Big air-conditioner

Our original plan was to travel via Route 13 up to Vientiane and enter Thailand, but now we really miss the Thailand of better resources, so we changed our plan and will take a ferry from Thakek through the Mekong to Nakhon Phanom of Thailand. We still have a few days on our visa (well... actually Kong Junior doesn't need any visa...) so we can take a rest in Thakek first. It's a very small town with lots of old French buildings, limestone hills and caves, a surprisingly pleasant place to stay for a few days or longer. We went to one of the biggest caves just 18km away from the town, Tham Nang Ene ("tham" means cave), just at the entrance we could feel why it's such a popular cave, the wind was blowing from the cave like a big air-conditioner, amazing nature! Nothing could be of a better relief than this in a hot country like Laos! STAY: Thakek Travel Lodge, 20000kip for a dorm bed, I won't ask for anything more, I occupy the whole dorm bed (10 beds) for US$2 only!(Laos: Khammouane to Thakek, 45.96km, 20050430-00142)


Heart rate monitor

There's a stupa called That Ing Hong from Savannakhet on the way to Xeno, but we couldn't find it... we must be quite unlucky to miss it because the stupa is said to be really big. Anyway, we arrived at Khammouane, there's a water-gate or a dam... nothing much special until the next morning. Pazu had a Polar HRM (heart rate monitor), it's a chest strip plus a watch that can monitor the heart rate while doing exercise, quite a handy device to keep track of one's fitness progress, when we arrived in Khammouane, Pazu just put the chest strip in the side pocket of our daypack casually, and it was lost. Well... we actually knew exactly where Pazu lost the chest strip because we actually "saw" it again after a few days, it's right inside one of our photos!!! That's really the weirdest experience! Okay, at least we have just checked that we could actually get a spare one, for HK$380 (US$50). STAY: Xebangfai Guesthouse, 30000kip for a room with shower, ask around if you can't find the guesthouse. Tel: 0205751768(Laos: Savannakhet to Khammouane, 85.96km, 20050429-00141)


Chinese bike shop

And yet again Pazu caught a cold... so he just stayed at the guesthouse to sleep for a few days, now he's recovered and full of energy and he is happy to announce that he found a "professional" bike shop in Savannakhet. Nothing to compared with Probike in Bangkok, and not even any decent bike shops in Thailand, "professional" is rated according to the service. Holiene Bike Shop (Hang ben rot thip Holiene), opened by Mr Ho Liene and managed by his son Ho Mingsheng, he's a bike racer team leader and he really knows how a good bicycle works. We found some inner tubes here at last too. (Laos: Savannakhet, 20050428-00140)



It's not like the Laos we know, Savannakhet is such a busy town. But we must say, after living in the rather resource-deprived south for two weeks, it's quite a nice change now. We could finally buy all sorts of fruits (including mangoes, 2000kip for one) and even some Chinese noodles (called "khao bhek" in Lao). In the supermarket some price are written in Thai baht... why? Because they were just imported from Thailand. Mekong River is the natural border between the two countries, now they have ferry service only but yet again the Japanese government paid them to build a Friendshop Bridge, linking all the way from Mukdahan (Thailand) to Savannaket (Laos) and finally to Dong Ha (Vietnam). We walked along the river (on the Lao side, of course), but look west! It seems to be even more properous, buildings are taller. One Mekong, two Lao peoples. STAY: Leena Guesthouse, 40000kip for an okay fan room with shower room, it's quite a bit far from the main road so it's quiet at night. Address: Chaokeen Road, Ratanalangsykang Village, Khanthabouly District, Savannakhet. Tel: 041-212404 (Laos: Paksong to Savannakhet, 74.12km, 20050425-00139)


Not broken bridge

Nothing much happened though we still got another puncture (from the same cheap tube... hope we could get a new one in Savannakhet). There're so many old broken bridges in Laos, most bombed by the American during the Vietnam War. But today we saw one non-broken bridge about 55km away from Khongxedone, quite a sight, but nobody used this anymore because there's a new bridge nearby, funded by the Australian government. STAY: Poumixay Guesthouse, 30000 for a room with a big bed but with shared bathroom. Tel: 041-530102. (Laos: Muang Khongxedone to Paksong, 107.61km, 20050424-00138)


Raining day

I've told you before that we had punctures in the tyre, Pazu didn't really like the bad luck tube anymore and wanted to get some new spares, but with no luck that no tyres fit us in Pakxe... that's strange. Our tyres are 26" x 2.1 but they have tubes of size 26" x 1.75 or 26" x 1.9. Usually that's still usable but the cheap tubes in Laos (imported from Thailand) seemed to be made of some rigid and low quality rubber, 1.9 really means 1.9, not suitable for 2.1... Okay, then what we could do was to fix the old punctured tyre and tried to be careful. Then today, we had another puncture! A nail hit us, the nail was so big and sharp that even the kevlar wouldn't help. Pazu had no mood for cycling today and at the same moment came a violent storm (quite a sudden!), so we stayed at Muang Khongxedone, a small village town right next on the Xedone River (Khong means "strong"). Just when we found a guesthouse, a heavy rain started. STAY: Viengkhieng Guesthouse, 30000 for a small room with bathroom. Address: Right on the Route 13. (Laos: Pakxe to Muang Khongxedone, 66.86km, 20050423-00137)


Vietnamese Lao

We took the same route 13 and came back to Pakxe, nothing much to do here except changing money (they have better rates here) and using the internet. The photo is the old civil court and now is an old house occupied by a Vietnamese tailor. There're surprisingly large number of Vietnamese working in Laos, especially Pakxe, the baguette lady is Vietnamese, the pho (rice noodles, Lao uses the same word) man is Vietnamese, the internet cafe owner is Vietnamese. Pazu asked the baguette lady why she came here (in Vietnamese), she said, "I was born in Pakxe, but in the past the life in Vietnam was very bad, my father came from Bien Hoa to work here for eating, my mother is Viet Kieu in Laos." Quite amazingly, she actually spoke with a Hue accent, nothing to do with her parents. STAY: Thaluang Guesthouse, 40000kip for a closed and claustrophobic room, Pazu caught a cold inside... bad choice. Near the Vietnamese Consulate. Tel: 031-251399. (Laos: Pakxe, 20050422-00136)


Mountain Temple

This is Vat Phou (Mountain Temple) of Champasak, one of the two UNESCO World Heritages in Laos (the other one is Luang Phrabang). It's like a replica of the Angkor in Cambodia, but indeed it's older, dated back to the 6th century. From what we read from the guidebook the mountain where the Mountain Temple was built resembled something like a penis (Shiva's phallus), but we couldn't see any shape resembling a linga anyway. The Champasak town was small but very pleasant, sitting right on the Mekong River, so every guesthouse here enjoyed a view of fishing boats. (Laos: Champasak, 20050421-00135)


Broken chain

Here's the Mekong River again, we cycled from Pakxe to Champasak and took a boat across this mighty river (7000kip), the bike felt down on the boat, luckily it wasn't fallen in the river! (And Pazu managed some time to take a snapshot.) Today is a very short day of riding, lucky for us, because we had a flat tyre, and, a broken chain! The first time of a broken chain we encountered, perhaps our bike had in fact endured enough fatigue, the odometer showed a total of 6435km already. Another luck for us was that the chain was broken only 2km away from a guesthouse so we could walk our bike there. From what Guru Oat had taught Pazu few months ago in Bangkok, Pazu tried very careful to join the chain back, it seemed to work anyway... hopefully. STAY: Anouxa Guesthouse, 30000kip for a simple room with attached bath, right next to the Mekong river. Tel: 031-213272, Mobile: 020-2275412(Laos: Pakxe to Champasak, 36.76km, 20050420-00134)


Wedding cake

Pakxe is the major administrative center of southern Laos, and here we saw more and more bigger buildings, not necessarily related to any government agencies. The biggest one probably is the Champa Palace Hotel, as the name suggested, it was a palace. Built by the last ruler of this region, Prince Boun Oum, in 1968, it had never been finished when the communist took power. Now it's owned by a Thai commercial group and is a big hotel. What do you think of the hotel's shape? Something familiar? As one Australian historian put it, it's like "a kind of Southeastern Asia 'wedding' cake in external appearance". (Laos: Pakxe, 20050419-00133)


Boloven Plateau

So after two days in Tad Lo it was time to go again. We rid through the Boloven Plateau, it was hot here but we can still see some coffee plantation, the route (National Highway 20) is very steep, we had stored so much potential energy while riding uphill and the last 18km to Pakse was all about pressing the brake, a nice break! STAY: Phaythavaone Guesthouse, 40000kip for a room with CNN News. Add: Next to the big Chinese Temple. Tel: 031-213623(Laos: Tad Lo to Pakxe, 90.44km, 20050418-00132)


Tad Lo Waterfall

There's a waterfall near Saravane named Tad Lo, we made a short ride and stayed right in front of the waterfall (they have some guesthouses). Full of Lao tourists, very few foreigners, are here to celebrate the new year, we could really feel some festival atmosphere here, it's quite exciting indeed after 5 days in Ban Theosaban (the place where Pazu sprained his ankle). While we are writing today's diary, we can still hear so much singing outside like a concert. They have a big banner on top of the concert ground, guess what, it's Beer Lao again! Pazu guessed Beer Lao is second national symbol of Laos. STAY: Sypaseuth Guesthouse, 25000kip for a wooden room with 3 beds without toilet. (Laos: Saravane to Tad Lo, 31.67km, 20050416-00131)


Free cool down for cyclists

The water-splashing festival continues for a few days (officially it's 3 days) and it's actually quite a blessing for cyclists. Kids just waited at the highway and splash water with a plastic bag, water gun or even a hose, just in time to cool us! It's really hot here in Laos! We arrived at Saravane, the first big town we had seen in Laos. We met a guy at a stationery shop who could speak some English, we asked, "Are there anything special to see here?" He appeared to be a bit embarrassed and said, "No..." We really couldn't think of anything special in Saravane. Pazu's ankle was feeling better, he could at least managed to ride the bicycle slowly. STAY: Chindavone Guesthouse. Add: Home N. 250, Ban Nalex, Saravane. Tel: 034-211065, 020-5341054 (40000kip for a fan room with toilet) (Laos: Ban Theosaban to Saravane, 52.15km, 20050415-00130)


Pi Mai Lao

Miss Toune (of the restaurant) gave enough sympathy for Pazu's sprained foot but she revealed the better side of this injury, we could wait here to see the Pi Mai Lao (new year, water-splashing festival). We visited the school, the government (which means our guesthouse!) and the temple to see some celebrations and had some free lunch. Lots of sticky rice, meat and even more Beer Lao and whisky. The school teachers at the village had their way to educate the kids into maturity, one drunk school teacher just force every one of her students to drink a glass of strong rice whisky (called "lao"), she poured it down at them, students choked and liquid came out through nostrils... so this is Happy New Year, Sabai dii Pi Mai Lao! (Laos: Ban Theosaban, 20050413 to 0414-00129)


Sprained ankle

More and more uphills and downhills for the first 20km, we spent nearly 5 hours to get through, sometimes the road was blocked with some fallen trees (really big tree!), the road was so empty with only very few people (some carried a rifle!), it was hot and Pazu really tired, nothing really interesting and he stopped taking more pictures, with a surge of adrenaline he didn't even feel like eating until afternoon when we arrived at another village, Ban Theosaban. This village is small enough but after a whole day of seeing nobody, Pazu found this village exceptionally prosperous, they have a small shop, a restaurant, and even a guesthouse! No, it's the government house but pay 20000kip (US$2) and you can take a room. Pazu was quite excited at last and he enjoyed a bottle of Beer Lao at night. When he went back to the guesthouse, the gate was closed, Pazu found there was a small staircase nearby which could pass through the gate, so he took up his bicycle, climbing the stairs slowly, and he fell down. The handlebar rewarded him with a bleeding nose, and worst of all, Pazu right ankle was sprained! It was so painful and immediately swollen to resemble something like a pig's foot! Pazu finally managed to stand up again and just when he wanted to drag back to his room, an idea popped up in his mind. He went back to the closed gate, push it a bit, and it opened immediately. It just closed, not locked! (Well, the photo seems to be a bit out of theme, it was taken in the restaurant of Miss Toune and Mr Chamethone Phommavong, we visited there all the time for a consecutive of 5 days while Pazu was taking time to recover.) (Laos: Ban Taa Tung to Ban Theosaban of Muang Toumlane, 39.95km. 20050410-00128)


Lost in forest

Muang Phin is a junction between National Highway 9 and Route 23, NH9 is in a first-class condition but we wanted to take the dusty Route 23, mostly for the reason that we could take it as an alternative route to southern part of Laos and go up via the NH13 to Savanakhet... okay, it sounds a bit complicated. Here we go! We started our trip really early because we didn't know much about the road condition, the condition was actually quite fine (red soil road) for the first 30 something km, then we met a broken bridge (destroyed during the Vietnam War) and took a boat across this small river. After this the road degenerated into what we called the MacLehose Trail... a trekking route! The road condition was so bad that we could neither ride uphill or downhill. "I couldn't believe I was dragging a bicycle plus a trailer in a road like this!" Pazu exclaimed! What made that worst, we even lost our track for some kilometers in a forest. That was quite scary, we couldn't feel happier when we finally traced back to the "Route" and saw a motorbike. We finally arrived at a small village called Ban Taa Tung and camped there after asking permission from a local villager. This story should be longer, but we are too tired to write more. Sleep. (Laos: Muang Phin to Ban Taa Tung, 54km. 20050409-00127)


Hot wind

We made an early start but we rid a very short distance to another "muang" (town). We have changed our direction, not from south to north, but from east to west, in another words, we are going away the sea (173km away already). It's getting hotter and hotter, we could even feel the blow of hot wind, perhaps we should start even earlier... Muang Phin is another small town with guesthouses, so we stay here. There's a big victory monument in the town center, with Lao and Vietnamese written on. We wanted to exchange some money at the bank and they suggested us to go to the market. We couldn't find any gold shop there so we asked a lady selling fake gold watches, she couldn't quite understand what Pazu said. Pazu made a gesture that we could write, the watches lady took out a notebook, full of handwritten Chinese. "Are you Chinese?" Pazu asked. They are all from Hunan Province and doing business here for two years. That's really amazing, how could they make a profit out of this very small town? "Lao people are getting richer, if they want to buy something, they buy it." The lady said. And besides the fake gold watche, they sell TVs and VCD players. STAY: Sysomphone Guesthouse, 40000 kip for a small room with 2 beds. (Laos: Xepon to Muang Phin, 37.3km. 20050407-00126)


Tranquil Laos

Our Vietnamese visa expired today, so bye bye, we were crossing to Laos. The border formality seems to be extremely loose, they didn't even check any of our luggage. The road on the Vietnamese side were under major reconstruction, it was like Cambodia, but the Vietnamese truck drivers had a way to turn any good road into a nightmare, and the bad road into a hell! "That's terrible!" Pazu yelled. After a whole month of those crazy defeaning and threatening horning (of trucks and buses), we can't say we really miss cycling Vietnam, but definitely cycling is still a better way to see this country than riding a open tour bus, if you know what we mean. Surprisingly, the road on the Lao side is in a very good shape, some of the best you can see in this region, funded by the Japanese again. And what adds to the charm of Laos is the thinner traffic, drivers don't play their horn anymore, no people shouted something funny at us again (Vietnamese loves shouting, "ajdfljsjflajfdljafsl" to foreigners, they thought they were speaking English...). Oh no, suddenly we heard those paranoid and annoying horning again, you guess what? The number plate of the truck is Vietnamese again! Oh my goodness, there're some Vietnamese making the road... it's like a hauting nightmare, why don't they keep themselve a bit quieter in another country? Photo: Pazu was giving instructions to the Lao police to take a souvenir picture of us in front of the Lao Immigration Office. STAY: Nang Toon Guesthouse, 30000 kip for a clean and big room on G/F, black out some hours after mid-night, and no water in the morning... (Laos: Khe Sanh to Xepon, 63.86km. 20050406-00125)


Participate in the war

We arrived at Khe Sanh today, it's a site where 500 Americans, 10000 North Vietnmese troops and uncounted civilian bystanders died during the war. We visited the Historical Site of the Ta Con Airport (Di tích sân bay Tà Cơn), the gatekeeper said, "25000 dong!" Pazu replied in Vietnamese, "That's quite expensive!" "Are you Vietnamese?" "Hmmm.... my grandpa lives in Vietnam!" "Okay, 10000 dong!" The Airport used to be a bigger site, but a small part of it is converted to a museum now, and the remaining area is a coffee plantation owned by a civilian. The gatekeeper was actually a little girl, she suddenly asked Pazu, "Do you have any family members participated in the war?" ... It's the last night in Vietnam, Pazu wanted to eat something good, he went for a hotpot. The repetitive question and answer section was going to start: "Why don't you go travelling with one more friend?" "Don't you feel lonely?" "Don't you be afraid of thieves?" But this hotpot lady asked us a new question which was quite refreshing, "Don't you fear ghosts?" Pazu asked immediately, "Are there any ghosts here?" The lady said, "I don't see them." STAY: Khách sạn Khe Sanh, 80000đ single room on G/F, not really good value when compared what we've got yesterday. Address: Km63 Thị Trấn Khe Sanh, Hưởng Hoa, Quảng Trị. Tel: 053-880740, kskhsanh@dng.vnn.vn(Vietnam: Dông Hà to Khe Sanh, 62.6km. 20050405-00124)


Nobody cared

Our visa will be expired on 6 April, two days left, so we can't really stay longer to explore Hue and have to go to the DMZ but today was raining... on the road we saw yet another road construction work, as usual there was a sign noticing drivers, "Công Trường 5km/h", which means you have to drive at 5km/h because of the road work. Have you ever rid a bicycle at 5km/h on a flat road? It's almost like an impossible ultra-low speed! The government wanted everyone to be ultra-safe in this road work site, they set an impractical speed and ask you to follow, so nobody obeyed the rule! Try reading some slogans in Vietnam, and you would have a laugh. Here's one: "Quyết tâm thực hiện thắng lợi kế hoạch nhà nước năm 2005!" It means "Determine to carry out the victory of plan of country of year 2005!" Pazu asked many Vietnamese friends what the "plan 2005"? Nobody knows! STAY: Khách Sạn Du Lịch Hữu Nghị (友誼遊歷客棧), 80000đ for a single room inside a quiet nice courtyard, the room looks like a university dorm (in Beijing...), surprisingly equipped with a satellite TV and hot shower. 68 Trần Hưng Ðạo, Dông Hà. Tel: 053-852361, 853377. (Vietnam: Huế to Dông Hà, 73.22km. 20050404-00123)


New nurse friend in Hue

It kept raining for two days since we arrived in Hue, the old imperial capital city. On the riverside of Song Huong there was an exhibition of Laos-Thailand, with some Thai-Lao products on sale (useless to us though... silk, etc), and dancing too. Pazu missed Thailand a lot! Hue has a lot to see, but Pazu got only one day here, so he wandered the nearby villages, buildings were old and some were shambling, but with an antique charm that was quite attractive. Picture #1 is the Eastern Gate (正東門) Bridge; Picture #2 is a nurse friend that Kong Junior met today. STAY: Hoàng Hương Guesthouse, 60000đ for a clean double room on ground floor with shower room, basic but very good value. 46/2 Le Loi Street, Hue. Tel: 054-828509. (Vietnam: Lăng Cô to Huế, 67.61km. 20050403-00122)


Hai Van Pass

The good thing to come back to Vietnam again is to see our old friends, the bad thing is that we always have to say goodbye, it's sad. So bye bye Hoi An, we don't know when we will be back. We went to Danang City (30km) to take our passport (and Lao visa) first, then ride all the way up to the Hai Van Pass (Ocean and Clouds). Hai Van Pass is 500m above sea level, it took Pazu about an hour to climb up to the top (10km), and took a flash to go down. There was a fort on the top (see photo). It was once an important military position but now it's a stunning site with a stunning view of the South China Sea, weather today was cloudy and foggy, everything was fine for us except for some annoying truck and bus drivers who still loved to use their horns to say hellos to us, Pazu gave them a middle finger as souvenir. There's good news for cyclists, the Ham Hai Van (Tunnel) will be opened on 19 May 2005 (birthday of Bac Ho Chi Minh), it's expected that all trucks and buses would turn their crazy traffic in the tunnel instead (cyclists or motorcyclists aren't allowed though), so it will probably be quite a hardcore cyclist's dream in the near future, climb up a mountain and enjoy a QUIET panorama view. We stayed at Lang Co (just on the other side of Hai Van), what are the influence of this mountain to the people? We don't know, but it's a natural barrier that makes the Vietnamese language so different. In Danang, Hoi An, Qui Nhon and anywhere in the Central South, people's tongue are more or less similar or the same, but just come to the Lang Co Town on the northern side of Hai Van, people speak so differently that Pazu thought they were Westerners practising Vietnamese! It's not just the difference of the vowels or consonants, it's the tones that makes the difference. Perhaps some linguists would be able to give you more details... (Vietnam: Hội An (會安) to Lăng Cô, 70.65, STAY: Nhà Trợ Số 2, Quốc Lộ 1A Lộc Hải, Phủ Lộc, 054-874550, 50000d for a clean room, bathroom outside. 20050401-00121)