Sunday, February 26, 2012

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.

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