“Hello! Very Good! Very Good!” The enthusiastic greetings and thumbs ups from the Thai populace tell us the diving holiday is well and truly over. No longer just another couple of farang divers amongst the faceless many, we’re back in our familiar role of travelling circus and centre of attention whether we want it or not. After almost three months it was really emotional leaving Koh Tao: the final dive, the final journey on the Sea Cutter, the final walk away from Alvaro dive school, and, most wrenching of all, finally sneaking away from the faithful Doggetty Dog (we pedalled away whilst she was sidetracked in the restaurant of our resort after we dropped our room key off).
Before we began pedalling again in earnest though we had to get from Koh Tao to Chiang Mai, some 1100km further north, in time to meet up with our friends Sue and Justin, and so began three nights of minimal sleep that reminded us (as if we needed it) of why we love cycling. To start with there were no berths left on the ferry from Koh Tao to the mainland, so we passed a chilly night out on the deck, curled on some grass mats kindly provided by the captain. We arrived in Chumphon early enough to get on the 05:45 visa-run bus to Ranong where we hopped on a boat to Myanmar, got stamped in and out, and then back on the boat to Ranong where we were stamped back into Thailand with a free 30 day entry stamp (which we needed to give us more time in Chiang Mai). The bus got us back to Chumphon in the early afternoon and we hung around until the late evening when the station master finally let us and the Pino get on a train to Bangkok (9 hours overnight on a cramped, minimally padded seat), and then after hanging around Bangkok station for a while we had a further 17 hours overnight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on a similarly uncomfortable, cramped and minimally padded seat.
Our friend Andrew, who we last saw in Bangkok last July, has now relocated to Chiang Mai.
Visiting him were our friends Sue and Justin, about to start a two month cycling adventure in Thailand and Laos. We decided to invite ourselves along for the ride (I felt fairly confident that as my oldest and best friend Sue wouldn’t mind).
After seven happy days hanging out at Andrew’s and doing some day-rides together, we eventually bid Andrew goodbye and pedalled off with Sue and Justin towards Chiang Rai. In a bid to keep pace with the super-fit and super-minimalist pair we ditched our tent, kitchen, sleeping bags and a few other bits and bobs (and all of our scuba kit) leaving them with our trailer at Andrew’s (to Keith’s consternation). I think the trailer is the travelling equivalent of his garage back in our old sedentary lives: a place for keeping all the things that might come in handy at some unspecified point in the future, and a source of spare parts and tools for myriad random bike fettling sessions. However, much as I’d worked to part Keith from his bits and bobs, it soon became clear we hadn’t left nearly enough stuff behind as on the first gentle incline racing-snakes Sue and Justin became a pair of bobbing figures in the far distance and we settled down into our steady touring rhythm, trusting they’d wait for us at some point later in the day.
In Chiang Rai we hit upon the cunning plan to send Sue & Justin on the long, hilly route to Oudomxai via Luang Nam Tha, whilst we took a day in Chiang Rai to visit the jaw-droppingly weird White Temple and then rode to Chiang Khong, took a boat trip along the Mekong and then a less arduous route to Oudomxai where we met up with the speedmeisters again (hoping by that point to have taken some of the keenness out of their legs).
Staying that extra day in Chiang Rai turned out to be a great decision for us as it gave rise to a couple of sociable nights out. At the White Temple we got chatting to Emily & Mark, an English couple, who we later bumped into and had dinner with on our first night in Laos. We also caught up with Jules and Li, two cyclists we’d met the day before who are riding from England to Australia on bamboo bikes that they built themselves. They joined us for a most excellent night of beer, bugs (deep fried) and bike banter.
The ride from Chiang Rai to the Thai/Lao border was gentle and enjoyable, but our entry into Laos wasn’t the welcome we’d expected from the small but friendly country we’d enjoyed so much last year. Until a few weeks ago, you had to cross from the Thai to the Lao side of the Mekong by boat, from Chiang Khong to Houay Xai, but a bridge was opened (by the king himself a proud local man told us) just a few weeks ago and we were led to believe that we should use the bridge crossing and that boats were no longer taking bicycles. We rode down to the bridge, were stamped out of Thailand, but then told that we weren’t allowed to ride over the bridge, we’d have to take a bus across. The standard bus wouldn’t take the Pino but we were told to wait as there was a special big bus that could take motorbikes (motorbikes are also not allowed to ride the bridge). We waited, and waited. Over an hour and at least four standard buses later we asked again when the big bus would arrive, to be told that there was no big bus so we’d have to ride the five or so kilometres back to Chiang Khong and take the boat, and then ride the 10km from Houay Xai back to the bridge to get stamped into Laos. We didn’t like the idea of this at all as we have very few pages left in our passports (they’d already stamped us out of Thailand and we didn’t want to be stamped in and out again), and to be frank we weren’t entirely convinced that we weren’t being sent on a wild goose chase.
In the end we split the Pino into two and stripped it down until it would fit in the baggage hold of the next standard bus to make the 2km crossing. It seemed utterly ridiculous that we couldn’t just ride across, but the Thais assured us it was all the fault of the Lao authorities. Oh well….whatever!
The next day we took a very cold boat ride along the Mekong to Pak Beng and had our second disappointment. Upon leaving the boat I took responsibility for gathering our four bags together from their various storage points, and Keith lowered the Pino from where it had been lashed to boat’s roof. A local man went to help Keith, then snatched the Pino away from his grasp and made off through the crowd with the Pino slung carelessly over his shoulder, compressing the stoker chain between the frame and his shoulder. There was nothing either of us could do and by the time Keith scrambled down from the boat and caught up with him the tension in the chain was totally messed up and on top of that the man was demanding payment for a) helping us and b) recompense for the greasy chain marks all over his jumper. We were in no mood to oblige. We didn’t like the feel of Pak Beng at all and were relieved to find a room where we could bring the Pino inside – a decision that later proved to be entirely the correct one when we were returning from a post-prandial stroll and had to skirt around some boys playing a noisy game of ‘kick-the-box’, which they soon gave up in favour of the far more entertaining game of ‘launch yourself onto Keith’s back’. We dread to think what games they’d have invented if they’d discovered the Pino unattended.
We went to bed more than a little disgruntled, but the next day, rolling through quiet villages, our annoyance and disappointment ebbed away with each friendly wave, sing-song ‘Sabaidee’ of greeting, and high-five from the eagerly proffered and only slightly grubby small hands that were thrust in our direction.
By the time we got to Oudomxai we were in love with Laos again and excited about meeting up with the speedy S&J and hearing how they’d got on in Luang Nam Tha – hot and hilly during the day, bloody cold at night, was their verdict.
From Oudomxai, there are two possible routes south to Pak Mong. The direct road is very hilly and in appalling condition (something confirmed to us when we met one cyclist who said he’d ridden smoother single-track) so we followed the route we took last April heading initially northeast to Muang Khoa, then taking a scenic river-boat south to Nong Khiew, then riding west again to Pak Mong. Our route choice adds one day to the journey, but it’s such a much nicer experience, it’s well worth it.
The surrounding karsts were as beautiful as we remembered and the road was gently rolling with a generally downwards trend, allowing the four of us to stick together for a change.
It was lucky that we were together as shortly after leaving Oudomxai Sue picked up a puncture. Keith and I were about to carry on in the knowledge that the feather-weight-panniered speedmeisters would soon catch up, but at the last minute we changed our minds and waited to make sure they had everything they needed. And oh how our change of heart paid off. Although we’ve tried hard to trim our kit, we’re still carrying way more than them, but only that morning Sue said she honestly couldn’t think what else that they could have packed. To our delight that other something turned out to be tyre levers – of which we have two sets so have been able to lend them a set. In fairness, we suspect their tyre levers were left in Chiang Mai by mistake, but it gave us a moment of childish amusement to see them hunting in vain and having to ask for ours.
In Nong Khiew we treated ourselves to a night in a pretty wooden cabin overlooking the Nam Ou River and spent a morning off the bikes hiking up to a viewpoint, and then visiting a small cave that was allegedly used by villagers to shelter from the American bombs. A young local man struck up conversation with us and when Keith asked him he announced he was our tour guide. Unfortunately the fact that he was only 20 years old but assured Keith that his mother and sister had both been killed by an American bomb in 1964 didn’t really go very far to convince us of the veracity of his information.
In the late afternoon we rolled the easy 25km to Nambak, where last year Keith and I taught English at the local school for an evening. Unfortunately it is now the school holidays, and on top of that, Phew, the English teacher, was away for a few days so we didn’t get to see him again which we’d hoped to do. But the guesthouse owner remembered us and we were really impressed with the extension he’d made to his little guesthouse, adding a further seven or eight rooms to the six that had been there last year. Hopefully this means business is going well for him.
We’re now back in the ever-delightful Luang Prabang. The weather remains surprisingly chilly but is thankfully much warmer than it’s been in the hillier north where we’ve been sleeping in our clothes and wearing two pairs of trousers in the evening to stay warm.
Luang Prabang is a city of surprise meetings for us: last April we met an Aussie couple who know Keith’s aunt and uncle and this year, at almost exactly the same spot, we bumped into the son of some good friends back home. Small world! Even more so as we discovered this morning that Jake is staying in our hotel!
We’ll spend a couple of days in Luang Prabang and then head south towards Vang Vieng. The first day and a half of riding will be on roads we covered last April (big hills – eww) and then we’ll be off into new territory. Sue and Justin will no doubt go ahead to recce the route for us.