Day 15 90 Miles
After quickly packing and saying a last farewell to Jean Luke i wheeled my bike to the little beach where in no time at all the ferry arrived and where Francoise and i ( Francoise had just come to the beach) loaded our bikes and gear onto the boat. The boat ride was again very pretty and enjoyable and, in no time at all, we were pushing our bikes up the dock before grabbing a quick bite and setting off in opposite directions.
I set a good pace and just kept going, i had to really if i was to make Pakse. It was a pleasant ride with little of note, bar perhaps seeing a giant golden Buddah sitting on the side of a jungly hill. It must have been 20 meters high and was very impressive.
When i was 57 miles in I could see what was clearly a heavaly laden cyclist escaping the heat haze, and on pulling over i met Fraser. Fraser has been cycling for a year and to our mutual surprise we discovered we both live in Leicester, in fact back home we’re about 5 miles away from each other, he’s aiming to find a job when he get’s to Saigon.
We’d had both liked to have gone for a drink but we were aiming for quite long distances, Fraser had 57 miles to go as he was heading for my start point. I had just 33 left but they took about as long as the first 57.
We parted and i pushed on. On into drizzle unfortunately. Considering it’s the biggest millage i’ve done so far there’s not much to tell as little of note happened until getting to Pakse itself. There i found out that most of the guesthouses were fully booked. It was during this search ( that i was secretly a little pleased with as it pushed my odometer from 88 to the coveted 90) that i found Angela who was wandering about looking for a room too, she’d packed light enough but it’s still harder work to lug a bag about than to cycle one, so i went ahead to see if there were vacancies and offered a thumbs up when i found one with two rooms. I was as grotty as anything and welcomed the shower and shave. Angela and i met outside about 40 minutes later and we went to dinner. Angela works as a freelance tour guide, she lives in Milan but spends only about 10 days out of the month there as she is on the road most of the other time. She gets to see a lot of the world, often staying in very plush hotels to be all the closer to her clients. It sounded like a very enjoyable job although from some of the stories it’s not as easy or as fun as it first sounded.
I was pretty tired after 8 hours in the saddle and was happy for an early night.
Angela and i met for breakfast where i was internally debating the pros and cons of taking a another day off, this time to accompany Angela on mopeds up the mountains to find some waterfalls. One in particular has a 120 meter drop which sounded very impressive. My bum felt ( and still does two days later when writing this ) like it had been used as a kickboxing training bag, so the idea of a softer seat astride a moto won out and we went to hire bikes. The hours riding up to the first waterfall was just that, UP, something i have to look forward to when i make my way there manually. I was overtaken by two men who didn’t look like government officials but one did have an automatic rifle strapped to his back. The three waterfalls we eventually saw were all a km or less off the main highway on fun gravely dirt roads, at each there was a man in a little hut charging entry and parking, about 80p for both. And for all three waterfalls there was a little walk to an impressive drop where you could see the waterfall in all its eminence, before taking a slippery staircase/ladder or path down to get a closer look. The first was the least impressive, still marvelous! and in all likelihood would be England’s greatest waterfall if it had grown up there, home to many a postcard and the backdrop to a million selfies, but alas in Laos it’s a small fish in a large pond. I love the majesty of waterfalls, especially the slow-motion look they have when water, cascading from such a height, seems to lazily vie for prominence in an attempt to show off in a swan song before impact in the deep pools below.
We moved on to the second fall where Angela accidentally ran over a fairly big snake that was foolishly basking in the road, a risky business for both snake and rider, as it’s not unknown for a snake in it’s pain and confusion to rear up like and activated bear trap and clamp on to the riders leg. An action that would, one presumes, liven up the next 20 seconds riding. However in this instance it shot off in to the bush, so it’s back couldn’t have been broken, and it’ll now have an interesting story to tell the grandkids. Fall 2 was smaller than fall 1 but, and this is important, you can swim at this one! It was only me that went in for a dip, the water was very cold in comparison to the Mekong, but it was exhilarating to be swimming in an ancient jungle river with life and noise filling everything around. We saw our first big spider here, and an amazing bug that was the spitting image of a leaf, perfectly camouflaged. I tried to swim to the fall itself and battled against the current, although typical me i was battling the myriad ‘what if?’ questions that come to mind when i do most anything as well. What if i was to get sucked under? What if there is a tree that for the last 3 days has been floating downstream picking up speed and was perfectly timed to plunge over the top turning me into a pulpy bloody mess? What if there was a leech on my willy? This last one i couldn’t stand so i turned back and was swept to shore.
Fall number 3 was the big one we’d been waiting for and it didn’t disappoint. To get a proper look at it you go to the opposite side of the valley where you can properly appreciate just how far the drop is. There was meant to be a walk down so we followed the path we presumed was the way. It was a tight path to begin with which became tighter still, and lower due to encroaching jungle bamboo, it got more and more treacherous when we were walking along the spine of rock now with a hefty fall just 2 feet each side and then abruptly ended so we turned tail and headed back for another look at the fall from up top. By the time we’d made it out a thick mist was shrouding the waterfall giving it an etherial quality as it waxed and waned behind the curtain of mist.
On waking up i felt rather off colour, and didn’t at all fancy the prospect of riding so took a wander around Pakse. I found a book shop where i bought a couple and set off the alarm on the way out. I was required to open my rucksack, which proved nothing as far as i was concerned as the woman didn’t look in it. On trying to catch up with my blog i went into a coffee shop and who should walk in but Guy the Dutch chap from a Don Det, we had a drink and moved on to the Panorama, a restaurant we’d both independently planed on dining at. It’s the highest building in Pakse and offers splendid views all round. It turned out that we both have an interest in socio-economics and neuroscience and so had a very enjoyable chat over dinner. We made tentative arrangements to hopefully meet up again in Vang Vien. Guy had a night bus to catch and i was still feeling a bit dicky so welcomed the early night.
Day 18, 54 miles
Today’s start was the slowest yet with me not leaving out till well past 10 Having been ill yesterday i still wasn’t feeling at all tip top but certainly didn’t want to spend another day in Pakse. Today’s riding wasn’t unenjoyable but, the first 44 miles or there abouts were a relentless uphill with only the briefest of flats in between. I was still feeling a bit squiffy I’d not had a particularly good nights sleep, even with the silk sleeping bag liner the bed bugs had had their fill, it was also hot with a headwind to boot which made progress glacial but fantastic views most all the way acted like a tonic and kept me going. Away from the plateaus of the south i was climbing mountains now! Around 4 hours in i could be seen glancing more and more frequently and more and more apprehensibly at my map to see just how far i’d have to go before i could stop at anywhere worth stopping at. I was heading for Tad Lo a waterfall renowned for it’s prettiness and a small village acting as a backpackers haven. I really wanted to get there rather than stopping short where there’d be nothing to do of an evening. Also if i got to Tad Lo i could spend a leisurely morning around the waterfall before taking a short ride of perhaps 30 miles to Saravan which would be my last big town for a few days. Well the riding after the 44 miles of uphill got easier and considerably quicker as you can imagine, with me reaching over 30 mph in places on 8 in 1 declines.
I made it to Tad Lo under the threat of what appeared to be an imminent thunder storm although at the time of writing no rain has fallen. I found the place i wanted to stay at but they were fully booked although a recommendation from them sent me just over the road to a very lovely guesthouse in a very pretty garden. I’ve just taken a walk to Tad Lo’s younger brother in the twilight, which is very beautiful and pleasingly, a little dangerous. Occasionally of an evening the authorities upstream will release reservoir water without warning, which catches the occasional traveler who might be paddling at the top of the waterfall off guard and potentially sweeping him off the top before smashing him on the rocks below. Also i’ve read that there are crocs in the area, although not many, one’s enough in my opinion so i’ll get out if i see one. I arrived just 30 minutes before sunset and I’m going to look for something to eat as again i’ve eaten little on the road. An older French couple have just recommended a place that serves “large portions” something they encouragingly recommended with large smiles and nodding heads ( they saw me cycle in to town so i assume that’s the reason and not my portliness ) I’m getting in to this whole cycling thing, i think being in Laos helps, who knows what tomorrow will bring?
Hopefully not malaria.
Day 19, 26 miles,
Because i wanted to do Tad Lo justice and give it more than a cursory glance i decided to spend the morning there. I ambled along by the river for about half a mile, catching glimpses of Tad Lo as i went. There were interesting things to see on the way too. There were young boys fishing with homemade harpoons in the shallow rapids, holding their breaths whilst searching under rocks.
I climbed to the top of the waterfall which i had to myself and had a lovely swim in the deep pools that gently cascade down from one to another before the water slips over the top. In the background, visible through the heat haze is a large mountain which added much drama to the whole scene. On wandering back i came across 4 Taiwanease lads that had discovered a deeper section and were jumping from the rocky river bank. I didn’t need an invite and had joined them in seconds. It was lots of fun mucking around in the fast water, letting it carry you to little drop then attempting to stop, attempting being the optimum word. I had to make tracks at some point though and was back on the road making the short journey from Tad Lo to the rather boring town of Saravan. There’s nothing there of any interest whatsoever and it turned out to be a bit of a wasted afternoon. Although i was accosted by a couple of drunk Laotian women and forced to play Boules, another remnant of the French occupation. The playing of Boules, not drunk women.
I stayed in the only hotel i could find with wifi and had a chat with my Sister, Mum and Dad.
After i went out for a bite and finding the only place that seemed to have any life plumped for that which happened to be a karaoke bar. You would think that with the amount of practice most everyone in Asia has at Karaoke they might be quite good at it. But no. Dismal as always.
I ended up sitting next to a couple of young chaps, one a policeman the other a soldier. A third lad came over who could speak English and we had a chat. Some fried bugs were delivered to the table, where we took turns lobbing them in the air and catching them in the mouth. They looked like fat caterpillars and tasted a bit like peanuts just without the crunch, not awful but, well they weren’t much of anything really. I kept at it though and had quite a few. I asked why my new friend wasn’t having many, “Oh i don’t like them” he said “ they give you a bad stomach” What a pal!
He invited me to meet his family and normally i probably would have but i have a really big day in the saddle tomorrow and want to get some sleep.
Day 20 50 miles
For as long as i live, today will be a day i remember and recall to others. It’s scary to think how close i got to becoming completely undone. Perhaps on reflection this is a little melodramatic but i’ll let you be the judge.
It started by me waking to the rising sun in Saravan. I’d decided an early start would be a good idea so i left my hotel curtains open, as i had a good 70 miles ahead of me through a back country road and wanted to get to a place called Phin ( pronounced Pin. )
I set off and had an uneventful 8-10 miles before overshooting the road i needed by a couple of hundred yards and doubling back. At looking down this wide dusty road that disappeared over the horizon i had doubts already. It looked tough. And if this was the state of it straight off the highway, what would it be like later? But checking the map this whole road from Saravan through to Phin looked to be of decent size. It should have troubled me that my other map didn’t list it as viable and my downloaded map didn’t even list a road here but the map that did, was very large and of only Laos, whereas my other map was of Cambodia and Vietnam too so naturally the Laos one i assumed to be superior. I also should mention that the map showed the road i was cycling to stop and restart after a river. There is a notation on the map that says the bridge is out and impassable by cars.
I foolishly ignored my gut and the signs and set off into the heart of Laos and her jungle.
The first 20 miles were tough. The roads were very rough, the bridges destroyed from either the Indochina wars or the Vietnam war, and on the first wrecked span i came across, i had to rely instead on a ferry operated by two 9 year olds, the rest i forded. Considering i was on the road by half 7 the miles i was clocking up were dismal, due entirely to the roads. There was a sand that was so fine it acted more like a liquid than a solid, enveloping everything that dared touch it. I kept going and made it to a town that was still on my GPS map. It was already 12:30, i’d been riding for 5 hours and clocked just 30 miles, eaten little and had spent a lot of energy.
Again i had much trepidation, according to my GPS map i was barely a quartre of the way to Phin. But according to my, really quite decent Laos map, the overall length of road from Saravan to Phin should have been 70 miles and i was already 30 up, almost half way! Also according to my map, once i got past the broken bridge the road improves significantly which should make the last 20 miles a lot easier.
On the way out of town, which was hard to ascertain anyway even with the help of a school teacher who eventually assured me this was the way “possible for bike, impossible for car”, i passed my first and last guesthouse and rode in to enquire about prices. The young men working there, perhaps through embarrassment or just bad manors were laughing and pointing professional as always, and then, ( and this really narked me especially as i hadn’t eaten and had become naturally grouchy ) started taking a video of me. I left. Stuff them! I could make it to Phin. I got some extra water so i had 4 litres, a lighter, just in case i got really stuck ( a possibility i never really expected ) and some bananas.
Well the road went from bad, to worse, to laughable and to barely passable. Collapsed bridges, fords, mud, silt, boulders and more. I had to zip tie my front panniers onto my bike as they were bounced off so often.
I asked everyone i came across if this was the right way to Phin and got reassuring answers. The estimated KM gradually went down, as did the sun though at a quicker pace.
According to my map there was one road, and let me put this in perspective, and please understand that this is in no way an exaggeration. This ‘road’ which according to my map is meant to be a substantial tarmaked affair is barely a track, it’s wide enough for one slow moving vehicle and only if it has extremely capable off road capabilities, and only then when coupled with a very competent driver, there’s no way my Freelander could traverse this, well not with me behind the wheel. And to put the whole situation into perspective, the sun goes down and all light vanishes at 5:30. My rule is, find accommodation immediately at 4:30! It had just gone 3 O’clock and the single road had become many all of equal size and import. It had been around 7 miles since i’d seen my last house which was well over an hour ago, and falks started appearing all over the place. This wasn’t a “Now where the heck do you think that goes?” kind of funny. This was worrying, this was me being alone and tired, having foolishly (and i know this was extremely foolish) eaten very very little so far today and ending up in a jungle devoid of any human noise, and myself by graduation, and experimentation becoming lost. I had two and a half hours before lights out and was now two hours away from town. I considered turning back but couldn’t reliably say i knew the way back. I pushed on further and started to get really worried. Panicked even, although i will say this, I didn’t loose my head. A habit of mine when anything in any situation starts to go wrong is to consider the worst case scenario (excluding freak events like hitting my head a concussive blow) and ascertain if i can stand it. I considered the worst case scenario here, which was to spend the night alone in the jungle with no tent, little food and little water. I have with me a bivvy bag for just such an emergency, i have a lighter, so i could make fire and, though not a lot of water, i wouldn’t die or anything, Cobra’s are rare and other snakes would hopefully be kept at bay by the fire and all the tigers are meant to be up north. An uncomfortable scenario, but cope-able nonetheless. According to my odometer i was only a couple of miles from where i expected the river to be. I pushed on.
After cycling for a while longer i did really start to worry and started calling ‘hello’ in Laotian into the forest. but becoming further isolated, heard no response, yet only minutes later on turning a corner there were three teenagers. I stopped the bike and realised my hands were shaking. Not good. I asked how far Phin was and they told me 20km. 20km even on these roads and with these rations should be very doable, but this was the first contact i’d had with anyone in a while and was reluctant to just set off again knowing there would likely be more falks and places to get lost. But then a man rode up on a motorcycle. I offered him 100,000 lap ( quite a sum really ) for me to follow him to Phin. He said he’d do it but for no less than 200,000. He could see i was in trouble and he was being extortionate. He started motioning to the sun implying it would set soon. I relented and gave him 100,000 up front. He set off and i caught him up having a pee. He told me to carry on and he’d catch me up when he’d finished his smoke, i wanted to make friends so gave him some of my food, but this horrible little Laotian kept the money and never showed. It was getting closer to 4 O’clock, too late to get back to the village in daylight. I was now very worried, praying, and giving it everything i’d got, shouting encouragement to myself and reaching reserve energy as this was really tough cycling especially with such a heavy bike. My throat was dry and my lips had started feeling funny as i was now rationing water and was becoming dehydrated which was coming on startlingly fast. This flat out pace wasn’t helping either as i was using up yet more reserves and sweating more than was sensible, i kept going through the sand and over the boulders and now pushing my bike up the extremely steep hills. I breasted the top of a small hill and there were about 11 people milling about there. It was either an illegal loggers camp or something a bit dodgy ( i’d passed a number of illegal loggers already. ) There were children there though ( which always suggests homeliness and safety) and these were the first people i’d seen in a while now. I stopped and asked how far it was to Phin. The old man responded in Laotian, then crouched down and wrote ‘100km’ in the sand.
This was way way further than anyone else had said, (although it turns out was a closer estimate than the 20km) There was no way i could make that. My hands started shaking again and any energy i had disappeared like mist in a breeze. I felt funny, and started swaying a bit. What else could i do but ask if i could stay the night? I did so through gestures and was told i could. There was some tarpaulin up with wooden boards beneath, they had no drinking water so i’d really have to ration. But, at this crucial moment, appearing as if rising out of the ground came the first 4×4 id seen on the road, and at the steering wheel the first white face i’d seen two days. My memory’s a bit fuzzy around this time. I know i spoke to him and asked him about Phin, which he told me was way off, well more along the lines of “ No effing way you’re making that!” I don’t remember what i garbled afterwards, but he said i could put my bike in the back and he’d take me back to town. I went to the truck bed and lifted my bike to put it in and came the closest i’ve ever been to fainting in my life. I had to drop the bike and try again with the tailgate open ( ‘Set’ the man in the truck didn’t know i was struggling this much, had He, He would have helped). Then i was in the truck. Then i had a 2 litre bottle of water in my hand, and then i started to feel a lot better. It took more than the 2 litres before i started to pee again.
Set is Swedish, He’s nearly 60, and works as logistics for a paper company looking for land to rent and cultivate, He’s married to a Laotian and has 3 sons. Set was, it seems, a bit of an adventurer who was once in a similar situation as me. When He was 18 he was cycling in America, he was up a mountain in Arizona in the wrong season and underprepared, it was 40 degrees, and he was seriously dehydrated. He had to break into a house to get water. “good job they didn’t come back” he said, “it’s Arizona, i’d probably have been shot”.
We drove for over 2 hours in the 4×4 to get back to town, covering just 20 miles, Set is a very skilled driver and this was great fun! Although he had to double back a few times as some roads were even beyond him and his Ford Ranger.
We had a good chat on the journey back once i’d perked up a bit and no longer took on the appearance of a shriveled prune. And when we rolled into town in the now pitch black and had checked in to the same guesthouse i’d visited earlier, we got something to eat which was my first meal of the day. Set has led an interesting life, seeing New York and Chicago with his grand father in the 60’s. Spending 2 months in jail for being a conscientious objector, moving to Thailand to finish university. He did the ‘real backpacking’ in South America, when all he had was a knapsack and a hammock to set up on Mexican beaches as his bed for the night.
We got back to the guesthouse in good time for a decent nights sleep, although i couldn’t get off very well, likely due to adrenalin.
I’ve decided, for the time being at least, to stick to the main highways and as Set is going back tomorrow the way i came today, i’m putting the bike in the back of the pickup and hitching a ride closer to town. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.
And Just one final note. Due to my bottom bracket issue with my bike at the start of the trip, i’ve had worries about the bike itself. It was put through hell today. If there was a time for a broken spoke, buckled wheel or knackered chain set or heaven forbid a fractured frame, it was today. The bike created by Richard of Oxford Bike Works performed admirably and has filled me with confidence.
Set and I woke early. Last night Set had encouraged me to take a different route. Without getting overly boring, Laos is about as big as the UK but with the population of London, so city’s are few and far between, consequently the roads are too. Set’s advice was to head North East out in to Vietnam, then cycle North on the Ho Chi Minh Trail for just 30 miles or so at that point i could cross back into Laos on a highway, I’d loose $40 for another visa but save 2 days of uneventful cycling. I decided to do the first part, but then head South East slightly, to a city in Vietnam called Hue, which is home to a world heritage site instead of popping straight back into Laos.
So we took a leisurely drive out of town along more bad and dusty roads although no way near as bad as yesterday’s.
Set was going to a little town where his company has an office, to show his face and let the manager know he’s interested in the work being done. Everyone was very friendly and i got a chance to look at some of the shrapnel and rockets etc that they’d found in the field. They use a big shell casing as a BBQ.
Whilst i cleaned my bike and gave it the once over Set checked us in to the two rooms left in town as most of the others had been taken by Set’s colleagues who had come to town for a meeting. I was invited to the lunch they were having at a fantastically located restaurant overlooking the river below. It was there where i was introduced to the President of the district and shook his hand. He was a jolly sort of fellow. We ate a meal of fish soup with the head and bones floating around in it, a very spicy pork dish, deep fried fish, again with all the bones present and of course sticky rice. It was very tasty if not a little awkward to eat.
After lunch Set had to work, we arranged to meet back in the restaurant for some dinner and i went to have a swim in the river. I needed to wash some clothes so took them with me too and did a little washing to the fascination of the local children, then hung them to dry on a thorn bush and went for a refreshing dip. Out of the 10 or so young boys one had a bit more gall and we had a bit of a laugh teaching each other words in English and Laotian respectively. Swim races an arm wrestle and they left. I settled down to my book but shortly afterwards, very unexpectedly three white people came down to the river ( even all of Set’s colleagues are natives ) They all had American accents and we spoke for a moment. They were bone collectors. America has a ‘no-one left behind policy’ and every year spends millions upon millions of dollars setting up a command post in a large hotel and then hiring helicopters from Laos at thousands of dollars a day, along with ground staff and whatever else you need to search for the bones of American soldiers who died in the Vietnam War in the thick and vast jungle of Laos and Vietnam, where they are presumably identified and sent home.
Set and I met back at the Restaurant where i told him about the bone collectors. You see the same faces annually apparently. He’s of the opinion as am i that it is a monumental waste of time and money.
After we’d finished eating a white South African and his Loatian wife came over to join us. George and Doy are their names although George likes to shorten his name from both ends to Org. He was a character and has lived a fascinating life, he LOVES cars and most things that require petrol. He works still, even though he’s about at retirement age, as a helicopter engineer. His problem in Laos at the moment is that he has some explosives he needs to get shot of. When a helicopter has a payload hung on a cable below there needs to be an emergency release mechanism in case of a serious problem and the payload needs to be jettisoned. The solution is a small explosive that is attached to the wire that, when detonated, releases the payload. These explosives are getting close to their use by date and he needs to get rid, the company that made them won’t take them back. Laos won’t lift a finger unless he does something wrong and there’s too big a paper trail to just ‘loose’ them.
It’s a stumper.