follow suit and tier their prices too? The easiest way to detect it is when purchasing water. We always purchase the same six pack of generic water that they have in every country here. In Laos, I have been charged 5000 kip and 6000 kip and twice people have tried to charge me 10000 kip. Double the going rate! The depressing thing is that when they try to charge you 10000, it is impossible to get them down to 5000 or 6000. They probably figure they can just sell the water to the next sucker on the bus for 10000. Once I got the person down to 8000 and today I got her down to 7000 only after we bribed her by telling her we would by two expensive ice cream bars as well. We also bought bread and cheese for the morning: a bit of an upgrade from our prison rations.

Vang Vieng

Thursday, June 14th, 2007

We’ve arrived in Vang Vieng after two days riding north from Vientiane.

Yesterday we rode a flat 70 kilometers to Phonhong and stayed in a hovel where the room came with a free pair of women’s underwear hanging in the bathroom. Sarah joked that it was an air-freshener, but the fact that there were also several phone numbers scribbled on the wall made us pretty sure we were staying in a brothel. The only visitor we had all night though was a little boy who opened the door, yelled “Hello”, and ran off. It must have been a dare from his friends.

Today’s ride was a lot hillier, but still not mountainous. We woke up early and ate our prison rations of bread and water before setting off. Like a true prisoner, Sarah saved a small piece of bread for later. She wasn’t going to eat it herself though. The entire time we have been cycling in Asia, Sarah has been dying to pet the livestock on the road. It’s a little known fact that Sarah has an addiction to petting zoos. Riding through these rural areas where the farm animals roam free has been a giant tease for her. Today she decided to try to lure the cute little things to her with food. It didn’t work though. Both the cows and the goats she tried to befriend shied away from her. Maybe she’ll have better luck with the ducks.

It is amazing how rustic life is here. Today we saw men making baskets by hand and women weaving cloth on handlooms. There are also two popular games people play during the day here in Laos. One looks a lot like bocce ball, and the other is like volleyball, but you are not allowed to use your hands: only your head and feet.

After 75 kilometers, we crossed a river and entered the Vang Vieng district. The river was full of people fishing with nets and poles. We stopped to watch for a few minutes but no one caught anything. It must have been productive though because the storefronts in the little town on the river were full of dried fish products.

After that, it was a flat 10 kilometers to the town of Vang Vieng. The town is right on the Nam Song river and is surrounded by a striking karst landscape. It really is beautiful. Vang Vieng is also a very popular backpackers hangout. This is the town you may have heard of where all the cafes play Friends and The Simpsons 24 hours a day. Ugh!

We plan to rest and enjoy the scenery in Vang Vieng for one day and then start the real climbing to Luang Prabang.


Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

It wasn’t easy, but we’ve made it to Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. Or as the backpackers like to call it in an attempt to seem really clued-in: Lao.

We spent one very fun evening in Savannakhet before hopping on the bus for the 400km ride to Vientiane. We took the bus to Vientiane because we have a one-month visa for Laos and didn’t think we could ride all the distance we have to cover. Savannakhet to Vientiane seemed like the most boring stretch: very flat along the Mekong with the same scenery or rice paddies that we have seen everywhere. In Savannakhet we met a woman from New Zealand who is on a 2 year assignment as a public health nurse here. It turns out that we actually rode our bikes right past her house outside of Picton, New Zealand! She brought us to a floating restaurant on the Mekong for dinner where we ate delicious fish and had a great time chatting with her. She’s traveled all over the world working as a nurse (in Nepal and the Arctic Circle!), does long distance mountain bike tours, jumps into rivers to cool off, and is a truly adventurous person. She reminded me of Anne Mustoe. After dinner we all took a short evening bike ride around the city to see the sights. We were both glad to have the chance to hang out with her – what an impressive and interesting person!

Here we are riding to dinner together:

The next day was not so good. We got on the 7:30am bus to Vientiane. We traveled only 400km but it took 8 hours. The bus had air-conditioning, but the driver refused to use it. The temperature was at a steady 95 for the entire 8 hours. We were sitting in pools of our own sweat on the vinyl seats; I developed a case of heat rash on my butt to complement the saddles sores I’ve begun to develop. I had a headache from lack of water and last but not least, people began throwing up into their handkerchiefs by the end of the trip. Jamie almost got hit by the woman behind him as we were filing off the bus. This is the type of experience that makes us really appreciate the fact that we’re traveling by bicycle and not bus! This was the first bus ride where we didn’t have to pay for our bicycles. We think one of the workers may have been trying to get some money from us, but he didn’t speak any English and gave up quickly when he realized we didn’t understand him. At the first stop, he called Jamie out of the bus and over to the ticket office. There, the ticket worker tried to talk to Jamie, but what he said was “How many cigarettes? How much does it cost?” Jamie stared at him trying to figure out what was going on and the guy then said “One cigarette, 40,000. Two cigarettes, 70,000.” Jamie was bewildered and said “Cigarettes or bicycles?” but no one seemed to understand and everyone left us alone after that.

Vientiane is a very nice city and wonderful for biking – nice wide streets and not much traffic at all. We were starting to get sick of noodle soup, so we’ve really been the variety of food available here. We’ve had really good Indian food, pizza, and croissants with lattes and free wi-fi in the morning. Heaven!

Riding into town. There’s a rumor that this arch was created out of cement that the US government donated to Laos so it could build an aircraft runway. Laos built the arch instead:

Not everything is running perfectly though; we got to exercise our problem solving skills yesterday. There are no ATMs in Laos other than the one here in Vientiane so we need to withdraw enough money to ride through the entire country and into China. We have about 20 days of riding in Laos ahead of us, plus possibly 10 more days in China to reach the first ATM where we can restock our cash supplies. At $35 per day (our average) plus a little padding for emergencies, that is a little over $1,000. Ideally we want that money in US Dollars rather than Laos kip because (1) A thousand dollars in kip would be a stack of money literally 10″ high and (2) you can’t exchange kip outside of the country and even inside the country the currency fluctuates a lot and we could easily get screwed somewhere along the line.

Jamie lied awake all night worrying about this and, as usual, got annoyed with me that I wasn’t worrying with him. I told him that worrying while lying in bed wasn’t going to do any good and we’d just have to research it tomorrow and figure out a solution. This is how he has earned the name Mr. Doomsday; you may also remember that he exhibited similar behavior within the Suicide King journal entry.

So, we have the money we need in our US bank account; the problem is getting our hands on the actual cash we need from here. First we tried to go to the bank to see if there was some way to use the Laos bank to withdraw money from our US bank account. Nope; the only option there was to get a cash advance on our credit card which we’d have to pay a 20-25% interest fee on immediately. That’s $250 on $1000 – yikes! Next we went to the Western Union office; we’d heard you can wire money to yourself. It was difficult to explain what we were trying to do to the Western Union guy and in the end he told us we could only wire money to ourselves if we had cash. We laughed. If we had cash we wouldn’t need to wire money at all! Then we had the brilliant idea of going to an internet cafe and using the Western Union website to wire money to ourselves. They website allows you to enter a credit/debit card number – perfect! But alas, it did not work. We got an error code but weren’t sure what it meant so we tried changing all sorts of variables in our online request. Maybe you can’t send money from James Welle to James Welle? So we had James Welle send money to Sarah Erck. That didn’t work. Maybe there was a problem with our primary bank account, so we used our back up bank card? That didn’t work either. This went on for over an hour when we finally decided to give up. Our current theory is you can’t wire money into Laos using a credit card; you have to use cash.

We were feeling pretty depressed at this point, thinking we’d be forced into doing the cash advance and paying a 25% premium. We went to eat lunch and talk it over. After lunch we decided to stop by the ATM to see how much money it would allow us to withdraw in one day. We figured that carrying around gigantic stacks of kip would probably be better than paying $250 for the privilege of US dollars. The limit was $300 per day which Jamie went ahead and withdrew. At that rate we’d have to hang around here in Vientiane for four days to get enough money which is bad news because we have a lot of miles to cover before our Laos visa runs out. Not really thinking it’d work, we tried my ATM card which is hooked up to the exact same account as Jamie’s. Amazingly enough, it allowed me to withdraw $300 too – hurray! That cuts our Vientiane time down to only two days to get enough money. We were dancing with joy on the street beside the ATM as we realized that we wouldn’t have to pay a $250 fee for a cash advance. Then we realized we had $600 in cash on us and we were looking much to happy while lurking around an ATM, so we hopped on our bikes and took off to our hotel to hide the money before we became targets for some sort of armed robbery scheme.

Here are our wads of cash!

Tomorrow we head north towards Luang Prabang. This area of Laos is supposed to be extremely hilly and beautiful. We have met many cyclists who have said it is the highlight of Southeast Asia. Stay tuned for pictures!

Sly As A Fox

Friday, June 8th, 2007

Vietnam to Laos wins the prize for the most entertaining border crossing yet. The day started off badly. We woke up early so we’d have time to eat the buffet breakfast at the hotel next door to ours before riding across the border. We walked in, surveyed the meager buffet, and asked how much it was. The four employees conferred amongst themselves and then said “I sorry, this buffet only for hotel customers.” I will admit now that the buffet didn’t look that great but it did have eggs and the bizarre perfectly white, perfectly square pieces of “bread” that are used for toast here. I was sick and tired of eating noodle soup for 2-3 meals per day and was ridiculously excited for a piece of toast. So I asked, “Do you have a menu? Do you have any food at all that we can order?” I was met with poker-faced blank stares which infuriated me at that early hour. The previous night we’d tried to get a room in this same hotel and they’d told us they were full, which I still find hard to believe. I think they just hate sweaty cyclists. I was getting ready to start a fight over the buffet when Jamie took my arm and dragged me out. We ate noodle soup for breakfast instead.

The border was only one kilometer from our hotel so after breakfast we got there in no time. As we approached the first border gate we were swarmed by a mob of money changing girls. Jamie was drawn in by their chatty eagerness and began discussing exchange rates. We had about US$200 which we’d need to get us through the 600 kilometers to Laos’s sole ATM in Vientiane. Because we had a decently large amount of money, Jamie figured we’d be able to negotiate for a good exchange rate. We got one girl to agree to 9,500 kip to 1 US dollar (the current official rate is 9,600), which is basically as good as the rate we’d get at a bank so we decided to throw caution to the wind and change money. We turned over our Vietnamese dong and chaos ensued. The girls worked themselves (and Jamie) into a frenzy with their calculators, pads of paper, pens, and gigantic wads of money. They were all talking over each other, louder and louder, crowding closer and closer to Jamie. I was standing back laughing hysterically but also trying to keep an eye on all his stuff to make sure no one tried to swipe anything. Here’s one picture; I love the expression on the girl’s face to the far right. She’s probably saying “Sucker!” to her friends. Our selected money changing girl is the one in the bright orange sweatshirt. Later on it became fortunate that she was wearing such a distinctive outfit…

Our girl counted out the 1.7 million Lao kip that was our due. She counted it, her friends counted it, they passed it all around and punched their calculators furiously, Jamie grabbed it and counted it and tried to impose order on chaos: “OK this is ONE million. Now where’s the 700,000?!” More counting, more calculating, more grabbing. We finally got it all straightened out, said thank you to our girl, and got ready to cross the border. Here’s a scene from the final moments of money changing. Note that everyone is crowding around closer and closer as Jamie demonstrates his skills on their calculator:

We decided that we’d each count the money one more time because borders are infamous for rip-offs and the numbers we were dealing with were so huge that we knew it’d be easy to make a mistake. Turns out that we’d gotten 1,072,000 instead of the 1,720,000 that we were supposed to have which is a rip-off of over $60 US dollars! We looked at each other with shock and dread – we’d just been had by a bunch of giggling, pink-hatted, glittery-fingernailed girls! Jamie said “Should we try to find her?” and I roared “YES! What was she wearing?!”

The orange shirt came in handy as I raced towards the group of girls about 50 ft away; I was able to identify her immediately. The girls weren’t sure what I was after. They eagerly moved towards me and said “Change money? Change money?!” I said “Yessss…sure…” and lured them closer. At this point orange-shirt realized what was going on and she tried to slink away and hide behind a nearby semi-truck. I charged after her, plowing my bike through a sea of people, and yelled “Hey you! Come back here!” At this point Jamie realized I’d successfully apprehended the suspect and came over to join me in my confrontation with orange-shirt. We told her she owned us money, and she meekly agreed which surprised us. Then she smiled, shook her head, batted her eyelashes, and said in a sing-song voice, “I sorrrry! I don’t know!” For some reason this actually worked on Jamie and he smiled and practically patted her on the head and gave her a hug while saying, “That’s OK”. Anyhow, after more rounds of furious counting and calculating (we had to forcibly grab our wad of Vietnamese dong back out of her hand more than a few times in order to get things going again), we got the correct sum of money. The strangest thing was that after we had gotten our Lao kip, the girls were either glaring at us or making pouty faces like we had ripped them off! They even asked for some of our dong as a souvenir. We just laughed, said our goodbyes, and crossed the border into Laos with no further incidents.

The landscape immediately on the other side of the border in Laos is similar to Vietnam, but the people are much more poor; most live in thatched shacks and most of the children are completely naked. When we pass through villages, groups of kids run hysterically through their yards to scream “Hello” or “Bye Bye” at us. There are lots of people out working in the rice paddies; the green color of the rice is so bright that it looks fake:

The road was extremely smooth and there was hardly any traffic at all. The only downside was that when a vehicle did pass, it was a smelly, polluting truck. It is not fun to ride through a cloud of black soot.

We had a fairly stiff headwind for much of first day, but it was really cloudy and we even got rained on a little bit which was great. It is so much better to ride in the rain than to feel like your skin is being roasted to a crisp. I was drafting closely behind Jamie to stay out of the headwind when I bumped my wheel into his, lost control of my bike, and crashed right into the middle of the highway. I was sort of dazed at first and then the only thing I could think of was that I had to get off the highway as quickly as possible. I scrabbled over to the side of the road, dragging my bike, and assessed the damage. I’d landed on my leg and the side of my head. Luckily I’d been smart enough not to put my arm out to catch myself – that’s how I broke it last time! My knee and thigh were scraped up and bruised, but my head and face were fine because the helmet had shielded them. My right brake was bent in at an odd angle, but Jamie was able to straighten it out. Overall I escaped with minimal damage and felt fine, so we rode on to our final destination.

We arrived at Muang Phin and learned at our hotel that the town didn’t have electricity until 5pm; our guidebook makes it sounds like this is typical for rural Laos. We rode around town looking for a place to have dinner and didn’t find much. We ended up with an extremely fishy tasting papaya salad and some noodle soup full of random (non-refrigerated) pig parts. This is almost exactly how our first dinner in Cambodia turned out; we are hoping the food situation here isn’t as dire as it was there!

The next two days went smoothly and after a couple of days of cycling in Laos, we understood why everyone says it is so peaceful here. The road is extremely smooth and quiet. Traffic varies from light to nonexistent. Every once in a while you get passed by a logging truck (carrying teak we guess?), but mostly you just ride along listening to the bugs and watching people working the rice paddies.

The other thing we noticed in Laos right away is that goats have replaced cows as the livestock of choice. They are everywhere!

We haven’t seen goat on any restaurant menus, but one new thing we did get to eat is sticky rice. It is a staple of the Lao diet and in the morning you see old women delivering it to their customers in wicker baskets. You just pull a clump out of the basket, roll it up with your fingers, and dip it into your food. Delicious! Surprisingly, food is more expensive here than in Vietnam. The price of a cup of coffee went up from US$0.25 to US$0.50 and a bowl of noodle soup now costs US$1 instead of US$0.50.

Today we arrived in Savannakhet and tomorrow we will probably take a bus north to Vientiane. Then we will start riding north through the mountains toward China.

Opportunity Knocks

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

Our last two days in Vietnam were full of more rip-offs than all the other days there combined. We cycled north on Highway 14 as far as Thanh My (Nam Giang). We were originally planning on riding to Ta Lu (Hien), but when we arrived at Thanh My at 11am and temperatures were approaching 40 degrees Celsius, we decided to start looking for a bus. Some locals also told us that the road to Thanh My was extremely steep with some long climbs, so that cemented our decision and we stopped at a cafe to ask if they knew of any buses to Ta Lu. Its always a struggle to get information on buses here. You always get mixed information and the bikes make things even more complicated. After some discussion, the cafe owner (who spoke some English) told us there were no buses to Ta Lu, but that she would help us flag down a bus to Da Nang. Da Nang is on the coast and in the opposite direction from the way we wanted to go, but from there we could catch a bus to Lao Bao on the border. We ordered a couple of coffees and ended up waiting in the cafe for three hours while the owner made a couple of half-hearted attempts to flag down passing minibuses. It became pretty obvious that we were never going to get on a bus that way, so Sarah went to the other side of the road where a couple of women were waiting to try to flag down a bus herself. I was still sitting the cafe and I heard one of the customers say “bicycle” in Vietnamese and “ten dollars” and then everyone started laughing and looking at me. Looking back, this must have translated as “Screw these guys. I’m gonna help these foreigners get on a bus and make some money in the process!” He then went over to the other side of the road to wait with Sarah and the women. I had a hunch he was going to rip us off, so I gave him a Marlboro as a peace offering, but it didn’t work. After a couple of minutes, an empty minibus approached and we waved it down. There was some discussion in Vietnamese and then the back hatch was popped and we started to load our bikes into the van. After everything was loaded, we started to get into the van and everyone started yelling that we had to pay. I first offered 200000 dong (~US$12.5), which was wait we had paid for our last bus ride. This was refused and there were more yells of “ten dollars” so I offered 160000 dong (~US$10), but this was refused too. It became clear they wanted US$20. We were low on dong and I didn’t even have that much anymore, but luckily I did have one twenty dollar bill stashed away. It was accepted after some examination of its validity. Now, you know you are getting ripped off when everyone in the immediate vicinity of you, including random customers at the cafe, take a cut of the money you just paid for the bus fare. After the divvying up, we were on our way to Da Nang. I was up front with the driver and Sarah was in the back with the women. When they didn’t pay for the ride, we realized we had paid their fare too, but we didn’t mind too much as they were really friendly. They were extremely interested in Sarah’s tan lines and one of them was petting Sarah’s helmet while saying “beautiful.”

After about two hours, we arrived in Da Nang and checked into a hotel. We then set off to figure out how to get a bus to Lao Bao. We went to a local tour company to try to get some information and the guy tried to rip us off three different ways. First he told us that it was too dangerous to bicycle in Laos and that we should take his bus all the way to Savannakhet, but we just stonewalled him on that one. Then he changed tack and told us he could get us to Lao Bao but we would have to either spend a night in Hue or Dong Ha. We told him that was not an option for us so he then made a couple of phone calls and finally told us that we could get to Lao Bao tomorrow by taking two air-conditioned, tourist-class buses with a switchover in Hue for US$46. That sounded pretty steep and we were getting sick of his conniving, so we decided to roll the dice and try our luck at the public bus station the next morning. Even as we were leaving, this guy didn’t give up. He told us he could “help” us find a bus tomorrow morning for a small fee. We just ignored him and walked out.

We arrived at the bus station early the next morning and I started looking around for a bus to Lao Bao. After a couple of different ticket windows, it became clear there was no scheduled public bus. I went back outside to discuss what to do with Sarah and we were approached by a bunch of minibus drivers who wanted to know where we were headed. We said Lao Bao and indicated that we had two bicycles and one driver said he would take us there for 700000 dong (~US$43.75). The cramped, hot minibus was only a few dollars cheaper than the nice tourist bus! I think the main problem Sarah and I have in these situations is that we base our counter-offer on the ridiculous price we were just quoted. We should have offered something like 100000 dong, but instead we offered 500000. Everyone made a show like that was way too cheap and pretended to walk away, but after a few minutes they came back and we got them down to 600000 (~US$37.50). Nice work Team Welle.

We loaded our bicycles into the back and squeezed into the tiny seats we were allotted, thinking we would be on our way. However, instead of leaving, we spent the next hour sitting in the van while the driver’s wife tried to recruit more passengers. Every time we thought the van was full, one more person was squeezed in. The people getting on the bus had one of two reactions to us. They were either amused and stared at us like we are exotic zoo animals, or they were disgusted and frightened by the mere sight of us. One Asian women was so obviously repulsed by us she looked like she might puke. I am sorry to say this, but she herself was the shortest, fattest, and ugliest person on the bus!

We finally hit the road and we had a small panic attack when we had to switch vans and drivers at Dong Ha. We thought we were going to be asked to pay again, but the driver assured us that we needed “no money” and we arrived safely at Lao Bao in the early afternoon.

I think the worst thing about getting ripped off like this is that it makes you suspicious of everyone. When people are truly being friendly or helpful, you keep your guard up and turn down their offers because you don’t want to get conned. Overall though, Vietnam wasn’t nearly as bad as we heard it could be. It seems like everyone has a horror story, but Vietnam is probably our favorite country in southeast Asia so far because of the people, scenery, and food. Maybe that is because we stuck to the highlands or maybe Vietnam just has a poorly-deserved bad reputation.