February 3, Day 12: Somewhere in Laos to Phonsavan
“The mushrooms in that soup were delicious.” “Those weren’t mushrooms, that was intestine.”
Knowing we had a 10km climb at the beginning of our ride, we headed out at first light. It was cold–almost too cold–but since we knew how hot it would get later we tried to enjoy the cool. Almost halfway up the climb my rear derailleur stopped working so now I had only one gear to work with. On top of that I realized some sort of bastardized washer/screw combo was holding on my rear wheel and that wasn’t seated properly. So now I had no rear brake, one gear, and a rear wheel that looked like it was about to fly off. Needless to say, I was a bit stressed.
Trying to fix my bike mid-climb
We saw what looked like (on the map) a modest village about 30km ahead and decided to try to find any sort of mechanic to work on my bike. Bicycle shops were beyond scarce, but almost every major village had some sort of motorbike mechanic. We pulled into town and mimed a mechanic. Eventually we were pointed in the right direction. When we pulled up there was a flurry of activity and a dozen guys came out. I mimed my rear brake and they fixed it pretty quickly. I then pointed to my wheel and they dug up some spare parts to secure the wheel. The gears, however, posed a problem. Three guys were simultaneously working on bike and spouting Laos as they tried to figure out how the derailleur worked and how they could fix it. About ten minutes later, I proclaimed it “good enough” and then we thanked the mechanics and headed off for a late breakfast. After gorging on sticky rice, fried eggs and beef stirfry, we hit the road–only 30 km left to Phonsavan!
As soon as we started back up again I realized my shifter hadn’t really been fixed, but the brake and the wheel was fine, so I determined the morning a success. As we pushed on with the thought of BeerLao dancing in our heads, we fought the intense mid-day heat and sun. We had most definitely left the mountains and entered the plains. The temperature was almost unbearable. In fact, this leg of the trip nearly broke Robert. We took a lot of extra hydration and cooling stops and slowly made our way towards town.
We finally pulled into town around 2:30–early compared to our previous days–and checked into a guesthouse. We did some laundry, took a shower, and went out to explore town. We finally found the holy grail–a bike shop that sold baskets! We were able to rig up an attachment involving old, questionable zip ties. We then found an internet cafe, spent an hour doing work, and then headed off for dinner and BeerLao. We then returned to our guesthouse, found a TV channel in English, and traded back massages while we sipped more BeerLao, nibbled on papaya, and forgot all about our struggles of the day. Ah, the good life!
February 4, Day 13: Plain of Jars to Muong Khoun
“I think I see worms in this water. Perhaps we shouldn’t swim?” “Worms? I don’t see any worms. I’m going in.”
We again woke with the sun to hit the road. We decided we would spend the day visiting the Plain of Jars: a Unesco World Heritage Site of 2000 year old burial urns. We grabbed breakfast on the way out of town of eggs and sticky rice and eagerly looked forward to a leisurely cycle out to see the old ruins. We were especially happy because we could transfer a lot of weight from our packs into the new baskets on the front of our bike.
Our happy feeling was short lived, however, because we turned off the main road onto a dirt road that was pocked with craters and riddled with rocks. Oh yeah, and every 2 minutes a truck went by completely encasing us in dust and making the visibility zero. We pulled our bandanas over our noses and mouths and soldiered on–nothing was going to get in our way!
Because the roads were so bad it took us over 2 hours to travel 15 km. It was brutal. We weren’t sure what to expect when we got to the site, but all the guidebooks made it sound like a breathtaking site. Don’t get me wrong; it was really amazing to see the old urns and the surrounding hillsides, but was it worth a 5 hour round trip bike ride across soul crushing roads and getting dust over and in every part of your body? Hell no. I hated the bumps. I hated the dust. I hated that we kept snapping precious zipties that held our baskets together. I was grumpy, grumpy, grumpy.
Halfway through this grumpfest we stopped at a “waterfall” which was more like an area of cascading rapids. No one was around so I changed into my Rev3 shimmer suit and cooled off in the water. It was awesome.
By the time we finally left the dusty road it was after 3, and we hadn’t yet eaten lunch. We grabbed a quick lunch of Pho and then decided to hitchike to the next town since we were both in such bad moods from our ride. It took us over 45 minutes, but we managed to find a work truck with room in the back for both our bikes. We hopped in and enjoyed a scenic ride throughout the farmland until we got to Muong Khoun.
We got dropped off in the middle of town and went off in search of a guesthouse. We found one, but they wanted 80,000k a night ($10). Robert was able to talk them down to 60,000. We rinsed the dust off our bikes and scrubbed our bodies as best we could.
Since the map indicated the next 200km or so might be similar road conditions as to what we had just encountered, we tried to find someone who spoke English to give us a better idea of what we would be riding over for the next few days. We learned that people here don’t have a lot of experience reading maps, as they looked confused whenever we pulled one out. But after some miming they assured us the rest of the route would be flat and smooth.
We then grabbed a delicious dinner washed down with (surprise) more BeerLao, then headed back to our guesthouse for more massage swap. We headed to bed early, eager for the next day of our adventure.
February 5, Day 14: Muong Khoun to Muang Mok
“What’s this I’m eating?” “Like tiger, but smaller.”
We woke again with the sun. I had a rough night of excruciating stomach cramps, but thought after one bathroom event I was fine. We ate some melon for breakfast and then hit the road. We were blessed with immaculately paved roads and were in heaven.
That quickly faded, however, when we got about 20km in. Suddenly, the road turned to dirt and was rockier than the previous day. And to top it all off, my stomach started cramping again.
We decided to pull into the next village and try to hitchhike. Right away we lucked out, as a man had stopped for gas and was headed in our direction. We threw in our bikes in the back of his truck and hopped inside the cabin. He took us as far as he was going and then we got out and gave him a few dollars in return. We then had a difficult challenge ahead of us: the road we were on had almost no traffic but it was impassable by bicycle and we had no idea how to get to the next village. We walked to a gas station to ask a motorist if they were headed in our direction when we suddenly heard “Please, come!”
We looked to see a table full of a dozen of Laos men who were surrounded by empty beer bottles and visibly drunk at 2 in the afternoon. Right away they passed us some beer and encouraged us to drink. Since my stomach hurt so bad drinking was the last thing on my mind, but I took tiny sips to be polite. One man spoke English–he was the English teacher at the local school–and told us that hardly any Westerners come through this part of Laos. He explained the roads were very bad and under construction. He also said that it would be impossible for us to continue by bicycle because of the road condition and because we would be crossing mountains.
We began to get upset, and my stomach pain was not helping the situation. His friends offered to drive us to our destination for $100, but we knew there was no way we would spend that kind of money. So we sat. And waited. And waited some more. Eventually we flagged down a truck and found one headed to Muang Mok! Even better, one of the drivers spoke English! He told us we were nuts to try to attempt this route by bicycle and ahead of us lay 60 km of horrible road conditions. He wasn’t kidding: the roads were so subpar that it was almost impossible for our truck to navigate it.
We began to slowly navigate the rocks at 5-10 km per hour. Meanwhile my stomach pain was getting worse and worse. We stopped so they could get water from a waterfall, and that was when the first (and second) wave of my GI distress hit. Using SAT vocabulary (that’s how Robert and I decided to communicate when we were around people who understood English) I told him I was sick. I was in so much pain as we kept driving that I was clenching my jaw and pinching my arm to distract myself from the stomach pain. We were driving through amazing scenery, but sadly I couldn’t enjoy it.
Eventually we pulled up to a queue of cars. “We wait here,” our driver said. He explained that they close the roads until 5pm due to the construction. As this point it was only 3:30, so we had a lot of time to kill. I was desperate to try to relieve my pain, so I grabbed my sarong from my pack and laid it out like a blanket on top of the red dust. The next 90 minutes consisted of me lying down and moaning and jumping up every 10 minutes or so to have more waves of GI fun.
I told Robert I would probably want a photo to document the moment of the worst pain on the trip. I was right.
The line of people waiting for the road to be opened back up
Eventually the bulldozers appeared and began packing down the hillside to make the “road” for us. We piled into the truck and hung on for another long and bumpy ride. The afternoon light made the mountains unbelievably gorgeous. Eventually we pulled into town. Our driver showed us the road we would take to hitchhike the next day and then dropped us off at a guesthouse. Of all the nights, of course this is the night we end up with a communal squat toilet–the night I’m sick. I was still in absolute agony so I skipped dinner while Robert went out in search of dinner. I was able to take in some coconut water before bed and turned in early in hopes of feeling better in the morning.
February 6, Day 15: Muong Mok to Kang Vieng
“There’s no taxi to Tasi”
I woke feeling like a whole new person–the sickness had passed! Now that I was feeling better, the logical side of my brain kicked in. How the hell were we going to get out of this village? Since our guesthouse didn’t turn on the power in the morning I got ready by headlamp and headed to the market for breakfast. I was wary of putting anything complex in my stomach, so I found some doughnut-like balls and ate them to test the intestinal waters. We then headed to the edge of town with a main mission: find a hitchhike!
Where we waited all morning
After almost 4 hours of waiting only three trucks passed us. One was going only 2km up the road, and the other was full. The third kept telling us “no, no, boom boom!” (we later found out they were carrying explosives to the construction site) At noon we decided to head back to the village to try to get more information. We stopped in some government offices, which proved useless, and then headed back to find the person who had given us a ride the previous day. He owned a wood shop in town and mentioned that another village was only 25 km away. He explained that the roads were terrible and all uphill so it would take us at least 4 hours if we wanted to attempt to go by bicycle. Faced with no other option, we grabbed a quick bowl of Pho and decided to go into beast mode and just get to the next village no matter what it took.
We stopped at the edge of town to put on sunscreen. Right then a truck pulled up. We flagged it down–it was headed to Kang Vieng and it would take us! Inside were two brothers who spoke limited English. They told us their family owned a guesthouse in the village. They dropped us off at the guesthouse, refusing our offer of money for the ride. Robert and I then decided to explore the village. We headed off on our bikes.
We made it less than 5 minutes when we heard Karaoke. We decided to investigate. As we got closer we heard “please, come!” so we headed in. There was a group of a dozen men surrounded by beer bottles. Before we could even say “Sabaidee” there was beer in our hands and we were toasting and drinking. A few of the men spoke English. They all seemed pretty tickled by the fact a Western girl was in their bar and we were having a blast. We sang Karaoke, drank copious amounts of Beer, and stuffed ourselves to the gills with fish and sticky rice.
But the real treat was when they found out the following day was my birthday. They made me an omelet, called it cake, stuck a candle in it, and sang me happy birthday. It was quite possibly the best birthday celebration I’d ever had–sitting in a remote Laos village, surrounded by beer, food, and the laughter of strangers and friends. The village children had even begun to gather to explore us.
What a truly amazing day–one that had started out with the potential to be miserable, but ended up turning into one of the most memorable days of my life.