Nong Khiaw: Riding the mountain roads to Oudomxai

Posted: June 9, 2010 in Mountain bike touring North Laos 2005
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15 kms on the bike, 117kms or thereabouts on the songtheaw, or ‘two rows’ a converted pick-up/bus with two rows of wooden benches on the flat bed.

After a good night’s rest and having more oxygen in the brain, a decision was made to give the bikes a rest (rrright) and hitch a ride on the 11 am bus/truck to Oudomxai. With a combined age of 91, the both of us could do with some pre bus ride sightseeing across the bridge in the village of Ban Sop Houn and some Vietnam era caves/hideouts a few kms down the road. The one that the bike whisperer took. Sometimes, a later start will mean better photo opportunities. Brighter colours and light as this scene looked positively drab and dull under an early morning cloud. A leisurely breakfast and extra dose of cafe Lao helps a lot too. We also got to send off the party of 5 China men who were also staying at the Phayboun guest house. 5 men who couldnt decide between 2 rooms equals a lot of door slamming till past midnight. We said good riddance before they drove off in a new Land Cruiser and they replied ‘Goodbye’ We felt bad, for about 5 seconds.

Nong Khiaw by the Nam Tha river

We got to the bus stop right on time, an open dusty parking lot by the bridge with a wooden shack where tickets were pre sold, and there was a price list to boot. I guess no Lao would do this, buy a hand written ticket from a guy in a booth. Much easier and definitely cheaper to pay the smiling driver directly, especially when he has a full load of 12 falangs or tourists and another 2 who are paying a ‘tip’ of $1.50 for two bicycles on the roof rack.
As I had expected nothing stirred till 40 minutes later as the driver waited for some more slow boats to pull in, disgorging more fresh meat, backpackers from up river Muang Ngoi. It was futile trying to get a seat in the cab next to the driver who retorted with a resounding, No! As it turns out those are reserved for local women and we stop just 15 minutes after leaving the dirt lot, for Mrs Truck Driver and some family members to board. 33 kms on we’re at Pak Mong for a longer stop. It’s close to one o’clock and our teenage looking driver gestures and indicates that it’s his lunch break for about 30 minutes.
A German couple we spoke to were at their wits end with the frequent stops and decided to question the driver. They were already unhappy with the late start and wanted to get to Luang Namtha before dark, to the extent of saying that everyone did not need lunch. Our not so smart driver then told every one that their ETA in Luang Namtha, another 220 kms away, was 4 pm. In reality they would get there around 9 or 10 pm, if there were no more delays. It could get ugly later in the day.
After lunch, the driver made a U turn in the direction of Nong Khiaw! What now? Oh, the nearby gas station to fill up presumably or check the radiator or tyres, which he did. Including some swear words, I heard the German version of ‘Why didnt he fill up before the start or during lunch?’ I was going to be witty and say that the P.D.R. (Peoples Democratic Republic) in Laos stood for Please Dont Rush but on second thought, I was out numbered.
Our 100 km ride to Oudomxai cost $4 each. Great scenery from every bend in the road and a couple of 10% uphill climbs totalling 35 kms made much easier by sitting on a wooden bench, until I realised that I had to deal with ‘the Squasher’
The Squasher (sounds like a WWF contender) sat for 117 kms, eyes glued to Henri Charriere’s Papillon, all 560 pages of it. She didnt get out at any of the stops, even for the long lunch break. The Squasher is in her element each time our truck grinds uphill squashing me against the rails, and thankfully backs off on the downhills, allowing me to breathe. Stares and tsks tsks dont work. Finally the Swedish hunk inside, all of 19 years old and I Pod ready decides to move outside, standing on the narrow back platform. Much cooler where we are.
He takes off his T shirt, to the delight of some women on board and drops the shirt over the chicken. Squasher takes her eyes off the book for 2.5 seconds to look at some Swedish abs, who by now is relishing in the cool and slight drizzle and mountain scenery. After 20 minutes and heavier rain, the young blond lad climbs back in, shivering and dripping rain water on most of us while searching for his T shirt. I hand it to him. It’s picked up a few footprints and some chicken sh*t and goes back to adorn its rightful owner. Everyone adjusts their bums and the squashing continues.

a view from the back

The best place to be on a songtheaw is right behind. Fresher air, clearer views and a quick exit if the 18 year old driving it losses control. On a brighter note, a nice young lady, OK she was hot, from Sydney wanted some time standing on the rear platform to soak in the scenery and take some pictures. I almost forgot about all that squashing as I now had to deal with a skimpy pair of denim shorts blocking my view of one of the poorest countries on earth. Paul sitting right across me puts on a wry smile and seems to have suddenly developed fast twitching eyebrows.
Lucky us, we got to Oudomxai at 4 pm brought our bikes down and had 2 hours of daylight left to see all that urban sprawl we drove by. Expectedly some others got off thinking that this was Luang Namtha. I looked to find the most level headed guy, I think he was French, who had his sunglasses on since the start of the trip. He had done his research and knew the not so good news. Their destination was another 4 to 5 hours away, which the Germans refused to believe. In the ensuing confusion the driver wanted to offload everyone onto another passing vehicle.
The French couple decided to abandon ship also, saying that they didnt want to ‘see’ Laos at night. Good move. We met them again in Luang Namtha the next evening cycling on rented bikes. Oh and there was another stop at Song Cha, a Hmong village on a steep hill side as Mrs Driver got out to buy some fruit.   Overland travel in Laos can be tiring and trying at the same time, which makes cycling where you’re in control, all the more alluring. On days like this, I’m just glad to arrive in one piece, squashed or otherwise. And the bikes held up OK too with a quick wash and dry to boot.

the giddy night life in Oudomxai

Oudomxai lies at a major crossroads in north Laos. All points on a compass lead to other major towns. Northwest to Luang Namtha or Boten on the Chinese border. Eastwards to Nong Khiaw and Luang Prabang where we had come from. Southwest to Pak Beng and the Mekhong where river travels lead upstream to Chiang Khong in Thailand and downstream to Luang Prabang. We checked into this huge hotel which looked out of place among some ramshackle huts and green rice fields. $13 for a really nice air conditioned room, grainy CNN and BBC channels and a really weird toilet flushing system. The dry but loud and hissing kind found on planes. Thanks Paul, whose hotel spotting skills from a fast moving truck are down to, “Easy lah, look out for AC compressors and lots of windows”

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