Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Down out of the Highlands & into Laos

Written from Savannakhet, Laos at ten o'clock on a lazy morning, the 8th of March, 2016.  To be more specific, I'm writing from the shady breezy veranda on the second floor of my favorite hotel in this part of the world, watching the sky be hazy blue and the temperature nudge up from the overnight low near 70 to what will be quite warm, 90 plus in another hour or two.  There's a six year old in full Spiderman glory playing on the swings by the front door.  The bike has a fresh oil change and nothing untoward to report.  As close as I can tell, all is well with the world, but it's been a good many kilometers since I filled you in.

Two days ago we got up early (no lazy morning at all), had everything ready for departure the night before, got out, had one more "big noodle soup" ("mi quang". . .a superior breakfast, whose noodles are quite fat and square cut, with a surprisingly chewy texture), a hasty cup of way too sweet coffee (but yes, I do like it that way) and were on the road shortly after 0800, which is early for me on these long haul rides.  It's actually a 20 km ride to the Lao border from Ngoc Hoi (which I will steadfastly not call Plei Kan hereafter), a plain vanilla sort of 20 km, in and out of small villages, where you slow down a  bit, through some farm land and some rough upland scrub land, all on a good 2-lane road with very few potholes.  Then you come to the fork in the road, your choice, Cambodia to the left, the border gate to Laos to the right.  I've never gone to look. . .but from the way the sign is written I'd suspect the crossing into Cambodia is purely for locals. ..not for foreigners needing passport control.  Whatever, Laos was the destination, the southern end of a long and wandering road we'll be taking northward.  Then, all of a sudden, right ahead, there it is, the end of Viet Nam, large, deliberately impressive building, not really ominous, but definitely important (and it knows it).  I've been here before and I hope I know the process.  Park out of the way, walk in, WC on your left if needed, outbound passport control at the far end of the building.  Several offices along the corridor we don't need, really it feels a little like an old big-city post office, without the boxes.

I changed a lttle VN dong into Lao Kip at a dreadful rate (as I later figured out) at a kiosk there in the  Vietnamese offices, cleared passport control, asked if anyone wanted to look at my bike (not interested thank you. . .WHAT?? After all I've gone through before??).  A few hundred feet later at the Laotian entry gate it was almost as easy.  I had a momentary panic when I remembered that the Lao "visa on arrival" people expect you to have a photo for their forms. . .but on reflection I remembered I still have three or four from previous years (I haven't changed that much to look at from that sort of distance).  It was a small matter of two forms to fill out, $37 and fifteen minutes for the visa and five minutes to pass it through passport control.  Again, I tried to interest the Lao Customs lady in my motorbike. I tried to start in English, but she shook her head.  I'd just seen her dealing with a Vietnamese truck driver so I asked if she spoke Vietnamese.. . .and yes she does, and I've told people enough times that I "go touring on a motorbike" that it was easy to get that across.  I could see the stack of "green papers" by her printer waiting to be filled out.. .temporary import documents I'd had to patiently struggle to get in the past. . .but no.  "Transit" she said (in English?) and waved me away with a smile.  I said thanks, (which, with "hello" comprises my entire Lao vocabulary), straightened out all my papers and passport, patting each bit of anatomy to be sure I had wallet, passport, day pack (purse?) and camera, and rode out into Laos.  But not far.  100 meters down the road was one last check point. . .sort of a catch all to check for nicely stamped paperwork, and a chance to pay the $1.25 fee for passing through on a Sunday.  And that was really it.  Into Laos by 0930 and headed down the mountains.

I suspect a lot of border crossing gates are like this, up in the mountains where neither side really had any interest until the time came to draw a line and say "here, and no further". . .so the last few km into the gateway from the Vietnamese side is a little scruffy, the road gets rough for a ways. . .and sometimes it's that way on the Lao or Cambodian side a ways too. . .In this case the Lao side was in pretty good shape, though a little rough here and there for as long as we were in the hills.  It's almost exactly 100 km from the gateway to the city of Attapeu (province capital), and at least half of it is still in mountains, but Lao mountains.  On the Vietnamese side, every scrap of forest is gone, replaced with rubber plantations or maize or whatever sort of upland crop will grow and find a market.  On the Lao side, so far as you can see from the highway at least, there's nothing but forest.  Glorious tall trees standing head and shoulders over wide expanses of plain tall trees, covering the slopes everywhere.  Be realistic here a moment, it's likely that this forested beauty is interrupted, perhaps grievously, by heavy logging.  Two years ago, riding this same road down out of the mountains I was constantly being passed by Vietnamese heavy freight trucks loaded, no, grossly overloaded with enormous long logs, laboring slowly up the road to the border.  It wasn't a dozen trucks, or a few dozen, or even just a hundred, but rather, a nearly endless column, all struggling uphill with more than they could really carry.  My boatbuilding sites are generally well supplied with these logs (there's essentially none left to be had growing in Viet Nam, so they must come from Laos or Cambodia) and all the furniture makers and window frame makers and door makers and builders of traditional pagodas. . .all need the stuff to stay in business, so the fact that I haven't seen the logging in Laos just means I haven't come to it yet.  Still, riding down out of these forested mountains is a joy, with the eyes constantly feasting on glorious scenery while the mind and the bike play with the intricacies of a tightly winding roadway.  It's the sort of road a younger bolder man might want to fly down on a fast horse, but I and my overloaded little horse are content to doodle along gently, taking the curves with appropriate respect and affection.

And, thinking about the rapacious logging, it may mean nothing, but along the road close to the border are three enormous clearings, wherein are stockpiled huge numbers of prime logs.  These weren't here before, and somehow it looks to me as though they may be confiscated logs. . .presumably from illegal (or at least undocumented) logging.   And, though it was a Sunday (I've never known that to bother a Vietnamese trucker), there was not a single log truck to be seen in that whole 100 km run down to Attapeu.  Very interesting, but not enough data!!

In any event, about halfway to town you gradually run out of mountains and the road becomes a straight and nearly level track through plantation country. . .more rubber trees than you can imagine cloaking all of the rolling hills, with here and there a palm-oil plantation or some other sort of orchard crop I do not know.  Much of this commercial activity seems to be one single Vietnamese company, with a huge almost colonial headquarters building, extensive worker's housing, and even a large, Vietnamese style school building spread along the road.  And with that change comes the change for the next several days.  From here northbound if you stick to the main highways, your route leads through lowland farm country, most of it within short reach of the Mekong river, though you'll rarely see it.  It isn't until north of Vientiane, almost a thousand km, that we'll be back among mountains, but those are the northern Lao mountains we've come to see. . .that and the Mekong and Ou rivers flowing through them.  No more broad plains then, but that's a ways ahead.

Back to arriving in Laos. . .the first town, Attapeu, when you get there, is a nicer town than I remembered, ordinary shops and hotels, a lovely big city park along one side of the highway, a clean looking downtown, and then the 90 degree turn I didn't take my first trip through here.  My map shows Hwy 18 continuing from Attapeu on to the West into Champasak province, and thus along the main national north-south highway to Pakse.  Last time I tried to go that way.  It was one of the worst traveling decisions. . .no. . .truly, the very worst I've ever made.  I got myself seriously into trouble I couldn't get myself out of. . .It took all my strength and energy, confounded what I thought I knew about traveling in this part of the world, destroyed a perfectly good motorcycle and cost me a lot of money in tractor rental to undo the harm.  If it hadn't been for the good hearted helpfulness of a series of very poor Laotian people, putting me up for the night, feeding me supper and then breakfast, wrenching on the bike, changing her waterlogged oil and carrying the poor miserable bike and me on tractors along one leg at a time through miles and miles of un-motorbike-able swamp. . .if it hadn't been for all the help, I suppose the two of us would still be there.

I'd heard rumors (and my new map seems to confirm) that the road is complete and doesn't impede a tour bus's progress at all.  So I was prepared to go straight ahead once again, this time to cock a snook at the tamed swamps and water crossings, beaten as they must have been by the Italian-Lao joint venture that was supposed to be completing the road and building all those wonderful bridges I've dreamed of the past two years.  However, the report from fellow travelers  regarding the "road from Champasak to Attapeu" clearly described the road I finally ended up using this trip and not the legendary 18a.  To be clear, I came once again to the junction, with a nice paved road leading off at 90 degrees, due north, toward Sekong and, from a junction along the way, onward to Paksong and Pakse.  If you've been riding all morning down out of the mountains you've been seeing those names on the kilometer markers hour after hour (always getting closer, a good thing) so you can easily believe that's the right way to proceed.  The map, however, does not show that route.  Instead, leading straight West by contrast is a road shown as a fine wide highway on the map.  On the ground, in the dusty reality, alongside that road is a now very-faded DOT project sign describing the project in Lao and English. . .to construct Hwy 18a from Attapeu to Champasak. . .36 months to do the work. . .completion in January 2016.  But there's no sign of construction as you stare down the first quarter mile.  It is not, in short, a fine new road. . .rather, it's the same dirt road it was 2 years ago, though maybe a little rougher.  There's the same little (very little) two-plank bridge over the first ditch. . .very deja vu all over again!

I turned right and we headed for Sekong.  Thus it was just a wonderful afternoon ride, becoming a little tired and achy by the end of the riding, 314 km, stretching on to 4:30 in the afternoon.  If you deduct 40 minutes for passing the border and 20 minutes for lunch in Attapeu (lovely pork fried rice with green beans cut so tiny I thought they were crisp peas at first), that's just at seven and a half hours on the bike. . .which is getting to be about enough these days.  And so, Pakse. Pakse is a fairly good sized city, capital of Champasak province, basically flat, with a long hotel district strung out along the highway, and  a lot more town I've never visited.  I've been down into the shopping district hunting for one thing or another, but this trip all I really needed was a place to sleep and a couple of meals. Pakse lies on the Mekong it's true, but it's also true that it doesn't really look at the river all that much.  There's no more "river traffic" anymore of course, that all goes by road now, trucks and buses.  I guess I like the place perfectly well, just not enough to stay for long.  We ate, we poked around Wat Louang, a pagoda of some substance but almost no people now, we slept, we got up and ate again. . .and left, northbound.

This is the dry season here in southern Laos.  Rice paddies are brown and dusty, with little charred stubs where each rice plant has been burned to the ground.  They stretch in places to the horizon, the barren landscape only saved by the occasional green tree that has managed to eke out a place in the paddy over the years.  Now and then there's enough water available from somewhere that people can flood a field or two and get the rice growing even now, and the shocking green when they can is simply wonderful.  The road, the country's main north-south corridor, is wide and smooth, level and straight, fast, easy. . .almost boring riding.  Your mind keeps sliding back to the swooping mountain roads behind you and dreaming of the ones to come.  But the bike just purrs along at 65 kmh, 40 mph more or less. . .with never a quaver in her voice, and the long kilometers roll out behind you.

From Pakse to Savannakhet isn't far in this scale of things, 244 km, and even slowing down for all the roadside villages with 30kmh speed limits, we were in Savannakhet by 1:30 in the afternoon, and a funny thing had happened along the way.  I decided we were tired.  The bike needed her oil change, my back and seat were sore, and Savannakhet is a place you could enjoy spending a day.  We bought two nights here at the hotel and settled in.  And why, you may fairly ask, the one town and not the other?  Random chance I suppose, but also that Savan doesn't turn its back on the river, but lines its river bank with a long long line of impromptu seeming restaurants, bars and guesthouses.  I've been comfortable here every visit.  I know the gold shop that changes money and the Vietnamese fellow who does really good motorbike repair and maintenance (it does no harm that we can actually converse a little), the most marvelous sidewalk take away dinner place (almost 2 blocks long, with dozens of good cooks displaying pots and pans and skewers of broiled anything just a block from the hotel). . . and until now, the finest massage establishment I know of anywhere.  That was a terrible shock I admit, to ride up to the place, newly showered with clean clothes on, to find a bank branch instead of what was needed.  I'd assert that a good back rub at least once a week is a necessary part of this sort of travel, and there was nowhere as good as this. . .but time goes by and things change and, with just a little luck I managed to find the back rub, in a little less appealing facility, but done with vigor and skill. . .a more than satisfactory outcome after all.  I would advise you, if you're contemplating a Lao massage you should keep up on your stretching and bending.  The technique in use here consists of alternately stretching a muscle group and then kneading it and now and then beating on it with ferocity.  No working muscle is excused.  If you flinch the young lady will just bear down harder. . .obviously you aren't loose enough yet.  So she worked through the musculature without a word or any sign of shared humanity until she had just given up on breaking my left leg at the kneecap and suddenly she asked as plain as you like "Where you from?"  to which I replied "America, and where are you from??"  To which silly question she shouted "Lao". . .but then she pulled down her surgical mask so I could see her face for the first time, put a finger on her cute little nose and all but shouted ". . .Lao, no nose!! America, got nose!" and pointed at me.  After that she giggled when I groaned or some random joint made creaking noises while she was twisting or pulling on a leg or arm.  Not a lot, but shared humanity after all.  Somehow after an hour of such torture I felt a lot better, and the glass of ice tea she brought out was just right.  When I paid she said "thank you" and I smiled and said "Kawb Jai" (or however that's really spelled) and we parted friends of a sort.

The Lao border gate, quite a nice facility and well staffed.  Visa-on-arrival was the big issue, $37 and a while to do the paperwork.  I think they were all set to let me have it without a photo when I finally found my stash and handed one over.  They weren't interested in the motorbike at all.  Who knows?

I strongly suspect this is what the bare hillsides in Viet Nam used to look like.  Rubber trees in tidy ranks and files are not the same thing at all.

Fool me once, shame on you. . .but this sign won't entice me a second time.  Reading more carefully I see it was to be funded by a Chinese Aluminum company who no doubt planned to mine bauxite somewhere along the road.  Chinese economy tanked and my road did not get built.  Maybe that's just fine.

I actually headed down this road 2 years ago and thought I'd ride 120 km or so in oh, maybe 3 or 4 hours.  Right.  That way be dragons. . .living in extensive swamps.

The first bridge settled the matter. . .there's been no improvement.  I'm not going back.

And this is the road we really took, or at least a scenic bit of it.  Most was really lowland riding, straight roads and in nice shape overall.

A road to hope for. . .pleasing to the eye, and sweet for the motorbike.

Sweet young saleslady jumped when she saw me stop and quickly popped on the funny little hat. . .then waved nicely when I left without buying anything.

Part of Wat Luang in Pakse, an older place and running down, only 6 monks in residence, and it's way too big for that small of a crew.

And on from Pakse northbound, this is the road, at one of its infrequent curves.  Not your thrilling mountain road!
The meaning of "dry season"

Except where there's water to be had!

A typical little roadside restaurant. . .noodle soup simmering, but I was happy with cold water and a bottle of M-150.  Not a bit drowsy through the afternoon!

Still interested in houses. . .such variety here, every sort of thing from a shack to a palace, wood or masonry or any combination you'd like.  Fun!

Belongs in Viet Nam really. but there are a lot of them here, the style travels well.

Lao Kitsch is about on a par with Vietnamese

H'mm.  A "wat" whose name i did not catch. . .downtown Savan, and not the one on the river front.  There was a busload of tourists there for heaven sake.

The main doors of one smaller building.

One of dozens (a hundred or more) "tombs". . .crypts I guess, the deceased's ashes, and whatever his or her relatives have dropped by lately for support.

The odd green structures are sold on the street by young people with delicate fingers and are obviously appropriate offerings for most any devotion, you see them everywhere.

Actually, the crypts form the wall of the Wat, often a full city block.

And this is the difference. . .14 monks, 16 novices, and 13 temple boys in residence.  A temple boy is not and may never be a monk, but wants to study and doesn't have money or a place to live in town, so he may live in the temple. . .and help with all the work.  Not a bad scheme at all I think.

A nice modern tuk tuk. . .4 stroke gasoline engine, multi-cylinder, water cooled, with a great muffler, smooth and powerful, it might haul a dozen people in a pinch.  Two or three makes for luxury.

Here's the old and the new. . .the "big house" for monks to live in.  The current crop all live in the old building, and five years from now (if offerings hold up) they'll move into the new quarters.  A surprising number of monks speak better than passable English.  They normally commit to nine years of monkhood (if I got that right).

A really nice Tuk

The powerplant.  Old tuks were much smaller and had 2-stroke motorbike engines that went TUK-tuk tuk tuk and smoked like crazy. . .you see very few of them now.

Don't you wonder why. . .a lovely old building on the end of the river-front zone.  Who knows.. .

That's the bike in front of the hotel office and the cheap rooms.  We pay extra for the "happy" rooms and like it.

Yep, if I had kids I'd be here too. . .the right sort of weather for it!

A side car rig in lieu of a tuk tuk. . .a very Cambodian art form, but popular here too, for freight, passengers or as a food stall with wheels. . .like this one.  The umbrella gives it away.

Sis was a little shy and getting a big bandaid on a small scrape on her elbow.  I can sympathize.

The fabulous evening open air food circus.   Why does anyone ever cook here?  Does anyone??

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