Xieng Kok to Ban Ton Pheung: Aquaplaning to Thailand

Posted: June 9, 2010 in Mountain bike touring North Laos 2005
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This was as remote as we got to in Laos without the possibility of being stranded for days. The location of Xieng Kok resort cant be beat. From our balcony we got views of the Mekong as promised in the guidebooks. A remote outpost at the end of the Akha road with the jungles of Myanmar on the opposite bank of the river. Once in a while a cargo laden vessel would amble on by, most bringing their tarp covered customs sensitive cargo upriver to Myanmar or eventually to Jinghong in Yunnanese China. As this was the dry season, river traffic was slow but we had the good fortune of having a fast boat ride offered to us right after checking in.

I was wondering why this blond haired Lao was getting too chatty right outside our cabin. He must have spotted us miles away and knew where we wanted to go, back to Thailand. So he figured on 2 guys, 2 bikes going 200 kms down river to Ton Pheung where we could start cycling again to exit Laos at Huay Xai. THB 1000 each ($25) plus a little more like THB 300 per bike. Our single biggest expense in Laos was in far flung Xieng Kok. Seeing that most fast boats can take up to 6 passengers at the going rate of THB 1000 each or more, we shook on the deal to leave at 9 am the next day.

Xieng Kok along the Mekong with Burma on the other bank

Watching this guy was as interesting as building up a bicycle. What a performance. Mixing the dough into his hand made mould, squeezing the squiggly contents into the boiling tub of water and watching the whole lot boil into long strands of noodles. The woman next to him would transfer the lot to another pail presumably to cool it off and then serve the noodles in little bowls. Then another lady came by dumping some greens into the tub. They would giggle each time I took a picture and laughed even louder when they saw their images.

Very instant noodles

What do you get when you attach a 1.6 liter twin cam Toyota motor to a hundred pounds of wood? A floating rocket that skims and aquaplanes over water like a skateboard on steroids. Even with 3 people and our 2 bikes and luggage I felt we were going at 60 -80 km per hour on the straighter parts of the river. It took a few minutes before my heart rate returned to normal and I guess if our driver had to sit on a mountain bike doing 50 kmph downhill he too would scared shitless.

Viengkham gunned the engine over most of the swirling rapids and I think the front end of the boat must have lifted off at least three feet or more on a few occasions. Other times he was just skillfully looking out for deeper but calm water which was always closer to jagged river rocks. He told us that the greatest dangers were submerged logs which can take out the underside of a whole fast boat and the wakes from all the bigger ships going upstream to China.

He was a bit coy when I asked about fast boat accidents in which the record number of fatalities must have been 10 or more. There have been rumours of such head on collisions or crashes into submerged logs and rocks and subsequent drownings in the past. Wearing life jackets and smelly motorcycle helmets are compulsory, so we had our cycling helmets on. We had about 3 hours of this F1 powerboat like thrills before the river widened near Chiang Sean and the touristy Golden Triangle area where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar share their borders along the Mekong.

To supplement their incomes in the low season or repay debts, some speed boat drivers get drawn into smuggling amphetamines or yaa ba pills from factories in Myanmar down the Mekong to their counterparts in Thailand. Most are just couriers or mules in an intricate chain of supply for a product that costs a few cents at source and fetches THB 1000 in a Bangkok disco. What’s ironic is that during the extremely busy peak tourist season at year’s end some boat drivers depend on yaa ba to maintain a constant buzz to stay awake and ply their trade.

Refuelling stop along the 'Khong

We started riding out of Ton Pheung at high noon. Some customs guys here couldnt be rustled out of their siestas, not that we wanted them to. Wonder what they thought of all the prosperity of Thailand’s Chiang Sean across the river, with Chinese freighters unloading boatloads of cargo every day.

I thought I would be nursing a huge headache after sleeping at 3 last niight, but surprisingly the cycle touring buzz kicked in, as it does every day. I suppose eyes dont get too fatugued from seeing far horizons when touring, as compared to facing an LCD monitor for hours, back home.

We road along a quiet laterite road which was dead straight for about 30 kms along the Mekong. Except for a few dry bed river crossings, it eventually led out to a perfect asphalt road with wide and hilly bends for another 30 kms before reaching Huay Xai. Like most infrastructure projects in Laos, there were signs in English stating that this road was being built by a grant from some donor country like Germany.

Back in Chiang Khong, Thailand and looking across to Huay Xai in Laos. 2 countries seperated by a $1 or THB 40 sampan ride across 300 metres of muddy water I gathered all our Kips to change it back to Thai Bhat at the BAP guest house in Huay Xai. This place is run by a cheery matronly Lao lady whose desk drawer was chock full of US, Lao, Bhat and Euro banknotes. She quoted the actual bank rates for the day, unlike the creepy wannabe money changer at immigration whose day job was well, stamping passports.

There is a licensed money changer at the immigration office but it was closed. Clearing Lao immigration was a breeze and we were hit for an extra $1 each for an ‘overtime fee’ clearly stated on a placard, as it was after 4 pm. This surcharge applies if you enter or leave Laos on the weekends too.

Back in Thailand looking across to Huay Xai in Laos

*** June 2007 update. The bridge is coming! Laos and Thailand have agreed that it’s finally time. China gave a big impetus. They’re paying for most of it. A third cross border bridge across the Mekong from Huay Sai to Chiang Khong to be completed by 2011. This will make it technically feasable to drive from Singapore to Beijing or smuggle stuff between Laos and Thailand without getting wet. Party time for rich Chinese and Thai investors with insider info and plots of land near the proposed bridge. With the completion of Hwy # 3, cycling from Huay Xai to the Lao north will be less of a Indiana Jones expedition of fording rivers and jungle camp outs.

After some time in Laos, crossing back into Thailand was something of a mild shock to the senses. There was more, of everything we usually take for granted. More buildings, more traffic, more shops, (and the shops were well stocked) more streetlights, more people but less screaming kids which we had grown accustomed to. And this was only Chiang Khong, a small, two street border town on the banks of a muddy river with its source in Tibetan China and mouth in the Mekong delta 4200 kms downstream. We had the next 4 days to get back to Chiang Mai, some 320 kms south and then fly back to Singapore, before the wives do some spring cleaning and throw out some precious bike parts….

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