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Still Kicking around Vientiane

As the subject notes, we’re still here in Vientiane, waiting for passport stuff. Our timing was impeccably bad - we arrived on a Friday, a rush-Visa takes 2 days, and Sat/Sun are not working days in the Embassy. This answers a general question we’ve had for a while which was "just what are the days off in this country?" In the countryside, there seemed to be none; kids were in school on Saturday, although they only go for half days, all the time. But crops and fields never wait, while embassies work 40 hour weeks because farangs will wait. In any case, Vietnam Visa, and Lao Visa extension will take until 5pm on Monday, so that left us with a long time to kick around this not-particularly-attractive city. So we took a full day's bike ride out to the Buddha garden today (more on that later), and are going sorta-white-water kayaking tomorrow, and doing the Museum things on Monday. Meanwhile I'm sitting around a net cafe drinking Beer Lao, which only comes in 650ml sizes (oh gee darn) so this might go on for a while.

We're just over halfway through the trip now, and the bike odometer is reading a shade over 1500km. But as we started looking at the roads left to travel, and marking the days off on the map - having blocked out 2/7 through 2/10 as non-travel time - the remaining time suddenly started looking really short. It's 500km to Savanaket from here, and another 3 days to the border, which would mean 8 more days in Laos, and 5 of them pretty dull, flat cycling. This wouldn't leave much time for Vietnam. So we looked at some options; like bus to Savan - but that's a 9 hour ride, losing another day, and most of Gretchen's remaining sanity. We could bike half-days and bus half days and do it in 2 days (my favorite not-quite-wimping-out plan), but in the end, we decided to skip the Vientiane to Savanakanet completely by taking the 1 hr flight. The drawbacks to this plan are threefold: a) the plane leaves at 06:20, which means we have to find a way to get ourselves and bikes to the airport at 05:00 (yikes!). b) The bikes have to be in boxes again, which makes (a) even more of a pain since we'll have to find a functioning taxi around 04:30. Yeahright, the only things awake at 04:30 are roosters. How many roosters would it take to haul 2 bike boxes and 4 panniers to the airport? I don't know either, but it's a helluva mental image; especially since I've never seen a chicken move more than 3m in a straight line. And c) I'll have to grit my teeth and expose film to carry-on screening again, or make a scene to keep it from being scanned. I'll probably make a scene. Especially if I manage to get some Coffee Lao in me beforehand. So that will put us in Savan early on Tuesday, 3 days to Vietnam, and we'll start the new country/currency/culture thing all over one more time!!

Speaking of currency, we saw an ATM here!! Wonder if it spits out a bag before spitting out the wad of cash? It is impossible to buy anything here without getting it in a small plastic bag. with straws if it's a drink. Trying to refuse either causes great consternation on the part of the vendor, they get all confused, and eventually when you give up and say "fine, I'll take the bag" they look very relieved and you can all get on with things. Actually, come to think of it, there's a good chance the ATM is at a Thai bank and spits out Baht.

Still speaking of currency, I was going to comment on the crime rate here. Especially in the countryside, the standard store/vendor has a few benches of produce out front - nothing unusual to leave produce in grabbing distance, but they even leave the money-bucket out front with the produce as well! Now that's a non-theft oriented attitude. As an additional interesting bit, everyone seems happy to tend someone else's shop; if the donut vendor wandered off to get herself a coke, the guy selling steamed buns next door is happy to nip over, do your transaction and then wander back to his booth. One big friendly economy; and no one seems particularly competitive either. For this reason, among others, I was shocked and dismayed to open my wallet at lunch today and find my ATM and Visa card missing! Sure, we've been in farang-central for Laos, but I really didn't expect a sophisticated enough theft where someone would sneak the wallet out of my backpack (my pants have no pockets), nick the cards, and replace the wallet. That's a Bangkok/Saigon type trick. But just as I was about to jump back on the bike to ride back to Vientiane to start making panic calls, I found both cards in my bicycle front pack, apparently jostled out of the wallet on the 12km of washboard gravel pounding we had taken earlier. Faith in Loations restored! Although thinking about it later, I realized there was little or no point to such sophisticated theft here; virtually no retailers accept credit cards, and none of them would believe a Loation to be named "Burton Knapp". Thus relieved I could go on with my day. and with this email, which I think left off just north of Vang Vieng in the last installment.

So we pulled into Vang Vieng mid-day, both of us happy to have a half-day rest on the legs after a couple hard days in the hills. Somehow we missed the sign on the way in, but about 4km north of town is the Mulberry Organic farm and guest house, which also has a restaurant in town. Great food, organic veggies, tea, all that jazz. Wish we'd stayed at the farm where they make the tea, silk and other such goodies. On the other hand, according to the news release here, the ambush on the bus / other people (bikers, pickup, and anything that moved) occurred 4km north of Vang Vieng. The farm is 3.5km north. Hope they're ok. Did this ambush make the news back in the States anywhere? Or is the news just completely obsessed with the 1991 gulf war re-run? Short political commentary: Jonathan Richmond (MIT alum, and still British to the core, after all these years in the colonies) sent me a short clip noting that the US State Department advised against US tourists showing US flags abroad. True or not, I'd much rather the state department (and US in general) get off their ego-centric asses and address the problem by actually acknowledging the rest of the population this small planet (and possibly even their opinions!) which would solve the unpopularity problem from the bottom up, rather than telling the vict^h^h^h^h citizens to stay home with mama to avoid trouble with all the "strangers" papa W has pissed off this week. end political diatribe. (Side note for the curious: no one Lao cares a half wit about Iraq, the US and all that jazz. very refreshing. maybe they don't know, but I don't blame them for not caring either, it's a tad remote from the realities of keeping rice on the table in Laos.)

Back to the past as it was; Vang Vieng is a backpacker joint. Full of wandering 20-somethings eager to haggle over prices, while having traveled far and wide to the middle of Laos so they could eat pizza at a joint run by Aussies, watch American movies in a bar, while chatting up fellow tourists, all without a Loation in sight. Lest you think I'm taking an excessively cynical and holier-than-thou attitude towards my fellow farangs, let me point out that the Aussies did produce a pretty good pizza.... They even had full size napkins in their joint! (Paper must be very high priced here; every other restaurant either has a TP dispenser on the table (really!) or has your standard napkins neatly cut in half - and sometimes even in thirds! Try blowing your nose on 1/3 of a napkin sometime. go on, try it.)


We did enjoy our short stay, and the organic farm restaurant had some really good food. They also re-filled water bottles for 500kip (5 cents), which we thoroughly took advantage of. We've been developing a pretty guilty conscience about leaving a trail of empty 950cc water bottles across SE Asia. It's hard to find anything larger, and in this climate we go through an inordinate amount of water. We've been trying to Iodize, but sometimes the water is a little sketchy even for that without a filter.

In our free afternoon we caught up on Laundry and errands. I splurged on a one-hour Lao Massage! (it cost $3.50, quite the extravagance) This is similar to Thai massage, although not quite as much of a chiropractic adjustment. Sorta like western massage, but with a lot more pounding and stretching. While I was being thus pampered, Gretchen wandered off and found useful items like bleach and a ballcap and tape. Bleach we've been looking for since Luang Prabang since our water bottles were starting to rattle their own cages. The ball-cap and tape was so I could manufacture a sun-visor for my helmet. G's helmet already has one, and my nose has clearly taken a lot more UV abuse, given the relative shades of red (this is before I got to the Beer Lao, ok?). So with a fair bit of tape, and a pocketknife I welded the ball-cap visor onto my helmet. It works great for keeping the sun off! I have to keep my head level on the downhills since it can catch a fair bit of air, but it's been tested out to 55kph and on pretty rough gravel and pavement today without getting loose at all, so should survive the trip. My nose is peeling less now too. Anyway, we did look more than half-seriously at the various kayaking / cave visiting tours (there are huge limestone cliffs along the river, with caves of course, some of which you apparently swim into) but decided to press on to Vientiane instead.

Next day we took the main road for the first 86km, which was actually starting to get a tad busy as far as traffic goes. A lot of this could be attributed to the large cement factory we passed a bit south of Vang Vieng. A steady stream of 4-6 trucks/hour carrying cement was the norm from there on south. We passed a number of bike tourists heading north - waved but didn't stop. But still the kids ran out screaming and waving when they saw us. Apart from getting aggravating at times to be yelled at every time a town goes by, we're really starting to wonder why the fuss? With 10 bikers going by each day, we're hardly a novelty. Is life is just that dull? Now it's a more eclectic mixture of good-friendly "hello!" and less-friendly, more aggressive greetings. I've developed an auto-reply reflex; immediately returning a "sa-bai-di!" or "hello" as they hit. The high-5s are getting more frequent as well - even a couple little girls have held out their hands! (had been just the boys, and I had assumed it would stay that way).

Another random comment: There have been very few Japanese tourists here, although we're finally seeing some here in Vientiane. However there are signs of Japanese investment in many places; a school sponsored by a Japanese Lions club (double-double-take on that one), and a number of busses which bear some logo for "Japanese investment in SE Asia". I'm not sure what their financial interest is in the Lao backwater, but certainly their tourists don't share it.

Transportation thought for the day: Do the mopeds (and pickups etc.) completely cut us off in traffic because
a) they just drive that way or
b) they're used to cyclists here moving at no more than 5 kph?

A bit of both probably. The dominant attitude with respect to traffic however, is that anything behind you needs to watch out for you; and likewise, anything in front of you, is your problem. Seems to work with the traffic volumes at hand; the road is big enough and the traffic light enough, that when someone cuts in front, you just edge over and go on by.

Other driving tips: When bearing down on animals, always try to go behind a cow - they'll never quick-reverse on you. Dogs might, but behind is also safer. Chickens will scatter every which way, no guessing, so just aim for them. Almost got a rooster this way, missed it though. pity. If there's a line of little baby chicks crossing the road, there's almost always a straggler 15 ft behind which stopped for that last fascinating bit of grass, and will launch itself across the road, tiny legs ablur, just as you figure it's clear to go. And last, but not least; NEVER cut off a water buffalo.

Where were we? Oh right, approaching Phong Hong at the heat of the day. Phong Hong looks a LOT like "Phone Home" to a heat soaked mind (not what the Ph means here, it means a hard P, not "f", but nevermind). We both bonked around this point, which was a bummer since we had another 15km to go to Na Naam, a little town by a lake, reported to be a "local resort town" on the artificial lake. The bicycling book altitude profile also showed a short, sharp CLIMB to the town. What the heck? Climb UP to a Lake?? They were correct, unfortunately, because you approach the lake along the river, which ends at the damn, and the road goes screeching straight up and over the hill which holds in the lake. We walked rather than screeched over that one, and dropped into this deserted, off-season, fishing village, occupying a little "scenic bungalo" as the only tourists in the entire town.

This has gotten long again, and I haven't even gotten down to Vientiane, so I'll try to throw in the last installment tomorrow night assuming we survive our little kayaking trip.

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