Friday, December 27, 2013

Goodbye Vietnam

Thanks to my multi-entry Vietnam Visa I’ve been in and out of Vietnam in the north and the south and had plenty of time to travel through this country to get a good feel of their way of life.  Most cyclists skip over this country deterred by the dense traffic, unpredictable road conditions, pollution, noise, and chaos.  I skipped out on the central part of Vietnam, basically for those reasons, and stuck to exploring areas that were more off the beaten track both in the north and the south. Tomorrow is my last day in this country and the truth is I’m going to miss it.

Riding in Ho Chi Minh City

Yes this country is chaotic, busy, and noisy, but in my opinion those qualities also give it charm.  The people are happy, alive, energetic, and always on the go, qualities I share with them and hence I believe there is a common understanding.  The busy traffic has made me a more confident and aggressive rider.  After riding through Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City felt like a breeze.  Out of the countries I’ve been through so far in SE Asia, Vietnam wins the vote of the most delicious food stalls and the best prices for fresh fruit and vegetables, and little treats.

Fresh coconut juice on the side of the road

I noticed a remarkable difference between the north and the south of Vietnam, as you can imagine.  Up north, the country was densely populated, the climate colder, life felt more sophisticated, “Bia Hoi’s” or beer gardens were everywhere, higher prices, and more tourism.  Down south, the beer gardens were replaced with huge outdoor cafes with hammocks and lounge chairs, people were more friendly and laid back, prices were cheaper, the climate warmer, and life felt a bit more relaxed.  Even thought the Mekong Delta is heavily populated, there was less tourism than in places like Sapa and Halong Bay up north. 

My biggest challenge up north was the traffic around metropolis areas and the climbs up in the Ha Giang province. After navigating Hanoi and the north, the south felt like a breeze.  Perhaps I became desensitized to all the honking, motor scooters crossing my path, and other crazy drivers, or maybe this chaotic way of life that magically works, has grown on me.  Ed has been with me for the last three days and made comments about the horrible traffic.  For a cyclist who isn’t used to these roads, it is taxing on the daily kilometers, and you always have to be aware of your immediate surroundings. 

Tomorrow is my last day in Vietnam and it makes me sad.  For the last several days, I’ve been spoiled.  I’ve gone from sleeping in my local Ngha Nghis to living the life of luxury in four and five star hotels.  Alone and on my meager budget, I wouldn’t have done this, but with a traveling companion, the price of the room between two people is doable for a holiday treat.

I love the name of these Asian hotels

Looking back at all my stays at Ngha Nighi’s, I’ve had some good laughs.  The owners of these hotels are not used to having cyclists as clients, let along a solo young woman. I rolled up on my own, of course, yet you can’t imagine how many times the hotel would ask me how many people were going to be in the room. You see, like I mentioned, these Ngha Nghi’s are known for their hourly services. Since I arrive on my own, and they are used to having people bring a “guest” back to the room, I think they always suspect that I’m going to have an adventurous night on the town and bring a “guest” back, therefore they repeatedly ask me how many people will be in the room.  Little do they know the tour cyclist etiquette?  We epitomize “ideal” tourism in any part of the world.  We go to restaurants and eat our heart out on food and desserts, we want a good night’s rest and go to bed early to be on the road as early as possible. 

No this isn't a cage to transport pets.....

I am also going to miss the energy of these Vietnamese people.  They rival my own energy as they are always on the go….it’s non-stop action.  Lots of times I go to bed to the sound of motor scooters driving by and karaoke bars blasting music, and wake in the morning to the honks of cars and motor scooters and the sound of drilling, hammering, and pounding, there is always something to be worked on.  On the road there are an abundance of food stalls and street vendors approaching you, roadside markets, and small stores with a huge selection of beverages.  There is banging, sawing, and soldering in little workshops from the time the sunrises until it sets.  Regardless the time of day, the roads are crowded.  Kids traffic the road heavily in the morning and around noon on their lunch break.  In the morning and afternoon you also find people going and coming from work, and trucks transporting goods at all hours of the day.  The people are alive and busy always doing something, which makes for an entertaining sight while riding.  In the south more than the north, I found them to be extremely curious and will approach to see what you are doing.  They touch, feel, observe, and investigate, oblivious to any norms the westerners have regarding personal space. 

Here they are having a look at our bikes all curious

The Vietnamese food has been amazing, especially in the south where the variety of fresh fruit and vegetables has multiplied rapidly.  Lots of times they actually advertise the kilogram prices so that you don’t get taken advantage of as a tourist, although I know that isn’t the purpose for doing it.  Food carts sell anything from ice cream to candied tofu, sweet corn, steamed buns,…the list goes on and on, but can always serve as a good quick snack to refuel the hungry cyclist.  Yesterday we bought 5 drinks between the two of us at one of our stops, for about 1,50 euro.  Incredible! 

Drinks for two thirsty cyclists

Something tells me that I will be back to visit this country.  I’ve left a large chunk of the central coast untouched, which merits a cycling trip of it’s own and a great excuse to come back sometime soon!  We’ll see….

Monday, December 23, 2013

4 Months on the Road Today

10,000 kilometers, 4 months, and still going strong!
Yesterday I hit 10,000 kilometers, today was my 4 month anniversary, tomorrow my firend arrives to ride with me, and the day after tomorrow is Christmas.  Wow! I must have been good this year.

Today, the 23rd of December marks 4 months on the road for me.  I left Barcelona on the 23rd of August and on my way home to Eugene, Oregon. This has to be one of the best, if not the best decision I’ve made in my life.  Yes, I have difficult moments, days with lots of climbing, riding on terrible roads, and long days.  Some days I look for an excuse to stop every 20 kilometers and others 80 kilometers pass so fast I can hardly belive it.  There isn't a day goes by that I don’t think about how happy and content I am pedaling my bike.  I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else!

The night before my departure in Barcelona, one last test ride....

Here are the statistics for The Loong Way Home during the past 4 months.  I have…..
  • Cycled 10,152 kilometers
  • Climbed 100,000 meters
  • Been on the road 123 days (95 riding days & 28 rest days)
  • Rode on 2 continents
  • Passed through 19 countries
  • Had 3 flat tires
  • Changed my chain and brake pads once
  • Drank more coffee than any other beverage besides water (111 coffees and 33 ice teas)
  • Slept in 67 hotels, been hosted 43 times, and used my tent 12 nights to camp
  • Had 86 days of sunshine, 26 cloudy days, and 12 days of rain 
We’ll see what 2014 has in store for The Loong Way Home.  I finish my SE Asia portion of the trip in Singapore at the start of February, taking the LOONG route of course!

Santa caravan entering HCMC

I wanted to mention my plans for the holidays as lots of you have been asking, worried and making sure I am looked after!  I’m never truely alone on this trip out on the road, but I do have company coming and I'm looking forward to his arrival tomorrow.  Ed, a friend of mine from Hong Kong, will be joining me to cycle from Ho Chi Minh City to Phnom Penh and we’ll explore the Mekong Delta and Southern Cambodia.  This year will definitely be memorable holidays for me, as is this unique year in my life.  The 30-degree weather and lack of Christmas decorations, makes the holidays seem like they are far off.  I did see one dancing Santa coming into Vietnam and today a parade of Santa’s on bikes, but that was the first sign of Christmas in SE Asia! I did however buy myself a gift for a mere Euro,....a Vietnamese coffee filter to use whereever I settle down after the trip. Hopefully that country will have condensed milk! On Christmas we will be in the delta and for New Year’s, Phnom Penh.  I haven’t had company for more than a couple of days since the first of my trip. I know I will enjoy his companionship, especially for the holidays.

Thank you to all my follwers: friends, family and strangers.  You have given me a lot of support during hte first 4 months and I enjoy hearing from you from all the different places in the world that you are connecting.  Thank you!  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

10,000 Kilometers

look hard, it says 10,000 km!
I’ve pedaled 10,000 kilometers! That’s right! It happened today leaving Cambodia on my way to Vietnam, 95 kilometers into my day.  Wouldn’t you know that right as I hit the big 1-0-0-0-0 I saw a little guy on a motor scooter selling ice cream sandwiches (literally a baguette with ice cream in the middle and condensed milk on top)?  Yep, you betcha, I had one, two actually! The lady there with her kids treated me to one as well.  I must have devoured it so quickly she thought I could use another or maybe she knew I was celebrating a special occasion.

So 10,000 kilometers on a nicely paved flat road today in Cambodia….I made sure I found a way to document it.  Gathering sugar canes and coconuts for the ones and zeros was too much of an effort, but it crossed my mind in the morning.  I inscribed 10,000 in the read earth on the side of the road and had a few kids take my picture.  Later on that evening I had a beer and cheered to the occasion!

You might ask, how do I feel after all the kilometers?  Strong, excited, and proud.  I’m doing exactly what I’ve wanted to do for a long time coming and I can’t believe how well my trip is going.  Physically, I don’t think I’ve been in better shape and every day I get a little bit stronger.  Mentally, I've gotten tougher as well and continue to be an optimist even in the most hopeless of situations.  There are days I like to stop a lot and look around and visit places, and do fewer kilometers.  Other times I enjoy a good ride and even keep a nice pace,  and can keep going for more than 120 kilometers.  It’s a good thing it gets dark early, because I would probably opt for riding and riding into the night on some days.  I love being on my bike!

10,000 kilometers is about a third of the way into my trip.  Hard to believe that 20,000 kilometers await me from here until next October.  With all the kilometers comes many stories, great memories, interesting scenery, and lots of learning about others, myself, and the my surroundings. 

From kilometer 9,600 to 10,000 I’ve been in Cambodia, the northern part, on my way to Ho Chi Minh City.  Cambodia, what a comical country!  At first the nice smooth tarmac and light traffic amazed me just after entering, but day 2, the potholes and dusty roads had me frustrated.  Thankfully today the roads were better and I hope the same is true for down south.  Regardless of the roads this country is funny.

The woman in her pjs there treated me to my second ice cream sandwich, absolutely delicious

First of all, women of all ages, and the majority of them wear their pajamas all day long! That’s right!  People think Americans have a bad reputation for their sloppy dress, but these women wear their pajamas on the motor scooters, to buy groceries, at their stalls selling things, it is amazing! They actually don’t look sloppy, as their pjs are long sleeve with bright floral patterns.  However, I’m wondering if they wear their pajamas all day long, then what do they wear to bed at night?   Remind you it is about 32 Celsius, or 95 Fahrenheit, in the heat of the day here, luckily they aren’t flannel pjs!

I still think they could get more on or in this van

Secondly, the buses here, or “mini-buses” as I’d call them are packed to the brim.  They use a mini van similar to the Volkswagen Wagon (but another brand) and pack in the people.  There are probably 3 or 4 bench seats and one up front for the driver.   The maximum capacity per bench is four, so a total of about 20 people would be a modest calculation?  Kid you not, I’ve seen probably 30 or 40 people crammed in the buses.  But that is not all they are carrying.  They pass you and off the back they have a huge bulging heap of goods tied down with rope, sitting on a rear rack.  Goods include motorcycles, mattresses, furniture pieces, and/or several of each.  But wait, there is more.  If the mini-bus is really going to take advantage of the trip they are making then there are anywhere from 2 to 5 people on top of the bus, roof surfing on the top of the van.  It’s no wonder I’ve seen a good handful of these busses stopped along the side of the broken down, a flat tire, no tire, lost good collection, motor problems,…you name it!  I do love saying hi to the car roof surfers, they are my favorite and holler plenty to keep the ride entertaining!

There are the van surfers, a national sport here in Cambodia

What else do I enjoy about Cambodia? The food!  The coffee isn’t as thick as Vietnam and there isn’t condensed milk, but the beans are from Laos, I believe, and deliciously roasted.  Unfortunately only western type hotels or restaurants serve it.  But out on the road, there are plenty of new enticing beverages from fresh pressed sugar cane juice on ice and ice shavings with flavored syrups and condensed milk. There are also heaps of fresh coconuts for juice, another delicious drink. Pickles are a frequent condiment or side when you order any food, and I’m a pickle lover, so that is a nice surprise.  Sticky rice is still available and it comes in bamboo shoots which is the most ingenious invention and the perfect way to transport this energy packed snack.  The rice is mixed with some beans, sugar, and coconut shreds on the inside.  Bananas were grilled in Laos and Vietnam, but here they are fried and even more yummy in Cambodia!  Today the ice cream baguettes were new for me, what an invention!  There are some new fruits in this region including delicious and sweet melons to huge pomelos, and this fruit I have yet to identify by name and just saw it for the first time in it’s natural form today (rather than all cleaned).  I bought one hunk, but the lady threw in two more, she could see I was enjoying it.

Flavored ice shavings with condensed milk, how can you go wrong? 
Sugar cane juice. It works miracles when it is hot and you have a long day ahead of you

That’s what you notice about the people here, they don’t always seem like they are trying to invent the price for the pfalang.  You see Cambodia has two currencies, Riels and US dollars.  Everyone knows that 4 Riels is equal to one dollar.   You can pay in either or both, they don’t care.  They can’t try to cheat you out of money because the exchange rate is such an established standard that it doesn’t have an influential or annoying role in the tourist role.  They still charge us more than the locals, that’s standard anywhere over here. 

My new favorite fruit. I wish I knew the name (notice the lady in pjs and two other in their bottoms?)

Before I mentioned the women wear pajamas all day long, so then it is no surprise that I find the people laid back, friendly, and pleasant.  The kids are saying “hello, good-bye, and thank you” in English and not Cambodian, and lots of times their parents are even more forward in greeting me.  I still hear the word pfalang from kilometers away and life hovers around the road as it did everywhere else in SE Asia.  Everyone is selling something from their home or a small thatched hut.  But, the Cambodians put their motos to good use and sell a variety of products off the back basket.  In other countries, motor scooters specialized in one good, steamed dumplings, fresh fish, or meat for instance.  Here, the motor scooters have a huge selection of goods.  Yesterday I bought hard-boiled eggs, sticky rice, and fruit, all off the same motor scooter.  To the lady next to me, the driver delivered her fruit and vegetables from the local market. 

Typical Cambodian house/ store?!?!   That's a gas station out front, buy a bottle and fill up

It’s a good thing I will have more time to spend in Cambodia.  Today I crossed over into Vietnam to go explore the Mekong Delta for the next week.  Vietnam, I never thought I’d let out a sign of relief as I entered this country, but I did miss my well-equipped Nha Nghe’s with hot water, wifi and free toiletries.  After the delta, I’m back in Cambodia, along the coast, up to the capital and then over to Siam Reap (Angkor Wat) and then to Thailand. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Expect the Unexpected.....Always!

On your bike you always have to expect the unexpected.  Thankfully, I also think I have a bit of luck, or at least that is what they tell me.  I had my day perfectly planned.  I left Pakse early, 7am.  In fact it was so unusually early for me that I stopped for a nice long breakfast at the local market.  I was on my way to Wat Phu, a ruined Khmer temple complex more than a 1,000 years old, 30 kilometers south of Pakse and then headed south to the 4,000 islands.  It was on the west side of the Mekong, and the main highway was on the left.  I was told however, that I could stay on the west side and make my way south on tiny back roads and take a ferry when they ended.  This I had researched at a travel agent in town before I left, as there was no sign of roads or ferries on Google maps. 

Wat Phu 10 km south of Champasak ,Laos

I rolled up to the Wat and to my surprise there was another tour bike parked outside.  I wanted to leave a little note asking if he was going north or south, but I thought I would find him inside the Wat.  Yes, I automatically assumed it was a male cyclist (no clean underwear hanging off the back on the bike)!  I was thrilled to see another tour cyclist as I haven’t run into many, despite the fact that the few that I have seen say this highway is swarming with them!

Sure enough inside the Wat complex I found him, identifiable by the bike shoes and the front handle bar bag being used as a “man purse”.  Hartmut was a retired German cyclist who had ridden north from Bangkok, into Northern Laos, and was making his way down to Cambodia, and then Phu Coc, a Vietnamese island off the Cambodian coast.  He was going south and so we decided to ride together for the day.  He had been told information contrary to mine about the route. He believed there was no way to get down south on the west side of the river.  I trusted my travels agent, a Belgium man who seemed like he knew the area since he ran eco tours.  If traveling solo, I would have explored the west side, but I didn’t want to take a companion on a wild goose chase, and so I complied and back tracked, and headed down south on the east side of the Mekong.  This meant, we had to take a small ferry across which was10 kilometers north on the road.  No big deal.  The “ferry” was a small catamaran style boat made out of wood with a little motor.  It took us a whole 5 minutes to cross the river.  On the other side, we started to pedal south. 

River crossing number 1 on the "catamaran style" boat

The Mekong River...wide, brown, but beautiful

Prior to crossing the river, we had lunch and Hartmut seemed like a nice enough man, an experienced cyclist, and spoke, what I consider perfect English, although he denies that fact.  In fact in the first 5 minutes he asked me to slow down,….As you know I talk fast regardless of the language, especially when I’m excited, and believe me, I was excited to have a riding companion for a day!  We compared our bikes.  He told me I had a very “sportif” style.  Coming from the world of road biking, I know that.  He asked me where my mirrors were, and I told him I turn my head…..later I discovered why he needed to huge rearview mirrors (he loves to ride in the middle of the road where the tarmac is smoother and I kept to the shoulder).  He rides anywhere from 80 to 100 kilometers a day, which, seemed compatible.  However, I had in mind that I wanted to make it as close as I could to 4,000 islands so that the following day could be a rest day, with maybe just 20 kilometers to make it over to the islands.  That meant we’d already rode 35 and I needed to go about another 80. 

As soon as we were on the east side of the river, Hartmut spotted a sign for a town that was 20 kilometers away and I knew that wasn’t going to do it for me.  I wanted to go farther.  As we got closer, I let him know that I wanted to do more kilometers.  I thought he would have said, “ok, I’ll stay here!” , but he didn’t mind. We agreed to cycle another 30 and then start looking for guesthouses.  Right around 25 kilometers we passed several, but I kept saying, “keep pedaling, there will be more just ahead!”  Those were the famous last words, because there weren’t any just ahead. We pedaled and pedaled, and soon the chatting dissipated, and turned into that awkward silence.  I was almost dusk, we didn’t have much day light left and there was no sign of another town.  We stopped to about a gas station, and a Chinese boy living in the area told us yes there was one, 5 kilometers down the road. We kept pedaling, reached 5 kilometers and no guesthouse.  We stopped and asked again, making the sleeping symbol with our hands to some locals, who pointed further down the road.  Optimistically, I tried to ask them how far.  This is a great question to try to ask.  You can use your fingers and say 1km, 2km, 5 km,….and to each number you make, they always nod their head and say yes! 

Happy cyclists eating ice cream....little did we know there wouldn't be a hotel later on down the road!

Again we pedaled on….no guesthouse.  Now Hartmut started getting a little concerned.  In times like these, I think just keep pedaling, something will come.  He wasn’t so sure about that and wanted to stop to think about our options.  We decided that we would pedal until just after the sun went down.  If we didn’t see anything, we’d pull over on the shoulder and hitch hike.  Of course, I was still certain we’d find a place, but we didn’t.  So we pulled over and he sent me to go ask a guy at the gas station if they’d take us in their truck to the next hotel, while Hartmut was on the side of the road with his thumb out.  What a duo!

I couldn’t get the guys at the gas station to understand that I wanted them to drive us with their pick-up.  I even drew a picture of a bike in a pick-up, it was no use, we just didn’t understand each other.  At that time, I looked over at Hartmut, and he had flagged down an empty truck that would take us to a hotel.   He wanted me in the cab and he would stay in the back with the bikes, but I insisted we were in this together, and rode in the back with him. At this point we couldn’t stop laughing, well, it was more like me.  I think Hartmut was regretting cycling with me because on his own, he would have stopped about 50 kilometers back.  Like others have told me, he said, “Melissa, you are a lucky girl!  Any later and we wouldn’t have had luck hitch hiking in the dark.”  I guess we’ll never know what would have happened, but I really hadn’t gotten too worried in this situation, I knew something would come about. As it turns out, we had cycled about 120 kilometers that day, 80 together, and for the last 50 there hadn’t been any hotels. Amazing!  I hadn’t had a day like that in a long time, where accommodation is so limited it created problems for your route.

Here we are in the back of the flat bed truck, we surrender!

About 10 minutes after riding in the back of the truck, the driver stopped, got out, and asked us if we wanted to continue straight for 14 kilometers, or turn right for 3 for a hotel.  His house was to the right, so we decided that was the better option for all of us.  It was a dirt road to the right, lots of bumps on our bottoms, and banging of the bikes.  We were looking forward to the hotel as we pulled into a small town.  What we didn’t realize was the guesthouse 3 kilometers away included a ferry crossing, back to the west side of the river. I pulled out my map, and believe it or not, realized that the town on the other side of the river and the ferry crossing were where were at present, was the same ferry crossing and town the Belgium travel agent assured me I’d find.  Imagine that!!!!!  Now, I felt much better and less responsible for the hotel mishap.  Hartmut knew he couldn’t blame me entirely for our hotel problem, only partially. 

In the back of the truck, I thought I was going to wake up early and back track the route we had driven.  That is only correct, if you are on a bike tour, you can’t hop in a motorized vehicle.  However, now that it involved a ferry crossing, dirt road, and a 15 plus kilometer ride in the opposite direction, I quickly forgot about that option.  Cheating? Maybe we had cheated by hopping in the truck, but let me tell you, it makes for one heck of a story, a lot of laughs, and a memorable experience we never would have had if we had stopped early.  To tell you the truth, I think we bonded a bit because of it. 

We unloaded our bikes off the back and headed down to the “ferry”.  It was unloading vehicles at the time.  You should have seen the size of the trucks coming off the ferry that was nothing more than wooden planks floating on top of a motor engine.  Amazing!  The dock consisted of two planks of wood straddling the sand and the ferry. Most trucks needed to get a “running start” in order to make it up the steep slope of the dock.  The simple infrastructure here in SE Asia is fascinating, and actually works! 

On the start rating, this place had a point of a star,......maybe!

From the other side of the river we could hear loud music blasting from the tiny little town and we thought we had better get the guesthouse on the other side of town.  Little did we know there was only one option.  It was further from the music, but by no means was it the “nice, luxurious” hotel that Hartmut was hoping for and had seen earlier on the main road.  The music turned out to be a huge town festival with all sorts of stalls, rides, food booths, and a concert venue.  But the main attraction was US!  Everyone starred at us as we walked up and down the main drag trying to find a place to eat dinner.  Kids, couples, old people….they all starred and giggled at us, I could hear the saying pfalang repeatedly, which means foreigners.  It was like they had never seen westerners before. 

How much stuff can two cyclists have??? Observe the full size bottles on the table, they belong to Hartmut

After dinner, while the party was going strong, we had a fun time back at the hotel comparing all the things in our panniers.  Hartmut had 5, like I previously had before sending my camping and winter gear to New Zealand.  Therefore, I automatically assumed that he had cookware and camping gear, but he didn’t.  He attributed the bulk to technology, but I can tell you exactly what it was.  Here you have a solo older married bike tour cyclist and a solo single young woman.  Who would you expect to have more toiletries?  Me, right, especially with the curly hair?!?  WRONG! Oh, my, his toiletry bag weighed more than my laptop.  He had a variety of beauty products and their size was the real deal.  Whereas I have mini ones that I keep refilling when I can.  Body lotion, I don’t have any, but Hartmut has a huge bottle of Nivea mens lotion.  Baby wipes,…I ran out a long time ago and haven’t seen a small packs for awhile.  He has a new jumbo size pack (and gave me several to have in a zoploc)!  I can’t criticize him because I loved using the herbal shampoo and body wash, and lathered up in body lotion after showering.  I was spoiled!

Surprised the ferry didn't sink!
Another ferry crossing...I did 7 in total over the 3 days

The next morning Hartmut and I took the ferry back to the other side of the river.  Indeed the road did end at this town, as I was told.  We rode south, a good 40 kilometers before encountering another hotel and the starting point to explore the Mekong and the 4,000 islands.  We hopped from one island to the next riding their dirt tracks until we came to the last two in the south, Don Dhet and Don Khon.  We decided to call it a day on Don Dhet, after taking 4 different ferries and riding about 60 kilometers on what was suppose to be my “rest day”.

That was the wides the road was on the islands, made passing a water buffalo difficult

This area is delightful!  They call it 4,000 islands because literally the Mekong is so wide here and dotted with tiny little islands in all directions.  Some are no more than branches growing out of the water, but the largest stretch about 15 kilometers north to south.  There are only dirt tracks for moving about and car ferries to two of the islands, which is why they have remained so remote and calm.  Yes, there are backpackers, but everyone is pretty relaxed and the weather is perfect for lounging.  Hartmut decided to stay for a few more days.  Me?  I rested for the afternoon and this morning I did a bit more sightseeing visiting a waterfall on the southern-most island.  Then I departed for mainland, the east side of the Mekong and headed to the Cambodia border.  I stopped at Khonepha Pheng, the largest waterfall by volume in SE Asia, just before hitting the border.  The border was an uneventful crossing, no corruption here, at least to the visible eye. 
4,000 see what I mean, some are branches sticking out of the water

One of the waterfalls I visited

Now I’m in Stung Trung, 60 kilometers south of the border, spending my first night in Cambodia.  Just as I had started to feel really comfortable in Laos and could communicate quite well with the people and had figured out the food and prices, I of course have to enter a new country.  From my first impressions, Cambodia seems equally as pleasant and calm as Laos, maybe just a bit more sparsely populated.  The prices seemed to have dropped on food and accommodation both and to my surprise there is a double currency system here.  I went to the ATM to get Cambodian Riel and it spit out all US dollars.  They don’t seem to mind which you use for payment and give you a fair amount for the change. 

Khonepra Pheng Waterfall, Laos (touching Cambodia)

Right now I’m just cutting through Cambodia.  I will explore it more coming from Ho Chi Minh city and the Mekong Delta as I make my way to Pnohm Penh with a friend over the holidays.  I’m just shy of 10,000 kilometers as I approach my 4th month anniversary of The Loong Way Home and enjoying every meter of the trip.  The smile doesn’t disappear, indeed I’m one lucky girl!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

I'm Getting Lazy

Lazy and Melissa, two words that go together as much as water and oil! It was unheard of to use them both in the same sentence, but recently I have to admit, I’ve become a bit lazy.  How can that be if my legs are in motion 6 hours every day pedaling away, and then I’ve got my little routine and rituals when I arrive at my destination every night,…there really isn’t time for being lazy, right?

A month ago, the day before I crossed into Vietnam from China, I got my second flat tire.  I found the nail that punctured the inner tube, so it would be possible to patch.  I’ll do it tonight, I thought as I put the inner tube back in my material bag, and continued on my way.  Famous last words…..Well, more than a month later, and the inner tube is still in the material bag, with a hole, yet to be patched.  And for some reason I knew it would turn out that I would get a second flat tire without repairing the first. 

Puncture number 2 in China

Today, that is exactly what happened.  A flat tire was on my mind, I don’t know why…..Maybe things were going too well, I was flying, making great time, 115 kilometers in just five and a half hours, flat terrain, and my destination was 3 km away.  All of a sudden I thought, man I’m sure going slowly, what happened?  I looked down at my back wheel and noticed it was low.  I had just put air in 2 days ago, so it didn’t seem right!  I tried to play the game of denial,…no it’s just low, not flat because strangely I hadn’t heard anything, I just noticed I was lugging along a lot of weight.  I was getting so lazy, I didn’t want to stop and change my tire, I could see my town up ahead and I was so excited to arrive at 2pm, a new record for me!  I stopped at one of my good old Rua Xe’s, motorbike shop here in SE Asia.  I thought, I’ll just put a little air in the tire, and then change it when I get to my hotel.  The guys pumped a bit of air in using my adaptor, and pulling away, they shouted at me and kept pointing to the tire.  Darn,….it wasn’t going to work.  So I pulled over calmly to a building where I saw a guard out in front and I had plenty of space and really no one around.  Since I hadn’t repaired the last tube, I didn’t have one handy so out from the bottom of the pannier I got an extra tube, took off the wheel and had at it.  I must say, for being the second flat tire that I’ve changed in my whole life, I went fast!

This guy was great,..he babbled in Lao while I chenaged the tire. He lent a hand when I gestured.  Made his day I'm sure!

I think I admitted that in my last blog post.  During a bike race, I spend a good majority of the competition looking down at my wheels and saying a little prayer so that they don’t pop.  It has worked, I must say, because of the four flat tires I’ve had in my life, none have been on my road bike.  I’ve had 4 flats on my touring bike, and two of those I had help changing, although my companions weren’t allowed to touch anything, just coach!  The first time I changed a tire without any help whatsoever was in China.  Even today, a nice gentleman decided to get involved and give me a hand.  It was pretty funny, he was babbling in Lao, and I was walking myself through the steps out loud, what a combination.  I changed the tire and was on my way to town, 2 kilometers away.  The tube, of course has gone into the bag with the other one that needs a patch.  I swore I would do it tonight,….yeah right!

The patch kit is in the bag with the tubes,...I'm halfway there, tomorrow I will do it, PROMISE
Another example of my unheard of laziness.  Back in Bosnia, about 6,000 kilometers ago, a dog bit a whole in my pannier.  I was thankful it wasn’t my leg.  I thought a great fix would be to put a bike patch on the inside of the pannier.  After all these bags are rubberized, right?  Well, since I wasn’t getting those patches out for anything else, I got a piece of duck tape to stick there in the mean time, to cover it from the rain.  Well, my duck tape was from the “todo cien”, the Chinese dollar store in Barcelona, and let’s just say the quality wasn’t the best.  Today, while reaching down to pull out another inner tube, I noticed a gooey and sticky film on the inside of my pannier.  My duck tape had slipped down and left this nasty sticky residue on the inside of my pannier.  Bummer, if I only had all my cleaning solvent along with my on my trip.  Duck tape is really the fix all, and a must have in your materials and gear kit, but when it causes a problem,…what to do!  I might have to hit up a hair salon for nail polish remover as it has a bit of solvent in it and might get rid of the tacky feeling.  Then I promise I’ll patch it!

I just patched this while uploading pictures,...a bit silly on the outside, but the inside is gooey at the moment, have to find a solvent....hmmmm

Lazy,….well, now that I’m not in the mountains and sweating a ton climbing up those grueling hills, I don’t sweat as much, hence I have the urge to go to the bathroom more frequently.  Of course the timing is all off, because I’m not hungry at the same time and I don’t like to stop unless it is a multi-purpose stop, like pee and fruit, or pee and picture, or picture and lunch, but to stop just to go pee, well, it isn’t quite justifiable in my book, so I end up waiting until the last possible moment to go to the bathroom, then I can’t wait any longer and I make it about 10 centimeters off the side of the road and hope that a car doesn’t come along and pass me.  The other day, I politely waited for a truck to pass, but I didn’t realize the back of it was filled with people.  Boy did they let out a good holler as I squatted!

When I left for my trip, I treated my feet to a pedicure.  It was good thinking, a bit of luxury for my feet before I put them to work for the next 14 months.  Only problem is the polish didn’t last long.  For the last 3 months, I had just the remnants of a bit of pink polish on each big toe nail, which looked a bit odd, especially with my Keen tan line on my feet.  I kept thinking, I need to paint them again, to give a bit of a feminine touch and perhaps take away the attention from the tan lines.  Well, I kept saying I’ll paint them, for about 3 months, and last night, I finally did.  I had to find nail polish first, which was no easy task in the towns I’ve been passing through here in Laos.  In this case, being lazy did me more good than harm, because the polish didn’t help out that much! You tell me?!?! Those tan lines are never going to go away, not to mention the bike short one as I am approaching the beach! Maybe they sell spray on tanning cream.

And this is the foot that doesn't get as much sun as the other....does the polish really help?

At night I can get a bit lazy as well.  There is always something to do to keep on top of my trip.  From route planning, to writing in my journal, recording statistics, uploading photos, emailing, skyping, I’m a busy girl out here on the road.  Pedaling is just a tiny part of what I do every day! Lots of times at night I find myself just wandering the streets, looking at stuff in stores, going from stand to stand having Asian “tapas”, sitting and having a beer and zoning out, avoiding getting down to the nitty gritty and doing some work.  This might be procrastination than laziness, but I do admit, sometimes it takes me awhile to get in gear and start my work.

I know, a lot of you think that I’m on one big long vacation.  Sort of like when one of my brothers would ask me while living in Barcelona…..“So when are you going to come home to Oregon, and start your real life?”  Funny, but this is my real life for the moment.  My reality is the fact that I start every morning not knowing where I’m going to sleep, if I will have hot water, or even be able to take a shower.  I have no idea who I might find out on the road during the day and what sort of scenery awaits me.  And chances are, I won’t ever roll pass the places I see today ever again in my life!  There is a lot of uncertainty in my life right now, a lot of random things happen on a daily basis, yet this lifestyle has become my daily routine and reality, so it is only fair to say, yes,….I can be lazy too!!!  An active lazy that is!

Friday, December 13, 2013

There Are Great People Out There...Here Are a Few I've Met Recently

It's funny how I can go for weeks on end without running into anyone on the road. It had been over a month since I'd encountered tour cyclists . Now, all of a sudden in the last couple of week, I'm making up for the lack of conversation and communication during the last month.

It started in Luang Prabang, where I met Dan Weber for a beer. Dan is a friend of Zaida & Isi, two amazing and inspiring tour cyclist I know back home in Barcelona.  I knew I was in for a treat meeting him, anyone who is a friend of theirs is bound to be a neat person.  Dan has been living in Laos for 6 years, and was in Thailand before that for the same amount of time. He works (although pretty much retired now) as a language teacher in Savannakhet part of the year and lives in Luang Prabang during the other months.  Little did we know we were both passionate about ceramics in our previous life (before discovering cycling) and he was born and raised close to where I went to college. We had lots to talk about from art and cycling to Lao history and politics. I of course brought my Laos map and he marked all the interesting roads on my route and pointed out the guests houses as well! I quite enjoyed his company and we managed to escape the touristy part of town to have a few Beer Lao on the Mekong.

Dan Weber & I

The biggest compliment of my trip came when he all of a sudden switched to Spanish and said, "Por qué me ha dicho Zaida que eres un terremoto?". Basically he said why did Zaida say you an incredibly active or hyperactive person?..It made me laugh so hard and then it dawned on me....I'm almost four months into this trip and I've already changed. I still have my "Melissa" energy, nothing can take that away from me, but it's being put to good use on the bike every day. As a result overall I'm just a lot calmer and content because I'm finally doing what I've dreamed of doing for quite some time!

Next, on the road from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan, I met a jolly group of tour cyclists. I couldn't believe my eyes as I was descending...a group of 6 guys pulled over munching on bananas (which they kindly shared) all on Surly bikes!  What fun they were having, 5 Thai and a Norwegian and they all spoke English. We exchanged bits of information about the route we'd done since we were coming from opposite directions. They told me there were a few other couples up ahead of me which also motivated me to keep pedal in' along. I even got the name of the Surly distributor in Bangkok so I can hit up that store in a month for some maintenance.

First cyclists I've seen on the road since China

I never found the cyclists the Thai group told me about but the next morning to my surprise I ran into Manu and Stephane coming towards me on a recumbant tandem. Talk about some adventurous cyclists full of energy. This couple is amazing! They had cycled from Northern France to SE Asia, used the Trans-Siberian railroad to cross central Asia and were eventually heading south. I thought I had challenging days in the mountains, but they were carrying double the weight and on really hilly terrain cycled about 30 to 50 kilometers.  We hung out by the side of the road long enough to share some funny stories and take pictures with the automatic timers on our cameras.  It was refreshing to meet them and they gave me a boost of energy that helped me make it through my day.

What a fun cycling couple from the north of France

Rolling into Phonsavan, I was desperate for an ATM as I had run out of cash and also a WiFi connection. The Thai cyclists had informed me about the Lao SIM cards so I was also determined to find a store to buy one.  After getting cash, I popped into a computer/tech store where I met the lovely family owners. They all spoke English to some degree and were a huge help. They got me a SIM card went next door to buy credit, called the operator, setup my smartphone with the new plan, and let me use their WiFi to connect and post a blog entry.....all while I sat there and ate the fruit they kept feeding me from their garden. They were such pleasant and helpful locals, I hadn't come across such genuine people in awhile who weren't thinking about how to get a quick buck out of the "pfalang". I ended up spending over an hour in their store and they told me about a guest house in the town I was planning of staying that night.

Toui, Ni, Don, No, & Melissa

I continued to meet some really nice local people the following day at my afternoon pit stop. I came to a small town that was 30 kilometers from my final destination and pulled over for a drink. Here I met Vien Sigh who spoke really good English and educated me about the development in the area. All day long I had seen Chinese trucks on the road and signs of development projects from electrical stations to hydropower plants. I'm not so sure what to think about all the recent development happening in the Lao countryside, especially alongside the river, but Vien Sigh was thankful to have a secure job as a result of Chinese development. More importantly with him, I took notes while he told me all the different food I needed to try from the various kinds of fish as well as sweet treats like taro in coconut milk. I've got my cheat sheet in my front handle bar bag and I've even taken a picture with my phone as a backup. He ended up feeding me bananas from his garden and a bowl full of sticky rice and sauces.

Vien Sigh, he was such a friendly guy who kept me company while having lunch
As you can see, I've gone from a period of total remoteness where I talk and hum to myself to meeting a few great people and sharing some nice moments. Since I never know when the next time will be that I bump into a kind and helpful stranger, when I meet someone interesting, I have no problem staying and chatting for longer than I intended.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

So What do you Think of Laos?

Lots of rivers to be seen here
Well, I’ve been here now 6 days and it is very apparent that Laos is a hot spot for tourism at the moment, and I understand why!  It is a more relaxed country than Vietnam, perhaps a bit more pleasant when it comes to interacting with the people.  They are pleasant, calm, and polite.  They’ve been exposed to tourism, but they don’t blatantly take advantage of you.  When I ask for a price, you can just see it in their eyes,..those that hesitate and think,.. “What should I charge this girl today, she seems like an innocent tourist,” and those that don’t realize they could ask a lot more because I am a phalang, a foreigner.  I don’t understand much Lao, nothing except hello, thank you, and phalang.   When I’m around a lot of Laotians, phalang seems to be every other word out of their mouth, sort of like “vale” in Spain.

The market on the main street in Luang Prabang

You can tell Laotians are proud of their country, it’s similar to Catalans and their pride for Catalunya.  They know they live in a beautiful place and that it will be attractive and appealing to others.  Laos has a captive audience.  From the tiny unique towns along the rivers that get the slow boat tourists visiting them; to towns on the junction of roads where tourist pass through on their way from one site to another,…. guest houses have sprung up as a result of the constant flow of traffic; to Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site. 

One of the many Wats in Luang Prabang
Plenty of Buddha to see as well

I enjoyed a day and a half of sight-seeing in Luang Prabang, where there are Wats on every street corner like there are Caixa Catalunya’s in Barcelona or 7 elevens in Asia.  After about 3 or 4 visits to different Wats, I had seen plenty.  I walked down to the local market and had a look around.  I was surprised to see new delicacies, such as rat and bat, yes, meat that is, for sell at the meat stands.  In the afternoon I had some time to kill so I treated myself to a massage.  At 4 euro an hour, I couldn’t resist.  In the evening, the main drag of town turns into an artisan market with all sorts of handmade Laos crafts. After 3 stalls they start to repeat, yet the market goes on for half a kilometer.  At the end there are the food stalls.  There is one small side street that is completely filled with little stands and buffet stalls that advertise a plate for 10,000 kip, which is about 1 euro.  This of course is a bargain for a hungry cyclist and a great way to fill up on some delicious food.

The all-you-can-eat buffet at the night market.  I'd here every night if I could!

Coffee shops and bakeries lined the streets of Luang Prabang, so do monks collecting their offerings!  There are massage parlours and spa’s, western restaurants, tour operators, and shops galore.  In fact, I had this eerie familiar feel walking the streets in the morning, I felt like I was in the university district of Eugene or SE neighborhood of Portland.  Again, I had been off the beaten path so some time in Vietnam, that I forgot there were other tourists out and about exploring the same area.  I was quite shocked when I rolled into Luang Prabang and saw the masses.  I didn’t realize just how much of a tourist hot spot it was until I went to find a guest house and I asked a modest looking place for their rate.  They told me 43 dollars, yet I was expecting to hear 43, as in 43,000 kip, 4 or 5 dollars.  I was so shocked I think I confirmed the owner meant dollars 3 times.  I know 43 dollars is still a decent price for a hotel, but first of all, the price in dollars, makes no sense to me, and secondly, I’ve been paying 8 dollars tops.  There was no way I was going to fork over 43 dollars.  Luckily, the second place I asked had a more reasonable price.

You see the Laotians know they have become a tourist haven and they’ve played their cards right in developing the tourist industry.  They have some great sights to see, a lot of nature so they can cater to outdoor tourism as well as ecological tourism, and English speakers galore to accommodate us.  Not counting Luang Prabang, prices for accommodation have dropped slightly from Vietnam, food has gone up, but tranquility and peacefulness have soared.  All you have to do is look at the kids who greet me on the road.  Most say “Saibadee” rather than hello, and they do so in a very innocent way, as if they don’t see many of us. 

The only people to stop here are truck drivers and cyclists

Life is extremely rural and basic here.  When dusk settles in, unless you are in a decent size town, there isnt’t electricity.  Tonight I had my first washbasin shower, as there was no hot water heater in the bathroom.  Wireless is virtually non-existent, and it is even hard to find internet in most towns.  I see a lot of communal “water holes” along the road, where people are bathing themselves in the afternoon, often times naked or in their underwear, in groups.  Kids are rarely fully dressed along the side of the road, and they are always outside helping mom and dad, who look considerably younger than the parents I have seen in the rest of SE Asia.  Houses can be on stilts, small little huts, or one-room buildings made out of grasses and other plants.  Restaurants in these villages don’t exist.  I have to be careful planning my route and food stops.  You can usually count on fresh fruit stands along the side of the road, but yesterday, I went for about 30 kilometers without finding much more than a drink store.   
Early morning climb

These are the not so tall ones

Like I said, the terrain for now is all mountainous with some rolling hills. The day off in Luang Prabang with the massage really helped me feel like I had fresh legs setting out to Plain of Jars in central Laos.  I met up with a friend-of-a friend in Barcelona, who has been living in Laos for 6 years and he gave me some wonderful route suggestions and pointers on where I would find guest houses. Today I had a long day because there was an 80 kilometer stretch without any sort of accommodation.  The climate here is similar to the last province of northern Vietnam, but even drier.  Temperatures during the day range from 22 to 28 Celsius, which makes for warm riding, at night it cools down and I’m very lucky to not have any humidity.

Trying to vary the breakfast diet...nothing like donuts to start hte day with soy milk

I’ve been trying a lot of their donuts for breakfast, although this morning I had the brilliant idea to put condensed milk on sticky rice,….a breakfast of champions if I do say so myself!  I am still loving my noodle soup at night, it keeps me warm. During the day, I usually do rice with vegetables.  Their rice is by far the most interesting I’ve encountered.  Sticky is a bit of an understatement!  Roll it into a ball and you could break a window with it!  You see a lot of the locals crouched down just picking at balls of sticky rice in between meals.  There isn’t the tea culture here in Laos like there is in Vietnam, but soy milk is still everywhere, even the chocolate flavor!

First cyclists I've found on the road for 6 weeks-I was EXCITED!!!!

As you can see, no complaints so far with Laos.  I can’t wait to find that Mekong river although I did see it briefly in Luang Prabang.  I’m making a detour west before I head south.  I’ve done about 500 kilometers from the Vietnam border, and have a good 1,000 to go before hitting Cambodia.  Today, after more than a month on the road in SE Asia, I finally ran into other cyclists, a group of 5 Thai men and a Norwegian, ALL with surly bikes!  They were really fun guys and we stopped and talked for a while, took pictures, and as always, exchanged tips!  They told me there were more cyclists ahead going in my same directions, so hopefully I will catch up to