(written by Dave)
Today was our day for meeting fellow bicycle travellers. Around 11:00 when we pulled into our first possible destination, we were hailed to a cafe where we met Hans and Lieneke, a couple from Holland spending 6 weeks in SE Asia. We shared a meal with them and talked about routes. We had actually been at the Mut Mee guesthouse in Nong Khai at the same time but we did not get a chance to talk to them then so this was our second chance. Hans and Lieneke were just starting their ride for the day, heading up into the hills to see the famous Tham Kong Lo, a 7-metre cave/tunnel. After they departed we made our way to the first possible guesthouse (more on that later) and ran into Jordi and Cesar, two guys from Spain – near the Pyrnees where we now have a possible home stay if we make it down there. Like us, the Spaniards had just about finished for the day. Both of the groups were coming from the south so we picked their brains for route info.
We had a nice ride from Paksan. We were off early as we really enjoyed yesterday’s early hours and thought we go even earlier today. We were up at 5AM and after brekkie in the room, we were almost ready to ride before it was light. Almost. You can always tell when you are out early in Thailand and now Laos as the monks are out making their rounds collecting food and donations for the day. Most of the groups we saw today had one monk and several novice monks. I learned the other day in Vientiane that a novice monk only has one shoulder covered, where as the proper monk has both covered.
We had even more kids yelling today than the last two days. It is Saturday here and it appears that there is no school as all the kids were out playing and none had on their school uniforms. I’m not sure if they are watching down the road for things to wave at but several times we could see kids running for the edge of the road long before we arrived. Those that make the edge are ready with hands extended, those that don’t make it to the edge usually jump up and down, wave and repeatedly yell out sabaidee. We get the occasional “hello” and even “good morning”. Nancy is always quick to return both of these in her most proper English to encourage their attempts at English. Me, I’m pretty happy sticking to “Saw – Bah – Deeee”.
We encountered two interesting groups of roadside stalls today. The first was fresh cut sugar-cane. It would have been cut this morning as the stall holders were just getting it cleaned up and trimmed. When we passed this group of stands, none were beyond the cleaning and cutting stage so we were not able to sample any of the finished product. Unfortunately, we did not see any more sugar cane stands. The second group of stands was not really stands but more some form of sliced produce on tarps drying in the sun. One village had a large number of these where we stopped for photos and hopefully some sort of explanation. We got the photo but left no wiser on the type of produce. The stall tenders did not speak English and even on close inspection, we could not tell what we were looking at. It seemed like some form of tuber or maybe fungus. We though perhaps it might be the tapioca tubers – it had a bit of an earthy smell.
We had some nice views of the mountains of Nam Kading National Park today. The mountains were off to our left for much of the day. We crossed the Nam Kading river just as it joined up with the Mekong. The Nam Kading is supposed to be one of the cleanest and most blue rivers in Laos. You could see a very distinct line where the waters joined as the Mekong is about as brown as a river comes.
Once we reached Viang Khan, where we had the cycle tourist encounters, we took a look at the reportedly best guesthouse in town, the Vasana Guesthouse. I did not go in but trusted Nancy when she said that they were not great – they did have air-conditioning in some of the rooms but most had squat toilets and were not what you could call clean. The parking lot was covered in an inch of fine dust and the town was pretty dusty. Admittedly, no one could keep a room clean in that environment. The squat toilets and cold showers may have also contributed to Nancy’s low score. Option two was just out of town and nice looking Viang Khan Guesthouse. We’d heard even worse reports on this place in part due to bed bugs and the karaoke bar behind their back windows. Being Saturday night, we didn’t even bother looking at the rooms as the bar would be hopping.
We continued 5ks down the road to Nam Thong which does exist in spite of Lonely Planet stating that Nam Thong and Viang Khan were the same town (there are many errors in the Laos Lonely Planet book). Here we found the only guesthouse in town, the Phimmachack Guesthouse. We’d heard mixed reviews and found them to be pretty accurate. We’ll be using our sleeping bag liners again. The bathroom is a real gem, cold shower, western toilet but “flush by bucket” and lovely blue tiles with sail boats (working on a Mediterranean theme). Nancy said that it is much better than the other place back up in Viang Khan so I can only imagine what it was like. Me, I’m just happy that we found a passable room and Nancy didn’t make me ride another 90k to tomorrow’s destination (and reportedly nicer hotels). This place actually has a little balcony out front of the bungalow and we spent a relatively pleasant afternoon sitting out there doing some route planning.
Three kids mysteriously appeared at our chalet this afternoon. Nancy was sitting on the patio and managed to ask them their names in Lao (using our phrase book) and the kids got it. Lao is tonal like Thai but here we can get close enough much easier. At least people seem to understand us when we read the English translated words. There is also a lot more English on road signs here in Laos (compared to Thailand). In Thailand we spotted the caution signs and knew that something ahead was worth paying attention to. It could have been a curve, elephant or bridge out – we had no idea. Here in Laos, signs have Lao and English so we are much better prepared.
We are not sure what we’ll do for dinner. There are a number of little restaurants out on the highway so we’ll head out there. Maybe one of these kids will come with us to help translate. Even though I’ve been adventuresome on my food choices, I will not be trying the fried “rat on a stick” or fried “bird on a stick”. We’d heard about these the other day from two other tourist and as luck would have it, the restaurant connected to our guesthouse has both. I spotted them when I was buying water and did not have my camera. We’ll see about nabbing a photo tonight, if they are not sold out.
Tomorrow we head to Thakhek, a bigger town that appears to have lots of accommodation options. I suspect we will end up at one of the more luxurious places in town (relatively speaking, of course) given our accommodation of the last few days.