Thursday, November 27, 2008

Figuring out figures

Highlight must surely be the wonderful, ever smiling kids who welcome you with a thousand Sabai-dees

Here are some figures that may be useful for anyone wanting to do this epic Luang Prabang to Vientiane bike trip:

Luang Prabang to Nong Kiau 140km (some climbs nearing Pakmong)
LP to Kiou Ka Cham 77km (35km hard climbing)
KKC to Muang Phu Khon 50km (moderate climbing with nice descents)
MPC to Bor Nam Oon 27km (incredible downhills - best scenery)
BNO to Kasi 20km (still going downhill)
Kasi to Vang Vien (58km easy ride)
VV to Thalat (110km easy but dusty ride)
Thalat to Vientiane via Route 10 (93km easy ride)

Total distance cycled plus a bit of side trips within the cities and countryside
630km (inclusive of 90km for Nong Kiau excursion)
Most days we set off at about 8 - 830am and finish the ride by 4 - 5pm, taking plenty of rest and photo stops. A comfortable target seems to be 50km in 4 hours ride time with some climbs, or for flats, 50km in 3 hours.
Dollars and Cents

Laos is not the cheapest place in Asia but its quite good value. We spend a daily average of US$25 for accommodation (US$130 for 15 nights, shared room), food, drinks, occassional massage, entrance fees + misc. We took 4 Air Asia flights from Singapore to Bangkok, Bangkok to Udon Thani, Vientiane to KL & KL to Singapore for a total of US$230 and our internal flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang via Lao Air was US$81.
I spent a total of US$800 for 15 days all inclusive (plus some gifts for the wifey & a cheapo winter made in China jacket & pants as it was freezing up in the mountains ).
1 US$ = 8500 kips as at 20 Nov 2008

Flying bikes on Air Asia
Though they do have a "sports equipment" charge, their website does not mention bikes as such and we could get away with it. But we were slapped on for excess baggage, even if we were 1kg overweight! Thankfully, it didn't amount to much, a total of US$20 each for the total trip. All our panniers were brought in as cabin luggage without any issue.

Singapore - no surcharge
Bangkok - token surcharge of 3kg excess
Vientiane to LP on Lao Air - no surcharge, excellent care of our bikes
Vientiane to KL (Air Asia) - Full surcharge of 7kg and nearly got Sports Equipment charge. Thankfully, 30 mins of negotiation did the trick. It helped too that we had a lawyer in our midst.
KL to Singapore - Full surcharge
(Tony Fernandez, the CEO of AA was in our flight!)

Our precious bike boxes being loaded - no worries here! Pics by CW

Do check out my buddy Chris' witty, colourful and entertaining account of this trip here in CGOAB:

Update 2 Dec 08 - I just discovered that Laos was voted the top cycling destination in the world. No wonder we had such a great time!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Vientiane at last

Almost there and in high spirits! Pic CW

Thalat is very much a typical country small town in Laos and our hotel had complementary (and compulsory) natural wake up call through over-enthusiastic cockerals. We were glad to leave this morning after a very basic breakfast. Route 10 is the longer but more scenic way than Route 13 and with its good roads, light traffic and better scenery as it runs alongside the Na Lik River, is the recommended choice for cyclists. It was a 92km run to the capital city and we were excited about this final day of riding.

The first 10km proved to be a tad hilly but after that, it was a breezy and easy ride through very quiet villages and small towns. While coasting down a hill, a butterfly got caught at my chin strap and thankfully managed to free itself. Talk about getting close to nature. At our first rest stop, we spotted our 2 Belgian friends just cycling out and celebrated another re-union. We had thought that after yesterday's hard ride, they would stay for another night to enjoy the lakeside so this was a surprise. Their can-do spirit impressed me no end as they were carrying 12kg huge backpacks on bamboo and were newbies.

For some reason, this ride seemed the hottest. Riding quickly or slowly, it made no difference and it was just a question of bearing with the heat and drinking lots of fluids. The game plan was to stop every 20km to cool off with ice cold energy drinks and we were once again lavished with fabulous Lao hospitality. One lunch spot we stopped served only Pho - the MSG laced type with suspect meats like tongue, curdled blood and pieces of meat I could not recognised. The kind seller obliged my request to make my own lunch and allowed me to use her cooking facilities. My basic culinary skills enabled me to whipped out a lunch of sticky rice with garlic, shallot and chilly omelete. My hungry cyclists all tucked in ravenously and voted this to be the best on the road lunch ever! Guess when its that or suspicious meat noodles, its not much of a compliment.

Chef me at work - Pic CW
While resting at our last stop 13km from Vientiane, another very friendly shopkeeper took out the chairs for us and even put a big stone in front of my rested bike to prevent it from moving. This amazing warmness truly is something I will never forget about this trip to Lao. Suddenly, a white pick-up zoomed past us with 2 farangs screaming at us. We recognised them immediately. Our Belgian friends, Meerten and Katerin, managed to get a free ride as the heat was too unbearable for them. It was a good thing too as Meerten's LA Gear bike broke 2 rear spokes.

We wasted no time and gave chase. It was the fastest 13km in our trip. Zooming into Vientiane at 30kmh, weaving through traffic, we reached the iconic Patuxai, (Lao's Arc de Triumpe) in less than 30 mins.

There, our friends were surprised that we arrived so quickly and they only waited 3 mins for us! There was a great sense of celebration, just like the end of the Tour de France, only instead of champagne popping, we had humble water in our well worn plastic bottles.

5 dirty bikes with panniers and 5 most unpresentable and smelly riders attracted curious onlookers. The obligatory group photo in front of the famous monument marked the official end of our long journey.

Proof that we made it! Pic CW

People could not believe we rode all the way down from Luang Prabang. What took 50 mins by twin propellors took us 5 days of hard riding to complete. A sense of accomplishment and amazement filled my heart. Its incredible that we covered all that 450km distance through the mountains on two wheels and a chain, powered just by our legs. Indeed, it goes to prove how marvellous and efficient the humble bicycle is.

We checked in the Heritage B&B and enjoyed all that Vientiane had to offer. It was with deep sadness that we cleaned our mud scarred bikes and packed them into bike boxes purchased from a French bike shop. The celebration dinner with the Belgians was at the fabulous non-profit NGO run restaurant called the Makphet. The decor of this place is lined with bright and colourful childrens' paintings, adding to its cheerful ambience. Food was fusion Lao and served on a low table with us sitting on cushions.

What a great 2 week bike trip it has been and we cannot believe we had made it to Vientiane at last!

The longest day

What was supposed to be the end of a short 25km ride, Tha Hua - Pic CW

Lonely Planet map check - another 80km to go! Bummer...

It was supposed to be an easy ride of 25km to the fishing village of Ban Thahua. There, we were planning to take a leisurely 2 hr boat ride to our destination, Na Num at the other end of the man made lake.

Being thoroughly rested, we punched to Thahua in a lightning pace and just took just over an hour in the cool morning air. The roads were broken no thanks to last month's monsoons and heavy traffic. Once again, the menu was gravel and dust and the first casualty was KG's rear tire that went flat.

This was a golden opportunity to demonstrate Puncture Repair 101 to Meerten who had plans to ride to Vietnam and had not done this before. It helped that we stopped in a shady wooden hut overlooking the beautiful Ang Nam Ngum lake.

We were absolutely delighted to find a boatman willing to take us to Na Num for 200000 kips but our joy turned to disappointment when the big boat he promised looked only slightly bigger than a dug out canoe.

Would you allow your Surly to board this? Pic CW

There was no way all 5 of us plus bikes could fit and going into that was like jumping straight into a watery grave. Reluctantly, we looked at the map once again and saw the 90km detour by road we had to make. Though everyone put up brave faces and a gung ho attitude, I could see the disappointment written all over our faces. What was supposed to be 25km was now going to be 4-5 times longer!

It was not encouraging too that this route meant more dust storms, rolling hills, gravel, traffic and more merciless blazing sun. When we arrived at Phon Hong, we were powder coated with fine brown dust.

Our destination Na Num was another 27km and the back roads to get there was far more pleasant. By the time we arrived at Thalat, the sun was nearly down and it did not help that we lost one of our riders. A frantic search proved fruitless and with our energy levels on overdraft, I could not help feeling extremely frustrated. The Belgians decided to head for Na Num but we decided to turn back to Thalat as there was a rather promising hotel, The Khamphong Guesthouse and the possibility of good food. Doing so, we saw a lone light in the darkness and the lost cyclist was finally found much to everyone's relief.

For such a one cow town like Thalat, we must have checked into the Ritz with cold aircon, firm mattresses and crisp bed sheets and covers that looked exactly like Dr Mahatir's (Malaysian's controversial ex PM) blue bush jacket. We felt really bad messing up the spotless room with our dirty laundry!

The "Ritz" of Thalat - Khamphong Guesthouse. Highly recommended!

And that dirt is only from one sock! Yucks...

I never felt so happy checking into a guesthouse after such a tiring day. 114km was recorded on the Cateye and this proved way too much when the original plan was 25km. You could say it was our longest day in every sense of the word. Phew!

Friending @ Vien Vang

It was wonderful to wake up a bit later with no agenda except for dirty laundry. We discovered a great breakfast place doing Kao Tum (congee), chinese donuts and first class coffee not far from we were. You can always tell a good place when there is a large crowd. While enjoying congee, 3 touring bikes ridden by Aussies pulled up and that got us all excited. They were heading for Luang Prabang from Vientiane and we of course, sat down to exchange notes. There is a certain natural camaraderie among touring bikers. Somehow, I felt a tinge sorry for them with the gruesome climbs that lay ahead...

VV is truly a backpacker paradise, with lots of cheap guesthouses, bars, and many opportunities to get stone. The key attraction is to tube down the river in your skimpies and watch DVD re-runs all day long. At least 3 restaurants with mattresses were showing "Friends", the 1990s sit com and being a Friend's fan, I was tempted to lounge with the rest of the crowd. Somehow watching Joey, Racheal, Phoebe, Russ, Monica and Chandler on so many TVs in a country that hardly speaks english was bizzare.

It was common to see many young farang kids just out of uni or high school walking barefooted on the streets in their "next to nothing" swim wear, loud tatoos, beer in hand, shouting and laughing their heads off. Great that they are having fun, not so great for others who prefer some quiet.

We crossed the 6000 kip bridge to the other side of the river and cycled through some dusty villages.

This was the non-touristy section of Vien Vang with cows, rice fields, stray dogs and mountains. As we were taking sunset pics, lo and behold our Belgian friends, Meerteen and Katerin, cycled pass. Their familiar bamboo racks gave them away from a far distance and we made plans to cycle down to Vientiane the next morning. So it looked like another mystery adventure for the Famous Five again.

We enjoyed a fantastic Cambodian hot plate dinner called Ko Lam Phnom (Cow on a Hill) that was absolutely delicious and finished that off with a creamy Latte and a massage. Friending at Vien Vang had been pretty relaxing and fun, mostly.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Out of the mountains, into the valleys

Bor Nam Oon is certainly worth another night just to enjoy the serenity and beauty. Therefore it was with great reluctance that we had to set off, a little later. Breakfast of bacon, eggs and baguette was just too good to rush through and we took our time to enjoy it.

The last 18km downhill ride continued much to my delight and some 10' degree slopes saw the Surly hit 55.5kmh. Its ultra long wheelbase made it absolutely stable.

However, that rhythm was broken many times with compulsory stops for photos. The green ricefields, sweeping valleys, blues skies, limestone mountains, flowing streams and signature ridges bathe in perfect morning light beckoned us to just take it all in.

Kasi, 20km away signalled the end of the mountainous part. We regrouped and had refreshments, and waited too long for Chris who was captivated with the landscape. His camera truly had an early morning full on aerobics workout. Typical of Lao hospitality, the friendly shopkeeper bantered with us and proudly showed off his gorgeous 2 yo grand-daughter.

The 60km ride to Vien Vang was flattish and a bit boring compared to what we have rode through. Down to only 300m above sea level, we were getting fried by the blazing sun. Many parts of the road here in Route 13 were broken and spoilt.

Gravel, sand and dust were the order of the day. All the rough and hard riding took its toil on rider and machine. Any fillings in our teeth were well and truly shaken out and my bike panniers came loose through a screw that fell off no thanks to all the poundings. Our Belgians friends unfortunately lost their handlebar mounted camera in this stage too. 3 weeks of photos all gone and it was most tragic. But I will always remember the kindness of a little girl selling fruit at one rest point. I must have looked pretty pathetic, and she came over shyly to give me a refreshing Mandarin Orange. I was touched!

Reaching Vien Vang was a relief and we felt like dusty cowboys on horses at the end of a long trail. We checked into Mekong View Guesthouse (our friend Michelle Dodd stayed here 6 months ago) tired and dirty.

The magnificient view of the mountain ridges and Nam Ou River from the 2nd floor balcony, spacious and clean rooms and location away from the noisy centre of town, made this a most suitable abode for our next two days in the valley.