Hue to Siem Reap - Part 1

Trip Start Jul 29, 2007
Trip End Dec 20, 2008

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Hi everyone.

Well, i thought I'd be able to make more regular blogs now with the use of a laptop on board but somehow it just hasn't happened.
To attempt at getting the job done here, I've just lazily tried to cut and paste my ordinary dairy entries so apologies if the story jumps around a bit too much or is a bit long winded and boring...let me know.

It's in two parts because this stupid goddamn website wont letme stick in as much writing as i'd like.  They let me  work the problem out for a couple of hours in an internet cafe.  Wankers!

And if this ever goes to print, you gotta buy my book too, no just reading it for free on the internet ok?

Sun 9/3/08 126Kms Hue to Da Nang (Marble Mountains)

By the time I'd packed all my shit up and was ready to go, it had started raining. I thought about going back to bed for another hour or two and see if it had cleared up by the time i woke up but then i thought about how long I'd been bumming around in Hue, swilling beer in the DMZ bar and getting up at the crack of noon the next day. I was wheel-spinning, going nowhere, stuck in Hue, and had to get out.

The rain was slightly more than drizzle so it was the ol' plastic bag trick around each foot. I had accumulated a black one, a transparent one, and a blue one. Not even Buddha or whoever ‛the man' is in this country can make a pair out of those three, so ‛odd socks' it was.

A couple hours of eager pedaling and the rain eased off so i tore off my ridiculous very low budget overshoes. Then it started to rain again.

Hugh, an American ol' boy I'd met in Hue, who took me out to a flash as Hawaiian bar one night, had told me about the small (500m high) mountain pass I'd encounter before reaching Da Nang. He'd mentioned an 8 Km long tunnel under the mountains or alternatively, taking the pass over the top, A narrow windy road made dangerous by the sheer volume of trucks, and buses using the whole road.

I got to the toll booth at the bottom of the pass and managed to get info out of a lady who would have got an F for English (about two grades lower than me). ‶Yes bike through tunnel put on bus″. ‶What bus?″ ‶Go down there wait for bus″. Fack that i thought, that just ain't my style - sitting on an overcrowded bus in wet clothes while a looney bus driver spends an equal amount of time in both lanes overtaking everything else on the road, happily blasting away on the super loud air-horns all the way to Da Nang. ‶What's that road″? ‶It go over top, it very dangerous″. Ahh facking sweeeeet! Danger's my mate's kid's middle name and it keeps things interesting, and weighing in at 500m high, it's just a quarter the size of St Gotthards Pass i scaled in Switzerland. Remember?
Off i went wondering what she was thinking having explained the best way to get to Da Nang, and watching me do the opposite to what she'd just recommended. ‛Stupid bloody foreigners'.

It turned out to be perfectly safe now with all the heavy traffic being diverted straight through the tunnel. Hugh must have taken the pass in it's hey-day, when the emergency run-offs were constantly used by trucks with failing brakes. Now it was just me, a few motorbikes putting past and the odd car load of tourists.

The rain made me worry about taking photos as me new camera's not waterproof, and as I've already proved, Olympus's aren't very resilient. But the cloud and mist just made it plain difficult to get a half descent snappet.

Half way up there was what was once a nice family home, overlooking the great blue sea. Chuck an 8Km long tunnel underneath and it needs to vent, and that exhaust vent had to go right by this house. They cant win, it's the noise of the diesels struggling up the hill all day long or the deafening roar of the giant extraction fans sucking the fumes out. Half an hour (3km) later i could still hear it in the distance.

When I reached the top, I looked back at the sea miles below, then looked at at the sea on the Da Nang (south) side. I could have sworn there were different sea levels but i think it must have been the visibility, a lot clearer on the down hill side gave me this illusion.

I chatted to an older Canadian lady (she looked about 50ish) who had also conquered the pass from the other side by fully laden touring cycle. She was treating herself to a can of Tiger to celebrate her ascent. I'd have had a can with her if i wasn't in detox mode after my accidental binge session in Hue (or if she was about 20 years younger). (Ok maybe 5). Good to see someone that age still with the spirit of adventure, and also, having the metaphorical ‛balls' to travel on her own.

Hugh had also mentioned that this dividing range ‛split the weather'. It was weird, definitely drier on the other side, and as i descended i could feel the notable warmth, absent on the other side.

I stopped for a couple of bowls of noodles at a roadside cafe for US$0.50 a pop and, as I've been noticing lately, 15 mins later I got a burning sensation on the back side of my head and neck. It must be an allergic reaction to some of the spices, but it sure tastes good.

Rolling into Da Nang by 4 PM I had an hour to check out it's only attraction, as stated in my guidebook, the Museum Of Cham Sculpture. Not overly interesting, a collection of historical sandstone sculptures from the Cham civilization.

Up and down the riverfront i went, this place was tidy, very impressive. I was looking for a cheap guest house but found it had been turned into a restaurant. I also found, from talking to men sitting on motorcycles, that the ‛Marble Mountains' and China beach were only 10Km away. Power on. I hit the beach and slid south down a rather impressive two laned, palm tree lined road with bars, cafes, expensive hotels and there were holiday resorts being constructed everywhere. This place is on the go!

I got my photos of Marble Mountain and its pagodas nestled in amongst its trees then went down to China Beach, where that American TV series simply named ‛China Beach' was filmed. I never watched it but I'm getting a thin buzz out of being able to say ‶been there″.

‛Hoa's Place', the guest house where I'm staying tonight for a fiver (with a free leaky roof) is only 50 m from the beach. I checked in and got chatting to an Aussie couple, Widdel & Matilda, who are living here now, teaching English to the locals. They pointed out that Da Nang is the fastest growing city in Asia, understandable from what i could see, and that the whole coast has been sold by the Government to overseas investors and will possibly end up like Australia's Gold Coast one day. All in all, a pretty impressive place.

Monday 10/03/08 20km to Hoi An

It rained something chronic last night and was still going for it when i got up in the morning. It didn't phase me though as i knew i only had a short 20km ‛walk in the park' today.

Rolling into Hoi An looking for a hotel got my hormones jumping. As mentioned, south of the Hai Van Pass, the weather changes. It's hot here, resulting in girls wearing a lot less clothes, and girls there were. I nearly wore my eyes out, could have easily written off the machine due to the distractions.

I tracked down the hotel that Hoa from ‛Hoas Place' had recommended me. It was full so i went to the hotel next door, checked in, booked myself on a bus / boat trip to the My Son Temple Ruins the following day, then went out exploring, camera in hand, merging in with the hundreds of other tourists. Very mainstream i was, not the ‛novelty on a bicycle' anymore, just a face in the crowd.

11 to 19/03/08 - Hoi An

My guidebook blabbed on something about buying a ticket to see the Hoi An‛Old town', with money going towards the restoration of the joint. I was dumbfounded because i was in the old town looking around taking photo's of all the boring shat that everyone else was taking photo's of, like a facking robot, and wondering where or why one would pay money for this. I later found one of the booths down one end of town. All the tourist buses pull up there with all the people that have bought a package holiday, the retirees club. It was funny watching them get off, get herded to the booth, pay the money (probably nothing to them anyway) and go mingling with the backpackers who'd arrived in town on budget-arse local buses and found their way into the old town without even trying to avoid the entrance fee booths.

My second day of Hoi An involved getting on a bus at 8 am and going to see the My Son Ancient Temple Ruins, quite interesting thanks to a fairly good guide and a great restoration project that had been going on there. Despite the two full bus loads of tourists there i managed to get a few good photos without any tourists in the shot, the desolate ‛just discovered' look. I achieved this by either lagging behind or racing ahead - like a school trip but with no teachers telling me off.
One of the ruins was just that, beyond repair thanks to a bomb that got dropped on it by some plane in some war.

On my second night of being in Hoi An i rode past a rather lively looking bar on my way home. It wasn't mentioned in my guide book but i could see it was heaving with nightlife - the ‛Before and Now' bar. I took note and tracked it down the following night. I pulled up a barstool and sat at the end of the bar and was minding my own business watching some football on telly when, before i knew it, i was arranging to meet up with this girl from Belgium again in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

One thing that is worth mentioning is the number of Frogs here, not the water bound ones either, the Frenchies from France, the ones that eat snails and frogs legs for lunch and used to blow up Greenpeace ships moored in Auckland harbor and keep knocking us out of the rugby world cup. They have a massive association with the country through the early years of colonization and the French language can be heard in the streets as much as Polish has recently been the dominant language in parts of London.

Observing the local people from the bottom of my beer glass, as well as from the seat of my bike, I've definitely concluded that the driving habits of the Vietnamese are equally as careless as those of the Indians, the only difference being the lack of population, the low traffic volume which statistically makes the roads a lot more safer. They still pull straight out of intersections and side streets without looking, knowing that 99% of the time, there's nothing coming. Things are changing (growing) fast here though. But i do have to admire them for their snail pace speed, they're so tentative on them, often holding me up, and i compare them as opposites to all my friends with motorbikes back home - full throttle or no throttle.

Another observation i made while swilling a few and looking southward is the sox they wear here. They have a separated ‛big toe compartment' allowing them to wear jandals with socks, something considered pretty un-cool in our culture (unless things have recently changed since i've been away).

I spied ‛05' spray painted on the basket of a hire bicycle here one day and wondered if it was a tribute to our late ‛Brocky'.

And as i sit back and swill yet more beer from the quiet riverside cafes i get disturbed buy the number of people riding past on electric bikes. I've never had a crack on one of these before but i think the idea is to pedal and use a bit of power when you're struggling up a hill, or want to lay rubber taking off from the traffic lights. The pedals seem to be for resting their feet on. I've seen hundreds of these, not one of them getting used in bicycle mode. Lazy twats. They're not motorcycles!

Thursday 20/03/08 127 Kms to Kham Duc

So after spending sooo long in Hue, keen to move on, I'd found myself repeating my habit in Hoi An. In four days short of a month, I've cycled less than 150Km. Abysmal Graham.

A good filling bowl of ‛pho ba' (noodle soup with beef) had me gliding down highway 1 for a couple of hours before i thought about hooking a right to cut across the breadth of Vietnam and link up with the ‛Ho chi Min Trail'. My budget-arse tourist map shows a line running from east to west, all i had to do was figure out where. The map has all the tourist spots on it and not much more, about 5% of the places i've ridden through.
So i consulted the locals. The first bunch of men sitting around on motorbikes sent me back 5km up the road. The guy on the motorbike with a mortgage on that intersection sent me back the way i came, which i did before thinking ‛I'm just gonna have to try these roads out and see for myself.'

Highway 611 was a narrow bumpy lane that weaved through fairly populated villages out to the foot of the central highlands. It forked a couple of times but i did well to find a young lad that had reasonable English who sent me down the right track, finally meeting up with a nice quiet smooth road (QL14) that must have been the one indicated by my map.

Right as i started the wildly undulating hilly section, the sun came out. I'm guessing its at least 30C. Dead facking easy for the locals, i've never seen so many people hanging from trees in hammocks before, and for me, i've never sweated so much in my life before. I lost count of my water consumption somewhere after my 5th 2L bottle. Lucky they're readily available on roadside stalls, negotiation still required.

The sunburn I'd received on the back of my thys a week earlier is now at the full blown itchy stage, adding to my soaking discomfort, along with a heat stroke type headache. Tough times.

Shortly before 3, i stopped in a breezy shady patch to fix a flattie. Well, sort of. Two dudes on a motorcycle stopped and one of them wouldn't let me touch my own wheel. I didn't mind though because i was semi-buggered and he seemed as if he'd done thousands of them before. Of course the hand came out when he was finished, asking for money (close ties with India perhaps?). I shook it and he started laughing all the way down the hill. Nice try man.

I then reached the Ho Chi Min Highway, A few more massive hills before the first town. Hotel, shower, feed, wash clothes, sleep, have another feed, patch inner tube, blog, bed.

21/03/08 114Kms to Ngoc Hoi (The Mountainous Ho Chi Min Trail)

A bit of a hectic day this one. Hills a slight understatement until late in the afternoon. Mountainous is a better description for the best part of the day. there's no mention of the altitude reached but i reckon it's nothing less than the Hai Van Pass just north of Da Nang.

Not quite the populations i was expecting out this way but who wants to be a hill billy anyway?

Yep, bloody hard yakka today, even when i came down out of the mountains it was a case of 5 mins up, 1 min down all day long. The head wind almost enough to keep me cool later in the afternoon but it was a shirt-off day earlier on.

Once again, i had no idea where i was on my map, in terms of distance to go. All i knew was, when there was a gap in the mountains on both sides, that was where the road to Laos turns off.

I had a companion for 30 or more kms today, a truck with a massive earth mover on the back. The driver had a lot of trouble with the gears not being able to change from 2nd down to 1st while on the go. A complete stop, slight roll backwards, brakes applied then into gear had them crawling up the 10% gradients at 6km/hr. I felt like speeding uphill sometimes, so when i wasn't grabbing on to the back, I'd fly past him and do 8km/hr. The heat inspired me to stop and take more photos today than i usually do so we crossed paths for hours.

I stopped to ask the driver about distances to the ‛crossroads' and he put a smile on my face when he told me 30km. 50Km later, no crossroads and no smile. I was rooted, sore, and almost had enough so was really relieved when it was signposted in a town 53km after his indicated estimation.

After expending that much energy today, i doubled up on dinners, rice in one street cafe and noodles in another. The noodles took the accolade.
I managed to find a money exchanger, a jeweler straight across the road from the hotel I'm staying in, thats one less thing to stress about at the border crossing tomorrow.

The things i stress about most are that I've lost my arrival / departure card, this is a new border crossing and I've had no confirmation from anyone that I can obtain a Laos visa there, in fact, the Lonely Planet says that i cant, and of course I'm worried about corrupt border officials using extortion to bum more money out of me than what i should have to pay. We'll see how it goes....

22/03/08 Border Crossing Balls Up

Getting on the road a tad before 8am didn't save me anything in terms of heat avoidance. The 20Km to the border was hot sticky stuff, more sweat stinging my eyes due to the up and downess roller-coaster ride of the roads.

At last the border was in sight. I stopped for a photo before proceeding through, fingers crossed.

I thought something was up the moment the immigration officer flicked through it asking for Laos visa. He stamped me out after a bit of optimistic thinking on my behalf but the Laos entry side of the crossing was as far as i got. ‶no visa on arrival (VOA) here″ was all i got.

So back in to Vietnam i went with the aid of a ‛canceled' stamp over my fresh ‛exit' stamp. I sat outside the border control for about an hour, helpless and astounded at my own stupidity. ‶What a facking moron″ I had the opportunity to get a Laos visa while in Hoi An but i was so sure that I'd read on Lonely Planet's forum that someone had crossed there and got their visa stamp without a hitch. It must have read ‛visa stamped'. The second lot of mis-information was from the hotel manager in Hoi An who also told me that i can get a Laos visa on the border.

Anyway this wasn't gonna help me now as i was hot and bothered and felt like a bit of a boo hoo. My options were to slide on down south a bit more and try and find a border crossing (with VOA of course) into Cambodia. A long ride on a hilly trail. Or i could just get buses back to the next border crossing north, who do do VOA's. A phone call to Elke, the Belgian girl I'd met just over a week earlier helped clear the mess inside my head. She suggested i slip back to Hoi An and get my Laos visa there. This was gonna ad days onto my journey and i was in a hurry to get to Siem Riep / Angkor Wat (Cambodia) to meet up with her again. When she suggested that she'd double back to see me while i waited for my visa, it somehow seemed to take all my worries away. Done deal. I left the border crossing amazed at my own stupidity but contented with the outcome.

I had no Vietnamese money left as I'd rationed the last bit to get me to the border, so now had to make the journey back with only a chocolate bar i had stashed away for such emergencies. Arriving back in Ngoc Hoi discovering there was no ATM in this town, i found a Danish couple who had just come through the border crossing and were looking lost, trying also to get to Hoi An. I took them to the jeweler-come-money exchanger so we all could get some dongs, and then we managed to catch a mini-bus to Hoi An together.

It was quite amazing driving back over the road I'd just ridden, even at 100Km/hr it took hours and gave me a really weird sensation of ‶wow, did i really ride this far over this terrain all in two days″? People keep telling me that I'm an amazing man and looking out the window of the flying minibus, I'm thinking I'm gonna have to start agreeing with them. Ha ha.

The driver had told us we were going to Hoi An but kicked us off in Da Nang, 30km north. I felt ripped off as my guide book states a 4Hr bus ride should be $6 max. I'd just forked out $19 for this one so i kicked up a massive stink, refusing to get out of the bus. It worked. He had to drive over to the local bus and explain to the driver that he had to take to take us to Hoi An for free.

I'm really starting to get sick of having round eyes and white skin in this country. They're arguably more money hungry than Indians, almost having the edge over them in manipulating money out of the white people. Entrepreneurialism it's called, or ripping off the tourist. A lot of the other travelers i speak to don't like the Vietnamese people and i can easily see why. They just seemed nice to me, probably because of my nightmarish encounters with the people on the land in the previous country I'd visited.

Arriving back in Hoi An I made an attempt to find a good hotel for the Danes. It was tricky as the town was hemorrhaging with people for some unknown reason. I got them into a sweet room in a central hotel for $12 (a deal i wished I'd got for myself), arranged to meet up for beer & dinner later on, then went and found myself a scummy hotel across the river for $9.

After we ate, i took them along to the local ‛happening' bar, ‛Before & Now'. Jesus this place was going off being Saturday night and all, the consumers were flowing out the door and onto he road outside. We managed to fluke 3 stools at the bar just as some drunk facks were leaving so we could sit down and become drunk facks ourselves.

I'd only managed to wrestle down a couple before some fat girl from Melbourne applied the ‛wedge' tactic, jamming herself in between me and my new mates. The conversation was pretty one-sided as i showed her as little interest as possible without being impolite. She had that horrible classic Aussie twang tone to her voice that some (not all) Aussie girls have, which i was not really wanting to listen to. (I once had a workmate explaining to me how he was ‛off' Aussie girls for life, as one had said to him ‶I'm on the rag tonight but you can do me in the shatter if you want″ with more nasal tone than an elephant with its trunk in a knot). ‶Who are you here with″? ‶These two Danish people right here″ I say, looking around the vastness of her, expecting an apology for cutting me off from them. Instead i got her life story, which would have been pretty impressive for someone that was interested. Her hands started to wander along my thy as she slurred away ‶Bla bla bla I'm a doctor bla bla life's been good bla bla bla lived the high life in Rome bla learn't to speak Italian bla bla blaa″. I looked over at the Danes who were sniggering away at her persistence despite all the ‛negatives' I'd been sending out (verbal and body language). Free beer is good beer but not when someone like this shouts it. ‶No thanks″ translated into ‶yer, alright″ to her.
I thought back to my younger days when i used to try mixing alcohol abuse with womanizing. I must have scared a fair few girls in a similar manor but was not one to waste what few words i had on someone totally uninterested.
I hoovered the beer back to synchronize the level with Rasmus's depleting glass in the hope it would be his last. It was, ‶We're off now″. ‶I'm coming too″ i said with relief in my mind but guilt (of not squaring off the round) in my voice. Fack it, there was no other way out apart from the classic ‛gotta go to the toilet now, and sneak out the door' trick. Her attitude went from full-on ‛chatting up' to ‶fack you kiwis are boring″ in about three seconds.

Outside; ‶Sorry for not helping you out there Graham, we could see your concern but thought it was funny″. ‶I didn't want to leave that bar but you guys leaving was the only life preserver afloat, so you did help me out...eventually″.

23/03/08 - 28/03/08. Hangin' In Hoi An (again).

Elke had planned on arriving in a day or two but last night i got a text saying ‶you're taking me out for breakfast tomorrow″. She'd gotten an overnight bus and was now waiting on the bridge for me at 6AM.

We spent the next few days wining, dining with the Danes, & laying in the sun down at the beach while awaiting my Laos visa.

With bikes as a common interest, we got talking to a restaurant owner who had a semi-flash one parked up outside. On inquiring where abouts he'd purchased it from, (Da Nang) Elke's previously mentioned dream of riding a few kilometers with me started to take shape.

The next day she was pedaling hard back from Da Nang to Hoi An while i lazily followed on the motorbike we'd hired again, twisting the throttle and occasionally flicking the gear lever. How easy was this? Should i have been using a motorbike all along? The constant engine noise wasn't all that pleasant, nor was the discomfort of the helmet or the fact that i sometimes enjoyed pushing the Honda 90 along at full tilt sometimes when i shouldn't have been, entering into a ‛danger zone' that part of me just couldn't help.

Yep, I now have a riding buddy, an apprentice, someone else who can appreciate first-hand the difficulties and personal rewards of what cycle touring is all about.

Back at base camp, I gave the small hotel forecourt the appearance of a bicycle repair shop as i adjusted the new bike to fit it's new owner, and adapted a basket to fit in front of the handlebars. We also found a way to strap Elke's backpack to the rear rack using motorcycle inner tubes. This is after I'd explained the importance of traveling lightweight and had her off to the post office sending 5Kg of shat back to Belgium.

Our stay in Hoi An became extended yet again as we now had to wait for her Laos visa as my Vietnam visa neared expiry. We got a 1 day prompt service for a bit of extra foldie, receiving it on Friday afternoon, leaving 2 days for me to get my ass out of the country...

I'd been in this town for almost 3 weeks now, once again, feeling like I'd become a resident.

29/03/08 The Bus Ride Back to Ngoc Hoi

We settled the hotel bill and bid farewell to our hotel ‛host family'. They'd looked after us so well, apart from trying to overcharge us on the bill, which i've come to know as standard practice in this country. I find it amazing that 100% of ‛accidental errors' are never in your favor when, statistically speaking, it should be 50%.

He'd told us the price of the bus trip from Hoi An to Da Nang. We rode the 1km to the bus stop and had the driver telling us it was double what we'd been informed. My temper surfaced. ‶Fack you Vietnam″ I said holding a fairly rigid second finger in the air as we discussed riding the 30kms instead. As we changed into our riding clothes, the bus driver lowered his price which kinda angered me even more as it confirmed his attitude of ‛rip off the foreigners'. ‶Get out of here you wanker″ I said, thinking i've been in this country too long.

We did the 30kms to Da Nang in just over an hour and arrived at the bus depot to find ‛no bikes allowed' on all the mini buses. I still don't know why we were sent over to the minibus terminal by the authorities, and got told ‶no big buses to Ngoc Hoi″.

While pondering over the situation i asked the herds that have nothing to do ‶where's the toilet″? They were all mighty keen to guide me into one particular building, after shaking the dew from the leaf i came out to find a ‛staged' man handing over a 5000VND note. They tried to get me to pay it but i wasn't interested. The lady followed me over to my bike kicking up a stink. This typified the Vietnamese attitude towards money and foreigners. Yep, definitely time to leave these people.

After facking around for a couple of hours and getting absolutely nowhere, while guys on motorbikes had numerous attempts at charging us 600,000VND for the trip back to Ngoc Hoi, we decided to just start riding and try and wave down a bus passing by. I'd had plenty of offers from the bus conductors hanging out the doors of other buses passing me all the way down the main drag from Hanoi, so the theory was certainly there.

We turned off up highway QL14B, the road heading east, towards the Ho Chi Min Trail and found a whole bunch of locals sitting in a shady patch with bags, obviously waiting for buses. We joined them and about an hour later a bus came to our rescue. I'd cunningly prepared a bit of paper with pictures of a bike and a stick figure and underneath I'd written ‛2 people, 2 bikes, Ngoc Hoi, 350,000VND', hoping to get the ride for 400,000. It worked, the suckers played right into my hand and we were on that bus, bikes on the roof for 400,000! Bonus - the on board Karaoke but we were unfamiliar with the words so didn't join in.

It's sometimes a little stressful arriving in a town after dark, not knowing if there's accommodation available at all but i was totally 'laxed over this one being second time round. We settled into the same hotel, different room and i took Elke out for some $1 noodles at my ‛fav restaurant'.

30-03-08 139Kms to Attapeu

The ride to the border crossing was the same as i remembered it. Hot and hilly again. Aaaargh this was my punishment for being such a numbskull regarding my research on the visa situation at this border crossing.

The actual crossing was uneventful, i don't think they even recognized me as ‛the bozo who'd come here without a visa' a week earlier.

What was on the other side was even sweeter. Miles and miles of downhill. We must have been at quite an altitude in Ngoc Hoi. The fun was not to last though as, in the grueling heat of the day, the narrow but fairly quiet windy road wound up and over a couple of mountains. Poor Elke. Her first days riding and she has to encounter this. I felt sorry for myself riding through this landscape let alone an unfit - untrained Belgian girl on her first day.

She surprised the hell out of me though with her effort. I'm forever calculating my possible speed and the distance left to determine whether or not I'm gonna reach my destination.

I was starting to worry as the second killer of a hill, which didn't let up on it's 10% gradient for a couple of hours was rightfully taking it's toll on both of us. Elke was almost dead. ‶Graham, I'm never gonna make another 40Kms like this″. ‶It won't be like this″ I said. The really challenging part for me was to find the right words to motivate her and keep her from giving up. ‶We'll stop up there in that shady patch for 5 minutes, then you ride to the top as slow as you like, just keep on riding″.

I yelled back to announce the news of reaching the summit. ‶See, i told you it wouldn't be like this all the way to Attapeu″. I was rewarded with a smile as we coasted down the other side at 40Km/h.

When we reached the bottom it flattened out - and luckily, it stayed flat. We were both so relieved to see the lights of the new bridge which put Attapeu on the map just a few years earlier. We found a hotel and ate $10 worth of food between us, then topped it off with ice cream.

I remembered back to my first day. It was about 130Kms from London to Dover, mainly flat, and I'd aborted the mission and tucked in at Canterbury after 120 something Kms i think. Wow that seems like so long ago now. But double wow at Elke's first days effort.

I explained to her that although we'd knocked out 140Kms, we'd probably used about the same amount of energy as if we'd covered 180kms or more along a flat stretch of road. She wasn't listening, she'd fallen asleep already which didn't allow me to explain that i like the toilet lid left in the ‛male' position.

31-03-08 Resting in Attapeu

After yesterdays massive effort, it was unanimously decided that we'd take a day's rest (and find a cheaper place to eat).

I went to replace the chain on my bike with one I'd picked up in Vietnam. It had a picture of a mountain bike with deralier gears on the box so i expected I'd have to shorten it quite a bit. It was too short and too wide so i had to abort the mission and throw my old one back on.

We then went to check out the rest of the town. There was fack all to see apart from some markets selling fruit and vege, and another section that was reminiscent of a swap-meet back home, that is, a lot of people selling a lot of shat that no one would ever want to buy. Low sales volumes all round.

Down the other end of town we found another ice-cream lady so we ate there until the rain came bucketing down - monsoon style, which was a good excuse to stay and have another liter tub of the heavenly stuff.

When we finally did get back to the hotel, we found rain all over our bed. We never touched the window, it was already opened, so we didn't feel too bad about asking for another room which we got.

01/04/08 120Kms To Nowhere (and in the possession of a good map without knowing it yet....)

Wow what a balls up today. We tried to take ‛highway 18' West of Attapeu but got horribly lost. It was one of those days where I'd have been a lot better off not even getting out of bed. Here i am 14 hours later back in the same bed, red clay dust over my panniers, I'm tired and sore.

I had my first accident today, jamming on the brakes to avoid a dog that had run out in front of me, my front wheel skidded out from under me on the dusty gravel road. I was going down but somehow managed to un-clip both feet and ‛bail out' letting my bike hit the road and me managing to stay vertical after a bit of a recovery stagger.

Taking directions from locals is now a ‛no no'. The language barrier far too great to discuss concepts such as ‛shortest route', ‛how many kilometers?' ‛highway/road 18'? The reason for asking for all the directions was a)no signposts, and b) the serious lack of a descent road map. My guide book has a single-page map of Laos with a few of the main highways on it and my Vietnam map runs over into Laos - no place names and showing a few less roads than my guidebook.

We basically cycled all day down an unsealed clay road. It had several wooden bridges along the way, some of which were so wonky due to being almost washed away, but the locals were still using them, and whats good for the locals....

The road came to a river without a bridge. We put our bikes on a makeshift boat, two traditional dug-out wooden canoes with a whole lot of boards running between each hull. $1 got us a one way trip across. On the other side the road simply got further and further away from civilization, more of an access road to the irrigation system laying directly beside it. It became apparent that we'd lost highway 18 somewhere along the way.

We started backtracking the whole 20km back to the intersection that we suspected threw us off, and started down what we guessed was the correct route. 200m down the way - bang! My front tyre blew out. Dam! No worries though, i jumped on Elke's bike and pedaled back a couple of km to a village while she sat in the shade and minded my invalid piece of machinery. What luck, the first tyre i looked at was a 26″x 1&3/8 or so it had embedded on the sidewall. Less than half an hour later i was back with a watermelon for Elke and a tyre for me. Although it was stamped as a 26 inch, it was way too large, about 28″ in diameter. Bottom!

I managed to patch up the old tyre by cutting up a plastic water bottle, making a ‛patch' and sticking it on the inside of the tyre to stop the tube ballooning out. It worked.

It was now 4:30pm and we were about 40km from Attapeu and had no idea of which way to go so we decided to bite the bullet, do the dash back to Attapeu, try to get there before dark.

In our rush back Elke throws out the anchor to try and avoid a rooster on a suicide mission. I slam my brakes on for the second time today to avoid her and have the front wheel sliding all over the show again. By now i've got my jandals on and i put a foot down to save myself and end up with it folding up under my foot. Again - no injuries. I've almost caught back up to Elke again as I'm crossing a narrow wooden bridge. Right at the end my wheel gets caught between two boards running the length of the bridge and i almost run down the bank on the other side. I'm not having a good run lately and wonder if Elke is cursing my journey.

With about an hour to go there's thunder and lightening up ahead in the distance and i well imagined us getting back cold, wet, and in the darkness. It wasn't to be, as Elke's enthusiasm was again amazing. We rolled into town dry, with just enough light to find our way to the the shop with all the ice cream and treated ourselves to one before heading back to the same hotel and got checked in by some annoying drunk fack that knew a few words of English , repeating his favorite one about 50 times - ‶ok″.

02/04/08 86 Kms to Sekong

A pre-ride inspection found the small ‛blowout hole i had in my Vietnamese front tyre had opened up into a tear of a size that couldn't be ignored. I tried all the bike shops in Attapeu but found the same scenario every time; Thai ‛Deestone' brand tyres stamped 26″ diameter were in abundance but no bloody good to anyone with a 26″ wheel. I wondered if it was a mass manufacturing fack-up in Thailand and if they'd decided to get rid of the worthless production run by chucking the lot over the border into neighboring Laos.

All i could do was let as much air out of the tyre as possible and put my front panniers and handlebar bag on the back rack.

After yesterdays balls up, we decided to stick to the main road today, - Highway 16, which we sampled the first 5-6 km of yesterday as a start to our getting lost. It was a massive loop up north and around to get back down to the southern end of Laos but at least it was a sure way, with big villages / towns on the way.

All day long we're yelling out to the kids ‶sabadee″ (hello) and getting a warm reception back. It was a nice change from everyone yelling out ‶Hello″ in Vietnam but I'm wondering if tourism and subsequent education in these parts is still in its infancy. Most of the kids give a greeting, a smile and a wave. Others, not too familiar with the sight of foreigners or what to do just stand there and stare until we wave and say hello, then the smile breaks out and comes the warm response and i think how things might have been for the early European explorers. How can cultures fight against each other after such a natural warm initial ‛we're all humans' response?

It was nice riding such a comparatively short distance today. When we crossed a bridge and saw kids swimming in the river below, the kids in us wanted one too.

We weren't as brave as the kids though, we wore underwear in the water and we were too big to jump off a branch and pull up in time to avoid hitting the bottom in the few feet of water that the kids were jumping into. It was nice to have time to stop along the way and do these things though.

Arriving in Sekong, food and accommodation were on the list of priorities but finding me a tyre that fits was also a relief. It's a hellishly chunky one, an off road tyre, not so efficient but better than nothing and also better than one that had a plastic bottle stopping the inner tube bulging out.

We're now lounging around in our hotel room and Elke starts reading my guidebook. She finds a section dedicated to southern Laos with a more detailed map of the region. Oh fack!I honestly didn't know it was there! If she was paying me to be her cycle tour guide, I'd have gotten the sack by now. With this map, we could have easily showed it to locals yesterday and found our way down the shortcut, route 18. Shat happens and tomorrow we'll persevere with our ‛long cut'.

03-04-08 51Kms To Tha Thaeng.

A nice easy half day today. Riding along, the gentle rises and falls turned into one gentle rise - no fall. We were kinda expecting something like this as Lonely Planet mentions something about a 1500m high ‛Bolaven Plateau'.

Elke's knees started to give her problems. I rode as slow as i could, facking around as much as possible but she was still falling behind something chronic. As we gained altitude the air temp dropped, it was as cool as it had been in a long time so i felt like really applying the power to the pedals.

I remembered back to when i first met Sylas Cullen, the bloke's room whom i took over the lease of when i moved into my flat in London almost 3 years ago, and probably the guy who triggered my brain into toying with the idea of riding from one side of the world to the other. Him and his girl were doing a small charity ride. Small as in 15,000Kms from the southern tip of Chile to the equator line in a country aptly named ‛Ecuador'. I once asked him ‶what happens if she cant keep up with you?″ (politically incorrect, I know) Sylas replied ‶We'll take a tow rope and I'll tow her along.″

Elke went for a squat in the bushes as i hooked up an elasticized rope between our bikes, ‛this was going to be beneficial to us both, and a bit of fun' i thought - she'll be sitting back there like the queen of Belgium, laughing and waving to the village people we pass by on the roadside while i strain my guts out getting us to the top of this plateau.

I was just about to mount my bike when i looked back and noticed out the corner of my eyes, tears streaming from the corner of hers. Oh shat! This is a pretty familiar occurrence to me. I don't think I've ever had a girl hang out with me for more than a few weeks without making her cry somewhere along the way. I must be some kind of superbastard or something. I laid my bike over and went to fix things with a hug and the usual apology for being such a bastard or whatever it is that i am to the opposite sex. It turned out that she was so worried about making me angry by not being able to keep up.

The hug and a kiss partly did the trick but explaining that i wasn't getting angry over our (lack of) progress was the main point that restored a smile to her dial.

We pedaled on, i hoped the rope wouldn't be all jerky like when trying to tow cars. It went smoothly, which allowed me to ponder over Elke's fear - my anger. What is it for? Why do humans have it? Are we born with it, do we genetically inherit it or is it something we subconsciously learn from our parents, like language, leadership, greed, sharing, respect etc? Can it be controlled or stored up? When should it be displayed and who should be the audience of someone's uncontrollable fury? I don't facking know, one would have to study psychology for all the answers but... what i think about displays of anger? It's ugly. Often unresolving, and 99% of the time, unnecessary. I think people just make asses of themselves having these temperamental outbursts and i know that they loose all of my respect.

We unhooked the rope 5Km from town so Elke would still look cool as we rode on in. The town was big enough to host a couple of guest houses which we discussed staying in over lunch. We needed to rest her knees and i needed time to edit and sort the photo's on my memory card, so we decided on a nice early day (1:30). We showered, then had siesta.

To be continued... go see part II.

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