Sunday, 25 November 2018

LAOS AND AGAIN

Hello Again! I am currently back in the People's Democratic Republic of Laos, for the second time in as many months. After leaving Pattaya (SE Thailand) in early September I cycled the central route North to the Thai Highlands and then I proceeded on down to the Mekong river. This was a route I had not taken before, and I had only seen this part of the river from the opposite banks in Laos.
To reach the main border from Thailand to Laos I traveled East before crossing and proceeding to the Laos capital, Vientiane. I had sent out some requests for sponsorship so I could complete my route through China. I was hoping for some money to drop from the sky (the best response was "God Bless You"). After I realised that there was nothing forthcoming from above, there was no point in wasting my meagre funds on a Chinese visa, and I saw another 2-month visa for the return to Thailand as the most viable option. However, due to all the previous Thai visas in my passport, I was denied another visa at this time (Vientiane has so far been the easiest place for people making a Thai visa run - so I guess they are tightening up their policy). And so I was off to the Vietnamese visa office where I was duly granted a month's visa (a bit expensive though).
I still had enough time, so I headed through Southern Laos towards the Lao Bao border, and into Vietnam. The past rainy season had taken its toll on this busy road. Now it was dry and breezy, and the broken road had turned into a dust bowl.
And so I was off to Vietnam for the first time in about 9 years (see that post for details). On my way back from Vietnam I crossed into Laos at a relatively remote border, at Nam Can. This border is situated in the NE of Laos, a rather mountainous region. I took it fairly easy along there, as bike parts were wearing out like popcorn. I also did not want to become part of the "popcorn festival" by wearing myself out. There was no need to rush, I had plenty of time (my problem was that I had no idea where to head next). So I made my way back towards Vientiane where I hope to get some clarity on my options.
I passed through Phonsavanh, a touristy town in the otherwise remote NE mountains of Laos. The reason for all the tourists is the famed "PLAIN OF JARS" (ancient large carved stone jars). I found this town somewhat disturbing. In a relatively isolated region, suddenly hordes of foreign tourists pop out of the woodwork. Busses, mini-busses, taxis, etc, are hauling the Farangs in from Vientiane and Luang Prabang cities. I am not at all fond of this place, as I was twice ignored as a customer (obviously I'm a small time player). The road is broken and terribly dusty (certainly muddy in the rainy season). Looking at the countless fancy hotels and guesthouses one may imagine that there is enough money for road maintenance. Anyway, those jars are about 10 km out of town.
On the way to another touristy town, Vang Vieng, I came across a rather interesting milestone (see the pic of the sign, the template for painting the name was probably used back-to-front, and the KM sign upside-down). Perhaps the sign was painted by one of the hordes of revelling young travellers (some who seem to get stuck here in VV).
My previous trip through Laos had been in the Rainy Season, and the Rice Planting effort was in full swing. Now, it was the start of the Dry Season, and the Rice Harvest was in the swing of things.
I stayed in the "Back-Packer Hangout" of Vang Vieng for a couple of days (cheapest room that I could find). Myself and my equipment were all in a mess, after an awkward period of time lately. Technically there is wi-fi, but it came and went at will (at least the hot shower worked, and I was in there for half the day). A highlight there was the Italian T/A Pizza shop next door, and I became their number-1 customer. While in Vang Vieng I replaced an O-ring seal on my stove (nearly caused unintentional arson recently!), and repaired the door zip of my tent (free game for mozzies).
Now I am back in Vientiane, capital of Laos. Two months ago I was prevented from applying for another Thailand tourist visa because I already had too many of those in my passport. After the whole Vietnam rigmarole, a number of thousands of KM on the bike, and the "almost" flight back to South Africa, GUESS WHAT?! Inexplicably my visa application was accepted. But my joy was short lived. Two days later I cruised over to the Thai Consulate to pick up my visa, but to no avail (the visa had been denied for the same reasons as before). There are always options, but those are rather slim, and not my preferred choice. Anyway, relax and look at the pictures. The photo below of Vientiane was taken across the Mekong river from Thailand (Still about 80 km via the border and back to what you see in the pic).
I had crossed from Thailand into Laos at the Nong Khai border-bridge across the Mekong river. On the following day I was at the Laos capital, Vientiane, about 30 km from that bridge border. For visa purposes etc I had to hang around in the vicinity, so some of these distances are not at all phenomenal, but mainly a search for accommodation. Then, from Vientiane I cycled through Southern Laos towards Savannaket, and then East up towards the Vietnam border at Lao Bao. Daily distances from Vientiane on this occasion are:- Nongtaeng 33 km; Nongkhankou 36 km; Mai 31 km; Vientiane (again) 27 km; Mai 25 km; River Watt 37 km; Mixay 26 km; Naxon 52 km; Paxxan 80 km; Pakkadan 50 km; Vieng Kham 72 km; Thakek 85 km; Ban Nao Nua 75 km; Dong Hen 76 km; Kethamouak 78 km; Ban Dong 80 km; Lao Bao (Vietnam) 23 km. Total cycled by this stage is 165 635 km.
From Vietnam I returned to Laos via the relatively remote Nam Can border post. After the 20 km climb up to the border the previous day, I was expecting some respite, perhaps even some downhill. Not to be! Still early in the day, but after torturing my poor overladen horse on the relentless uphill (sometimes over 10% gradient) on a somewhat broken road, I called it a day at Nonghet town. So distances into this mountainous part of Laos, from the Vietnam border, were:- Nonghet 18 km; Ban Pakho 32 km; Kham 41 km; Ponsavanh 43 km; Nongtan 59 km; Hinsua 54 km; Phoukoun 45 km; Kasi 42 km; Vang Vieng 59 km (and 3 days onwards to Vientiane). Total distance cycled is 167 550 km.
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