I have joined a mad Irishman on a cycling trip around the world.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

HORN to be wild!

So after Christmas comes New Years Eve. We hadn't managed to stay up until midnight for the past two years so I was determined to make it this time. We were in a nice little town on a lake called Payao. In the evening families brought their picnic blankets, food and bottles of Hong Tong whiskey to the lake side and drank and ate and ate and drank. People set off fire works and sky lanterns over the water and it was very pretty. We drank beer by the lake, ate a delicious dinner, ordered what turned out to be an alcoholic slush puppy and stayed up until ten past twelve! Rocking. In the morning we saw some men still drinking Hong Tong with their breakfast noodles. There were lots of people asleep under their picnic blankets, empty bottles strewn all around but no one seemed to mind. We started our new year with a huge new year pizza!

The perfect evening
New Years Eve fish

Full!
Thai version of a Singapore Sling

New Years Day pizza!
Then we had some very sad news. Julian's Uncle Mac passed away unexpectedly on the 2nd. Julian wanted to be home with his family and it was very tough to be so far away. He decided not to fly home in the end but we managed to find wifi each night to call his mother, aunt and cousin.

We've had some varied camping experiences in the last few weeks. The first time we took the tent out of hibernation was just before we crossed into Laos. Having only done half a day out of Lampang (there was some back and forth and a momentary bottom bracket panic) we asked if there was anywhere to camp down by the big reservoir. We followed a Mr. Chan who led us to the house of a Mr. Theo, a retired Swedish chef, who invited us to pitch up on his veranda right on the water. Mr.Chan took us for a ride in his boat, pointing out famous climbing spots, monkey ladders and the party boats. Party boats? Yes, party and karaoke boats! Big groups of Thais arrive at 10am armed with beer, whiskey and some fish, go out on the water, get drunk and sing and sing and sing until 5pm. Then they all pile back into their trucks and crash immediately. The tiny village which is sustained by these party boats has its own rescue vehicle to pull out the cars which don't make it round a particularly sharp bend and end up in the forest.

Mr. Chan's wife made us breakfast of fish laap, fish soup, fried fish and rice. Mr. Theo's wife made us breakfast of rice porridge so by the time we rolled out we were very full. Camping is fun!

Fishy breakfast
Theo and Julian at breakfast on the resevior

Morning view
The next camp spot was in Hong Sa, just over the border into Laos. We'd spent a day or two on what must be the best road in Laos, a huge, wide, brand new road built specially for the thousands of trucks coming and going across the border working on the construction of a huge lignite power plant. Lignite is the lowest and dirtiest form of coal. The power plant is Thai owned, Chinese built on Laos soil using Laos resources. All the wood from the huge and ancient tropical trees which have been cut down is going into Thailand. There are 6000 Chinese workers and 2000 Laos villagers have been relocated, most of them to the once peaceful and sleepy town of Hong Sa which is now smothered in dust from all the trucks thundering through it.
Up the 10% hills on the best road in Laos
Down again to the new lignite power plant
Old and new
We camped in the garden of Jumbo Guesthouse, owned and run by Monica, a very nice jam making German lady. She and her friend Boris, another German who was straight out of The Great Escape (khaki shirt and trousers, pocket knives on his belt, a big jeep and boy scout tricks like making a joint roller from a piece of bamboo saying "This is how my Grandfather did it in the Second World War!") entertained us with stories while the beer and a spirit they'd dubbed "Enlightenment" flowed freely. We also had fun with the cats. They took a liking to the tent and Julian found one curled up on top of it under the fly sheet. The other one shredded Julian's bit of foam he's been carrying for a seat.

There we met Pierre and Annette, a very nice Swiss French couple who invited us to stay with them in Luang Phrabang. 

Sadly we couldn't stretch the budget to an all day elephant ride but I did finally get to feed one a banana. As we left Monica gave us a jar of her precious home made mango jam and waved us off. She wanted to hear me honk my horn and was very disappointed when I said I haven't actually got one. She said, "But you're horn to be wild!"

Long and winding roads
After the new smooth and graded road ended, we were back on the type of Laos roads we know and love. They were possibly steeper than I remembered. It was the first time I'd seen signs for a 15% grade anyway. It was very slow going and in fact my cycle computer doesn't think that anything slower than 3.6kmph counts as actually moving and so didn't even register those hardest won kilometres which probably cost me the last remnants of my youth. 

The roads were quiet and the only people around were in the tiny villages we went through. With the aide of the Point It we would ask whoever looked like the chief of the village if we could camp there. The first time we asked the owner of the shop who pointed out his house and said we could stay in there. It was bare except for a table and some empty Beer Lao bottles so we just pitched the tent inside while the village children giggled and tumbled around under the table.

In the evening the kids sat on the floor of the shop to watch the huge satellite TV (the only place with a generator). A film was on showing an English family living in a mansion and driving around in their Rolls Royce. I wonder if that's how the kids think all English people live. The men of the village were holding a meeting in the room where we'd pitched the tent but I climbed in anyway. In the morning I saw all the men filing out of one room and all the ladies out of another. It seems the men and women sleep separately in that village.

Serious sandwich at the beginning of the day..
And Beer Lao at the end of the day!
On the last stretch to Luang Phrabang, we crossed the Mekong on a vehicle ferry, getting wet feet, scrambled up the obscenely steep dirt track on the other side and slipped and slid through the wet cement and gravel of the almost paved road. Then we turned away from this main highway, we knew it would only get worse with more road works and terrible dust. We took an alternative road along the Mekong which absolutely no one had heard of except some friends of Pierre and Annette's, not even Boris. We were feeling all adventurous when five km down the road we met a cyclist! We couldn't believe it. He had come all the way from Luang Phrabang that day and was very glad he was almost at a guesthouse. He told us the road was fine except for a stream or two with no bridge.

The road was a perfect dirt road, hard, not too rocky and not even hilly - except for the almost precipitous drops to the streams (there were more like ten of them) and vertical rises out of them. We had to take our shoes off a few times to wade across and push the bikes up the other side.

That evening we asked in a really tiny village if we could camp. After some confusion and discussions among the older men we were pointed to a perfect spot at the "Incomplete Primary School". It was quiet, sheltered and off the road. We'd carried sticky rice and fish and bread for peanut butter, banana and mango jam sandwiches (they are so good!) and I was so looking forward to a very early night. It was not to be. We'd just got the tent out when a little lady with a really little baby came up and said "You stay at my house tonight." It wasn't a question. We tried to protest and explain we were very happy camping but she just frowned and said "You come now." We had no choice! We packed up and she led us down to her shop. The rest of the village came too. There we all were, us, the bikes, thirty men, women and children, sitting in the dark. Actually it was quite cosy by the light of tiny paraffin lamps but as a special treat the men got the generater going and turned on the one light bulb. It took them an hour or so. The ladies cooked us some eggs and we drank some strange tasting tea. By nine pm the shop was still full of people and no one seemed to be showing signs of leaving, so I climbed into my sleeping bag anyway. The men were working on something electrical on the floor and I'd just dropped off when they got it working. It was a karaoke machine. A very loud one. I couldn't believe it, right by my head! Did they think we wanted to sing? I was asleep! They didn't ask us anyway, the old men just kept belting out songs to the terrible computer sound effects music for hours - until just about the time the roosters started roostering. That's what it seemed like anyway. I was quite grumpy in the morning.

Anyway it was just another 30km of dirt road and streams and then a fun 20km of good flatish road into Luang Phrabang. We phoned Annette and Pierre who cycled to meet us, bought us a delicious dinner and then installed us into their lovely home on the mighty Mekong. They have fed us, watered us and really looked after us. It has been wonderful. We have stayed four days already! Anyone would think we weren't so keen on heading North towards time constraints, big hills and a Chinese winter. But we are really. Probably.

Pierre and Annette's beautiful veranda on the Mekong
Pierre preparing his rabbit lunch
Annette very kindly sewing patches onto my cycling shorts
Beautiful hanging orchids
By chance we were in Luang Phrabang at the same time as an old school friend of mine Jess Francis and her boyfriend Sam who are also cycling around South East Asia. They're going to Myanmar next which we're jealous about and then to India which I'm less jealous about. It was really nice to see them, we never get to meet up with anyone I know! We had fun in the Luang Phrabang's amazing night market and ate too much, it was great.

Cheese!

Cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeese!