Sunday, February 26, 2012

One Day in Vientiane

Baby water buffaloes are too stinkin' cute
Neither of us could come up with any justification to stay in Vang Vieng, even though we slept like rocks in the super comfy bed, enjoyed the company of our new cat friend, ate good food, and had beautiful scenery to look at. So after a breakfast of coffee with omelets in warm baguettes (which we again shared with the two grubby kittens who fell asleep waiting for us to return and bring them some eggies) we steeled ourselves to get back on that miserable road to Vientiane. We rode across the rickety wooden bridge and followed the GPS directions to the highway, crossing what must have been the CIA landing strip.

As an aside, the Secret War in Laos is one thing that really disappoints both of us about the United States. What the US government did was illegal, and no one in any position of power apparently did anything to stop it. The people of Laos are the ones who are still paying for it 40 years later. Yes, the US government now provides aid to clear the land of UXOs (unexploded ordinances), thanks very much, but it will take another hundred years or more at the current rate to make it safe. It is reprehensible, and it makes me ashamed to show my US passport. End of rant.

The Mekong River of sand
We hit the highway, and it was as bad as the day before. The road again was smooth, then out of the blue, it was pitted dirt and gravel. Speed up, slow down, speed up, SLOW DOWN! We arrived in Vientiane by about 2:30 and found a room at the highly recommended cheapo in town, the Mixay Guesthouse. It wasn't anything special, just a room with twin beds (very comfortable though) and a fan, with a shared bathroom at the end of the hall. The place we left in Vang Vieng was infinitely nicer, cleaner, cost less, and had kittens to boot.

Buddhas at Wat Si Saket
We got settled and walked to Wat Si Saket, which is the oldest Buddhist temple in Laos. The four walls surrounding the temple are filled with little nooks which hold thousands of Buddha images along with all the large ones that line the corridors. It is unfortunately, crumbling in the humidity, but there were signs announcing plans to study the causes of decay and try to stop it from progressing. We walked the grounds to a soundtrack of a monk chanting hypnotically over the PA system. It actually was a beautiful sound. When we rode into Vientiane, we passed a virtual parade of monks and people dressed in street clothes coming into the city, and we wondered, based on the amount of activity within the Wat, if it was a funeral. We left and strolled to the riverfront instead.

The Mekong riverbed is wide at this point, but the water level was very low, leaving sandbars in place of the water. Once we'd had enough, we headed back toward the guesthouse, stopping on the way to try and find some shaving cream, since Colin ran out, and AA alkaline batteries for the GPS. We struck out in both cases, finding only non-alkaline batteries, and no shaving cream. Asian people don't have the same level of hirsutism as many westerners. To rid their faces of the few stray hairs they do have, they simply pluck them. Or, as we discovered on our last trip, some people actually cultivate the random patches of facial hair, allowing them to sprout and grow to amazing lengths from moles and birthmarks. Why? I don't know, but if you do, please tell me.

Anyway, we spent the rest of the afternoon doing some writing before heading out in search of dinner near the river. We found a place around the corner and had a delicious meal- Colin got a chicken curry dish, and I had fried holy basil with squid, both with sticky rice, and washed them down with a couple of fruit shakes. It was a terrific meal.

Riding to Vientiane, er, Vang Vieng

evening view over fields in Vang Vieng
Vientiane was supposed to be our next stop. It is about 250 miles south of Luang Prabang, which is certainly within doability range for us. As we loaded the bikes to leave, the proprietress at the Somkhounmeoung asked where we were going. When we said to Vientiane, she appeared somewhat shocked, as many people do when we tell them the distances we cover in a day, so we thought nothing of it. Leaving Luang Prabang, the sky was overcast, the air not too warm, all in all, a perfect riding day. This region of Laos is quite mountainous, and the highway climbed and curled around the peaks, and swept back down into the valleys for the first half of the distance to Vientiane. It's also very rural, and we rode through some very tiny villages along the way. 

Riverweed roadside lunch
In the middle of a level area up rather high on one mountain, a widely grinning man held out three large rodents of some sort, first offering them to Colin, which he politely declined, then to me (I also smiled and shook my head as graciously as I could, no. I'd have no earthly idea how to prepare them). Instead, we ate the remainder of our river weed and a handful of dates that I found when rooting in my daypack (luckily, they were wrapped in a plastic bag, with no lint stuck to them) and some water for lunch when we stopped mid-day. 

That ribbon over yonder is the road
By about 1:00, we were already halfway to Vientiane and should have arrived there in the late afternoon. Shortly after this point, the ride fell apart. Actually, the road did. The pavement would be fine for a while, but then we'd come to a large patch of rutted dirt and rocks, which forced us to slow to a crawl. Between 1:30 and 2:30, we only covered 13 miles. If conditions did not improve, we would arrive in Vientiane after 10:00 pm, and we don't ride after dark if we can help it. So instead, we rode as far as Vang Vieng. We did not go to Vang Vieng on our last visit to Laos, and we hadn't planned to go this time either. By reputation, it's a party place full of, as Colin says, "frat boys and woo hoo girls" who are there to float in innertubes down the Nam Ou, stopping at as many riverside bars as they can along the way. In addition, marijuana and opium are supposed to be readily available. None of these things made it sound like an attractive place to either of us, but the fact that it was only about 15 miles away made it much more appealing. 

another Dave!
We made it there by about 3:00 pm and rode down to cross a bridge to a nicer sounding, quieter area than the middle of town. But the bridge toll was 10,000 kip per bike. Rather than pay to cross the bridge, only to find that there were no rooms, I walked across. The young men collecting the tolls looked at me as I walked, but they didn't try to stop me (I learned that it does cost 4,000 kip to walk across the bridge, but I must have looked mean enough to scare them out of asking for it).  I checked out several places, settling on the Maylyn guesthouse, which had one of the very nicest rooms we have found in Laos. The folks who run the Maylyn are extremely nice and friendly and quickly found a good place for us to park the bikes. We unloaded our gear into our very nice clean room and soon met one of our neighbors. As we entered the room, we startled two very young cats who had apparently taken the open door as an invitation to visit. As we walked in, they shot out, knocking over a basket in the process. One disappeared into the garden, but the second one stopped at the edge of the porch and waited for us to come and meet him. He was a grubby, little, orange and white cat, maybe three to four months old. This Dave, (remember, all cats on this trip are Dave. Last time, Missy, this time, Dave.) had the goofy southeast Asian cat tail- stubby, about half normal length, with a curled end. I don't know what kind of genetic mutation it is, but many cats in this part of the world have similar tails. Some are of a regular length with just a tiny kink at the tip, others actually corkscrew. He let us pick him up and seemed to enjoy the attention and followed us back into the room, inviting himself onto the bed. We played with him for a while (he really enjoyed our bootlaces) before putting him in a chair outside.

After relaxing for a little while, we set out to get some dinner, taking a stroll around the beautiful grounds of the guesthouse and between the bungalows first. The sun was setting, and we watched as hot air balloons floated above the fields along the river. We then made the short walk up and back the lane,through the village, admiring the cows and chickens, before returning to Maylyn to have dinner from their kitchen. The food was delicious- we both ordered larp (larb, laap, everything has multiple spellings), which is minced meat with fresh mint, shallots, lime juice, lemongrass, chillies, and fish sauce, accompanied by sticky rice, and a green papaya salad. When we returned to the room, we took some of the meat from our dinner back to the grubby cat we met earlier today. We also fed what must have been his brother and an older cousin (?). It was a really nice evening.

Friday, February 24, 2012

To Market to Market to Buy a Grilled Duck, Home Again, Home Again...

Originally, we were only going to overnight in Luang Prabang since we spent several days there on our last adventure, but over dinner last night, we decided that it would be nice to spend a day and go out to the waterfalls.   Which is what we did.  After breakfast.  When we stepped onto the street, we saw a big, blue BMW bike with a foreign plate and a tall rider pass us.  It's Hubert from the ferry crossing!  We shouted his name and tried to catch him, but he was gone.  Oh well.  We continued on to get our sandwiches and brought them back to enjoy them on our guesthouse patio with a cup of coffee (this time, Colin had ham, and I had Laos style with tofu, omelet, and meat floss...and lots of salad on both.  We do like veggies too). After wiping our faces, putting on our swimsuits and riding gear, we got on the bikes for the 20 mile ride to the Tat Kuang Si waterfall. 

  As I hopped on my bike, I noticed that the Buddhist prayer cloths that I have been riding with since India and Nepal seemed to be disarranged, but I didn't think much about it.  We pulled out from the guesthouse and made our way onto the road to the waterfall.  Almost immediately, I noticed that one of the bungee cords that holds my jerrycan on the front rack was not in its customary position.  Hmmm. I am intimately familiar with the way this can is strapped to my bike since we have been strapping and unstrapping it one to two times per day for the last 150 days or so.  The position of the bungees matters, since if they're not on correctly, the fuel can tends to shift around and can cause a slight headshake in the front end. 

We continued our ride to the waterfall, down a pretty, twisty, country road.  Along the way, we passed several groups of serious bicyclists on fancy, imported bicycles, wearing their stretchy, colorful pants.  Have you ever noticed that you never see anyone over the age of 12 smile when they ride a bicycle? No, you probably haven't.  We've seen many people touring the world on bicycles, and not a one of them looks to be enjoying it.  Regardless of the terrain or weather conditions, the common expression is a pained grimace.  It has become a bit of a running joke between us.  We did meet up with some of the riders we passed on the way to the falls while we were locking our gear to the bikes.  They were an older bunch of Germans who were touring Laos and northern Thailand on bicycles, and they actually did seem to be having a good time.  

We cable-locked our gear to the bikes, and then I investigated the fuel can mystery.  When we arrived in Luang Prabang, my fuel jug only had about two liters remaining in it, but now, there was less than half an inch covering the bottom of the can.  The five liter can on Re's bike is our ICE supply (In Case of Emergency) and usually has about four liters in it.  A quick look at Re's can (hehehe), I mean, uh, fuel can, revealed that it was missing about three liters, and indeed, the bungee cord was also not attached the way we attach it.  Grrr.  The good news is, this is only the second time that anything has been taken from our bikes in nearly seven months on the road (the other being the carabiner clips that disappeared in Mumbai).  We do remove the fuel cans if we feel that the area warrants it, but we felt safe with the bikes behind the locked gate at our guesthouse last night.  The thing that struck me most odd was that the thief did not take all the fuel out of the can, or take the cans themselves.  My prime suspect was the young man who took over at the front desk late last night and seemed very interested in our motorbikes.  But the world may never know... . 
Tat Kuang Si is another gorgeous set of falls, with several large pools in which to swim, and unlike Erawan, involves an extremely easy walk to get to them.  We strolled the path, stopping along the way to watch the rescued sun bears enjoying life.  They have a huge enclosure with hammocks, swings, balls on the ground and on chains to play with, stumps, water features; in the bear entertainment market, you name it, these bears have it.  Since it seems sensible to climb to the top of the falls and work down, that's what we did.  We did stop at a particularly lovely place, parked ourselves on a bamboo platform, and talked about our plans for the post-trip future before we reached the top.  We didn't come to any conclusions, but did discard one of the two plans.  Unfortunately, we added a third (the two remaining plans somehow became “Plan 1” and “Plan C”).  

Not me, but I did jump from here
At one of the pools, we stopped to have a dip.  Wading in, we only got about as far as our hips, because the water was really cold.  There is a tree growing at the edge with a perfectly shaped limb to jump from.  Someone has tied a rope around it, and that's just what people do.  We did not.  Instead, we aimed higher (Colin often tells me to do so) and walked across the rocks to the middle of the falls at this level.  It was only about 15 feet high, no big deal.  Except that from the top, it more closely resembled Niagara Falls.  The water streaming over our feet became class 4 rapids.  We walked out together.  I went first.  The water was bracing but felt good once I resurfaced and caught my breath.  I tread water in the pool, waiting for Colin to take the leap.  Did I mention I am afraid of heights?  Re and I walked out onto the rather slippery limestone edge, and after just a few seconds, Re leapt in, which left me, standing on the edge, looking down.  There were between 30 and 40 people at the pool, and even though I didn't have my glasses on, I knew they were all looking at me.  I thought seriously about punking out, but you know how it is.  If a girl can do it, then I can do it.  So with the logic of a 12-year old, I stepped to the edge and jumped.  Once my feet actually left the rock, it was a blast, until I hit the cold, cold water.  As I surfaced, the combination of exhilaration and cold water led to me taking a sharp breath and the sudden rediscovery of my broken ribs.  My ribs have gotten better, but sneezing is still very painful.  Now I can add jumping off a waterfall to the list of this that make my ribs hurt.  Somehow this was much harder than walking off the side of a mountain to paraglide for him.  But he did it!  We spent the better part of the day soaking and enjoying the beautiful surroundings and each other's company, but before we left, I had to jump once more.  Colin got it on video. We had to turn the computer sideways to watch it. 

That evening, as we were heading out for the night market to get some dinner, the proprietress of our guesthouse was sitting on the patio with several friends.  We had noticed that under the glass counter out front was a shelf of various Laos treats for sale, and we wanted to buy some river weed to have as a snack.  She got out a package for us, but in the conversation said it wasn't cooked.  We had no way to fry it and thus declined to purchase it until she offered to cook it for us if we'd like.  Fresh, hot, fried river weed?  Sounds great to us!  It's like nori sheets only fresher and better tasting.  To make it, people collect a certain type of river weeds during the dry season when the water level is lower, pound them, form them into thin, flat sheets, and air dry them on racks outside in the sun.  Then, the sheets are brushed with paper-thin fried garlic, dried tomatoes, and sesame seeds, and left to dry again.  Then, you fry them in a very hot wok for, I assume, a matter of seconds.  It really is a terrificly addictive snack.  She said they would fry it when we returned from dinner, so we headed to the market.  There, we found a bustling, narrow lane with food stands set up along both sides.  We made a dinner of half a grilled duck, a large plate of mixed vegetables and noodles, and spring rolls.  It was pretty decent, not the best meal ever, but good enough.   

Stefano and Annamaria's bikes!
When we got back to the guesthouse, we noticed a pair of large motorcyles parked on the street in front- it was Stefano and Annamaria, the Italian couple we first met in Kathmandu!  They caught up with us!  After they checked into their room and got settled, we pointed them toward the night market for dinner.  When they returned, we spent the rest of the evening talking, laughing, and comparing travel notes with them over coffees and beers, until the young man at the front desk told us he was closing the gate and shutting off the lights.  So we said goodbye again, for now, and went inside to bed.

Crisis Averted. On to Luang Prabang

Morning on the Nam Ou
My latest self-amusement is writing topical haiku.  Here's one:

For argument sake
let me just say I'm sorry
for being a bitch.

Sorry for leaving you hanging.  When the alarm went off, the reality of yesterday's events flooded back into my head.  But I was curled up behind Colin and didn't want it to be the last morning I woke up that way.  After sleeping on the idea of quitting this adventure, I told Colin I wanted to stay.  We both apologized and agreed to talk instead of keeping things pent up. We also agreed to give each other the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong.  We kissed and made up, shedding some tears in the process, and then looked around the room at all of our gear, which was now divided.

Now we have to repack ALL of this crap!  At least we knew where it all was supposed to go, it was just a matter of reuniting all the camping gear, all our paperwork, clothes, and so on.  Once that was finished, we sat on our porch and savored another cup of delicious Laos coffee while appreciating the beautiful view.  After another trip through the “shower” (which didn't seem quite as bad as it did yesterday.  Okay, it was as bad, our states of mind were much improved though) we got on the road for Luang Prabang.

Morning on the Nam Ou
It was another cool, misty morning on the river, making for some great photo ops, but it warmed gradually as the sun burnt through the fog.  Luang Prabang was only about a hundred miles away, and the road followed the Nam Ou all the way to the city.  The road itself was in pretty decent shape, just a few garden variety potholes and the odd repair job, with the exception of one area of landslide.  It must have covered the entire road before crews started working to remove the huge piles of dirt and rocks.  By the time we got there, they had one lane mostly cleared, though we did have to wait for the equipment to move before we could pass.  We made it to Luang Prabang at about 1:00pm and rode to the lovely guesthouse where we stayed before, the Somkhounmoeung.  It was just as nice and as welcoming as before, but almost twice the money this time.  I was able to negotiate a better price by about 20 percent (it pays to be a return customer) so we stayed.  We unloaded the bikes and made a beeline for the market area for lunch.

Our favorite sandwich lady in Luang Prabang
Laos was a French Colony for many years, and the best part of that history that still remains is the sandwiches.  Even though public displays of affection are frowned upon in Laos, we walked hand in hand to our favorite sandwich stand.  A popular breakfast and lunch item in Laos is a baguette sandwich with a variety of fillings.  There are many stands which sell them near the night market area, and we had a favorite the last time we were here. Sure enough, two and a half years later, our funny sandwich lady was still in the same spot, still making delicious sandwiches.  We opted for the chicken, bacon, and cheese with fruit shakes to wash them down.  We love this lady not only because she makes great sandwiches, but also because she is so damned funny.  She smiles, laughs, and talks to herself while she works, either having a good time or she's nutty.  The last time we were here, I watched as she made our sandwiches, and she had a dish of some kind of dry, flossy looking stuff among the fillings on the table.  I asked what it was, and she paused for a moment, before giggling and uttering a mooing sound.   After walking around a bit, we went back to the room to work on some writing. 

That evening, we headed through the Hmong night market gauntlet (it's several blocks long, but there are really only six items for sale: the same paintings/prints on handmade paper, scarves, Beer Lao t-shirts, quilted/embroidered bags, ugly pants, and sticky rice baskets) to get to dinner at Nisha, the place where Colin discovered his love of Indian food (who knew it would happen in Laos?!?).  We dutifully followed the GPS directions, since we couldn't exactly remember where it was, only to see a partially demolished building where Nisha should be.  After walking up and down the block, trying to see if we missed it somehow, we started, dejectedly, back up the street.  As we sadly, passed ex-Nisha, I overheard a man telling his companion that this was where the Indian restaurant used to be.  I butted right in and asked, “Nisha? Is it closed?” and to my relief, he told me they moved and kindly gave us directions to the new location, which basically involved walking back to our guesthouse and another two blocks the other way.  When we finally arrived, we were overjoyed to see the familiar sign and, needless to say, had worked up an appetite on our walk.  While the new location is not as picturesque, the food is every bit as good as we remembered.  The food here was excellent, and in my opinion, better than any of the food we had in India.  It doesn't hurt that our accompanying beverage was Beer Lao instead of Kingfisher.  I'm happy to report that over dinner, Re and I were laughing and talking like yesterday never happened.  But we both know that it did.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Almost the End

The beautiful Nam Ou
Have you ever noticed that root of an argument rarely seems to be about what you're fighting about?  We had a near trip-ending whopper of a fight over...water pressure.  The next morning we got up , sketched out a plan for the day, and discussed our breakfast options, which were: 1) look at the shop around the corner for yogurt and some fruit and buy coffee at our guesthouse 2) eat breakfast at our guesthouse restaurant if not too expensive 3) walk across the bridge to someplace with cheaper breakfast options.  Well, I went out to look for yogurt and fruit, only to find that yogurt prices were exorbitant and the fruit looked like it was much better two days ago.  So I walked back to the guesthouse, perused their menu, and bought coffee.  This was not one of the options.  A minor glitch, nothing we can't recover from.   

More of the Nam Ou
After skipping breakfast and drinking our coffees on the porch of our bungalow overlooking the misty Nam Ou, waiting for the sun to appear through the fog, admiring the gardens before us, we headed inside to shower.  Colin went first.  When I checked out the bungalow yesterday, I saw the on-demand water heater hanging on the wall in the bathroom.  What I didn't check was the water pressure.  Unfortunately, Colin discovered that the water wasn't so much ejected from the shower head as it was sprinkled ever so gently (think holy water), and not near hard enough to actually shower beneath.  Since I am in charge of finding our accommodations, and because I know that water (showers in particular) is an issue in much of the world, especially in very rural areas with unreliable water sources, I should have checked this before committing us to stay another night (when I bought our coffee, I paid for a second night as we had discussed before I left).  While Colin attempted to wash, I went under the bungalow to make sure the water supply line was completely open (it was).  I came back in and gave him the bad news.  At this point, he suggested that we should look for another place to stay.  Except that I had already paid for another night.  Well, things went sour, and we argued for some time.  

The view from our bungalow
We tried to recover and spent the rest of the morning reading on our porch.  At noon, we walked across the bridge to find something to eat since we were both hungry.  Neither of us could leave well enough alone, so for dessert, we continued our fight.  We both decided that now would be the time to bring up all of our perceived slights from the last several months.  It seemed like every time one of us would try to defuse the situation, the other would escalate it.  The fighting continued as we crossed the bridge.  I stopped halfway across and Colin continued back to the bungalow.  As I stood there, looking at the perfectly beautiful place we were, thinking about all the things we've been through, I wondered if our stress had risen to the surface now that life and riding was so much easier.  

I returned to the bungalow and attempted to defuse the situation, but my choice of words was poor.  Colin told me I should go home.  I thought that sounded like a fine idea, so I unpacked everything and divided all the gear so he would have what he needed to go on, and I would take everything else, ride to Bangkok, and fly home.  He suggested that we ride together as far as Vientiane anyway, since I would cross back into Thailand from there, and he would continue south in Laos.  That made sense, so I agreed.  Somehow, I felt calm, it all made perfect sense, and once I had our bags repacked, I sat back on the bed and finished the book I was reading so Colin could have another book to read.  

When I finished it, he said he didn't want me to go, but it was my decision.  He had thought about what I said, very ineloquently, earlier and apologized for taking it wrong.  In India and Nepal, we were in survival mode, with no time to think about much besides how we would ever have the energy to do it again the next day.  Now that we're in southeast Asia, and we can let down our guards, we have time to actually think (and see all the annoying things about each other).  One of the other stresses lately has been what to do when this adventure is over.  We've had a number of possible plans since before we even left home, but neither of us can commit to one of them.  And again, since we have time to think again, we've both been thinking a lot about what to do, what to do.  This is stressful.  When Colin gets stressed, his fuse shortens.  I withdraw and shut down my brain (which means I do really stupid stuff as a result of my inattention).  Aha!  There's that lightbulb!  Not sure whether I really wanted to go home or not, I said we'd ride together to Vientiane and I would decide by the time we got there.  Since neither of us knew what else to do, we went out for dinner together and actually had a pleasant evening.

Ride to Nong Kiaew, or Paradise on the Nam Ou

The next morning we started out for Nong Kiaew, a small town on the Nam Ou, where there was supposed to be nothing to do but listen to the river flow as you dip your toes, look at the pretty limestone hills surrounding the area, and relax.  It wasn't too far away, and with as good as the roads were yesterday, we took our time getting going.  After saying goodbye for now to Annie and Julien, and after talking with Frederick, a French photographer who is very interested in the logistical end of our travels, we were on the road at 9:00am.   

Not a crossing for the faint hearted (like us)
The GPS sent us via a different route, another shortcut of a mile, down a rutted, stone and dirt path, to a bridge of a sort.  Imagine, if you will, a bridge, approximately 3 feet wide, whose surface was made of lengths of bamboo, with no guardrails, and the bridge supports appeared to be large, woven, bamboo baskets.  While we stopped to ponder the wisdom of this bridge, another underbone rider came whizzing past, and we watched, a little nervously, as he zipped the 150 yards or so to the other side.  Then a woman rode up to the end of the bridge, dismounted  her motorbike, and walked it across.  While I waged the walk/ride across vs. turn around debate in my head, Colin said, “you know, I'm afraid if we go across here that we won't find fuel, and we need fuel before we go much further.” Bingo!  Yes, we're chickens.  I'm not ashamed to admit it.  We turned around, rode back through town, got gas at the gas station, and continued our trip on the nice, smooth, new pavement.  Not far outside of Luang Nam Tha, we spotted the Chinese BMW riders pulled over on the side of the road for another photo op.  The ride again today was twisty, with elevation changes around the jagged mountains, through picturesque villages, past more people beating fronds (they must go through a lot of brooms in this region of the world).  It was a lovely ride.  Even though many of the curves were very tight and reduced our average speed significantly, we didn't care.  It was just too nice.   

Sometime after noon, we rode through the town of Udomxai and became very sad.  Udomxai is where the Chinese pavement stopped, and the road condition became terrible.  The next fifty or so miles did not contain a single mile of good road.  I'm not sure what happened to this section of road, but for some reason, random sections of road have had the asphalt removed, revealing the dirt and rock below.  It appears to be intentional, since where the road transitions between pavement and dirt, the breaks are straight lines.  The dirt sections forced us to slow to between 10 and 20 mph, and these sections varied in length between about 50 feet and over 300 feet.  Sometimes there would be one in a mile, and sometimes as many as six dirt sections in a mile.  Between 1:30 and 2:30 pm, we were only able to cover 15 miles.  When we could look around, it was still a beautiful ride, and elevations rose to over 4,000 feet at times. 

Colin picking out the perfect Valentine's gift
During the afternoon, we stopped for a pee break at what appeared to be an unofficial dump for unwanted building materials and scenic overlook.  While walking around, I spied several discarded Elephant Brand cement bags.  Knowing Re's love of elephants, I grabbed my Swiss Army knife and cut one of the logos out for her.  Happy belated Valentine's Day! 

Curious onlookers
When we got closer to Nong Kiaew, we pulled off the side of the road to check our guidebook for the names of some guesthouse options.  As we studied the book, we heard giggling over our right shoulders.  We looked up to see several young schoolboys watching us.  We said sabaidee (hello) and returned to the guidebook.  A few seconds later, we heard more little voices (see picture).  We were parked in front of a school and were apparently more exciting than whatever else was going on in the schoolyard.  

Thankfully, the last ten miles into Nong Kiaew contained none of the dirt sections, but it was still a bouncy ride due to the rippled pavement.  We finally made it to Nong Kiaew by 4:30 pm, and liked the first guesthouse we stopped at so much, we chose it for the night.  The town of Nong Kiaew is located along the banks of the Nam Ou and is surrounded by beautiful, blue-green limestone karsts.  The two halves of the town are connected by a modern bridge over the river.  There's not a lot to do here, other than walk to see some caves and enjoy the peace, quiet, and natural beauty of the place.  Our bungalow had a beautiful little balcony that looked over the river through the well landscaped lawns.  Feeling a little hungry, we walked out to find a fruit stand, and Re negotiated for a pineapple, which we took back to the room and cut up for a snack.  Later that evening, we walked across the bridge and perused the menus at several restaurants before settling on the local Indian place.  After dinner, Re and I again tried to talk about what the future held over beer and cookies, but we still didn't seem to get anywhere.  Oh well.  We spent the rest of the evening taking it easy.