12 February 2015

Road Trip!

Before I tell you about my current adventure, some of you will be interested to know that, on Tuesday 07 February, I FINALLY made it to Đà Lạt, my new home. I again enjoyed the hospitality of Villa Pink House for the week I was there before returning to HCMC and flying to Laos. The owner and staff of Pink House are so warm and welcoming, it was almost like returning to visit distant relatives--except that at PH, they are actually glad to see you.

The Ha Vy Hotel (my "home" in HCMC) is equally welcoming. The owner even makes sure that I get my favorite room every visit. When, after two months (six weeks of which I kept telling her that "I'm leaving next Monday") I finally headed to Đà Lạt, she again went out of her way to help me; she insisted that I call her when I was safely in Đà Lạt, which I did. That afternoon she had her staff take my eight LARGE suitcases containing everything I brought to Việt Nam (plus two new tires for the 400cc enduro motorcycle I have yet to tell you about, bought from the same wizard from whom I bought the cruiser) to the bus station and ship them to me so that they arrived, unscathed, the next afternoon. Although she did allow me to tip the staff, she would take nothing extra above the actually charges of US$5 per bag.

Now Pink House is holding my stuff for the three weeks I'm gone--and won't take dong one. They actually get insulted if you won't let them help... so before I left, I brought the owner her favorite pastries as a thank you.

More about my trip to Đà Lạt; getting knocked down by an errant motorbike in the street within two hours of my arrival; and my successful search for a rental house... after I return from Laos.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the side benefit to having to leave VN and return under a new visa is that instead of making a one-day border run to Cambodia and back, I chose to take 10 days in Laos--8 of which I will spend in the company of a Honda CRF250.

Mid-afternoon on my first full day (08 February) in Laos, James from Remote Asia Travel came by the hotel to exchange the final half of the rental fee and my passport for the CBL, some tools and spare inner tubes, and some routing advice. James was very professional, business-like, and secure in his opinions and the bike is a nice one. I have photocopies of my passport and Lao PDR People's Democratic Republic), visa and get the originals back when I return the bike intact on 16 February.

Motorcycle Trip Day 1 (Day 3 in Lao PDR--09 February)
I got off to a bit of a later start than I'd hoped, and was on the road about 8:20. At James's recommendation to miss the bulk of the early morning road traffic, the first kilometers were on the riverfront road just in front of the guesthouse. After a very short distance, the paved road changed to red dirt with a LOT of potholes, though very little traffic.
I rode for what seemed like quite a while, but was actually less than 10km, before I decided that I'd had enough potholes for a while and took the next viable right turn and joined the main (paved) road.

The Garmin GPS is very useful as a paperweight in Laos, and no more. The SE Asia chip is lacking Laos and the screen in blank where there would normally be a digital map. Fortunately I brought my Reise map (best detail of any commercially available map I've seen) purchased before I left for my original SE Asia motorcycle adventure in December 2013. Because I'm me, my maps are either unsullied by additional notations or have a minimum of MY writing on them. When James asked if he could write directions/instructions on my Reise map, I told him that I'd rather he didn't. He seemed to get a bit miffed that I wouldn't let him, so I told him that I have a pretty good memory for directions. He replied, "There's a lot to remember." Remember every word or not, it'll be a good trip... and chances of me taking every bit of advice are pretty slim anyway, right? At least I'll have my almost pristine map! LOL

Fortunately, I did remember one of James' first instruction to bear LEFT at the Nissan dealership on my way out of town, or my first wrong turn would've come a LOT sooner than it did... The paved road continued to feature the Mekong River on my left for a couple hours and riders/drivers (there are a LOT more cars and fewer motorbikes in Laos than in Việt Nam) are rewarded with occasional glimpses of the wide waterway that separates this part of Laos from Thailand.

Yes, I turned the bike around for a better photo...

After 100 km give-or-take of good quality pavement, the road became dirt and dust and washboard and ruts and rocks for the next 90+ km. Then, just when I was thinking I'd eaten enough dust, pavement reappeared!

As in all the developing countries I've visited, there are a LOT of dogs in the countryside and anticipating whether it's better to dodge them if they cross the road or to honk your horn and chancing startling them into your path is a frequent mental exercise. A minivan spend past me in a straight stretch of dirt road and only one of the two dogs that ran in front of him got away with it. The second dog missed the wheels, but went under the minivan and popped out at the side of the road with an obviously broken neck. The look in its eyes as I passed by was heartbreaking. There is no way I could do anything to help it--death would arrive in a minute or so, though not quickly enough--and, truthfully, I was a bit concerned that if I stopped, I might get blamed for its death. I can still see it's eyes...

The minivan stopped around the next bend and the driver got out to look under the vehicle. I stopped and tried to pantomine that he'd killed the dog, though I think I failed. I made sure that when he passed me again, I stayed way off to the side and away from his bumper...

My missed turn of the day came where the road T'd right after a bridge. I turned left thinking that I should keep following the river. Fifty meters on I stopped with the thought that maybe I should have gone right. I knew that the map said that in Pakmi the road went straight (not T) and a right turn would take me to Paklai. Stopping to look at the map (instead of for a sign that might have Pakmi written in Arabic letters), I reconfirmed my "left" decision and headed down the road. A little over 3 km later, I saw a sign that said, "Welcome to Xanakhan" and knew that my first and third instincts were wrong... so I turned around. Returning to the junction, I backtracked across the bridge to shoot a photo for those of you who may make this same journey. There is only one bridge on the first day that looks like this...

When you get to the other side, go RIGHT.

Soon after this turn I stopped for lunch at an oasis in the seeming middle of nowhere. There were already a tour bus and a Land Cruiser parked, so it seemed a good choice.

Plus, I was tired. To paraphrase Jim Million, the body can only tolerate what the butt can endure--and mine was decidedly uncomfortable. By pointing at what someone else was eating, I ordered a bowl of pho which I had already learned the Lao people adapted from the original Vietnamese. They pronounce it "fo" as it looks to a Westerner it should be said instead of the Vietnamese "fa-a" with an uplilt on the second soft a. It was good food and so nice to take a break that I hung out for a while after finishing my meal.

Almost immediately after lunch the road returned to blacktop and soon after that it was time for another decision at a T. Rather than turn right as I thought I should, I asked some locals by pointing in the direction I thought was correct and asked, "Paklai?" They happily confimed with smiles and nods. One man was kind enough to pantomime that I should turn LEFT at the next junction. There were five or six rider-challenging construction zones before the junction and, since this is the highlands, the scenery is beautiful.

Just outside Paklai, you get to cross the Mekong and choose one of two options. James told me that motorcycles have to take the bigger ferry, so I waited in the queue with a few SUVs and minivans. One motorbike rider chose the second option--which I would've turned down even without James' admonition...

Given the incline of the hill from the ferry as well as the 5 cm of dust on the other side, I was again thankful for the enduro as I embarked and disembarked.

A couple kilometers after again touching dry land, I found a guesthouse off the main road that seemed nice. I parked the bike for the night and took a room for the LAK equivalent of US$12.50. LAK is the abbreviation for the Laotian Kip. Paklai is quite small and there are no hotel listings on TripAdvisor, so here is my recommendation: A Nou Sone Guesthouse; GPS coordinates N18*12'43.9"; E101*24'23.6". My only cautions are that you may need to remind them to turn on the router so the free Wi-Fi actually works and know that everyone in town is awakened before 6:30 a.m. by a LOUD broadcast of music followed by what I guessed is the wisdom of the head of Lao PDR. Note: As I prepare to post this two towns later, I'm now thinking The Broadcast may be the brainchild of the local party leader because I have not encountered anything similar since then.

I found a good meal that night by walking a block back toward the ferry and another block to the main street to the restaurant on the corner. Forgot to make note of the name--it's the one for which you don't cross the main street.

Today's route: Laos Day 1.

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