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Not dead yet!


Hello from Vientiane!

This is the capital city of Laos, a bustling metropolis of 160,000 or so. We'll be here a couple days getting the visa to Vietnam worked out and our Laos visas extended, and treating ourselves to western type food (well, ok, ate Indian tonight, but at least it wasn't fried rice & eggs & vegetables again. and it was darn good Indian food, for a grand total of $5, but I digress).

First off, I have just learned, a tad late, and to my great sadness, of the breakup of space shuttle Columbia on re-entry almost a week ago. Regrets and condolences to the program, and the crew.

Second: this just in: (Previously this contained a link to a news report on a rebel attack against a bus, several cars and 2 bicyclists on the road just north of Vang Vieng. The ambush left at least 15 dead from gunfire, including the bicyclists, who were rumored to be French although not confirmed.)  We were traveling near this route yesterday, but left the main route shortly before the area where there was an attack. No need to panic, first sign of hostilities in a while. We had seen the occasional person with an AK-47, but they appeared to be Loation army, rather than rebels, and not at all interested in farangs.

And now back to the regular program: Working back a bit, we were last in Luang Prabang, the other city of note in Laos, and 430km north of here. Fun city to hang out in; where else do you end up speaking Spanish to a Loation Buddhist Monk? His Spanish was quite good actually, although very monotone. He said he hoped to study in California where his teacher had also studied. I wonder if the monotone is the result of a person raised with a tonal language trying to adapt to non-tonal? Or maybe it's just a monk thing.

On the last day we traded in $60 of travelers checks for another thick wad of Kip. We have dual signature checks, the point of which is that either person can sign and cash them. This point was lost on the Luang Prabang exchange however, which insisted that both of us sign them, twice, with passport numbers.

I think I mentioned also that we were heading for a "native dance" performance. Actually a combination of local dance, and Royal dance/music. The opening bit was with the Royal singers / dancers, most of whom are the last of the original royal performance team, which was eliminated along with the king in 1975. So it looked a bit like a nursing home drama club with a bunch of 60-somethings chanting and playing the, uhm, whatever it is - bunch of bell type things, generally percussive, very repetitive music. They won't be releasing a hit single any time soon. They also came around and tied a little white string around everyones wrists - we're supposed to wear them 3 days for luck.

Anyway, from there they went on to traditional dance, which enacts Buddhist myths of the gods and consisted of people with very gaudy costumes prancing around the stage - this group was a bit younger, although the two leads were also original royal performers. Finally there were the beautiful dancing maidens, who had amazing wrist flexibility and graceful flowing motion. And after all that, there were two short routines by hill tribe folk, err, sorry, not "Hill Tribe" anymore, but rather "minority groups". The second dance had a bunch of people singing / chanting / banging on things while women brought out 3 big ceramic jars and put them on tables up front. The crowd gets curious. They then proceeded to fill them with water - probably held about 3 gallons each vase. Now we're realllly curious. Finally 3 people step forward, and pick up the vases.. WITH their TEETH.  Ow!
sorry, no pictures of this event (it was dark)

So with that sort of send off, it was definitely time to skip town. I believe I mentioned last time that the cycling book by Lonely planet makes a terror story of the leg from Luang Prabang to Phu Khun as 130 km, with a brutal altitude profile (PK is 1000m higher than LP, and there's a LOT of mountains in between), with no intermediate lodging, and the chance of rebel attacks. Well they were wrong about everything but the hills. We promptly got lost leaving Luang Prabang, got back on track after a 7km detour, and biked the 30km of rolling hills and then started in on the first real climb - 15km of steady uphill, and the sun was getting hot. Fortunately very light traffic, despite this being the "main road" to Vientiane. The grade was steady, but not overly steep - less steep than the Thai roads. These roads were apparently built by the Chinese, so we can theorize that the Chinese either build better roads than the Thai, or the Chinese trucks are more underpowered and need the reduced grade! Lunch on top, and then 15km of blissful descent, until someone opened the oven door. Much hotter down in the valley! Not to worry though, since we immediately head back up, this time for 20+ km of uninterrupted sheer climbing joy. It was damn hot, and straight into the sun at times, absolutely no way to stay hydrated. Gretchen thinks it's gross that when I press on my helmet, a small river runs out of the foam pieces. Finally reached the small town of Kio Ka Chan at 4:30 pm and discovered that they have not one, but 2 guest houses, praise Buddha! We gratefully crashed at one, for $3 and were rewarded with a room barely 2m by 2m, with a grungy shared bath, but sure beat going on! Sunset and visibility were both nicer above most of the air pollution, and the mountain scenery is fantastic!

Next day we continued on to Phu Kuhn, another 51km of very hilly terrain with a couple 7km straight climbs. No WAY we could have done that at the end of the first day. Passed more Dutch (of course), a heavily loaded German, and a Hong Kong based Brit who was over on short lunar new year holiday. Phu Kuhn was nothing interesting, and the next 40km were mostly downhill so we pressed on to Kasi, after getting thoroughly torched while eating lunch. Bit curious as to why; we both figured we had a reasonable base tan going on, but arms, legs, even ears got pretty heavily fried, a nice bright red. And I noticed that not only have I acquired little tan oval-patches on my hands from the gloves (biker-patches) but I've actually managed to get a tan checkerboard through the bike glove mesh! Most impressive, and a little disconcerting to look at. Perhaps we torched so thoroughly because we no longer had an air pollution screen? ick.

Then it was down down down for 20km, very nice except for the occasional sections of dirt road linking the otherwise good pavement. And there were occasional work sites for road work, mostly for areas where the outside shoulder had eroded away. The work crews apparently live at their site - 2 or 3 guys set up a small bamboo shelter, have laundry hanging out, a little cook fire, and are slowly filling holes, mixing cement, moving rocks etc. Try that with USDOT union regulations! At the bottom of the descent was more incredible scenery - high, very steep limestone peaks and cliffs, although thanks to the climate and porosity of the limestone, amazingly steep slopes were still completely covered with vegetation. Then we discovered that the last 20km were not at all flat - another steep climb, then rolling up-down to the town of Kasi. Stayed in a brand-new looking truck stop/guest house, $3 for a BIG room, private bath, sorta-hot water, the works! Relatively quiet even, until the usual 04:30 roosters. A couple Canadians were also staying at the place. They who were doing a similar route, but they were at the end of a year of bike travel (had been in Europe and Africa previously) and looked VERY burned out.

Next day was a short 60km to Vang Vieng - a backpacker hangout 160km north of Vientiane. We're still arousing a crowd of kids waving and yelling at us as we pass through villages, but less friendly now - these kids are used to tourists, a couple even ask for money. And after kids screeching at your passing all day every day, you don't really feel like smiling back. Guess this is what it's like to be a celebrity - always smiling and waving. Celebrities don't have to pedal though. Some of the kids wanted a "High-5" (low-5 for me) although they don't seem to realize that it's going to smart a bit when I'm doing 35 kph! I've got the bike glove to cushion things >-)

Tis late here (well, not really) but I'm tired, and will pick this up later. we'll be in internet land for a day or two, so until then, ciao,

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