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Leaving Thailand; next stop Pak Beng Laos

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A short explanation of current status is in order. We had an extra day in Mae Sai and figured we'd take a mostly-rest day with a local bike up to Do Tung and the royal gardens - got to the first, didn't bother with the 2nd as more climbing in the heat wasn't par for a day off. Mae Sai was not a bad town, but not worth staying in long; basically a border trading post. It seemed to be a popular destination for Thai Tourists, but very few farangs - nice change.
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Monday we were thinking that the trip to Chiang Khong would be an easy 65k or so and thus took it easy in the morning. We talked to a couple Dutch folks at the hotel who were also touring on bikes, but they were just doing a loop of Northern Thailand from Chiang Mai. Since it was to be an "easy day" we took a 30km detour in the morning down to a good sized cave south of Mae Sai, and then back to the turn-off for Chaing Saen - the town halfway to where we were going. or so it was thought. Started at noon - should know better by now, and I was feeling extra crispy already. Gretchen was feeling better, so she kept me pushing along to Chiang Saen, despite the couple hills in the middle. And there for the ugly surprise: Chiang Khong would be another 54 km! And the map showed some more terrain between us and there - and a very short line for 54 km, so we could bet on it being hilly. Uh Oh. 3:30 pm and it gets pretty dark by 6:30 - and there's prescious little in the way of twilight buffer at these latitudes. I should note that we're averaging 23km/hr on the flats, but a fair bit slower on steep hills, since we're both toting at least 35 kg of bike & gear.
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So 3 hours, still hot, but we figured what the heck, since our visas were supposed to be waiting in Chiang Khong in the morning and we wanted to get a jump start into Laos ASAP. First 30k were flat. Then a long slow meandering switchback. and then the road builders got bored with switch backs and went straight up. and then up some more. drenched with sweat we hit the top and then came screeching back down the other side. This left 16km to go, and it was 5:45pm, with the sun setting behind the ridge we'd just cleared. It would have been very scenic what with all the locals threshing rice (?) and such were we not trying to beat the sunset. Now for the unpleasant surprise; while the road went back to running along the river, it continued the insane straight up and down nonsense all the way into Chiang Khong, every time we turned a corner, another hill, and a little darker. (Did I mention that our map has very very little elevation resolution? certainly not to this scale of +/- 200m)
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Finally rolled into town around 7 and found the SP Guest House - a night there was included as part of our Laos visa applications. Right off the owner explained that it would be at least the afternoon before our visas showed up. Figures, could have saved ourselves the 116km day.

So we've had a day to chill here, and it was very nice being able to avoid the sun from noon-3 for a change. Ran into two more bikers - also Dutch, early 50-something who take 6-8 weeks to do this every year. They're following right on our heels actually; doing the exact same itinerary we've covered, and ending in Vientiane (big city in Laos). I knew the Dutch had something for bikes, but didn't realize they packed them as standard luggage! Hope their bikes have more than the 3 gears on your standard issue Dutchcycle

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So here's the plan modification; we are really hoping to be in Luang Prabang by New Year's eve (31st) since that will be a darn cool celebration to see in a reasonable sized city (ok, 20,000 - big for Laos). There is absolutely no way we could do that by the northern, road-only route; heck the BUS is supposed to take 8 HOURS to do the first 190 km, so the road is NOT in good condition. So, since we lost at least 2 days with all this Visa mucking around, we're going to take the speed boat to Pak Beng. This is 3 hours down the Mekong river through Laos, and then head up rte 2 from there to the first city that afternoon. Road is reputed to be in horrible condition, so 50km will be plenty. Day 2 will take us to Muang Xay (90km on still horrible road), and then day 3, we'll tackle the 60km of intense cycling through the mountains (but much better road), and then not feel so bad about grabbing a bus the last 70+km down to Luang Prabang if necessary on new year's eve. That's the plan, we'll see if reality copies this time.

So now that we've finally figured out a little bit of Thai, Thai food, and Thai hotels, it's time to switch languages, cultures and currency again! Next time you hear from us will probably be New Year's day in Lang Prabang - Happy New Year!


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