Archive for the ‘Mekong River Ride 2014’ Category

Some of the 203 cuts across the southern edge of Phu Rhea National Park, with one end at Loei in the north east and Dan Sai at the other south west end. At Phu Rhea, one is actually faced with 2 downhill rides in either direction. Only if it was that simple.

The ride to Loei was more of a rolling downhill with some climbs thrown in, but elevation loss was a given and again, it was nice to check in before sunset.

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In town I was keeping an eye out for newer places to stay. I think the old King’s Hotel and even the Loei Orchid seemed very dated, so it was a no brainer when I saw this newish building tucked in a back lane of the town’s market. Brand new and very welcoming and a new record low price of Thb 350. Just over ten bucks.

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Brand new, a week before their official opening. Bedding were still in their original packing. They had to remove a huge plastic bag that contained the fridge to switch it on ! Wifi router just outside our room.

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A shower aimed directly at the toilet seat. Well you can’t win em all ….

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‘Sri Mueang Loei Hotel’ right beside the town ‘fresh market’ You won’t go hungry. The helpful owner paused before stating the room rates. “Opening price for you. Thb 350” I would have hugged and kissed him but I am married. He also offered to put our bikes in his living room at the back of the building, but there’s a lot of space in a secured side lane to lock them.

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I climbed to the third floor and wasn’t disappointed. Quintessential small town Thailand. Rolling hills, zinc roofs on old teak buildings, and those power lines.

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Freshly gutted rats are an Issan delicacy !

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So is khao niao or sticky rice, in this case stuffed and steamed to perfection in these bamboo sticks. A highly portable snack  while cycling or on a long bus ride.

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With time not on our side, I did the same thing as in 2007. We headed for the Loei bus station at noon, to grab a 200 km ride back to Udon Thani. The bigger intercity buses have huge holds. Like this one, a most likely recycled luxurious coach that piled longer distances to Bangkok. No one sits here, so there’s lots of space for cargo, even my huge LHT. Drivers are more than happy to help out, as they are used to cyclists trying to get a ride. Hey we’re paying passengers too, and willing to tip, if they’re not too exhorbitant. Sometimes you need to get pass the ticket sellers and their supervisors at the bus station.

Some can be picky and rule bound. In one encounter, a lady stood her ground, ‘No bicycles!!’ I ignored her, bought 2 tickets and walked to the bus driver, who seemed much more pleasant. He sorted things out by having me pay a conductor some baht for the bikes. I was issued the equivalent in paper tickets ! The driver did not make any money at all, although one most occasions, after the bus has moved off, anything from Thb 50 to Thb 100 (my maximum) will be handed over.

Buses that actually leave from the station you’re at are the best. You’ll have exact departure times and can load your bike at leisure. Some buses have automated cargo doors and even tickets issued for your bike. Buses that are enroute from someplace else can be trickier. Some tickets can be oversold, and the bus cargo holds filled to the brim. I try to avoid these.

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Checked into ‘The One Residence’ in Udon. Looks quite new. Ample parking on the ground floor with a night guard. This was the only place that we were asked to take our bikes into the rooms at night. Lady at reception didn’t want to be responsible for any losses. And the only place that made a copy of my passport details. The dangers of a big town.

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On the 3rd floor we had a narrow window, in case I want to watch traffic. Otherwise, the room was a fitting last’s night stay. Thb 550.

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A bike shop was close at hand since I need to get 2 boxes. Clearing their trash and paying them Thb 100 per box.

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4 men at the airport asked if the tyres were totally and 100% deflated. Of course they are, air in tyres expand at abt 15% only, so leaving them at 45 psi is not going to cause an explosion and bring a jetliner down. How do I say that in Thai ??

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They are in, we’re not, yet.

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Rebooted and rearing to go today. Knocked out for 11 hours with a bad stomach, vomiting and missed dinner too

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familiar numbers at the market junction

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Rim Heuang Resort, a lot of space for Thb 350

Possibly the best place to stay in the village if you need wifi. Large open grounds and a restaurant and day market nearby. Being close to the Lao border crossing, I’m sure there will be more accommodation coming up. Those we saw were still under construction on the roads leading to Thai immigration a few kms out.

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We bought some drinks and used their wifi. The owner’s husband works on an oil rig in the South China Sea, off West Malaysia and has a slight Californian accent. He told us about a new bus service that runs from Loei city to Luang Prabang, thus avoiding the Route 13, mountain roads. And confirmed that the once fabled Tha Li border crossing (aka and more accurately Ban Na Kra Seng (Thailand) Nam Heaung (Lao) crossing is open to foreigners.

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Laos is just a short swim away. The Heuang river behind those bungalows.

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Friendly bridge, turn right

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Spanking new. We don’t need a visa to get into Laos, for that matter any of the ASEAN countries. If you do, it might be prudent to do some research and have the requisite US$/Baht equivalent and/or photographs handy.

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After 35 kms on another burning hot and hill day done, and another 40 or 50 km left to Dan Sai, we decided to hitch a ride in the middle of nowhere. Relatively nowhere as we saw convoys of luxury SUV’s churning up more dust along the 2195. Volvo XC 90’s and Porsche Cayennes, all with China or Lao ‘friendship’ decals plastered on their doors. Nope those wont stop to take 2 motley bicycles. After 30 minutes or so I see a pick up, and that grinded to a halt when Colleen put her thumb out. We’re saved.
Turns out he was not going to Dan Sai just part of the way, as he was going to Phu Rhea, a highland resort area that bordered the Phu Rhea National Park. Highlands, cool air, greenery … why not. After some gesturing that there was a T junction up ahead and that he would be turning left, up into the mountains, I decided that it was Phu Rhea for tonight. We also had only 3 days left to the trip and Phu Rhea was in the general direction east back to Udon Thani and not the far south to Dan Sai and Lom Sak, which would have to wait for an other time later this year.

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Somewhere in the 30 kms of steep gradients and impossible turns, our ride turns into a small dirt road. The pick up bounces along as our angel mutters off something like, for all I know could be, “I am an axe murderer and I could also use your bike tubes to weld me a new gate. I especially like that orange one with the 853 decal.”

He pulls in front of a half completed house. It does not look shabby at all. With it’s size and land around it, it will cost upwards of $3 million back home.

But here in the shadows of the Phu Rhea National Park where the hills are endless and wifi scanty, our friend steps out with a small plastic bag of lime and hands it over to his wife. Soon half the village appears to see his cargo of 2 bikes and panniers which could be welded into a nice small gate for his soon to be opulent farm house.

We got to Phu Rhea proper, ie. another 4 lane highway, in this case the 203, where the district office, official park entrance, hospital and bus station were, close to lunch time and I gladly thanked our saviour for his kindness. A photo, a pat on his shoulder and a small tip later, we loaded up and went in search of food.

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An angel (with a new Hilux) in red !

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Cooling down at Phu Rhea, Thb 600. It was nice change to be relaxing in a room at 3 pm instead of the usual after sunset check in that was the last 3 nights …. very nice. Easy bike parking outside the room on a small porch.
But today was Coleen’s turn to be knocked out from the heat. I suspect it was motion sickness from the pick up ride!  We’re trying this new plan. Head straight to bed or lie down before doing the ‘unnecessary necessaries’ Time wasters like, bath, laundry, unpacking…..which can be done after dinner. When sleep/rest calls, just go for it. It will be quick and restful. After I turn on the airconditioner.
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http://www.phuruaguesthouse.com If you spot this windmill, you’re there ! It comes with it’s own nurse, or rather a nurse works in a local hospital and manages this place too. Perfect English spoken, to the detriment of our ongoing Thai lessons. At least I do know that ‘jakrayan’ = bicycle.There are at least 3 other resorts/places to stay nearby. Phu Rua is actually hemmed in between two.

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‘Breakfast tent’ 15 deg C, till the sun shows up

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We left Chiang Khan at noon, and I knew that the planned 135 kms to Dan Sai with some hills thrown in was not going to happen. Plan B to Ban Pak Huai then.

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A major crossroads for this region. 211 morphs into the 2195 heading mostly west. Behind me is the 201 south to Loei city. Ban Hao is just after this junction on the 2195 to your left, where a side lane heads south.

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A friendly mutt keeps us company as I fix a flat in the shade. I used a tube that was given to me by the bike shop ‘for good luck’ Indeed the shop was 3 kms before this happened.

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The Mekong in the distance. Loei river feeding into it. Very quiet along the 2195. Perfect.

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Not easy to get lost unless one relies on Google maps too much …

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First real hills since the start of the trip. Legions of noisy barking farm dogs waiting to chase us too. They are harmless mongrels, giving up the chase once we cross into their neighbour’s property. Then there are those playful ones running alongside us, tongues handing out and ‘smiling’ for quite a distance …

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I hit a big pothole going down hill at about 45 kmp/h and this happened. No time to hit the brakes. LHT and 2.0 tyres saved the day.

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Major cross roads just before Ban Pak Huai. Google maps would have you go straight, ie right to left in the picture …

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…….but that leads 3 kms to Ban Nong Phu, a small village along the border. From Chiang Khan turn left at the unmanned checkpoint and lo and behold there are signs for Ban Pak Huai. I reconfirmed this with a local driver. Prior to this a few junctions that were on Google maps, were nowhere to be seen on the actual road ….

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Vivian Chow on our bathroom door. She’s a Hong Kong actress. AC rooms at Thb 400 and fan rooms at Thb 300. Ladyboy at reception not included.

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It looks pretty new, maybe 6 months old. No wifi. Oh the horror …. but well worth the 11 hours of intermittent rest with a queasy tummy. Also no restaurant on site. The market is just a km or 2 down the road.

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Usually we’re pretty neat, but without a proper wardrobe, the floor takes over….

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This is what makes it all worthwhile. I take a stroll around the grounds and ended up with this shot just behind our hut.

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I heard Valentine’s Day is near. Some parts and eventually most of Route 211 will look like this. Fantastic for Lamborghinis and time trial Cervelos. Cyclists will save a few minutes here and there but the roasting for those doing 22 kmp/h average is ON. The wide shoulders are nice but all the tall tress that once stood are gone. Where possible we rode on the opposite and shadier lane.

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Amazon Coffee lives up to it’s name. Thick gardening, running water in a fake stream or mini waterfall and cool AC goodness in a glass shrouded room. The coffee is not spectacular but adequate. An oasis in tthe back of the larger gas stations.

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Reached Chiang Khan after sunset. A porch all to ourselves. We had the keys to the gate, front door and our room.

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Inside our little home. Old Thai teak furniture, the chairs were very heavy. Our host ‘Patty’ had just dropped by with a fruit platter and a jug of water, with a promise of more fruit and fresh bread the next morning !

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One of the rooms at Ban Hao, our was a bit larger and way messier after we opened our panniers. ‘Wooden rooms’ (wooden floors presumably) on the second floor and ‘ceramic rooms’ (ie. tiled floors) on the ground floor.

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A very well kept bathroom and lots of complimentary toiletries. Not all rooms have bathrooms attached. These are old Thai houses where the upper floor is mostly wooden and bathrooms are out back.

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We won’t be thirsty.

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A gem in Chiang Khan town, of late getting very touristy. So it’s Thb 600 tonight. There are 2 locations, this being the older house along the main road, 2195. The second house where we stayed, down a side lane is much quieter and has a lot of space for bikes.

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A proper bike shop in old Chiang Khan. Lots of clothing (jerseys from Bangkok) and some adventure gear (ie. North Face and Timberland from the back doors of factories in China) I assume they will have some proper tools and (saw) some spares for sale, if one ever needs them. Owner’s wife says they are open 7 days a week, and she has a small coffee and toast stall in the mornings.

http://www.dealcoffees.com/main/

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We got off the main road 211, near Si Chiangmai, a small town facing Vientiane across the Mekong. If there was a border crossing right here, we wouldn’t have to detour 70 kms.

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Possibly the best deal so far for what we paid. There are 3 clusters of buildings here. The concrete river facing ones are newest but small and were also booked out. Fairly older ones but still well maintained were being renovated and not too habitable. They still faced the river and it’s awesome views. We were directed to another block where the owners also stayed. How ‘bad’ could it be ? Back home this would cost $200 or more easy.

Here? Thb 500 plus breakfast. The river facing ones are Thb 600. Koi’s husband is a South African, an investment banker and is currently in Dubai. They lived in Singapore for 5 years in early 2000s, when it wasn’t over populated, and we had a good chat updating her.

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Note : Shower at the other end. No wet toilet seat !

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Corner room # 4 has a little lounging space outside with a glimpse of the Mekong on the left. I wished I had another day here.

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They like to call this a ‘Cambodian breakfast’ but I happen to see this in all the Mekong towns in Thailand.
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The entrance to a small slice of paradise

http://www.booking.com/hotel/th/banmai-rimkong-resort.html

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Trust me. It is new !

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The air conditioned oasis that is ‘Love is Cafe’ in Pak Chom. If you want to cycle with the sunset in your eyes, spend an hour or 2 here.

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Seriously, we came here just for the food ! Vietnamese food in the Laotian capital. Just 20 kms from Nong Khai across the first Friendship Bridge over the Mekong.

Venerable PVO. Tracked them down to their third location in as many years, starting in 2007 when they were on the riverfront

Venerable PVO. Tracked them down to their third location in as many years, starting in 2007 when they were on the riverfront. They are now in a suburb close to the capital’s and country’s largest malls. Easier to locate on a mountain bike.

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Venerable fried rice with ham. Complex tastes in such a simple meal

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Lotsa buns here !

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2nd location nearby just for noodles. Next time !!!

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The most under whelming room on our trip was in Vientiane wrongly named the Vientiane Star. One new and the other older building surrounded by other developments. Rock hard beds (not a problem for us though) OK in a pinch but not at Thb 735, even with breakfast. Cancelled the next night and went outside searching ……

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Lots of bikes including a Surly Troll which I later found to belong to another CG on a trip from London to Korea or the reverse. Ours are stacked up against our window. And yes the wooden floors above our room meant a wildebeest migration was on, each time someone like a backpacker with boots, used the stairs. http://www.booking.com/hotel/la/vientiane-star.html

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http://www.booking.com/hotel/la/v.html This is more like it, a 5 minute walk from our previous wrong choice booked online. A 9 storey block that is the V Hotel. 5 months old and showing some signs of wear. Next to the Riverside which I stayed at in 2007. So close that both hotels blocked off some of each other’s lower floors and thus windows. Kip200,000 or about Thb 800 for a room with a view of the Mekong. Mini buffet breakfast on their 2nd floor. Our most expensive room on the trip. Great bike parking amongst the staffs’ motorcycles in a secured gated alley on the ground floor. To sum it up, ‘Newly opened and eager to please’ Can’t argue with that.

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Chong Charoen bike shop, largest one in town. Spotted another smaller one not too far away with lots of hipster bikes.

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2 gorgeous trucks. The wealth gap is Laos is huge, notwithstanding the ugly flaming decals on the doors.

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Re entering Thailand twice in 3 days.

Bangkok, Udon Thani and Nong Khai

So my wife and I did this Mekong ride in early February and I pondered long and hard about writing a journal about a route that has been done in both directions by many others here. Then I thought, maybe not, and that’s how this ‘update’ in an article came about.On the ground it was an update for me too as I rode some parts of our route in 2007. We also drove around this particular stretch on the Mekong in 2010, but that isn’t quite cycling although I had a Bike Friday tikit in the trunk of a Toyota Vios that did 2400 kms in 8 days.

The rough plan was to start in Nong Khai, then spend 2 days in Vientiane, back to Nong Khai and head west along Route 211 through Tha Bo, Si Chiangmai, Sang Khom, Pak Chom and Chiang Khan. After Chiang Khan it’s further west along the 2195 to the Tha LI (Thai) / Nam Heuang (Laos) border crossing near Ban Pak Huai and eventually to Dan Sai and even further south on the 203 to Lom Sak and a few of the scenic National Parks in that region.

I guess the routes are easy enough to plot when cycling but I’ll list out the gems that we encountered, namely places to stay and eat, a couple of bike shops just in case, with other info that may be of use to those cycling this beautiful part of Thailand. Don’t take these as the Gospel truth though, because as right as rain things can and will change. Find your own plan A and take my tips here as a Plan B.

We flew from Singapore to Bangkok with a connecting flight to Udon Thani in north east Thailand. A 12 hour day from leaving home at 9.30 am and checking in our guesthouse at 9.30 pm.

Having been to Thailand umpteen times, here is what the benchmark Thb 500 room will get you with a few variables like, location in town or countryside, other competitors and age of the premises thrown into the mix.

1. Single or double bedded room. In some places single = one single queen or king sized bed and double = 2 beds. Quite the opposite. Better places will have nicer sheets and comforters. No sunken mattresses and rickety beds (for us) Proper wardrobe and hangers, desks and seating areas are a bonus, as well as balconies.

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The 2nd floor. There’s a breakfast of sorts. Sliced bread, butter ? No margarine, jam, instant coffee, and lots of cutlery if you want to ‘dine in’ plus a hot water boiler and a microwave oven. Right outside our room. All the rooms actually have space for 3, one double and one single bed. Amazing at Thb 500 / 2 persons. We had to pre book this place due to our late arrival and the proverbial ‘high season’ jitters but as it turned out we were the only guests. Otherwise, I’d rather cycle in and let the owners have the whole Thb 500, instead of booking.com taking a cut of 10 – 15 %.

2. A standard clean bathroom and western toilet. A separate shower stall is not the norm. 2 bath towels. Soap and shampoo. Toilet paper.

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No complaints, well kept and spotless. Shower head close by, a small issue if you want a dry toilet seat (in Thailand)

3. All important air conditioning. Those without AC cost even less but how far can one go down from Thb 500 ? Maybe a hundred less.

4. Fridge. De rigueur in most places, but not all. A kettle/pot contraption to boil water. Bottled water x 2. If there’s none, it means a saving of US30-50 cents for the operators and also says a lot about their business practices. Others are just angels, giving us unlimited bottles seeing we arrived on bikes.

5. In this day and age, fast and free wifi throughout the premises. Not just at the lobby areas.

6. In this day and age too, a flat screen TV. Most are now linked by satellite and if you still have energy after a more than 100 km day of cycling, there’s 400 channels to doze off to.

7. Bicycle space in the room or at least a secured place on the premises.

8. In Thailand, a resident dog or cat hanging around outside your room. Helps a lot when touring solo.

PanGH  in Nong Khai by the Mekong River.

PanGH in Nong Khai by the Mekong River. http://www.booking.com/hotel/th/pan-guesthouse.html Right on the Nong Khai promenade facing the Mekong. 6 rooms on the 2nd floor. A larger room at the back has enough beds for 5 or 6 people. A small balcony out front ensures that all guests can sit outside and gawk at Laos across the water, as well as a Saturday night market. Sweet. This is a few moments before sunrise.

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A messy exterior but it’s on a riverside promenade. The small exterior on a 15 deg C morning. It was down to 8 C the week before. There also another place Baan Mae Rim Nam about 100 metres upstream ie west with just as helpful people as Pan. In Thai you’ll need to drag the As as in Paaaaan with a Californian accent. We tried Pan as in frying pan. It didn’t really work the night before asking for it’s location.

If spending upwards of Thb 500, here’s what might happen (though not all the time) If these are included, they’re just nice touches that will make your stay a bit more pleasant.

1. Breakfast. Has to be simple. No huge buffets, c’mon unless you find a Westin in the middle of nowhere. Usually it’s a DIY help yourself to the bread and toast it yourself deal. Jam and butter and sachets of coffee/tea. Just enough to make 10-20 kms to a proper eatery or 7/11 to fill up again.

2. Balcony. (aka, smoking area) Where they might have the AC compressor bolted at the top. Perfect place for drying laundry with hot air blowing down.

3. A free standing room /cabin/ chalet /bungalow in concrete or wood or both. Usually found in countryside resorts. Basically, more space, and privacy, maybe a nice garden and rural/mountain views. At Thb 500, the resort part is stretched a bit thin, but it works. In Thai, it is more like ‘Lesort’ Found near border areas, National Parks or some place scenic like along the Mekong River. Owners or family usually on site. Some might be interested in your travels, if they have many cycle tourers passing through.

4. In urban areas (read competition) maybe a nice building with a lift/elevator if more than 5 floors. Key card access, secure bike parking at a parking lot (not always) Not always agreeable to having bikes in the room. Contact is with front desk employees only. Can be sticky with check out times and paranoid about wifi passwords. Sheesh.

5. The ubiquitous Love Hotel. Mostly in the countryside. Not as seedy as imagined. People need their privacy. Some are even married and to each other (like us !!!) Tacky multi coloured cabins, interior design, mood lighting, lights that dim, transparent bathroom doors and strategic mirrors here and there. At one place we left our bikes outside, unlocked. Not all have wifi, but hey there are more important matters at hand.

Proximity to massage is always a bonus !

Proximity to massage is always a bonus !

http://www.bangkokpost.com/lifestyle/10771_info_daeng-namnueng.html

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As well as food !

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Entering Laos. Fill in the forms. Go through passport control at the back. Make a U turn. Get on bikes and go. Simple as that !