15 February 2015

On the road to Luang Prabang (11 February--Day 3 out of Vientiane)

An early start is much easier if you're 95% packed before you go to bed the night before... I left the room early and walked back to the coffee shop where I'd met Richard the previous afternoon for a breakfast of green tea and shrimp fried rice. As I paid the bill and prepared to walk back to the hotel, Richard came in and we talked for a few minutes. He suggested that I return Friday for opening day of the Elephant Festival and I told him I'd look into a room before I leave, though I'd imagine everything is long-ago booked solid.

It's two trips to get everything out to the bike and as I headed back upstairs for my helmet, gloves, back brace, and boots, the guy who'd helped me relocate yesterday to a room with a better Wi-Fi signal held up my motorcycle boots from behind the reception desk. I hadn't yet realized that I left them behind when I changed rooms! Had he waited any longer to return them, I'm sure I would have turned the room upside down a few times looking for them. How could I have not noticed their absence? Sheesh!

As I pulled out of the parking lot, I intentionally went off-route for a few shops until I came to a motorbike repair shop I'd spotted the previous day—time to lube the chain. It was a rather humorous two minutes before I could correctly pantomime to the guy what I wanted. The first attempt resulted in him grabbing a couple wrenchs and starting to take the rear wheel off. Then he wanted to take the chain off. I finally grabbed a bottle of oil from the shelf and made like I was pouring it on the chain... that got the message across.

Chain lubed, I asked how much by taking out some cash and making a questioning gesture. He indicated no charge. I tried to insist; he would take nothing. I said, "Khop chai lie lie!" (Thank you very much!)

Then I remembered something I learned from Terence... I walked over to where his wife was nursing their very new baby. Note that I am assuming here. She was breastfeeding in the middle of the shop and mine was the only motorbike there, so I figured she was not a customer. I leaned over and put 100,000 kip note in the baby's hand. Money for the baby is ALWAYS accepted! One hundred thousand is probably about 20x what the service would cost, though since it's for the baby, I thought they'd be okay with it. I was rewarded with a HUGE smile from Mom and a handshake from Dad. Baby held the cash very tight... good baby!

I rode 104 km to my hotel in LP. Most of it was fairly straight and easy riding, giving the mind a bit of time to wander. Some of that wandering compared my five days' of superficial impressions of Laos with the Việt Nam I'm getting to know.

My initial thoughts are that the Lao people are more laid back, reticent, and quieter, though just as hard working. Smokers are even less evident than in the U.S. and nonexistent compared to Việt Nam.

The cities are much smaller, traffic is NOTHING here compared to Hà Nôi or Sài Gòn or even Đà Lạt, due both to population and the much smaller percentage of people here who motorbikes. Based on my own unscientific observations, I will postulate that there are maybe two or three motorbikes per four-wheeled vehicle versus the 18 or 19 per in Việt Nam.

I can walk through a market, or into a store, or encounter a street vendor, without being bugged to insanity to "Buy something, buy something!" If you make eye contact or look interested in what they're selling, they will say, "Sabadee..." (Hello) and wait for you to speak.

For the most part, the Lao people seem to both know and follow the internationally standard rules of driving/riding on the roads, e.g. taking turns, riding only on the right (as opposed to left) side; looking over their shoulder prior to turning left across traffic or right into traffic, and then actually waiting until there is an opening before going rather than just GOING and letting the traffic make room for them; and turning off turn indicators after completing the turn (if used at all).

AND, most important… the roads are in outstanding condition compared to where I've ridden in Việt Nam (most areas south of Hà Nôi) or around Siem Reap, Cambodia. They even have directional signs in both the Lao language and English (most of the time) and give prior warning of most of the challenging curves.

Still, I prefer VN. Maybe because it's familiar and I know more than two words of the language?

Both Google Maps and my Reise told me that on this leg of the trip, there is a ferry needed to cross the Mekong. No longer. There is now a nice, new bridge crosses you high over the water.

A little later, I stopped and backtracked 50m or so to take a photograph of the ricefields I was passing,

Every one of those little guys is planted BY HAND. Bend over, plant, stand up, pick another out of your stash, bend over... then repeat 100,000 times or more. I need a massage just thinking about it. We think we "work hard" sitting at a computer screen or waiting on customers all day? Really?!!

On the way up I passed the road to Kasi that James mentioned. I LOVE how they mark junctions here!

A little further up the road and about 60+ km out from Sayabouli, in a village called Ka Cham, I passed a sign for Kacham Waterfall (~40 km SW of Luang Prabang). It was a short ride today, so I had plenty of time… I turned around and went back.

About 500m down a rutted dirt road (again glad for the enduro) I came upon a guard house with a swing up/down gate. I will put guard, paid my 30,000 kip entry fee, and waited as he moseyed out to lift gate for me. I could have ridden under it, but wanted him to feel like he earned my money.

The waterfall is nice and the sound is very relaxing and tranquil.

The bridge below it is supported by cable spools.
I didn't cross it, though. It looks sturdy and there was really nothing on the other side that I saw worth walking over it.  
There's also an open-air restaurant whose employees like LOUD Thai music videos. They were nice enough to turn the volume down to about 10 as I walked in. Too bad, really, because it distracts greatly from the music of the waterfall.
I ordered a papaya salad not realizing that it has meat in it. The meat looked raw and I was unable to… scratch that... I was unwilling to guess what it was.
It was also bordering on too spicy for a guy who carries hot sauce everywhere he goes in the Western world. My only hope was that my new friend asleep at my feet was not recently missing a brother or sister…
Leaving a few mystery meat morsels in my bowl, I paid the bill and got back on the road.

Early in my ride through Laos, I noticed that the architecture is noticeably different here than in Việt Nam. A majority of the homes in both countries are concrete block with stucco (or just painted concrete block). The rest of them are what I am now calling "organic architecture"—wood or bamboo—with the latter appearing the least structurally sound. Little of the organic I've seen appears to have any kind of protective coating or preservative in the wood.

Here in Laos, they also use a combination of the two—concrete block on the first floor and organic (usually wood) on the second floor—that I have not seen in Việt Nam.

The only homes I've seen of more than two stories are concrete block... and there are very few in the countryside through which I've ridden.

When I stop to take photos like the one above, I'm almost always initially surprised by the silence once I shut the bike off. It's breathtaking...

Every riding day I pass quite a few people doing this

Beating the snot out of a handful of long grass...

I finally asked a native what they do with the grass once they're done beating it—it's made into the beautiful brooms you see at most markets. The beating apparently knocks all the seeds, chaff, pollen, and whatever else they don't want off the grasses. Then they set them out to dry. When I rode back by this spot on my way out of Luang Prabang a few days later, there were hundreds of bunches of grasses lying on big tarpaulins, drying in the sun. Eventually, they're wrapped, trimmed, and sold.

My room tonight is at the Bellevue Bungalows in Luang Prabang. I managed to find it rather easily and was looking forward to a place that I pictured sleeping for the next two/three nights... a quaint cottage in the trees.

Unfortunately, the booking agent apparently can't count to five and "my" bungalow for the night was not available—so they "upgraded" me to a plain, soulless villa that could have been anywhere. I'm pretty sure someone decided to extend their stay and rather than move them to the villa and give me what I'd already paid for (non-refundable, of course). Oh, well. What the listing does NOT tell you is that the property is on the approach/departure route for the LP airport; that dogs bark at whatever pretty much all night; that the roosters start their cacophony at 4 a.m.; that a nearby neighbor revs his motorbike for 3 minutes or more at 6 a.m. every morning, and that it's quite a long walk over and back via the "Old Bridge" to get anywhere of interest.

The latter was really a non-issue because I need/want to walk 8 km or more every day. The loose planks of the walkway dropped 5-7 inches under my foot only once, giving me an unrequested adrenaline boost.

Bottom line, I recommend staying elsewhere. If I ever get back to LP, I'm going to stay at Nam Khan Riverside Hotel, No. 20 Phousi Road, Luang Prabang Old Town, ( I am going to request either room 15, 17, and 16 in that order—second floor with a balcony overlooking the river.

Or anywhere else that's NOT Bellevue Bungalows.

Today's route is here...

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