Hello family and friends,
Okay...I believe we were onward to Laos. Our ride up the mountain was, again, a wonderful sunny, clear, and warm day. We dilly dallied our way up the mountain taking photos, soaking up the scenery and thoroughly enjoying the first traffic free road we had ridden our bikes on since the beginning. The quiet was remarkable, as if it was something I'd never heard before. No horns, no motorbikes or scooters, no buses, no trucks, no speeding SUVs or 4x4s, and did I mention no horns? It was quiet. And clear. Where the hell did all the smog go? Is it afraid to get to close to Laos? The views. Oh my God, the views were outstanding. Far. Wide. Clear, clear, clear. Glorious clear blue skies. Glorious warm sunshine. Glorious, glorious QUIET! Oh yes and of course GLORIOUS PAVED ROAD! What mountain? What climbing grade? Drowned out by the GLORY OF THIS DAY! We reached the border by 1pm and were looking forward to a nice 40km coast down hill.
We spent about an hour at the border, processing our Visa's. $35 each for a 30 day visa, processed atop a seemingly random mountain top in the most remote part of Vietnam and Laos, seemed like a pretty good deal to me. Passport--stamped.
We entered Laos at 2pm. The sun had climbed high. It was getting hot. The pavement immediately disappears and we begin our descent down the absolute worst condition road I have ever ridden any bike on ever.
Bear with me, I have an analogy that only a few of you reading this will understand, but those of you who do understand will have a very accurate picture of this road... this road immediately reminded me of the driveway leading down to Drew and Sherman Francher's farm, only this one turned out to be more than 100km long and steep, steep, steep. Where is the wonderful 40km coast that once again, falsely, took up residence in my mind's eye? How did it get so damn hot and humid? Down we went.
Riding our brakes to keep from killing ourselves on the huge, dare I say, endless stream of boulder size f'n rocks and hairpin curves. In the rainy season, this road must be total mud. In the dry season, it is dust, endless stream of boulder size f'n rocks, huge tire ruts, and unforgiving grades in both directions. We moved much slower going down this side than we did going up the other. All part of the adventure, right? Right!
After another 5 hours in the saddle, rattling ourselves and bikes and brains down that mountain we arrived in the very small, friendly, and picturesque village of Muang Mi. Nothing more than about 3,000ft long, straddling this "main" road through the far north and having a very nice little market and one little guesthouse. We did not know if this village would have any facility at all and does not even appear on any of our maps. We were told of it's existence from helpful Vietnamese, but with such a huge language gap we are often unsure if we are really getting the information we are asking for or if there is confusion on both sides and we are merely being told where their family is from or where to buy the best pigs or.....but, low and behold, this town exists, exactly where we were told it would, and much to our elation there was also a guesthouse and a very nice, yet humble, little place on stilts overlooking some random river, that also does not exist on any of our maps and is more than likely one of countless tributaries of the Nam Ou River, where we were able to get a couple nice bowls of noodle soup with all the fixin's. A very nice and tranquil village to rest our bones for an evening and a night. As remote as this place may be, it would not be Asia if there was not plenty of beer on hand. That is one thing I love about Asia, no matter what, you are never too far from a beer. And I do love beer. This night we got to indulge in, what many consider to be the pride of Laos, Beerlao. Normal yellow beer in my opinion but beer nonetheless.
Leaving Muang Mi we continued on the same, stellar, road in route to Muang Khwai (this village does appear on our maps as the first village in Laos along this road). The ride was much like the previous day only much more riding in the climbing position. We had to cross one mountain pass before reaching Muang Khwai, which is only a mere 45km from Muang Mi. Climbing on those boulders, through those ruts, around those hairpins, and sucking that dust was not the most relaxing day on a bike, but at least a nice cool mist had formed overnight and it was not hot and humid, at least for most of the climb. It was very surreal to ride through a thick jungle mist in mountains on a rough dirt road with nearly non existent traffic and noise. I would stop occasionally to allow Cassie to catch up and really enjoyed watching her emerge from the mist only feet away. Kinda like riding through a ghost-land with lush jungle emerging and fading into the mist through my peripheral vision and the road appearing constantly in front of me. No warning of the curves. No warning of the climbs. No warning of the descent. Just and endlessly appearing road. You must move forward to know what lies ahead. A mantra for this trip come to life in the mist. But, as the day ran on the sun burned off the mist and out came the heat for the latter portion of our day.
Upon arrival in Muang Khwai we came to the end of the road and the Nam Ou River. The road literally ended into the river. After a few minutes of standing there on the bank looking utterly confused as to how to continue by bike we were helped by a friendly man who pointed us toward the ferry.
This ferry does not appear on any of our maps. I'm starting to wonder why the hell I spent money on these maps. Anyway, we load the bikes and ourselves on the ferry and off to the other side we went to Muang Khwai. This village subsists on the bounty of this river and commerce that travels up to the north to gather foods, wares, and whatevers. Then, back down the river where it meets with the Mekong and distributes these foods, wares, and whatever to almost every major community in Laos, Eastern Thailand, Cambodia, and Southern Vietnam. It also serves as a ferrying point for tourists wanting to explore the north.
We were surprised to find out that we could catch a longboat down the Nam Ou to the village of Nong Khaiw. It would take us 5 or 6 days of biking through mountains to cover the ground we could cover in 5 hours on a longboat. Is there really a decision to be made here? We spoke to the captain of one of these boats and arranged for the trip to begin the next day at 9am. Wow, five minutes in this village and we have already crossed the river and booked travel down the river on a boat. How about that? Now a short walk through the village center and we stumbled across a lovely, four month old, guesthouse where, as chance would have it, a couple from Belgium who were also staying. They are on a long distance bike tour through SEA, and actually, we had met them a few days before and only spoke briefly and were happy to see another set of filthy dusty touring bikes leaned up against the wall. We were greeted heartily by Anton and Anne, the cyclists - one hell of a friendly and cute couple - and we talked on end about the condition condition of our bodies and bikes and of the road we had all just ridden down from Vietnam. They also decided to take the longboat to Nong Khaiw. It looks like we all just inherited each other as traveling companions for at least a day or two. Another lovely meal of noodle soup and several Beerlao was had in the evening and a nice warm shower. Sleep came easy that night.
The boat ride to Nong Khaiw was out of this world.
Another lovely sunny day. The river cut right through the mountains and views were outstanding. We passed many small villages set on the river bank, consisting of mostly rural substance farmers and fishermen. We were so happy to have made this choice rather than peddling over mountains. Simply beautiful.
And the village of Nong Khaiw, WOW! what a setting. A small river side village with towering mountains and limestone karsts surrounding it. It just sits perfectly placed in this gorgeous mountain valley, along the banks of that gently rolling river. Fantastic. We got off the boat, put our bikes back together, and road around a bit before stumbling onto the Bamboo Paradise Guesthouse and Bungalows, a friendly, family run place. We checked into our bungalow situated on the hillside, and upon stilts, with a great view of the mountains, the village, and the river from our balcony.
That's right, I said "from our balcony". You have got to be shitting me, a private bungalow with a killer view and our own balcony, with chairs, for only $7 a night. What, they serve coffee and breakfast too? Oh man, we are gonna spend a few days here, no doubt!
So, we spent two days exploring Nam Khaiw and the surrounding mountains and chilling out in the village.
We visited a huge cave that had housed a several military battalions, high ranking military officials hid safely hear, and also acted at an artillery bunker. The cave climbed high into a massive limestone karst and featured window like openings in the rock wall, which made for very protected firing sites with ideal positioning for the Lao Military. Other than the cave and the dramatic scenery to explore there was not much to do, culturally speaking. I guess I could have observed the river commerce a bit more closely or watched the locals fish and farming. But let's face it, I've been watching those type things for 3 weeks from the saddle of bicycle and I was just so damn happy to sit on my balcony and read, write, plan, drink beer and admire the setting of the sun.
Later, it was off to our dinner date with Anton and Anne. Their guidebook stated that this very town housed the "best restaurant in Laos". What a wild statement for any guidebook to make. Could that really exist in this simple river village in the middle of the northern nowhere? Anton and Anne were determined to find out. We searched out this restaurant. Found a beautiful looking establishment with a great river view. White table cloths and polished silverware. Not a chopstick to be found here. And what appeared to be two very well dressed servers sleeping in the corner of this beautiful, empty, devoid of Lao character restaurant. We immediately turned around and headed back to the village center where we had a wonderful meal, complete with chopsticks and servers that were way more interested in what was on the TV than waiting on a few foreigners, as well as a few cold Beerlaos. A typical dining experience in Laos (at least thus far).