Bangkok and Chiang Mai

For the past week Katy’s parents, Dave and Jeanette, and Katy’s sister and brother-in-law, Jen and Pat, have been “in town.”  We like it when folks come “to town”.  It mixes things up.  I asked each of them to write 2 paragraphs for our blog.  They wrote a page.  I guess they’re just having that much fun.

Temple.
Nāgas

Katy

I love my family. We have had such a great time when Clayton’s family has come to visit so I’ve been excited to share this experience with my family too. Back in August I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to because my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a difficult time and being far away only made it harder. Throughout the past six months I debated going home to support and help my mom, but every time I asked her or my dad about it they both insisted I should stay out here. Fast forward six months and my mom is post radiation, in remission, and sitting with me on a beach in Thailand. They have been beyond excited about this trip and I probably should apologize to their friends who have heard quite a bit about our adventures 🙂 I have always been very close to my family and this trip has been the longest I have been away so needless to say, I’m happy they’re here.

A few snippets:

After meeting at the airport we headed for the Bangkok Airlink Tram. We approached the ticket window. 35 Baht ($1) a person. Clayton walks up to pay and my dad whips out his new wad of Thai cash and hands Clayton a 20 thinking it was like a $20 bill back home. Clayton and I just start laughing. Clayton letting everyone in on the joke says, “Good of you to pay for 2/3rds of your ticket Dave, but I got this.”

Walking through the Sunday Street market Jen saw a row of chairs and a bunch of Thai women standing around. Her eyes lit up like Christmas morning when she realized these ladies are willing to take $2 in exchange for a foot massage. “If only I had this on my street back home…” She muttered before dozing off during massage #2.

At the Elephant Nature Park we walked along a river. Four of the five elephants were ahead of us and out of nowhere Marigold, a wily and spry elephant, comes trotting up next to Pat. She practically wrapped her trunk around his upper body and coyly tried to push him in the river. Pat started laughing and ran to get out of the way but Marigold kept playing all day. There aren’t many things that can bully Pat, but Marigold is one of them.

Jen

I’m on elephant writing duty, cause I’m the elephant lover.  Katy heard about an elephant park where you get a lot of face to face time with the elephants. After some research we booked a tour with the Elephant Nature Park.  Lek, the owner, has made it her mission to rescue elephants from being abused, begging on the streets, illegal logging, etc. She currently has 30+ elephants and offers tours where you can see the elephants be themselves – wild and free.

We had an hour ride up into the mountains where we met up with our tour guide “Mine”. After a safety briefing and getting food bags the elephants came walking up. There were 2 groups. The first had the 2 older elephants that didn’t like anyone else. Once they were off, the group of 5 came by. We got to go out and start feeding them watermelon and pumpkin. There was a 4 year old baby in the group named “Boy”. He had quite the personality and was very rambunctious. We walked with them to a field where we fed them sugar cane, bananas and wheat bread. They would toss the sugar cane aside in favor of the bananas until the bananas were all gone. Then the sugar cane was okay. Here we also learned about the history of some of our elephants. Marigold lived in an illegal logging camp. The owner of the park bought her for $3,000, her hips were dislocated and she had a broken leg. They showed us pictures of her malnourished and you could see her ribs all the way down her back. She had been here for 9 months and was happy to be free again.

From the field we took a walk with our elephants across the river to a trail through the jungle. It went around the back of the Elephant Nature Park. We hiked up the mountain to a tree house for a lunch of vegetarian dishes, fried foods, and fruit. From the tree house we looked over the park and could see the 30 other elephants there. It was so cool to be sitting, eating and then hear the elephants talk to each other. We hiked back down and walked with our group to the river. The elephants know that when you have a feed bag there is food for them.  The will speed up and start using their trunks to feel around you and get you to give them a banana or ten. Their trunks are so powerful they can really push you around. All the elephants would follow you until you had no more bananas. It was funny to watch all the guys – Pat especially – get pushed around by these animals that just wanted a banana. It was surprising to learn elephants eat for 18 hours a day then sleep the rest of it. If they have tusks they will learn to sleep standing up to keep their tusks in perfect condition.

We got back to the river and we gave the elephants a bath. Basically you take a bucket, fill it up and splash them with water. Sounds crazy but was really fun and the elephants seemed to really enjoy it. The baby elephant then knew it was his turn to play in the river. He got down and rolled around and splashed all over. He looked so happy. We said goodbye to the elephants and headed out for white water rafting. It was more like pinball down the river. Most of the time the river was knee deep. And a lot of times they told us to “shake, shake!!” meaning jump up and down to dislodge the raft from some rock. We ended back up at the elephant nature park and met a few more elephants. It really was a very cool day. Being up close with these amazing creatures really was something that was unforgettable.

I wish people bathed me in similar fashion.
Bath.
What is that?
What is that?
The elephant trunk.
The elephant trunk.
Boy, the 4 year old elephant.
Boy, the 4 year old elephant.
Elephant Time.
Elephant Time.

 

Pat

Throughout our travels here in Thailand I have been really intrigued by the driving and traffic. At first it seems chaotic and out of control, people dart between and around each other. Some vehicles move slowly, some way too fast. We experienced this first hand when we rented some scooters and scooted up the mountain into Doi Suthep National Park. It was amazing. After some initial nerves we soon fell into the flow of traffic, moving, dodging, and weaving through cars, buses, and fellow scooter riders. We had so much fun.
As I thought about it, I found it interesting how chaotic traffic with limited rules worked itself out. It’s commonplace on the roads here in SE Asia, but it’s also a great metaphor for life. Know where you want to end up, have a general idea what direction to take and although it might look crazy from the outset, once you’re in the thick of it things will be fine and everything will work out.

Scooter Life
Scooter Life

 

Dave

What a great idea!!! Let’s go to Thailand to meet up with Katy & Clayton!!

I was a little hesitant at first because I have traveled to foreign lands before and let’s just say – the local cuisine and I have not gotten along very well – I lose every time. Not Europe or the Caribbean but places like Mexico and Egypt – what some may call third world. So, what to expect in Thailand? I had been reading all about K&C traveling through the first 26 countries and eating their way through warm shower hosts, markets, family gatherings where they suddenly become part of the family, and of course the vendors along the way eking out a living by turning fresh fruits and vegetables into pure deliciousness.

We landed in Bangkok after 24 hours of flying and were delighted to see K&C waiting at the airport for us!! They led us to the subway and we took a 15 minute ride to the stop nearest to our hotel. “It’s just .8 miles away” one of them said so we set off with our “carry-ons” in tow and walked and walked to reach our destination. Along the way we passed dozens – maybe hundreds – of street vendors cooking up the most delicious smelling delights you can imagine. Spices you have never seen or smelled before being cooked as we walked by. Because it was so late and were fed on every flight, we got to the hotel and just collapsed.

The next morning the plan was to head to the Temple of the Emerald Buddah – Wat Phra Kaew and after visiting the temple we headed along the Chao Phraya River and found a street vendor making Thai Soup along with BBQ Chicken. We all dove right in and kept ordering more and more until I was watching a young Thai woman filling plastic bags with ice, dumping in different ingredients and closing them with a rubber band. Well, we had to have one of those – no maybe two or three. It was a delicious fruit punch. Then, the grazing started in a way I haven’t seen …. ever. Fried dough with pork something inside, fried chichen, spring rolls, coconut milk soups, sticky rice with mango, crepes like fried bananas with sweetened condensed milk, pad thai, pork skewers, corn on the cob, rice and beans cooked in bamboo stock and of course the smoothie drinks – banana, strawberry, pineapple, papaya, watermelon and of course mango – at least one mango smoothie for every one of the other types. And, you just keep ordering more because they are so delicious and, they are only 30 Baht which is the equivalent of $1. The food is sooo good and it is sooo cheap. We stopped at a roadside “restaurant” in Chiang Mai and we delicious dinner including several additional plates to try because “they’re only $2”. The six of us rolled out of that place stuffed to the gills for a total of $30 – unbelievable.

We also hit the night market in Chiang Mai and it was an unbelievable sight – miles of street vendors hawking their wares and others making delicious food. We started at one end and criss-crossed our way throught the sea of humanity buying things, eating more things (wow, those banana/Orieo sundays were amazing), getting foot massages, eating more things and then we looked up an Patrick was gone. We were pretty sure he hadn’t been abducted but we set off on a full court press of a search and came up empty-handed. I figured he had gotten diestracted by some of the amazing and beautiful crafts and wares but I offered to head back to the hotel in search of him. Before I left I took a video from the center of a crossroads of the market showing a 360 degree view of the escitement / hysteria happening in every direction. When I found him his story – and he’s sticking to it – was that we had ditched him while he was watching a Thai gentleman crafting a motorcycle helmet fashioned after the alien in Predator – complete with the face plate and dreadlocks coming out the back.

If it’s not the night market it’s the floating market or the flower market or the underground market or….. you get the picture… a market for every time of the day and week with millions of people eagar to sell you whatever it is you need – or don’t. Bangkok and Chiang Mai have been an amazing adventure and we’re sure to have more as the week comes to a close in the beautiful area of Phuket.

Chicken.  Fried delicious chicken.
Chicken. Fried delicious chicken.
Khao Lam.  The good stuff.
Khao Lam. The good stuff.
Hmm.
Hmm.
What do we have here?
What do we have here?
Meatstick.
Meatstick.
Lunch
Lunch

 Jeanette

It’s a long way from eating in shifts, one child (who shall remain nameless) having thrown a fit because her food didn’t come first, won’t be consoled.  Even when her food comes, she’s still too insulted to stop howling.  So out to the car goes one parent while the other wolfs down food sitting with the other two model children only to switch so the other parent can eat.  Oh and did I mention?  Food is plain, not touching, mac and cheese cuisine usually half on the floor when the meal is over.  Fast forward 25 years to Thailand to a modern kitchen complete with knives (whoa) with your kids trying to decide whether to make minced pork with holy basil or prawns in tamarind sauce.  Who knew the payoff would be priceless?
Our Thai cooking school started off at the local market.  We learned about Thai cooking staples:  shrimp paste, oyster sauce, cane paste, fish sauce, palm oil, coconut cream (soup 25%, curry 50%, dessert 100% cream respectively), red and green chilies and the most amazing varieties of herbs and vegetables.  Dave carries the fresh cracked coconuts and raw eggs tied in the customary plastic bag with rubber band.  Apple, our instructor, jokes:  20 baht each broken egg!
After removing our shoes and donning aprons, we start with pad thai and drunken noodle.  We speculate: how long before we actually get to eat?  Food prep hasn’t been a factor at the street vendors. Chop, chop, smash, smash, how hot you like it?  Apple doles out the appropriate number of “mouse shit” peppers (very small….apparently when they dry….you get the visual).  They are hot little suckers!  The pad thai is the big winner.
Then it’s on to chicken coconut milk soup and hot and sour roasted chicken soup. Then appetizers of green papaya salad with peanuts and savory minced chicken lap and spring rolls.  Yum!  All clear winners.  The second and third round is dead even.
We prep dessert next.  Oh wow.   We each take 1 minute turns milking the coconut in a cheesecloth to produce the tasty milk/cream used in everything.  Apple says its not eaten by its self, only used as an ingredient.  Sampling the leftover milk, we concur.  Clayton and Patrick each spend 5 minutes at the wok toasting coconut all for the garnish on the black sticky rice pudding.   Dave and Jen carefully fold tiny bananas sliced lengthwise in a savory batter, easily broken while sliding into the hot palm oil.  Katy and I prep sticky rice with mango, pretty easy once you get the special rice, soak it 6 hours and cook it in a bamboo steamer.  We make sweetened condensed coconut cream and fold in the rice.  Now the hardest part.  The curries, red, green and Penang, require a mortar and pestle and a great deal of muscle.  The smells are heavenly.  Once the spices are made into a paste, it’s over to the wok.  Oil is added to the paste and cooked.  Then a little coconut cream.  Stir, stir, stir over high heat, slowly adding more coconut cream between stirring constantly.  Then reduce heat and simmer.  The stir-fry was straight forward with the secret in the sauces.  The minced pork with holy basil was the clear winner.
We sat down to dine on our last two entrees and dessert family style some of us using chopsticks, passing plates and judgement.  When did these babies become adventurous, spicy-loving foodies?  It’s one of those life moments that you know you will remember forever.  We start to slow down and Apples offers to pack up the leftovers.  She doesn’t realize Clayton’s just waiting to see what is left over.  Then it’s gone.
In the course of five hours, these are our takeaways:  1. You have time to work up an appetite between courses with all the chopping, smashing, grinding, milking and cooking.  2. We are glad we didn’t have to do dishes, there were a billion.  3. Next time we get Thai takeout, we will appreciate it more.
All those years ago the only Thai things in my vision were bows and shoelaces and it was priceless then too.  You never know when life is going to throw you a curve ball and I’ve had a doozy this past year with breast cancer.  My takeaway is this:  most of life is hard work, routine, keep your nose to the grindstone, dirty diapers kind of stuff.  It’s not fun or glamorous but it affords us the most amazing, moments of euphoric joy.  The amazing taste of Thailand with my family was one of those moments of pure joy!

Apple, our Thai chef instructor.
Apple, our Thai chef instructor.
Market
Market
She feels like this sometimes.
She feels like this sometimes.
I'm hoping this happens back home.
I’m hoping this happens back home.
The family that cooks together . . .
The family that cooks together . . .
Eats together.
Eats together.

A Few of Our Favorite Things

A photo – or two or three – of each country.  Also a new food page.

Heathrow International - Let's get this party started.
Heathrow International – Let’s get this party started.
England - Malham, Yorkshire Dales
England – Malham, Yorkshire Dales
Scotland
Scotland
France - Château de Chambord
France – Château de Chambord
Switzerland - Descent of Simplon Pass
Switzerland – Descent of Simplon Pass
Italy - The Po River
Italy – The Po River
Slovenia - Vršič Pass
Slovenia – Vršič Pass
Austria - South of Vienna
Austria – South of Vienna
Czech Republic - Charles Bridge, Prague
Czech Republic – Charles Bridge, Prague
Slovakia
Slovakia
Hungary - No Bikes What??
Hungary – No Bikes What??
Romania
Romania
Serbia - Old Dinar House, Vršac
Serbia – Old Dinar House, Vršac
Bosnia
Bosnia
Croatia - Our nephew Charles is pretty contemplative at times.  Dubrovnik
Croatia – Our nephew Charles is pretty contemplative at times. Dubrovnik
Croatia - Cycling with Jessica
Croatia – Cycling with Jessica
Montenegro - Bay of Kotor
Montenegro – Bay of Kotor
Albania - The Accursed Mountains
Albania – The Accursed Mountains
Macedonia - Lake Ohrid
Macedonia – Lake Ohrid
Greece
Greece
Turkey - Everyone wants to be the Sultan or Sultana
Turkey – Everyone wants to be the Sultan or Sultana
Turkey - Cappadocia, Katy reaches Nirvana
Turkey – Cappadocia, Katy reaches Nirvana
Israel - The Temple Mount
Israel – Near the Temple Mount, Jerusalem
Jordan - The Treasury, Petra.  In search of the Arc of the covenant.
Jordan – The Treasury, Petra. In search of the Arc of the covenant.
United Arab Emirates - The Burj Khalifa
United Arab Emirates – The Burj Khalifa
Nepal - Tsergo Ri
Nepal – Tsergo Ri
Nepal - Here comes the oxcart, oh how slow.
Nepal – Here comes the oxcart, oh how slow.
India - Thanksgiving Dinner in Barhalganj, Uttar Pradesh
India – Thanksgiving Dinner in Barhalganj, Uttar Pradesh
India - Varanasi and the Holy Ganga River
India – Varanasi and the Holy Ganga River
Cambodia - Angkor Wat, the Wat of All Wats
Cambodia – Angkor Wat, the Wat of All Wats
Laos - Feels good to mingle with these laid back country folk.
Laos – Feels good to mingle with these laid back country folk.
Laos - Me and my girl.
Laos – Me and my girl.
Thailand - Looking for adventure.
Thailand – Looking for adventure.
Thailand - Visitors always means lots of eating.
Thailand – Visitors always means lots of eating.
India - Rajasthan
India – Can’t wait to get back to India

Huay Xai > Chiang Rai > Tha Ton > Chiang Dao 289 km

We made it to Thailand! We crossed the border five days ago from Huay Xai, Laos into Chiang Kong, Thailand. Country #26. Whew! And what an exciting country it has turned out to be.

Things are different: we’re back to the left side of the road, multiple road options between towns, the towns are much wealthier, no more bamboo villages, no more babies and children on the side of the road, dogs are pets again, and lots and lots of thumbs ups.

Entering Thailand was not as easy as expected. Normally we pull up in the car lane and are treated like a private vehicle. This time we were told to walk our bike inside. It was like pushing our fully loaded tandem through the La Guardia airport. Once we got our necessary stamps we were then ushered to load a bus to be transported the three kilometers across the Mekong to the Thai border. We laughed when they directed us to the bus. There was no way our tandem was going to fit.

After some serious confusion, we went back to the private vehicle area. Five different officials looked at our passports and then at our bicycle. Eventually we feigned misunderstanding and took off pedaling toward the border. We didn’t make it far before we were stopped at the toll collection booth and then we noticed a police car driving towards us. Oh dear, I hope we don’t end up in a Laos prison, although that would be quite an experience. A few minutes later we had our very own police escort to Thailand. With all the fellow bike tourers we have met lately, you think riding a bicycle across the border would be standard procedure. It’s not apparently.

After a few hours of cycling from the border, we were in a pickle. The ATMs in the small towns refused our cards. We had no Thai money, no water, and no food. In walks Thai generosity. Finally we pulled into a substantial town and saw a 7-11 (they are, unfortunately, everywhere here – I mean honestly, who likes cycling around the world only to feel like you are on 45th south) I walked in, saw they had a credit card machine, and hungrily gathered a bunch of food and water. I ordered two paninis, some hot momos, and glugged the water as they rang me up. I swiped my card. Nothing. I swiped again. Still nothing. Oh no. My card doesn’t work. Crap, I am already eating and drinking their food.

 The cashiers don’t speak English and finally a woman in the store comes over and confirms my suspicion. Only cash. I explain I have Lao Kip and US Dollars but no Thai Baht, but they won’t take Dollars or Kip. I’m on the verge of tears. Then another woman comes over, touches my shoulder, and nods at me. At first I don’t understand what is going on. The English-speaking customer says this woman wants to pay for your food.   Tears well up in my eyes. I tell her I will give her US$ and she just smiles and shakes her head. I profusely thank her and practically tip her over with a hug and gratitude. I am two feet taller than her.

Stunned, I walk out of the 7-11 and tell Clayton. As I am telling him a Thai gentleman on a motorcycle asks us where we’re from and where we’re going. Impressed, he tells us he has cycled to Laos before and we discuss the mountainous countryside. He invites us to his shop for some coffee. Kong is alight with friendliness. He used to live in Bangkok but moved to Ban Lao to help with his family’s coffee business. He taught us a few Thai phrases, including how to barter: “Lot dai mai”. This will definitely come in handy when my sister Jen arrives this weekend! He made us drinks and gave us bananas for the road.

Several kilometers down the road, Kong returns on his motorcycle. He directs us toward Chiang Rai and then gives us dried bananas and bracelets for luck on our journey. He then wishes us well and we continue on.

Our day only gets better when we met up with Edouard in Chiang Rai. Edouard is a fellow WS user and our sort-of host. We contacted him about staying at his place in Marmagne, France. He was already out on a bike tour but suggested we stay with his parents. If you have been reading our blog then the words “Prune Crumble Dessert” should ring a bell. This was Edouard’s parents. We absolutely loved them, their farm, their food, their dessert, and their conversation when we were at their house in July.   We felt like we knew Edouard because of it. He emailed us a few days before and we arranged to meet in Chiang Rai. We had a nice hot pot dinner with him and Robbie, his new cycling companion.

That night in Chiang Rai, Clayton got nervous. With all the nice tarmac we had experienced and heard about in Thailand, Clayton felt like our adventure days were coming to an end. He likes the unexpected, the out of the ordinary, and the possibility of failure. Plus, my family is coming at the end of this week so we have time off the bike in our future.   So, he decided, it was time for an adventure. He found a hard pack dirt road that followed a river for a ways, but then, according to “terrain” mode on Google Maps, goes over a mountain. He then looked on gpsies.com (great website) and decided there would be a steep, dirt road section for “a while.” “We can push if we have to,” he told me. And push we did. It took us two hours to push our bike over the last 2 miles, maybe 20-25% grade dirt roads, and a river crossing or two. Despite the difficulty we did have a beautiful ride following a river through small villages in the Thai countryside. So all in all, it was a great adventure. And hopefully will get the “need for an adventure” out of Clayton’s system for a while.

This wouldn’t be a blog post without a mention of food. The food in Thailand is superb. There is quite a bit more variety here than in Laos. We came across some fried chicken on the road and Clayton could not believe he hadn’t heard people talk about Thai fried chicken. Jamaica = fried chicken. The Delta = fried chicken. And now, Northern Thailand = fried chicken. Also, grilled sausage and pork, curries, pad thai, noodle soup, and more. We found a shop selling only Mango and Sticky Rice. This is my new fave. We celebrated Valentine’s Day with three plates for 50 baht each ($1.75). Noodle soup for lunch each day, $0.95. Good thing those mountains in Laos made us hungry.

Thailand
Thailand
New Traffic
New Traffic
Lovely river beach
Lovely river beach
Our adventures.
Our adventures.
Pad Thai $1.50
Pad Thai $1.50
Warmshower Friends!
Warmshower Friends!
A bit of Spring Cleaning
A bit of Spring Cleaning with Gasoline to Cut through the Grease
Worn brake pads
Worn brake pads
Damn. Second broken spoke.
Damn. Second broken spoke. Clayton works his magic. Thank heavens!
Mango and Sticky Rice.
Mango and Sticky Rice. This might top DQ…
Kong and Clayton
Kong and Clayton
Where did these bug bites come from?
Where did these bug bites come from? 100 on one leg… bummer.

 

Oudomxay > Luang Namtha > Huay Xai 290km

Just put one foot – or one pedal – in front of the other. That’s what I told myself. I dragged my sorry, but getting smaller, behind up another 10% grade in the heat of the day and wondered if it would end. You never know when the windy, mountain roads of Laos will offer respite. We set out at 8 am this morning from our quaint riverside bungalow in the small town of Vieng Phouka, 120km from Huay Xai, the Laos:Thailand border town set on the Mekong River. Despite our early start, or maybe because of it, the day was long and hot.

To add to the tough day, our timing chain kept coming off (I think because our pedals hit some rocks the other day which has loosened things up) which completes the short recipe for Clayton’s anger. After the third incident he screamed “Worthless dipshit bastard son of a bitch,” (my apologies to both our mothers and grandmothers reading this.) He climbed off and attempted to throw the bike to the ground but I steadied it—as I was still on it. He then kicked the front pannier and I told him to cool off. Clayton has a temper and it irritates me. He gets angry at our bike and its problems, and oh it has problems. Small problems that don’t incapacitate the bike are the worst, because they never get fixed and never go away. They are a nuisance each and every day.

I’d fix them if I knew how, Clayton will fix them eventually, but not today. But I don’t complain, I do hardly anything to maintain the bike. He’s fixed more problems than I could have imagined, so despite his temper tantrum, I let him keep cycling. However, I did ride the fully loaded tandem past him, as he fumed down the highway, telling him he could get over his anger or walk to Huay Xai. He got over it. I was glad – the long, hot, mountainous day continued and it took both of us to drag our heavy tandem over the hills.

After five hours, and too many hills, we reached our final opponent: a 12% grade for three kilometers. It was too steep. And our bodies were empty, empty of carbs to fuel our muscles. We also rode those five hours on only two water bottles and a handful of sticky rice. Each turn of the pedals was painful. We stopped. We were beat. Clayton took the bike and I walked. Even walking was hard, I’m not sure how Clayton got our stuff up that hill. Around the corner Clayton left a water bottle on the side of the road. I like mountains, but I like knowing where the top is. But this road winds and winds, tempting me with multiple false summits. When will it end? At the very next restaurant Clayton had half a dozen spoonfuls of soy sauce before his noodle soup. When you’re debilitated in the heat, its easy to drink too much water, further exacerbating low sodium levels which can cause hyponatremia (or so Clayton says.)

This past weekend we stayed with René Roesler in Luang Namtha. René is our first Warmshower host since Delhi. He did not disappoint. Crispy, thin crust pizza, sauna with the locals, muesli with yogurt and mangos at the local bakery, trekking in the jungle, swimming in the river, lunch of khao niao, pork larp, and joew bong on banana leaves, more sauna time, burgers, soft-serve ice cream in a waffle cone ($0.62), a bonfire looking over the Nam Nga, then a leisurely Sunday afternoon at a waterfall sunbathing, while I read and Clayton wrote. Heavenly. By the time this trip ends, Clayton might write as many books as he’s read: one. We planned to leave Sunday afternoon but a free bed and buy 2 get 1 free ice cream cones forced us to stay another night. René is from Germany and works for the German Development Council. He oversees micro financing for 135 surrounding villages. He lives in the perfect place for exploring on foot and bicycle. Every weekend he has the same routine: run,  hike, bike – and then go to the sauna. We might have to move here. At the very least we would recommend it to others. (Hint, hint Fullers.)

Tomorrow we cross Friendship Bridge No. 4 and will be in Thailand. Country #26. Wow. Despite enjoying the moment, it dawns on me how quickly our time is passing on this incredible adventure. Who would have thought time would pass this fast? Don’t worry. We still have a solid two months and haven’t bought any return plane tickets, so who know how this journey will end.

Laos countryside
Laos countryside
Wasn't expecting these behinds.
Wasn’t expecting these behinds.
Laos Village New House Party. Practically pulled off the bike and shoved in.  Lots of Beerlao flowing listening to "You've got the moves like Jagger."
Laos Village New House Party. Practically pulled off the bike and shoved in. Lots of Beerlao flowing listening to “You’ve got the moves like Jagger.”
Puzzling.
Puzzling.
As close as we'll get to China this trip.
As close as we’ll get to China this trip.
Shall we get one for the tandem?
Shall we get one for the tandem?
Hula-hooping.
Hula-hooping.
Rene's House
Rene’s House
Yum.
Yum.
Rubber trees. Who knew?
Rubber trees. Who knew?
Watch out.
Watch out.
Jungle walk.
Jungle walk.
Why don't we have banana leaves back home for plates?
Why don’t we have banana leaves back home for plates?
Action shot. Our first ever. Thanks Rene.
Action shot. Our first ever. Thanks Rene.
Hotter.
Hotter. The Lemongrass Sauna.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luang Prabang > Small Town > Oudomxay 208km

Today was memorable.  Not enjoyable.  Memorable.  There’s a difference.

Most people use potholes to differentiate between “good roads” and “bad roads”.  Were we to use this classification scheme, you could – technically – say the road we fumbled down today wasn’t that bad.  There were only 7 or 8 potholes.  However.  However.  Each of those potholes was a monstrous 6 miles long, separated by rare instances of smooth pavement where we could collect our thoughts before entering another giant pothole.

But let’s start at the beginning.  My alarm went off at 6am.  I got up and looked around the room for the laptop (since I’m an author now I have a pretty regimented writing schedule).  While scrambling in the dark, I heard something.  The drone of a television, or maybe radio.  I opened the window and a loudspeaker radio from the center of town was going at it.  Just like previous mornings, Communist Radio – as Katy and I like to call it – woke up the entire town.  Just before 7am a couple hymns were sung, and we knew it would wrap up soon.

We got on the road at 9:30, and around 11 figured breakfast/lunch was in order.  We ordered cow neow (sticky rice) and dabbed it in some spices.  The Lao love their spices.

Then the first pothole started.  It’s always comical at first.  Holy balls Batman!  This road is awful.  But the awfulness doesn’t go away.  And it isn’t funny.  Then the mountain started.  Up and up and up.  Multiple false summits, we kept grinding.  When you’re sweating out of your shins you know you’re getting a good workout.  Around 2 we reached thee summit, told the Koreans to stop taking our photogrpah, put down a Vita Milk and a couple bottles of water (cause I was dry on the inside) took a couple shots of soy sauce (cause you really need your sodium, or if you’re an athlete – I’m an athlete – we prefer to call it electrolytes) and got back on the road.

Going down a mountain inside a pothole is worse than going up.  All your hard work is wasted as you grab the brakes for two hours.  We did see a mother pig getting ravaged by some piglets, so that’s nice.  The tandem is pretty awful on the bumpy roads.  To let off some steam – Serenity Now! – I started throwing some unkind comments to the Lao folks. They don’t speak any English so I assumed if I just yelled in a high-pitched friendly tone no harm would be done.  Probably not true, but better than yelling at my wife.

“Hey, I rode my bike around the world and your road is the worst.”

“It looks like y’all are working hard, but that dirt is gonna wash away when the rains come.”  (I mean honestly, how can you fix a road with a rake?)

“Why don’t you elect a new government that will build you a decent road?”

I’d get about halfway through one of these shouts of built up frustration when they would all wave and shout hello.  So much for trying to vent.

Then it got dusty.  As in, giant trucks roll past and a dust cloud engulfs us.  Lung damage, vision problems, gritty teeth, fingernail sensitivity.  Dust gets everywhere.  Dust also hides stuff, like giant rocks.  That’s how we got our first flat tire and broke our first spoke.  My perfect wheel, crafted in a cheap guesthouse in Kathmandu, suffered its first broken spoke.  I made Katy fix the flat tire cause it’s good practice for her.

Then it started getting dark.  Dust clouds are cool in the dark cause you can’t see anything. You get to stop for a while and wait until you have permission to continue.  Then another rock, maybe the size of a swollen ankle, and another flat tire.  (Magically I hit both of these rocks with the back tire, the long wheel base of the tandem is a nightmare on a bad road.)  Katy hailed a truck for a lift into town but I reminded her that Pratts aren’t wusses and we finish what we start.  I’ve always told her that stubbornness is my best trait.  Don’t give up.  Ever.

After dinner (dinner is always feu, which is similar to Vietnam’s pho) we sat down at a small fire with two middle aged men, one with a machete and the other with a pack of cigarettes.  I got out my sunflower seeds, they pulled some yams out of the coals.  We swapped.  Then the smoker placed a two foot stick of green bamboo in the fire.  He carefully rotated it, water bubbled out, and twenty minutes later he decided it was “done” so he handed the stick to the machete friend.  A couple carefully placed cuts later and Smoker Deng pulls some rice out of the bamboo and we have a second dinner.  My tandem handling skills in the dark on lousy roads are slowly improving, but I definitely need to work on my rice cooking inside bamboo over a small fire on the side of the road.  That would be the cow’s neow.

My shoeses.
My shoeses.
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DUST
DUST
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DUST
DUST
KCP, so hot right now.
KCP, so hot right now.

Vientiane > Luang Prabang 383 km

8:50pm. Lamache Restaurant, overlooking the Mighty Mekong River. A soft breeze blows through the palm trees, music drifts across the river and Katy puts in another order for mango with sticky rice. We brought a couple extra mangoes from the market because we like our sticky rice extra mangoey. Which is different than mangooey. It’s hard to believe that at some point these fairytale dinners in mystical places will come to a crashing halt.

For the last five days our home has been Highway 13. Our wheels have pointed north, from Vientiane through the tourist infected town of Vang Vieng where tattooed and bikini strapped twenty something years olds stumble down the street looking for another beer, up through the endless Dr. Seuss inspired jungle-infested mountains and to the UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang. Highway 13 is the largest highway in Laos, but in a country of 6.8 million people, where rivers have always been and always will be, the major form of transportation, the highway feels unimportant.

There are no lanes, no paint in the road, no shoulders, no medians. It’s just a strip of pavement, smooth at best, bumpy and laden with dirt filled potholes on average, and getting a new layer of smoking hot black tar that sticks to our tires at worst. On Highway 13, children rule the road. Four and five year olds cross the street without looking, their 2 year old siblings on their backs. Boys roll old bike tires down the road, carefully navigating the tires every turn with a small stick. Little girls scream sabaidee as soon as they see us approaching, and immediately a crowd of children turn their heads and start waving. Older children are sent off to find firewood, bananas, rice and other items from the hills.

After the children, the animals have next priority. Chicks squeak and chirp as they follow their mother hens carelessly across the road. Bamboo chimes hang from the necks of cattle; they wander aimlessly because they don’t know where they are going and unsure when they will get there. Unlike the cows of India, these cows move out of the way if we head straight at them. It’s indicative of the Laos people in general, they are quiet and shy whereas the Indians are loud and in-your-face.

The road has felt empty, ten and fifteen minutes will pass before we see a car, motorbike or our tourist van plying the road between cities. The tourists will invariably wave, and we’ll think to ourselves you’re missing the best part. Gas stations are rare, most gas is stored in 50 gallon drums along the side of the road allowing motorbikes to refuel without getting off the highway.

The road is a snake. It winds. Most of the time, we can only see 50 feet ahead of us. So when we are climbing our second or third pass of the week we are left to imagine how much longer we will have to climb. Our legs have felt weak, having not ridden in the past 4 weeks, but the 20,000 vertical feet we conquered in the past five days are getting us back in shape. It’s not often that I can see noticeable quad muscle growth in just a week’s time.

Two days ago, after a demanding 8,000 vertical feet, we came within 3kilometers of our destination and I stopped, asking Katy if she would rather walk. My legs were shaking and I could have fallen asleep in the middle of the road. I went to bed that night at 5:30, cause when your body wants rest, your body wants rest.

For the past two hours we’ve been grazing. First on the menu was some Mekong River fish, about the size of my head. Stuffed with lemongrass, slits on all sides and drizzled with other herbs and butter, it is stuck between a splint of bamboo, tied shut and put on the coals to cook. When done, it gets a side of eggplant and spicy peppers and served on a bamboo leaf. You know you’re enjoying Laos food at its best when you have a fish head in one hand, juices and oil are running down your chin,  your lips tingle from the peppers, and a pair of chopsticks are in the other hand. Mmm.

Lunch with some dear friends
Lunch with some dear friends
A room with a view
A room with a view
Some people weren't cut out for life on the road.
Some people weren’t cut out for life on the road.
Graceful
Graceful
River action
River action
Yoga Love
Yoga Love
Pretty close to Nirvana.  Pretty close.
Pretty close to Nirvana. Pretty close.
Highway 13
Highway 13
Caves
Caves
Sunset
Sunset
Nam Song River, Vang Vieng
Nam Song River, Vang Vieng