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From Vientiane - one last time

And the Saga continues last off we were in Na Ngam (or something like that) up on the banks of the rather large, and artificial lake Na Ngum. We found the one and only "resort" which was in the midst of much construction, and we were the only guests. We got a "bungalo" a stand-alone, octagonal little hut, with the standard, small bathroom with toilet, "hot water", and, mysteriously, no sink. Odd.

I keep mentioning the "faux hot water" so a short explanation is in order: The hot water in most hotels is produced by a small electrical heating box on the wall. There are several varieties of these, with variousarrangements of controls, and varying lack of capability. However, across all brands, they are universally catankerous, moody, require finesse, knack that I don't have, and usually end up putting out a low powered stream of luke-warm water, at best, cold water at worst, and sometimes compromise by peeing a little trickle of body-temperature water.

Dinner was at a rather large restraunt in "town" (about 40 corrugated metal huts arranged around the small harbor), and we were again, the only ones present. We got a pretty decent veggie stir fry out of it though, and constant attention from the wait staff - my beer glass was never less than 2/3 full. The owner spoke enough english to say that they had a good crowd at lunch - most people just day trip up from Vientiane, and it was very much the off-season even for that as evidenced by the cool, grey weather morning and evening. The night was quiet enough, but the fishing boats head out around 6-6:30 and have no mufflers, so that was the end of sleep. Breakfast was a surprise Granola treat Gretchen had brought from Luang Prabang! And on to the last day of biking in to Vieniane.


The first 25km were rather hilly, but then turned pretty darn flat. Again we were glad to be off the main route since traffic was almost negligible for the first 75km. Except right at noon when school let out and we passed literally hundreds of grade schoolers on bicycles. Was even more impressive than school letting out in Holland! Most kids ride bicycles up through grade school, with a few mopeds for the wealthier ones. There is a standard Lao issue cycle, and it comes in a couple sizes, all of them wrong for the rider. There are no small bikes, so the little 2nd graders are heading off to school, pedaling their little legs, too short to sit on the seat, practically reaching UP to the handle bars. Cute to watch, but can't be much fun. On the other extreme, I've seen a full grown man, wearing a spiffy army uniform, complete with gold bars, pedalling by on a kids bike, knees scraping his elbows at every turn of the pedals. It takes a real Lao man to ride a pink bike with the little tassles on the handle bars though! The bikes are low-tube frames so the girls bike in their school uniform sirts. They're all one gear, probably best ridden around 12kph, and frequently the bicycle seats two (sometimes there's even a soft seat on the back for the passenger) so speed is definitely not of the essence. This works fine in the lowlands which are flat as a pan, but in the hills the bikes would be walked up and coasted down, both speeds being quite out of range of the one gear. I thought once or twice of hopping off to try to photograph the road-flood of grade schoolers, but didn't want to have to pass all of them a second time, so will have to strategically locate myself near a school near noon in some other town.

Another interesting sight for the day: A travelling Buddhist "Wat" - in this case, a big Buddha in the back of a pickup truck, with a monk reading prayers over a loudspeaker mounted to the roof! People would come out, give offerints to the folks riding in the back with buddha, and recieve their blessings. A new way of bringing Buddhism to the people!


Early afternoon we passed a good sized town, and the traffic went up significantly while the road surface went to Hades in a FedEx carton - no coincidence there. Traffic increased steadily, although still not up to Thai standards, which was fortunate because neither were the roads. Then the construction started and we were down to a narrow little lane of dirt, which they were watering to keep the dust down. Good thought on their part, but my bike suddenly realized that there was no more friction to going sideways than forwards and thought that might be fun for a change. And he's down in the mud!.... and now he's back up again! (the fast bounce to keep from getting run over). And then suddenly we were dumped on a massive, smooth, new highway, easily 6 lanes wide, and rather overbuilt since there were about 3 cars and 20 mopeds in sight at the time. Traffic kept picking up though and the highway was serving function as we finally entered the dust, and pollution of Vientiane, and saw our first traffic light since leaving Mae Sai Thailand 11 days ago! They even have cute little half-size stoplights down at eye level for bikes / mopeds :)

Checked into an expensive joint - $16/night! 4-5 times what we're used to paying, with little more in the way of facilities (same cantakerous, peeing water heater for example), but it was quiet, and I'm willing to pay for quiet. And the first 3 places were full. This seems to be a frequent phenomenon; the bus dumps a load of backpackers off at 6pm every day, and they're seen roaming the streets for the next 2 hours, some having tried 10-15 places trying to find a guest house not full and still in their budget.

Random note: a popular game here is to build a wood grid,maybe 10 by 15 spaces, each space holding a balloon. The player tosses darts, and wins a juice box or something if they break all of them (I think. haven't really figured out the rules.) doesn't look that hard, since balloons occupy the majority of the frontal area, but seems to be very popular. Went by the site of last-night's party and the ground was covered with little bits of balloon!


Random Question: Why is there no salt here? We can find MSG in little baggies everywhere, but no salt to be found. There's also no soy sauce - everything is fermented fish sauce, which actually tastes quite similar. However, for about 5 days now I've now had a bit of indigestion / gastro discomfort that comes and goes, and the leading theory is slow poisoning due to the fish sauce (i have a mild fish allergy). I've bought a small container of expensive soy sauce to hand to the folks in restraunts to use instead, and just generally trying hard to avoid the fish sauce, but tis difficult!

While we're wandering off discussing food; there's no ice cream in most of Laos - probably because there are no refrigerated trucks, or predictable electricity either. The big advertising flags instead are either for Beer Lao (which is everywhere) or for "M-150" a sports/energy drink. The label states (in English) "Devotion Courage Sacrafice". All that in a 200ml package, wow!

Anyway, as I've already pointed out, we were stuck in Vientiane for several days waiting for the Vietnam visas. One night we went to a restraunt/bar and watched "5th Element" - a darn fine flic. It was subtitled in Chinese, any my question is; when Lilu is babbling in "galactic-speak", what the heck were the subtitles?? Had some good Irish coffee during the movie and stumbled home afterwards, hard to believe we were in a foreign country except for the heat, tuk-tuks and guys in orange robes.

And we signed up for this one day kayak trip. We were told to be at the office at 8am on Sunday. We arrive at 8:02, confident that nothing will happen until at least 8:30, but are promptly tossed in a tuk-tuk with a Danish guy name Sti (or Ski, still not sure). For the unacquainted: A tuk-tuk is the universal cheap taxi, fundamentally consisting of a motorcyle where the rear wheel has been replaced by a short covered wagon with a couple small bench seats. Since hitting on the idea, there have been a pretty good variety of tuk-tuks made, to the point where the front bit is no longer actually a motorcyle, the driver has a real stick shift, but always sticking with the 3-wheel theme, little engine, and lack of serious muffler. I knew we had a fair distance to go to the start of the kayak point, and was a bit concerned about bouncing all the way there in a tuk-tuk but Sti said we were just leaving the city limits in the vehicle. Sure nuff, we stopped at a transfer station around 8km out. At this point, things were going a bit like a mission-impossible episode. The driver fished a little bit of paper out of his pocket, said "this wil explain everything" and told us to go get in the 2nd grey truck by the wall, then left. The paper said "your tuk tuk driver will drop you at the transfer spot. You will take the taxi to Hin Huen, the driver knows where to let you off. we will meet you there. this message will self destruct in 20 seconds". (well, the self destruct took a bit longer - until the paper got wet in my pocket while in the boats). So we climbed in theback of the pickup - this is the next step up from a tuk-tuk. It's a standard pickup with 2 bench seats, a big cage & roof slapped on top, and a good sized steel tube platform on the back as well. The top was piled with baggage, 10 of us were squeezed onto the hard benches, and another 4 rode on the platform on back. 2+ HOURS later we were really starting to wonder if we'd been forgotton and would be entering Thailand again, when the driver motioned us out, and sure-nuff, there was another truck with 3 kayaks there. amazing.

The kayaks were big, cheap double-hull plastic boats, each seating 2, so Gretchen and I took one, the guide and Ski took another, and the other guide got his own boat and spent much of the time fishing. It was a gorgeous day (of course), and a fantastically beautiful river - clear, clean water, rocky shores, gorgeous scenery, and almost zero indication of habitation except the occasional fishing folks. The guide warned us of "2 rapids" and the first was pretty minor. The 2nd we stopped in advance of so we could clamber up the rocks and scope it out. Again, short, and only class 2, but a big funnel between rocks, with a good sized rooster-tail of white water coming out. There were a number of other groups there, and the guides were playing in the rapids while their clients rested. One guide came up in life-jacket and helmet, paused a moment, and then jumped in to ride the rapid without a boat! Coooool! Our guide said "haven't flipped yet!" and headed down with Ski while G&I watched. They flipped. So did the next guide in a kayak. Coool. So we took our boat through, took a lot of water, but kept it pointing downstream and upright. That's how it's done boys...

This was the lunch spot so we swam in the back eddies, and ate our veggie-kabobs with a packet of fried rice which was wrapped in a banana leaf (convenient, readily available, fully biodegradable packaging which is also a nice pretty green color). After lunch we put the life jacket and helmet back on and went and jumped in the rapids as well! Got a face full of water on thefirst one, but was expecting that, and quickly popped out. Went around to try again, this time was ready, held the nose, got a face full, got a quick breath and then suddenly was sucked down down down! no air, water everywhere, still getting sucked down. why isn't this life jacket working? there won't be much life if this keeps up and then it will be just a jacket... and finally surface gasp!!choke*cough* ok, that's enough of that foolishness. G's experiences were reversed, so not sure why she went again. Then back in the boats for a while to reach the jumping spot - a cliff about 10m high with a nice deep river underneath. We arrived as the other groups were jumping. Everyone made a rather impressive splash as they hit. Gretchen decided that looked a tad painful, but I was game, and went up with the guide to do the jump. 10m is damn high when you're looking down at the river. sqrt(2) seconds of freefall by quick mental math (d = 1/2 a*t^2, right?).

deep breath.
didn't jump.
try again. deep breath,
will the legs to step off into space..ahhhhhhhhh!!
my butt & nose smarted a bit, but guess that meant I went straight in.

Another hour or so of paddling and then the trip was over. We were given some "Lao Lao" - rice whisky, which was pretty good stuff, and then tossed in another pickup with a bunch of other farangs going back to Vientianne. There were a couple Georgians who had been out 10 months, a few kiwis, couple Norweigens etc. and we all traded notes for a bit. Nice to have conversation, but it's all the same after a while "where you been, what's cheap? you spent how much?? On what??! How were the drugs?" I rode on the back this time to stretch the legs, bouncing along a dirt road, and occasionally remembering that I'd just had 4 shots of hard alcohol :)

Now we've stashed our stuff at the hotel closest to the airport for our 4:30 AM departure (ouch). Wandered around town a bit, fixed a flat on Gretchen's bike. Patched the tube, put the tire back on, blew it up, cursed, took it off, patched the 2nd hole, put tire back on the bike again, this one held. Met a guy from Whidby Island and chatted for a bit - one of the only Americans we've met and from so close to home! Did the museum thing (fun exhibits on Lao history with lots of pictures labeled something like "Lao native army triumphing over the US imperialist forces and their puppets" etc....) and time for one last farang dinner. Life is too expensive here though; up to $30/day if we're eating in the nicer places, while in the country we were below $15/day. And there's the "imports" store, full of very expensive chocolate, peanut butter, and a crowd of ecstatic Germans, each clutching a bottle of wine and loaf of rye bread. So it's down to Savannaket in the morning and back to the routine of biking the simple life, away from TV with CNN, and internet bars with CNN, all of which is too depressing to watch.


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