Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Nakhon Phanom to Sakon Nakorn

We enjoyed our brief one night stop in Kong View Hotel. Apart from the view of the Mekong river, the restaurant too was sited with the view of the Mekong. For dinner, we requested for plain rice delivered to our room. With our instant kurma ayam and generous spread of serunding, gulped down with the Nescafe-three-in-one, our dinner was relatively satisfying in comparison to the last 3 days. Later we went down to the restaurant and took seats overlooking the Mekong. A singer was serenading accompanied by an organist who would just be a few years younger than me. The songs were the era of the organist, translated to my era too! We were tapping our feet to Cliff Richard's tunes while savouring Honey Coconut, served cold in the coconut. Had to resist taking the mike from the singer for fear of signing a long term contract with Kong View Hotel. Do not want to feel guilty making the resident singer redundant too!  Ha ha

After two cycling tours with me, Khailani had been accustomed to my early-to-bed regime. So, reluctantly we gave a friendly nod and thumbs up to the singer as we went back to our room.

Breakfast, included in the room charges, was quite a good spread, but limited in choice for us. So, it was rice and fried eggs, fruits and coffee. Khailani took the initiative to request the waiter to tapau two packets of rice and fried eggs for our lunch. I guessed they knew how little we ate. Packing two packets would not hurt their bottom-line.

With lunch secured, we were ready and looking forward to cycle to our final cycling destination today. This would be our last day of cycling before we bus back to Bangkok for the return flight home. Our destination would be Sakon Nakorn.

105 kms ride to Sakon Nakorn

A quick pose by the hotel entrance was the usual ritual and we left in the cool morning air of the Mekong. The esplanade that hugs the Mekong was empty. A lone lady was jogging and acknowledged us as we stopped to take pictures. The esplanade is relatively clean, however some commercial fish-rearing activities were located by its bank. If I was the mayor of this town, I would not have allowed the commercialisation of this otherwise serene esplanade. A pity really.

We cycled out of town, headed westerly on the same route we came yesterday. The junction to our destination was about 10 kms from the town.

At one of the traffic lights, I snapped this gentleman selling flowers. With some spattering English he was asking where I came from and where I was heading too. Should have bought one of these garlanded flowers, a favourite of my late mother who used to wear them in her curly hairs. And that's where I got my curly hairs from. I now had no more curls in my hair (hmm).

During my motorbiking days, I had traversed northwards several times to the Burmese border of Mae Sot in Chiengrai. I had always enjoyed their roads, which are of a high quality, comparable to our highways. However, Thai roads are several notches up as there are no tolls and the toilets at the petrol kiosks are much cleaner than ours. What they lack are the R & R stops.

This is the first time I experienced their roads in the north-eastern provinces of Thailand. They are equally great roads with generous road shoulders for cyclists. Superbikers would certainly enjoy these roads.

We made good progress before the temperature started to rise. Unlike the rainy spells in Laos, the temperature was rising along this stretch as we ate up the mileage. My Garmin recorded a max temperature of 41 C. With no cloud cover, we decided to stop at every 20 kms. 

77 kms to go
The decision to pack lunch was very wise indeed. It would have been very tough looking for an eatery. By noon, we were looking for a shady hut to rest. We were looking forward to our simple lunch of rice and fried eggs (compliment of the hotel), our serunding and plain water. What a satisfying lunch, simple but satisfying, indeed when less is more.

Our great lunch
We rested at the hut for quite a while. Then we moved on in the afternoon heat. We were cycling by the padi fields and though hot, we could feel the breeze from the fields. The breeze was fanning my mind to find another cool spot for a siesta. And we found one!

Having found one, it was just too good to resist putting my head down. My cycling buddy is a very understanding man. He is a patient man too. So, he patiently "waited" while I took my forty winks that lasted almost 30 minutes. I thought it was only a quick 10 minutes. Sorry buddy but thank you anyway.
I had always been thankful that sleep comes easy, almost anywhere.

Fresh from my siesta, we posed for a picture before we continued. A farmer obliged to capture our pose

another stop at a bus stop

We journeyed on with the sun inclining at a right angle. We could not find any shelter by the roadside. The sun's angle was not to our advantage. When we reached our scheduled every 20km stop, we took a short deviation when we saw a hut in a village.

Just as we removed our gloves and helmets and settled in to rest, a lady came and placed a coke bottle with ice-cold water and a clean glass. She caught us by surprise. It was just out of the blues! She then went about doing her own chores.

Moments like this gives meaning to my cycling tours. Too often well-meaning friends would ask whether my cycling tours could be risky. My answers had always been predictably positive. I had toured solo, in pairs and in groups. Even on my solo tours, I had never felt threatened at anytime. On the contrary, I felt secure with the sincerity of the people I meet on the road. 

On a bicycle, one is a silent traveller. One does not intrude in the lives of the locals. One arrives quietly, and leave quietly. Stopping often, out of necessity to rest means greater chances of meeting people on the roads. One does not necessarily stop so often in a car or on a motorbike, missing the opportunity to be with the community. Again - Less is More!

The lady with the heart of gold

one for the road
We arrived Sakon Nakorn about 5:30 in the evening and after several queries for a hotel, we were directed to one.

This was our longest ride for the entire journey. We end our cycling here and tomorrow we would be looking for a bus to ferry us back to Bangkok.


Distance : 105 kms
Total Ride Time : 6 hrs 8 mins
Avg Speed : 17.2 kph
Avg Temp : 32.4 C
Max Temp : 41 C

Friday, August 10, 2012

10th July 2012

PAK KADING - a typical town along the route

A decision to make. Our original plan included another 2 days of cycling in Laos. Today it should be a leisurely ride of about 50kms to Ban Loi where we would overnight. Tomorrow would be a 120kms to Thakek, from where we would cross over into Thailand.

We discussed the option of exiting into Thailand today, and continue the cycling in Thailand. The monotonous landscape we had cycled through for the last 2 days was the main reason. To exit Thailand today would mean a total ride distance of 170kms. This is not the "light and easy" option of our tour. The obvious option is to transport ourselves in a tuk-tuk to Thakek.

first part of the journey by tuk-tuk to Ban Loi
With the decision made, we  had our usual simple breakfast and readied ourselves to wait for a tuk-tuk. Before we could leave the Guesthouse, Khailani discovered a puncture in his front tyre. So, first thing first. Khailani brought 2 spare tubes. Now he would be left with one.

Surprisingly, it took us quite a while to get a tuk-tuk. In the early hours, there were not many plying the route. When one finally came, we flagged it and mentioned "Thakek"  (our destination) to the drive. He shook his head. I understood it as he was not going that far. We waited for about an hour before we saw another tuk-tuk. This time I mentioned "Ban Loi" and he nodded his head.

So up went the bikes on top of the tuk-tuk. In we went into the tuk-tuk. We sat ourselves amongst the passengers. Several gunny sacks of agricultural produce were piled on the floor. Lucky there were no live animals on board. We smiled at the passengers. They smiled back at these two characters.

Some stretches of the journey was dusty. The road was under repair. We would have been covered in dust if we had cycled through. Guessed we missed this excitement!

Surprisingly too, the stretch to Ban Loi was quite scenic. There were limestone hills that changed the landscape character. It would have been a pleasant change than the last two days. But how were we to know!

There would have been some hills to climb and some downhills to descend, offering some hard pedalling uphill and gentle cruising downhill rewards. On a tuk-tuk we just watched the hills disappear.

Mountain range in the distance and so little traffic.

The ride on the tuk-tuk to Ban Loi took an hour and covered 45kms. The driver knew our final destination was Thakek and in Ban Loi, he secured us the next tuk-tuk to Thakek.

roof-top transfer of bikes to another tuk-tuk
So, there was no waiting and the next journey took 1hr 50 mins covering a distance of 89kms.

Second part of journey : Ban Loi - Thakek

Our initial plan was to stop in Thakek and visit a cave with an underground river. This was suggested to us at the Tourist Information Centre in Vientiane. About 20kms before reaching Thakek, the passengers pointed to us the Friendship Bridge that crosses into Thailand.

This border crossing was so alluring that we forgot about the river in the cave. As the tuk-tuk rumbled on, we need to make a quick decision. The passengers were showing 2 fingers meaning 20 kms to Thakek, meaning we have to backtrack if we did not make a quick decision. One of the passengers quickly shouted to the driver to stop. As we paid him for the service, he was uttering something in Lao. I guessed he was saying that we should have told him about our destination earlier. Now we overshot by about 2kms. Having journeyed relatively comfortably in a tuk-tuk, 2kms is absolute nothing.

3rd part of  the journey. We cycled this portion.  Note the border crossing across the Mekong river

From where we alighted from the tuk-tuk, we rode about 5 kms to the border. The Immigration building at the border crossing was rather new and impressive. This border crossing was opened in late 2011 and I made this discovery from the internet. Hence the plan to exit through here.

Good bye! Khailani looking back at Laos.

A quick pose on the Laos side
Today, Khailani had been a wee bit unlucky. As we posed for some pics at the above entrance, he had another puncture. We pushed our bikes to a carpark in the complex. Again, first thing first. The tube was replaced and now Khailani was without a spare tube. That was not a good option. We rode on bicycles with different tyre size and therefore I could not lend my tube!

We hoped that in Nakhon Phanom, our destination in Thailand today would have a bike shop that carried the 700c tube size for Khailani.

The Immigration check-out on the Laos side was smooth. We also had nothing to declare to the Customs. What could we possibly carry or hide on a bicycle - certainly not elephant tasks!

We crossed the Mekong on the Friendship Bridge and at the middle span, took some shots on the bridge.

On the Friendship bridge
Before checking in at the Thai Immigration checkpoint, a few more memorable shots. Khailani seems to have a soft spot for elephants, so one for the road! Guessed he feels he is as strong as an elephant.

"as strong as an elephant"

As we rode into town, we saw flags of all the Asean countries lining the road dividers. It showed 2013. Probably a gathering of the Governments of Asean in 2013.

Malaysia my country
Nakhon Phanom was a typical big town in Thailand. After several days of blissful cycling minus many vehicles, we now need to negotiate the streets with other vehicles. We stopped at a Seven Eleven for some very cold cordial drinks. My, was it hot! Compared to the last 2 days of rather cool but wet ride, this was rather hot.

Because of the change of plan, we now have excess Laos currency and very little Thai Baht. Unfortunately for us, Laos currency can only be exchanged at the Bangkok Bank. No other banks accept Laos currency. Forget the money changer. Looking for the Bangkok Bank in this town was another matter. While doing so, we came across a bike shop. Khailani got his spare tube and that was quite a relief. 

Nakhon Phanom
While continuing our search for Bangkok Bank, we came to a junction leading to the water front of the Mekong. We continued on and came across Kong View Hotel. Forget Laos currency. We checked in and paid a small premium for the river view. Why not.

Kong View Hotel where we stayed in Nakhon Phanom

View from the Hotel room. Thakek town in Laos across the Mekong
Our decision to exit into Thailand was the right decision. We now look forward to tomorrow's ride to Sakhon Nakhon.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

9th July 2012

We had a good sleep. Just like yesterday, we woke up to a grey sky. A promise of another wet and cold day. Breakfast was Instant Nasi Goreng. We both agreed that this brand of Instant Nasi Goreng will not be in our future to buy list. But we shall protect the brand, and we will highlight the brands we prefer.

We expect this day's ride to be longer than yesterday but we look forward to reaching a town called  PAKSAN, roughly 50 kms away from our night stop. The owner of the Muslim restaurant in Vientiane told us that we could find a Muslim restaurant "Yasmin" in Paksan.

Day 2 route. 
We cycled in the slight drizzle. Our rain coat doubled as both a rain-coat and a wind cheater. Traffic as always had been light. The landscape of this route seems pretty monotonous. Apart from the usual small villages dotting the route, there was really nothing much to see, until the road hugs the Mekong at several stretches.

The continuous mist and heavy clouds 

The Mekong is on our right side as we cycled eastwards. It's huge, and we could see the current moving in the same direction of our cycling route. If we were on a raft, we could float downstream though much slower than our cycling speed.

A rest by the Mekong River
At several villages, dried fish from the Mekong were displayed for sale. We stopped to pose but not to buy. We would have no means to try out the delicacy.

Dried fish of the Mekong sold by the road-side
When we arrived the town PAKSAN, we trained our eyes for the promised Halal Lunch break. You know how the mind started to build up the expectation and the stomach joined in to increase the hunger  pang. As we progressed into town, we could not locate the promised restaurant and the town was fast making way to an empty stretch, indicating that we were arriving at the outskirt of town. Undeterred and still hopeful, we turned back and showed a hand-written note in Laos that says "Muslim restaurant". The few people we asked shook their head. Not a good sign. The information given must be wrong. 

Logic should have alerted us that there would really be no reason for a Halal restaurant here. There was no indication of any Muslim settlement here, neither did we notice any one garbed in any Muslim attire. Why oh why did the restaurant owner in Vientiane gave us such a false hope???

Two hungry cyclists in a vain search for halal restaurant
So, before we reached the outskirt of town, we stopped at a stall. We took 2 cups of Maggi Mee and requested the owner to pour hot water into them. Before we could stop her, she had poured "their" soup into our precious maggi mee. We smiled at each other. Not only did the Yasmin Restaurant evade us, we ow had to offer our two very precious Instant Maggi to the stall owner. Our halal stock is now short by two cups! Eat we must, so out came another 2 Instant Maggi Mee from the pannier. We make sure this time the lady gave us the hot water. We poured the hot water ourselves!

our precious instant maggi mee

The weather improved as we cycled out of Paksan and it was getting hot. We had then covered in excess of 60kms and we came to a village, and an inviting rest area. Such opportunity to stretch my back will not be missed.

A village community
In this village, we noticed an underground pump that provides clean water for the locals. We thought it was a rather ingenious act of community responsibility. 

Free water from an underground pump
While we thought we would have a dry ride, the rain began to come down again and again we took shelter at a coffeeshop. Not long after, two motorcyclists also stopped. They were looking for direction to go to Phonsavan. Two European guys, one from Ireland and the other from Nederland bought their 150 cc motorbike in Vietnam for US$250.00 each. Like us, they were on a trip from Vietnam to Laos, to end it later in Vientiane where they hoped to sell off the bikes there.

They were hoping that we had a map to help them locate the diversion to Phonsavan. We could not help them with our map but the coffeeshop owner  gave them the confidence that the diversion is behind them, and they had to backtrack.
Two Mat Sallehs did the faster and easier way on motorbikes
We waited for the rain to clear up and continued. The light lunch of Instant Maggi helped to subdue the hunger pang but when we came across several stalls selling maize, I suggested to my ride buddy to stop

While Khailani pose ......

I eat ....
We continued on our journey and when the kilometre reading showed a distance of  about 100kms, we saw the signboard PAK KADDING, our destination. We cycled for another 5 kms and agreed to stop at the first guest house we came across.

We stopped at this guest house and gladly paid US$12 for a night. For US$2 more than the earlier guest house, this was better and bigger.

Dinner was Brahim's Beriani with Kurma Ayam and eggs. The chef, Khailani wisely bought the eggs at a shop before we checked in. I did my part of the chore as the dishwasher, not that there were many dishes to wash!


Distance : 105 kms
Ride Time : 6 hrs 25 mins
Average Speed : 16.4
Average Temp : 24.9

Saturday, August 4, 2012

8th July 2012

We had been informed by well meaning friends who had toured Laos that this is a rainy season. When making plans for this trip, we did not take this into account. Guessed we had been lulled into confidence that previous rides in Vietnam and Cambodia had been sunshine, hence Laos should be likewise sunny and hot.

Yesterday's arrival into Vientiane was with overcast sky but no rain. Without sharing my thoughts with Khailani, I felt we are going to have cloud covers along the route. Wishful thinking on my part.

We woke up this day to a grey and misty sky. A sure warning of rain. The route north-east would be within 80 - 100 kilometres. From the map I downloaded, the day's destination would be a town known as Thapabat. 

actual route captured on my Garmin Edge 800

As we got ready to start, little drops of rain started to fall. No worries, we had always been equipped for wet weather. Getting out of the city was slightly difficult because of the lack of signages, but after several enquiries with the locals, we were on our way out of the city.

A quick pose before the start of the journey

As we reached the outskirts of the city, it began to rain. It was too heavy to continue riding. A bus stop
was a convenient stopover.

wet wet wet

For the next 50 kilometers, we were playing with the intermittent heavy rain three times. This is indeed a rainy season. As we sit out the rains, I could imagine the "I told you so" remark coming out from my friends who had toured Laos before. We were not really concerned about the rain. We were more concerned with the lack of communication ability with the local folks. More so when almost all of them did not seem to know Thapabat, the town we were supposed to overnight. 

By lunch hour, we had covered about 50kms. Progress was slow as we stopped often. We were beginning to get hungry. We were munching the biscuits we carried with us, but they were no substitute for the Instant Maggie Mee we were visualizing to savor.

We stopped at a petrol kiosk for shelter from the rain. A small cafe was conveniently at this kiosk, with hot water available for our needs. So out came the maggi and soon we were tucking in, two hungry cyclists, wet and cold!

From this less developed part of the world, there are often observations that we Malaysians can learn from. The toilets at the petrol kiosks along the route could anytime beat any of our toilets found in our Malaysian petrol kiosks! Shame on us Malaysians!

A clean toilet - common at the petrol kiosks along the route.

A pose at a tributary of the Mekong.

The continuous grey sky - cool but wet
During one of our carbo stops, we decided to stop at a hut in front of a house.  One usually gets a little worried of some fierce dogs coming out to protect the property from intruders. With our bright colored clothings, we certainly look alien to the dogs. While we had encountered many dogs along the route, none seemed menacing enough and we braved ourselves to use the shelter in front of a house and enjoy the longans we bought earlier.

The owner of the house, a lady came out to greet us with "sapaidi", the only Laos word we learned so far. That's the greeting of the Laotians. The first time I heard this word was from the hotel maid cleaning the room in Vientiane a day earlier. I thought she said "Selamat Pagi" and thought she must have worked in Malaysia before.

In a foreign land where language is a barrier, the smiles became the standard international greeting and communication intermediary. The lady spoke Lao, we spoke English. Both sides were clueless as what the other was saying. But we smiled and laughed. The only word understood by both parties is "Malaysia". At least she knew we were from Malaysia.

Later on, the son in his mid-30's came out. Then the husband, ever smiling came out to greet us. We asked them about the town Thapabat. They knew and the lady showed 8 fingers when we asked "kilometre" in as local a sound as possible. When we showed our sleeping sign, they nodded meaning there would be accommodation.

We shared the longan and left the balance to them. A group photo, taken by the son was the finale as we bade goodbye and moved on.

The sky continued to remain dull with heavy clouds but the rain had relented. We continued asking for our destination but drew blanks most of the time. We passed several Guest Houses along the route but decided to continue on since these guest houses were not really in a town. we told ourselves that once we reached a town, we will take the first guest house we come across.

At one place, we stopped and showed a sleep sign again to a man by the road. He understood our sign language and showed us to proceed on and we understood his sign language that there would be a guest house on the right side of the road not far from there.

And there was indeed one. Boy, weren't we glad that we saw the signage and finally could end our ride at this VATTANAIN guest house.

For US$10, with air-cond we settled in very fast. Dinner was 2 packets of Brahim's Nasi Goreng. The mini rice-cooker served us well. Thank You Khailani. You are a great chef too!


Distance : 87.5 km
Ride Time : 5hrs 27 mins
Average Speed : 16 kph
Average Temp : 23.1 (pretty cool, thanks to the rain)