Saturday, July 23, 2011

Week 10 Pt. 2 - Tubing and Tugging

! TUBING !

The night before exbarking on the river adventure, Dan and I found it necessary to prepare ourselves for tubing. We bought the two essential items; a small, waterproof pouch to hold our monies and a pair of yellow, gym shorts stamped with the official tubing logo. We passed out early imagining what our foray into party central was going to be like.

The next morning Dan and I woke up with some serious wonky belly. But we couldn’t pass up this opportunity, so we met up with the other cyclists, a bit tardy and still a bit wonky, but ready to go. The others admired our new gear as we signed a waiver and grabbed a tube. We informally agreed that we weren’t going to get wasted and just wanted to check out the scene. I think that pact lasted all of the 5 minutes it took us to get to the starting point.

We hopped out of the tuk-tuk and were met by a young Laotian standing at a small table. He presented us with a tray of shots to get us going. I’m pretty sure we all needed that shot of confidence which tasted a lot like hot Redbull. We crossed the rickety bamboo bridge and eased ourselves into the water.

It was only 11 a.m. and we had the river to ourselves. But just seconds after getting in the water, we got back out at our first stop. A barman threw me a bottle tied to a rope. I tried to open the bottle, thinking he was throwing me some rice liquor. The others peed themselves laughing as they screamed, “Don’t drink it!”. I’d heard a lot of stories about all the booze and thought that this could only be one of the ways they get you drunk fast, but apparently this was only a tow rope used to pull people towards the dock. I clumsily popped myself out of my tube and scrambled up the ladder.

And then the drinking began…




Mudpit tug-of-war



singing YMCA
Blob - jump

Blob - landing 
Emily discreetly pointing out a spray-painted drunky

Dan on the rope swing

young kid doing the pole climb

panorama of the surroundings





An Organic Mulberry Farm and Some Goats
We spent a recovery day working on resumes in one of the dozen caf├ęs in town that shows “Friends” all day. We were not alone.

In the afternoon, we took a 10km ride just outside of town to the organic mulberry farm, http://www.laofarm.org. It’s actually located right where the tubing begins. I’ll be honest, it is a bit odd to sit in this beautiful farm and hear pop music being blasted throughout the day and night and watch drunkies stumble down to the river. I think it would drive me crazy! We’re pretty sure the farm was there first, but they’re trying to reach some sort of agreement about the music volume. We’ll see.

We’d read about the farm’s infamous goat cheese and delicious food. After some mulberry tea and about a pound of goat cheese, we took a quick tour of the farm. We decided to come back the next morning around 6 am to help care for and milk the goats.

The Vang Vieng Organic Farm is committed to “preserving ecological diversity and providing people with accessible and sustainable technologies to earn a living.” Some of their projects include; organic mulberry tea & wine production, homemade goat cheese, a local run restaurant, education programs, farm-stays, and the construction of mud houses used as community centers for villages.

We were most interested in helping care for the goats. The first two goats on the farm were dairy goats from France. Overtime, a Vietnamese goat was added to the family and breeding began. With a grant and donation of several more goats from Thailand, cheese production was able to begin.

Eventually, the farm plans to distribute goats to local farmers and teach them how to raise the goats and produce their own yoghurt. Through a goat bank, local farmers will receive goats and over time, pay back the number of goats they have received to give to other farmers. Since Laotians don’t really eat cheese, the farmers will learn to produce their own yoghurt. Another plus is that little real equipment is needed to make yoghurt. Hopefully, the increase in yoghurt production will help better farmers’ diets which mainly consist of grains and lack protein.

We spent the morning cleaning the stalls, feeding the goats and finally, milking. It’s a lot harder than it looks, but Dan was able to empty a couple goat utters. I was more interested in tasting the fresh milk and cheese. After a few hours, we finished work and walked around the farm. We stumbled upon the slaughtering of a goat to be eaten during the up-coming New Year festivities and I discovered my interest in butchery. Hey, it is a farm.  





Thursday, July 21, 2011

Week 10 Pt. 1 - Mountains, Margerhita Pizza, and Middle Earth

We never actually got a chance to update our blog after leaving Luang Prabang and we've spent the last few months since returning to the USA settling back in to home life and getting jobs (i.e. trading in our spandex for suits, our farmer tans for pasty white skin). Finally, after editing all our pictures and route maps, here is a not-so short review of all the things that happened south of Luang Prabang.



Day 67 - Hakesh and the Storm

As we mentioned before, we met two cycling couples who started their epic journey in England. Laos is like a funnel; everyone seems to be heading in the same direction and there’s really only 1 main roadway. Sort of by default, the 6 of us became fast friends and cycled the rest of Laos together.

Eric (a South African) and Kirsten (a Kiwi) are the professionals. Their bikes look like mini fighter jets. They’re loaded with front & back panniers, surround sound, GPS & trip computers (a set for each), front & back kick-stands, and every possible piece of equipment needed for survival.

Kelli (an Aussie) and Stephen (another South African) are more like the survivalists. They too have fully loaded bikes, but they re-purpose a lot of their gear, are super crafty, and will stop to pick up any and every piece of scrap wire, rubber or lone screw.

I suppose that makes Dan and me the boneheads; somewhat unprepared, but game for anything.

Eric & Kirsten started the 3 day journey to Vang Vieng a day before the rest of us. We opted for one last slow morning in Luang Prabang, stuffing ourselves with good coffee, croissants and giant baguette sandwiches - a great choice, in hindsight, considering the intense ride we endured:


We planned to meet Kelli & Stephen in Kiukacham, the first “town” with a guesthouse after a big mountain climb. We started early, knowing the biggest climb was just before our stopping point. About mid-day and half-way through our route, we decided to stop for lunch. Normally we cram our Tupperware containers full of rice before setting off for the day, but judging from the map it looked as though there was a rather large village half-way to the guesthouse.

We stopped at a small snack hut to ask where we could find some food. After asking a few more times, everyone assured us there was a large, brand-new restaurant just around the bend. As we rounded the curve, there it was; a clean, open-air restaurant with coolers full of icy refreshments, a shelf of snacks, and a few tables.


I dropped my bike and chugged a jug of water. Then we tried to order. Positive we misunderstood the woman who kept saying she had no food. We refused to accept this and tried to order for another 10 minutes. Then she walked us over to the fridge, opened it and we saw nothing. Nothing. I wanted to cry.

Important lesson learned the hard way on this trip: don’t trust maps.

Flabbergasted, we looked to the snack shelf to piece together some form of edible energy. Dan was ready to eat the entire shelf. We opted for Cup of Noodles (2 cups for each of us) and a Coke each. Dan had boo-boo face to say the least. It improved a little after we began feasting on our black-pepper and spicy beef noodle soup. The “beef” constituted 3 fuzz-size balls of dehydrated meat. I fed mine to the poor cat with a nub of a tail. Dan stopped speaking to me because I wasted my “meat” on the cat instead of giving it to him.

As we sat in silence, a nice SUV pulled up and a Sri Lankan family, (dad, Hakesh, his 5 year old son, and grand-parents), popped out. Dan immediately warned them that there was no food here. No worries, they were only after beer to accompany their gourment packed-lunch from Vang Vieng. We invited them to join us and began chatting.

Actually they did most of the chatting as we slurped our cups down. We must’ve looked like a hot mess because the Dad walked over and handed us one of their baguette sandwiches stuffed with about half a chicken and a slice of chocolate cake that was as big as my face. He quietly said, “You need this more than us.” We tried to refuse, but they insisted after hearing about our journey and seeing our pathetic lunch. In true Chinese style we graciously accepted the gift and pushed it to the side, refusing to open it, let alone look at it in their presence.

For the next half an hour we were entertained by Hakesh. He scarffed down a piece of Margarita pizza, which his grandmother insisted he was not to have, since it must contain alcohol with a name like that. He then faced his own gigantic piece of cake, though I’m pretty sure most of it ended up on his face and the cat. I’m quite certain Dan was drooling as he witnessed this. After a forced washing by Grandma, he returned and began harassing the cat in spite of the cries of horror coming from his grandmother. Each time he came back from washing his hands, he ever so gently touched the cat while calmly saying in a sing-song tone, “I’mmmm touching ittttttt,” sending Grandma into another fit of disgust. Meanwhile Grandpa raved about his glorious compound in Sri Lanka, the best place on Earth, and how close it was to the beach, 5 minutes by foot to be exact. Hakesh’s dad asked us to switch places several times throughout the lunch.

Hakesh is so famous that someone actually created a clip art image about him

After another bathroom break, change of pants, and more cat torturing, they piled back into the car and drove off. We crammed our treasures into our panniers and started riding again. 
After chugging along for the rest of the afternoon, we noticed the clouds creeping into the sky. The only thing we could do was cycle faster and pray the rain held off until we made it to the guesthouse.

Unfortunately we weren’t that lucky and were pelted with giant rain drops. It felt good after a day of climbing, but we still had about 25km or so until our resting point. For the next hour the rain sporadically soaked us until the storm turned into an all-out bombardment. As I’ve learned the hard way, the only way to get to our destination faster is to pedal faster. We started the last bit of the climb just as the thunder rolled in and almost knocked me off my bike.

I’ve never been afraid of thunderstorms until now. It was completely irrational, but I felt as though the ground was shaking each time the thunder attacked. While the storm raged on, the sun began to set, only heightening my fear.

Dan rode just behind me the entire climb, assuring me after every yelp of fear that the guesthouse was just at the top. Every time I looked towards the storm, I pictured monster ships crashing towards us filled with manically laughing pirates, ready for pillaging. Yeah, we probably should’ve stopped to eat some of that chocolate cake for energy.

 Shivering and completely soaked, we came to a screeching halt at the guesthouse where Stephen and Kelli were waiting for us. They bear-hugged us, worried something might’ve happened to us. Dan and I changed into dry clothes and then had a feast of noodles and rice with our friends. Then we pulled out the brick of cake and we all polished it off in under a minute.

You may be wondering what happened to the sandwich. I suppose it’s safe to say now…the two of us ate it in bed before passing out.

A public faucet donated by the Australians and the French
overlooking the view from Kiu Kacham

Days 68 & 69 - The Long and Itchy Road to the Land of Buckets

Luckily the weather cleared up over-night and it looked as though today’s ride would be easier with fewer and shorter climbs. We planned to stop in Nam Kene at a hot spring. Dan and I were skeptical, since we’ve been to several fake hot springs throughout China. I don’t really enjoy them since it makes me feel like I’m sitting in a giant puddle of pee.

The ride in was especially brutal as the clouds had dissipated leaving no cover from the blaring sun. We climbed for hours and hours until we reached the old French out-post of Phou Khoun. The now-bustling market town sits right on the junction of the Luang Prabang - Vientiane road and the Phou Khoun - Phonsavan (Pathet Lao hide out during the war) road. The hills south of here were the center for Hmong rebels during the Vietnam War which the American CIA used to fight against the communist Pathet Lao in what is know as "The Secret War". The scenery certainly lends itself to such history as the view coming over the crest from Phou Khoun is especially breathtaking. Shrouded in mist, there is a panoramic view of towering Karst mountains unlike we have seen anywhere else. most imposed is the sacred mountain of Phu Pha in Muang Kasi (pictured below) - I wasn't the only one who thought that the view conjured up images of Middle Earth from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.



After descending 44 km to the base of Mt. Phu Pha then climbing one last 15% (!) incline hill, we made it to the hot springs and the bungalows. Along the way we bumped into a couple biking in the opposite direction. They warned us not to stay in the top bungalow since they lost power last night and doubted it would be fixed. Stephen and Kelli beat us there and snagged the 3rd bungalow. Dan and I were shown the first one. It was small, but cozy and the power worked.

Stephen and Kelli convinced us to take a quick dip in the springs. The main pool looked a bit dodgy with chunks of algae floating on the surface. We followed their lead and walked through the weeds to a small pool of water. After about 5 minutes of soaking in our entire biking gear, we called it quits. We draped all the wet clothes on our balcony and sat down to another feast with Stephen and Kelli. I never knew I could eat so much until we started cycling. I think that night we each had a plate of noodles, a plate of rice, a papaya salad, and some cookies. Secretly, I was still hungry and I know Dan was too.

The next morning I woke up at 5 and went out to grab some clothes. I opened the door and rubbed my eyes. The clothes looked like they were moving, but I figured I was just tired. I rubbed my eyes again and stepped closer. “HOLY SHIT.” ALL of our clothes were coated in a moving army of fire ants. Dan woke up to me cursing as I whacked our clothes against the ground and swatted ants off my body. It took us almost 2 hours to get most of the ants off our clothes and bags. It was AWFUL. We tried to get a discount, but the hotel owner just laughed.

Just a sample of what we were dealing with - talk about ants in the pants!


We spastically rode the rest of the day, swatting at both real and phantom fire ants. We both had boo-boo faces.

The day seemed to last forever. About 10km outside of Vang Vieng we had a meltdown. We stopped on the side of the rode, exhausted and slightly dehydrated. After 4 sodas we perked up a bit and slowly made our way through the thick heat into the city. As we got closer, the tuk-tuks full of half-naked, drunk foreigners started appearing. We’d made it to the land of buckets (think of the buckets used to make sandcastles and fill them with a mickey of liquor and Redbull or soda)!!

We found a super clean hotel with a great view, hot water, and comfy bed. As we walked towards our reunion dinner with Erik and Kirsten (we finally caught up with them) we noticed that most people were covered with paint and strange markings. A bit curious, we sat down to a pizza party with all the cyclists to find out more.   

The only thing people do in Vang Vieng is tubing. That’s right, put on your bikini and hop in an old tire tube to float down the river. The banks are full of bars, waterslides, zip lines and free booze. Basically, everyone gets really drunk and then makes bad decisions. Dan and I were ever so slightly interested and brought it up at dinner. The other cyclists are about 5 to 10 years older than us. They laughed at us and told us there was no way they were going. After 2 beers and a pizza each we were all wasted. We started talking about what to do on our rest day and Dan flung his arms into the air and shouted, “TUBING!” And then we all made a bad decision.