Laos, the land of a million elephants

25 – 27 May, 2013 – We finally arrived at the border, much later than expected as nobody told us about a pass and that the border would be exactly on top of this pass at around 1,200m. Too late to get a Laos visa right away as we arrived at 11.30h just with the beginning of the lunch break until 1pm, we lost precious 1.5 hours. Getting a visa is pretty straight forward though, except for the many fees you have to pay: it begins with a visa fee of 30 USD for me and 35 USD for Johan. Then we had to pay a 1 EUR fee each for getting a visa, plus 1 EUR each for Saturday overtime, plus 1 EUR fee each for the stamp on the visa, plus another 0.5 EUR each for the Saturday overtime, plus 0.5 EUR each for the H1N1 test, which consisted of measuring our temperature with a pistol-like tool held on our forehead! At that time we were both suffering from hypothermia as our temperature was around 32 degrees C, at an outside temperature of 33 degrees! LOL! All in all there were three people busy with our visas and it took 30 minutes for the whole process. Another way to create employment, but seriously, why don’t they just increase the visa fee instead of having multiple additional fees? This would certainly increase their efficiency. We even got receipts for each and every fee, so we don’t come to think the fees might just be some pocket-money for the officers….never mind, we got our visas and happily continued our journey downwards for a while. 20130607-101714.jpg

Still a long way to go to the capital city

Still a long way to go to the capital city

As always we immediately noticed a difference to Vietnam. A big difference. Our travel guide already warned us ahead, Laos’ population is very laid-back. Lao commonly express the notion that ‘too much work is bad for your brain’. And it is so true. Nothing really bothers them and for the first time since India we see many people just sitting in front of their houses doing nothing or sleeping or drinking or chatting with whoever is passing. A no-go in Vietnam. There is never a dull minute in their lives, they always have something to do. The Vietnamese remind me on my father and we often had a great laugh over some of these similarities.

But we are in Laos now, and we need to slow down once more. You might think that after nine months on the road we would have become more laid-back and relaxed but the Lao mentality is far beyond how much we can slow down. I think that I can cope with it slightly better than Johan seeing all his attempts of teaching Laotians a lesson. But that’s a different story.

Northern Laos is mountainous. Very mountainous. The rough guide could not have described it any better: ‘if a careless god grabbed a giant sheet of green paper and crumpled it into a ball, the contours would resemble northern Laos. At every turn, convoluted rivers curl through layers of mountain ridges.’ After our long descent we had to climb once more, not just for a bit, for a long time, in total we climbed two hours and ten minutes. At every turn we were hoping the peak is near and each time all we saw were more mountains and a road snaking up the hill. It’s been a tough day: all morning we were riding in the pouring rain, wet to the bones, and all afternoon we were climbing in the sun, wet to the bones from sweat. It’s been the first time for me that I really didn’t like the cycling. Johan tried in vain to cheer me up but it wasn’t my day at all.After the strenuous pass we continued along a river, continuously up and down and arrived tired in Muang Koua at 6.45pm. We checked into a basic guesthouse with extremely unfriendly staff and decided to leave the next day as there was nothing to do or see.

Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world and doesn’t have many roads, let alone good roads. Only about 25% of the roads are sealed which makes some roads impassable in the rainy season. As we were now heading south towards Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site, we decided to take a boat to the next town as the road would have been a huge detour via many more passes. The downside of travelling in the low season is that the boats don’t leave as frequently and only if there are enough passengers, unless you pay the full fare for a boat. Luckily two backpackers on a shoestring budget wanted to take the same boat and after long discussions with the owner of the boat Johan was able to negotiate acceptable fares for all of us. The boat trip took about five hours through ragged mountains with sometimes thick jungle and sometimes the still practiced slash and burn agriculture, where forest is cut down and used for farming for just one year to be unused for up to 15 years as more forest will be cut down. During our road trip we will pass many villages with signs ‘this village is not practicing slash and burn tactics’. It seems that the government together with a lot of other organizations try to find other occupations for villagers in the mountains to be able to make a living such as planting organic coffee.

Every now and then the boat stopped to take on more passengers and half way through our river journey the boat is cramped with more than 20 people aboard. Thankfully only for about 20 minutes as the seats weren’t really comfortable with just the few of us. The last two hours of the trip were the most scenic with more cone-shaped mountains and jungle as far as we could see and rapids that reminded me on a river rafting trip in Austria many years ago. By 3pm we arrived in the little town of Nang Khiao, had lunch, looked for a place to sleep and relaxed for the rest of the day as we wanted to hit the road to Luang Prabang early next morning and tackle the distance of 144km in one go.

Right before our departure

Right before our departure

Just cruising...

Just cruising…

Anyone keen on joining?

Anyone keen on joining?

Small village along the Nam Ou

Small village along the Nam Ou

Pink buffalos are actually no albinos and much more expensive than their dark friends

Pink buffalos are actually not albinos and much more expensive than their dark friends

Slash and burn farming

Slash and burn farming

Another beautiful and remote village, the only access is via the river

Another beautiful and remote village, the only access is via the river

We rose early at 5am and Rudi and Smokey were ready to go by 6:45am. Yes, I know, we are slow in the morning, and I think the fastest we ever managed were 1.5 hours to be ready to go. Never mind. Before 7am is still a good and relatively cool time to be on the bike. The journey kicked off easy with a modest rolling pattern, up and down through many handsome villages. A big relief after weeks in the mountains. I by the way like the Lao villages much more than the Vietnamese. Most houses are still wooden houses, also the ones from the richer people, and many of them have little gardens with even lawn around it. Bushes and trees are blooming at the moment which adds to the beauty and the villages often remind us on the French or southern German countryside. And then there are hardly any concrete houses in these villages and if they are painted, not just on the front but on all sides.

Ready to leave in the early morning

Ready to leave in the early morning

More early morning scenery

More early morning scenery

A typical Lao village

A typical Lao village

A blooming xxx tree

A blooming and to us unknown tree

Leguan for lunch?

Iguana for lunch?

The longer we rode that day, the more difficult it became with longer and steeper climbs and a relentless sun and more than once we are afraid we’ll not be able to make it to Louang Prabang. But we made it, by 6pm we arrived, found a nice and cheap guesthouse, ate a great meal and slept gorgeous! And by the way, we haven’t seen an elephant as yet!

Shelter from the sun

Shelter from the sun

More beautiful scenery

More beautiful scenery

The river Nam Ou seen from the road

The river Nam Ou seen from the road

More climbing

More climbing

Distances cycled:

25 May, Dien Bien Phu (Vietnam) – Muang Koua (Laos): 102km

26 May, Muang Koua – Nong Khiao: Boat trip

27 May, Nong Khiao – Luang Prabang: 144km

Total distance cycled: 12,011km of which 208km in Laos

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The Land of the Smile

Finally. We had arrived. In Thailand. In Bangkok to be more precise. One month late, but better late than never. The third leg of our journey has begun. We were so excited, about the warm weather, the cleanliness, our wonderful hotel in Bangkok, the food, the shopping haven, the people, the supermarkets – they have Tesco’s everywhere and you can get whatever your western stomach yearns for – actually we got excited about everything.

Room with a view

Room with a view

We’ve also become invisible. I am again the 44-year-old woman no stranger cares about, Johan is my 49-year-old companion, also nobody cares about and we’re just happy. We can talk on the streets without being interrupted by some strangers who desperately want to know everything and help us even though we don’t need any help. We can cycle in our sports outfit including helmets without being laughed at, while people still greet us, welcome us and give us their thumbs up when they see us touring, but that’s about all. And we enjoy it so much!

We spent three crazy days in Bangkok. Crazy, because we actually really needed a break from everything including cycling but woke early every day to spend all day in the city shopping and sightseeing until we came back to our wonderful hotel late in the evening. We wanted to do everything, even having a drink at Sirocco, a posh bar overlooking Bangkok and recommended by Johan’s brother Reinier, but were denied access as our wardrobe would have offended the other guest’s taste buds. Neither shorts, sandals, flip flops nor sneakers are allowed there and my beautiful pink wedding dress was already on its way to Empfingen ;-).

Bangkok skyline with its colorful taxis

Bangkok skyline with its colorful taxis

At the Royal Palace

At the Royal Palace

At the flower market

At the flower market

Chinatown

Chinatown

Lunch "Bei Otto" in Bangkok with beer, Wiener Schnitzel, baked potatoes and Suabian potato salad. Mmmmmmh!

Lunch “Bei Otto” in Bangkok with beer, Wiener Schnitzel, baked potatoes and Swabian potato salad. Mmmmmmh!

So we saved our money and instead spent it to replace our threadbare bike trousers, get the long-needed shirt for Johan, new waterproof bags for our tent and mattresses as both our bags had a few holes and with the pouring tropical rain we do not want to risk that our sleeping gear gets soaked. My new bike trousers turned out to be crap as they don’t protect me where they should. In Thailand they only sell unisex models which should fit all but me of course. Hence, after one 80km-cycling day I ripped open my skin and it still hasn’t fully healed after more than a week not on the bike. I am still thinking how I could recycle these trousers but most likely they will get buried on Ko Samet, despite their misbehavior!

As planned we left Bangkok on Thursday, February 7, an adventure in itself as we had no map for Bangkok and road signs were either illegible or non-existing. The traffic was quite moderate compared to what we were used from Indian cities except for the harbor area, where we shared a poor and narrow road without shoulders but huge holes with many, many trucks. This was also when we decided to buy a map, as we just couldn’t find our way out of this huge city. I think it took us about three hours and 30km to get out of there an onto the highway heading south.

The heat and humidity were breathtaking, literally. We had to stop often for drink breaks as we weren’t used to cycling in such hot weather and we decided to stop early, after only 40km. It was a wise decision as the iced coffee we had earlier that afternoon wasn’t a great idea, we both reacted with upset stomachs.

A bike path for a few kilometers

A bike path for a few kilometers

We continued the following day along the highway and along one after the other city or industrial area. Cycling was easy on great roads, but far from being pleasant as we were missing nice scenery and quiet roads. Something that had to wait for later as our only goal was to get as soon as possible to the island to start our vacation. We reached Si Racha, a small fishertown about 20km before infamous Pattaya and decided to stay two nights to get used to the heat. We stayed in one of the many stilt houses, an interesting experience, especially if you are sitting on your terrace and your neighbor is using the bathroom (these houses don’t have sewers, all goes directly into the sea). We didn’t really get excited about a swim in the sea there….. as you can imagine.

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The next cycling day was as uneventful and unpleasant as all previous days as the scenery didn’t change and we were just grateful that the cycling itself went OK as we had good road conditions and even tailwinds from time to time. After another stop at a beach hotel right before the ferry to Ko Samet, our first swim in the sea and a good night’s airco sleep we finally took a morning boat to Ko Samet to start our well-deserved vacation. We found a beautiful little hut in the more quiet northern part of the island, with WiFi, airco, fridge and direct access to the lonely beach. Our vacation had begun!

On the boat to Ko Samet

On the boat to Ko Samet

Mermaid's welcome at the pier on Ko Samet

Mermaid’s welcome at the pier on Ko Samet

Our new home for 10 days and 11 nights

Our new home for 10 days and 11 nights

'Our' view from 'our' new home

‘Our’ view from ‘our’ new home

In total we spent ten full days on Ko Samet. Originally we only wanted to stay one week but Johan’s stomach continued to be very upset and he went to see a doctor to finally get rid of the problem. Some antibiotics and other pills did the trick and since Monday he is feeling well again and we decided to leave tomorrow, Thursday, February 21.

Ko Samet is a beautiful little island and we walked a lot as our new home is about 2.5km outside the village. There are a lot of small but also a few bigger beaches but we concluded that we liked our beach the most, as we were most of the times the only ones there.

'Our' beach

‘Our’ beach to the left…

...and to the right

…and to the right

As Johan’s health didn’t allow much activity at the beginning we really relaxed, enjoyed our self-cooked food, fresh bread from the bakery, went for a swim, went to the village for some grocery shopping, often twice per day, exercised our neglected muscles, got a nice Thai massage, planned our route through Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, read a lot, slept a lot and I tried to get used to the new wildlife around me: lizards, that let themselves fall down from the ceiling right next to me with a loud ‘pflutch’ and scaring me to death, geckos calling their names in the evenings and sometimes showing up during the day, spiders, cockroaches and snakes. Unfortunately we didn’t see any hornbills, as the island’s information map promised.

Johan repairing the second puncture on the island - we decided to no longer use our bikes for 'personal' reasons!

Johan repairing the second puncture on the island – we decided to no longer use our bikes for ‘personal’ reasons!

Is this a blowfish?

Is this a blowfish?

Our friend Rudi, the gecko, he's about 50cm long

Our friend Rudi, the gecko, he’s about 50cm long

Before I even saw the first snake I couldn’t sleep one night because I thought about snakes crawling into our hut. One night, we were just in bed, we heard loud noises from the bathroom as if someone was throwing himself against the door. I didn’t dare to leave the safety of my bed, but Johan, my super hero, went to the bathroom door, however, also didn’t dare to open it but instead knocked on it heavily. That tells you already how scary of an experience that was! This noise went on for a few minutes and then disappeared. Nothing was to be seen the next morning.

Yesterday we walked all the way south to the other end of the island, about 9km one way. We walked through forests, along the beach, cove-hopped, had lunch and drinks on one of the beaches and enjoyed the beautiful scenery, until Johan spotted the first snake: just crawling out of a palm tree next to the beach. Snakes are by the way my most feared animals. Later, when we walked home we saw another huge snake – about 1.5 meters long – with a mouse in its mouth just laying next to the path we were walking on and crossing it when we went passed him. This time I spotted the snake and run away screaming. By the time we had our camera at hand the snake had disappeared in the forest. I still get goose bumps if I think about it and I’m afraid that’s not the last one we’ll see.

Beautiful beaches, ...

Beautiful beaches, …

a scary golden-tree-snake,...

…a scary golden-tree-snake,…

free climbing,...

…free climbing,…

...cove-hopping,....

…cove-hopping,….

...yummy grilled insects for lunch,....

…yummy grilled insects for lunch,….

....and this all in one day to reach the bottom of the island.

….and all this in one day to reach the bottom of the island.

Not are we the only ones on our beach, we are also the only ones walking on the island. Everybody is either taking taxis, renting motorbikes or quads. The worst is that everybody seems to think they can ride these vehicles, but they can’t, as the roads on the island are just undulating dirt paths with huge rocks in between, something more for experienced riders. Unsurprisingly we saw a few accidents or people walking around bandaged. The tourist information’s map even warns to ride a motorbike the last kilometers in the south as the climbs are so extremely steep and the roads so soft and sandy that we would not have managed to push up our fully loaded bikes. We actually hardly managed to walk it as the path was so slippery.

Today is our last vacation day, back to work tomorrow again. Let’s hope we’ll cope well with the heat, we’ll be able to ride on well-maintained roads with little traffic and find nice and cheap accommodation along the way. If all goes well and we’ll get our Cambodian visas we’ll cross the border on Saturday. We’ll stay in Cambodia for about three to four weeks before we move on to Vietnam. I will continue writing about our journey, but updates might not come in as regularly as they used to as WiFi connection will most likely only be available in the bigger cities, if at all.

Thanks for reading and staying connected with us through the blog.