Dec 14th – Vang Vieng, Laos
I got an early tuk tuk to the drop off point for the famous tube ride down the Nam Song River. It’s infamy is shrouded in unfortunate events. As many as 20 tube goers have lost their lives in one year alone in what Lonely Planet calls a Lao “right of passage.” An uncountable number of bars used to line the way along a stretch of river that from start to finish takes less then two hours to traverse, that is, if you don’t stop for drinks along the way. Drugs also ran rampant- drugs, alcohol, and traversing a river in a tube, often after dark, does not a good combination make. When the death toll started to hit the international news wire a few years ago, changes were made. Only a few bars are still open along the way, and I saw no signs of drugs.
Seeing that I am of an “older” age and was not really interested in the party scene, I intended to get to the starting point before all the party goers arrived. The tuk tuk ride took a few fellow travelers and I few miles up the river. I chatted with a young French couple, and a younger guy from Switzerland. When I had one of my normal panic attacks along the ride, they were cool about it and the French couple offered me water.
We were the first tuk tuk to arrive at the starting point, at a bar! They offered us free shots. Uh oh, this was not going to go as I had planned. After the Swiss guy and I went 5-0 at beer pong, we headed down the river together. Soon there was another bar, this one with a volleyball court like no other. On each side of the net, a giant slippery mud puddle almost impossible to move around in. It was a ton of fun!
I could not feel but a little out of place as I was obviously the oldest guy around. I tried to embrace the fact that I was essentially turning back the clock 15 years and pretending I was 23 again.
Lucas, my new Swiss friend, and I took off after a while and hit one more bar for a drink. By that time the sun started to settle behind the mountains and the temperature dropped. We started to feel some urgency and quickly finished our beers to get back on the river and float the rest of the way down. We both found it impossible to believe that people actually died on this river – a gentle float down an unassuming and not so intimidating river. Neither of us had a watch, and were surprised when we turned in our tubes that we had only two minutes to spare before 6 o’clock, the time when we would have had to pay a late fee, and also the time when it is pretty much dark!
This tubing trip came with a lot of hype, and maybe it’s just because I am a bit homesick around the holidays, but I am still partial to the tubing trip down the Farmington River in Connecticut where I grew up over this experience…just maybe not in December.
Dec 15th – Phonhong, Laos
85 km today – 53 miles. My back survived another day. Took a lot of breaks, but gotta be honest, today it was the bike seat that caused me the most discomfort. The extra weight of a backpack I think is making it more difficult to sit in the seat. I can’t say I have really enjoyed any of the four days I have biked. Too much discomfort. All I do is count down the kilometers. I passed two bikers going the other way and then four bikers caught me from behind late in the afternoon – a couple from France that end their 11-month bike trip tomorrow, and an English couple also on a long distance trip. The first thing the English guys said to me was, “Your crazy to be carrying that backpack on your back.” Yeah that seems to be a common opinion. I rode into Phonhong with them. There we met an older French couple that has been biking for 19 months!
We found only two hotels available and both were too expensive, and had only one room available between the two of them, which sent the bikers into a tirade. They were having a hard time believing that the rooms were actually full. I can’t say I totally blame them since there didn’t seem to be a lot of cars or bikes around. I had to abandon them and head back north in the dark towards a hotel we had passed about 7 km before hoping that there would be something before that. In about 4 kilometers I did find a place.
Dec 17 – Vientiane, Laos
72 kilometers to Vientiane, the capital of Lao. Vientiane is a city of about a quarter million people situated a stone’s throw away from the Mekong River. The downtown area is gridded, lined with guest houses, restaurants, and street food. I am really struggling right now, I am all over the map and I just can’t trust myself to make the right decisions. I mean, southern Thailand is what I wanted to do most in the first place, but it is a shame to be so close to Vietnam and not go. I would have to come back someday. The other option is to stay here for three more days to wait to get extra pages in my passport and apply for a Vietnam visa. There is not even a guarantee that I could get all that done by Monday – 4 days from now.
Dec 19 – somewhere in Southern Laos
Yesterday seemed like it was going to be a productive day. An appointment to get more passport pages opened at literally the 13th hour. I saw the opening well after midnight the night before. I wasn’t able to print out the confirmation for my appointment but they saw me nonetheless. Then, after I found out that the Vietnam Embassy wouldn’t open till 10 am, I biked all the way up to the bus station and bought an overnight VIP bus for Savanakhet with the intention of going on to Vietnam the next day. But I when I went back to apply at the embassy they said I couldn’t pick it up until Tuesday.
I guess no Vietnam, but I still had the bus ticket. So I took the bus and was able to extend the ticket to Paske further south. Comfy quarters but near the engine so it was loud. I’ve never been on any such bus. It’s like you are sleeping in separate wooden barracks and it felt more like I was on a boat. We got to Pakse in 10 hours and it went like a blink cause I slept the whole way comfortably.
I awoke groggy but ready to bike a little ways to Champasak for the night. It took a while to get oriented. Once I got further south I had to cross the Mekong River which was a rip off expense and took only three minutes. I was underwhelmed by the hamlets along the river that make up Champasak, so I decided to keep heading south. The road led away from the river. The sun was hot and the road conditions deteriorated. I finally made my way back to the river and it remained slow going, but at least I was back in the shade and biking through cute little villages. I took the ferry over the Mekong to what I thought at the time was Don Khong Island just after sunset. There were no hotels In the first town so I decided to bike to the second in the dark, but there wasn’t much of a second town. I rode on.
One guy stopped to see if I had gotten into an accident. I guess it did look like I had crashed with my stuff thrown all about – I was looking for my flashlight. I found a family that charged $2.50 to sleep in a covered area outside with wooden floors. Laotians tend to stare. I am grateful that they all hung around and sat down next to me. And started at me while I ate. I am grateful that they brought me food and gave me water and then woke up with five kids starting at me.
I was going to spend a whole entry talking about how much kids and even some adults go out of their way to say hello to you. Normally that would be good, except that its constant, I feel like I am biking in the Ironman or something. They yell it, over and over, “sabaidii”or “hello.” Even if you’ve answered back they keep saying it. They’ll run out into the street and yell it till you disappear a 100 meters beyond. They quickly gather their friends and siblings and wave and say hello or sabaidii, or “good morning” no matter what time of day it is, or “thank you” for no reason, or “bye” when they haven’t even said hi yet. And also the occasional “where you come from?” I tell you I feel like I am in the lead at the Boston marathon.
I feel bad not responding sometimes, okay a lot. It’s too much, but sometimes I feel like that kid has been sitting behind that corner for two days waiting for a white – turned red – biker to come along so that he or she can happily jump out and yell “sabaidii!” fully expecting me to answer back, which to them seems to be more exciting than an American kid getting a visit from Santa. The attention is overwhelming it drains me. There is a lot of giggling going on. If you say “sabaidii” back, immediate giggles, followed by a joke, and more giggling. Adults laugh at me too, although not quite as much now that I am not carrying my pack on my back, which is some relief by the way.
I have found some peace with myself in terms of trying to decide what to do over the next few weeks. I am just going to take it 48 hours at a time. Anything beyond that I am not going to plan. That way I will just be able to do what I want to do and see where it leads me.
Dec 20 – Don Det Island, Laos
Hello from the middle of the Mekong River in a land they call 4000 Islands. I had a good day. I woke up and the kids proceeded to stare at me again. They just stood there in silence mesmerized as I got ready to go. Obviously it’s not rude in this country. The older girls I think got the hint after a while that it was sort of getting old, but the five year old boy not so much.
It turns out I wasn’t on Don Khong island after all, but had actually taken the ferry last night back to the mainland well north of the island and was back on good ole Route 13, confirmed this morning when I headed south in daylight and saw the town names and the kilometer markers. I got on the road at 7:15 and in less than two hours I had arrived at the ferry crossing spot to go over to the bottom of Don Khong Island.
I waited for a while in hopes that someone else would come so that I could share the cost of the ferry, but by 10:30 no one had so I rode over by myself and had a late breakfast in the sleepily lazy little town of Muang Kong. I headed south again looking for the next ferry across in order to continue down route 13, and to my surprise found a giant highway bridge that was only completed last year. Back down lucky route 13 to Nakasang where yet again I took a ferry, this time to the Island of Don Det.
I biked down the island and crossed on a bridge to the Island of Don Khon (not to be confused with Don Khong to the north) and rode around the island stopping at beaches ,and views, and little inlets with streams, and then the terrific roaring waterfalls of the MeKong River. These falls are like nothing I have ever seen and I can’t explain them. Basically it was like the mighty MeKong River was coming from every direction in a multitude of cascades, each the size of a significant river in its own right. The closest thing I’ve seen to this are the Potomac Falls near DC, but those don’t come at you from every direction like these seemed to. I biked back to Don Det and found a nice little bungalow right on the river.
December 21 – Don Det
A nice day on a paid kayaking tour that included an hour round trip hike to the waterfalls along trails on a deserted island. We had to cross a number of streams on nothing but bamboo sticks. The kayaking sent us through rapids and the water was low along much of the way because of a fishing dam that had been built – we hit a lot of rocks!
The tour also included a long boat ride to where freshwater dolphins hang out. We saw three, and they resurfaced over and over. My lonely planet guide says there are only 40 dolphins left in the area, but it is outdated and our guide said it was more like five or six. Scientists don’t know why they’ve been dying off.
The Chinese have an agreement to build a damn in the area and in a few years, much of the 4000 Islands will be underwater. So not only am I one of the last to see freshwater dolphins here, but one of the last to see the islands as they currently are today – they might all be gone! Our guide complained long and hard about the Chinese, and the Lao government that has apparently “sold out” to them. “But Lao people can’t say anything,” he tells us, “Otherwise…” and he made a cutting motion across his neck.
Dec 22 – Don Det
Today sort of turned in to a rest day. I had intentions of biking into Cambodia but with limited time I made other plans – tomorrow I am back on a bus headed for Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.