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Falang on Bikes – Tackling the Thakhek Loop

12 Dec
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A view of the river in front of the Sabaidee Guesthouse

The Lao National Day celebrates the day the Communist Government gained control of Laos and took this great nation that I now call home into the 21st Century (debatable). Unfortunately, 8 Aussies and 2 Americans couldn’t hang around for the festivities and set off on a crazy adventure, touring around a 450km loop of the Khammouane province in central Laos…on Chinese mopeds.

I have to say straight off, this has to be in the top 3 trips that I have ever done. I dunno what the other two are but I’ve traveled a fair bit so I’m sure there have been other great trips. The scenery, the locals, the company, the red dust, it all came together into a perfect soup of fun.

We arrived in Thakhek late on Thursday night, tired and a little drained from the van ride south. It took us some time to find the much vaunted Thakhek Travel Lodge (don’t be fooled by the Travel Lodge part of the name, like many things in Laos, it’s a copy). Apparently this place is owned by Mr Ku, the guy who “invented” the loop and has some expensive mopeds to rent out with the guarantee that if anything goes wrong along the trip, he would help. Make of that what you will.

Once we off-loaded our bags and found the reception, our next task was to convince the sleepy/drugged up guy at reception that we had in fact booked enough rooms for all us and that no, it wasn’t a falang scam.

I had booked a single room as I was a last-minute straggler to join this trip (I was a bit hesitant to join a 4-day motorbike trip having absolutely no motorbike riding skills). The website said that it was standard single room with a fan and it was true to its word. I awoke on Friday morning a bit weary and confused. Not really sure if I was in Sydney or in Laos.

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My standard bed and a fan room

We set off in pursuit of our bikes and landed 4 Mr Ku and 4 Wang Wang specials. Fueled up, badly drawn maps memorised and with excessive amounts of Iodine, we set off, excited of the adventure to come.

All bright-eyed and bushy-tailed

All bright-eyed and bushy-tailed

Badly drawn map

Badly drawn map

DAY 1 – THAKEK – BUDDAH CAVE – THA FALANG – MAHAXAI – THALANG

First stop was Buddha cave. The most exciting part of this being the bit of off-road track where I almost stacked it on at least 3 or 4 occasions. The cave itself wasn’t too bad and was full of Buddhas. When we were leaving some monks were having lunch and it was funny to see them looking at us in awe and us looking at them in equal amounts of awe. 

Monks

Monks

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Next stop was Tha Falang swimming hole. It was picturesque and refreshing. It was also around this point that I realised how dusty it is here in Laos. The red dust gets on and in everything.

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We hit a nice patch of highway before and after our lunch stop and I was gaining in confidence quickly. Even managing a few wobbly waves at the local school kids who, as if on cue, would wave and greet each of us as we sped past.

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Gangnam style Lao-style

We even manged a quick stop at a stoned mechanic’s house to fix a wobbly basket and a few other wobbly things. Lunch consisted of Pho and some boiled nuts which I’m now addicted to.

Stoned mechanic

Stoned Mechanic – spot the little girl

Having split up into two groups, the fast and slow (I’m proud to say that I was in the fast group), we powered forward. Having grown accustomed to the heat here in Laos and being a complete noob on the bike, I thought I was being clever by wearing a t-shirt and boardies (commando style). However, as the sun started to set and we hit the mountains, it started to get cold, really cold. By the time we managed to find a local market, I was at the ‘it’s really fucking cold’ stage. The locals watched me put on all but 2 of my t-shirts, 2 pairs of shorts and a newly acquired pair of trackies.

2 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of trackies, 4 t-shirts and a shirt

2 pairs of shorts, 1 pair of trackies, 4 t-shirts and a shirt

This wasn’t close to enough to keeping me warm but we pressed on. By the time we reached the Sabaidee Guesthouse in Thalang, I was cold and frustrated at having just driven 20km, in the dark and through very gravely/sandy road. We arrived to a welcome fire and the awesome Mr Pontoon. An amazing feed was provided and we got a few hours rest before another tough day on the road.

Oh and Pete and I began our 4-day-long Petong dominance over Tom and Sean.

Len and Pete's court

Len and Pete’s court

DAY 2 – THALANG – LAKSAO – BAN NAHIN

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We mustered the courage to tackle day 2 after hearing many stories that this was going to be a tough ride, potholed roads and construction sites. We managed to easily conquer both the first bumpy section to Laksao and the next highway section with relative ease and minimal problems. I managed to get up to around 70km/h as my confidence continued to rise on the bike.

Tom doing his thing

Tom doing his thing

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My beast

My beast

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Once we arrived in Ban Nahin, Tom and I ventured out to try and find a massage place with no luck. Pete and I once again cleaned up on the Petong pitch.

DAY 3 – BAN NAHIN – KONLOR CAVE – KUON KHAM

The Konglor cave is probably the biggest attraction in this part of Laos, and the reason most people do the Thakhek Loop. It’s a 7.5 km cave under a mountain with a river flowing through it. It takes about an hour to get through it by motorised canoe.

The night before I met a couple of travelers who gave me some tips of how to get to the cave. They told me about a shortcut that would cut a fair chunk of time out of our trip and was also kinda fun if also a little dangerous. It was a creek crossing!

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The Konglor cave is massive and dark (as you’d assume a mountain’s undercarriage would be) and has some pretty impressive stalactites and stalagmites. You can rent headlamps if you want to see anything, but even then it’s pretty dark and kind of peaceful just cruising through the darkness.

Pool just outside Konglor Cave

Pool just outside Konglor Cave

Miner Sean

Miner Sean

The rides on day 2 and day 3 were probably my favourites. The long windy roads in the mountains, cruising through small villages, saying hello to welcoming kids and the awesome lengths of off-road fun. The only not-so-fun bits were when wildlife would decide to end their lives (and potentially mine) by running across the road without any warning or sense, right around  the time I would happen to pass them by. I lost count how many close calls there were but I remember fondly at least two dogs and a piglet who all tried to get a tire tread tattoo. It was all a bit like Mario Kart in real life.

DAY 4 –  KUON KHAM – THAKHEK

The last day was a cruisy 150km ride home. I got some clear road and got to around 85km/h before slowing down when I realised that I had almost completed the whole loop without any problems and it would suck to come off the bike and taste bitumen now.  The dozens of speeding buses, trucks and 4WDs, coming dangerously close to wiping me out on a number of occasions made me swear out loud every time they passed by.

On the way back to Thakhek I passed a sign which said “Great Wall, 200m”. This and a half a tank of fuel was enough encouragement to venture out on my last dirt road. I drove a good 500m or more before I reached the river where there was no Great Wall in site. Luckily I managed to see some cool pictures of the Great Wall when I googled it from home.

Some of us got very, very bad massages in town which was a funny-in-hindsight way to finish off a great trip.

The whole trip was absolutely amazing and I would highly recommend it to anyone considering doing it. The places we stayed at were great and quite cheap. Including the minivan, bike hire and post-trip massages, I spent around $260 over the 4 days.

Much love,

Len

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Asian Delights

17 Nov
Second Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge, seen from M...

Second Thai–Lao Friendship Bridge, seen from Mukdahan, Thailand (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Warning: Long post ahead

It’s been a while since I posted on here. Partly due to how full-on each day has been and that I wrote about a page worth of stuff a couple of days ago that now seems a bit silly to post on here.

I sit here in my air-conditioned hotel room, sleep deprived and with a jumbled up mind and heart. The last two weeks have been amazing. I’ve loved every bit of it so far and already feel like I’ve gained so much from this experience. I’ve tasted some of the most delicious food (and yes, a lot of it has contained meat but more on that another time), met some amazing people and discovered a beautiful country that I knew little more than nothing about.

I think this post will be a reflective one, maybe cause I had to wake up at 4:30am this morning and I am feeling slightly out of it and cause I had my first confrontation with some beggars. I was having lunch at this delicious Vietnamese/Lao rice paper roll place that I stumbled upon a few days ago when I saw these two, 10 or 11-year-old boys, eating what looked like raw bits of meat off the floor. I passed it off as nothing at first and then proceeded to order my food. I watched as these two boys silently greeted each passerby the traditional Lao way, hoping for some spare change. Each person passed by, both Lao and expat, promptly ignoring the kids. I don’t know if this is common for everyone but I tend to get really affected by these kinds of scenes. I mean, I know Laos is a developing country and there are plenty of people living in poverty but it’s not every day that you see two, toothpick-like children eating scraps off the floor and silently begging for change while you’re having a bountiful lunch.

At our induction in Australia we were advised to not give anyone money as it solves nothing. I’m pretty confident a bit of my spare change will be used wisely. Hopefully as the months role by I’ll get a chance to have a significant impact outside of my specified placement here.

Now on to some slightly less depressing things.

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So freaking early! That Luang in the background

Today started with the culmination of the week-long Pha That Luang festival, arguably the nation’s most important event. I was lucky enough to be invited to enjoy this morning’s events with a Lao family. We met up at their restaurant, rode our bikes (me being the only one on a bicycle) to That Luang and proceeded to pray and give alms. It was an amazing experience and I’m so thankful to James for inviting me along. As a side note, I also managed to secure a room in a sweet 4-bedroom house not far from town.

 

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Alms giving

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Lao family that showed us white-folk the ropes

Now on to a bit of a recap of the last few days.

Saturday, 9/11: I took a rice farm tour with a new company called Tuk Tuk Safari. I didn’t know what to expect but was pleasantly surprised as the husband and wife team took us to a local organic farm on their tuk tuk. The farm tour was really interesting as it’s a lifestyle I’m hoping to adopt when I get back to Australia (I’ll also leave that for another time).

We got to harvest rice, collect duck eggs, use some worms from their worm farm to catch some fish, picked some veges and then cooked lunch. It was delicious! We then went to a silversmith which was a pretty eye-opening experience. I never realised the effort that goes into making a piece of jewelry. Apparently they source the silver from Australia and then sell it to tourists who visit the place in large tourist buses.

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Duck

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Rice

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Threshing the rice

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Rice husk remover

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Morning glory

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The fish we caught

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The silversmiths

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Thinning out the silver

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Sunday, 10/11: On Sunday I was lucky enough to be able to take part in a working bee at the Disabled Women’s Centre, right next to the Friendship Bridge. It was such a fun day and I even got some engineering work out of it (not paid). I’m really excited about the opportunity of helping out at this centre and it seems that, for some volunteers, this opportunity has been more fulfilling than their actual placements.

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Sub-woofer

 

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The chicken house we made

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Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge

Tuesday, 12/11: My 29th birthday started off with a massive anti-climax. Not only was I completely unperturbed about it but I also didn’t have any friends or family here with me to enjoy the day. I wasn’t quite sure if anyone that I’d met in Laos would remember either (I had mentioned that it was coming up a few days earlier). As I had some work due that day, I started the day as I had every other day, with breakfast at the hotel. This usually consists of eggs, bread and fruit. They also usually give me a bit of ham as I haven’t yet found a way to explain that I don’t eat meat. I then met up with James to go grad a spare bike that he had. I rode back home, finished the work that I had to get done and then had my 3rd language lesson with Khamsy.

During the lesson I got a call from my mum and I told Khamsy that she was calling me cause it was my birthday. Now back in Australia, this would have normally been followed by a congratulations etc. Not this time. In the Lao culture, birthdays are generally not celebrated. Khamsy told me that he has never celebrated any of his birthdays. This really appeals to me. No more hassle of thinking what to do, no more stressing whether everyone is having a good time and are all mingling with each other, no more pressure to “do something”. It’s just another day.

It’s interesting that in the western culture we celebrate our birthday yet complain constantly that we’re getting older.

Now this may or may not be right cause as it turns out, Khamsy already knew that the surprise birthday party was already organised for me. After my Lao lesson, I rushed to call Liz and then got changed. When I came back downstairs, everyone had already gathered and promptly sang ‘happy birthday’ to me. It was a really cool night and one that I really appreciate.

Wednesday, 13/11: I’m pretty used to things but not yet comfortable. I’m also really enjoying everything and every day brings about many new experiences. Like on Wednesday, when I went to meet the senior people who I will be working with at the Nabong campus. There were all the general staff there who were all friendly and excited that I had arrived. They were all full of enthusiasm and ideas of how I can help which is great.

Then there were the senior people like the Dean and deputy dean of the faculty. They’re the ones that you need to listen to, take orders from and the most important thing to remember…don’t get on their bad side cause they probably have communist connections. Shortly after meeting everyone, the next step in the “induction” was to take a sip of the local moonshine. A boozy welcome lunch followed soon after. In Laos, the tradition is to cheers glasses every 10 minutes or so which is really fun and endearing. Someone usually calls out how much everyone should drink like 1%, 50% or 100% ie skull.

Which brings me to the thing that I have struggled with the most in the last two weeks.That thing being alcohol and the amount that it’s consumed here. Now don’t get me wrong, I love a beer, wine or even the odd shot of vodka but I’m not one to drink regularly, let alone every day. It seems it’s the chosen pastime here.

The other interesting thing that I learned on Wednesday was that a lot of the older staff members had studied in Russia and love practicing their Russian. This suits me just fine as I need the practice as much as they do. I can only suspect that their senior positions are a result of having studied in the Soviet Union.

Thursday, 14/11: I spent the morning visiting some international schools trying to find Liz a job (with some success!). I also managed to get myself a free haircut at AFESIP, a centre that provides care and recovery for woman who have been victims of human trafficking and offers vocational training to support their sustainable community reintegration.

I’m loving this place so far. That’s it for now.

Till next time,

Len

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