27.HELICOPTER EVACUATION MIGHT BE NEEDED, WE’RE STRANDED…
Following our 3 day gibbon experience we took a boat cruise down the mighty Mekong river from the Lao border town of Houay Xai to Luang Prabang. The journey would take 2 days with around 6 hours cruising time each day with a stop off over night at a small place called Pak Beng. We were quids in and ended up getting put in a luxury ‘wooden shed’ on the outskirts of town with a balcony which over looked the river. It turned out our early booking of the cruise had secured such luxury and others who had made a more of a last minute booking onto the cruise had to settle for lesser accommodation in the town. Unlucky for them they didn’t get to see the elephants swim across the river early in the morning! The ’Slow boat’ wasn’t actually slow, but slower than the canoe-like speed boats that zipped past every so often. For a little extra dollar you can reduce the journey time to just 1 day and in return they’ll give you a full face motorcycle helmet and if you’re lucky, a safe passage. We opted for a more luxurious slow boat, ran by a local family. There was about 15 folk on our boat and the boat itself was larger than most other slow boats which just had bolted down car seats and crammed 100 people or more onto them.
Seemingly Luang Prabang (and most likely the whole of Laos) has no tandem bicycles so unfortunately we had to settle for the norm. We rented 2 mountain bikes for the day but not before a walk up to the temple at the top of Mount Phousi to watch the sun rise over Luang Prabang. Typically this was actually less of a sun rise, and more of a ‘mist retreat.’ It wasn’t a complete waste of time and our 5.15am rise wasn’t in vein as on the way up we got to see what apparently is Buddha’s footprint, and the views from the top were mystical. Luang Prabang has a couple of nice bakeries, so naturally it only seemed right to stop in one for breakfast after the climb down.
Wanting to double check the local vehicle ferry was intact just going to the other side of the Mekong and not anywhere else down river we ended up missing it. In truth we could have made it on but unlike a daring moped rider, I wasn’t going to ride up onto the ramp whilst the ferry operator man was already pulling it up. A long boat guy said he’d take us across for the same price so we followed him down a million steps, carrying the bikes over our shoulders, no gym membership needed in this place. After throwing the bikes onto the boat along with another couple who too had bikes and were perhaps setting out to do the same remote route, we crossed the Mekong. L had read about how the dirt track route which we planned to cycle was in fact very dusty and bloggers recommended wearing a mask. When the locals all seem to wear them, you figure it’s a good idea to follow suit. So there we were with our green surgery masks pushing our bikes up the monster hill from the ferry in the now baking heat. Only a few minutes into our ride I realised that the single screw holding on my left peddle was at any moment, about to fall off. A boy no older than 15 fixing a moped in a makeshift roadside garage kindly put in 3 extra screws and tightened up the original. We were back on the road.
The dust masks were needed, any vehicle passing turned up mega dust clouds and we soon became an hilarious orange brown colour as the dust settled on our sweaty sun cream/ mosquito repellent skin.
On a fast down hill, L lost his cap and in what was a magnificent manoeuvre, I managed to hook it onto my outstretched foot carrying it down the hill until L seamlessly grabbed it back from my foot as I passed along side. I wish I’d caught this on the GoPro, It was smooth and I surprised myself.
The afternoon heat became almost unbearable and now almost 1/3 of the way round our remote dirt track we found ourselves passing through a village and being invited into a chap’s house. He told us to wait for him as he just needed to continue with his friends to the fields but said he would be back in 20 minutes to show us his home and family. We took the opportunity to have a break out of the sun and our presence interested the local kids. What had been majorly cute was on a number of occasions we had passed a group kids along the track and giggling they had ran towards us with their hands outstretched for a ‘Hi Five’ as we rode past.
Whilst we were waiting for the village chap, (who turned out to work at a locally owned bar in Luang Prabang round the corner from a well known bar called ‘utopia’ which we had been to the previous night) an ancient man on a peddle powered ice cream machine beckoned us over and unprompted, gave us the remaining half a bottle of his water. Appreciative we poured into into L’s Water-to-go bottle feeling slightly obliged to buy a couple of ice creams. It was homemade coconut ice-cream, dairy is one thing to avoid in South East Asia, we realised this could be our downfall but not wanting to seem rude…we proceeded. Out of the blue an English guy on a moped doing the same track passed and stopped, checking out our ice creams. He bought one too and in a kind of reverse tourism, the ancient ice cream chap gestured that he wanted to take a selfie with us. Other than the bike couple on the long boat who we hadn’t seen since, this was the only other foreigner we’d seen all day. C was from London and we had a refreshing talk about our travels. There was a chance he may join on our Vietnam leg of our travels. C continued on and our village chap returned waving us into his family home, he presented us with cups of chilled water. We left promising to go to his bar tonight as he would be working but at this point in time we had no idea that this would not be, due to the drama that lay ahead.
|Point of Puncture|
Pretty much exactly half way round our remote dirt track sods law happened. Over a particularly bad rut, my rear tyre had a blow out and it was unfixable with just a pump. We couldn't believe it, in August we'd cycled 600 miles without a single puncture and now we'd got one within half a day. Dilemma; continue in the same direction pushing the bike with unknown terrain (it had been getting slightly worse, more hilly and rutty) or return the way we came which on the most part would be slightly uphill. We really were in the middle of nowhere and at walking speed would barely make it past village chap’s village in the light, let alone all the way back to the ferry. We chose to return in the direction we had come just incase we found we were in need of a place to stay as neither of us were too keen on the idea of sleeping in a rice paddy by the side of the road. We'd been to the UXO museum the day before where we'd learnt the sad truths about the 270 million cluster bombs dropped over Laos during the Vietnam war and how there were still around 80 million left, unexploded and scattered all over the country.
Eventually a truck passed and we thumbed a lift. Call off the rescue mission, things were looking up. Our lift was a huge time saver and we sat in the back holding onto the bikes for dear life as we bumped along back to village chap’s house. Slightly surprised to see us again but just as accommodating we waited whilst village chap’s friend repaired the tyre, for which we paid him.
Back up and working we decided to try and make the cycle back to the ferry before dark, it was easier now as the sun was less intense. With a handful of minutes before loosing the light we made it and coincidentally we met both ancient ice-cream man and C on the same ferry back. Ancient Ice-cream man was delighted to see the 3 of us again and gave us each another ice ream, more potential for an upset stomach but we couldn’t refuse. He proudly showed us the selfie on his phone which we had taken earlier in the day. C as it turned out had a more eventful journey than we had. The track as it turned out, got dramatically worse and C found himself coming off the moped as he battled with the hilly rutty track. Luckily only coming away with just a few minor scratches to both to himself and the bike. It was an eventful day on all parts.
Luckily the next few days, were set to be relaxing, we were off to spend 2 nights 3 days at an elephant sanctuary a couple hours drive and boat trip south of Luang Prabang.
|Kuong Si Waterfalls, Luang Prabang.|