Sunday, January 15, 2017

Time to go Home: 2370 kilometres of bicycling in Thailand and Laos

Ruth: 2016 goes down as one of my very best years ever, but now I am looking forward to heading home. Our bikes are packed and our flight leaves from Bangkok tomorrow. 

Nothing left for us to do now except enjoy the food. A plate of any of these delicious curries costs CAN$1.20.

Now that we are back in the Bangkok area we are hiding in our air conditioned room to escape the 34 degree heat and high humidity. The temperatures we experienced on the trip were much more comfortable further north. Highs were often in the high twenties, but considerably lower in the mountains in Laos. Our coldest morning in the mountains started at only 4 degrees warming up to 20 by noon. 

On our last night before cycling to our hotel near the Bangkok airport, we stayed at a classy resort that was quite a notch up from our usual accommodation. It was located on a deep bend in a river with a lovely deck hanging out over the water. Our host warned us in the most eloquent English that the place would not be quite as tranquil as usual because he was having a reunion of school friends that night. As a group they had recently worked together to have trees planted all over the country in honour of their recently deceased King, Rama IX.

It turned out to be such a lovely evening. We were warmly welcomed and included in a boat ride down the river to watch the sunset. Later we learned that our hosts are members of the royal family, tracing their ancestry from King Rama V. No wonder they spoke such lovely English and were all educated abroad. A long way from the minority villages in the North, but sharing the same friendly warmth that we found wherever we went in both countries. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Khao Yai National Park, Part 2

Gordon: Our second organized foray into the park was as enjoyable as the first.  We went for a swim in a clear natural stream, visited an open air market (far from a new experience), and then went to a cave full of bats.  The cave itself had some nice formations, and there were dozens of bats hanging and fluttering about.  They were quite small, perhaps the size of a mouse, and they were often delicately hanging by a single leg.  As the dusk approached we took up a position near another cave and watched more than two million bats fly out for a night of feeding on insects.  It takes about 45 minutes for the colony to emerge from the cave, and for this entire time they are continuously flying by with a quite audible rush of wings.

The next day we cycled up to the core of Khao Yai Park.  We were fortunate in being able to rent one of the limited number of bungalows operated by the Park.  This allowed us to spend the night in the Park so that we could go for a hike in the jungle in the afternoon.  We did not spot any significant wildlife, but it was a treat just to see the lush growth, including some truly enormous trees, an endless maze of vines, and the bizarre and creepy strangler fig trees.  Strangler figs grow up existing trees like a vine, but then they encircle the host tree and eventually strangle it to death.  In older strangler fig trees you can still see the void where the host tree used to be.

In the evening we were treated to the magic of fire flies, which Ruth had never seen before.

This morning we woke to the hooting calls of gibbons.  We left very early with the hope of seeing some wildlife during the early part of the day.  The 35 kilometre ride to the park gate was superb.  It is mostly downhill, along the narrow park highway.  Although we were once again unsuccessful in spotting elephants, we did see Giant Squirrels, Great Hornbills, and a number of troupes of macaques.  Apart from the animals, the early day light on the jungle vegetation was gorgeous.

Late in the morning we rolled out onto the coastal plain that extends from Bangkok.  It was about 32 degrees, an unpleasant increase from the daily range of 16 to 26 degrees we enjoyed at 700 metres in the Park.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Khao Yai National Park

The blue gaiters are leech socks

Gordon:  Yesterday, on a whim, we took the unusual step of joining an organized tour.  I don't generally enjoy being herded around by someone else at great expense, but this full day outing in Khao Yai National Park was actually a great experience.  We met eight other travellers from Germany, France, Austria and Italy, and we had a the benefit of a knowledgeable, high energy guide.

After the drive into the park, our first adventure was in quest of gibbons.  We could hear their hooting calls at a distance from the road, and our guide lead us to various points were we could observe them.  This experience alone would have justified taking the tour.  Gibbons are a lesser ape rather than a monkey, but they are completely at home in the forest canopy.  It was a delight to watch them swing from branch to branch and fly from tree to tree.  We saw two separate species, including the aptly named White Footed, and both adults and juveniles.

Gibbon photos taken by our guide, who had a longer lense

We then undertook a three hour hike through the jungle.  On the hike, or later in the day, we saw Great Hornbills, a Giant Squirrel (you wouldn't want this metre long rodent in your attic), Sanbar Deer, Barking Deer, macaque monkeys, a large woodpecker, and other animals.  We were unsuccessful in seeing elephants, but it seemed that we were in close proximity to them.  It was very exciting as we crept through the forest in search of a herd that a ranger said he had encountered.  There was ample evidence of their passing, in the form of broken vegetation, droppings, and, at one point, a loud crashing noise.  Our guide said we could also smell them (an equine sort of scent) but that may have been from their droppings.

A photo of a Great Hornbill taken by our guide.  These birds have a 150 cm wingspan and make quite a whooshing sound as they fly.

Later in the day we visited a waterfall and a viewpoint at 4,200 feet.  We returned to our hotel 13 hours after our departure, exhausted but very pleased with the experience.

This morning, as we were enjoying an excellent breakfast buffet, we made the decision to join a half-day tour this afternoon.  I won't deny that the opportunity to have another such breakfast by staying in Pak Chong for a third night may have influenced our decision.  

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Goodbye Laos, Hello Thailand

Ruth: This morning we said goodbye to Laos and cycled across the Friendship Bridge into Thailand. The transition from right side driving to left happened just as we headed onto the bridge and now I am so mixed up that before every turn I shoulder check in every direction. 

We caught a train at Nong Khai heading south to Nakhon Ratchasima. Our third class train is a more bombed out version than most Thai trains, but we were able to easily load the bikes into the car we are sitting in. Unfortunately, we were directed to the car that is reserved for Monks and the elderly. Let's just say, our bikes and ourselves don't quite fit in. 

One of the food vendors just came by offering a tasty snack of larvae, too bad I am plum full on baguette sandwiches and brownies. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017


Ruth: Vientiane is a world away from rural Laos.  On our approach to town we stopped at a shopping mall that was more like a western suburban mall than any other place in Laos. For a communist people's republic, wealth distribution has slid decidedly towards Vientiane and away from the rural areas we've visited.  Vientiane is also, however, the base for a number of NGOs and fair trade cooperatives that are trying to send at least some of the wealth back to where it is most needed. We visited COPE, the rehabilitation centre which provides rehab and prosthetics to victims of the unexploded ordinance (UXO).  At the visitor's centre they also screen documentaries about UXO.  We watched the excellent Canadian made film, Bombies. It can be seen here on YouTube:  

For a capital city, Vientiane, is a surprisingly relaxed and metropolitan place. Here is a group in silk pyjamas doing Tai Chi as the sunrises over the Mekong. The French bakeries open up with their baguettes and croissants on offer, a lovely legacy from the French colonial period. We were also pleased to see that a thriving Indian community has set up a number of restaurants, where we have been feasting on fresh nan and curries. 

Only a stone's throw from the Tai Chi group the world of Vientiane ends on the shores of the Mekong, where we once again find rural Laos. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

Road safety in Laos

Gordon:  Now that we are only 22 kms from crossing the border into Thailand, I think it is time to discuss road safety in Laos.  It is certainly something that we talk about a great deal.

The time that we have spent in Laos has been one of our best travel experiences, but Laos does build an excellent case for defensive cycling.  The Lao are amongst the most relaxed and laid back nationalities that we have encountered.  This is both good and bad from a driving perspective.  While the strict "rules of the road" are not observed in Laos in the way they are in North America, there is an absence of the self-righteousness that is present in the more rule bound West.  Traffic is also generally light, and the scooters and small farm vehicles are generally moving at a modest speed.

There are, however, some driving characteristics in Laos that are by turns funny and frightening.  In the latter class is passing on blind corners, which is more than an occasional occurrence.  We often cringe as we watch one vehicle overtake another, knowing that they cannot see what is coming, and that the road is too narrow for three vehicles abreast.  Of course, with the light traffic, the passing vehicle generally gets to continue with their drive without incident.  We have, however, seen the aftermath of several accidents, including one that sent two semi rigs into either ditch.  The cab of one truck was essentially gone, leaving it unlikely that the driver still walks among us.

Another surprising and common manoeuvre is merging into traffic without shoulder checking.  Many times we have had to slow to avoid hitting a scooter as it pulled from the shoulder without so much as a glance at traffic coming from behind.  The rule seems to be that each vehicle is responsible for avoiding a collision with other vehicles in front of it.  This works if everyone follows the same rule, but it does place a lot of trust in other drivers.

I have also read that the Lao have a sense of "fate", that is, that their safety on the road is written in the stars, rather than the care they take in driving.  As someone who doubts that the heavens care a whit about us, and riding a small, unarmoured vehicle, this sense of fate is not comforting.

Rural gas station

As in other countries where we have cycled, such as Romania, the most hazardous drivers on the road  are the wealthy.  In Romania, we learned to pay particular attention to black, German built luxury cars.  In Laos, it is white pickups.  The source of the hazard is the same: wealthy drivers with a sense of entitlement driving faster and with less care than their less affluent fellow citizens.  We have often watched in shocked disbelief as an expensive vehicle has sped through a village, with the usual slow vehicles, children and domestic animals all wandering on and off the road.  Fortunately, we have never observed anything tragic.

Based on what we have observed on the road we have become very careful, defensive cyclists.  We listen for vehicles as we approach corners, sometimes stopping if it sounds like there might be a vehicle in the invisible third lane.  Moreover, most of the other vehicles are moving slowly and doing their best to avoid a collision.  The good humour of the Lao is even infectious, as I have found myself laughing when yet another scooter has pulled from the shoulder without noticing my approach.

Our tripometer turned over 2,000 accident free kilometres today, 1300 in Laos and 700 in Thailand.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Phonsavan to Tha Vieng: Photo Shoot

Picturesque, but the dugout in the foreground is probably a bomb crater

Ruth: Today's ride made up for all the climbing we did on the way to Phonsavan, with a 22 km descent back down to the jungle and rice paddies.

It is the final day of the New Year's parties and we wandered down to the watch the festivities in Tha Vieng. An older woman immediately fetched chairs for both of us, and then various village men came to shake our hands. Suddenly it was time for photos. Almost every teenager in the village wanted to pose with us for pictures. So much for worrying about my own voyeurism.

We were then ushered to the best seats to watch the girls perform some traditional dances.