Archive for April, 2007

Greetings from Luang Prabang - Northern Laos

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

Guten Tag zusammen,

Yeah I know it’s only been ten days since my last email but I’ve left Thailand and I always like to do a bit of summing up so here goes.

My last email was written from the town of Lampang in Northern Thailand. On our last day in town we rented a motorbike and headed out to the Elephant Conservation Centre which is on the road between Lampang and Chiang Mai. I’ve never ridden a motorcycle but I assumed I’d get one with automatic gears so it’d be no different to riding a motorised Bessie. My assumption turned out to be wide of the mark but once the helpful Thai lady gave me a 2 second summary on how the gears worked I hoped I could figure the rest out for myself. She neglected to mention the whole clutch thing to me which made for an interesting couple of hours but it’s a rented bike so I wasn’t too concerned. The elephant place was pretty cool. We just went for the elephant shows which is a couple of hours with the elephants doing tricks like playing musical instruments and painting pictures. Afterwards we fed them sugar cane which they go mental for. The place also did elephant rides but it was just an amble round the park and I figured I’d rather do it as a trek.

We left Lampang the next day with big plans to do 150kms but things didn’t quite turn out that way. By 10 pm I reckon it was easily 40C and getting hotter. To add to the fun we also hit some serious hills. The minute you’re going up hills you lose speed so bang goes that bit of wind that makes cycling in 40C heat bearable. We dragged ourselves over the hills for 80kms and then stopped in a road side minimart to ask if there was any accommodation up ahead. The guy working in the minimart said he had a bungalow for rent just next door and we could come check it out when we’d finished eating. We said sure and off he dashed. I could see the place from the minimart and I was watching this guy doing what looked like cleaning things up. We went round to have a look and the bungalow was fantastic but I reckon it was actually his house and I kind of felt bad about turfing him out for the night even if we were paying money. It really was great though with a verandah over a pond he’d built although he seemed to think we needed a romantic setting so he kept playing rubbish music by Phil Collins. Still we had a great time and the guy was a fantastic host.

Next day we headed for the town of Phayao. It’d rained for the whole morning which made for a much cooler ride. The town of Phayao is located on a lake of the same name. We cycled along the lake and were looked forward to finding a great place to stay lakeside. Amazingly although the town is built around the lake there isn’t any accommodation actually near the lake. Ironically we ended up in this strange guesthouse in he middle of town were the beds were surrounded by curtains just like you get in hospital wards. As a bonus we got our own pet cockroaches for the night and cockroaches are one of the few things in the world I’m scared of so a fun night was had.

After Phayao we headed for Chiang Rai. On the way I saw one of the more amazing Wats I’ve seen so far. In a country with thousands of temples it takes something special to stop you in your tracks. I’d try to describe it but it’s one of those things you just have to see so you’ll have to wait for the photos. We arrived in Chiang Rai in the late afternoon with plans for a day off but the previous days hadn’t been too taxing so we skipped the day off and headed for the Laos border which is two days ride from Chiang Rai.

The ride to the border is pretty sweet as you’re cycling large parts along the Mekong River. It’d be a lot sweeter if it wasn’t for the steep hills for the last 20kms or so. They really were nasty hills probably as steep as any of the passes I climbed in Kiwiland but obviously the heat just destroys you. We eventually arrived in the town of Chiang Kong which is the border town on the Thailand side. From there you catch a boat over to Houei Xay in Laos. We were stamped out of Thailand and then made our way over the river. Once on the other side we noticed there were a fair few people waiting for the boat to take them over to Thailand but what worried me was that it was the same people who’d just left Thailand before us. Turned out the immigration officer and stamped the wrong date in our passports so we either had to get it changed or spend a night on the pier. I headed back to Thailand and the immigration guy was very apologetic and so after some quick changes on my passport it was back to Laos for the second time that day.

I enjoyed my second time in Thailand although maybe not as much as the first but that’s because the place isn’t new and exciting anymore. It’s still one of the countries I’d recommend first to anybody wanting to get into cycle touring although the ride down the south coast is more enjoyable then the ride north simply because of the great beaches and the islands. Anyway I’ll be back in Thailand in about a month and a half for the ride from Cambodia to Bangkok so more time to continue the love affair.

Corinne and I had decided to catch a slow boat down the Mekong to the town of Luang Prabang and then head south from there on the bikes. It’s a two day boat ride with an over night stop in the small town of Pak Beng. We were told to be down at the pier at 9 in the morning to secure decent seating but as we found out time is a flexible concept here in Laos. The boat eventually left at 11:30 but it’s the third world so you expect these things. There were a fair few fellow tourists on the boat and it was interesting to see how the English managed to conform to their national stereotype and were hammered by the afternoon and playing drinking games by 5. A few of the older passengers were annoyed but they weren’t doing any harm so I didn’t see the big deal.

The next day was pretty interesting as the English tourists had obviously been up till late partying and were far more subdued for the rest of the journey as they nursed hangovers and concentrated on not throwing up. To add to the general discomfort the ferry company had pulled a fast one on us and used a different boat for the second day with half the space but the same amount of people. Honesty appears to be another flexible concept in Laos.

The boat journey itself was great. I know everyone is always trying to avoid their fellow tourists and look for the quiet spots but Corinne and I get that anyway because cycling means you tend to spend more time in the bits that other people just pass through on the bus. It was actually fun to spend some time with people and we met some interesting people and everyone had a good story to tell. I even got to do my round the world cyclist dance that I hadn’t done in ages as there was a dutch guy who’d done a fair bit of cycling so we passed the time comparing notes. Corinne sometimes takes the mickey out of me because I’ll go off to find some information we need about a place and then she has to come find me because I’ve gotten talking to someone and I’m chatting about cycling instead of finding us a place to stay.

We arrived in Luang Prabang yesterday late afternoon. The boat journey down the Mekong was a great experience and one of those must do experiences even if it does mean two days sitting on a wooden bench with zero space. Luang Prabang is a beautiful city, one of the best looking cities I’ve seen so far in SE Asia. It’s small enough that we keep on meeting people from the boat which is amazing considering it’s one of the bigger towns in Laos. Our original plan was to head off south pretty much straight away but we kind of fell in love with the place so will stay an extra two days. We’ve also booked ourselves on a two day Mahout Course which is a day and a half learning how to ride and care for Elephants with a couple of treks through the jungle and then half a day kayaking back down to river to Luang Prabang.

So far Laos is more touristy than I expected. I’d heard some stories about Laos being a difficult place the last time I was in SE Asia but I’ve seen more tourists here than anywhere in Thailand outside of Bangkok. Maybe that’s because there’s really only a few decent sized towns so everyone ends up in the same place. I’ve enjoyed it so far but you have to be more careful when dealing with the locals here as they seem more inclined to try and rip you off. I’ve been in a few situations where a coupe of thousand kip has appeared on the bill and the mistakes are always in their favour so I’ve discounted bad math. Also you’re dealing with multiple currencies and if you ask them to convert to a new currency it’s best to work out what you’re getting beforehand and then make sure you count it. It’s also important to check any transport you’re getting as that luxury boat they show you a picture of suffers from the fast food picture syndrome when you turn up and it’s actually a rust bucket. Another downside is that the Americans left enough unexploded bombs lying around for a couple of world wars so you have to stay on the beaten track when you’re doing any exploring but that shouldn’t effect our cycling. For it’s these quirks it’s still an exciting place though and I’m looking forward to getting into the countryside on the bikes and seeing things outside the main population areas.

Anyway it’s time for bed as I have to get up in the morning and learn how to ride an elephant which is one of those sentences I won’t type very often in my lifetime.

Lots of love as always,

Craig. XXX

Greetings from Lampang in Northern Thailand

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

Yo dudes,

Well it’s been about 20 days since my last email so figured I’d get another one out before my Mom gets the Thai police out searching for me. Having read a few books about the Bangkok Hilton that’s something best avoided so here we go.

My last email was sent from the town of Plimmerton about 50kms north of Wellington on the North Island. We had two days rest as we’d done some hard cycling from Christchurch and had spent a day in Wellington which was taken up with sorting flights out for Thailand and the required visas. We set off from Plimmerton with the aim of spending 4 days on the bike before catching a train to Auckland. The plan was to get to Auckland a few days before the flights as we needed to sort a number of things out before heading to Bangkok.

This time my trip to Bangkok was going to be a bit more complicated. For one Bessie isn’t young anymore. She’s done 20,000 hard kilometres and it’s starting to show. I really needed to get her a quality service in Auckland but time constraints meant this wasn’t possible. The other complication is that my route this time requires me to be more self sufficient. I’ve needed to buy pretty much all the major components for both mine and Corinne’s bike because if anything goes wrong somewhere like Laos you’re pretty much on your own.

I left Kiwiland on the 31st of March. My feelings about NZ are mixed. It’s a beautiful country but not the amazing cycle touring experience I imagined or had been told about by others. Culturally the entire South Island is too similar. You don’t get the feeling you’re cycling through a real country but more a eco-disney park for adults. The North Island is supposed to be more culturally diverse but as a cyclist you have the problem that NZ doesn’t have a secondary road system so you share the road with all the other traffic. To me it was too similar to Europe but without the advantages of a well developed road system where you can pick a road and not see a car for hours. Maybe I spent too long there or maybe it just came at the wrong time in my journey but NZ is the only country I’ve left with no real interest in either going back or learning more about. Even Serbia stirred emotions and got me reading books and trying to understand the Balkans.

I arrived in Bangkok late on the 31st. Corinne was on a later flight so I spent a stimulating few hours in the baggage area trying to finish Crime and Punishment. Corinne arrived and it was out of the airport and into the madness and heat of the Bangkok night. It was 30C at one in the morning so after the usual haggle with the taxi drivers we headed for the air-conditioned luxury of an 8 quid hotel in Chinatown. We spent two days in Bangkok mainly to sort out our visas for Vietnam and get any last minute supplies we couldn’t organise in Auckland. Shopping in Bangkok is a great test of how two people get on. Shopping and dodging the traffic in 40C heat not my idea of fun.

After Bangkok we caught the train 70 kms north to Ayutthaya. Last year I cycled out of Bangkok but I figured it’d be more difficult with the two of us so we braved the world of Thailand’s third class public transport. We arrived in Ayutthaya with a plan to head off early in the morning. Temperatures of 40C were predicted and it was Corinne’s first time cycling in anything approaching that type of heat so I figured we’d get up at sunrise and see if we could get some miles in before the heat got unbearable. That night we did some touristy stuff and checked out the temples by night. Afterwards we went for some food and had one of those small world moments when I met a French guy I’d seen a month ago in Christchurch. Not sure if it indicates the world is small or that people tend to travel the same road.

In the morning we were up with the sun and heading for the town of Lopburi 80kms to the north-east. I was worried about Corinne coping with the heat but by 10:30 we’d made good time and had done around 50kms. We had 30 kms left to do and while the temperature was starting to climb we could take it easy and increase our stops for cold drinks. We arrived in Lopburi at 12:30, a town famous for it’s marauding monkeys.

In the morning we set off even earlier than the day before as the distance to the next town with accommodation was over 100 kms. It was the first time Corinne had ridden over 100kms and the heat was a worry again with 40C plus being predicted again. As usual I was worrying about nothing and Corinne managed the distance without any problems. We were probably helped by a downpour mid-afternoon but the rain only clears the air for an hour here before the oppressive heat starts again. Most days we keep our mind off the heat with my attempts at learning German. I’ve bought a German phrase book and the days on the bike are spent seeing how much I’ve learnt. Usually not enough and the principle of gender in language makes a tough job just that bit tougher.

We continued heading north increasing the daily distances as we went along. By the time we reached the town of Sukhothai and had our first day off the bike, we were averaging a similar daily distance as when I was on my own. The only difference is that we’re having more days off for enjoying the country. I’d still like to finish the round the world in under a year for numerous reasons so it’s a case of getting that balance right. Obviously the other thing is that Corinne isn’t trying to cycle round the world in under a year so I have to balance the miles I need and ensure we have enough time off the bike for Corinne to do the things she wanted to do before she agreed to cycle SE Asia. This may include her traveling ahead by public transport to give her more time but I think she enjoys the challenge as much as me so we’ll see.

We left Sukhothai to time perfectly with the Thai festival of Songkran. I’m sure the festival has some deep cultural meaning but from what I can see it’s an excuse for kids to throw water over people passing by with tourists on bikes seeming to be some kind of bonus. Every town we go through involves running the gauntlet of kids armed with buckets, hoses and water pistols. As in keeping with Thais being polite it’s always done with an apologetic word and we’ve had kids say “I love you” before emptying a bucket of water over us. Corinne even had the police single her out for a special drenching when we cycled past a police station.

As with the last time I was here, the Thais have been as friendly and as courteous as you could hope for. We had a puncture one afternoon in the hottest part of the day and after fixing the puncture we were beckoned over by some guys working for the highway agency who fed us and watered us before sending us on our way. I was even challenged to drink some of the local whiskey which didn’t help me cope with the heat.

We’re in Lampang now which is about 250 kms south of Chiang Rai. We have one more day off tomorrow and we’re planning to head for the Elephant Conversation Centre and do some Elephant riding and if we have some time head over the hills to Chiang Mai. Chiang Rai is about three days ride from the Laos border and after crossing the border it’s a 2 day slow boat ride down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. Laos is going to be different and I anticipate a tougher ride than Thailand. Gaps between civilisation will be greater and it’ll require more thought and planning. It’ll be great to experience another country and a different challenge.

Anyways best go as it’s to try something new at the local restaurant.

Oh and for those people interested, my mobile is now working again although I’m not sure if I’ll have coverage in Laos.

Lots of love as always,

Craig. XXX