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!

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