Feb 13, 2015

Elephant Encounter

Road Trip Day 2 (10 February)
Click here for today's route.

Some of you may be wondering why sometimes I say I'm in Lao PDR and sometimes I say Laos. It's because here they are both used herewhen referring to the country. In Việt Nam they call it Lao, so if I slip occasionally, that is why. I try to refer to places as the natives do, which is why, early in this blog, I shifted from "Vietnam" to Việt Nam. In case you're interested, the translation of how the people here in Laos refer to themselves is "Lao people", never "Laotians" as we call them.

As I checked into the guesthouse last night, the owner asked if I would like her to wash my very dusty armored jeans and jacket. The jeans were, by far, the more in need, so I gave her those and held onto the jacket. In the morning, as I prepared to leave, I asked for them and then got to ask myself, "Is damp and clean better than dry and dirty?" I guess that depends on how long it takes them to dry out. After 10 minutes on the road I forgot about the dampness, so it was nice to have them clean-ish.

This guesthouse does not offer breakfast and I filled the bike's tank on the way into town, so my first stop this morning was for fuel for me. I found a pho breakfast on the left side of the road just after the right turn that takes you out of town. It is also a place for minivan taxi drivers and a local mutt to hang out and drive out the early morning chill by the open fire just off the dining area. One of them spoke a bit of English, so he'd pop in and out seemingly every time he remembered another word of phrase. It was charming, if I may use that word, especially when he pointed to my bowl of pho and said "fast break". I smiled and said, "breakfast", which he immediately repeated a couple times followed my "kop chai", which is how I spell the pronunciation of their "thank you." As locals often are, he and his buddies were curious about the bike... until the damp chill got back in their bones and they went back to the fire.

Today's road surface was very good today, with the exception of a stretch of curves ~110 km out of Paklai. Suddenly potholes appeared quite regularly right in the best line of travel, making it at bit more challenging than I'm sure the original highway engineers designed.

One of the things I noticed almost immediately while riding here is that those piloting both motorbikes and taxis follow the general rules of good driving. Things we often take for granted, like looking left for on-coming traffic before pulling out; using turn signals when turning and turning them off when the turn is complete. I was, therefore, a bit surprised today when a pickup truck pulled out without looking, causing me to break hard. My left thumb's reach for the horn button stopped short when I saw the blue license plate and withdrew completely when I saw four soldiers with AK-47s in the bed.

See, I am learning!

The total distance today from Paklai to Xayabouli (Sainyabouri) was about 164 km and I arrived just after 3 p.m. My rule is to be looking for a place to stay by 3 or 3:30 because I want to be off the road well before 5:30 and dusk. Even in the U.S., I avoid riding at night whenever possible.

As I rode into town I saw this sign:

announcing the annual Elephant Festival this weekend! Today's only Tuesday, and I have a LOT of kilometers to cover before returning the bike in Vientiane on Monday. After checking into a US$12.50/night guesthouse that promised Internet in the room and couldn't deliver it anywhere, I talked her into refunding my money, repacked and looked further.

During my hotel search I noticed a few elephants with their mahouts in a riverside park, so I crossed the small river (there is a bridge) and rode to the far end of the park where there were smaller elephants and a good number of locals. I was the only Westerner in sight and, as I rode up on the motorcycle, briefly became the focus of attention. As I approached the small crowd, one of the mahouts greated me, "Sa-ba-dee" (hello--I've heard natives pronounce it with the accent on either the middle syllable or the last, so I'm unsure which is correct).

He offered me a rather impressive bunch of bananas said, "5,000" (kip, approximately 63 cents US) and indicated that they were for the baby elephant. I pulled out a 10,000 note and instead of one bunch of bananas and 5,000 change, this salesman gave me two bunches of bananas. At almost that exact instant, I also got the full attention of the young pachyderm.

It took about five minutes for me to pull all of the bananas off the stem one-by-one and feed them to my new friend.

I wandered off to look at a few of the larger elephants dressed up for giving rides
before remounting the bike and continuing my search for a hotel with true Wi-Fi. The hotel I finally settled on (Sayanahn Hotel) cost 300,000 kip (US$25 extra for Wi-Fi which, if I'd done the math at the time, I would've suffered without), and seemed to be one of the few offering working Wi-Fi... though I did get to change rooms once to get a usable signal. The things I used to take for granted...

After unpacking a bit I decided to take a walk and further explore the town. One of the things I promised myself I would do in retirement is walk every day... and I am, in great part diue to the "nagging" of the UP fitness bracelet counting my daily steps. The goal I've set is 10,000 steps every day (~8 km or 5 miles) and averaging over 11,500 per day for the past couple weeks. Maybe soon I'll get down to only 100 kilos...

A few blocks from the hotel I came upon a coffee shop that I'd thought looked interesting as I passed it riding into town.

The decision to stop in came as soon as I saw a Honda Win outside with Vietnamese license plates. The only person in the place was a Westerner, so I approached and asked if the bike was his... and met Richard from Switzerland. Richard is four years into a two-year trip around the world and still has 80% of the journey in front of him.

He allowed me to join him and, for the next 90 minutes or so, we compared notes on Việt Nam, motorbike travel in general, Laos-so-far, and a number of other topics. He had spent four months each in VN and Cambodia and figured about the same for Laos. He planned to stay in town at least through the Elephant Festival. A bit later in the conversation I gave him my card, asking that he tell me how it (Festival) was and to also occasionally let me know how his trip was going.

One of the things with which I helped him was telling him about the newly paved road from just north of Muang Nan down to Kasi, bypassing the need to go up to Luang Prabang to get to Vang Vieng.

James told me about it and its location was the only thing I wrote on my map during our bike hand-over discussion. He (Richard) said he'd heard rumors of it, though this was the first verification.

After leaving the coffee shop I checked with a couple guesthouse to see if they had a room available Friday night in case I wanted to return for the first night of the Festival. Striking out everywhere, possibly in-part because most of the people I "spoke with" understood as much English as I do Laotian, I returned to the hotel (also sold out for Friday, best I could determine) to rest up a bit and write some of the previous blog entries, leaving only for an unmemorable dinner.

Click here for today's route.

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