Thursday, February 23, 2012

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.

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