Categories
Asia/SE Asia

Days On and Days Off: Enjoying Mut Mee Guesthouse Garden

[slideshow]

Mukdahan to That Phanom 50.43 km
That Phanom to Sakon Nakhon 73.58 km
Sakon Nakhon to Wanon Niwat 83.92 km
Wanon Niwat to Fao Rei 87.3 km
Fao Rei to Nong Khai 73 km

Looking at the mileage this morning as I transfer it from my journal to the blog, I realize I’d already forgotten we rode for six days in a row, not the three days I’ve been telling people, through Issan, the name for this region in Northeastern Thailand. The forgetfulness comes from having been resting in a beautiful garden for the last 5 days (we arrived in Nong Khai on Christmas Day) and the ease we both feel being in Thailand.

The cycling was perfect – mostly quiet roads and no serious problems finding places to stay. We used the Thai map we purchased at the 7/11 in Mukdahan to find back roads (roads with 4 digits are paved but not highways); we have been able to rely on the Hotel indicators on the map for all the small towns we passed through. The exception was in Fao Rei where we roughed it for a night in a hotel that consisted of a number of small cabins that had not been used in what looked like many years. Upon arriving, we met an older man who was a bit perplexed by our appearance. He figured out quickly that we couldn’t speak Thai and we struggled to try and get him to understand we wanted a room for the night. He phoned someone and a few moments later his daughter (?) showed up on a motorcycle, a middle-aged Thai woman who spoke some English. She rented to us but was very embarrassed by the condition of the room. However, once they untied the bull who was tethered to our door and kicked the giant bullfrog out of the bathroom, we managed.

The Mut Mee guesthouse is a lovely place along the Mekong close to the center of town. We are housed in a small bungalow, basic, with a king-sized bed and a ‘jungle’ bathroom (outside but private with a roof and thatch walls and hot water). The garden and restaurant are really pretty and we have spent the better part of our time here playing computer as we are wont to do and talking to other guests. We’ve ridden around town a couple of times now and have liked what we’ve seen: a number of other guesthouses and restaurants along the river which also has a long promenade that we were able to cycle along, a couple of interesting looking markets, some temples, a park – enough to keep the mind alive if you have ebooks and writing projects. We’re spending 380 baht a night for accommodation here (12.00 dollars per night) and living it up eating most of our meals here and beer or gin and tonic every night :-0 We’re averaging 50.00 a day here for the two of us all inclusive.

There are a couple of fulltime yoga teachers here as well as a Thai masseuse so we have managed to keep ourselves amused when we haven’t been cycling or playing computer…if I incorporated a yoga course (they do a 7 day intensive) I could see spending a month here.

We spent out first night here talking to a Belgian couple who had cycled from Laos. They have these fantastic little books on cycling Asia that are written in Dutch. We’ve seen them before in Europe – someone should translate and sell to Lonely Planet :-0 They are detailed and accurate – Ian sat down with the couple and mapped out our route to the north south train line which is our next destination. We plan to ride about 6 or 7 days when we leave Nong Khai and then will take the train the rest of the way to Chiang Mai, giving some of the very hilly bits a pass. We are no longer on a cycling pilgrimage – just a cycling trip ☺

Ian has begun to work on me re not coming home next summer – it is a very tempting idea right now but being ever-so-practical I am certainly weighing things out. I am putting the boat up for sale for sure as that frees up 6000 a year in moorage (plus insurance and some maintenance). With rent coming in I can probably afford to be here; however, the issue is cutting myself off from the workplace for too long. I am looking for creative solutions on that front, including investigating working remotely. So…we shall see what happens over the next few months when decisions will have to be made.

2012 has been a very busy year with some amazing travel and good times with friends. It has also been a difficult year for myself and family with the loss of my brother Mike last January.

Here’s hoping that 2013 brings joy and peace to all my friends and family.

Happy 2013 everyone!

Categories
Asia/SE Asia

We’ve left Sleepy, Sweet Savannakhet for Mellow Mukdahan

[slideshow]

Savannakhet Laos to Mukdahan Thailand 21 km

We’ve left sweet and sleepy Savannakhet for the relative bustle of Thailand, but it is a quiet and prosperous bustle here in Mukdahan, very unlike the aggressive and relentless hustle of Vietnam.

Savannakhet and Mukdahan are separated by the Mekong River which is the border between the two countries for a few hundred kilometres in both directions. We had no difficulty getting Thai visas at the Thai consulate in Savannakhet. The next day we cycled 7 kms to the bridge and border. We had hoped to cycle over the bridge but this is not allowed. The border people were helpful though and quickly asked a truck who was going over to give us a lift – they did for free – so unlike Vietnam – and that was that. About 4 kms into the ride on the Thai side we stopped at the Super C, a very new and very large supermarket complex that includes Mister Donut, KFC and very importantly Swensens Ice cream (in addition to a huge grocery store). We stocked up on our most craved for western amenities – cheddar cheese and proper hair product for moi and a chocolate sundae for Ian. Two days in Thailand are proving, to our relief, to be what we anticipated: easy and exotic at the same time.

We very much liked our six days in Savannakhet though. Although Laos is tremendously poor by comparison to its rich neighbor…a little like the US and Mexico I guess, the old French architecture and the lack of motorcycle and vehicle traffic give Savannakhet a romantic edge. Our last night we finally made it to the French restaurant on the old plaza and sat outside drinking good red wine that had been properly stored (in fact it was chilled when we first poured it from the carafe but it warmed quickly in the tropical heat) and garlic baguette toasts and terrific salad and steak with peppercorn sauce…fantastic. We watched the world go by slowly, kids and adults cycling or walking home in the twilight. We cycled home to our guesthouse a little while later, a little glow on, in the dark, very relaxed and happy.

Yesterday and today we spent provisioning a little for the trip, buying up the other items on our list not easily found in Laos: pens, a map of Thailand, bicycle tubes, sunscreen etc. We weren’t having much luck with the bike tube when a man on a motorcycle stopped to chat. My first thought was whether he was going to try and sell us something or worse (memories of Lee in Vietnam) but no, he had been to Houston and parts of Europe in his training as an electronics tech and he just wanted to chat. He told us to follow him and he led us to bike store. I chatted with him while Ian went in and he gave us some tips on where to find a good noodle stand on our upcoming trip to Nong Khai and was just generally on the up and up. In fact he complained about his own trip to Vietnam and how he felt cheated a number of times…and this was without us mentioning it first. He lives close enough to the border that he has been a number of times, driving the same route across Laos and into Vietnam that we cycled.

The night market here in Mukdahan lived up to our expectations as well last night and we paid 3.00 for a small feast, eating fried and fresh spring rolls and some chicken satay with a fabulous peanut sauce. We didn’t see another foreigner all evening. I saw two today and they were expats with Thai wives and children.

The middle class is developing at a rapid pace here still. Amazing what manufacturing does for an economy…it certainly makes me continue to feel concern for our own economic recovery and direction. Steven Harper obviously thinks we need to sacrifice the environment and our sovereignty, exploiting our natural resources without constraint in order to move ahead. But I think we need to develop smart industry and be environmental leaders…might be a good idea to quit firing all the scientists and support research and who knows, ultimately innovation. However we are stuck with the bastard for a couple of more years and God knows how much damage he will have managed to do by the time we finally get rid of him. I’m guessing he’s scared the crap out of enough of the people who voted for him now to ensure we won’t see a majority government again and hopefully we develop a new NDP or Liberal party in time to swing things back a bit.

We’ve mapped out our next bike trip: we are cycling along the Mekong (and inland a bit where road doesn’t follow river) to Nong Khai. We expect to be there by December 26. We spend about a week in Nong Khai (including New Years). We then head inland (essentially west and a bit south) to Phitsanoluk where we get the train to Chiang Mai on the 14.

I am not sure what internet will be like in the next week or so – so this will probably be it for the blog until afterwards.

So, Merry Christmas and happy holidays everyone!

Categories
Asia/SE Asia

Crossing Vietnam and Laos — I can see Thailand across the Mekong

[slideshow]

Hue Vietnam to Dong Ha 73.13 km
Dong Ha to Khe Sanh Vietnam 63.59 km
Khe Sanh to Sepon Laos 63.03 km
Sepon to Muong Phin 36.91 km
Muong Phin to Phalan 61.17 km
Muang Phalan to Savannakhet Laos 102 km

After six days of cycling we have arrived in Savannakhet. I convinced Ian to spend two days at the posh hotel here – mostly because it has a pool and we have hit 30 and above now that we have left the west coast of Vietnam and some of our cycling days have been pretty hot. Also, the ride was very rural as expected and after a number of days of rough travel it is nice to have the king size bed…

I would recommend the cycle across Laos. As expected, there was less traffic than in Vietnam and we enjoyed the scenery. There were definitely enough guest houses to get us through although the last one outside Phalan was a bit rough…I think it may have doubled as a brothel. We used our air mattresses on top of their mattress and my sleeping sheet. We didn’t use the free condom that came with the place. Enough said :-0 The one we stayed at was the first one west of town. There was another west of us that might have been better.

The ride out of Vietnam was uneventful – pleasant enough along highway 1 between Hue and Dong Ha but certainly the quieter highway 9 across Vietnam was much nicer. However there is a climb…About 8 kms before Khe Sanh we started to cross the mountain range that separates Vietnam and Laos. It was a bit steep at times but the scenery was some of the best of the last six days. The ride out of Khe Sanh was fabulous, a long descent into Laos and a tailwind the whole way. In fact we had tail winds the whole way across. We met two groups of Thai cyclists going the opposite way – all male and with a guide and van. We met two lone Japanese male cyclists at the Laos Vietnamese border, also going the other way. Otherwise we didn’t see any other tourists until we got to Savannakhet.

A typical day in the last six…rise with the roosters as they are free range and work as alarm clocks for everyone. Then scrounge a little for breakfast – we stocked up a little in Hue (cheese, bread an choco pies) and these certainly came in handy. We always found lunch and dinner places but choice is limited. Pack the bikes, make sure we have enough water and off. Yell at a goat or two to get off the road, wait for the odd cow to cross, watch a pig eating sugar cane that has fallen off a truck in the middle of the highway, pass motorcycle with wire cages full of live chickens, say sabidee hello and goodbye at every single village and hut we pass in response to every little kid who lives in rural Laos and likes to run out to the road to greet us. Look at water buffalo grazing in the rice fields, watch geese swimming in tiny ponds in front of bamboo and thatch huts. Pass shops that make the spirit shrines that every house of any size has and where morning prayers are said and incense is lit (even at the brothel I noticed this). Overtake carts powered by rototillers, get overtaken by motorcycles, ride with the school kids who have bikes until they can’t keep up (ha ha). Stop at roadside stalls (huts with a table). Buy cola or noodles depending on whether it’s a get out of the heat break or lunch time. Find the guesthouse. Turn on the air con. Drink a beer Lao. Find a restaurant or stall for dinner. Feed the restaurant dog (so much better than eating them…although I know I have no right to bitch about that Vietnamese habit since I am a meat eater myself). Go to bed and repeat the next day.

We gave Vietnam our best shot. But in the end, it wasn’t for us – too much comparison with Thailand I guess where scams exist but not to the same relentless degree. That being said we really appreciated our hotel in Khe Sanh: the owner did his best to communicate with us, helped us with bags, exchanged Vietnamese dong for Lao kip at a fair rate and went out of his way to do so. The staff at the Google Hotel in Hue was also helpful and the manager wouldn’t take a tip at the end. We also appreciated Mr. Binh at the Madam Moon Guesthouse in Hanoi. So its not everyone that tries to take advantage of tourists – but I’m afraid there was too much of it nonetheless and not enough charm to make up for it. We also liked our train trip to Danang up and through the mountains where we saw un-spoilt beaches (but unreachable) and I really appreciated the Waterfront Restaurant there with its wine room and brie. But all that didn’t make up for the scamming. I’ve done some research now and Vietnam is aware that they are not getting return tourists. (The rate for Thailand is over 50% and the rate for Vietnam is something like 15%).

We spent a lot of time in Hue trying to figure out how to get my bike part and I spent some time entertaining myself trying to draw faces from photographs on Facebook. I’ve posted an attempt. This gives me something to do when we don’t have Internet :-0

Otherwise in Hue, Ian did most of the work trying to get me a derailer and then all the work putting in on, including creating a shim out of a coke can because the part sent up from Saigon wasn’t quite the right size…

Savannakhet seems like a lovely place to hang our helmets for a few days as we regroup for the next part of the trip. We will move to a guesthouse after our little splurge here at the hotel. There is a Thai consulate here so we can get visas. We just need to plan our route which we have decided will eventually take us to Chiang Mai, our chosen spot to get off the bikes and relax for a month.

Time for another dip in the pool. Ahhhh….