Hello Family and Friends,
Back to Vientiene. We dropped off the bike. Retrieved our bicycles and hurried our asses to the Thailand border. Remember that our Visas are now expired and we are being fined daily? 24km outside of Vientiene and we were now in Nong Khiaw, Thailand. Another border. Another stamp in my passport. 10 years of, evidently, pretty extensive traveling and we realized that we only have a couple of spaces left in our passports for stamps. Good thing they expire soon.
Nong Khaiw is a gritty little border town thriving with sex tourism - western expats into all sorts of shady business; sleazy little bars filled with fat middle-aged bald westerners and their beautiful young Thai "dates" or "girlfriends." At least there was a lovely river front park with outstanding views of the Mekong. Our guest house was a crap hole with thin wooden walls and a rock hard bed. The guesthouse more than likely was doubling as a brothel. I witnessed one middle-aged fat westerner in hushed negotiations with the man running the place, only to see said man moments later walking down the street hand in hand with a lovely young Thai women. Arranged, no doubt, by the guesthouse manager. We wanted nothing more than to leave this town and get back to riding our bikes, but we had business to attend to, like changing our Kip to Baht (Kip=Lao currency Baht=Thai currency), getting a visa cash advance in USD, and hitting an ATM for more Baht. Basically, preparing ourselves financially for the upcoming weeks in Northeastern Thailand. We also discovered that we were carrying things we were not using and did not see ourselves using and did not see us using in the future, so we needed to mail a package home and Nong Khaiw has a relyable post office. Thus, we were stuck in this town for an extra day.
Back on the road. We decided to play it safe and follow the highway straight south in the beginning and cut in to meet with the Mekong a couple hundred Km's south. This route was safe due to the size of the towns we would be passing in route and subsequently the services that come along with such towns, ie food and lodging. The route beside the river seemed very far removed and no food or service was guarenteed along that route. So we played it safe. Why on Earth did we play it safe? Why now? What is our problem? In the beginning of this trip, we would never have considered riding the highway. Have we become lazy? Are we sick of trying to understand people? Are we tired of not knowing how to order food from a menu we can't understand? Getting directions from people who could be just as easily telling us where there hometown is and not necessarily giving us the information that we want? Are we really afraid of having to suck it up and camp commando style on the side of the road if we cannot peddel far enough? Maybe go a night without food? Would it really have killed us?
I guess you get the point, right? We were not happy with our decision to play it safe. We rode over 200 km's along an industrial highway choked with huge trucks, smog spewing factories, dirty commecial centers, and industrail cities. We asked ourselves over and over again...why aren't we on a bus yet? We have folding bikes for Christ's sake. Why are we so damned gung-ho to peddel every single inch of this journey. To make matters worse, I got sick as a dog leaving a the city of Udon Thani (50 km from the border) and rode despite my weakness, fatigue, and dehydration, all the way through Ban Chaing and Sukkon Nakkorn. Somewhere in these days Cassie fell ill, as well, and together we were a pitiful site riding down the road to the tune of no more than 50km's per day in 8 to 10 hours. That's 35 miles in 8 to 10 hours. I can walk almost that fast and this road was board flat. And did I mention that it is getting hot hot hot and dry dry dry? We choked on heat, dust, exhaust, and our own sickness for days and seemed to be making no progress. It was time for a break.
Ban Chaing. We happened on to this place by accident. We could not longer stand to ride the highway. We took a small secondary road toward a pin prick on our map that said Ban Chaing Archeolgical Site. There must be a place to sleep and eat near an Archeological site, we reasoned. Upon arrival in Ban Chaing we were delighted to discover a wonderful little village amonst the rice fields surrounding and a great guesthouse, run by and Austrarialian man named Alex and his Thai wife Tong, situated on the edge of a lake with an outstanding sunrise vantage.
Even more to our delight we found that not only was the Acheolgical Site, the Ban Chaing National Museum, and dig site itself named an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, but the entire village was doned with the prestige of being a UNESCO World Heritage Listed City. The archeological findings here have shattered previous notions of the evolution of modern man. It was dicovered here that people had inhabited this area for over 7,000 years, the most recent inhabitants having discovered this area around 400 years ago. But, more importantly, they discoved that these people were highly advanced beyond previous notions of the Neolithic peoples in this area. They were advanced farmers and botonists, they cloned and cross bread plant and rice species, adept hunters, they domesticated animals for work, food, and pets, they made incredible clay pots (some of which were used as burial coffins for infants and others broken and scattered about gravesites of adults, but mostly used for storage of rice, water, and for the sake of creating art in general), and in time became experts in the making, smelting, and mixing of various ores in order to make iron, metal, bronze, and steel. Advanced mettelurgy of this kind at this time in history was only found in the Tigris and Euphartise Valley, long thought to be the birth place of such technologies and a pivitol place in the evolution of intelligent man, and brought to Southeast Asia by the Chinese who learned from the middle east.
History books have needed to be changed to mark this discovery since 1975. Somehow the people of this area were able to advance without the notice of the rest of South Asia noticing, as these dicoveries have only been found in Northeast Thailand, insofar as the age of said dicoveries. UNESCO recognised the importance of this discovery not just for the poeple of this area but the importance of this area to the people of the world and the greater scientific community at large. We spent hours and hours touring the museum (a world class musuem in the opinion of Alex, the Austrailian guesthouse owner, with which we concure) and the dig site itself, which sits alongside a wonderfully beautiul and reveared Wat and Temple.
I was absolutly fascinatied by this ancient history that has been so carefully unraveled by scores of world renowned archeologists and institutions. The archeological process is mind boggeling in it precision and attention to minute details and the cataloging, carbon and ultraviolet dating, and generally making precise notes and cataloging every single grain of sand on these sites. More than 200 human skeletons have been unearthed.
Each layer a different era in time from Neothic to the iron age to the bronze age and beyond. With each layer new discoveries have been made as to the way of life, diet, posture, average life expectancy, diseases, faminies, ancient flora and fuana, art, tools, farming implements, hunting weapons, iron smelting and bivalve moldings, and most importantly rapid intellectual advancement. Ban Chaing made the journey seem somehow worth it and finally we were off the God forsaken highway, for only 15km, but hey. A well deserved rest day and I could not have asked for a better place to rest up than at the Lakeside Sunrise Guesthouse. Besides, we were looking down the barrell at a 120km bike ride to the next city, Sakkon Nakkorn. That's 86 more miles of industrial highway. Yuck!.
What can I say about Sakkon Nakkorn? I wouldn't go back if paid to. We found this place to be the most unfriendly place we have visited in Asia. I was actually thrown out of a hotel because I indicated to the man at reception that I did not need the ultra expensive air conditioned room (hell, it was chilly at night anyway) and that I would be fine with a fan room. I assume he thought I was some western "john" looking for a cheap room to bring a prostitute. Cassie was waiting outside and keeping an eye on the bikes. He just shooed me away with his hand. I assure you I was very friendly, cordial, and smiling. I was not being thrown out for anything I had done, but what this man percieved I was going to do. I could not believe it. I was denied a hotel room because of the general bad reputation associated with sex tourists. I was mistaken for a sex tourist.
Luckily, a man in the reception noticed this scene and followed me outside. He immediately mounted his own bike and beckoned us to follow him. In a town with absolutely no signs in English, this man lead us to another hotel around the corner and up the street. A very kind thing to do. He didn't even ask for money. But, again with the bad rep of sex tourist, this man pointed at Cassie and indicated that she be the one to go in and ask for a room. I was to wait outside this time to avoid any confusion. Man, these hotel owners in this town must be extremely jaded by westerners. Of course, why else would a western man on vacation visit a commercial and industrial shit hole like Sakkon Nakkorn anyway? 2 reasons... #1 Sex tourism. #2 Bicycle tourist with no place else to go on this route. I am guessing that they do not see too many of the latter. Of course not, why would any bicycle tourist follow the damned highway?
One small ray of light in Sakkon Nakkorn. We found a street food vendor vending vegatarian food. Veg food with faux meats, wonderful curries, and spicy soup. We ate well at this stall and regained a bit of strength, humor, humility, and acceptance. Tomorrow we are getting the hell off this highway and back onto the secondary roads toward the river. I was longing to be riding quietly through rice fields, small villages, and rural roads and our route to the village of That Phenom promise all of this.
As luck would have it, we felt much better and the road was mostly smooth pavement and gently rolling. 86km in only a few hours is not bad in my opinion. The village of That Phenom exists solely because of the giagantic and incredible Wat Pha That Phenom and it's location along the banks of the Mekong.
This Wat is reveared throughout Thailand by Buddists and Isans alike. It is a pilgrimage made by the faithfull from far and wide during the That Phenom Festival in Febuary. Cassie and I arrived late in town and had to view the Wat at night. Thank goodness. It was incredible. All lit up and covered in shimmering gold, silver, glass, mirrors, and jewels. The top 6 meters of the temple was made entirely of 16 karat gold and precious jewels. One of the largest, oldest, and best cared for Wats in all of Thailand. The entire compound was striking. Statues of Buddahs, monks, dragons, tigers, and more, all cast and painted in shimmering gold. Many faithful people were on hand kneeling and praying before various stautues and Buddahs. A group of monks knelt and chanted in unison. Sounded like a song being sung with perfect falseto harmony. We stood and listened for some time. Exploring the Wat That Phenom was a great way to spend an evening. And now finally we were back along side of the Mekong River and looking forward to the days riding to come.
That Phenom to Mukdahon. Only 55km's of gently rolling hills through more farm land, rice fields, and cattle pastures. No river views all day. A nice ride nonetheless. The days just kept getting hotter and hotter as me moved further and further south, and by 3pm this day was a scorcher and a fine head wind developed. I thought to myself, I'll take all the heat and wind in the world in exchange for that damned highway. Not to mention, the people along rural roads are so much more friendly. We were back to children yelling "sawadee" and "hello", the adults would gasp or awe before pointing at us and laughing. Groups of people would come out to watch us ride by while pointing and laughing. At first, I was thinking "this is a bit new. What are they laughing at? Do we look funny?". As I asked myself this question I concluded that these people are not laughing at us. They are laughing in delight. A delighful and novel thing to see riding down their little country road. A couple of farang riding strange looking bikes all loaded down with gear. Laughable, indeed.
Mukdahon, being a fairly sizable town along the river had a bunch of wonderful little river side restuarants all specializing in various ways of preparing Mekong River fish.
We felt that we must try a couple of these places and stopped, upon arriving in town, for some lunch. We ate a giant, whole, fried fish. It was delicous and meaty. They breaded and fried this fish without removing the scales, head, tail...nothing, except for the internal organs. They even left the brain and eyes in the fish. By the time we were done, it was reduced to a plate of bones. For dinner we found another riverside restuarant and ordered another fried fish. This fish was breaded and crusted with tons of fresh garlic. A much larger fish. Oh my goodness, this must be the best fish I have ever tasted in my life.
Funny, the last time I said that, I was on a little island in the Gulf of Thailand in December 2000. These Thai people sure do know how to prepare a fish. Otherwise, not much to report on Mukdahon. Next stop, Khemerrat. 85km.
Khemarrat was a nice little river side town with only one very expensive hotel. 350 Baht for one night ($10 USD). Most lodging in Thailand has been about 50-200 baht. Anyway, it was a nice place, a bit out of town, with a great view of the Mekong from the little front porch of our room. Other than that, not much to mention about, yet another sleepy little river town.
Kemarret to Khong Chiam. Another 120km day. A bit more hilly and a lot more of the same fields, villages, heat, wind, "sawadee"'s, laughs, waves, and "hello"'s. Though this day was a lot more hilly. Again, no views of the river until arriving in Khong Chiam. Still, a great day of spinning through the country side.
Khong Chiam was little more to us than a place to spend the night before heading down to the Lao border the next day. We had been getting increasingly anxious to get back to Laos. There is just something great about that country and I always look forward to more opportunities to climb up into some mountains. Southern Laos promises that opportunity in an area know as The Bolaven Plateu. So, one quick night in Khong Chiam, a short 35km ride to Chong Mek and the border crossing into Laos.
Farewell Thailand. Hello Laos. More stamps in the passport. Crap, this Laos stamp took up an entire page in my passport. Getting dangerously close to having no space left and two more countries to visit. Hmmm?
Anyway, upon arriving back in Laos we stopped for a celebratory Beerlao before continuing another 45km's to the southern capital of Laos, Pakse. We had been in Pakse for all of about 3 hours and while walking down the street in search of an ATM machine, who should come riding by on the bikes? Anton and Anne, the touring cyclist from Belguim whom we spent Christmas night with drinking Duvel's. What a pleasent and unexpected surprise. It had been nearly a month since we last saw those guys and we were delighted to see that they had regrouped, purchased a new bike, and got back out on the road. I envy the persistance and adaptability of these two who can handle it with such apparent grace and exceptance. A real roll-with-the-punches couple. We all decided to dine together that evening a catch up on our traveling stories.
They offered us some good advice on routes around Pakse, The Bolaven Plateu, and 4,000 islands, as they had come south via bus in order to make up for lost time and had already cycled this area extensivly. Great advice guys, thank you!
Gonna hold up a day or two here in order to regroup, resupply, do some bike maintance, rest, eat, and prepare for a 7 to 10 day ride in around The Bolaven Plateu. The Bolaven Plateu is known for it's wonderous mountain views, of course, as well as numerous organic coffee cooperative plantations and several notable waterfalls. I look am especially looking forward to visiting the coffee plantations and have considered doing a few days of volunteer work at one of the co-ops. Many of you know I am very fond of coffee and with good coffee hard to find in Asia, I am very anxious to drink some real coffee. Strange to think of a cup of black coffee as a treat rather than just something I drink at breakfast, but I guess it is all relative to it's availability.
Okay, so that is where we are. I hope this brings everyone up to date. If not, too bad, I simply cannot type anymore. You probably cannot read anymore. Sorry for being so long winded, but trust me, I scaled this one back as much as possible. I can't write everything. If I did, what would I talk about at Arnold's and O'Malley's when I get back to the states? Gotta save a few stories.