Sunday, November 29, 2009

After a minor delay due to some technical difficulties, here's a fresh article on Travelfish, all about Halong Bay in Vietnam. Well-known for its karsts (limestone rock formations that rise majestically out of the ocean), it's quickly on its way to being known as a cycling destination!

Hope you enjoy the article, we just arrived on Ko Pha Ngan, the island in southern Thailand made famous by the Full Moon Party. As convenient coincidence would have it, such a party is fast approaching on December 2nd, so we will be beaching it to the maximum until Asia's most crazed night (and day) of partying arrives - wish us well :-)


Friday, November 27, 2009

We've finally made it back to Bangkok!
After 3103.42 km, our epic cycling adventure has reached the end. Today we will sell our bicycles back to Bike Zone, and then we're heading off to the beach! It's been an amazing journey, both physically and mentally challenging, so a week of sand and sun is just what we deserve :-)
We ended up taking a bus for part of the way from Vientiane, since sections were too long to easily bike (200km, then 150km, for example), which means we 'bought' ourselves some additional travel time. So rather than going to the somewhat nearby Ko Chang, we've decided to head much further south to Ko Pha Ngan, the home of the infamous Full Moon Party.

Many more details on the journey from Vientiane to Bangkok soon, we promise,

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Just a quick post today, and no photos yet, sorry!
We left Laos this morning, and crossed over into Thailand by the Friendship Bridge. Easiest border-crossing ever, quite possibly, it was fast and efficient with no hassle
The sad news today is that our quintet has now become a trio... Blaise and Christine are currently (we hope) on an overnight bus to Bangkok, as they are skipping the final cycling leg of our journey so that they can partake in some additional traveling before going home - Blaise is heading to Trang and Christine is going to Ko Samet. That leaves us and Luke to cycle the 600+ kilometers to Bangkok (from Vientiane), of which we completed 80km today. Tomorrow is going to be a long day, 140km, but at least the terrain and road conditions are finally in our favor. The land is smooth, no hills really at all, and the road is well-paved, free of debris, and even has a bicycle/scooter lane. Quite the change from small, curvy and rough mountain roads, with animals all about and scooters around every bend...
Our days in Vientiane then were mostly spent relaxing, reminiscing, and enjoying our last days together. It's been a wild and crazy ride (literally), an epic adventure, and a challenging experience for all five of us, and definitely something we will all never forget. Really, how could we?! We did (finally) meet some other cyclists, a group of Chinese students riding from Singapore to Guangzhou, China. Guangzhou is the host of the 2010 Asian Games (a massive sporting event, like the Olympics but for Asian countries only), so while they are riding for fun, they are also working to promote that event, meeting with dignitaries, and while in Laos they were seeing the build-up to the 2009 SE Asian Games, which takes place in Vientiane next month. We showed them a wild night out :-), involving cosmic bowling and some late-night clubbing. It was very fun to meet some like-minded people from across the world, and we wish Edward, Wester, Maple, Won, and all of their teammates a fantastic journey back home - good luck with all the hills in northern Laos!
Vientiane itself wasn't very exciting, honestly the temples of Laos are the weakest of the region, and relaxing in coffee shops is only so exciting, so it worked out well that we had ample distractions to keep us busy while in a rather tame capitol city. That said, we had plenty of fun in Laos in general, it was an amazing country and we learned a lot about its people and history while we there.
So now we're just riding back to Bangkok, not really being tourists for the next week, just self-transporters, but that's fine with us since our days on the trip are numbered... we fly back to the States on Dec. 7th (thanks Aleda!), so less than two weeks remain on our epic odyssey. We should break 3000km tomorrow, somewhere in the middle of nowhere in Thailand, which somehow seems very appropriate.

Much love to everyone out there, B & C we miss you already!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

There's a new Travelfish article called The Hills of Vietnam. It's all about our lengthy day of cycling from Dalat to Nha Trang...

We had another great day tubing yesterday, and will leave for Vientiane tomorrow, planning to make the 150+ km ride in two decent days of cycling, although the terrain will undoubtedly be much more favorable than what we've had to pedal recently.

Then we'll spend a few days in the Laotian capitol before beginning the ride to Bangkok on the 24th. Not sure exactly how long the ride to Bangkok will be, since it's about 500km, but we're hoping we can bang it out in only 5 days since the terrain and roads should both be nice.

Hope you enjoy the article,

AND ----> here's a much anticipated moment of zen, that has failed to upload several times, but is now finally available for your viewing pleasure:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

We've spent one delightful day tubing, and now two days resting. The first day off was voluntary, as we wanted to use the internet, relax our battered bodies, and spend some time with our friend Brian, another ESL teacher from Korea, who is also chilling in Laos right now. Today however, our non-tubing was forced by the weather, which has been cloudy all day and rainy most of the time as well. Not the best day to float down a somewhat chilly river. So we'll try again tomorrow, aiming to be in the water around noon at the latest. Which should give us plenty of time to enjoy the zip-lines, water slides, and mud volleyball on offer. The first 500 meters of the river are filled with bars, as Vang Vieng has become Laos' sacrificial tourist town. Tubing here is a well-established site on the tourist-trail, especially of the younger-and-partying type of tourist, but we are doing our best despite our old age :-).
First, a few promised pictures of Luang Prabang's many temples:

Plus a cheap vegetarian buffet:

And the local football game we watched:

And Kuang Si waterfall, of course:

The order and civility creates a nice dichotomy with our day spent tubing, doesn't it?

Well, actually, this one might be the most accurate :-)

We plan on spending one more day here, so we'll be going tubing rain or shine, and then riding south to Vientiane hopefully in two long days. While it's 180km, it is at least much more reasonable terrain than the mountains we've ridden through recently, so hopefully we can keep up a decent pace for out last two days of cycling all together. We'll all stay in Laos until November 24th, but that morning we'll split up, as Blaise and Christine are taking the train to Bangkok, while we ride there by bicycle with Luke. The time together has been fantastic, and we're all a bit sad about splitting up, but we have different priorities for how we're spending our last two weeks in SE Asia. We'll be doing five days of cycling, then a day or so in Bangkok to sell our bikes, before heading to Koh Chang, an island only a few hours away from Bangkok. The plan is to stay there for a few days, before returning to Bangkok for another day or two at the massive Chattuchak Market and then fly back home on December 7th.

Right now we're just chilling on our bungalow balcony, listening to some music, debating dinner choices...


Here's your moment of zen, not the intended video one since the connection keeps dropping while uploading, but substituting is the rare Laotian butter-bee:

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Anderson has a new article featured on a different website, ESL Daily, a web news resource for ESL Teachers. It's a "day in the life" article of sorts, about our arduous journey crossing the border from Cambodia into Vietnam. The full article is available at ESL Daily.
Perhaps we forgot to link it on here, but he had another article on ESL Daily last month, you can still read that one here, it's just a brief piece on our trip in general.
A proper post, with details and photos of our exploits here in Vang Vieng, should be appearing soon...


Saturday, November 14, 2009

We've made it to Vang Vieng, Laos, home of some rather infamous river tubing, amongst other things. This post is from a few days ago, in Luang Prabang. Sorry about the lack of photos, the internet connection is terrible here, but that just means there will be tons of photos next time - as well as a quite awesome moment of zen.

Since we last posted, we did hit the road again on our bicycles, but only briefly before caving to a new-found philosophy of cycle-a-little-less-and-see-a-lot-more. We decided to avoid cycling through another series of monstrous hills in order to spend some more time in Luang Prabang. A UNESCO World Heritage town, filled with active and well-preserved temples, it's definitely a fantastic place. Based on a balance of things to see, things to do, shopping, and variety of food, LP definitely has to rank amongst the top tourist towns we've visited on our journey, if the not the best so far.
From Phonsavan we rode our bicycles 48 km to the town of Ban Nong Tang, more just a collection of houses next to a lake than anything else. Having decided by then that expediting our travel to LP was our main priority, we waited outside a restaurant for about three hours before managing to secure a ride to the next town, Phu Khuon. For another three hours we then bounced around in the back of a large truckbed, at times freezing cold when we weren't in awe of the clear sky and bountiful stars above us.
Phu Khuon is little more than the crossroads for two of Laos' major highways, so other than eat and sleep there wasn't much to do. In the morning we had to change leftover Thai baht for Laos kip since we were essentially out of money, but fortunately that didn't prove to be too much of a problem despite being in a bank-less town. The ride to LP the next morning was pretty enjoyable, full of dazzling scenery and a plethora of mountain bikers. Kind of strange, having been the only people on the road for so long, but now we're on a stretch of road that's very well ridden. In some ways we felt a little inferior hitching a ride, in others we felt superior for having cycled so much terrain already that few others dare to do.
Luang Prabang is a very busy town compared to where we've been staying since Hanoi. So many white people, a multitude of restaurants, and a massive tourist market all seemed overwhelming at first. But 10,000 kip sandwiches, 5,000 kip fruit shakes, and 5,000 kip chocolate banana rotis (that's $2.50 total) are all filling us quite nicely, never-mind the scrumptious spring rolls, abundant baked goods, or the plenty of amazing Asian food available down by the river-side. Our first night we just walked the streets in awe of all the choices, indulged our neglected sweet teeth, and filled up at a cheap vegetarian buffet (5,000 kip).
For our second day here we did a walking tour of all the temples, which are completely integrated with the rest of the town's architecture. A block full of hotels and restaurants often holds a large unassuming temple within it as well, home to monks who turn musical at dusk as well as ornate paintings and statuary. The temples are all well-maintained, and surprisingly free of sellers and beggars – these are revered places of worship in the morning time, but they retain that atmosphere to a degree throughout the entire day. The evening was spent wandering around again, before engaging in a well-known local tradition: bowling. The government of Laos maintains a curfew, so the streets must be empty by midnight, and all businesses must be closed by 11:30 or 12:00 at the absolute latest. However, the bowling alley apparently pays off the local police, and since it is several kilometers outside of town, is allowed to stay open until 3am. So the late-night LP party scene exists solely at a noisy bowling alley, selling Beer Laos and microwave popcorn to a rowdy mix of tourists and locals, all bowling their best :-). We were actually terrible, no one even broke 100 in the first game, but we were there for the delightful change of pace more than anything – we go from spending days in a crazy city to spending weeks on the road in rural settings where the entire province shuts down within hours of the sun setting.
Yesterday involved checking out a local football game, enjoyable yet under-attended: we were the only fans present when the match started, but others came slowly drifting in. We also took care of a lot of “business” on the internet, figuring out the rest of our route and time schedule while in Laos, etc. Today we're going to hit up a waterfall about 35km outside of town, it's supposed to be pretty fantastically fun - we'll find out shortly!

More news when there's better net,
A&E+3 (for only a short while longer, we're splitting up in just over a week :-(

Saturday, November 07, 2009

From Sam Neua to Phonsavan, just another few days in Laos, eh?

In addition to some delicious Indian food, we found at least one other distraction in Sam Neua, since the temple and weaving/handicraft stores were both letdowns.

The temple was, well, lame, with cell-phone chatting monks and amateur paintings, and the shops were overpriced with somewhat generic goods. But at least the hot springs, 17km (and a $25 round-trip songthaew ride) outside of town, were therapeutic and relaxing – if not the most clean/pure. For 5,000 kip (under $1) we could hardly complain, and it seemed all and all that we were in a way foolish tourists for even bathing in the large outdoor tank – with a rock bottom and plenty of floating algae, it wasn't exactly paradise – since the indoor bathtubs had perfect clean water pumped into them for a more sanitary bathing experience! Nonetheless, we enjoyed our time amidst the rice fields greatly, got our soak on, and even shared our ride bank with a few thankful villagers.

The next morning we rode off, we as in the two of us, since everyone else opted to take the bus to Nam Neun (that's pronounced Nu-un), leaving before 7am since we had 100km of hills ahead of us. Sam Neua was chilly, as in almost frigid, when we left, with clouds sitting all about and dew quickly appearing upon our sleeves.

But the hills couldn't stop us, even as the clouds melted away in what all-too-quickly became the noon-time heat.

Kilometers passed, slowly and steadily, even when our friends flew by in a speeding bus.

Thankfully we'd bought snacks the night before, as we never saw a 'proper' restaurant the entire time, though 55km into the ride we at least stopped at a store that served us some plain ramen noodles. At least they were cheap at 3000 kip, even if they were far from appetizing or filling after the 5 hours on the bicycle that we'd already completed. If only we'd known the real adventure was just ahead of us, we might have ordered a second helping.

We'd read (thanks Lonely Planet), about a place called the Sin Huan Archeological Park, described as “better than it sounds,” which lay 6km off the main road. Compared to Stonehenge, and of the same time period as Phonsavan's famous Plain of Jars, it sounded intriguing and worth a look. As we set off on our cycles, the dirt road quickly gave way to rock, gravel, and an insane uphill, and our interest turned to despair. Thankfully we were able to grab a ride from a passing truck, which took us the remaining 4km up the rutted, bouncy, and un-cyclable path, before dropping us off at the ruins.

They were ruined, that's for sure, just a bunch of rocks sticking un-impressively out of the ground, jutting out at random angles in small groups.

Even taking strategic photos couldn't quite make them appear dazzling, and their close proximity to large circular burial 'covers' – like large rock manholes – did little too enliven the scene. A lost calf, mooing helplessly and too overcome by fear to let us get near it, proved more exciting, and almost more photogenic, than the stones left over from Laos' distant past. We're tolerant folks, but this was disappointing, and given the arduous journey it took to visit, quite a bit frustrated as well.

Fortunately luck was on our side, as approaching from the other side was a kindly English-speaking Laotian tourist, on a business trip with his wife but stopping by Sin Huan for a photo op. He gave us a ride back to the main road in the back of his pickup truck, ourselves and our bicycles both bouncing high the entire time, but at least we didn't waste TOO much of our afternoon trudging along the awful red-dirt roads of rural Laos in search of some ancient excitement that was nowhere to be found. Apparently the sites have been nominated for World Heritage status, but if anyone at UNESCO is reading this (we're sure most members are), there's more exciting stuff out there in the world, we promise!
Back on the road, all was well for a few more hours, as the hills went up and down along with our gear shifting. Then, as afternoon turned to evening, a monster hill appeared, one that simply would not end. We even stopped for our fourth snack of the day – Laughing Cow cheese, Larabars, and snack cakes are amazingly filling – and yet the road would not stop twisting ever skyward.

Finally we reached the top, as sunset turned the mountaintops crimson red, which meant we (once again) had to dutifully don our headlamps for a downhill wasted by darkness. Twelve kilometers later, after a stop in a village for water and to verify that the road actually kept going downwards, we finally ended up in Nam Neun, but what should have taken 15 minutes in the light ended up taking almost 45 as we had to grip our brakes tightly out of fear of going off of the road. But at least we made it, intact, our friends had a room ready for us, and unlike their dinner ours was actually delicious. Grilled boar meat, fresh foe (as in pho of Vietnamese fame), plus a warm milk carton filled us up right, in time to get back to our hotel with a few minutes to spare before they turned the generator off for the night.
Now we're in Phonsavan, to get here we opted to take a four hour songthaew ride instead of spend two hours cycling through even more relentless hills. So we sped over the mountains, while occasionally choking on exhaust fumes, to a more tourist-friendly town, or at least strip of hotels, restaurants, and shops. Yesterday, after eating some shoddy pizza, we watched a pair of documentaries about UXO and MAG – unexploded ordinance (as in bombs dropped by the USA during the secret war in Laos) and a fantastic charity respectively – before eating more food, drinking more Beer Lao, and then heading off to bed.

Today we cycled about 50km, on mostly flat ground – although plenty of that was on dusty dirt roads – and without any of our baggage, which was relatively easy and fun since it was interspersed with cool archeological remains of the large stone jar variety.

We saw two of the three major Plain of Jars sites, one can really only stare at so many large stone jars before redundancy and non-appreciation set in, both of which were pretty spectacular.

The origins and purpose of the massive containers, mostly intact despite a war being fought on the same plain in the 1970s, are essentially unknown.

Maybe they were funerary, or perhaps storage containers for either rice wine (lao lao) or water for travelers along an ancient trade route.

We just got back from eating some amazing, and amazingly spicy, Indian food, so the rest of the night will be spent relaxing in various forms before hitting the road again tomorrow morning. Currently we're relaxing in almost total darkness since the power has been out all day, but supposedly that situation should be changing in the near future...

More news when it's fit to print,

Here's a moment of zen courtesy of Luke:

And another from some rural Laotian women:

Friday, November 06, 2009

After a week off, here's a fresh article on Travelfish, all about Saigon and some multiple aspects of 'cycling.' Hope you enjoy it, definitely has a bit more humor than usual...

Otherwise, we are in Phonsavan, Laos, home of the Plain of Jars. We'll be checking that out tomorrow, before getting back on our bicycles to head to Luang Prabang. Look for a 'real' post in the near future, until then...


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Been a while since we've blogged we know, but while we can easily blame the lack of available internet, the exhausting terrain that we've covered over the last week is equally responsible. Most nights of late we have simply eaten and then gone to bed, only to arise early the next morning and begin pedaling again.

Gone are the days of flat terrain and 20km+/hr, now we climb mountains up to 2000 meters, average about 14km/hr if we are lucky, and have to push our bodies to their outer limits to merely reach our intended destinations.

Our journey has taken us from Hanoi → Hoa Binh (75.81km), Hoa Binh → Mai Chau (65.35km), Mai Chau → Ba Thouc (62.74km), Ba Thouc → Na Meo (102.58km), and that was all just to get to the border of Laos! The quality and value of hotels has definitely decreased along the way, though the kindness of the people and the jaw-dropping-ness of the scenery has also significantly increased.

Only the first day of the four days of travel through north-western Vietnam was mostly flat, with the size and volume of massive hills increasing by the day.

By far the most draining, both mentally and physically, was the 100km+ journey to the border at Na Meo: we began cycling shortly after 8am and didn't finish until an hour after dark around 7pm. While our headlamps helped light the way somewhat, it was far from a triumphant finish. The day before, when we traveled to Ba Thouc, also ended in darkness, though that was at least somewhat our fault, as in choosing to follow a sign and local advice, rather than the major highway, we ended up on an extreme anti-shortcut.

That meant that for about 50km we were stuck truly mountain-biking on a rocky dirt-path, primarily used for bamboo logging, cutting through isolated villages in a hidden and majestic valley.

Downside was that the terrain took a definite toll on our bodies and bicycles, several of us had sore wrists from all the shaking, and Anderson's bicycle rack actually broke in three places from all the pressure.

It's still useable, but only after using a few zip-ties to reconnect everything! We've also managed to squeeze in a quick dip in a river, and spy on plenty of other river life as well...

Crossing the border (Na Meo in Vietnam/ Nam Xoi in Laos), besides being time-consuming (around 1.5 hours) and expensive ($40 for Americans, $42 for Canadians), was a hassle-free process. On the Vietnam side we did have to get our bags x-rayed, though at least they chose not to actually search through any of our belongings, and on the Laos side we had to pay 2000kip (about 25 cents) for a medical exam which consisted solely of a temperature scan of our heads. After much waiting, and filling numerous forms out, we at last received our Laos visas, and so long as we walked our bicycles across the border, we were at last able to enter Laos.

We'd exchanged US dollars (obtained at a bank in Hanoi) for stacks of kip in Na Meo before we left Vietnam, as Laos obviously does not accept Vietnamese dong. Everywhere dollars (and traveler's checks) are usable, and Thai baht is an acceptable currency as well – which is good since we have some of those left from Thailand – but while Laos does have ATMs they are relatively scarce outside of the major cities and charge a hefty surcharge as well. So we'll be mostly cashing our remaining traveler's checks, since paying $2 for every $70 we withdraw from an ATM is not exactly a good deal.

From the border we then proceeded up into the hills of Laos, which are not all that different from the hills of Vietnam (obviously). They are filled with high mountains, beautiful valleys full of farms and villages, and plenty of limestone karsts. Our first day in Laos, Na Meo → Vieng Xay (58.96km) involved the toughest mountain we have climbed yet, with several sections signposted at a 12% grade, which took what seemed like forever. Again yesterday, Vieng Xay → Sam Neua (30.36km) we had a massive hill, totaling around 3km of straight uphill travel, but at least the overall ride was short and relatively relaxing. The reality is that while the hills are gargantuan and time-consuming, they are almost more challenging mentally than physically, since with our bicycles dropped down to a very low gear (1-1 these days with our weary legs), the pedaling isn't really so challenging in itself, but the sheer amount of repetition, combined with the minimal ground covered per pedal, makes for quite the challenge. But the feeling of victory, short as it may be, when we reach the top is practically incomparable, though we can only rest so long before we start to get cold. But then there's a massive downhill reward, which is as exhilarating as the ascent is exhausting. Flying down mountains, with our hands on our brakes to maintain control, the kilometers pass by as quickly as our sweat disappears.
Laos is definitely, at least this far north and at such high elevation, quite chilly in the shade during the day, and cold everywhere at night. We've had to dig out out cold weather gear, stowed at the bottom of our bags until now, and the vast majority of the local people are wearing pants and hooded sweatshirts.
Today then, is a much needed day of relaxation and rest for our weary bodies, and then tomorrow we'll be back on the road, traveling to Nam Neun, about 100km away. Sounds fun...

Internet access, and the terrain, should be more favorable within a few days when we arrive in Phonsavan, home to the famous Plain of Jars. Until then,


And now for your moment of zen: