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Asia/SE Asia

The Last Hurrah in Tawdry Hua Hin

[slideshow]

Apparently Ian and I are managing to get older without getting any smarter. The night before we had to take our 6 am train from Hua Hin to Bangkok we decided to go out and photograph a girly bar or two and ended up hanging out in one of them instead. (It was too dark to take decent photos without a tripod or being too intrusive so the shots are lousy but I’ve included a few to give a hint of what its like there). An old Londoner with a big cockney accent bought us beer and shortly thereafter he and his ‘thai wife for a week’ and his old fart of a friend and his Thai “wife”, and Ian and I, were all singing and trying to follow the hooker behind the bar who was doing the arm movements to YMCA (as in “I wanna stay at the YMCA”). So too many hours later we got home too late to do anything but tumble into bed. However, we did manage to get up at 4:30 am as planned, pack our panniers and the bikes in suffering silence and cycle out to the train station in the dark only to find, hey deja vu, our 6 am train was delayed by 2.5 hours. Sigh.

Ian caught a few zees on a bench at the station and I amused myself watching a local family sorting out all the stuff they were moving to Bangkok including their rooster who they let out of his box for a bit so he could get some air. We also met a chiuahua whose owners have taught her to put the tips of her paws together and wai (traditional Thai greeting). She was very cute and did her tick many times for us so I shared my cheddar cheese with her. She loved it and would have gobbled down my entire stash if I hadn’t held back as I was worried about her eating too much given her teeny little stomach.

I shared cheese with another little pet we met in Dolphin Bay, 50 km south of Hua Hin. We stayed at the Terraselin (next door to Dolphin Bay Resort, 50 bucks a night including breakfast, double our budget but a nice treat) and the manager there had a six-month old black kitten that Ian nick-named Miss Marnie and who visited us every morning for the 5 days we were there. She purrrrred when she ate cheddar – I have never seen a cat purr and eat at the same time. But I know exactly how she feels. Extra-old New Zealand cheddar.Yum.

We haven’t done much in the last two weeks. We’ve enjoyed our time on the coast but have learned a few things for future trips. First, it is too hot to cycle in Thailand after mid-March and when it starts to get hot, the best place to be cycling is right along the ocean. So, a possible plan for next winter is to fly from India to Malaysia in mid-January and then cycle up to Bangkok along the coast and then home to Canada by the end of March.

Despite the heat we tried to make the best of our 50 km ride to and from Hua Hin to Dolphin Bay a week or so ago. We managed to ride most of it off the highway and a significant chunk on a road paralleling the ocean. Except for the 10 kms on the highway the ride was quiet and we loved the views of ocean and palm trees on one side of the road and, between Hua Hin and Pranburi, all kinds of resorts on the other side of the road. By the time we got to Dolphin Bay, the resorts were fewer and further apart and we loved the peaceful setting and the pool we found ourselves in for a week where I celebrated my 51st birthday and finally got over the flu. On both the ride there and back we put up with 39 degrees with fully loaded bikes and there were moments when that was not a lot of fun.

After our week at Dolphin Bay, we headed back to Hua Hin for another few days of being ocean-side before heading to Bangkok (where we are now). Hua Hin itself is a small city, about 100 kms south of Bangkok, with an eclectic mix of people. We stayed at Bird’s Guesthouse, which we learned has a regular expat following, and we enjoyed the people we met there. The room itself was kind of run down (we paid 23.00 per night) but the location is amazing as it is right on the ocean. The building sits on stilts and we could hear and watch the tide come in under us. There is a large deck which the guests share and in the late afternoon we gathered to drink beer and gin and tonic and watch the fish boats that were anchored directly beside us get ready to go out for night fishing.

Hua Hin is home to a bunch of condo developments for expats, weekend Thais from Bangkok, European family tourists staying next door at the Hilton, and a fair number of sexpats and tourists looking for bar girls. There were days when the bar girl scene got to both of us – it is sleezy and discouraging – and days when we just shrugged as it is commerce as old as humankind and well, there ain’t no fool like an old fool and we saw lots of them every day. Many older white guys are dumb enough to think that they can find themselves a gorgeous girl thirty years younger who will fall in love with them and not their money. Let’s just say that that is a rare event. The other side of the coin is that a lot of these girls are from Issan, a poor area of Thailand, and they are expected to work in the bars and send money home. If a foreign guy does get involved in a long-term thing with a bar girl, he will be expected to support her family (that is her parents and siblings and any children she might already have). So, not a great situation for a lot of the girls either although I think it beats the street-walker level of prostitution we see at home on the downtown east side.

That being said, I think we all sometimes need to be shaken out of our own judgmental points of view and by happenstance Ian and I were drawn into an interesting scene at our night in the girly bars. The old cockney guy and his ancient buddy told us they come to Thailand once a year for a three-week blitz. One of them told us he was married to a Thai woman for a number of years but she had died a few years back and he was on his own now. On this trip, these two old guys had rented a villa and two ‘Thai wives” for their three weeks. As we drank beer and chatted with them, a street vendor came by with lots of slinky looking dresses. Mr. Cockney bought dresses for his ‘wife’ and one of the bar girls who just happened to be sitting on the other side of the bar from us, acting as the disc jockey. There was a lot of laughing and teasing going on and no one seemed to be under any illusions about who felt what for whom in that foursome. It was strictly business and fun. But eventually Ian and I started chatting with the hooker who had been leading the YMCA song. She had watched us talking between ourselves for a long while and then told us rather wistfully that she had a 63 year old Austrian boyfriend she didn’t see very often. She eventually poured out her heart to me telling me she loved him and was waiting for him but it was hard because she missed him (and reading between the lines I could see she was worried about whether he felt the same way about her). She told me she had lots of invites from other foreigners who would set her up and pay her 5000 baht (a week I think) but she said no as her heart belongs to the Austrian farang (foreigner). When we got up to leave she came running around to the outside of the bar to give me a big hug, grateful for having had someone listen to her heartache.

So, judgement suspended…

Given there weren’t a lot of sights to see in Hua Hin and the fact that it was so hot we spent a lot of time on the internet. I have downloaded three books of fiction by Turkish authors from the Vancouver library, found a blog on camp sites in Turkey, have spent hours looking at an interior design website called Houzz (highly recommended), have downloaded a learn French app for my ipad and once again can remember how to conjugate a few basic verbs in a few basic tenses and have been having a lot of fun looking at a site that publishes menus from Michelin starred restaurants and saving them as inspiration for a time when I can cook again. Oh yeah and yesterday morning I found a bunch of DIY sites and learned how to make self-irrigating vegetable planters.

A busy few weeks indeed ☺ I don’t think I have ever been so relaxed.

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Asia/SE Asia

Home is where the Panniers are — Winding it Down in Chiang Mai

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After months on the road with no more than a week in one place, Chiang Mai felt like home pretty much as soon as we’d unpacked our panniers. That feeling of arriving home was even stronger after leaving our stuff in our room here in the R.C.N. Court and Inn and travelling for a few days up to Chiang Rai, Mae Sai and into Myanmmar to get our Thai visas stamped and then taking the bus back to Chiang Mai. I guess that ability to be home wherever we are and the sale of my condo in Vancouver confirms my nomadic identity – at least for the next 13 or so months.

There is comfort in knowing how adaptable I can be, although it is no particular talent of mine. I think all human beings are amazingly adaptable but I’ve been lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to experience being nomadic and to learn that home is something we create no matter where we are or for how long we stay. Some painful losses have taught me that it is the loss of people we love that hurts, not the loss of our stuff. I don’t see the need for total asceticism but in a society that preaches absolute consumerism, to the degree that we often define the value of an individual according to the value of what that individual owns, I see value in learning not to be too attached to material things when that attachment leads to working at a job you don’t like or fear of change.

That being said, I am looking forward to buying a little house on the Island and I’m enjoying looking at the jewel colors and mirror mosaics on Thai temples and statuary and imagining them somewhat transplanted. I find myself thinking about how I might re-create bits and pieces at home — I see jewel-colored glass door pulls on white cabinets; I see jade-green, ruby red and gold glass mosaic on garden pots and vinegar bottles. I imagine a red lacquer-painted second-hand dresser with a gold naga stenciled on in metallic gold paint. I notice gardens and garden features in all the outdoor cafes we eat in here and make note of what might work in a back yard garden in Ladysmith. I like the creative challenge of defining a new home space.

And when I’m not wandering around looking at the head-dress on a white concrete temple elephant, I’m taking care of business, often in the early hours of the day when Chiang Mai and Vancouver time zones intersect during business hours. After many conversations with realtors, the financial advisor, and friends helping with logistics, and many trips to the photocopy print and scan store, I am happy to say it is almost all done. Still another couple of conversations with the notary in Vancouver and a trip out to a notary here and we can wrap up the condo sale and focus on the boat sale…

I try to take some days entirely off and we’ve had a couple of nice day trips when I do. We went out to the Sankampaeng hot springs with a couple of friends last week. We took a songthaew (a pick up truck with benches in the back) for 1.60 each, each way, about 60 kms round trip. In addition to the geyser, and pool where you can cook eggs (our friend Alyce cooked quail eggs for us) there was a small canal that was almost too hot to soak our feet in and then a large swimming pool which was about 98 degrees. We relaxed for an hour in the pool and had a couple of good water fights with a bunch of school kids who were out on a field trip.

We also managed to get out to meet the Chiang Mai Cycling club which meets every Sunday at 7 am outside the Tapei Gate. The membership director lady was very nice, spoke some English and handed us a microphone to introduce ourselves to the forty or so Thais decked out in spandex and ready to ride. I don’t know how many of them understood us, but they applauded and invited us to ride with them. We were actually there hoping for a swap meet (we read that these happen occasionally) as we had some bike grips that were too big for my handlebars. We were able to sell them for a little money and then declined the invitation to ride as we already had our own itinerary planned.

Then we headed across the street to the Art Cafe, across from the Tapei Gate and between the Starbucks and McDonalds (you really can get anything you want here) and after breakfast headed out of town on the bikes, passing through Chinatown and over the Mae Ping River, along highway 1006 out into the country where we found small concrete paved lanes to ride on amongst the rice fields.

Yesterday I had an early birthday celebration with Mary a new friend I’ve met in Chiang Mai. She wanted to celebrate leaving Chiang Mai and moving onto to her next adventure which is hiking the Santiago do Compostela with her partner Dan. We treated ourselves to a 3.5 hour spa. For 60 bucks including tip we headed out in a tuk tuk to Zabai Thai Massage and Spa and had a Thai massage, a body scrub, an oil/aromatherapy massage and a facial. A terrific deal and a lovely day.

We’ve had some very nice dinners together with another couple we met who live in Powell River, B.C. We got talking to Janet and Wayne in a local Japanese restaurant and discovered that they also have a boat hauled out in Jack’s Boat Yard up in Lund where we left Ian’s boat so many months ago.

I’ve finally gotten around to a little cooking in the communal kitchen and have spent a couple of fun afternoons shopping in our local market and doing a little entertaining. I love markets and Ian and I have agreed that this is something I am better off doing on my own. So I’ve also spent some quality time wandering around the Sunday night market that sets up two blocks from our guesthouse and sells local crafts. On my own I can take my time wandering around the stalls checking out jewelry, textiles and carving. I am practicing good restraint but have decided to get together a bundle of stuff to send home and to Ottawa.

As comfortable as we are we realize we have ten days left here and so we’re beginning to plan our next moves. We’ve got a rough itinerary that has us leaving Chiang Mai on the train and doing some cycling to the southern train line. We may spend a few days in a couple of small towns as we make our way down the peninsula by bike and train and then cycle across to the island we like in the Andaman Sea. We’ve got a tentative guesthouse reservation in Bangkok and our tickets to Instanbul are booked April 13. We are then on the road again in a big way until we stop in France in August. We are happy that we managed to find a place to rent in France as when I began to do a little research we discovered that places were getting booked up for August and realized that we had to make some decisions and commitments to ensure we would find a spot for our next month off the road. We found what looks to be a beautiful townhouse that we we will share with our friend Wanda who is planning a well-deserved extended summer vacation this year.

We are really enjoying a fantastic trip and feel very lucky to have the opportunity to do so much travelling this year.

Categories
Asia/SE Asia

The Expat Experiment — A Month in Chiang Mai

[slideshow]

Chiang Khan to Loei 50.59 km
Phu Ruea to Dan Sai 50.00 km
Dan Sai to Nakon Thai (10 kms beyond) 61.13 km
Nakon Thai (about 10 km outside ) Phitsanoluk 81.85 km
Phitsanoluk to Chiang Mai – we took the bus. Its bloody hilly!

We’re off the bikes for a month except day rides and commuting in Chiang Mai. This is the first of two one-month breaks we planned for this year of cycling. The next one is scheduled for August in France. We will, however, continue to take the odd week off here and there.

We are almost at the 4000 km mark and I have to say the big mountain climbs are still hard for me. They must be easier since I started this trip I guess but after all that flat riding – essentially since the Lao/Vietnam border, getting into the mountains en route to Dan Sai and to Phu Ruea was still tough for me. We were about 10 km out of Loei when the first long climb started – probably about 10 km with some steep bits. We also climbed out of Dan Sai for five or six, again with steep bits. As usual, though, the mountain scenery was beautiful and the traffic light. Maybe one day I will manage to get through a climb without cursing at some point…Close to Phu Ruea I passed a sign that said STEAK AHEAD and was very happy to find that Ian, who was ahead of me of course, had pulled into the roadside restaurant to stop. We had a great meal (steak!) and continued on for another 10 km or so and then stopped at a mountain resort (and there were a number of lovely resorts) frequented by Thais, all wearing toques and scarves (it was 15 degrees at night oh brrrr ☺) We were the only farangs and the only downside to a beautiful night was a lot of bad singing. The Thais do love their karaoke but I swear they are all tone deaf! Luckily they stopped by 10 pm.

We both felt a huge wave of nostalgia when we arrived in Phitsanoluk. I don’t know if it was because it was the end of another cycling leg or because it was such a typical large Thai town, a city really and we loved all its Thai characteristics. It was also quite hot once we hit the plains and I enjoyed rolling by brilliant green rice fields and coconut palms.

I also enjoyed the bus out of Phitsanoluk, especially when I got to see the 20 km climb I missed on highway 11. Although it has a wide shoulder it is quite busy and I think I will prefer practicing some hills around Chiang Mai on quieter roads. As usual the bus was great: we were charged 3.00 each to put the bikes down with the luggage and then less then 10.00 for the two of us to ride for 8 hours.

We both love Chiang Mai. It is very western in the old town and if this was the only part of Thailand I’d ever seen I would find it too commercialized. However, given all the beautiful rural places we’ve seen and all the small towns we’ve visited I am not bothered by the western aspects at all. I am thoroughly enjoying the fact that there is a pub on every corner and an amazing choice of restaurants. Within a 10 block radius we have an Irish pub, a middle eastern restaurant, a few Indian restaurants, a number of Thai restaurants of course, British places with fish and chips and bangers and mash, a big Mexican place, a French-inspired bar called the Writers Club where you can get steak and frites and red wine. The list is endless and it is all easily walkable and in a perfect climate – 20 degrees at night and 25 in the daytime (although I hear it is supposed to get up to 35 this week).

Our room is large, air-conditioned if we want it, has cable tv, internet, a fridge and western style bathroom, a large wardrobe, a desk and a small café table and chairs. We have a view of a temple. We are paying 200.00 dollars a month. There is a small restaurant on the premises where we can lounge about outside and eat pad thai or a curry dinner for 1.25 each. There is also a shared kitchen if we want to cook ourselves. An expensive meal out with a carafe of wine, a steak with peppercorn and frites and a pork chop with mashed potatoes, apple pie with ice cream and an additional glass of wine was 28.00. Last night we had an Indian meal for 18.00 (for the two of us). Breakfast is typically 3.00 for eggs, coffee, croissant and often ham or bacon. Many of these places are outside or have outside spaces and I love being able to be outdoors much of the time.

We can’t afford to come home!

And so I am seriously thinking of retirement with some freelance work thrown in and a lifestyle where we are here for 6 months and somewhere in the Gulf Islands or Vancouver Island for the other six months. Accomplishing this sooner rather than later has become a serious project in the last week and will be what I focus on while we are in Chiang Mai. I’m building complicated retirement calculators in excel… I’m selling my boat…I’m looking into health insurance costs and property taxes on the island…I’m trying to do a little freelance article writing to prove to myself that this is all doable…

And when I am not sitting at my computer calculating the cost of my existence I am wandering about the neighborhood. The old town in Chiang Mai is a maze of little lanes called sois. On a typical morning we walk 200 metres to our favourite restaurant and bakery, saying hello to neighborhood dogs along the way. We have made our first trip to the expat grocery store where I can buy cheese and wine…not cheap but no worse than home and possibly better as wine is 10 to 12 dollars a bottle rather than 15 to 20 (although there is a selection of pricier wines as well). Riding a bike around town is the best way to get around and I am really looking forward to more exploration after number crunching in the mornings.

The tough part is missing friends and family and we will eventually rectify that with our six months in Canada, six months in Asia plan.

Ciao for now from Chiang Mai…

Categories
Asia/SE Asia

Chilling in Chiang Khan with Thailand’s Yuppies

[slideshow]

Nong Khai to Sri Chiangmai 44.62 kms
Sri Chiangmai to Sangkom 47.03 kms
Sangkom to Pak Chom 54.6 kms
Pak Chom to Chiang Khan 48.45 kms

The best cycling of our Asia trip has been in this first part of 2013.

This area of Thailand is fabulous for cycling. It is warm but not baking (we need blankets at night and sometimes a light jacket). The scenery is pretty; Highway 211 is tucked up against the mountains and borders the Mekong. The road is rolling but the hills are not too steep or long. There is little traffic and there are interesting towns, guesthouses and restaurants — all the winning characteristics of a great road trip.

Given we don’t need to be in Chiang Mai until Jan 15, we have been poking along doing an average of 50 km a day.

The highlights: Aside from the wonderful Mut Mee guesthouse, the sculpture park in Nong Khai is another attraction there with its weird and wonderful sculptures (those are the large sculptures of the nangas (snakes) and buddhas in the blog photos). Leaving Sri Chiangmai we followed the road along the river rather than highway 211 and we were treated to 8 km of paved road bordered by farms and views of the Mekong River and absolutely no traffic. The wild and rustic garden at the Bouy Guesthouse in Sangkom was beautiful and we stayed three days enjoying the flowers, the views of the river and some great company, including a lovely woman named Amelie, who bears a very strong resemblance to our friend Susan Fiedler. Amelie is a French winemaker who regaled us with lots of traveller tales and gave us some advice on Thai wines which we will follow up on once we are in Chiang Mai. Between Sangkhom and Pak Chom, Highway 211 follows the river and is bordered by mountains which come right up to the road. There were stretches of Highway 211 between Pak Chom and Chiang Khan that reminded me of California around Loleta; the combination of rolling hills, farmland, art shops, and coffeehouses (and western toilets ☺) giving me a little Thai flavoured déjà vu.

Ian spent time in Chiang Khan (where we are today) 8 years ago. At that point it was a sleepy town along the river with a few old teak houses that had been converted into simple guesthouses. It has enjoyed a tourist boom since then, attracting yuppies from Bangkok and we are guessing Chiang Mai and Udon Thani as Bangkok is 500 or so kms away. But there is no mistaking the Thai yuppies and the number of guesthouses and boutique hotels along the river front, all either upgraded original teak buildings or wood replicas, has proliferated since Ian was here. The Thai tourists here wear expensive sunglasses and carry around little apartment dogs dressed up with bows and other very fashionable doggy wear. Our first night here there were hundreds of Thai tourists wandering along the main river front road shopping in tourist boutiques that have also sprung up and eating from the hawker stands before stopping in for whiskey, beer or latte in the waterfront restaurants. Not a bad way to spend a few days. The prices are higher here as a result (30 to 35 dollars a night instead of 10) but its fine and fun for a short time.

We leave tomorrow and head to Loei, then Dan Sai, and then some as of yet unknown town between Dan Sai and Phitsanoluk. We catch the train to Chiang Mai from Phitsanoluk. Our easy 50 km days will become 80 km days once we are on the road to Dan Sai.

We are looking forward to our month in Chiang Mai, a favourite spot in Thailand, where we will do some day trips and work on some non-cycling related projects. I am also very much looking forward to some Skype sessions with friends and family.

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!