Sunday, January 4, 2015

Sad to leave Savanakhet, but we're off to Pak Kading

January 4th, 2015--Written from Pak Kad Ding (also spelled Pak Kading), which is about 180 km short of Vientiane, where we are not deliberately going tomorrow. Weather was markedly cool this morning but warmed a lot during the afternoon under a clear sky with very few clouds.  Hot really.

When you come wide awake at 3:30 in the morning and know you're too far from Hanoi too late in the game, you do not get up and wander down by the river for the sunrise and have a long luxurious breakfast in one of the innumerable little places you might have. You pack your bag, grab a cup of coffee and a glass of tea with a plain baguette and you get out of town. Well, you would if you could convince the lady-of-all-work in the hotel to give you your wet laundry back. So, we dawdled a little while anyway but were on the road shortly after nine. Good grief. On the other hand, it gave me a chance to write a bit and upload some photos on a terminally slow wifi link. Internet via smart phone in Laos has turned out to be a very sometime thing, regardless of the hopeful advertising you see on the highway all day. “. . .Stay On Line with Beeline. . ."  I'd love to meet that bee and have a discussion, but pause a moment and consider that this is Laos, not New York or even. . .well, never mind, this is Laos, which is not at all a rich country and they're doing pretty well.  I'm writing tonight from a little bit of a really quite nice small town called Pak Kading or Pak Kad Ding, depending.  It's "Pak" "at the mouth of" the Kad Ding river, where the main north south highway crosses it.  It would otherwise have been a very small fishing and smuggling town (Thailand is just across the Mekong, not a long ways at all).  But the highway, and the fact that the town is just far enough from Vientiane, the capital, to make a good piddle and lunch stop and the buses have made the place prosperous and busy. They pull up, often two at a time alongside a long row of snack shops with lots of bus food and drink and restaurants with takeaway readily available.  The passengers pile out and stretch, then look over the meals on offer and a brisk business ensues.  The Lao people do a really nice bit of work with a small charcoal fire in a tin and earthenware sort of fire place.  They either skewer the meat or fish on a bamboo sliver, or sandwich it between two of the bamboos. . .then put it over the fire, with the long ends of the bamboo sticking off, nice and cool, to turn or serve the morsel.  When cooked, they go on a rack or platter off to one side and wait for a customer.  Depending (I know not what on), when a customer picks a certain chicken wing or fish or skewer of sausages, the cook may just hand it over, or more likely, put it back on the fire for a short time to warm up.  The charcoal does magic with everything you put on it, so it's a tasty bit, no matter what it is.  I'll admit some of it can be pretty greasy, but a little hot grease. . .h'mm. . .I suppose it is that bad for you. But Tasty!

The route was a little off kilter getting started.  I tried the river bank road leaving Savannakhet, which was fine until I ran 12 km down the wrong road before checking the map.  Oh well, that was soon put right and the day was was a run on almost entirely good roads, so even with a lunch stop we were into Pak Kading by 4:30, an hour before sunset. 

I was really.sorry to leave Savannakhet after such a short stay--it's one of my favorite towns, but with a 3:30 wakeup call like that, there wasn't any choice.  If I get back to Hanoi a week early, I'll cry and complain to the management.

As for today, after we once got on the road, we rode along and kept out of trouble.  The road was smooth and fast, with long stretches where I could have ridden 70 or 80 kmh if I'd wanted to put the bike through that in these temperatures. But that would violate my own personal rule to hold the speed down to 65 kmh.  It's not that the bike won't go faster, I'm sure she could work up to 100 kmh (60 mph) if I gave her the reins and kicked her in the ribs.  She can go that fast just fine. . .but she can't stop that fast.  With small drum brakes and skinny little tires, you have to slow a little bike like this a long time before you can stop her, what with me and all my baggage and tools and so forth on board.  So it was a fast day, and we actually did average 60 kmh for the last half hour of the day, 25 km in exactly 25 minutes.

But this is southern Laos, on the Mekong flood plain in places, up into gentle foothills in others, no drama, no scenery except for distant mountains in the east and a few bluffs you can see across the river in Thailand.  There are lots of cows to work your way through, like the old West in America, this is open range and the cattle go where they will.  They're good looking animals, almost all tan (after the gray-white Khmer cattle and the gorgeous red Vietnamese).  They're all three the same sort of cow, big hump, smooth hide, just different colors.

I suspect you're sitting there wondering when I'm going to say something interesting.  I'm sorry, it just wasn't that kind of day.  We didn't stop to visit except at lunch,and there was really nothing to report there.  The proprietress (cook and dishwasher too) tried to sort out my internet problems with my smartphone. . .it's been worse than just intermittent in Laos and she concluded I'd bought the wrong brand of sim and card.  Sigh.  Perhaps that can be improved.  But. ..we rode.  We bought gasoline twice.  She is averaging about 44 km/liter, over 100 miles per gallon. . .pretty nice.  We avoided terrible tragedy several times, mostly by adequate margins. In Lao the trucks and buses are gentlemanly and scarce, but the new SUV's and 6-passenger diesel 4-wheel drive pickups. . .are buggers.  They drive 70 or 80 mph and don't slow down for anything or anybody.  Wow.  When you're riding at 40 mph that's a big differential.  But that's it.  We didn't have a wreck.  Good news, but not very exciting (now that it's done for the day).

So, I have some photos from last night in Savannakhet you might enjoy, shopping for supper on the sidewalk. . .and a few more from this evening in Pak Kading.. .and that will have to do for now.

On second thought, five minutes into the upload we hadn't gotten the first of 17 photos half finished.  I suspect the problem is the difference between "band width", "thread width" and "fine filament width".  No photos tonight.  I'll put this up as is and add the photos at worst in 3 days from Luang Prabang. . .I hope.  Usually wifi is pretty quick there.

Just as a general note:  For the next several days as I work further north and west into Laos and then head back through the mountains toward Viet Nam at Dien Bien Phu, I'm likely to be without internet a good bit of the time.  Please don't worry if you don't hear from me!

And here, at last are the photos I promised. . .three days later, I simply let the machine run overnight uploading and this is what you get. . .dinner in Savannakhet and a walk in the early evening at Pak Kading.  I'm in Luang Prabang now, and will leave for Oudomxay shortly.

The cabbage rolls in front, some fish, still trapped in their bamboo squeezers (well, they're not skewers. . .) and a truly jolly lady trying to keep a proper straight face for the photo.

Oh. . .who cares about a straight face???  Some of the items that look like a mixture are actually prepared at great length in a mortar, pounding with a long pestle in your right hand and turning the mix repeatedly with a neatly shaped spoon-spatula in the left, without smashing the, er. . .spootula.  Sorry, couldn't help myself.

Spicy is very likely, even if the red is not immediately obvious.  Fortunately, I like spicy again.

And this is Lao "che"--which of course I think of as a peculiarly Vietnamese sort of dessert, of which by far my favorite is the banana-tapioca mix, with coconut milk and maybe even some sweetened condensed milk on top.  Add toasted coconut shreds and it's absolutely. . .well, you have to be here.

This isn't the whole line up, just all I could squeeze into one photo.

That's Thailand, with a small creek between.

This is literally Pak Kading, the mouth of the Kading river, or at least, the bridge over the mouth of the river and the little harbor still within the banks of the Kading.  The Mekong (and Thailand) are to my right and very close.

Lao people are not apparently afraid of a little color.  Lovely houses in Pak Kading.

I'm not sure what Grandma was saying, but the kid was very unsure about the whole thing.

He's really ugly Grandma. . .

Billiards--popular all over the region.  If you see a sign in the south of Viet Nam that says "Bida", with the southern pronunciation of the soft "d". . .it's "Be-ya", which is close enough.

I'm not entirely clear on the "school fees" situation in each of the three countries, but clearly a vast majority of kids go to school, and not for short days either.  They do all go home for lunch, which makes for a series of traffic jams every weekday from about 11:00 to about 2:00.  Think of 500 kids (or more, or less. . .) fanning out from the school yard gate on bicycles or even motorbikes. . .

It speaks for itself.  What a lovely home!  Pak Kading

These two would have mugged the camera all day  if I'd had the time.. .they chased me down and demanded to be photographed.  I'll show you the album when I get home.